This year the Man will be surrounded by a most exquisite clever Midway, a Carnival of Mirrors where participants can turn the surfaces reflecting themselves inside out if they dare, and by participating they may very well discover the multifarious circus of our ordinary life and create new personas. The Midway beckons to us to discover new perspectives and bring them out into the world at the conclusion of our week in Black Rock City.
Our Midway is going to be populated with mind-bending and playful attractions, and I was most fortunate to meet one of this year’s artists, Barron Scott LevKoff aka The Professor, who will be bringing his Mystical Midway to that space around the Man this year.
Talking with Scott you get a feeling of how whimsical yet intentional he is. A self described dandy with a very sharp and developed mind highly attuned to the creative force, he is a font of brilliance and ideas flow from him in rapid succession; ideas that range from casual mentions of conscious evolution, social theater, the Human Potential Movement, Wisdom Sharing Networks and Cosplay, to his use of carnivalesque motley fools, hobos, devils , angels and roaming puppetry to provide tools for the creator culture that he cares very deeply about.
He’s spent time sharing the Beauty Engine Social Design he and Polly Superstar created in the early 2000’s. He told me about his work with Polly on another venture, Mission Control, where they tested out, in his words, the “language for creative collaboration” and the “commonalities of social dynamics, social techniques and methods that are similar among creative communities.” Mission Control worked with thousands of people, some of them digerati, and provided inspiration for social networks that came into being including the Abundance League that became Shareable.
He and I sat down for tapas and sangria in the Mission and Scott shared with me his experience of the last 25 years as a performer. Barron Scott LevKoff has had a hand in creating or participating in some of the more surreal ongoing events in the San Francisco Bay Area including Anon Salon, The Edwardian Ball, Mission Control, The Renaissance Faire at Black Point Forest, Club Ritual, Soookeasy, Master Mondos Cabare’, Lost Horizons Box Trucks, Kinky Salon and the Lagunitas Beer Circus to name a few, with his most recent foray being his Mystic Midway.
His involvement in the San Francisco Alternative scene is somewhat epic.
I asked him to tell me about his Mystical Midway that will grace Black Rock City this year and the description poured out of him …
“The Mystic Midway is a trans-media STORYWORLD based on the characters and attractions you might find in a strange, mystical carnival: “The Hat of Many Closets”, “Mister Nobody’s Swamp Shack”, “The Mirror Maze”, the “Haunted Castle” and characters such as Lady Fortuna, Mister Nobody, the Blue Mystic, Professor Grimaldi, The Snakeoil Salesman and others. Each of these characters and attractions has a corresponding card that illustrates a specific area of inquiry attributed to each. Our Mystic Midway ensemble of performers brings these characters to life and we have also created a Cosplay guide crafted specifically as an invitation for anyone to create their own Midway persona and join the Midway!
“We also bring the Mystic Midway to life through fantastical sets, props, banners, wagons, flying airships and more. We host Tea Party ‘socials’ where the community comes together and we go into the Midway, almost like a role-playing game. (The ‘HOME GAME’) We go on storytelling adventures of discovery and inquiry, prompted by encounters with the MM attractions and characters. It’s a collaborative, ‘gameful’ style of group storytelling. For example, something like “Fear” might come up in an adventure and we know that it’s time to bring out ‘Mr.Nobody’, a gleeful skeleton figure who eats fear. So the goal in that moment is to name and release the fear to Mr.Nobody, so it’s a bit like a shamanic story telling game. It’s all about identifying the scripts inside us that rule our actions on the ‘mythic stage’ of our lives.
“What’s ruling us, what’s holding us back, what’s keeping us from sharing the magic within us, but feel scared to give it a name or form?”
Scott is a true believer and he’s up to something much larger than entertainment. About the Mystical Midway’s immersive environment he continued, “There’s almost no separation between participant, audience, spectator, performers. It really is immersive social theater. People can jump in with whatever they’re comfortable with. The first time they come, they kind of sit on the periphery, and say, ok I kind of see what this is about. Next time they come and they have a persona and they’re offering their gifts. Maybe I’ll do readings, or I’m more of a clowny person, or I have fairy wings and horns or whatever. You know what I mean?”
