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Culture, Capital and Copycats in a Globalizing Burnerverse
By Ian Rowen
This was a keynote address at the 2018 Australia and New Zealand Burner Leadership Summit. On 2 June, 49 Burners from Australia, New Zealand and China gathered in Melbourne to share skills and ideas, and to strengthen the network of Burner communities in the Southern Hemisphere.
“Is it like the real Burning Man?” is a common question about Regional events. Even at now-massive gatherings like AfrikaBurn and Israel’s Midburn, new participants who have never been to Black Rock City still ask veteran Burners from the San Francisco center if their events feel authentic or are just lame copycats.
As these communities have grown up and new ones continue sprouting, some people have added a new refrain: “The Regionals are more Burning Man than Burning Man”. For those of us who have committed ourselves to fostering regional communities, this may sound like a self-aggrandizing bout of wishful thinking, but the sentiment can ring true in the intimate scale of these events, where we can more easily enjoy quiet moments of connection with strangers and get to know our neighbors.
A creative sense of stewardship can also be realized in the kindling and crafting of younger events and regions. Such moments can feel increasingly rare in the grandiose, spectacular spaces of Black Rock City, and in the hierarchical, byzantine, bureaucratic and festively fluffed yet still restive organization of wage and volunteer labor that undergirds it.
Now, I’d like to ask if you find this image more “Burning Man” than Burning Man?
Does this sign of ‘success’ rub you the wrong way?
This image comes from an advertising campaign produced by a New York creative agency for the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, one of the world’s most powerful financial institutions, which rose to great wealth through Great Britain’s imperial engagements, including opium smuggling, in Hong Kong, Shanghai and elsewhere in Australasia. It’s now headquartered in London.
We all know that Burning Man is notorious for alleged drug use, but this is peanuts compared to HSBC, which in 2013 was fined nearly $2 billion for providing financial services to drug cartels and terrorists worldwide. HSBC’s business continues sprinting along just the same as their advertising continues to saturate the circuits of international air travel — I’ve seen this ad multiple times myself while getting on and off planes, and every time I both laugh and die a little inside.
It may surprise you to learn that this ad is not a violation of Burning Man’s intellectual property. Despite the tricked-out bicycles and furry outfits, this photograph was not taken at Black Rock City. No Burners were harmed in the making of this ad. This image is, instead, a photographic simulation of a Burn. It cannot be removed by legal threats, which the organization’s intellectual property team had previously used to shut down a petty pornographer and sizable sandwich company that had used Burning Man imagery without permission.
So why does it still feel so unsettling? Is it that playa fashion can been so easily copied and co-opted into a marketing campaign? Is it that a landscape that looks limitless, an aesthetic that defines itself as intrinsically creative — indeed, a visual reference by which we might identify ourselves and others as “Burners” — has become a status symbol for the amusement and reproduction of the ruling classes?
But hasn’t this been long in coming for an event that has always welcomed anyone who cared to play by its rules and could afford the time, money and other resources to do so? Indeed, despite or maybe precisely because of its pretense of decommodification and freedom from economic and other constraints, Burning Man as a brand or demographic target has become more valuable than ever to the forces of global capital.
In true dialectical fashion, global capital has also become more valuable than ever to the forces of Burning Man, which, by soliciting donations to buy Fly Ranch among other things, is busy building a small real estate empire by appealing to its cultural principles.
Here’s another common refrain — “Regionals are the future of Burning Man”. Has anyone else here said or heard this? It sounds nice, right? It suggests that our future, or maybe even our present, already lies beyond Black Rock in our unfolding potential to activate spaces around the world.
Apart from aspiring to amplify the magic of the playa by moving it beyond the trash fence, projecting the future of the Burning Man onto the Regionals is also a spatial fix for the ticket scarcity that has plagued the main event for much of the last decade. In the process, due to our own labors as well as those of San Francisco staff and founders, our (un)official Regional efforts have rippled out in ever more fascinating and confounding ways.
