It was Tuesday in the desert. The hottest part of the afternoon. I was sitting on my favorite couch in BMIR when a woman I’d never met before came in and asked for the Rockstar Librarian Guide.
“Box,” I told her.
“What?” she asked.
“Box,” I said again. This was a little game we played: when someone asked for the Rockstar Librarian Guide, sometimes we’d just keep saying “Box” over and over, until they realized it was in the box they’d already passed on the way in.
She got it fast. Satisfied, she looked around and realized that there was no shadier spot to be found anywhere on the playa.
“Hey,” she asked. “Can I sit down?”
“Sure,” I said. She took her tool kit off from around her waist and sat down next to me.
I don’t remember her name now, but we got to talking. She’s 23. Third year on the playa. I asked her what she’d seen so far, and she rattled off a list of art projects. I asked her what she wanted to see, and she rattled off another list. Mostly things I’d heard of.
“But what I really want to do,” she said, “is meet the poet.”
“The … poet?”
“Yeah. There’s this amazing poet.”
That was interesting … but … “I have no idea. I’ve never heard of that.”
She nodded. “Some of my camp mates met him. Nobody knows where he is. I hope I can find him. I’m looking.”
“Well, good luck.”
We kept talking. Burning Man stuff: how do you like the Man standing on a UFO? What do you think of the theme? Goddamn there’s a lot of cops around. That kind of thing.
Eventually Ken Griswa, the Mad Artist in Residence at BMIR, came over and wanted me to sing somebody a song. For … some reason. I can’t remember now and I might not really have known then. It can be hard to tell with Ken.
“Sure,” I said, opening up my bag and pulling out a book in which I had a list of songs. It was part of an art project I’d brought to Burning Man. “Let’s see if I can find an appropriate one …”
“Wait …” the woman next to me gaped. “YOU’RE THE POET!”
Ken and I stared at her. I blinked. “I … I don’t think I am.”
“No, you are!” she said. “You’ve got the book! And it has two sides! And you have to make choices, and then you get a song or a story that tells your future!”
I blinked again. “Oh,” I said. “Oh. Well, yeah. That is me.”
“OH MY GOD!” She almost jumped out of her seat. Shouted “YOU’RE A LEGEND IN MY CAMP!”
“Nice,” Ken said to my absolutely baffled stare. “Nice.”
So … I brought an art project to the playa this year. For the first time ever. An intimate, one-to-one, experience that I shared with fewer than 20 people all week. I’d thought it was going well … but this was the first that I realized something really interesting might be happening. That it was taking on a life of its own. I was thrilled.
But it was also early in the week. By the end of the burn I was having severe ethical concerns about the experience I was putting people through. Instead of offering it to people, I only made it available to those who specifically asked. And even then I hesitated. By that point it had brought several participants to tears and anguish.
“My art project,” I told friends familiar with the situation, “is a loaded gun. Is that okay?”
We know that an engineer who knowingly builds a structure that can hurt people is morally culpable. As is someone who deliberately offers contaminated food. But what about an artist who realizes that his work … by creating a powerfully aesthetic experience … is potentially causing emotional trauma? Does he have anything to answer for?
It’s not a question I’d thought about going in, because I really didn’t think anybody would actually be … moved. But it’s a question I’ve been thinking a lot about since.
The set-up for the piece is simple … so simple that I’m a little embarrassed to tell you that it’s the best I could come up with. It’s not really original either: when I told Chicken John what it was, he said “Oh yeah, I’ve done that kind of thing before.”
But here goes.
I would offer someone a gift. An aesthetic experience. “This,” I would tell them, “will be a piece of oracular playa magic, wherein we will combine two powerful forces to identify your true inner nature, and a part of your destiny.
One of these forces is playa serendipity: the way in which seemingly random events here come together to create profound synchronicity, unveiling meaningful encounters out of impossible chance. The other will be the deep insights afforded by art – by art’s power to unveil what is hidden, and by the fact that … as Oscar Wilde said … ‘life imitates art.’ Together this playa synchronicity and the insight of art will reveal to us an aspect of your true nature and a part of your destiny.
I have here a book,” I would continue, showing them the book … really more of a white binder … “and this book has two sides.” I would show them each side: one cover bore the words “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here”; the other had the words “Rejoice and be Free!”
“But of course,” I would go on, spinning the binder in my hands “they are once and the same book. Which aspect you encounter in your quest of discovery will depend upon the choices you make. Are you ready?”
Everybody but one said yes at this point.
By the end of their choices, they would end up with a randomly selected song (one of 141 I had memorized) or story (one of about 100 original pieces of mostly flash fiction I had in the binder) that I would perform for them … with the understanding that within the words of this song or story were the clues to their true nature and destiny.
That’s it. Pretty simple. Not reinventing the wheel.
Mostly this worked very well – far better than I ever could have imagined, actually, as the incident in BMIR suggests.
But then there were other times.