Our nice waiter brought us some bread and butter and as Scott and I conversed, I began to realize that there is a deeper level to this sort of play and creative culture. He’s not just creating an immersive experience that will no doubt delight participants on the playa this year. I took in this phenomenon of a man across the table from me, wearing a black and white striped hat, spectacles and who sported a well groomed handlebar mustache. We discussed the language of creative culture, how he is producing events, creative community and Improv Theater and I realized I was in the presence of a visionary. We discussed what a crazy journey these last 25 years have been for him and before that, his childhood of “hippie parents, raised in communes, in boats and vans. My mom was a psychic channel and I was raised around all these different intentional communities. So as a kid I got to see all these intentional ways of coming together so I was primed my whole life for alternate ways of living.” He then brought up his interest in magic and alchemy.
It was then that he leaned in, suddenly somewhat serious, and as he spoke he brought his visage forward and upward and I could see his brown eyes and that slyly mustachioed mouth as he flashed an upward smile and I thought — he’s up to something. Oh he’s up to something.
“I see society as a sculpture; it’s created intentionally by people. And a lot of people don’t see that our society has been crafted by capitalists and industrialists and consumerists towards people like you. You NEED THINGS. Medicine men knew this. Like, oh I’ve got something you need. This is a shiny thing and it’s awesome if you have this thing. You need these sneakers to be more desirable. You need this makeup or you need this clothing, you know what I mean right? And these are scripts that are running in society and so many people think, oh that’s the way it is, that’s the way life is.
“Burning Man is a place where people can look at the scripts and be like, wait a minute, does that serve me? Does this way of being serve me? Does the way of connecting and relating to other people, does this actually have value to me? So I want to create the permissions and give people the tools to examine, do these scripts serve them anymore.
“That’s why we embrace the term SOCIAL THEATER. You know because the Midway is a place of heightened social interaction, where everything is a mirror. Every character on the Midway is a mirror, a card, the story cards of the Midway that everything is based on, that I’ve been developing, I’m taking all my observations of creative culture they’re all in the story cards. Everything’s a mirror, hey take a look at this. What has value to you what are you pulling yourself to?
“How does insight serve you? Are you just a mental, intellectual person or do you have insight and intuition, so everything is inquiry. Hey what do you think about this, what do you think about this, no truths, just inquiry. Just questions. It’s all questions.
“It’s a crazy experiment. And I need a Christmas miracle to pull this off.”
The Mystical Midway, Carnival of Mythic Possibility has an ongoing IndieGOGO campaign to get them to Burning Man.
Go there. Contribute and read on.
Our sangria arrived, we toasted a cheers and I took a plunge into the fascinating world of Barron Scott LevKoff also known as “The Professor”.
Scott has an interesting history with Burning Man. He mentioned that he’d attended some early Cacophony Society events, “I went to a few early Cacophony meetings at Edinburgh Castle. John Law, Danger Ranger where there and they were a little wild for me, honestly, because I’m kind of a dandy, but I loved it. I was intrigued. I went to some of the early events and I went to one of the Burns on the beach. I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t know until years later, and I was like, oh that was Burning Man.”
His first pilgrimage to Black Rock City happened in the mid-nineties. He was running a club at the old Trocadero on 4th Street up from the Hotel Utah called Club Ritual and there was a general, growing buzz about this thing called Burning Man. He said, “I kind of dipped my feet into that a little, people were trying to pull me to the playa and I thought, Oh, it sounds dirty, and it sounds kind of intense, but I knew some really great people going out there, and finally the pull was great enough and I said OK I have to do this. So I created all these giant back pack puppets, you know. I don’t want to just go, I want to contribute.
“I had a space down at Mission and 21st called the Jewelry Store at the time, it was a performance space with a bunch of clowns and weirdo’s and freaks, so I created all these giant puppets and I packed it all into a truck and we drove out there and we ended up going off Donner Pass, over the guardrail, flipping eight times and landing at the bottom of a ravine.
“It was 5:30 in the morning and luckily we had an emergency vehicle that happened to be right behind us or nobody would have seen us. We landed upside down, my cohorts, my girlfriend and our friend who was driving, they were unconscious. I had this crazy year because of that experience. We went to Truckee hospital and I was there for a couple days and I crushed part of my spine. I came back and I walked with a cane for a couple months. But it was kind of an amazing experience.”