I’ve recently learned that here in Australia, you not only have official annual events like Burning Seed and Blazing Swan, but also have a remote renegade event called Burnout that doesn’t bother with tickets or trademarks. In fact, your local Regional Contacts asked some of Burnout’s organizers to shut down (or at least rename) an earlier event, Burning Mighty Demon, and instead build them the effigy for the first Burning Seed, for no pay. Does this sound more Burning Man than Burning Man?
In China, we not only have the official Dragon Burn, now in its fifth year, and perhaps some smaller renegade Burns that no one has ever heard of, but a variety of what might be called copycat efforts. This includes Phoenix Burn, an outfit that last year first incorporated as “Beijing Black Rock City” and nearly pulled off an 8,000-person event in the Gobi desert complete with plug ‘n’ play Mongolian yurts and Red Bull sponsorship, only to be canceled at the last minute due to permitting problems.
At first glance, this looks like a clear-cut case of copyright infringement and cultural counterfeiting — indeed, I was the Regional Contact who persuaded this group to stop calling themselves “Beijing Black Rock City.” I still have the pleasure of dealing with similar outfits on a regular basis. However, I’ve come to believe that Burning Man’s line on copycats and commodification has always been something of a moving target, and it’s made me reconsider the reasons I choose to gift my time to police the Project’s intellectual property. This has led me to pose a few fundamental questions:
What makes a Regional event a Burning Man event, and does it matter? Is something a Burning Man event because it looks and sounds like one? Is something a Burning Man event because it receives official authorization from headquarters in San Francisco? Is something a Burning Man event because it claims to adhere to a set of 10 principles that were articulated by Larry Harvey to guide the budding Regional Network as late as 2004, well after Black Rock City had congealed into a stable form?
Several Regional events and communities — official, renegade or otherwise — had also already achieved some degree of stability by then, and several of these Principles, particularly Radical Inclusion and Radical Self-reliance, may not now even credibly apply to Black Rock City, with its ticket scarcity and contentious plug ‘n’ play camps.
But Black Rock City, our vividest concrescence, still rises and falls every year, sparking new events around the world.
Culture-Jamming, Counterfeiting and the Cacophony Society
As a thought experiment, I’d like us to suspend judgment on the ethics of copying, and consider how the very idea of the copycat can explode simple distinctions between real and fake, official and unofficial, and authentic and inauthentic. To elaborate, I’m very loosely using the word “copycat” as a rough English gloss of both the Chinese term, shanzhai (山寨), and the French term, détournement.
You have no doubt seen, used or been amused by Chinese brand name fakes, which can make for funnier ads than the HSBC copycat image above. Sometimes, they even make for more useful products than the original. You have likely also seen Burning Man art use such tactics to not only poke fun at particular companies, for example, the Costco Soulmate Trading Outlet but, more ambitiously, to question the death grip that brands exert over our life world.
These tactics, like much of Burning Man, draws on the legacy of the Situationist International and its elaboration of détournement. The Situationists were a group of mostly French radicals who, despite their small numbers and constant ideological purges, cast a long shadow over their peers and over contemporary culture, including the stream we’re drinking from today.
Détournement translates more literally as “hijacking” or “rerouting,” nowadays often glossed as “culture jamming,” and it is a theory and tactic for appropriating the cultural products of capitalism and applying them towards revolutionary ends. The Situationists adapted this from an earlier movement, the Letterists, and, in their first journal in 1958, defined it the following way: “…the integration of present or past artistic productions into a superior construction of a milieu… détournement within the old cultural spheres is a method of propaganda, a method which reveals the wearing out and loss of importance of those spheres.”
The Situationists were an inspiration for The Cacophony Society, founded by Michael Mikel, a.k.a. Danger Ranger, which was one of the key contributors to the formation of Burning Man. It was Cacophony, a group of arty pranksters in California, that planned the “Zone Trip #4: Bad Day in Black Rock”, and invited Larry to burn his Man on the playa on Labor Day after San Francisco city fire marshals shut down his summer solstice beach burn.
