The Art of War (at Burning Man) — Part 2 — What is it Good For?

Running a successful war at Burning Man is extremely difficult — and what it means for a war to be “successful” at all is often not immediately apparent to people. But before we discuss the “how” and “why,” let’s talk about the “why not.”

Because if you try to start a war at Burning Man, you’re going constantly to run into three objections, two of which you’ll have to overcome, one of which you’ll need to make sure you respect.

They are:

This is Burning Man! War is Negative Energy! We Don’t do That Here!

The very existence of the Thunderdome should be enough to stop people from making this argument. The fact that Burning Man is an epicenter of personal meltdowns should be enough to get people to question this premise on their own. Go out at night in Black Rock City and you will find so many people who are feeling frightened and depressed and lonely … and that’s not a mistake. That’s how this works.

Burning Man is not the happiest therapist’s office on earth. We very much activate and explore the parts of life that people with a limited vocabulary will group together as “negative.” We keep trying to tell people “we are not a giant party,” and they keep ignoring us, and then they get mad and surprised when things happen out here that don’t happen at parties. Which doesn’t mean they have to fight a war, any more than they have to fight in Thunderdome, but it is something we do. Of course it is.

When Radical Self-Expression and Radical Inclusion work in tandem, the whole of the human experience gets brought in. Everyone we can bring in is asked to express what is foundational to them. To say that such expression should only deal with love and positive emotions begs the questions “Whose love? Whose positivity? On whose terms? What if we don’t experience those things the way they do? Why isn’t our experience legitimate?”

But then raises the further question: “Why CAN’T we use art and self-expression to explore and better understand things that distress us? Why is that not acceptable? If I want to make a statue that explores what scares me, or depresses me … if I want to create a ritual that pushes my own sadness and exposes my own isolation … if I want to tap into the anger inside me and turn it into a theme camp … why is that a problem? Why don’t we do that here?”

Of course we do that here. The fact that we can do that here is why this works. Places that demand you be happy and positive never achieve what Burning Man does.

War at Burning Man is an art project. It is an act of Radical Self-Expression, Communal Effort, Immediacy, Participation, Radical Self-Reliance, Gifting, and even … if we do it right, Radical Inclusion. (Wars need soldiers: anyone can participate. And if we’re good at creating war as an art project, the step between “new enlistee” and “general” is remarkably small.)

War at Burning Man can be done in a way that is completely consistent with the 10 Principles — at which point, where’s the objection? And why not try it … especially if it’s more fun than what you’re doing right now?

Next is:

I Don’t Want to Hurt Anybody

Oh, absolutely! Neither do I! And I am pleased to be able to say that over the last nine years I’ve conducted four wars that have not resulted in a single injury, let alone fatality.

One only has to read the actual text of Radical Self-Expression to understand that non-consensually injuring someone isn’t what we’re talking about here.

So where the first objection is a failure to understand how Burning Man works, this objection comes from someone who can’t really imagine how a conflict at Burning Man could work. I mean, what do you DO?

That’s actually what this series is about. Because while this is rough play, to be sure, play that taps into the forms and patterns and edges of anger and strife and hostility … it is play. And play, done right, explores those things without falling victim to them. And can even harness them, sublimate them, for higher ends.

A well fought war leaves everyone happier than when you found them, eager to tell the stories and cherishing the memories and bonded with fellow participants.

Notice that in the war that is our text for this series – the conflict between Eggs Bar and HOTD — the major events are all ones that make people laugh with delight, rather than wince. Yes, HOTD’s ingenious move of opening a VIP section in Eggs Bar was an act of aggression — but it was so funny that it made Eggs Bar staff laugh their asses off about it, and many are still laughing today. Eggs Bar’s finding out the names of HOTD campers and secretly posting a fake shift schedule for them … yes, clearly that’s a strike against one’s foe, but it’s the kind of event that creates awe and wonder in everyone it touches. “How did they DO that?  That’s really creative …”

Looked at another way: this conflict is an opportunity, a gift, through which your “opponents” can engage in their own acts of Radical Self-Expression; have an opportunity to participate in something amazing; and discover new levels of Radical Self-Reliance. If, through the events of the war, they actually feel that this is what’s happening, then far from hurting them, you’ve significantly enhanced their Burning Man experience.

You’re taking on a risk, to be sure: you’re risking that you can do this well, instead of screwing this up. But if you don’t want to take risks, should you really be at Burning Man? That’s not a moral judgment, just a practical question.

The final objection is:

I Don’t Want to

And this … well … this is actually a pretty good objection. I mean, you can try to talk them into it.  You can give big speeches about the glory of conflict and the fun of war and the way in which this moment — this moment, right now — will elevate the soul and go down in Burning Man history as a time when we all became brothers and sisters together. You can totally give a St. Crispin’s Day speech.

But … if they still say no, you’ve gotta honor it. They’re cool. Move on.

And never, ever, try to twist someone’s arm into fighting a war, or use institutional leverage or power. (Although bribes are okay, as long as they’re funny.)

