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.)
“(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.