html xmlns="" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: They're so happy to rebuild it...

Saturday, August 25, 2007

They're so happy to rebuild it...

Chris Clarke writes:
Faced with one of the last truly wild landscapes left in the US, their response is to build a city. This is not creativity: it is dreadful, dull conformity. Finding one of the last sublime remnants of the unpopulated West, they want nothing more than to pack it with tender urbanites in a glorified tailgate party. This is not an alternative way of life: it is standard American operating procedure.

I think the heart of his critique is exactly right. I disagree with some of his characterizations, but I think that from his observing perch, he saw exactly what Burning Man is. I wouldn't have seen it, but I didn't have to. My Chris told me.

Chris was walking with a friend through Burning Man when his friend said "Burning Man is proof that humans love to work." It is so true. Burning Man is a mix of one part hedonism, one part community, two parts creativity to ten parts labor. You hear about the rest of it, but the bulk of Burning Man is work. The organizers and artists work all year on their projects. The participants assemble a city in less than a week. Do not assume that means a crappy ramshackle little city. Anand said the housing looked like high-end Mumbai slums, but the public buildings are spectacular. There is a street layout; the main boulevards are lined with gas streetlights. There is the Man and two Temples and then there are towers and huge sculptures and installations. People make themselves into elaborate projects, so that thought and work scales from the miniature to the gigantic. Burning Man is work made material.

Burning Man is a gathering of humans in the desert, working ferociously to make something. Mr. Clarke is right. That is profoundly American. The desert interests him more than that expression of humanity, so he is right again. He wouldn't like Burning Man. I love the desert. I truly do. But I don't know how to experience it like he does. I don't know what a long time in a desert would make of me. I can understand built works, though. I have a lifetime of interpreting them. As built works go, Burning Man is a demanding and unusual variant. I understand how his scorn follows from his preferences, but I don't share them. Burning Man is about one way for people to be, and that way is imagination made real. I'm glad I'm going.

Side thoughts:
If I were to try a desert pilgrimage, I wouldn't choose Black Rock. It is truly dust over cracking clay. If I were to try to spend time in the desert, I would choose something softer, like Manzanar.

Imagination made real sounds fanciful, but I don't know how else to explain it. Chris was walking out one night when a couch with an end table rolled up to him. When he sat on the couch, the phone rang and he talked to people at a distant phone booth, who didn't know who they were calling. Then the couch gave him a ride. Someone thought of that and made it.

If you'll be there, please find me. I'll register under my own name. I'm in Quacker Camp near 4:30 and F. I'd love to see you there.


Blogger Pete Nicely said...

"Burning Man is a gathering of humans in the desert, working ferociously to make something."

That's a very positive attitude, and I believe that's why you are going. I've never been. From what I've seen of the people who've gone, I have to believe the urge is a bit more hedonistic and escapist. I don't think that's fine. I just know anytime I invest a lot of energy in escaping my life and ignoring reality, my real life suffers. But I'd guess that this perspective of strict separations in my own life is one of the reasons I wouldn't be a ton of fun at Burning Man, unless I was totally getting laid.

3:45 PM  
Blogger Pete Nicely said...


Should be.

"From what I've seen of the people who've gone, I have to believe the urge is a bit more hedonistic and escapist. I think that's fine."

3:47 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Eh. It is a city of forty thousand people. Lots of them go for lots of reasons. It is not an experience where you escape yourself, however.

5:24 PM  
Blogger Marcus said...

It sounds remarkable. I'm sorry I left California without getting a chance to see it.

But I wonder if the exploratory, freedom-seeking power of the 60s has taken such intense and concentrated form in a remote desert because it has been so thoroughly banished from real power in the U.S. Sigh.

5:53 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

I hadn't considered that, but I thought something along similar lines. One of the dominant traits of Burning Man is the assumption of friendship and affection. People are markedly more present, looking you in the eye to pass by you, putting a hand on the small of your back as they move through the crowd. It is nice. (Y'all, please don't imply it is sleazy. It isn't.)

I generally do a fair amount of engaging strangers, so it isn't so different for me. But I think people who are usually more withheld, it feeds a need for connection they aren't usually aware of.

6:13 PM  
Blogger Pete Nicely said...

There has to be lots of reasons that people are going. But what percentage of those 40k are on are some sort of drug? Maybe it's just the cliches, but Burning Man is closely connected to hallucigenics, at least in my mind. Is that not escapism? Leaving reality to associate with strangers? That's not escapism? Making bad art? OK. That's not escapism.

10:02 PM  
Anonymous dilletante said...

Quacker Camp near 4:30 and F! I'll be at Snack Food Gloryhole by 3:00 and G, and will surely stop by. :)

10:27 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Neighbor! This is how it starts!

10:42 PM  
Blogger Pete Nicely said...

Obviously, I'm jealous.

12:52 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Because of Princess? Everyone is.

I've been in a few of the conformist groups that Mr. Clarke mentioned (my co-op, Ultimate, Burning Man.) I was far from the standard of my co-op or Burning Man. While there definitely is a very conformist BM aesthetic, I don't meet it. And while lots of the participants are on different drugs, lots aren't. There's more heterogeneity than you could predict before you go, and a good deal of awareness about the exact problem of smug in-group behavior.

You'll think of it however you do, but if your thinking is facile, it won't include most of Burning Man.

1:13 PM  
Blogger Scott Lemieux said...

Everyone I know who's been to Burning Man loves it. Alas, I'm too bourgie and hate my body too much to go, but I hope you have fun!

8:14 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

There's room for your bourgie self and Pete to come too, but I'll never convince you...

8:37 PM  
Anonymous mith said...

I'm going to keep my opinion about Chris Clarke to myself, since it probably goes against the loving kindness policy.


6:48 AM  
Blogger Dubin said...

(Y'all, please don't imply it is sleazy. It isn't.)

Mmmkay. Sure, it's not sleazy at all. :)

3:35 PM  
Blogger Scott Calvert said...

Nicely said. I was a BRC Ranger in 2000 and 2001 and considered the experiences one of the highlights of my life. I was doing other things from 2002 till this year, but I finally made it back, this time without Rangering.

Your comment about people loving work is true enough. I put many hundreds of hours into somebody _else's_ art car this year and loved it. Here's a link with pics:

There is something uniquely fulfilling about bringing an idea to fruition and granting it as a gift to an affectionate semi-anonymous gathering.

I've been really saddened this year though by the amount of effort I've seen dedicated to tearing the event down, mostly by people who didn't go. The pattern is always the same. They construct a straw man version of Burning Man by taking some, often real and perceptive, insight into the festival and casting it into a proscriptive statement about what Burning Man IS. Having put the event in a jar they then publicly stone it to death.

The essays often have a slick, hip feel to them, but murdering your own straw man is just weak. As Megan very nicely points out, the actual event is far too heterogeneous to be meaningfully captured in a few hundred words. I fail to see what all the naysayers are getting from their exercise. Somebody should at least write a serious piece about Burning Man's environmental impact we can debate real facts.

1:31 PM  

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