Creating Art Experiences in a Plague World — We Can Do This

This past week I have attended a virtual quiz show, a virtual tarot reading, a virtual Big Art Event, and skipped out on a virtual sex party, among other things. People are trying anything, because “just hanging out” on group video chats really isn’t doing it.

“Two weeks in,” a friend of mine said, “and at every Zoom happy hour I go to, everybody’s running out of things to talk about. It’s getting more and more awkward.” I’ve heard a similar sentiment from several others.

I think this speaks to two truths of our new reality. The first is the crucial importance of Radical Inclusion.

One of the reasons why “The Burning Man” became “Burning Man” was the decision to make it an open culture that anyone could join and be part of, rather than a gated community with guards checking to make sure you were the “right kind of person” to come to our parties. Everybody loves to belong to a small, select cabal. It feels cool and elite and intimate. But by deciding to let in strangers, Burning Man’s founders ensured that new sources of inspiration and fresh ideas would constantly be flowing through the culture.

We didn’t know we needed a temple until some guy decided to build one. That same basic story has repeated throughout Burning Man’s 34-year history. New people kept our playfulness fresh and our rituals from becoming repetitious. Their new ideas took our new ideas places we had never imagined them going, and our culture became richer and more engaging for it.

It has never been easier — or more mandatory — to stay in our homes and just talk with the people we already know. And I, personally, have found a deep wellspring of satisfaction in long and deep conversations with people I have long had deep and close relationships with. But I think it has never been more important for us to find ways, in our isolation, to reach out and discover new people, and find ways of quickly connecting with them.

In some ways the internet has very much prepared us for this moment. (Who ARE all these strangers on my Facebook feed who say we’re friends?) And in some ways we are not prepared at all.

Which brings us to the second truth of the new reality: we have to create new kinds of social experiences with the tools we have. Instead of simply doing a video version of what we used to do — and thus becoming parodies of ourselves in a time when parody can’t even keep up — we need to do the equivalent of what Larry and Jerry did at Baker Beach in 1986: create new experiences that people can gather around.

What I’m Learning

My own small experiments in this so far have produced some of the happiest moments I have had in isolation. They have built on the premises I put forward in earlier posts. These include:

  • That we should start with what’s really happening and what we’re really feeling
  • That we should find ways not just to express ourselves, but to invite and encourage others to engage in acts of Radical Self-Expression
  • That taking risks, together, is essential to connection across the space between our screens
  • That designing the experiences together can itself be part of the experience we are trying to design

These experiments don’t have to be big and daring and epic. We can start stupid and simple. A friend who had been trying to get some discussion groups going, with fairly disastrous results, started her most recent effort by publishing a bullshit agenda, just nonsense… and it helped. The fact that they had a bullshit nonsense agenda to refer back to somehow led to a better outcome. It wasn’t much, but it made a difference.

It’s particularly interesting — and this shouldn’t surprise any Burners — the way in which absurd, playful bullshit can actually lead to deep connection and profundity.

Is This What Success Looks Like?

My most recent “Wheel of Zoom!!!” experiment was a perfect illustration of what can happen when you do this. (Read about the original experiment here.) It was performed by a group of people, some of whom were close friends, many of whom had never met before.

The new group (or at least the ones who showed up on time) determined 12 new categories for the wheel:

(1)  Make or do art right now!

(2)  Be diagnosed by someone else in the group, or the group as a whole.

(3)  Ask someone a question you’ve never had the courage to ask.

(4)  Do the dance of joy, or the dance of sorrow (your choice).

(5) Ask another member of the group for something that matters to you.

(6)  Tell a story about your childhood that you wish didn’t come to mind as often as it does.

(7)  Demonstrate a talent no one knows you have!

(8)  Name the most ridiculous hill you’re willing to die on, and explain why.

(9)  Adopt a pet.

(10)  Choose a random bookshelf in your house, pull the sixth book from the left, show it to us, and explain why it’s there and what it is to you.

(11). Break the rules!

(12). Admit your celebrity (or person of renown) crush that you normally wouldn’t admit to. 

Once again, as with the previous attempts, this was a good mix of different kinds of endeavours: some were physical things you have to do; some were ways of connecting with others (or letting them connect with you); some were deeply personal; and some were just absurd and impossible. (How the hell do you adopt a pet in these circumstances?)

We found out. And many of the moments that came up were glorious. Someone “adopted a pet” by introducing us to an S&M teddy bear he kept in his apartment. He told us the story of how they’d met and the reactions people had had to it. Then another person landed “Ask another member of the group for something that matters to you.” She wanted to see the person dance with his stuffed S&M bear, just because. And so he did, waltzing around his apartment.

