I’ve heard a lot of responses to JB Tatum’s recent Medium essay about Burning Man as an “endless party culture.” And sure, like many people I wonder how Tatum could have possibly spent four months in San Francisco Burning Man culture and “not met a single artist.” I mean, they’re not hard to find: the Flaming Lotus Girls have regular meetings where anyone is welcome. NIMBY and American Steel and the Chez Poulet are active hubs of Burner artists (though few events there are a “Burning Man” thing). The East Bay Burners have regular events both about Burning Man culture (which tend to be very arts focused) and just regular “get to know us” kinds of stuff. Burning Man itself has periodic volunteer recruitment events … and I’m pretty sure Burners Without Borders isn’t hard to join.
It seems clear to me that Tatum attended events that overlap with Burning Man in the same way that many ravers also consider themselves political activists because their favorite DJs are very progressive.
But we’re not Pride, we’re not Outside Lands, we’re not How Weird, we’re not Bay to Breakers (to name just a few of the events Tatum mentions).
But for all that, I come not to bury Tatum but to praise him. Because it’s surely not a coincidence that his essay came out so soon on the heels of the Guardian’s article about the “Further Future” festival, which also considers itself a part of Burner culture and also makes a majority of Burners feel seasick. And it’s surely not a coincidence that both of those came on the heels (relatively speaking) of the Pedophilia Sandwich Company producing a “parody” commercial about Burning Man to hawk its vile meat-and-bread concoctions.
far from focusing on what Tatum got wrong, I want to make it clear that he got the most important thing right
“Fashionable Consumption,” as Tatum labels it, is absolutely a growing threat – not so much “from” Burning Man culture as “at” it. And this is no surprise: this is what consumer-capitalism does, it tries to appropriate cultural movements and turn them into fashion statements. It encourages people to call themselves Burners because they bought a costume, so that they’ll buy more costumes. As Burning Man gets more and more successful, and becomes a stronger cultural force, the commodity-industrial-complex is only going to intensify its efforts.
So far from focusing on what Tatum got wrong, I want to make it clear that he got the most important thing right: he encountered a scene (whether ours or somebody else’s) that was full of fashionable consumption and mind-numbing bullshit, and he rejected it. He got out. He said “the parties are fun, and sure, I like drugs, but, isn’t there something more I could be doing with my time?” And walked.
And to top it off, he tried to make sense of his experience and express where he was with it.
I mean, isn’t that what we want more of in the world?
A bad scene is a bad scene
And let’s be very clear about this: nobody should ever, ever, feel obliged to stay in a situation or culture that they believe is unhealthy for them, whether or not it’s Burning Man. We absolutely don’t want people who are in an unhealthy situation to say “well, it’s Burning Man” (whether it is or not) and stay. Screw that.
In many respects what Tatum has rejected about the party scene he was in is exactly what Burners reject about conventional party scenes: it’s not actually all that fun really and we, too, think we can be doing something better with our time. I mean, come on: nobody ever went to the desert because there was a shortage of parties in San Francisco.
But for the record, when we talk about having a meaningful impact on the world, we’re not talking about that awesome all nighter at the tech company where the cuddle puddle had a VR interface so it looked like you were cuddling with your favorite cartoon characters. (Although, having just said that, now I want it.) We’re talking about inspiring people to do Burners Without Borders projects, dedicating their time to disaster relief. We’re talking about inspiring people to do public art. We’re talking about the Temple in Derry. and the Temple in Christchurch. We’re talking about Black Rock Solar giving solar grids away to Nevada schools and non-profits. We’re talking about our Taiwan Regional’s artistic collaboration with a Taoist temple, and the L.A. Regional’s collaboration with local schools to create community gardens. Burning Man’s ultimate expression is not a party circuit: it is when you see somebody doing something weird and wonderful and you ask “How can I help?”
Tatum writes that “The most legitimate defense of this excessive partying — and the most honest one — is that it’s a lot of fun.” It is a lot of fun, but an equally legitimate defense of it is also is that it inspires people to do all those other things. We have as little interest as Tatum does in people feeling like they’re an artist deep down, then going to Burning Man parties, and not doing art. We want them to get off their asses and do their art, or help others, or even follow their bizzare weird vision that makes no rational sense. If Tatum was in a scene (and I believe he was) where people were using Burning Man as an excuse to *not* more fully engage their creative sides? Well … fuck that.
I can’t afford to leave my heart in San Francisco anymore, but you can Air BnB my chest cavity
My takeaway from his experience, at least as I read it, is that he encountered San Francisco. Much like Further Future, the Bay Area is a festival of $4 toast, green juice, designer drugs, made-to-order costumes, name dropping DJs with delusions of grandeur, and lifestyle consultants with their heads so far up your ass that they give you an enema each time they inhale – if you’re willing and able to put the money down. San Francisco is an epicenter of fashionable consumption. It doesn’t just impact Burning Man’s scene: it impacts the theater scene, the non-profit world, the political scene, journalism and the media … in each one of them, and many more, incredible people doing amazing work are being blocked by party kids who want to really up their selfie game. Nobody’s asking “how can I help?” And the great tragedy is that this is pushing out so many of the artists Tatum wanted to meet – and that he should meet if he wants to. Frankly I think everybody should meet Mike Garlington. He’s awesome.
Managing to keep Burning Man’s signal loud and clear through all the noise that fashionable consumption has made, and will continue to make, is a clear challenge for us. Tatum has called bullshit on bullshit, and pointed out that human beings need more chances to engage in meaningful activities. I wish he knew us better, but we need more people to do what he did.
JB – my email’s in the signature. Reach out if you want.