The Darker Impulses of Artists – or “Why We Shout Insults at People Through Megaphones (Maybe)”

The other night, I was the asshole on a megaphone shouting things at people going by my camp.

I couldn’t help it. Stuart gave me a megaphone. It would have been impolite not to use it. Yeah, that’s it: everything I said was Stuart’s fault.

The city was big last night – an overwhelming number of people and an armada of art cars were milling just outside the esplanade. For virgins, it was overwhelming; for the rest of us, it was still impressive. A stunning reminder that one person making art can change lives, but a whole community making art can instantly change the world.

The road past my camp was therefore crowded with people walking and biking by, often in a hurry to get somewhere. Shouting at them through a megaphone, I learned four things.

  • Shouting “You’re not Radically Inclusive enough to come into our bar!” at people actually gets them into your bar about 30% of the time. It’s surprisingly effective.
  • Shouting at people who are just leaving your bar to get back in there because they haven’t interacted enough also works really well.
  • There’s a big difference between riding around in a mutant vehicle shouting at people through a megaphone, and shouting at people from a megaphone while sitting on your camp porch. When you ride around in a mutant vehicle, you can recycle your best lines because it’s a new audience on every street. You can’t do that in your camp, however, and last night I learned why when, after 45 minutes, the people in the camp directly across from us shouted “CAN WE GET SOME FRESH MATERIAL?” at me.
  • You’re never quite as anonymous as you think. After I shouted something at a girl riding by on a bike (I think it was “You really did the absolute minimum on your bike there, didn’t you!” which is stunningly hypocritical considering I’ve never decorated anything in my life), she stopped suddenly in the street.

“You’re Caveat, aren’t you?” she asked.

Well, that wasn’t supposed to happen. “Um … yes …”

“Oh, this is great!” she said. “We met at the GLC, and you gave me a compliment, and it’s really stuck with me, and so I really wanted to tell you how important that was to me, and now I’ve bumped into you after you insulted my bike at high volume!”

Funny how the world works, sometimes. Often. Usually. Almost always, around here.

I don’t really know what the whole “shouting bullshit cracks at people through a bullhorn thing” is about. I’m not sure I find the practice defensible in any serious way. (I think concerns about the ethics of artistic expression need to be taken seriously.) But … I have a dark side. I have a fast brain capable of coming up with these things, and there is almost no socially acceptable excuse to use it in most of my life. I suppose my making gratuitous insults to strangers in the most impersonal way possible (it’s really not about them – ever and at all) is my equivalent of a cat needing to scratch to keep its claws healthy, or a dog needing to savage a chew toy now and then. I try to be as compassionate and reasonable as I can during as much of my life as I can, but … God to get to cut loose once in a while. It’s not a small thing. It feels so liberating: maybe it’s more like someone wanting to go naked at Burning Man than it is an animal instinct. Nobody really needs to go naked, do they? Their naked bodies might offend someone, right? But for those who would complain: fuck you and the high horse you rode in on.   Should my mind’s dark side have to hide under artificial good cheer?

Whether any of this is really covered under “Radical Self-Expression” as the principle is written is questionable – Radical Self-Expression is a kind of gift, and asks us to be mindful of the needs of the recipient. But if Radical Self-Expression isn’t open to the darker impulses of our nature, at least under limited circumstances, then what good is it?

So much of the art is huge this year, perhaps unprecedented. It’s also almost entirely not finished. As of last night, the Man, the Temple, the Lighthouse, the Catacomb of Veils … all were closed and still under construction.

These are all incredibly ambitious projects, several people I was with during the day mentioned that it just keeps getting bigger and bigger out here (and we weren’t even talking about the 747 …). What’s happening, they wondered? Why do people keep pushing these boundaries of size and scale when just making anything work at Burning Man is hard enough on its own? (I can barely get my tent up, just for reference.)

In the conclusion to our series on Art, Money, and the Renaissance, we noted that:

“(A)rtists are constantly pushing the boundaries with what they have. Give them a barren patch of desert, and they’ll turn it into a global happening. Artists are exactly the people who are willing to say “I don’t care if it’s good for my bottom line, this is worth doing!” They create an astonishing amount of value in their communities with whatever tools they have, and whether that’s the contents of a junkyard or the costume shop at the Met, they’re going to want to push new boundaries of the possible.

Artists are, in many ways, analogous to what start-up founders would be if there were no venture capital system.”


Nobody has told these artists “can you think bigger? Can you come up with something even more improbably ambitious?” They are inspired to do it on their own, both by seeing what other artists in their community are doing and because they’re artists.   Burning Man provides an environment where they can tilt at the windmills closest to their hearts, and even though individuals may at some point say “enough is enough,” artists as a group never will. Give them an inch, they’ll create a mile. It’s inspiring.

