I haven’t seen them in over two weeks, but I now have a close friend who has been tested for COVID-19.
The other day a good friend, a different friend, came to visit me at night, traveling to my apartment across a city shutting itself down in the hope that a plague will pass over it. Instead of hugging when she arrived, we washed our hands.
“When I was riding my bike over here, all the streets were so quiet, and I had this overwhelming sense that I was at Burning Man, only everyone had to stay in their theme camps for a few weeks,” she said.
A number of Burning Man events have now been canceled — most notably, and devastatingly (so far) AfrikaBurn, the second largest Burning Man event in the world. Even as Burning Man Project announces its Black Rock City arts grants for 2020, people are asking one another: can Black Rock City even happen this year? Will Burning Man have to be canceled?
I don’t know anything more than you do about that. I no longer work for Burning Man, and even when I did I was never invited to those kinds of meetings. Nothing I say in this post should be taken as insight or clues into that question.
But I would like to talk about the even bigger, more threatening, question now looming over the culture we have built together. One that we believed might very well take over the world someday.
Given that the act of “Burning” is something we do together … how do we Burn in a time of quarantine and isolation, when we cannot come together?
The Answer You Seek is Already Happening
I’m hardly the only person asking this question. Already people from across the world have started trying to figure out how we can use technology to come together in ways that “feel like Burning Man.” Many of the best examples I’ve seen so far have nothing to do with “Burning Man” in particular, but are simply expressions of the same deeply human need to participate in meaningful communities, which Burning Man creates for so many.
As shows across the San Francisco Bay Area theater scene fell like dominos to the plague, a local director and writer took to one of their informal Facebook groups with a proposition: at 8 o’clock tonight, everyone who has had a show canceled — the actors, the directors, the designers — should post something here that shared a part of what now would not be seen. If you’re an actor, post a video of one of your monologues. If you’re a director, post your notes. If you’re a designer, sketches of your designs … if you’re a member of the crew, share your favorite cues. Share photos, share stories…but share…share what might have been with all your peers in this new kingdom of broken possibilities.
I thought that was quite beautiful.
A few states over, someone I met at a party last month invited me to join a video call in which she would do tarot readings with the group — a way of stimulating conversation among shut-ins, a way of trying to capture that experience of everyone sitting around a table, leaning in to look at the cards and listening to what was being said.
Not so far away from both of us, an event producer now in self-quarantine sent out invitations to a conference call to discuss ways to bring community together when they can’t come together — thus creating the thing they’re coming together to try to create.
But the most amazing moment happened an ocean away — I’m sure you’ve seen this — when neighbors on a city block in Siena, Tuscany, leaned out their windows and sang together in harmony.
“There is no virus that can beat us,” they sang.
That gives me shivers.
How Do You Make Your Quarantine Into a Theme Camp You Can Share?
In many ways, I think the metaphor of us all being confined to our theme camps for a while is both beautiful and helpful — and that this is a challenge to bring out the best elements of theme camp design, rather than the most obvious.
The most obvious, of course, the lowest hanging fruit, is to throw up some decorations and stock a bar and say, “Hey, guys, come over! We’re a theme camp!”
Which… there’s nothing wrong with that, but…even on the playa there’s a point past which low hanging fruit ferments into cliche. It frequently leads people to say, “But what’s the interactivity? Where’s the participation?” And in response someone shrugs and points at a beer.
Not bad. But not exactly rising to an occasion, either.
What we’re in now is an occasion that must be risen to, and you cannot simply invite friends over for drinks, or go out to a bar, or build a crazy facade and hope people notice. These things do not answer the foundational question: how do we be with each other now? Another way of asking that is: how do we interact?
Technology provides opportunities, but relying on technology as a substitute for being present with each other is a terrible idea. If it worked, we wouldn’t need Burning Man. Technology alone doesn’t create presence with one another in the way we desire, even need. It’s not a question of building a better tool, it’s an issue of using the tools we have to actually connect. The more it becomes about the tool, the less you’re actually interacting with people and the more you’re interacting with technology instead.
We have a tendency to do that, I suspect, in part because the leaders in adopting technologies like videoconferencing have been businesses, especially global corporations. Because they have been the center of gravity for these technologies, every video conference and remote interaction has bended towards being a business meeting, and we all know how good for the soul those are. It is entirely possible that they have done for these technologies what they have done to language, turning them into the telepresence equivalent of business jargon and marketing speak. In which case, of course they are dehumanizing.
