I sat down between their RVs. They gave me a beer. I don’t remember their names – I wish I did.
“Tell him the story,” one of them said to another. “He’s going to love it.”
The story he told me went like this:
“So the other night we were passing by Playa Info, maybe around 11, and we realized that all the Playa Info staff leave at 9. So we walked inside and sat in the staff area, behind the desks, and looked official. People came in and asked us stuff, even though the hours of operation were clearly posted and there was a sign saying ‘we are not responsible for information you get after 9 p.m..’ Didn’t matter: tons of people walked right up to us and asked question. So we answered them. Our rule was: if they were asking for medical, rangers, or the bathroom, we sent them to the right place. Otherwise, we told them whatever we wanted.”
My jaw dropped. It was so simple … so brilliant. Why hadn’t anyone thought of this before?
“So all night people would walk in and say ‘Hi, I’m Crystal and I’m looking for my friend John. Where’s his camp?’ And we’d say: ‘John’s camp! Sure! It’s right at 2 and E.’ Or somebody would ask where they could get their community bike fixed without having to leave it for someone else to take; we’d say let us take a look at it, and ride off with it. We made people sing karaoke for us before giving them bad directions … we had a whole line of Japanese tourists, and after the first one sang ‘My Way’ the rest all insisted that they get to sing it too. it was amazing. We stayed there all night, and when the real Playa Info came in the next morning and saw what we were doing … they asked if we wanted to be put on the schedule for any other nights during the week.”
Now, I can’t actually confirm that this really happened – but I sure hope so.
I mention this for two reasons. First, because it’s awesome. Second, so that when I tell you that many of the people I like most at Burning Man are bastards, you’ll have a clear sense of what I mean.
A lot of people talk about Burning Man like it’s an ocean of “positive energy” – a spiritual experience that will take us to a higher level of consciousness if we open ourselves up. In some ways this is true.
But often these people take the next step and say that “negative energy” and “negative” emotions have no place there. These things belong in the default world, and it’s a commitment to positive energy and experiences that sets Burning Man apart.
Most years, my response has been “But I prefer hanging out with the bastards. They’re more fun.”
This year, though, I took it to the next level and started a war between two camps. There was real fighting, real kidnapping, real art car duels. And as I drove away at the end of the week it occurred to me how odd it is that this is the exception and not the rule.
With the notable exception of the Death Guild, and a couple of small misanthropic camps (“Jerk Camp’s” swag was, for my money, the best on the playa this year), there are virtually no camps at Burning Man that deliberately explore the “negative” side of the human experience.
Is that right? Is that the way it should be?
It’s certainly not the way Burning Man always was. It’s common knowledge that the early days out in the desert involved firearms and fast driving and lots of aggression. The freedom to be a bastard was, in fact, one of the early selling points.
Yet at some point people started coming to Burning Man as a spiritual quest and have colonized it for positive energy ever since.
I don’t know how that process happened – I’d love for people who do to explain it.
What I can say is that this has attracted new people like crazy: as someone who sees a lot of volunteer surveys from first-time burners, it’s clear that many of them are attracted by the idea of belonging to a spiritual community that emphasizes positive energy … whatever that means to them. Very few people volunteer in the hope of hanging out with bastards. Conflict and clever tricks don’t come up much.
On the other hand, three months after the 2011 Burn I still have people I don’t know walking up to me at parties thanking me for starting a war. A lot … a lot … of people have told me it’s one of the best things they’ve ever done at Burning Man.
I know just how they feel.
But with wars and death guilds being novelties at Burning Man, and some Burners willing to proclaim that the very act of having a war there is “un-Burning Man,” I have to ask: has niceness gone too far? Is there too much positive energy at Burning Man?
Whether the pendulum has swung too far from “shooting guns” to “morning yoga” is a personal call, but I’d like to suggest that the emphasis on positivity misses some critical elements of what makes Burning Man work.
As I’ve said before, Burning Man is not benign, and makes very little effort to be. Okay, you can’t bring guns anymore and there are speed limits, but beyond basic safety issues very little is done by the organization itself to ensure that you have a good time. Literally and metaphorically, everyone brings what they bring, and accepts the consequences.
While many of Burning Man’s principles are communitarian (“Radical Inclusion,” “Communal Effort,” “Participation”), no one’s sensibilities are protected. If topless women offend you … it’s your problem. If you don’t like trance music … that’s your problem. If the camp with the graphic images of Christ offends your religion … or you know damn well that the camp full of Hindu iconography is just a bunch of white kids appropriating the images of a religion they clearly known nothing about … that’s your problem.
Your sensibilities are not protected: Burning Man is designed in such a way as to almost guarantee that something is going to offend you and somebody is going to piss you off.
A community that values both “radical self-expression” and “radical inclusion” is not asking anyone to sand down their rough edges – they’re asking us to all manage to get along with our rough edges intact. Or, better yet, to enjoy each other’s rough edges.
Some would say that’s just making the best of a bad situation: it’s too bad we can’t have an inclusive event where no one is offended; it’s too bad you can’t go to Burning Man and be in a little bubble of happiness and never see anything that will offend you.
But the bastards among us would reply that all these rough edges are exactly what makes the playground interesting: and they’re right.
To try and cut ourselves off from all of the things in the human experience that upset us is to go to Burning Man for a week long lobotomy. Why would we want to do that?
Instead of trying to push what disturbs us, bothers us, irritates us, frightens us away, just like we do in the default world, why not try confronting it … and turning that experience into art? Or whimsy?
Wars, avarice, corruption, jealousy – the whole spectrum of human pathogens is rife with potential for art and whimsy. But not as spectators high-handedly condemning them (the way, frankly, they are too often treated), but as *participants*, admitting that these things are inside us and part of us and must be played with.
Isn’t that more interesting than not risking offense? Doesn’t transforming negative experiences offer a better path to enlightenment than trying to banish them? Isn’t it more likely to work? Doesn’t it present the opportunity for more honesty, and more fun?
As long as these negative concepts still follow the ten principles … as long as they are a chance to interact, to create new connections … as long as they allow for participation … as long as they follow, in essence, the same guidelines that “positive” experiences are supposed to follow at Burning Man, we’re better off for having them there.
We need more artistic wars at Burning Man – and more whimsical bastards.
Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com