After every Burn, there is a storm. A media storm.
After 2013’s Burning Man, the big media storm was about whether there were so many famous people at Burning Man that it was ruined. After 2014’s Burning Man, the media storm was over whether the existence of Plug and Play camps – one in particular – had ruined Burning Man. And now, in 2015, the big media storm is about whether a Pedophilic Sandwich Company running an advertisement has ruined Burning Man.
(I know, I know, you think Subway is the actual Pedophilia Sandwich Company. And that’s understandable. But it turns out that this sandwich company had a senior executive arrested for soliciting sex with a 13 year old waaaaay before Subway. So I think the name fits, and I encourage everyone to use it from now on. And if the Pedophilia Sandwich Company objects? Hey! It’s a parody! They believe parody justifies anything, right? No harm, right?)
I don’t know if going from “celebrities are destroying Burning Man!” to “pedophilic sandwich advertisements are destroying Burning Man” is progress, but I do think that under the surface these media storms are really all about the same thing:
The lines between “Burning Man Culture” and what we used to call “The Default World” are blurring into non-existence. All this is what happens when these cultures collide. And not only has it gotten weird, it’s going to get weirder.
In fact, the weirder it gets, the more successful we probably are.
Weirdness is good because it means that the cultures are running into each other in unexpected ways, and unexpected is what we want because – let’s be honest here – the expected way that counter-cultures go is that they end up with high end boutique product lines at some of our nation’s hippest online retailers. Expected is quite literally buying the t-shirt.
“But isn’t that what’s happening now?” I hear so many people ask.
To which an honest and straightforward answer is: Dear God no! Where did you get that idea?
Since 2013 Burning Man culture has had an active discussion about how it can get fewer celebrities to come to Burning Man, and if they do come how to get them to shut the hell up. Now tell me: what other part of our world is clamoring for fewer celebrities? Who is planning events wondering: “How can we keep celebrities from taking their pictures with us?” Who else is asking “Can get celebrities to stop Tweeting about us?”
Name me another organization in the world that, if a famous and marginally talented pop singer crashed her Segway at their event, wouldn’t have put GIFs of it on their homepage and be selling the t-shirt?
Burning Man stands out.
And let’s be honest here: the usual course is that a Pedophilia Sandwich Company pays an organization a lot of money to use its name and trademarks in their pedophilic advertising, and then they come out with joint merchandising: cups, toys, t-shirts. It is not usual – not at all usual – for a Pedophilia Sandwich Company to create a commercial under the guise of parody to try and link their product, and then get sued.
What’s happening with Burning Man right now is challenging, yes, but it is also a perfect demonstration of just how little Burning Man’s engagement with the wider culture resembles business as usual.
Honest-to-God, when people accuse Burning Man of “selling out” I have to wonder: do you actually know what selling out looks like? Because suing to keep your name out of media spots isn’t it.
Don’t get me wrong – Burning Man has made many questionable decisions. But they resemble lapses in judgment far more than they do inviting commercial exploitation.
The broader culture is, without a doubt, doing its level best to appropriate and cash in on Burning Man culture (I’ve worked in marketing, and sat in meetings where VP’s have asked “How do we market to the Burning Man demographic?”), and it’s caused problems. It will continue to cause problems. But while it is an imperfect process – could it have been any other way? – Burning Man is so far engaging the world largely on its own terms.
That is not easy. It will probably get harder. Burning Man will surely have to up its game.
Which is where we come in.
Because the Burning Man organization’s capacity to react to these impacts with the larger culture are actually fairly limited; legal action, though sometimes effective, is a very blunt tool. Nor does the organization actually represent the culture, or even individual burners.
Yet often – and oddly – it the very people who argue the loudest that the Burning Man organization doesn’t adequately represent the Burning Man culture who are the ones most caught up on the question of how the Org will handle something.
We’ll all follow the Org’s legal battles with interest I’m sure, but the most significant question is not “how will the Org handle Plug n’ Play and the Pedophilia Sandwich Company,” but how we will.
If Burners ultimately allow themselves to be defined by those who would exploit us as “consumers,” then in the end Burning Man will probably be consumed by market forces. If, however, we find ways to live and respond to the world as something other than people who are defined by their branding and purchasing choices, then the forces seeking to appropriate Burning Man will have very little power over us.
I’ve proposed Art Vikings as a partial solution to Plug n’ Play camps, and obviously support any campaign to make sure the Pedophilia Sandwich Company is associated with pedophilia across multiple media platforms. I think any company interested in preserving some semblance of a brand might want to be cautious about offending a community full of artists. I’m just saying: if Burners were to have an unofficial contest to see who could produce the most viral images fucking with the Pedophilia Sandwich Company’s brand … and gift them far and wide across the internet … so that images of worms and penises in their toasted sandwiches come up high on any image search … so that the phrase “cannibalism” and the name “Jeffrey Dahmer” are permanently associated with them on social media …
Well, that would potentially be an effective way to communicate that we choose to engage with those who would market to us on our terms, not theirs. We as a culture can do far more to make marketing gurus terrified of going near Burning Man than the Org and its lawyers can, simply by insisting that we are not passive recipients of commercial messages.
But my strategies may not be your strategies – your mileage may vary. And rightfully so. The whole point of do-occracies is that they don’t move in lock-step. I’ll be shocked and disappointed if, out of the whole community of Burners, my approaches are the most effective.
But too often we tend to think of these issues and these confrontations as top-down processes: “what is the Org doing? Is it doing the right thing?”
That’s a relevant question, but it’s ultimately the wrong question. To be a Burner now is to be standing right on a dissolving boundary line between Burning Man and commercial culture. How you choose to handle the weirdness this creates – and who you choose to be in it – ultimately determines where both cultures end up.
It will not be easy. It will be disruptive and weird – if we do it right. But be confident that whatever you do will make a difference. The belief that there’s nothing we can do, that selling out and capitulation, not just by Burning Man but by you personally is the only way this could go, is business as usual’s first line of defense.