So, after my post about the Fyre Festival, my friend Robin Lehto — who is very active in San Francisco’s underground art scenes but not a Burner — responded this way on Facebook:
“Image uber alles.” Slow clap. But a MILLION eyerolls at people with personal brands being restricted at Burning Man. My dear, sweet friend, with THE MOST respect I present to you this metaphorical mirror … Burners had personal brands before Instagram was a thing.”
That’s a worthwhile challenge to go deeper on. Doesn’t Burning Man have a logo? And big, artistic, personalities who are their own brands?
It’s a subject that I had an ongoing conversation about with Larry. And, for me, his thoughts on the issue take it to a different level.
Back in 2014, I published a video on the Burning Man Journal exploring questions of Decommodification — not just of things and currency, but of the self. The video starts by recalling a discussion I had with a Burner — and not a “turn key camper” or “billionaire” or “Instagram celebrity”, but a volunteering, contributing, loved-by-his-campmates, high-quality Burner, who was actively in the process of volunteering to save my life at the time of this conversation — who talked about the way “Burning Man” is itself a brand, and even I, “Caveat, of Burning Man,” am a wonderful brand, too.
And there I was, being nursed back to health by him, hating him with a deep and abiding passion as he gave me water to drink and hung around to make sure I didn’t die and told me I was a wonderful brand. It was an emotionally fraught moment.
Larry would later tell me that this video had influenced his own thinking about Decommodification, which I think is one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever gotten, and it also was the beginning of our own series of conversations about this challenge that my friend has just made — what differentiates the “Burning Man” symbol from a corporate logo? What differentiates “Caveat Magister,” and for that matter “Larry Harvey, Man in the Hat” from being the exact same kind of “personal brands” that Instagram influencers are trying to establish? Can we even say they’re different?
The Possible of the Art
Larry said yes: the Burning Man icon is a symbol but not a logo. But what’s the difference?
Well, logos actually have a much more limited range of things they represent. Take the Nike “swoosh” — a logo — and the American flag — a symbol. What do they represent? Well, the flag … geez … how long have you got? It represents America, it represents freedom, it represents American history … because of that, some see it as a symbol of oppression … some see it as synonymous with military power … some people with politics … it simultaneously represents political authority in America AND the right to challenge political authority in America …
… this just goes on and on.
The Nike “swoosh?” It represents … Nike.
And there are a limited range of things that sorta-kinda go along with that: I guarantee you Nike has a giant “brand book” with at least a page of all the attributes they want their logo to be associated with. You know: playing hard, just doing it, athletic excellence. But … it’s not that big a list, many of these attributes are vague to the point of ludicrousness, and even more of them aren’t really even evoked by the logo, that’s just their aspiration.
And it’s not an accident that the list of things the “swoosh” represents is so comparatively small: that’s the point. The point of a logo is to represent only the things that the “brand manager” wants people to think about when they look at it, which is generally a very, very, small number of things, and generally innocuous, and bears no particular correspondence with reality. If a logo (or a brand) end up representing something that is not in the brand book, it’s a catastrophe. Even if it’s accurate.
Nike doesn’t actually want its swoosh to represent how good or bad the next pair of shoes are and whether or not teams it has merchandizing deals with win or lose anything: they always want the brand to represent the same limited number of things, no matter what actually happens in the world. The brand is as locked down as it can be.
Symbols, on the other hand, have “possibility,” Larry said. They not only can be more, they invite you to make them more. The reason why the list of things the American flag can represent is so damn long is precisely that symbols are open where logos are closed. There is no brand book — your experience of a symbol, what it actually means to you, and the way you choose to use it in turn, has an impact on what it becomes.
As a result, symbols have to carry the reality of the thing they represent with them. When the American flag is attached to supplies sent for humanitarian disasters, that becomes a part of what it represents. When American flags were flown over Japanese internment camps, the symbol added that to the list of things it represents, and it changed the way many people relate to it. The way a symbol is used will not always tell the truth, but a symbol’s meaning can be contested precisely because symbols are responsive to the truth. The fact that they carry possibility with them, that they can always mean more, means that they are responsive to reality. Far from being cut off from additional meanings and interpretations, the way logos are, symbols accumulate more and deeper meanings.
Burning Man’s icon is a “symbol”, not a logo, precisely because for all that we work to make it represent the 10 Principles and the amazing things people in Burning Man culture do, the fact is that the only thing we actually keep the symbol from being used for is selling shit. ‘Ya can’t put it on crap and sell it. ‘Ya can’t use it to promote events that we have nothing to do with. But outside of that? People can, and do, use the Burning Man symbol for everything else they can think of … and thus are co-creating its meaning. And what it ends up meaning in the bigger picture is what the people who use it do. That reality is what the Burning Man icon means, not what “we” try to tell you it means. It carries possibility: so long as we are a living culture, it will be tied to reality, and always be able to mean more than we can proscribe.
Performing vs. Being
Larry’s second distinction was the difference between a “brand” and an “identity” — and the same dynamic applies. Both, to be sure, are a list of traits that we apply to someone or something when we think about them. But an “identity” is meant to be a starting point, not an ending point: it is who we are now, but it doesn’t foreclose the possibility of further development. In fact, any healthy identity will almost always be in the process of learning and developing and changing.
The point of a brand is to be “on brand” — to only do those things that reinforce a specific image in the eyes of others, regardless of how true they are or how true they feel. The point of an identity is to know yourself, and use that as a starting point from which to honestly engage the world … and through that process, inevitably change and further develop.
Brands are what you get when you are performing an identity, rather than living it.
Whether Burning Man has a “brand” or an “identity” depends on us — on whether we are honest, on what we actually do in the world, on how we treat people, and the experiences people have through us. But Larry always tried to make sure we had an “identity” rather than a brand, because identities are honest, and can treat other people honestly. Because brands may be more flashy but identities are more interesting.
We may fail, but we are trying — very hard — to have a symbol rather than a logo, and an identity rather than a brand. And the very act of trying, I think, makes a significant difference. The effort to learn and discover and become more than they are, even if it is uncomfortable, is after all exactly what brands can never do.
Photo by Robert Bruce Anderson