Is Burning Man fading out or about to hit the mainstream, selling out or growing up? It seems like this is the biggest year yet for debates about the (ir)relevance of the greatest countercultural events of our times. So I thought I’d continue to chime in with a little list.
I remember in the 1990s being fascinated with a field of science called “Catastrophe Theory” that often got lumped in with the (then) emerging science of Chaos and Complexity Theory . Malcolm Gladwell later used and popularized a lot of this material to write the monster bestseller The Tipping Point, but the basic idea was that at a certain point you would see a rare phenomenon become dramatically more common. In sociological terms, the tipping point is when a trend, belief, or practice moves from a small, underground, subcultural types of phenomenon to the mainstream. The idea of a tipping point is of course very interesting to marketers, who all want to take little brands and businesses and make them universally accepted. Word of mouth marketing is based on this idea of targeting influential or influencers and then riding the wave to mass acceptance.
With a lot of naysayers decrying that Burning Man has finally, truly, really-really jumped the shark this year, I’m going to go contrarian. This year might mark the biggest transition yet between Burning Man as an one-week long event, and Burning Man as a Utopian Social Project, as a cresting manifestation of a Social Movement or, even better, a New Social Movement in itself.
Here are the Reasons I think Burning Man is at the tipping point, heading for mainstream infiltration, and ready for prime time.
#1. Solid Ideology: 10 Principles. Forget memes, they are determinist and inflexible. Ideologies have always been the way to go: complex, compact, portable, contagious, and complete; ideologies are promiscuous and intermarry, but stay loyal to their bloodlines. Burning Man has a polished and solid ideology developed from a range of intellectual locales such as Situationism and Surrealism but branching it with different New Left Movements. Check it out. Ten internally consistent countercultural commandments “principles that guide our regional communities” but that were developed in the Black Rock desert crucible as if it were some sort of social R&D lab: Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-Reliance, Radical Self-Expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation, and Immediacy. These are values to guide behavioral change on the individual, small group, and communal level. From a social movement perspective, that’s a key ingredient.
#2. The Spores of Diaspora: The Regional Burn Network. How do you nail down ideology and make it come alive in daily life? With Rituals and Practices, dudes and dudessas. Burning Man is nothing if not ritualistic. There’s the honkin’ big Burn o’ the Man, but there’s also the more sombre and introspective Temple Burn. Then there are all the behaviors, the costuming and performance art and self-expression that bring to life the ideology. Burning Man participants have been linking up online since 1998, but also using that network strategically to connect physically in the meat world. There are 128 “regional contacts” worldwide. Many local contact and communities have organized events that bring the ethos of the Burning Man event to a local level. Often it involved a camping trip to a remote region, striving to leave no trace, some participative theme camp forms, and then a ritual burning of some object: a figure shaped like a chicken, a moose, a cow, whatever. Larry Harvey writes about “a new movement” involving regular local town meetings that organize particular ongoing local projects in cities like Portland and Seattle, and a mentoring of one region with another. Rituals combined with institutionalization. That makes the Burning Man event more than an isolated one-week-long event.
#3. Net Presence: The Burning Man Network. For a while, Burning Man was described as the Internet in physical space. The analogy worked for a while, in the time the Internet was new and different. As a creature of cyberspace and California culture, whose growth has been intimately tied to Silicon Valley and the Information Economy, Burning Man has always used and developed Internet presence to its advantage. Its web-page, www.burningman.com contains all you need to know to get to the event, “survive” it, enjoy it, and connect with others on the “eplaya.” It’s a genuine community web-site that leads people seamlessly between where they are now and where Burning Man and its new values can take them. That makes it highly accessible to the mainstream. And an effective tool for keeping the disparate community together for the other 51 weeks of the year when they’re not in the desert. I’ll bet that the site gets a lot of traffic from people who have never been to the event. Burning Man’s DNA contains the new interface between cyberculture and culture-bearing.