I sipped my sangria. Visions of flipping off Donner Pass spun in my head. I’m not a big fan of driving over Donner Pass.
“It was a very intense, near death experience. I came back, healed up and it was a real pivotal year for me in terms of exploring magic and Cosplay, costume events, and weird shamanism and all kinds of crazy stuff. And then everything kind of peaked and I said ok, it’s time to go back.”
His second year a notable event promoter pulled him out to the playa to work on what was then called the Center Stage, before there was a Center Camp. He shared that year with me, “I helped do décor. I helped do the people’s fashion show. I booked Lost at Last which was kind of the first ethno-tribal trance act at Burning Man. I’d seen them in Maui so I convinced the people booking the acts that it was important to get them out here, the sound is going to be perfect for this festival.
“The funny thing is though; the guy who set up the camp came out a week before and built a giant wall of hay bales to protect the camp from wind.
“So twenty minutes after I was there we got in a car and went out to the Man. It was sunset. It was gorgeous, I was like, oh my god I’m here, it was that feeling, and you’re like YES. The Man was just on a pile of hay bales at the time. Then we’re going back to the camp and I see, oh there’s a fire performance, awesome, so I’m running back and I’m slowing down and I see, oh my god, that’s not a fire performance, that’s my camp.”
I answered, “Ah yes the tiki torches, camp on fire.”
“Yes, the tiki torches lit the wall of hay bales. And then the wind pushed the flaming wall of hay bales on to the camp and everything got burnt. Nobody got hurt, but I lost everything in that.”
I said, “Oh no, another catastrophe.”
The Professor deftly buttered a slice of bread, took a small bite and followed it with a sip of sangria then answered, “Yea well, I thought, I’m sensing a weird theme here. The upshot of that was I spent the entire week cloaked in THE GIFT.”
His eyes became wide and he gestured slowly with both hands as if embracing the air between he and I at the table and slowly and deliberately continued, “All my food, my costumes my tent, my bedding, my sleeping bag, everything was gifted to me. And it was an absolutely life changing experience. Just experiencing the level of abundance; the community spirit and mutual support that was present, I was like, wow, this is a model of how our society can be. This is profound.
“At the end of that week, the night of the Burn I had a massive personal death and resurrection experience and I had these massive visions, as you know us artists do, we go into the altered states in the liminal spaces to access the mystery, and I was shown a lot and that informed me.”
His next year saw him create what he would name the Eternal Return Project, a term taken from Joseph Campbell. He envisioned is as a “massive sacred theater, with ritual and a marriage of the Sun Moon and Stars and alchemical dancers and a giant dragon and angels and devils and fools and clowns and a giant 60 foot mechanical Lotus that would open up and signify rebirth,” where “We had Terence McKenna on satellite phone ready to talk and do a rap on death and he was on his death bed. I’d met him earlier. Let’s talk about death and resurrection because I’d had this death and resurrection experience the year before. You know, and by death and resurrection I mean dying to the ego and waking up to service in something bigger than just yourself.”
Scott poured himself fresh sangria and slowly shook his head.
“And the Lotus didn’t open. The pinnacle of the whole thing and it didn’t open. Mechanically it couldn’t open, but I was obsessed that something was going to happen at that moment, its GOING TO BE THIS MOMENT, this thing … you know and it didn’t open and there I was, dressed as the Fool.
“It was another one of these kinds of death experiences for me, with my ego and I was devastated. I literally just kind of limped out to this spot where I had the vision the year before and where that vision inspired me to build this weird Lotus and I said, wow, what did I do wrong, what am I missing here?
“That night I realized I was so focused on product as a creator and not process. That was when my real work began.”
Once again Scott took this experience and created something out of it. He is a vulnerable, honest and sincere man this Barron Scott LevKoff, and he is open to receiving messages as are all those called to a higher purpose. I like the guy.
He began to research the creative process and the language of creative processes. He began studying creative communities and cross referencing them to understand where there was commonality. Is there language for creative collaboration and are there commonalities of social dynamics, social techniques and methods that are similar among these creative communities?
