There was no scheduled session on mischief and fuckery at Burning Man’s 2016 European Leadership Summit, but one happened anyway. Which strikes me as pretty much perfect.
The small room allotted for it held a packed house as participants from across the world discussed the ways the Burning Man tradition of mischief and pranks played out in their home events, and how to help add more grow in the future.
Which, to be clear, was the universal sentiment. As Burning Man has grown into what many people see as a kind of new age Mecca, only with more yoga and better DJs, there surely must be some people saying “We should have fewer pranks and mischief and fuckery.” I think I’ve met people like that on the playa. But nobody was saying it at the ELS. Even people who I thought on first meeting must be terribly serious and to-the-point surprised me by asking “Can we screw with people more? How do we get in on that?”
(It’s a question that goes all the way to the top, incidentally: once the idea of a session on fuckery came up, Burning Man CEO Marian Goodell was arguably its biggest booster, repeatedly reminding people that they might want to check it out.)
At the session, after a discussion of various pranks-we’ve-seen-or-been-involved-with, participants quickly agreed that a spirit of whimsy and fuckery is vital to Burning Man culture and events. Part of this is a “you know it when you see it” aspect to our culture – it’s just not Burning Man if we’re not laughing and being laughed at. But a more developed idea quickly emerged: that whimsy is so important to Burning Man because it is both a cause and a result of freedom. If people aren’t being whimsical then it probably suggests that they are afraid to laugh; that there are taboos everywhere that people fear will go off like landmines. An attitude like this makes true freedom impossible, and laughter – whimsy, fuckery – are the best ways to keep it at bay. You preserve your freedom by setting off the landmines, and showing that nobody’s really hurt.
More than that, though: once you have an atmosphere of freedom and possibility, why wouldn’t people be laughing? I mean, of course they would. So a spirit of whimsy and acts of fuckery are both how we keep Burning Man from becoming a place full of sacred cows and armored platitudes (which are very easy things to slip into once people start calling you a “spiritual” experience), and a natural result of that freedom. It’s how we do things right, and how we know we’re doing things right.
But will just any pranks do? Or is there a specific kind of “Burning Man” fuckery that we’re aiming for?
To some extent that’s the wrong question to ask: the very act of trying to draw boundary lines around “approved” and “unapproved” fuckery is like trying to write your name in water: it misses the point and the medium doesn’t work that way.
But the experience of being fucked with at Burning Man, we agreed, is also distinct from being laughed at elsewhere in our lives. Something different, and better, is happening here (if we get it right).
That’s probably because Burning Man’s sense of fuckery didn’t emerge in a vacuum: it inherited the Cacophony Society’s sense of whimsy and play, and that wasn’t just pointing and laughing. On the contrary. Merciless as it could be, its motto was inclusive (“You may already be a member!”), and as cacophonist and Burner Chicken John wrote in his book “The Book of the Is: Fail to Win,”
“[W]e weren’t offering the equivalent of a light punch in the arm … some of the stuff was a sharp elbow to the face. Confrontational. Messy. Angular. But it always led to more possibilities in the world, not less. If you could approach it from a place of courage and fun you could see that there were suddenly more choices in front of you: life is more interesting than you thought.”
That’s very different from just pointing and laughing at someone. What this suggests to me about pranksterism, whimsy, and fuckery at Burning Man is three things, one of which – that anything’s a target and just about anything is fair game – we already know. Beyond that:
– Fuckery in a Burning Man context is, if you get it right, actually an invitation to play (“You May Already Be a Member.”) A way to get more people laughing and engaged. You may be making fun of someone, but you’re not trying to beat them, you’re trying to play with them.
– Fuckery (done right) therefore reduces spectators. Sometimes it can be the only way to pull people who don’t know how to be anything but a spectator into a participatory place. You may not have intended to interact, but you’re a part of something now. And it’s more interesting than sitting on the sidelines.
For those of us talking about fuckery at the European summit, this certainly fit with the best pranks we’d been a part of. Many of them had started out with us as the victims, but were cherished memories because at some point we got to play along in a way that made it our game too.
Which is wonderful, but also presents a problem for many of the regional events in Europe, which are explicitly cross cultural and have a number of different language groups represented.
There was no sense at the ELS that people’s cultures needed to be respected in a politically correct way or that sensitive points need to be avoided; but there was an acknowledgement that it’s a lot harder to issue an invitation to play – especially in a rough way – with people who you don’t share much of a language with.
That may make the adoption of a Burning Man culture of fuckery more difficult at cross-cultural events, but that doesn’t mean they’re not trying.
One strategy brought up in the meeting was basic clear labeling: Israel’s Midburn, we were told, has a large camp clearly labeled “Shithole Camp.”
“So if you go in and complain that they were assholes to you, we say ‘well, what did you expect? Did you check where you were?” a Midburn representative told the session. “That seems to work.”
Another attempt is to make some level of whimsy part of the official structure: the pan-European “Borderlands” event apparently uses clowns as its ranger-types, so that security issues or dispute resolution involves working with people in clown costumes – and image that I have to say I love.
It shouldn’t surprise us if different cultures handle fuckery differently – and I think caution about it in a cross-cultural context is understandable. But I am extremely encouraged to see just how interested in picking whimsy up and carrying it forward so many global Burners are.
So many of the moments that most affected me at Burning Man, that changed my life, were whimsical and meaningless in any conventional sense. Apparently I’m in great company.