The trouble, I soon realized, is that the actual content of the project – the “art” part – was in no way designed to leave the participant with a particular experience. The songs were just the songs I knew I could sing well acapella – the stories just a collection pieces I’d written and published other places. I didn’t curate it and think “these pieces will make the recipient feel this way,” I just grabbed it, put it in, and headed off to Burning Man. The game wasn’t rigged so that they’d leave feeling good … or even just so that they wouldn’t feel horrible … about what they’d “learned.” Instead, any experience could result.
And sometimes did.
My first inkling came at an outdoor bar at 2 in the morning when a trio of young men who’d seen me walk the bartender through this (in gratitude for his home brews) came up and said they wanted to play. I said they’d have to do this one at a time, and one of them volunteered.
The story he picked got enough incidental details right that his friends kept saying “oh, man, that’s you!” over and over as I read. But the central character of the story was a sailor who’d been paralyzed from the waist down in an accident and was struggling to retain his humanity in his new life. And I could see, even in this dim light, the blood drain from his face as the recipient of my “gift” listened to the story.
By the time it was finished, he looked so anguished, so despondent, that I almost broke character. I desperately wanted to tell him, “You know this is just bullshit, right?”
But I didn’t. I stayed true to the premise. I said “Of course, the truth you learn could be figurative. It doesn’t have to be literal at all.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Figurative.” And ran off into the night.
One of his friends hesitated, then dashed off after him.
“Shit,” I thought. “What have I done?”
But I didn’t have long to think about it, because his other friend was still there. “It’s my turn,” he said, even after watching all that.
The worst moment, however, the lowest of the low, came Thursday afternoon (I think) when a guy in the camp next to mine came running up to me on the Esplanade, a girl I’d never met in tow.
“Hey Caveat!” he said. “Can you do the thing for her! She’s got to see this!”
“Sure,” I said, and we found a space under someone’s shade structure to give it a try.
He wanted her to choose a song – he was big on my singing – but she wanted a story. And the story she ended up with …
… I realized, to my horror, thinking, Fuck, how did I ever put this in here? …
… was a meditation on the nature of free will and fate, as examined through the life of a man who killed himself shortly after his girlfriend dumped him.
By the time I reached the middle, tears were streaming down her face. By the time I reached the end she was sobbing. It became apparent, in the conversation that followed, that something like this had happened to her in life.
And here I’d just ripped it open. Because … because I have this art project, you see. Which, when I put it that way, doesn’t sound like a very good reason at all.
It was clear at that point that, precisely because my art project was effective as art, it was also a loaded gun – and participating in it was a form of Russian Roulette. The results really could be anything, including devastating.
Is that okay?
I’ve always said “yes” in principle. My very first post on this blog was a reminder that Burning Man is not benign: that it works precisely because it brings up the entirety of the human condition, including the frightening and lonely and devastating parts. To try to limit its emotional range to happy and sanguine is to reduce it to naked Disneyland.
Indeed, one could say that for my project to have potentially devastating consequences was nothing more than truth in advertising. I mean, the book I showed them had “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here” on one cover, for god sake. Nowhere in my patter was the promise of a happy ending.
In fact, I think it worked so well in part because there really was the possibility that anything could emerge as a result of the choices they made. It’s interesting precisely because it isn’t rigged in anyone’s favor. To say “we’ll reveal your true nature and your destiny” is a bit of a threatening thing.
But those are theoretical arguments. Valid, even important, but utterly useless to me when confronted with the real tears of a real person who I had inadvertently hurt.
It seems disingenuous to suggest that, once I know somebody can get hurt, I don’t have moral culpability just because it’s art. That artists get a free pass on those their work damages.
Except … they kind of do, and they kind of need to, don’t they? At least sometimes? I mean, how many people has “Huck Finn” egregiously offended? “Or The Catcher in the Rye?” “Or To Kill a Mockingbird?” “Invisible Man?” “Lolita?”
Or, perhaps more down to the level at which I was actually operating: “Captain Underpants?” Or that one book with the gay penguins?
Unlike engineering or cooking, art that doesn’t retain its capacity to hurt is effectively neutered. Burning Man has to retain that capacity. It’s a necessity.
But … but … I don’t think that actually gives the artists involved, myself included, an ethical pass. It’s easy for necessities to become cover for monstrous acts.
Several friends who I told about these encounters said it was probably all for the best. That the woman I brought to tears would later go to the temple and cry her heart out and emerged fresh and healed. It’s a nice hypothetical, one that I hope is true. But it’s not an excuse. Just a story.
They’ve also pointed out that art like this is a voluntary experience. People aren’t victims, they’re “participants.” True. They have agency, they made choices. We may think of people who play Russian Roulette as reckless, but not as innocent. And this is a good point. But is it sufficient justification for starting the game in the first place?
I think … I think … that artists should be encouraged to bring projects like the one I did to the playa. But they should not get defensive if someone calls them to account for it. They should be held accountable. There’s an important place for the experience of tragedy at Burning Man – but I don’t know if I’ll be bringing my book next year.
is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man did not arrange to have anyone kidnapped on the playa this year, no matter what you heard. His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com