Okay, let’s talk about White Ocean.
If you hadn’t heard: on Sept. 1, White Ocean made a Facebook post discussing a large act of vandalism that had happened at their camp: “A band of hooligans raided our camp, stole from us, pulled and sliced all of our electrical lines leaving us with no refrigeration and wasting our food and, glued our trailer doors shut, vandalized most of our camping infrastructure, dumped 200 gallons of potable water flooding our camp.”
Posting it was the right call: this isn’t something that should be hidden in the shadows, this is something we – as a community – should face head on. But we also shouldn’t rush to judgment.
In particular, commentators and journalists shouldn’t rush to judgment: virtually no one talking about this online was there, and has any first-hand knowledge of these events. This includes me. To my knowledge, I haven’t even visited White Ocean.
Thus I want to be very clear, at the beginning, about distinguishing between what I in fact know, and what I only think I know – and to make sure everyone understands I’m not speaking in any official capacity for the Burning Man organization. I’m not, and I haven’t been privy to any discussions between Burning Man staff and law enforcement, or to any internal discussion about this issue within the Burning Man departments that would deal with it directly.
Neither has just about anyone else talking about this. There’s so much irresponsible speculation here you’d think Goldman Sachs were managing it.
So this is an opinion piece, speaking for myself only. If new facts become available, I’ll adjust my opinion accordingly.
All that said: here’s what I think I know, after a number of informal conversations:
- This really happened.
- In fact, I’ve heard from several sources that White Ocean under-reported the degree of damage done and the vindictive nature of the attack.
- Given the unusual nature of some of the materials I’ve heard were involved, this seems to me to be a premeditated attack: that is, it looks an awful lot like people came to the playa with gear specifically intended for use in this vandalism, rather than people on playa deciding that they were really angry at White Ocean for some reason and improvising something nasty with what they had on hand.
- But if this is, as the media has run with, the first shot in a kind of “class war” at Burning Man – holier than thou tent-campers striking out at the rich-and-douchey-sound-camp – then it’s a really poor target. Yes, White Ocean is a plug-and-play camp, and they may very well be a rich-and-douchey-sound-camp … in fact, what the hell, probably … but people whose opinion I value and who have worked with White Ocean in some capacity say that they also seem to get what Burning Man is about and recognize their need to connect with the Burners around them. That they do, in fact, go out of their way to feed complete strangers – not just their friends, as has been alleged online. I have also heard that White Ocean staff are kind and conscientious to the Burning Man volunteers who interact with them, and are open and inviting about getting people – whoever they are – to come to their camp and be treated a good time. Your mileage may vary if you’ve been there (again, I may be wrong, maybe they’ve been total assholes to people I haven’t talked to) but everything I’ve heard about them from Burners whose opinions I trust suggests that while they aren’t my idea of fun (and they have definitely made mistakes in the past) I really ought to shake their hands and thank them for helping to make Burning Man what it is. Whatever their internal politics and problems, they seem to be sincerely engaged at the task of being good citizens of Black Rock City – and no one can possibly ask more than that.
- White Ocean does have a history of … shall we say … heated internal politics. Which I don’t mean as a criticism (show me a camp without drama. Please). Only to point out that there just might be a suspect pool beyond “people angry about the rich at Burning Man.” That’s a good media narrative and Facebook meme, sure, but is there any actual evidence to suggest that’s why people went way out of their way to attack this camp in particular?
- All of which is to say: this looks to me a lot more like an attack against White Ocean as a result of past camp-related drama than it does a vague form of revenge for them being rich, carried out by citizens of Black Rock City who chose to only attack one camp this year to make a statement, and then not actually make any kind of statement about it. (I mean, if I was going to make a statement about income inequality by vandalizing Burning Man camps, I’d probably attack a couple, and release a manifesto or at least a strongly worded letter.) I could be wrong, of course, but so could everyone jumping up and down about how this is what Karl Marx predicted would happen to 21st century transformational festivals. They won’t admit it, because that’s better click bait than “somebody had a personal grudge against a camp and it got nasty,” but the point is that nobody has any evidence. We’re just going to have to wait and see.
So that’s what I think I know. (Again, I’ll adjust if and when new information becomes available.)
Here’s what I do know, absolutely and without fear of contradiction:
None of that fucking matters.