#4: Mediated Disintermediation. Burning Man has always been media-friendly and known how to use and manage media contacts and contexts. That’s important for reaching the mainstream. Radio Free Burning Man and a zillion local stations are used locally at the event to broadcast Burning Man news. Now, they can podcast it to the world. Big uncontrollable media like MTV have been held at bay. But Current TV started up a netcast in 2006: TV Free Burning Man. As Larry Harvey said “We’re eager to communicate what we are doing.” Burning Man convinced Current TV to change their business model in order to work with them, further promoting their values out into the mainstream (the value, in case you’re interested, is biggie #3: Decommodification). Current TV gave Burning Man participants cameras so they controlled the content, they erased their logos, and they ran the programs commercial free. From private to communal enterprise, courtesy of Burning Man. And out into the public sphere via mass media distribution.
# 5. The Non-Profit Connection: Burners Without Borders. Taking their cue from Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières, the humanitarian NGO group of physicians and healthcare workers who practice medicine wherever it is needed regardless of political interests, Burners without Borders took the Burning Man ideals of civic responsibility and communal effort out into the world. In their first project, 299 volunteers spent six months rebuilding and helping to reconstruct some of the damage done by Hurricane Katrina. They also fashioned some of the storm debris into works of art, sculptures that they would later burn in bonfires. The ideals manifest; the rituals performed. See the pattern? Again, away from the event, in other locations. And providing volunteer humanitarian aid, assistance, and relief. The effort has spread: there are Burners without Borders groups now working in Chicago and Reno, and other places.
#6. The Controlled Corporate Experiment: Green Man Pavilion Project. As I’ve written about in another blog entry, Burning Man is experimenting this year with a new form of conceptual art: the repurposed corporation. There will be about 30 different individuals and organization involved contributing “installations” to the Green Man pavilion. Although the majority of these projects have no commercial profile, there are a few smaller entrepreneurs. These brave souls have agreed to bind themselves into a restrictive covenant that would have made The God of Abraham proud. No logos, no branding, no brochures or flyers, no sales reps of any kind. So, for example, people will be able to see a solar carport. The most high-falutin’ display sounds like it will be a huge solar array that is going to power the Man and the pavillion (to which I say: Yay! the alternative is burning a lot of fossil fuel to power them). After Burning Man concludes in fiery spectacle, the company and the Burning Man organization intend to install the solar array in the little Nevada towns of Gerlach and Lovelock to provide clean, renewable power to a public school and hospital, respectively. The little town of Gerlach might become the first American city to create more solar power than it actually consumes. Some have called this year’s experimentation a deal with the devil. It might be also seen as yet another way Burning Man is carefully building the institutional bridges that will move it from an event into a social movement.
#7. Google’s Burning Man Earth. Google and Burning Man have teamed up to bring to live a three-dimensional model of Black Rock City as it actually exists from year to year. You can find an early beta version of the project here that captures Burning Man 2006 in Google Earth format. The grand idea is to bring to life and make accessible to everyone, anywhere, any time, some of the Black Rock City experience. Digitally, people will be able to access and seem to travel down the streets (and presumably even into the portapotties) of Black Rock City. Here’s another interesting part/ They might also be able to make contact with every person who settles into the virtual Burning Man world. It sounds like Second Life, Burning Man style. And I have to note here that Second Life does indeed already have its very own Burning Man event that takes place annually (see pic below from Burning Life). The plan is, yet again, to make the Burning Man ethos, rituals, and even simulated digital experience open to all people everywhere, from a groups of 30 thousand or so in the desert, to something that millions and hundreds of millions of people worldwide can experience and learn from. And the idea within that is to allow direct contact, immediate contact between interested people to happen. And where contact and communication happen, community forms and culture is forged and shared. And then borne anew, like spores.
So that’s my list. Seven reason that the Burning Culture of Burning Man is spreading far beyond the desert, and why I think this year will be the most important year yet.