The best, most amazing, theme camps — by contrast — are built out of little more than rebar, canvas, and imagination. What if we were to take that same attitude towards these technologies? What if we were to replace the business culture they now come wrapped in, with the culture of art or therapy?
Which is to say, the best ways of connecting in a time of plague may utilize technology, but will not be about it.
Anybody Got 10 Principles We Can Use?
Burning Man (and in particular Burning Man Project) tend to talk a lot more about the need to be participatory and interactive than they talk about how to do it. That’s because we don’t want to be prescriptive — we want people to explore and engage their own creativity, rather than imitating us. But there are times when it’s helpful to offer a little more advice. I suspect now is one of those times.
Especially because, if anyone has any good advice on how to do this, I could really use it. Seriously: I may be in trouble here. “Social distancing” is already driving me crazy. I’m kinda freaking out. I need somebody to solve this.
But…here’s what I’ve got.
As always, when trying to create experiences that “feel like Burning Man” — when trying to “Burn” — the 10 Principles are our most potent guide. I think Immediacy is a particularly important place to start.
I think we begin by not pretending that we’re happy about this, but admitting how much this sucks: acknowledging our need for connection, and the scope of that need, and making this the ground on which we build our “connection at a distance.” Don’t, for God sake, don’t, put on a happy face and share photos of all the cool things you’re cooking or building on your own and plead for likes. That social media “EVERYTHING’S FINE, GIVE ME ATTENTION!” vibe will only further splinter us and drive us apart.
No, we want our approaches to being present with one another to start with our being honest with one another. We’re not okay. We’re certainly not “replacing” any of the events we’ve lost and the people we can’t reach out and touch, let alone “replacing” Afrikaburn.
But we are reaching out. That starts with Immediacy. Don’t just leave room for that honesty, start with it. What are you really feeling in this moment? What are you asking of people? Can you say it out loud?
The next most useful Principle — I think — is Radical Self-expression. Not just how you can share your own expression with them, but how can you entice them to share their expression with you? This is perhaps the single most essential question for what I would consider truly stellar theme camp design: how do you get people to play? How do you bring their impulse to express themselves out, and hone it, and engage with it?
This, I think, is the creative push/pull tension between these two principles as a design element: you want to share your own Immediacy — the truth and play of your moment — in a way that encourages others to offer up their own Radical Self-expression. How does the play and reality of your moment invite the play of theirs?
For myself, I’ve been considering trying to create conference call talk shows, in which I’ll host, someone else will be the sidekick, and everyone else on the call will be both the audience and the guests. By logging in to the call, you agree that you might be pulled up “on stage” and either share your own art and experience or be asked difficult and personal questions in front of everyone else in this community. You’ll never know if it’s coming, and even if you’re not randomly picked, you may get to learn a lot of details about your friends and acquaintances.
Is it a good idea? I dunno. But it’s something I’m thinking about. A possible attempt to thread this needle. And if it’s a series of truly honest conversations with people on the spot, if it speaks to who we actually are, then it might do the trick. Be fun and fulfilling not as a substitute for being with people, but as a way to actually be with people in a meaningful sense.
One question I’d have to face if I were to try to do something like that is: how many people could realistically make up the audience? How many people could attend? Radical Inclusion in these new formats will experience both opportunities and challenges. It may be that we’ll need to have smaller gatherings, but more of them. I don’t think “but you can watch a video of it” or “you can listen to the audio” is terribly inclusive — but I could be wrong. We’ll just have to see.
Challenges Can Be Fun, Even As We Weep
We need ideas. We need experiments. I hope yours are better than mine. And that you’ll share them.
We don’t need to despair. Burning Man started as a two-family picnic. It doesn’t have to happen in a desert, let alone this particular desert, at this particular time. Our culture has gone global precisely because it can adapt to the conditions it finds. The fundamental human needs it addresses are not going anywhere, and may be even greater in times like this.
We can handle this. We’ve learned how.
Which means not that we can “save Burning Man,” but that we can support one another. That’s the point. We need each other, even when we can’t be with each other. There is always creative tension in the heart of Burning Man culture. Being with each other when we are forced to be “socially distant” is just one more example.
Top photo by Leo Horthy