Friends were diagnosed, and had psychological syndromes named after them. We learned about the moment someone knew he was going to leave his wife. I asked for, and got, something important to me.

And then, almost five hours in (yes, it lasted that long), somehow we ended up confessing our favorite poems to one another. Without any prompting, any orders, we just started sharing them — not “poems we liked,” but poems that we’d discovered by accident at vulnerable moments in our lives, and that kicked our asses, that knocked us down with how well they knew us. We shared poems that we could have tattooed on our foreheads, unaltered, to represent us. We read them to one another in communion, for no reason at all except that we were together.

“I am having such a wonderful time with this,” someone finally said, “but, how did we even start this? Should we go back to the wheel?”

No, I told them, no. The wheel isn’t going anywhere. The wheel was a tool to get us here. This — this moment — is what the wheel is for, is what it’s all for: to get us here, to this place of sheer nonsense and pure intimacy and sharing among strangers and friends. And it hadn’t been forced; it hadn’t been planned; it hadn’t even been somebody’s idea. It just happened because we were all there together, and inspired, and getting closer.

That’s what we did this for: going from the ridiculous to the profound and back again, over and over.

The point of the experience isn’t the art, the point of the art is the experience.

After that experience, I felt full, satiated, and connected for the first time since this all started.

I don’t know what success likes for me, but that’s one way that success looks like for me. And I needed it.

We can do this.


Top photo: “Phoenix Rising” by Lisa Nigro and DrakaArts, 2019 (Photo by Dan Adams)

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

11 Comments on “Creating Art Experiences in a Plague World — We Can Do This

  • Gibs says:

    It’s is prudent to be weary of strangers before letting them in. You need to assess for personality disorders or you’re likely to have a rabid authoritarian egomaniac who is posing as a chilled-out happy anarchist access the party and turn it into a multi-million dollar business that sucks the creative energy out of everything it comes in contact with. That person brings two friends who brings two friends and so on until the people who started the party and set the mood culturally and aesthetically are kicked out and nothing left of substance remains except a digital copy, a firework show.

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    • Mama Maps says:

      Well, this sounds just fabulous. Thanks for sharing.

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    • Jason says:

      So you’re not a fan of radical inclusion, is what I’m hearing. Duly noted.

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      • Gibs says:

        The 10 Principles are something that Larry Harvey dreamed up in 2004, long after whatever BM was/is had already been established. That list of instructions on ‘how to burn’ can be regarded or disregarded. Citing ‘radical inclusion’ has led to the destruction of so many good camps and projects because people equate a smiling face to a good person. Never trust a smiling cat! Find out where that cat came from and why it’s no longer there before you start feeding it.

        But if you have nothing to lose, invite every stranger the crosses your path into your life. Maybe you’ll find something meaningful in the ashes to come.

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    • Myboy says:

      This is insane pal! There’s nothing beautiful than this art and its soul on earth.

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    • rgon says:

      Larry takes his legacy with him…to the other space.

      RIP Burning Man

      Now you will have any something ugly left behind

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  • Happy says:

    Most people at BM are strangers to me. I have let them into my camp, my life, my intellect, and my emotions. I don’t expect every interaction to be positive, but the majority are and that makes me happy. I like both the true chilled out anarchist as well as the person that sees a need and builds a business, both are at BM and I believe that both have a place at BM and in the world. I believe that any place that truly sponsors creativity must evolve, leading to many some to say “it used to be better before”. Evolution is natural for a society and a culture.

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  • DK says:

    With all of this happening, what keeps a renegade group of burners from continuing the tradition without the BORG? Something like Burningman minus the headaches and more intimate. Yeah yeah, I heard about how BLM won’t let it happen blah blah. No one really knows until it’s attempted. Just don’t set up large camps of 100 or more or whatever the BLM criteria happens to be.
    Burningman didn’t explode overnight into its present size. It took years to get there.
    Personally, I think it needed to go on a diet. Now it was forced into one.

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    • Lisa DragonMistress Nigro says:

      Enjoyable read! I’m going to hound my friends to participate in the suggested question summary – excited about that! Can you please put me in contact with the photographer? I love the photo of my bird ! WoW. And the Phoenix Rising is just so appropriate for this crazy time… my heart explodes for all of us- xoxo

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    • Nihilo says:

      Uh yeah that already exists and has for years. Ever heard of 4th of Juplaya?

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  • soap2 day says:

    It’s because of this that it’s time for a different type of fund raising program, one that aims to give some help to everyone.

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