We’re publishers! Later this summer, Burning Man Project will be publishing our second book, Turn Your Life Into Art: Lessons in Psychomagic from the San Francisco Underground, written by none other than Caveat Magister, the single most frequent contributor to these very pages, and author of The Scene That Became Cities, which some consider the definitive exploration of Burning Man’s philosophy.
Within its soon-to-be-published pages, Turn Your Life Into Art reveals techniques for creating the magical, impossible, life-changing experiences developed over 30 years by San Francisco’s underground art scene — experiences that Caveat says became the very source code of Burning Man culture.
Andie Grace and Stuart Mangrum recently spoke with Caveat about his new book on our Burning Man LIVE podcast. Here are some snippets from their conversation. Listen to the full conversation “Turn Your Life Into Art With Caveat Magister,” available online now.
Stuart Mangrum: We’re here with one of our favorite people in the world today.
Andie Grace: Depending on when you met him and why, this is our friend Benjamin Wachs, also known as Caveat Magister. He has worked with the Burning Man Information Radio team and with the media team. And there was a war with the census this one time. And he wrote a book called The Scene That Became Cities, which is specifically about Burning Man. We’re here to talk about his upcoming book: Turn Your Life Into Art.
Stuart: What is psychomagic and have I ever experienced it?
Caveat Magister: Right. So the kinds of experiences that I’m talking about have been present across world history and different cultures. But I think the San Francisco art underground was really taking them in new directions and new heights and doing something remarkable, which is why I’ve chosen to describe that.
I mean, often we call them “transformative” experiences. I’ve used “breakthrough” experiences in the past, but the term that I’ve mostly settled on is “psychomagical” experiences. And that term, as far as I know, comes from [filmmaker] Alejandro Jodorowsky. I’m not sticking to his definition precisely, but riffing on it.
The point is that the things that really reach us, reach us not so much in the conscious mind, but in the unconscious mind, the subconscious mind, the regions of us that are below our conscious awareness, but still really move us and shake us and engage us and motivate us in ways that we don’t understand.
And those parts of our psyches do not speak our everyday language. They don’t speak the kind of language that we are talking now, and they don’t speak logical deduction and reason. And they hear in symbols and poetics, in actions and things that you do.
[Jodorowsky’s] notion is that you can communicate with these parts of the psyche by engaging in symbolic acts that are going to reach you deep down in your unconscious. And suddenly if you do something that is symbolically potent enough, that seems poetic and magical enough, that part of your psyche will perk up and take notice and go, “Oh, something interesting is happening here.” And we’ll pay attention and we’ll be listening and engaged in a way that is not in ordinary life.
Andie: Okay, but how does that happen?
Caveat: Well, that’s really what it is. It’s a book about designing psychomagical experiences. And I don’t want to say that this is the only way to engage in psychomagic or design psychomagical experiences. But I think that, over about a period of 30 years in San Francisco’s art underground, a series of practices were developed — not a common vocabulary, no one was ever talking about this in the same way that everybody else was, there wasn’t a common vocabulary. There weren’t, unfortunately, really common texts and references, although some made the rounds more than others. But there were a series of practices and approaches that people had. And that’s what I’m offering in this book. That’s sort of a “how to” based on what people in this scene discovered over time.
Stuart: Larry Harvey used to talk dismissively about the secret sauce. People are always asking me what it is that makes Burning Man a transformative space. They want the recipe for the secret sauce. And there is no secret sauce. Was he wrong? Is there in fact, a secret sauce?
Caveat: Larry didn’t like the idea of there being a secret sauce, but Larry also understood that he was setting conditions at Burning Man, that it wasn’t a tabula rasa and that it wasn’t sort of a temporary autonomous zone. Black Rock City is a very designed environment, in the sense that it’s designed to let people be more creative and spontaneous and engage themselves.
This is one of the things that I talk about in the book: in many ways you are trying to design an infinite magical garden, rather than a finite mechanism. You are not trying to create something mechanistic where all the parts fit into place and everything works in sequence and it takes you smoothly from A to Z. You are trying to create an environment that is going to set conditions where weirdly symbolic and even magical things can happen, where psychologically potent events are going to become more common. And that means giving up a lot of control.
And the secret sauce would be, “Just tell me to do A, B and C, and then it’ll happen,” right? And that’s not how it works. Instead, you’re creating the conditions under which people can be inspired, under which people can make meaningful choices, under which people can take actions that might not make a lot of sense.
When you create conditions in which people can do this, in which they can engage in spontaneous acts of art and play and ritual and make meaningful choices and be brutally honest, then things really start to happen and we start to engage in different ways. And it’s not a secret sauce as in a recipe, like, “I add a dash of this and a dash of this, and then we’re done.” But it is considered, it is thought through. It is something that has a technique to it and approaches that actually do matter.