Our fabulous waiter presented us a with a plate of Tortilla de Patata.
Scott brought his Lotus to 50 Oak Street in San Francisco and it opened at a New Year’s party that year that was the first Sea of Dreams, something he would produce for years with Joegh Bullock and his journey into the language of creative process led to he and Polly Superstar to create an online app called Superstar Avatar that, as he describes it is, “…Life as a Game, the language for Cosplaying that allowed people to create alternative identities and creative personas when nothing like that existed.
“There’s still nothing really like that online. Everything online is, oh no we want your data, you have to be this one person. I call bullshit. I say no, I get to decide, and the playa is a place where people are networking and they have these mythic personas. This is great, you choose who you want to be creatively on the stage of life. Burning Man is a working model.
“How can we replicate this kind of environment off playa. That was my first year take away. How can we replicate this, what are the conditions necessary for creating a space of social possibility?”
The Professor’s path is a journey of collaboration to enable the creative in anyone. From their original app, the Beauty Engine to SuperStar Avatar, he and Polly created Mission Control and eventually the Mystic Midway came to him, again during the time a Burning Man event was occurring.
“Mystic Midway was born when I was getting ready to go to Burning man again and I slipped a disk and so I had to spend a month on a couch. I was high on Tramadol and everybody had left and I was literally on my own for weeks. I had to call grocery service and have somebody come and help me to get to the shower, it was really bad. I sat in a shamanic, Tramadol induced expansive state on the couch for a few weeks and I though, ok, I was at the tail end of Mission Control and I was feeling something’s not right, what the path forward? So I said I’m going to take everything I love: social artistry, social gaming, events, a little bit of role play, a little bit of improv, a little bit of magic, carnivals and I’m going to mash it all up. That became Mystic Midway.
“It’ll be a 30 foot wide booth with interactive performers, ongoing shows, totally immersive, we have our carnival wagons that roll around the playa. We put out a Cosplay invitation for people to create a Midway persona. We have an online How to Guide to they can use to create this, their magical gifts. Think about that, when you’re putting together a costume where is it coming from, what’s it about? What does it represent? Don’t just put on a furry hat and furry boot covers, put something genuine into it. Think about it. Don’t just go to, you know, some shop. We’re giving people permission to go a little bit deeper into it.
“And in our camp were going to create a space for people to come and introduce themselves in a mythic way. We’ll have a checkerboard circle and you can stand there and say I’m king of the hobos, or Professor Grimaldi, or you know to just bring in that social artistry, because that’s really what Burning Man, I mean I love the big sculptures, I love the surreal environment, but to me it’s like, the permission to kind of explore creative identity and connect with people and be a little bit more, that’s what Burning man really is for me.”
I said, “My opinion, what you’re doing is very important. I sometimes look at old Burning Man versus new Burning Man and the life changing aspect as opposed to the almost Coachella aspect of it, and I hate to say that, I mean I’m jaded. I’ve been going since 98.”
He finished off his sangria and made a slight expansive gesture then said, “Things get bigger, it’s like oh, they’ve lost the plot or they’ve lost their mission but it’s all there, the DNA is still there and I just think it means that those that have been going, and those who are passionate about the experience, just need to step up their game and figure out how to keep Burning Man creative and engaged. I mean stop bitching about it, stop with the outrage and the whining. Get creative, come up with solutions. Keep the culture going.
“I’m serious. I have no time for outrage and whining. If you’re going to whine just get out of my way, I’m busy building the future. Like what are you doing man? It’s your future. Own it.”
Scott is entirely devoted to transforming culture and has helped built proven tools that make things happen and provide people with transformational experiences. He and Polly Superstar created an event formula, perfected over a decade and then shared it with other event producers around the world. A lot of people using their tools have gone on to create other communities, other organizations and other events.
He’s shared his vision with corporate culture for years. Most recently he took an incarnation of the Mystic Midway to the Augmented World Expo at The Santa Clara Convention Center, where they “presented the question to the technologists to ponder on the peril and onus of new technology, so we recorded people in a Sonic Mirror and asked them to share their hopes and fears. And they had to actually interact with characters by sharing stories in order to get these puzzle pieces to assemble this central puzzle that came to life on a projection map, a Mysticon Codex it was called.