Even if twisting someone’s arm works — and it usually doesn’t — you really don’t want someone fighting in a war who resents being there. All that stuff I said about this being a gift and an act of self-expression and delight? People who are resentful about having to do something are terrible at giving it as a gift, will (accurately) express their resentment, and get in the way of the transmission of delight.

And that is a key dynamic of war at Burning Man: you’re trying to inspire people, not force them. If someone’s not actually inspired, or at least amused, they are right to say they shouldn’t be playing.

Inspiration can take many forms — that is exactly the point — but we all know the difference between being weirdly inspired by a set of strange circumstances, and being forced into something by a set of strange circumstances.

That’s the difference we’re playing with. And we’ll explore how in the next instalment.


Top photo: Battling it out in the Thunderdome (Photo by Steve Tambosso)

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat Magister

A member of Burning Man Project's Philosophical Center, Caveat served as the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca from 2008 - 2013, and the lead writer/researcher for Burning Man's education program from 2016 - 2018. Caveat is the author of the The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

13 Comments on “The Art of War (at Burning Man) — Part 2 — What is it Good For?

  • Catnip says:

    I am so glad that you expanded this piece. Thank you for clearly spelling out the principles at work in you Art of War. Aw.. to have war declared on my camp. What a blast you all had.

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  • Hooty / Ranger Papercut says:

    Good piece.
    Also, this picture makes me happy
    I was Tooth Faerie (on the right) exactly at the moment when my dear campmate (as Sugar Plum Fairy) rips my clothes off!
    ‍♀️⚡️‍♂️

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  • MMV says:

    Thanks for laying it all out, Caveat. All expressions are valued in BRC, and playful conflict can be one of them. If we don’t want Burning Man to end up being another peace/love/woowoo/kumbaya for all-festival, we have to continue to encourage expression that might be prickly, confrontational, or confusing. Black Rock City doesn’t exist to sooth, but to challenge, on so many fronts.

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  • Cherry is danger flutterby says:

    Eloquently said. Thank you for putting perspective to both sides. Forcing someone to do something they object to is like forcing a child to eat a vegetable they find repulsive even though they have never tasted it. How do they know it is not something they like or could love by judging without tasting? A motto ive tried to adhear to is always try something once before making judgment, a informed decision is atleast informed and not closed minded in preemptive judgment. As the saying goes never judge a book by the cover without atleast reading the first 2 or 3 chapters. If the story is not going to a place you can adjust to accepting then you dont have to finish reading. But as with life there is never a straight path to success, and all good intentions pave a road through hell. Those whom survive to tell the story so that others do not make the same mistakes are the people whom truly care for and love you. Those that believe an experience can benifit your existance tend to try and push those envelopes because they know just how it can improve your day to day living. These types only want the best for your life that you can live because they are true friends, some call them heros others say villians. Its again just a matter of perspective through adversary.

    Someone once said as a child you want batman to win, but as you grow older you see the joker was just making the best he could out of a temtatious journey life handed him.

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  • Yenna says:

    The Art of War. We can all learn a lot from the French surrender monkeys. Just let them take your stuff.

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  • Nat De Luca says:

    Yeah, I sent you all $100 dollars but don’t get uppity about it. The world hates uppity Jews. Don’t think it’s some kind of victory or something. We won the battle and we sent your dolls packing, don’t ever forget that. I wipe my ass with $100 bills, don’t forget that.

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  • Dusty Claws, the Deviled Egg says:

    Thanks, Caveat! I struggled to find words after reading the comments on the last post. I am glad that you have spelled out diplomatically the difference between the playful, silly and consensual acts of the HOTD and Egg Crew skirmishes; and the destructive and disrespectful act of violence against BDC.
    If I were queen, I would banish such extreme offenders from the kingdom. But, alas, I was merely a peon.

    Also, kudos to HOTD! I loved playing this game with their crew. The patrons at Egg’s loved it (I was there when the proclamation was burned, carefully, in the courtyard); and the banter I exchanged with one HOTD camp lead at Golden Guy Alley made my ranger friend laugh and have her own story to tell.

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  • Porn Star Buddha says:

    I was numb after I read about what happened at Barbie Death Camp. Barbie Death Camp was, and always has radically expressed themselves in their way with their art and to find out that they were being told by others that they were doing it wrong really upset me, but I don’t have all the facts so I do not have an opinion yet, what I do know is that BDC have been amazing with every interaction I have had with then so far.

    I feel the discussion should happen; IF people are aggressively behaving in ways that do not follow the Black Rock City principles should they be allowed to attend? Let’s pretend for a moment that BDC was in the right, if Barbie Death Camp is attacked to the point that they may not return in 2020 and the attackers do return is this not a community FAILURE? If this were to happen time after time where will we end up?

    Should there be a court in our city to hear both sides and decide who should LEAVE?

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    • Kaspr says:

      I’d like to make it clear, we absolutely are coming back! We will not be stifled by threats and physical attacks, neither of which belong in our home. The day we let the threat of physical violence influence our ability to express ourselves may as well be the day we stop doing all of this.

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  • Hashtagger_one_liner says:

    Fuck-Art, Make War.

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