Burning Man Deconstruction
«We are very much about absurdity and expression, but also we are deconstructing prevailing ideologies of what is “normal” and creating postmodern expressions of service and civic duty with a common theme of healing ourselves and the planet we inhabit.» https://burningman.org/event/art-performance/playa-art/building-the-temple/
from the official web-site of Burning Man and official article for those who want to build a Temple.
«The one meta-project of our times, the only world view, is “deconstruction”; this perverse pride in proving no assumptions can be trusted and that no unifying experience is possible».
Lee Harvey interview
I have been to Burning Man (BM) three times – 2013, 2014, and 2017. Initially, I came specifically from Russia to do so. I agree that this event is an embodiment of absurdity, cacophony, artificiality, and postmodernism. But I question the idea that Burning Man is either the deconstruction of the prevailing ideology or the space for healing people and the planet.
This article is an attempt to deconstruct in modern philosophical language the core values of BM and its representation in the reality of the Black Rock Desert: the principles, the Man, and the Temple.
The 10 principles:
- Radical Inclusion
Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.
But is that so?
In order to become part of Burning Man, you need to buy a ticket – for that you need money, an internet connection, and some luck. You can’t just arrive and come in. You need to show your ticket, which can mean standing in a long line at Will Call at the gate.
For me it does not look like inclusion, and definitely, it is not radical. If inclusion is our principle, we must include everyone.
What is radical inclusion? Maybe it’s just nonsense?
Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.
I see that this principle has two parts:
- No money is used inside Burning Man
- Freebies! Bring something you don’t really need and give it away.
Trying to comprehend this principle, I reflected on the core idea of a gift:
- Gift – something given for free (халява)
- Gift – manifesting something of value to another person
For me, it’s difficult to envision a good gift because I need to know the person, understand his wishes (sometimes even better than he may understand them). To make a gift to a stranger is even more difficult. What happens at BM is that often what is given is food, alcohol, flashing lights, glowsticks, and these objects may not really be a gift. Even though something is being given away, the recipient might not perceive it as a gift.
Burning Man actually promotes the idea of a money-free economy. In fact, that is not so. To survive here you need to spend a lot of money in advance, and it’s not enough to pay for it just through gifts. Additional expenses can be: water, RV, gasoline, bicycle, camp fee, and a lot of other stuff.
In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.
Is that so? Many people are coming to BM to promote themselves. This is just human nature, the same as the intention to consume. People want warmth, water, food, and communication, and get used to relating to each other in consuming ways. This does not change suddenly just because they enter the Gate at BM.
When I asked a Russian guy who came to our Samovar one night to bring some wood (for heating the samovar), he punched me in the nose, arguing that I would NOT have asked an American guy to do such a task.
He wanted to consume our warmth, but not to give or to participate, at least at the moment when he attacked me.
- Radical Self-reliance
Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.
In one way that’s true, in that water and food and clothes are up to you. But if we talk about actions, the self-reliance chosen in those actions is not always supported. Several times I’ve been stopped by rangers – they don’t let me come close to the fire, trying to make it safe for me, thereby blocking my freedom to rely on my feelings of safety, and letting me choose whatever risk I wish to take. There was a similar occurrence when I asked for medical help after I was punched, but medical people invited rangers, and they came several times during the night asking about the guy who punched me. I needed to ask the rangers to leave and let me be, and resolve the conflict with my own inner resources.
- Radical Self-expression
Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.
This is one from the most treasured principles. It’s expressed in a way that almost all participants can show off in different ways – costumes, behaviour, decorations, manner of interacting with people…
But in fact, if a human being hasn’t found his Self yet, how could he express himself? Especially expressing himself radically.
He may pretend to express, but this is just a new mask, a new appearance which replaces a normal, social persona. And usually he just copies the others in order to look like others – in a unique way. Even so, it may not be unique; it’s still a mask, which others have.
- Communal Effort
Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.
In order to create a real community, it’s necessary to know and appreciate each other. Otherwise, if communal values are merely dictated from the top, this is hypocritical. I know – as an ex-citizen of the Soviet Union – that people have often used common property just for their own personal gain. Many people come to BM with very different values, which does not necessarily include even BM principles, so where is the basis for community? Just existing in the same time and space can happen even in a bus; sometimes people create community in a bus, or they may not even speak to each other. I flew to BM and there were 9 people all together in one plane for about 2.5 hours. No one attempted to create a community. Yes, in some BM camps there IS community, but usually this is because community existed beforehand. The first time I came from Russia to BM, to the MAPS Camp, I knew some people beforehand, but I didn’t feel any community relationship within this big camp. I had a really hard time because I am accustomed to living in a community. Therefore, I began to build relationships with people nearby, but not because of the principle, only because of my intention.
The community grows either on common values or on common goals. Which is it here?
If the community really existed, then I question the role of rangers, who are like a force above the community with additional power, which is the power to control. I am aware that in real community regulation this happens by a self-organizing processes. But here almost everything is organized in advance, and then controlled by pre-conceived power.