Stuart: Can you give us an example of how setting these conditions might lead to somebody having some kind of a breakthrough?
Caveat: Sure. Something that I just did very recently… I threw an outdoor garden party. It was centered around a ritual to take us out of plague time, to take us out of that sense that nothing ever changes and nothing happens, and all our lives are sort of stuck here with this.
The way it worked was this: everybody lined up and faced the side and one person would go down the entire line. And as they came to each person in line they’d say, “Tell me what you missed.”
And that person would tell them something that they had really missed during the pandemic. It could be as simple as, “I missed hugging people.” It could be as profound as, “I missed being sung to by someone.” It could be, “I missed giving out baked goods to my coworkers;” “I miss taking selfies with my friends;” “I miss going on adventures.”
They said something that they really missed. Then the person in line who missed the thing had to offer the person who had asked some symbolic version of that thing.
So in the case of a hug, I’ve really missed giving people hugs, “Would you give me a hug?”
“I really missed being sung to by this person. Would you sing me something?”
“I really missed giving baked goods to friends. Here are some cookies.”
The person could say yes or no, but they would go down the entire line that way.
Everyone went through this line, offered and received versions of things that they had really missed during the pandemic. Eventually they would get to the end of the line. There would be a hand washing station where they’d wash their hands. There’d be a sacred cup and they would drink out of the sacred cup.
Then they would call out, “None of us are free until all of us are free!”
Just for fun, we also had an industrial-strength bubble machine hidden there. Every time someone washed their hands the garden was filled with bubbles.
Once we had all done it, we were out of plague time. We had gone through something together. That is an example of a psychomagical ritual designed to create a specific kind of experience. I had no idea what people were going to say. I had no idea what they were going to ask. It wasn’t designed ahead of time.
A lot of the experiences were silly and some of them were really moving and profound and some people laughed a lot and some people wept. But it was a very human and beautiful and moving experience. And some people really did tell me, “My life changed after that.”
That’s an example of a psychomagical experience that can lead to breakthroughs.
Stuart: A lot of this speaks to play — some very elaborately structured play environments for people. And you talk about how it’s possible to have play with no structure and no rules. How does that work?
Caveat: You make it up as you go along, and you see what comes. If in the process of making it up as you go along, you become even more playful and even more honest then yeah, it can definitely turn into psychomagic.
In the book I refer to art, ritual and play as the holy trinity — they really are. There is a way in which they are all sort of forms of the same thing.
Play that goes on long enough can turn into art, and can turn into ritual, and art can be playful and ritualistic. And ritual can involve play and art. They are all sorts of versions of the same thing at some level, if you take them far enough.
When you do that, when you are mixing those boundaries, when you are engaging in play that becomes ritual or engaging in art that becomes play, then you are indeed unleashing really potent psychomagical forces.
Some sort of outcome is happening, especially if you are being very personally honest about it. This is an element of it. In a lot of ways, what you want to aim for is nonfiction, not fiction.
And while playful fiction can often be fun and engaging, the more honest people are being, the more non-fictional things happening, the more potent this is going to be. When you are engaging in not-make-believe, but real stakes, real meaningful choices, really honest moments, then that makes things so much more potent. That really gets you into psychomagical territory very quickly.
Stuart: My experience of being in Black Rock City is that most of the choices I make are pretty meaningless, and that’s a very freeing experience. What do you mean by meaningful choices?
Caveat: The choices are meaningful in a Burning Man context particularly because, as I described in The Scene That Became Cities, you have an environment of what I call applied existentialism, in which there isn’t really a way to win. We’ve taken all of the main social markers, right? You know, money, power, climbing the success ladder, and they don’t really apply here.
And you are in this environment where you have to make a decision about how — okay, given that there’s no clear way to win Burning Man, no way to rack up points, or get a high score — what do I actually want to do? And in that kind of environment even the trivial decisions are actually pretty meaningful because you’re not going through the motions. You are making a conscious decision of, okay, well, I guess, if I can do anything, except for winning somehow, this is what I want to do.
That is a profoundly meaningful experience, actually. That’s hyper-saturated with meaning.
Stuart: Now that we are coming out of the dark forest of quarantine, do you see yourself making personal appearances with people in the same room to do some readings?
Caveat: I have an absolute compulsion to be around people right now and to do these things. I’m really excited about bringing it out and I would love to share some of those experiences with you in old-fashioned bookstores.
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Want more? Listen to the entire conversation, streaming to your ears via our Burning Man LIVE podcast. Learn more about Caveat and his upcoming book How to Turn Your Life Into Art, on Caveat’s website. Join his mailing list for updates on the book release, upcoming readings and launch events, and more.
Cover photo by Jamen Percy, 2017