Although it explicitly drew from the work of the Russian director Tarkovsky, The Zone Trip was not unlike the Situationists’ “derive,” a playful approach to urban exploration. Cacophony had been inspired by a slightly older group, the San Francisco Suicide Club, which drew inspiration from the Situationists, and also spawned the celebrated Billboard Liberation Front and its many spiritual descendants, including Adbusters. This group was one of the major intellectual forces behind Occupy Wall Street, which also globalized into a movement, for a time, complete with what we might call regional occupations.
What you may not know, however, is that unlike their Californian bastard children, the Situationists were less playful art punks and more radical (and perhaps even more drunk) Marxist theoreticians who demanded a total revolution of everyday life, an end to the alienation of capitalist modernity, and the abolition of the distinction between work and play. Does this post-work paradise sound familiar?
Think about how our gift economy is supposed to work, and remember that the text of this year’s art theme, “I, Robot”, asserts that “Burning Man has been pioneering the post-work world for decades.”
For a moment, 50 years ago nearly to this day, such a paradise looked possible not just on a playa or the robot fantasy future but in 1968 Paris, when millions of students and workers shut down campuses and set down their tools. For a moment, a revolution of everyday life seemed possible.
Today, some of us content ourselves by manifesting the semblance of such a world of creative, unalienated labor at our events, and even entertain the possibility that our engagement with Burning Man may somehow move the rest of the world towards such a future.
Like the French word, détournement, the Chinese term shanzhai has a rich, evocative and even utopian valence — in fact, it’s much older than its rough French equivalent, and it also doesn’t neatly translate into English words like copy, counterfeit, forgery or imitation. Literally, it means mountain fortress, a place where outlaws would hole up to resist corrupt authorities, a sort of temporary autonomous zone free from the strictures of polite society or rules of commerce.
Shanzhai is a centuries-old term from the classic book, Outlaws of the Marsh, which celebrated such Robin Hood-esque mountain bandits. It gained renewed currency in the 1950s with small-scale Hong Kong factories that produced low-quality knock-off electronics, and achieved its apotheosis in the 2000s with a profusion of cell phones that shamelessly stole and remixed and even improved upon “legitimate” products.
In 2008, at the height of the mania, shanzhai was the most-searched term on the Chinese internet, and was applied in a dazzling variety of ways. “The Adidos lace-ups in the rural markets were now shanzhai sports shoes; tourist precincts became the home of shanzhai Gucci and Versace; peddlers on provincial railway station platforms were now sellers of shanzhai Master Kong instant noodles,” wrote Andrew Chubb in “China’s Shanzhai culture: ‘Grabism’ and the politics of hybridity”.
“The craze grew to include such phenomena as movie star lookalikes (shanzhai superstars), scale-model replicas of Beijing’s Olympic stadium (shanzhai Bird’s Nests), minivans modified to run on train tracks (shanzhai trains), fraudsters who hoodwinked an entire village into believing they were policemen (shanzhai police station), an historian who was rejected for a position at a university and so began lecturing online (the shanzhai historian), spoof news bulletins posted on video sharing sites (shanzhai news) and, to round out the year, the Shanzhai Spring Festival Gala — an amateur version of the annual TV extravaganza on CCTV that has been mandatory viewing on Chinese New Year’s Eve since 1983.”
Shanzhai could even be used to describe the city of Shenzhen, its spiritual home, as the center of knock-off cell phone manufacturing, itself a kind of imitation of its more internationally famous neighbor, Hong Kong, which had literally followed Deng Xiaoping’s call to modernize by “creating a few Hong Kongs”.
As with détournement, some critics have celebrated shanzhai as a kind of liberating, democratic movement aligned with an innovative, enterprising spirit, with all the contradictions and dynamism such a mash-up can bring.
We might consider Black Rock City’s Departments of Public Works or Mutant Vehicles as shanzhai versions of their San Francisco equivalents, or even That Thing in the Desert itself as a form of shanzhai urbanism. This comparison will be revisited towards the end of this talk, when I circle back to these refrains — the Regionals as (un)real, as more Burning Man than Burning Man or as the future.