- Civic Responsibility
We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.
- Leaving No Trace
Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.
A confusing principle. At first it contradicts basic human nature. People want to leave a trace. Always. This is immanent to human nature. And even to look at this principle practically, leave no trace means, for example, to gather and take out all dirty water (even if you only washed your hands in it), or to not drop anything in the sacred playa, even if it is clean water.
Has someone calculated the amount of global resources expended for each of the 60,000 participants who put their dirty water in plastic containers, and then drive it somewhere far away from the playa? Consider how many hours people spend cleaning the playa. Many people clean the playa for several months after the event, and even that consumes and uses resources that were produced in other parts of the world.
Did somebody count the overall footprint of this event?
Essentially, does the principle of leave no trace mean that you can do whatever with the Whole Earth, even spend whole resources, just to make the playa clean after you leave?
Or is it simply another way of fiddling while Rome burns.
Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.
I will discuss 9 and 10 together.
Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.
“In 2007, Paul Addis burned the iconic ‘Burning Man’ statue as an act of protest against the direction he felt the event was taking, four days before the event’s organizers were scheduled to burn it themselves. Working during a lunar eclipse after 2am on Tuesday morning, Addis coordinated with a 15-minute shutdown of the lights illuminating the structure.
Although they had planned to burn the wooden structure four days later, Burning Man organizers pressed charges against Addis for burning it early and rapidly built a replacement ‘Man’ to burn at the end of the week as originally scheduled. Addis was arrested and spent 2 years in jail”. (from Wiki)
Following Addis’ 2008 arson sentencing hearing in Nevada, Burning Man co-founder John Law (who left the organization in 1996) wrote in a blog on laughinqsquid.com that “Paul Addis’ early burning of the corporate logo of the Burning Man event last year was the single most pure act of ‘radical self expression’ to occur at this massive hipster tail-gate party in over a decade.”
I think it’s also a pure expression of the principles of participation and immediacy.
This story also shows me that a Statue of the Man is much more important than Human freedom and Human life. Burning Man organizers insisted on building the Statue again, yet sent a real HUMAN to jail.
«At the beginning of Burning Man, there was the idea of “Trip to Zone.” The Zone was some other-dimensional place;the past, the future, somewhere weird, it didn’t matter. We were going there, and we would challenge it and be better for it».
This idea was inspired by the 1979 film Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky.
In this film there are special people, Stalkers, who are responsible for encountering the Zone and leading people there in order for them to have a transformational experience. I didn’t find any people like Stalkers at Burning Man. There were staff who were responsible for survival and civil rights, but I didn’t find anyone who intentionally helped others get direct transformational experience.
Survival is much more important than direct experience in many ways at Burning Man. At the entrance, we are given a survival guide, but no guide on having transformational experiences.
In 2007, Paul Addis burned the iconic ‘Burning Man’ statue as an act of protest against the direction he felt the event was taking, four days before the event’s organizers were scheduled to burn it themselves. Working during a lunar eclipse after 2am on Tuesday morning, Addis coordinated with a 15-minute shutdown of the lights illuminating the structure.
Although they had planned to burn the wooden structure four days later, Burning Man organizers pressed charges against Addis for burning it early and rapidly built a replacement ‘Man’ to burn at the end of the week as originally scheduled. Addis was arrested and spent 2 years in jail.
Following Addis’ 2008 arson sentencing hearing in Nevada, Burning Man co-founder John Law (who left oragznization in 1996) wrote in a blog on laughinqsquid.com that “Paul Addis’ early burning of the corporate logo of the Burning Man event last year was the single most pure act of ‘radical self expression’ to occur at this massive hipster tail-gate party in over a decade.
I think it’s also pure participation and immediacy principles.
This story also shows me, that Statue is much more important, than Human freedom and Human life, if Burning Man organizers insisited on building Statue again, and send real HUMAN to jail.
At the begining of Burning Man, there were idea of Trip to Zone.’ The Zone was some other dimensional place, it could be the past, the future, something weird, it didn’t matter. We were going there, and we would challenge it and be better for it.
In this film there were special people – Stalker,’s who is responsible for encounting the Zone and lead people there in order they got an experience, and get transformation. I didn’t find any people, like Stalker’s there. There were staff who were responsible for survival and civil rights, but I didn’t find anyone from BM organization, who intentionally helped others get direct transformational experience.
Survival is much more important than direct experience in many ways in BM. At the entrance, we are given a survival guide, but no guide on having transformational experiences.
At Burning Man, a huge figure of the Man is constructed in the center of the playa and it burns on Saturday night. Usually it is a grandiose figure that attracts everybody’s attention. To protect the playa, they bring a special sand to place under the burn area and capture the remnants, making removal easy and less effort.
