By the last months of 2018, a few incidents caused organizers around the Global Network to have a series of mostly informal discussions about what to do when someone brings truly controversial art to Burning Man events.
I’m not going to point to specific incidents or artists because I neither want to shame people who are trying to work through these issues honorably, nor give publicity to people who are simply trying to make a name for themselves. But the question that was always lurking in the shadows of what we do has recently moved closer to the center of our vision. What do we do when an artist brings something to a Burning Man event that many people find unacceptably offensive?
The perspective I’ve tried to bring to these discussions when I’ve been involved (emphasizing that it is not any official statement of the Burning Man organization) is that the most commonly used ways of framing this issue are also the least helpful. We can do better, and we know what better looks like.
This is the first post in a four-part series on how best to handle art that disrupts communities. The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of the Burning Man Project. Once published, the whole series can be found here.
What We Mean By “Offensive” Isn’t “Offensive”
The first response many people have, especially long-time Burners, is that from a Burning Man perspective there is no such thing as “too offensive.” That we value Radical Self-Expression and love parody and satire in their many forms and even revel in offensiveness for its own sake. So – too offensive? What are we talking about?
And all this is true.
But Burning Man long ago left the period in which we were simply a bunch of isolated theme camps in the desert. When we do Burning Man events, we don’t just build cities: we build communities. We have 10 Principles, of which Radical Self-Expression is only one.
Does that mean we no longer welcome the offensive? No – on the contrary. We still celebrate it. To walk around a corner and discover something deeply offensive very much “feels like Burning Man,” while to engage in acts of “art policing” does not. So no, we don’t want to be in the business of doing that, or even in the habit.
Nonetheless, the 10 Principles do imply a fairly clear standard for what would be deemed “too offensive” in a Burning Man context. What is it?
It’s not actions that are “offensive” in a conventional sense – it’s actions that dissolve the bonds of trust that make community possible.
Back in the 90s, a camp of people– after desperately trying and failing all week to offend people enough to be kicked out – started sexually propositioning children. When they wouldn’t stop, they were indeed kicked out.
Why? Because, come on – you simply cannot have a genuine community in which children can expect to be sexually propositioned by adults, and their parents have to stand by and take it for some abstract notion of the greater good. We don’t have to be “child friendly” the way much of the world demands – but parents get to defend their kids from threats specifically directed at their kids. No healthy community can ask otherwise, and no parents can reasonably be expected to belong to a community that does.
It’s acts like these – that you simply cannot expect a healthy community to exist around – that ultimately cross the line. We know that most offensive things can still exist in healthy communities: healthy communities can (and in fact always will) have political differences, they can (and in fact always have) had pornography, they can have disagreements over religious symbols and whether sacred cows are to be worshiped or eaten. All this is possible, and so not our concern to police or enforce. In fact, the attempts to suppress these kinds of subjects and issues are often more harmful to communities than the willingness to explore them.
But there are actions one can take which, if permitted, make authentic communities impossible – and the kind of authentic community we are trying to create in particular. Going out of your way to leave a mess on the playa, trying to sell things in our decommodified spaces, or aggressively doing branding promos. Trying to take pictures of people who have specifically opted out. And of course harassment and assault. Things like these can dissolve the bonds of community that we are trying to create. The threshold we’re looking for isn’t “I am offended,” which can indicate that something is going right as much as going wrong, but, “Come on, you can’t reasonably expect me to stay here if this is happening, can you?”
Since we’re not really concerned about conventionally “offensive” art – and in fact welcome it – I think we need a better term for the kind of art that we might need to look at more closely. For this essay, I’m going to call it “acidic.”
It is art projects that dissolves the bonds of community, and in particular deliberately target them, that warrant a possible reaction.
But what should that reaction be?
We’ll pick up there in the next post.