A few thoughts about “Caravansary”

Arrival of a Caravan Outside the City of Marrakesh (Edwin Lord Weeks)So … “caravansary,” huh?

Okay … a few thoughts.  Three, in fact.


1)  Yippie!

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.

Caveat 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

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

18 Comments on “A few thoughts about “Caravansary”

  • Dan G says:

    I completely agree, as a theme Cargo Cult had the potential for Burners to co-opt other cultures, but for the most part that didn’t end up happening. Burners are a smart group, I bet we can trust them to handle Caravansary appropriately.

    What I LOVE about this year’s theme is that it cuts the heart of the event, folks traveling to the playa from far and wide to exchange ideas, art and interaction. Whereas trade caravans were primarily for economic reasons I really look forward to seeing what non-commercial and non-economic reasons Burners come up with to go with the theme. I haven’t been this excited about a theme since Rights of Passage.

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  • Will Chase says:

    I don’t see the theme as a pointer to a specific cultural experience or as an invitation for cultural appropriation, but as an analogy to a larger concept. As you say, it could’ve been “trading post” or whatever. Larry chose the most famous of the crossroads … the one(s) that gave birth to the foundations of modern global culture.

    It’s an allusion to the crossroads where cultures of all stripes mix, mingle, and share knowledge in a post-modern multi-cultural soup. In the age of the hyper-connected world, with geographical barriers dissolving, cultural silos are disappearing too. Some of those interactions are going to be ugly, some beautiful.

    As we intermingle, it’s up to us to be mindful and respectful of each other, to celebrate differences, and to take the best of each other’s cultures to assimilate into our own, to create an even better one from the dialectic. That’s what we’re trying to do out there … that’s why radical inclusion is one of our principles.

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  • Charles Amey says:

    I can just see some Burner with a few Bedouin-style costumes getting pulled over by some hyper-patriot redneck cop – .

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  • Partytime says:

    “Let’s have a commerce themed artistic event without commerce and see what happens.”

    At Freezer Burn 2013 (Alberta’s Regional Burn), I hosted a Burner Bachelor/ette Auction. That’s right, I commodified people.

    Participants would bid on the bachelors and bachelorettes using dollar values. These dollar values would fall into a range, translating to a task that would have to be completed by the bidder before the bachelor/ette would take them on a date. For example, a bid of $200 would fall into $100 – $300: organize a MOOP sweep of Freezer Burn’s common areas, or $1700 = $1500 – $2000: organize a clothing drive for your local homeless shelter.

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  • changeling says:

    great post! I’m so glad you’re discussing this.

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  • Sarah says:

    A trading post and a caravansary are not at all the same thing, at least not conceptually, and at least not to me. One travels to a trading post with the express purpose of exchanging one thing for another (commerce). Where I’m from (Minneapolis) I think of fur trade before the wild west.

    But a caravansary is not itself a destination, except to those who do business there to sell to the caravans, and they are in the minority. The “trading post” the caravan is heading to, meaning the place they mean to offload their cargo, is somewhere else, probably in a city like Persepolis or Constantinople. They’re just stopping here for a bit, resting the animals, repairing stuff that busted since the last stop, stocking up for the next leg of the journey. The commerce is incidental to that purpose, not the point of trip. They are the gas stations of the ancient world.

    Of course, part of the point of a caravansary is that it exists in isolation; it is not in the city, for if it were it wouldn’t need to exist at all. So what does it mean to place caravansary in the context of BRC? What journeys are my campfire-mates on, what are they carrying, and from where to where? What do they hope to get for it when they arrive at their destinations? And how are the answers to all of these questions different from mine, and yet here we are in front of the same fire. These are the questions I’m excited about, and they are particular to the caravansary.

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  • drjookie says:

    I think it’s a bit to over-concerned, as I agree burners are an “intelligent” culture and for the larger part the motivated ones will honor the tradition and customs of BRC, and the trendy, look-the-part crowd, will look wonderful in their neo-gypsy garb, madmax mode, sacred headdress saints, and marching band attire. win-win-win-win.

    and since commodification is off the table, this will be truly an exchange of ideas and thoughts and love as a cultural exchange. excited and it seems like a simple & pure target.


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  • champagne says:

    Thoughtful discussion. Love the theme for precisely the reasons Will Chase elucidates, but glad to examine the idea of commodification. Can’t wrap my brain around a de-commodified world.

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  • NevadaGeo says:

    There’s already a perfect Caravansary Tee Shirt made by a long time burner full time artist for our Airstreameri theme camp back in 2009, still in production. Contact CampstreamUSA.com to check it out! Sorry he’ll have to cover his costs though.

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  • Lady Grog says:

    I’m very excited about the Caravansary theme – it is in keeping with how we’ve approached BM since our first visit. We looked at the fact that this event happens in a “desert” and chose clothing and food that is suitable to it (last year I was told I look like a “desert princess” – nice compliment even if I am a middle aged one). I really appreciated the thoughtful blog about the theme and the cultural implications, but feel that Burners are intelligent and creative (and ironic) enough to go beyond the costume party trappings. I look forward to seeing the various interpretations of exchange that will come out of this.

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  • Cooky says:

    I’m a museum geek by profession and this theme announcement made me giggle with glee and reminisce about one of my all time favorite museum exhibits “Traveling the Silk Road: Ancient Pathway to the Modern World”, http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/past-exhibitions/traveling-the-silk-road

    It happens to be showing right now in Los Angeles for anyone curious: http://www.nhm.org/site/explore-exhibits/special-exhibits/traveling-the-silk-road

    That exhibit did a great job capturing the movement of ideas that accompanied the movement of goods across thousands of miles. It included the spread of food, music, science, religion etc. One of my favorite aspects about Burning Man is that in our coming together from across the globe in creative community we discover and share ideas, then we take those home and change our own communities, our own outposts or caravansaries with what we’ve encountered.

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  • Turtle Dove says:

    So glad to hear someone else likes the theme. I think it will be exciting, and it most certainly pushed my “sci-fi” creative button. I have images of places like Mos Eisely. Of course perhaps one of the reasons the theme tickles my fancy this year is because everyone else seems to hate it. That is right up my alley.

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  • Featherbelly says:

    I think the thing to remember here is, the subtle difference between economy and commodity. This definition is from Wikipedia:’The exact definition of the term commodity is specifically applied to goods.”, or material things. Again from Wikipedia:”An economy or economic system consists of the production, distribution or trade, and consumption of limited goods and services”. I believe the idea of a historic caravansary and its “economy” can be adapted using the third principle of Decommodification. In fact isn’t that what BRC has always been about? Let the economy of thoughts, ideas, gifts and energy flow.
    An interesting read http://learningtogive.org/papers/paper255.html

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  • Squeax says:

    So excited to hear some critical engagement with the power-implications of this year’s theme. I think it has the potential to start some really crucial discussions to make the event we love so much even more in line with inclusion and a socially just safe-space for all world citizens.

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  • XaOs says:

    I think the theme, and the infrastructure planned to support it, is intriguing and likely to help promote interaction and participation. I visualize itinerant “merchants” rolling out blankets to hawk their “wares”: swapping tales of adventures from afar, telling fortunes, offering food and drink, distributing ice, sharing perfumes and incense from distant lands, displaying swag for gifting, with belly dancers, musicians, barkers, chanters, preachers, ranters, snake charmers, and yogis, wearing robes, veils, turbans and head scarves, with all manner of exotic ephemera, all in a teeming, freewheeling bazaar atmosphere.

    At least, I plan on doing some of that. I hope that others do, too.

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