“Mysticon Codex powered up the airship and the airship would take their hopes and dreams for the future and fly around the convention center. So it’s a mix of technology, of whimsy, of narrative, of social play and gaming in service of let’s examine why we’re doing this.”
I said, “You’re a facilitator” and he replied,
“I’m just a big supporter of creative culture period and I just want to do anything and everything in my power to keep it thriving. What I call creator culture. It’s the antidote to consumer culture. How can I help support creator culture? Give people tools. Give them the permission.
“I’ve also been a huge fan of Jean Houston. She was one of the pioneers of the Human Potential movement. And Jean Houston coined the term social artistry and she’s a big social theater person as well so she’s been a huge influence. Persona as creating fact.
“It’s just such a huge aspect of Burning Man that to me doesn’t get enough attention. I love giant sculpture, I love sculpture, I’m a metal sculptor, but I focus all my work on this social design because I feel like it’s badly needed right now.”
I asked our wonderful waiter for the check. I was picking this one up. We’d had just nibbles and wine. The tip was as much as the tab.
Scott’s Mystical Midway is letting you in on the secret, and the secret is, if you want to play just don’t be afraid. Be sincere. Give it some thoughtfulness. The Mystical Midway even has available a Cosplay guide. It’s all there. And by joining the carnival, who knows how deep you will go? Just by taking that step and PARTICIPATING you may be surprised at where your journey takes you.
Life is a celebration, a game, and the Midway this year will be a place of opportunities to discover parts of yourself you may have kept hidden. It may very well be a place where you will let Mr. Nobody eat your fear so you can be released from the script you may have become mired in.
I told Scott I admired what he’s doing here and he thanked me and said, “I’m super zealous, I have a passion and my passion is super focused and there’s so much whimsy involved with what I do but you know intense devotion can scare people and that’s why a lot of my personas that are very colorful and wearing plaid and involve fools and circuses but it is Mystic Midway so it’s like yea, life is a game, life is a celebration, and, let’s go beneath the surface, let’s go a little bit deeper.
“… it’s just immediate and oh this is fun. Sometimes when I talk things can seem Whoa, wait a minute, but you put on the costumes and there’s an ensemble or rolling around in my wagon or strolling puppet theater, it’s just immediate experience.
“Once you experience that, it changes your life and you want more.”
And now he brings the latest incarnation of his Mystic Midway to Burning Man this year. I asked him, what is one thing you would like to tell anyone interested in the Mystical Midway?
“Tell them, my real focus for bringing MYSTIC MIDWAY to Burning Man is in really spreading awareness of our project as a VEHICLE for social transformation — and inviting folks into ‘THE MYTHIC PLAY!’
“Celebration, creative community, social theater, gameful play- these things really can be harnessed as vehicles for innovation, illumination and societal evolution
“The Mystic Midway serves this Mission.
“‘As a band of merry fools and evolutionary agents, we inhabit ART as our vehicle for conjuring marvelous, participatory, transformative experiences.'”
If you want to assist Barron Scott LevKoff in getting his Mystical Midway to Black Rock City and partake in the rewards of his campaign, please consider joining the indieGOGO campaign and let’s make this happen.
Our wonderful moment together was nearing completion and again I caught that twinkle of invention and mischievous smile as he handed me some Mystic Midway cards and then handed me his phone and I saw the augmented reality app playing a disembodied figure in my space with the card below. He said, “It recognizes each card and talks to you.”
We sat there appreciating the wonder of his most recent idea and once we cleared out of the restaurant and were on 16th Street, as fate would have it, we happened to run into a guy who helped create the content for the METAIO augmented reality app Mystic Midway uses, as we were saying farewell. I wasn’t the least surprised. I imagine that chance and coincidence thrives inside the Mystical Midway.
Barron Scott Levkoff recommends the following:
The Mystic Midway Storycards on IndieGOGO
Mr.Nobody’s Swamp Shack (Box Truck)
Jean Houston on the Urgent Need for Social Transformation Stories
James Carse- Finite and Infinite Games