Based on the amount of complaining I’ve heard about it recently, we really don’t like it when random people put Burning Man on their bucket list and then try to show up.
I just can’t figure out why we’re unhappy about this.
I mean, if it’s the kind of thing a person thinks they’ll like, shouldn’t it be a thing they do before they die?
Why is that a bad impulse? Where does it go wrong?
I don’t think it does. And I say that as someone who had to be all but dragged to my first Burning Man. Like many people who are now long-term and dedicated Burners, I had an artist friend invite me to go to Burning Man … and then encourage me … and then pester me … for years. And I kept saying “no.”
I finally had to not only move to San Francisco, be between jobs, and get my at-the-time girlfriend’s okay, but THEN be offered a free ticket after helping out with an art project, before I finally said “yeah, okay, as long as I’m on the West Coast with nothing to do and have a free ticket and a place to camp, and everyone’s supportive, I might as well stop by and see if I like it.”
Which I think makes it pretty clear that I have absolutely no credibility with which to judge someone who takes it on themselves to say “Wow, I see these amazing pictures from an event happening out in the middle of nowhere, how about I try to go there and see it for myself?”
Those people – these bucket listers – are not only cooler than me, but their attitude is arguably far more in tune with Burning Man’s spirit of do-occracy. If there was enough room for me at Burning Man, a guy with all the self-reliance and community spirit of an entitled coma patient, then surely people who go out of their way to be here because they want to see what we’re up too have something to offer.
I mean, come on. Curiosity, motivation … these are good traits, right? We can work with that, right?
To the extent that there’s really problem here, it’s in that expression: “see what we’re up to.” Coming as a tourist to a place where there are no spectators does create a problem. But that problem isn’t that they want to be here – or that they come here. Those are both benefits.
No, the problem is that when you have a friend telling you “come in, you’ll like it,” you get a much more accurate account of Burning Man as a culture, and all the ways in which you need to engage to get something out of it. When you’re looking at amazing pictures on the media, you don’t get any of that.
We used to be a community that grew by word of mouth. Now that we’re a community whose reputation is spread by media accounts and viral videos, the “spectacle” of Burning Man – seeing it – is all too easily divorced from the “doing” of Burning Man – the active participation that the culture is about.
I don’t blame people who have no exposure to Burning Man’s culture for not getting this – it really, really, goes against the grain of how we’re conditioned to experience events – even as I celebrate the curiosity and desire to engage that brings bucket listers out to us.
But there is a square to circle here. How do we get them from “seeing” to “doing”? From spectators to participants? How do we get people drawn by the spectacle to stop watching?
The answer, I think, is not by condemning them for wanting to play with us, but by taking their energy and curiosity and their desire to be here, however ignorant, as an invitation for us to play with them.
In general terms I imagine this happening in three ways:
- Focus on direct connections with incoming Burners. Any media campaigns that we unleash, any text we write or videos we produce, however effective, will ultimately be spectating in nature. The only way people who don’t already get how to be participants will experience it for themselves in advance of the Burn will be to have direct connections with real people out in the world. Creative, participatory, experiences through either the Burning Man Project or (more likely) the Regionals cannot be substituted. Even if they still don’t “get it,” once people have a direct connection to a Burning Man community, the process will have begun.
Which means that buying a ticket should be more like the beginning of rehearsal for a play, or the start of a blind date, or the opening salvo of an intervention, than making a transaction.
If we can’t connect with people in person, can we have surreal text message conversations with them? Invite them to Facebook groups where people pass around surreal quests and send back accounts of what happened? Any human connection in which they can participate rather then just absorb is a step in the right direction.
- Make Burning Man less convenient. I know, I know, for many of us Burning Man is pretty goddamn inconvenient already. But I’ve been struck by the degree to which the tourist mentality seems strongest in those who can get in and out of Black Rock City most conveniently. Which is to say that the problem isn’t so much that someone is super rich, or new, or inexperienced, but rather that our community is something they can take casually. Their ability and inclination to skip the shared hellscape of sacrificial inconvenience that getting in and out of Burning Man is for so much of us means both that they are lacking a common experience of our community, and that they take their presence within our community much less seriously. Is it any surprise that people who join in our shared struggle better undertand it? Money is all too often a way you solve issues that you don’t want to pay attention to; time and personal engagement are ways you solve issues that you take seriously enough to pay attention to, however much money you then apply. The more barriers to entry we can put up that cannot be solved by money, but can be solved with time and/or community engagement, the more likely we are to separate the bucket listers who really want to know what’s going on from the circuit party tourists who are just going along for the ride.
- Stop producing so much media focused on dancing, scenery, and explosions, and create more media showing people participating. It’s easy to create a Burning Man video of a big art piece or an explosion, because they’re there and convenient to shoot. But that convenience, once again, is part of the problem. If we must run a media campaign to engage the spectating of our culture (and yes, I suppose we must), we should emphasize the parts of Burning Man that the media isn’t going to show anyway. We need more videos of people engaging with one another, pranking one another, participating in each other’s stuff – on and off playa. And we need to make sure that bucket listers see them, and know that we celebrate and model this.
All of which is to say that bucket listers are an asset, not a problem – but we have to make sure that they are given the opportunity to understand what participatory, decommodified, gifting cultures are and to engage with them. That’s on us. And we have to give them direct connections whenever possible with which to practice. Anybody who is willing to try that, at personal inconvenience, and still come and play? Probably a real asset to our community in the long run, who should be welcomed and encouraged.