Because what happened to White Ocean wasn’t a “prank” in any sense of the word. It wasn’t “fucking with them.” It wasn’t “art,” and it wasn’t “making a statement,” whatever that statement would theoretically be.
It was vandalism, pure and simple. Stop. End sentence. End of story. Maybe their attackers had righteous motives – sure, maybe – but it doesn’t matter. There’s no hedging on this: this was a violent act whose only only only redeeming value is that (so far as I know) no people got hurt, and it cannot be shrugged off. It must be condemned. It is unacceptable. Calling the police was entirely appropriate, and prosecution would be wholly appropriate too.
Anyone who’s read my previous takes on rough art and whimsy at Burning Man knows I have a thick skin for these kind of things: I’ve started wars between camps, I’ve applauded takeovers, and I’ve even called for “Art Vikings” on playa to try and address the issue of plug-and-play camps who are trying to become gated communities. I stand by all of this.
But a “prank,” or “fuckery” (my preferred term) in a Burning Man context refers to acts with a very specific lineage and context – from the Cacophony Society and early Burning Man up to us today. And while it can be used as an excuse to get away with a lot, there is one thing that it always always always possesses as the real stamp of its legitimacy: such acts are an invitation to play. The people being fucked with get a chance to participate too. To engage in a way that is creative and meaningful. Maybe even – if they’re clever on their feet – to switch the situation around and come out on top.
Because the point of fucking with someone isn’t to show superiority, or to win – it’s to make the world more interesting. A good prank is an opening gambit, not a closing statement.
Indeed, Suicide Club founder Gary Warne – surely one of the Saints of Fuckery in Cacophony/Burning Man history if anyone has claim to that title – explicitly stated that when pulling a prank you must “allow people the validity of their own emotions (Humor is a Very Serious Thing).”
Warne wrote (as quoted by the book “Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society,” page 6): “Allow people the reality of their own emotions and the sincerity of their own responses. Don’t be shocked or bummed out if you are ignored, slugged in the mouth, or arrested. People cannot be expected to think your jokes are funny. Their reactions are no less valid than yours.”
Do you see? It’s not – ever – “we hate those people, so we’re going to show them.” It’s “hey, we’re doing something odd and unusual – do you want to play?” Even if the thing you’re doing is scary and threatening, you’re still never doing it from a place of superiority, and you’re inviting them to engage. To do something with you, not really against you.
If you do that right, it can be a teaching moment for them. But without the invitation to play, it loses any pedagogical purpose and just become bullying.
The same point was made in my proposal for “Art Vikings” – in which I was actually advocating for kidnapping of people and theft of supplies:
If Burning Man is threatened with commoditization, with people creating bubbles of privilege, the appropriate response is something fun as hell that makes them glad to see those bubbles go.
Say what you will … raiding someone’s camp is participatory. It gets them involved with new people, and offers them a scenario to engage with. Instead of scorning them and refusing to party with them … we’re engaging with them in a very direct manner . And if we’re silly enough, chaotic enough, and having enough fun … that is, if we do it right … they’ll go home and think: “God, life was so cool when we were being raided by the Art Vikings. That was my favorite part of the week. But next year, goddamit, I’ll be ready for them: next year we’ll have an inflatable moat!”
Tell me that doesn’t make you excited for next year.
Again, the idea is not to force anyone to leave, but to invite them to create experiences with us. To use a parody of “violence” to create connections through play where no connections currently exist.
If someone had done that to White Ocean, I’d be all in favor of it. But that’s not what happened. At all. What happened to White Ocean was a boot to the face, not an invitation to play. This was just vandalism, and there’s no place for it in the spirit of Burning Man.
Any fuckery that gives the pranked party the opportunity to play without doing lasting harm is essentially legitimate, I’d argue, in Burning Man culture. But vandalizing equipment and then running? Creating destruction instead of art? No. Anybody saying “White Ocean had it coming” is blaming the victim here, and that’s bullshit. Burning Man stands for a way better (and way funnier) class of vigilantes than this. Our pranking builds communities.
Had I been at White Ocean at the time, I’d like to think I’d have had the moral fiber to confront the vandals. Having not been there, I can only join many, many other Burners in apologizing for the fact that our community – like any other – contains some jackasses. And to say, belatedly, that if there’s anything I can do to help or stand with you, please let me know. I hope to see you on the playa again next year.
Photo by Mark Peterson, 2011 (and not actually of White Ocean)