A ranger told me this in 2014, when I walked on the Playa with a friend. This ranger followed us as he said he was worried about our condition, being afraid to leave us alone in the middle of a dust storm. We were strolling in his company, passing the big statue of Man, and he told us about how — thanks to BM — his life had changed,. He told us he’d quit his job cleaning swimming pools and became…. To my disappointment, I don’t remember what he became. Probably I didn’t find any value in it at the time. Perhaps he started to work for BM or maybe for some non-profit organization with a smaller income. But I remember that he described this as a significant life step. He very enthusiastically told us all the numerous preparations (a bunch of things) that must be done to burn the Man, before and after the actual burn.
This year, 2017, was a little different from the others. During this burn, one human being threw himself into the huge burning structure. He broke from the fireman trying to stop him and ran into the fire. He died the next day.
Is the Human Being the peak of evolution?
Is the Human Being the only conscious being on the planet?
Man creates the gigantic doll of himself and gathers a crowd of 60,000 like-minded idiots to surround the biggest doll. But when one of those 60,000 throws himself into the fire, which can be a reasonable consequence of all prior happenings, people get outraged. They say that this must not happen!
Is this really what western civilization has brought us to?
Or to the tremendously powerful attempt to escape that anyway fails, and brings to the surface the same eternal questions again and again?
Who are you, Human?
What is your purpose in life, Human?
Why did you come here, Human?
Maybe therefore you should stop hiding from these questions in the fog of drugs, alcohol, noise, duststorms – and different justifications for insurance purposes – and face those questions?
And look for an answer until it’s found? Or until it’s time to go to the Temple?
«Burning Man takes the Temple seriously, and while just about everything at Burning Man is amplified both figuratively and literally, the Temple is also amplified, but not with booming music and wild ecstatic dancing or with art cars that slither along the desert floor or with other lunatic cacophony. While the Temple is something that does reflect the mad masquerade and joy of our community, it does so with sacredness, solemnity, a sense of remembrance, grief and renewal that can appear as a stark contrast to the rest of the event. It is that contrast that helps to define the Burning Man community as anything but one-dimensional.»
Once a upon a time, at the beginning of civilization, Jews gave birth to the idea of the Temple as one and exclusive. Their Temple was the only one, and it was destroyed. They resolved to build a second. But the second Temple was destroyed as well.
It strengthen the trauma: the Temple is destroyed and it can never be restored, because that would not be The Temple any more.
Nevertheless humankind builds and builds temples. Jews never call their synagogues temples, in commemoration of that ancient and singular Temple But Christians and others build and build new ones as if there is no other place for God to live.
«Купола в России кроят чистым золотом
Чтобы лучше господь замечал»
“Are we really worse?”- perhaps thought the non-religious and materialistic ideologists of BM. Why can we not also create a Temple?
And if it’s a Temple, it should be holy and sacred. Even for over-confident cynics, it should be, to some extent, serious. And what could that be? What can make raving youngsters become quiet?
There is! There is!
Or it is better to say – the Fear!
Death exists and it’s coming. It will come to you and to me.
And at the same moment of acknowledging death, it’s hard to continue to move ecstatically with the rhythm. What if death really comes?
In the very center, in the heart of BM, there is a Temple.
It is not the temple of love. It’s not the temple to God. Really, who would, in this apotheosis of absurd, believe in some old man, who has never been seen by anyone here? Even if He would suddenly appear on his fire chariot, it’s unlikely he would have been worshiped. People would rather think about some new vehicle-type invention by Google?
But death is different; in its different forms, it has been seen by all.
Faith in it is not needed. It sneaked itself in like the tempter snake in the hair of Eve… or, perhaps it is better to say into text, or even into the mind of the first narrator, who wrote the story about Paradise and Hell. This faith was born together with that horrible human quality that is called Self-Awareness.
I Am. I exist.
And if I came into existence, that means I will die.
Oh… it would be better not to know this, not to think about this.
When I was a child I often woke up at night and thought, what if my parents were to die? If I would die? It is better not to think about it, forget it.
Now they are dead.
I do not have need to believe in it, like I need to believe in God. I saw it with my own eyes. I saw them dead, I saw their graves.
The very existence of the Temple points to Death. Here it is, the only reality of this world! It’s inevitable and persistent, and there is no rescue from it.
It’s possible to close one’s eyes to it and keep having fun, keep living in a trance. Here, there are many things that encourage that, including the constant musical beat from all around and the striking visual scenery, combining art objects, diversity of people and their appearances…
But that is just temporary, while death is forever; it is reality. And that is underlined by the Temple.
Here it is, the only reality of our world.
And because it is the reality, thus, everything else does not matter.
One can admire the tree or the bird, or extra-terrestrials marching down the Playa. But it is just to forget about this real reality for some time.
But he, this man, probably could not forget. Probably he was the first one who understood the BM message in its totality: burning man. He got burned.
He took the idea seriously.
And consciously went and realized it.
Maybe that was done so everybody else would get the idea: there is nothing to get together for anymore. This idea is realized.