And if they fail? Well, so what. They’ve created a city of magic and wonder: no one’s going to remember that some of the projects were finished late 10 years form now. The upside-down man, a failure of Burning Man’s engineering, is also a testament to its ambition, and has created a whole new symbol (the upside-down headless man) that you can be assured our culture will find uses for. (“How long before we start seeing it as a tattoo?” Larry joked. The consensus was “tomorrow.”)

Extending that capacity to experiment, allowing sincere failures to be as meaningful as successes, helps create the magic environment we keep coming back for. Where anything is possible because we let it be.

The girl on the bicycle wasn’t kidding about meeting me at the GLC – I remembered her after she walked up onto the porch. She wasn’t upset that I’d said something mean about her bike: she was thrilled that I’d been shouting at all, so that she could hear my voice, so that she could stop what she was doing and talk about what was on her mind.  She believed – and I think this is true – that reaching out with snark is still reaching out if you’re willing to play with whatever someone throws back.  An invitation to rough play is still an invitation to play.

“Thank you,” she said, over and over again. “It really meant a lot to me.”

I was off the hook. But even so, not long after she left, I put the megaphone away, and went out to the deep playa to sing.

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

9 Comments on “The Darker Impulses of Artists – or “Why We Shout Insults at People Through Megaphones (Maybe)”

  • Aze says:

    The comment section is the best place to release that snarky energy with other snark.

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  • Silver cowboy says:

    I have very little dark side. The dark side I do have has a need to express how much I despise those idiots standing in the street with a megaphone. They are rarely clever and always offensive. Why not yell out compliments? If you have to yell at people to get them to your bar, or to stay once they are there, then maybe your bar is not that great. There was a creepy guy with a megaphone yelling at people to “come over here” this year. Mostly he yelled at young pretty girls. A real creep. He left his megaphone sitting next to his very sad attempt at a bar and I saw my opportunity and I ran across the street and poured my beer into it. Well, not really, but that was my fantasy. My dark side. Leave your megaphone at home. Nobody is amused. Most of us are annoyed and not in a good way.

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    • Sparkle Horny says:

      This musta been your first rodeo, or second. Efforts like yours to want to sanitize burning man more than it has already become is fucking annoying.
      Don’t like it? Don’t come back, it’s not your cup of joe, sliver cowpoke.

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      • Silver Cowboy says:

        This was my 14th year, actually. I have been going since 2000. I remember when Burning Man was full of joy and celebration. We treated each other with respect and kindness. It was one of the things that drew me to it year after year. “Sanitize” Burning Man? I don’t know what you mean. You obviously don’t truly understand or appreciate the experience, you simply want to “Sparkle” and party, Pony. You stay home and let us have burning Man back.

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  • Dennis Hinkamp - Flackmaster says:

    Me, old guy again: The megaphone is something that has comeback after the glory days of the early 2000s. These things seem to go in cycles from extreme snark to kinder and gentler. It seems we are trending back to snark. I do remember the shouting years of 2002 when you could shame someone with “nice costume” or “naked is not a costume.” I used to routinely be mocked for jogging out on the playa in the early morning…. I hot all of those asshats choked on their glow sticks when they mistook them for a Camelback nipple. In protest the entire pre-opening build week I wore a baseball cap, hiking shorts and running shoes. I routinely mentally shouted at people running around in costumes before the gates open, Hey we’re here to work, take off your silly squid hat. I personally know that you have a voice that can project without a bull horn; for all others volume should never be confused with insight.

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    • John M says:

      Hah! I remember the megaphones. Funny to think that half the things the guys would shout at girls walking by would be considered sexist today as we have learned and matured about the dynamics of gender. Times have changed haven’t they? I am starting to feel old now. :)

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  • Silver Cowboy says:

    Of course, having made my comment to the sparkle pony, I want to say that it is still home for me and I will continue to return and continue my journey. The megaphones and sparkle ponies and plug and play camps aren’t going to ruin my experience. Their impact on my experience is minimal. I can be annoyed for a second and then move on. I don’t believe that asking for kindness and respect for others is “sanitizing” the experience.

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  • Juno says:

    I also have a dark side, and I dream of evolving into a megaphone-wielding snark thrower. I bought one a few years ago and bring it out with me each year, but it mostly just sits there. I’m all for throwing people off their game, within reason, and I think being hassled is a rite of passage at Burning Man. Maybe next year I’ll join you on the porch, Caveat.

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  • happy wheels says:

    great article, I was very impressed about it, wish you would have stayed next share

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