Along the way, I will further mash up time and space by considering how the relations between the imperial center and colonial periphery of our Burnerverse are changing under globalization. However, before I let this mixed metaphorical train continue raining rhetorical confetti on our art car parade, I’d first like to pose a question of particular relevance to this summit:
What does it means for us as Regionals, on the periphery, that the “org” at the Californian center — that is, the nonprofit organization that defines our “culture” and owns the intellectual property that it can choose to share or withhold from its collaborators — has chosen to partner with a corporate monopoly racing us towards a robot future?
Helco, or How to Google “Our Everyday Culture” for $2 million
Burning Man’s relationship with Google has been widely reported for years. I won’t review the history in detail here, but it’s well-known that the very first Google doodle was of the Burning Man logo, that founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin chose Eric Schmidt as the first CEO because he was the only qualified candidate to have seen the Man burn, and that Google’s early office design and corporate culture explicitly drew on Burner aesthetics and attitudes.
As Stanford professor Fred Turner has demonstrated, the theme camps and art projects of Black Rock City have also served as a kind of cultural infrastructure for Google’s HR and even as a sort of factory for engineering projects, including Google Earth. Google and Googlers past and present have, in turn, made considerable contributions to Black Rock City and the 2016 purchase of Fly Ranch.
Meanwhile, Google’s monopoly of much of the internet continues unabated, printing cash and extending its reach into every aspect of our lives. This is all familiar territory, but something new and unprecedented is afoot in the cultural and financial center of the burnerverse. It has received far less notice than the Caravancicle debacle of 2015, in which a new member of the Burning Man Project’s Board of Directors ran a disastrous $16,500-a-head plug ‘n’ play camp and later resigned in the fallout, yet I think it’s at least deserving of our attention.
This March, Burning Man’s Director of Arts and Civic Engagement, Kim Cook, announced that Google had commissioned Burning Man for a $2 million dollar project to curate art for a public square in front of its new corporate offices, not far from the sprawling Googleplex main headquarters. In one sense, it’s hard to argue with this: the square itself is accessible to the public and not hidden away inside a barricaded campus. Two million dollars is a significant sum to share with local artists. The creation of an interactive urban space may likewise benefit the City of Mountain View and its residents.
However, this project signals some seriously insidious potential. Kim’s initial announcement asserts that Burning Man’s Principles of Radical Inclusion, Participation, Gifting, and more were not only compatible with Google’s mission to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”, but even suggests that they share the same spirit.
I can’t help but wonder about how Burning Man’s Principles are meant to articulate together with those of a private corporation whose bottom-line, like that of all publicly traded companies, is maximizing shareholder value. And Google is no ordinary company — it is busy spawning technologies, including robotics and artificial intelligence, that are already having radical effects on the constitution and conduct of humanity.
This makes the 2018 art theme, “I, Robot” — and your summit’s cheeky response to it, “We are Not Robots” — all the more timely. Burning Man themes have long raised and even repeated questions key to the constitution and continuation of not only the event, but its communities, and more ambitiously, the world at large.
Of course, these themes, like the 10 Principles, were channeled by an individual human, Larry Harvey, who is no longer with us. The untimely loss of Larry has plunged the community into grief and may, for a time, confound its philosophical and ethical direction. That having been said, at least he has left us an appropriate theme with which to ponder our predicament.
“I, Robot”, in the tradition of Burning Man’s more provocative themes, not only asks what it means to be human, but also indirectly gestures towards ethics and the social division of labor that composes our present and precipitates our future. The centerpiece of The Inferno in 1996 was the art installation and performance, Helco, in which an evil corporation run by Papa Satan attempted to buy Burning Man from Larry.
