We will kill our pets to protest the War.
If President Bush didn’t pull out of Iraq, the poster went on to say, “We, the Raelian Pet Owners United to Stop War, will kill our pets.” It listed a date and time. At a dog park, of course.
It was hilarious … and actually generated a police investigation … but it was only so interesting. Because of course the Los Angeles Cacophony Society (the poster’s true author) wasn’t really going to kill any pets, and of course George Bush wasn’t going to pull out of Iraq, and there was nothing any members of the public could do about it anyway. So, yeah: very funny joke, but nothing to see here.
Ten years later, two Arizona Burners may have just done Cacophony one better.
In July Admiral Fiesta and Sista Turtle Dove began work on the “Peruse it or Lose it Library,” which had its first shelf life at last weekend’s Arizona Decompression. The premise is simple: they built a library for Decompression, and at the end of the event they burned it – along with whatever books were left.
If you didn’t want a book to burn, you … yes, you, the person walking by … had to take it. Otherwise it went up in flames.
“We were compared to Nazis on several occasions,” Admiral Fiesta told me. “To paraphrase a friend’s argument on Facebook, the Nazis were burning books as an act of censorship – particularly censorship of deviant art and pornography.”
The Nazis, however, were not famous for willingly letting things go. The “Peruse it or Lose it Library” was different: practically begging passers-by to be their own Schindler.
“During the event I had many people come up to me and ask, ‘Are you really going to burn books on Saturday?’” Sista Turtle Dove said. “My typical response was, ‘Only if there are any left…’”
Another problem with the Nazi comparison … at least for Burners … is precisely that this is an art project at a Burning Man event, where we burn lots of art. Do we have a problem with burning art? When did that happen?
“We burn all kinds of art at Burning Man – sculpture, painting, anything we can get our hands on. So why is the printed word such a sacred cow?” asked Admiral Fiesta. “The point of this project, to me, was to make people question their stance on whether it is OK to burn a book, what kind of book it is OK to burn, if it’s OK to burn other types of art, and also question their stance on the role of books in a media-saturated cultural landscape. I will admit that I wasn’t super clear on how I personally felt about these issues, going into the project – that was part of the point as well, to clarify my own beliefs about this.”
Sista Turtle Dove points out that this is especially important when the very nature of “books” is in transition.
“Many of the conversations I have had with people about this project involved the reliability of books verses digital media,” she said. “Yes, e-books for instance are handy…but in the end changeable and semi permanent. As a writer and an academic, I love the research section of the library. Over the years it seems like these sections are simply gathering more and more dust. Some of my best friends who love to read have given up on the printed page in favor of the easy access e-books on online literature provide. I wanted this project to remind people printed books are still incredibly important…not only for their permanence (of course you can burn them, but you can’t change their words once they are printed) but for their reliability. Since the beginning, what I have felt is the most important message in this piece is that if you don’t use books, they will cease to exist in a significant way.”
So what do you think happened? A small library containing paperbacks and hard backs, fiction and non, is brought out to a decompression with the message: take a book or we burn it? How does this play out?
Here’s how Sista Turtle Dove described the scene:
“I went to the burn site to check and see if the books were going to burn late Saturday evening. I walked up to the library (which I had not seen all day) and was surprised to see about 30ish books left on the shelves. The Rangers on perimeter asked me if there was anything I wanted to remove from the piece before it burned. Looks like these books WERE going to burn! I looked over the shelves and was not surprised with most of what was leftover. The seeds of the library came from my own collection, and most of these books left were books I didn’t enjoy, or never planned to read again. However nestled amongst some rather boring Steven King novels was a copy of Jane Eyre (one of my favorites…I own a hard cover version…but I wasn’t about to let the paperback burn) so I took that book back. Honestly, I was a little disappointed no one had picked that one up. Also, a copy of one of my favorite true crime novels “The Green River Killer” which I had been hesitant to give away in the first place (I’ve owned that book since high school), but through someone else might enjoy it as much as I did. There was part of me that was glad it wasn’t adopted…I was happy to have it back…I will definitely re-read that again.”
Then they lit the thing, and watched it glow.
“The burn itself left me feeling a little detached,” Sista Turtle Dove said. “I saw some of the people who had been most opposed to the book burning standing close to the burning books, looking on with varied expressions of both loss and understanding. The books burned bright, and the reflection of that flame in the faces of the onlookers left me feeling like we had done something important, and although the interpretations of what Fiesta and I had done were varied, one thing is for sure…it made people think. When all was said and done, I had to dance out my emotion. I went to the closest dance floor and danced until I couldn’t anymore. I was dancing out some sadness I think…it’s not easy to see books burn. Harder than I expected even. At least I saved Jane Eyre.”
But while the burning of the library, and its books, may have been the most dramatic moment, both curators are insistent that it was the conversations that this piece created … the clash of ideas … that was the really interesting and important part.
“I had so many fantastic conversations with people who both loved and hated this idea – no two people had the same commentary. EVERYONE had a completely different take on what this meant, why it was good, why it was bad,” said Admiral Fiesta. “So, well before the event, I was completely happy with the piece – the concept was out there, people were talking, asking themselves, myself, and each other hard questions. The most interesting moment of the entire project, to me, was waiting to see if any participant would just clean the library out wholesale, leaving just bare shelves to be burned. Frankly, I was kind of hoping this would happen.”
There will be other chances. The pair say they plan to keep building the library anew – like a Phoenix of Alexandria – and bringing it to other events.
“One interesting note is how many people had specific books they WANTED burned,” said Sista Turtle Dove. “Expensive useless textbooks were at the top of that list. In the future I think we have a good foothold for making this Library even better. I want to encourage more participation…and more education. I also think we might add a roving library that comes ‘to people’ instead of remaining stationary at the event. Pick out some of the best books and encourage people to read them. It seemed like when I stood near the library and recommended books to people, they were more likely to take them.”
Admiral Fiesta says that despite the charred pages there are no regrets: the library was surely responsible for more people engaging with books than would have happened without it. “We accomplished our goals, namely to get people talking about the importance of books, to eviscerate an unassailable taboo, and to spread out some literature. Yes, it was emotionally manipulative by design, but isn’t that better than it being emotionally manipulative by accident? I can’t stress enough how proud I am of the conversations this project has inspired.”
That conversation can continue here. As long as we’re burning a whole bunch of art at Burning Man anyway, how do you feel about Burning Books? When the Peruse it or Lose it Library comes to you … and it will … what will you do?
is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man is a bartender gone horribly wrong. His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com