Okay … a few thoughts. Three, in fact.
I have to admit that on a purely imaginative, aesthetic, level, this theme hits my sweet spot. Fires my brain, inspires my fancy, in a manner that has nothing to do with rational appreciation.
I’m prepared to admit, if pressed, that there’s no accounting for taste, but I’m announcing my bias: I can’t give a fair accounting of it because this theme makes me want to write a series of short stories about a fantasy-world bazaar loosely based on real-world Burning Man.
I’m not actually going to do that. I’m probably not actually going to DO anything about the theme at all. I’m much too lazy for that level of commitment. I just “go to Burning Man” and see what happens.
But yeah, on an inspirational level? Loving this.
2) Potentially challenging to Burner culture
What’s potentially more interesting to all of us is the odd, and I’m going to assume deliberate, collision between “Burning Man” and an imaginative take on something antithetical to Burning Man’s values – commerce.
It is, after all, almost impossible to imagine a caravansary in any literal sense without thinking of commerce.
Caravansaries exist as a means to promote trade. They’re inseparable from it. Trade, of course, is commerce, which generally involves commidification. So this theme is essentially asking us to play-act something we don’t do at Burning Man – to artistically imitate, and in some ways surely glorify, something that is taboo in this time and place.
I’ve heard a few grumblings that this is a problem, but speaking as someone who has instigated wars on the playa, asked “Is there too much positive energy at Burning Man?”, and said that it’s okay to be miserable at Burning Man, I’m actually quite pleased that the theme could be taking us into this “dangerous” territory.
Burning Man, after all, doesn’t work by pretending the rest of the world doesn’t exist. If Burning Man is incapable of addressing the whole spectrum of human experience, if it wilts every time it touches something the 10 Principles don’t have an easy answer for, then it has nothing to teach us about the world we really live in.
If we can’t acknowledge commerce exists, if our art has no power to transform it, then we’re wasting our time.
So let’s play with this fire. Let’s interrogate our own assumptions about what we believe and how that works. Let’s open the door. Let’s have a commerce themed artistic event without commerce and see what happens. Let’s see what we learn, not just how many ways we have to reiterate what we already know. Because “caravansary” is not innately satirical. On the contrary: if it’s anything, it’s a paean to the world that trade built. Without actually endorsing commerce or commoditization, it opens the conceptual doors to those things that are taboo in burner culture.
This is all for the good. There’s a lot of power, artistic and psychological, in exploring taboos. Caravansary is a bold step here: it shows that Burning Man is not afraid.
3) Revealing of Burning Man’s tendency to romanticize other cultures.
Last year, in response to “Cargo Cult,” I warned that Burning Man was stepping into unfortunate territory by choosing a theme that tread so heavily, and so casually, on issues of religion, nationalism, and colonialism among a population of fairly marginalized people who don’t operate on a global scale and couldn’t really respond. The potential, I said, to have an overwhelmingly white and privileged crowd turn the freedom fighters and spiritual leaders of a people who our own country had oppressed into mascots for our dance parties and pancake breakfasts was likely too much to handle maturely.
I’m pleased to say I was wrong. No such thing happened on a mass scale: our community (so far as I saw) was far more focused on how the premise of “cargo cults” in the abstract could impact our lives than they were passing judgment on the lives of others.
Good on us. That says something about Burners that I really like.
But here we are again, a year later, with a theme that runs the exact same risks. Is that a coincidence, or does it suggest that Burning Man – an overwhelmingly white, American, event – has a tendency to look towards “the other” for our imaginative kick?
I don’t know, and having been wrong about this once before I should perhaps sit down and shut up … or at least be more humble about it.
But it’s simply not true that one has to go across the globe to find universal themes. “Trading post” would carry a number of the same connotations as “caravansary” while focusing on American history, as could “black market,” or “underground economy.”
On the other hand … “trading post” would carry a wild west connotation, which could lead to obnoxious representations of Native American culture (more than we already have …), which could lead to big trouble on its own. “Black Market,” too, is probably less interesting (at least to me) while full of big, potential flashpoints.
Which is to say there’s likely no theme which is both any good and “safe.” To be creatively inspiring is to take imaginative risks. So there is an extent to which some of us should stop wringing our hands that the theme doesn’t perfectly represent both creative fire and social justice. There ain’t no such animal.
And yet … at some point Burning Man is going to have to address its habit of treating the world’s cultures as a party outlet store. By this I’m not just pointing fingers at the Org, but at camps of white hippies who decorate with Hindu iconography because it looks “spiritual”; at “tribal” camps who half-assedly appropriate the customs of native peoples whose names they never bothered to learn; at wanna-be new age gurus who know just enough about Buddhism to be dangerous.
You know who they are. You’ve seen them. They’ve invited you to morning yoga.
And, without a doubt, they are as “legitimate” burners as anyone else. The point isn’t to say these Burners don’t belong here: the point is that we have a tendency to grab other cultures, full of living people with actual perspectives and concerns in the world, and turn them into desert party favors. Making *them* feel as though they don’t belong here.
To the extent that Burning Man wants to remain a movement of mostly privileged white people, one can ask “where’s the harm,” and we can have that argument. But to the extent that Burning Man wants to be a global movement, with participation all the peoples of the world, we have to stop fetishizing the world outside our bubble.
In my (admittedly limited) conversations with people I very much admire who are both minorities and have decided not to go to Burning Man, this has come up as a major issue: that the ease with which we treat other people’s cultures as style rather than substance is extremely off-putting to exactly the kind of people Burning Man needs to reach to be a truly global movement.
As with “Cargo Cult,” Caravansary is what we make it, and we’ve proven that we can rise to the occasion. But it represents the tip of an iceberg that Burning Man will someday have to address if we are to get where we’re going.
I don’t know how we balance the need for artistic inspiration (and radical self-expression) against the need for inclusivity. We aren’t called upon to find the single, definitive, answer. But we are called upon to do more than pretend the tension doesn’t exist.
“Caravansary,” like “Cargo Cult” before it, brings this issue front and center. It’s a daring, imaginative, and powerful theme that also raises questions about just how our collective imagination treats those for whom the “exotic” is a fact of life, rather than a party premise to be discarded next year.
That’s okay, as long as we rise to the occasion again. A good faith effort at progress is worth far more than a timid refusal to engage.
is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man was an ordinary student at Empire State University, until he was bitten by a radioactive blogger. He now has the proportionate strength and speed of a human-sized blogger. His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com