As he wrote, “Our skit was structured as a kind of fairy tale. Three times I was tempted to sign over the property rights to Burning Man and Black Rock City by HELCO’s attorney, played by Stuart Mangrum. Three times I refused and reeled back. Turning toward the audience, pen and contract still in hand, I finally shouted, ‘I can’t sign this! I don’t own Black Rock City! Burning Man belongs to all of you! You have to decide!’ Everyone present, of course, opted not to sell out.”
The high-rise Helco Tower was then burned to the ground by a daredevil John Law, the key early event organizer who famously left the organization that year and in 2007 sued Larry to release “Burning Man” and related trademarks into the public domain (they settled out of court for an undisclosed sum).
I was not around to witness Helco in person, alas, but my read of that year’s theme is not as a simple rejection of, say, the evils of capitalism, but a playful acknowledgment of its antagonistic and therefore (meta)physically productive role in our utopian rehearsal of a better world.
In other words, it worked as a shanzhai-style inquiry into the tension between the social reality of the local gift economy and the economic reality of global capital that combine to power Burning Man on and off playa.
As Larry wrote in the introduction to The Inferno, “Whatever we wish to cast out of our world or out of ourselves is here destined to reappear and confront us. Unlike Heaven, the home of the perfect, Hell is, and will always be, a supremely ironic place.”
Burning Man’s treatment of money, like Hell, is nothing if not ironic too, exemplified by the name of “Decommodification, LLC”, the company which owned and licensed its trademarks to the non-profit Burning Man Project set up after Law’s lawsuit.
Decommodifying the Fetish, or “I Thought Burning Man Wasn’t Supposed to be About Politics”
I’d like to think that Helco, this year’s theme, and even this talk fit into a tradition of critical and ironic inquiry immanent to our scene’s style of theory and practice. This is not just a question of culture, but also one of politics, even if many Burners — LLC founders and newbies alike — have insisted that Burning Man, like Cacophony, is not and should not be political.
To me, Larry described himself as a “student of politics.” In fact, he followed the catastrophic 2016 US election more closely than anyone else I knew. Of course, Larry was not only a student, but a seasoned practitioner — there’s no way he could have built the organization and maintained his position within it otherwise.
Although Larry was lousy with gadgets, he often considered the role of technology in the exercise of power. He was no naïve techno-utopian — he did not think humans ever were or ever could become machines. He also did not believe that “the Singularity is Near” — in fact, during our very first conversation on the topic, over a dinner of stinky tofu and betelnut in Taipei after the end of the 2015 Asian Burner Leadership Summit, he mocked Singularity prophets (the most-famous of whom is, not incidentally, now at Google) as “idiots.”
I’m tempted to agree with Larry on this point, but whatever your position on machine metaphysics, there is no denying that automation, “artificial intelligence,” information and communication technologies and robotics have already transformed the world, engendering new modes of connection and play, but also amplifying old contradictions and creating new ones.
Google is at the forefront of this, and whatever the Burning Man-inspired ideals of its founders and many of its staff, as well as its long-discarded motto, “Don’t be evil”, it is structurally compelled to maximize returns for its shareholders. This involves optimizing its advertising machine to reach as many eyeballs as possible.
To secure this expansionary enterprise, Google has also learned to play ball with U.S. and other national military and intelligence organs, prompting last month’s mass employee protest and resignation. Last year it was reported as the wealthiest corporate lobby in Washington, D.C., the U.S. capital which is now also home to the wildly popular “No Spectators” exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery. Burning Man is playing a high-stakes game by explicitly partnering with such an entity, and we as Regionals — or speaking for myself at least — may wish to ask if and how it’s worth playing along with.
The pressures of global capitalism — its processes of commodification and alienation — can feel totalizing and irresistible. Yet, as Karl Marx himself prophesied, its creative capacities and internal contradictions may carry the potential for its own transcendence. Burning Man’s principle of Decommodification has in fact copied, in the shanzhai sense, one of Marx’s key insights, his critique of the commodity form and its fetish, even if it lets the rest of Marx’s analysis slip out of the picture.
