This past weekend I used an invitation to a large party full of people (who I didn’t know) to try out a new art experiment. On a driveway near the backyard I set up a table and some chairs; I had a gavel, a gong, and an audio recorder. I was dressed in a scarlet robe and wearing a white judicial wig.
When people came over to investigate, they received a handout reading:
The Pandemic Court of Truth and Absolution
In the Time of Pandemic, we all committed desperate and sad acts which we look back upon with shame and sorrow.
So long as these acts remain secrets within us, unacknowledged, they retain power over us, and shape who we are.
The Pandemic Court of Truth and Absolution helps petitioners move beyond their pandemic selves. To participate in this court you will:
Speak the truth of who you became and what you did during the pandemic that you wish to move on from;
Receive either absolution from the court, or a quest to complete which will give you absolution; and
Have your confession turned into art, where it will exist in the world in a form that can no longer haunt you.
Your confession (part 1) will be recorded for use in this project only in order to create the visual image (part 3) which will free you from your pandemic self. That art will be yours to keep, and will also be kept by the Court as a record of our work. It will have no identifying information of any kind.
Art Is an Experiment in Self-Expression and Participation
I’ve been discussing doing something like this for almost two months now — this was the first trial run.
Obviously I can’t tell you what happened with the specific encounters — if you weren’t there, the experiences don’t belong to you.
But I can tell you about creating the experience.
The party itself felt more like a networking event for rationalist-adjacent social circles than it did an art party — and while I’m sure that many people there had been to Burning Man, there clearly wasn’t an overt practice here of participatory art experiences. So most people gawked and then moved on.
But some people couldn’t stay away.
If and when I do this again I will change a few things. The focus of the text (and the idea behind the project) was for people to talk about the things they are struggling with — but an important part of nearly everyone’s testimony turned out to be how they have grown and improved because of what they went through. Some people really did need to openly admit to struggles, shame, and grief which they had not been able to say out loud to anyone … but almost everyone seemed compelled to also talk about how they have come out the other side a better person for it.
So perhaps the concept and the instructions should be adjusted to better accommodate that.
I also wish I’d been able to have the artist on site and working directly there, instead of at a distance and relaying the finished pieces electronically. Not only would that have saved me a lot of headaches because of cell reception at the site, but it would have given me the chance to see how people reacted to receiving the art. I got to see how people were after they’d made their confessions and I’d given them absolution, but the real completion of the experience — the giving and receiving of the art based on their expressed truth — was an email exchange. I don’t know how it landed.
Only two people sent me a response after receiving their art — they said that the pieces had captured their struggle, and even given them new perspectives to consider, which is amazing. But I don’t know about the rest.
This Is What Burning Man Is — And You Can Do It, Too
I’m talking about this as a continued illustration of a point about Burning Man that I think is crucial to remember, but we are often in danger of forgetting: you personally can do it, and you can do it anywhere, and you can do it for cheap.
I pretty much crashed a complete stranger’s party. All I needed to make it happen was some camping tables and chairs, some costume pieces, and an artist friend.
Experiences like this are what one of my colleagues recently called “the source code” of Burning Man. Over the years “Burning Man” has become synonymous with giant sculptures and mutant vehicles and massive flame effects … and of course huge DJ stages with laser displays that can knock out satellites … but that’s a dysmorphic image of Burning Man caused by media representation. Those things photograph well, they get sent around the internet in an instant, end up in clickbait sideshows, end up on the covers of newspapers and magazines … they win the attention economy.
Human-sized moments of whimsy and grace and inspiration, on the other hand, really need to be experienced to be understood. They are harder to explain. The experiences people have of them are more conditional — no two people are ever going to do the same thing or have the same experience.
But they have an impact that goes far beyond what’s easily presented on a news feed.
These experiences are not just self-expression, though they are that: they are participatory. There is no art happening if people simply gather around in a circle and stare (which, indeed, did happen). Someone has to step in and actively engage for it to be real. Someone has to take a risk.
So experiences like this don’t get even a fragment of the media representation that Big Art does. Not even in museums. One of the great failures of museum portrayal of Burning Man thus far is that they showcase the visual arts and tend to utterly ignore the experiential.
But experiences like this — weird ideas put together based on what you have lying around, to experience with strangers — are at the origin, and the heart, of Burning Man culture. They are not only representative of what really happens here, they are what differentiates us from “festivals” which think their attendees have transformative experiences simply because they throw lights over a weird sculpture and have a DJ set.
And these are experiences that you can do wherever you are. In Black Rock City, sure, but also literally anywhere else. We do not need to be dependent on any particular location, or conditions, or materials, to create Burning Man experiences.
Is “The Pandemic Court of Truth and Absolution” a great idea? I dunno. It’s one of several things I’ve been experimenting with to meet the moment. During the lockdown period of the pandemic they included “The Wheel of Zoom”; “The Existentialists Anonymous Art Bar”; and “Primal Scream, Primal Song.” More recently I created a party ritual to help everyone leave the sense of timelessness that the pandemic had put us in; and now this.
The point isn’t that these are any good, the point is that these are examples of what is possible on virtually no budget. This sort of thing, these surprise encounters with art and the human condition, are what kept me going back to Black Rock City year after year. I need those moments in my life … and we can create them.
I bet you can do better where you live. I bet, with a little thought, you can create an experience that can be given to a stranger and might just change their life.
We can fill the desert with that. We can also do it in our yards. And on street corners.
Because, look, if you’re trying to figure out how to put together Big Art or Virtual Reality with big effects because the process of doing that fills you with joy and the end result blows your mind? Great! Do it. How can I help?
But if you’re trying to figure out how to do that because you can’t think of what else you’d do? How else you’d create magic moments? In that case, you’re doing it wrong. The best that Burning Man has always had to offer has been available right here, right now, with virtually no budget, and just 10 Principles.
Cover photo by Philippe Glade