Well, what is the “commodity fetish,” anyway? Marx explains that when we exchange commodities, we forget that they don’t magically exist in the world ex nihilo, but are products of human labor combined with nature. Under modern conditions of capitalism, this work is not a labor of love but of alienation, in which people are not only separated from the fruits of their work, but are separated from each other by the fact that one class of people appropriates the surplus value of the other’s labor.
In the process, the abstract laws of commodity exchange and the money-form tend to colonize and rule every sphere of our lives, polarizing people into workers and capitalists who profit at each others’ expense.
The “fetish,” a kind of quasi-religious mystification, consists of our forgetting that the commodities we subsist on, trade and get rich from are actually produced by people. In other words, we forget that economic relations emerge from social relations, and accept the role of money, markets and capital not only for the production and distributions of commodities, but for determining the relationships between people. Burning Man responds by proposing a principle of Decommodification, which “resist[s] the substitution of consumption for participatory experience,” and thereby recenters the primacy of social relationships in our engagement with the material world.
By demanding that we participate, Burning Man insists that we do not live as spectators. Needless to say, the injunction, “no spectators,” is yet another partial copy again of the Situationists, and nods in particular towards its key text. Guy Debord’s stunning The Society of the Spectacle, begins by observing that, “In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.”
By hijacking Marx’s analysis of the commodity form, Debord applied his analysis to the sphere of cultural production and, in particular, to images. Debord showed that, in the same way that commodities come to rule us, so do the images of the culture industry, especially advertisements. These images take on a life of their own, turn the world upside down, “making the real into a moment of the false.” Through détournement and other means, Debord and the Situationists called for the creation of situations, events that produce revolutionary ruptures in the alienating fabric of everyday life.
In one sense, Burning Man could be seen as the most successful such situation in history. On the other hand, its recuperation by banks, its engagements with the world’s most powerful advertiser and its incubation of plug ‘n’ play camps and other class divisions could simultaneously qualify it as the most successful spectacle ever seen.
Although I think Larry spent very little time worrying about Marx, he was certainly familiar with Debord’s work. He even used the very first line of The Society of the Spectacle to begin the 2015 event theme, “Carnival of Mirrors,” which asked, “This year’s theme is about mirrors and masks, mazes and merger. It will be a kind of magic show that takes the form of an old-fashioned carnival. This Carnival of Mirrors asks three essential questions: within our media-saturated world, where products and people, consumption and communion morph into an endlessly diverting spectacle, who is the trickster, who is being tricked and how might we discover who we really are?”
Regional groups were invited to participate in this carnival, so with the help of a talented crew, I determined a direction and got busy building Foxcarn and the Betel Store. Although this project obviously gestured towards Apple and its Taiwanese and Chinese manufacturer, Foxconn, I meant for it to critique capitalism writ large, and by extension, Burning Man’s own political economy.
Our slogans included the following: “Consume different! “Think global, exploit local.” “Decommodifying the fetish, unalienating labor.” “Circulating gifts of Taiwan and China with the burning world”. And this is what it looked like:
From our write-up: “Poking fun at the world’s most valuable brand, the Betel Store implicated all of us in the smoke and mirrors of the commodity fetish. Spotlighting the world’s greatest factory empire, FoxCarn simulated the human and environmental costs of manufacturing in China, laying bare the alienated labor and devastated landscapes that underwrite the rise of Silicon Valley and of Burning Man itself. Our project posed the question: Who wins and who loses in this world wide web of production and consumption, and how can we do it better?
FoxCarn & the Betel Store was located on the 2015 Carnival of Mirrors Midway right on the Man base, on the 12:00 side. Overseen by uniformed supervisors, “laborers” lined up to make “iSwag” blinky bracelets in the FoxCarn factory. Upon successful completion of their menial task, they were paid in custom wage tokens, insufficient to buy back the product they just made for us, which instead went out for sale in the Betel Store. Exploited workers and window-shoppers alike could attempt to “buy” back the iSwag or the Betel Store’s other (un)popular products, including: the iJack, a buttplug for your phone; the iGift, 1000 playa dust particles in a pendant, now with 50 per cent more workers tears!; the iMask, our branded breakthrough; or even the iMan, 20 per cent taller, burns twice as long! Lucky customers could also avail of our counter-revolutionary swag ‘upgrade’ and ‘re-branding’ services. Did you get yours?”
Looking back, it’s probably fair to say that this project fused the tactics of Chinese shanzhai and French détournement. While I think it was fairly successful as a participatory art project, I can’t help but think of it as a political failure, or at best, not even remotely revolutionary.
As Naomi Klein argued in No Logo, culture-jamming has become in many ways a victim of its own success. Adbusters, for example, has become a very successful business, and has even brazenly begun selling shoes. Indeed, it’s all too easy for brands to simply turn ironic strategies towards ever more cynical marketing. This is precisely what the Situationists would have termed as “recuperation,” the exact opposite of détournement.
Closer to home, Foxcarn’s obvious brand referent may have diverted its immanent critique of Burning Man’s economy, unlike the following year’s theme, “Da Vinci’s Workshop,” which tackled the question of money in a different way. By /examining the role played by money and patronage in powering the renaissance of arts and culture in Florence, the 2016 theme considered how new forms of wealth, particularly from Silicon Valley and surrounds, could power the arts and culture of Burning Man and other contemporary scenes like the Maker movement.
The focus on patronage was not only a fundraising tactic but, recalling the class struggle language of Occupy, socially rationalized as part of Larry’s self-stated mission to “reform the 1%”. This is clearly still a work in progress, at best, and resembles the tact the Vatican took: selling indulgences to the wealthy in order to fund its whimsy, however inspired.
Rather than a structural re-invention, it is an age-old strategy of limited re-distribution powered by cultural authority. It is easily swayed by personal caprice and prone to corruption. It produced, at least, a spectacular scene. That year’s Vitruvian Man was meant to resemble a coin if looked at from the side, at least in Larry’s imagination.
And that year’s Man, upside-down and headless for days before being burned to the ground, may still refract Burning Man’s economic philosophy — staggeringly successful and broken at the same time, like the capitalist world it both critiques and facilitates.
Not that I have any easy answers to share with you. Like today’s excursion into Burner past and future, Foxcarn was meant to tease out some possibilities. Larry cleverly asked me if the project was pointed at a particular Taiwanese businessman who had commissioned a shanzhai temple for the playa, which he hoped would somehow attract Chinese clients and make him the “Steve Jobs of real estate,” whatever that means.
I, in my founder’s black turtleneck and jeans and demented glasses costume, should have replied, “No, Larry, it’s about you!” but the timing wasn’t right. Instead, I laughed, and he said, his voice dripping with delicious sarcasm, “But I thought Burning Man wasn’t supposed to be about politics.”
Of course it is political, as is anything to do with money, culture or decision-making. If Burning Man wants to play in the world, and we want to play along with it, we can’t help but be political as well.
Circling to a Conclusion: On Contradiction and Commemoration
To move towards a conclusion, I’d actually like now to circle back to the questions that began this talk: What makes something “really” Burning Man, what could make something “more” Burning Man than Burning Man, and how might the Regionals constitute that future?
I think the first question has already been answered, and ironically so. Although the 10 Principles were initially written to foster the Regional periphery, they have done at least as much to define the San Francisco and Black Rock City center, not unlike the way the globalization of the British Empire reconfigured not only its colonies but the London metropole.
The second question, I think, is increasingly irrelevant. As a brand, Burning Man can bring the masses to our events, or to city squares, or even to national capitals, but I’d like to think that our fire draws from a different source than that which pulls the moth to the flame. More important than the Principles we simultaneously cite and violate are the situations we engender. And looking around this room, and considering the growth of the Regionals worldwide, these situations are set to be ever more bracing, ever more fertile.
As the Burning Man Project spreads into wider domains, such situations may manifest more magically in renegade Burns or even copycats. Yet, we must bear in mind that the success of such alternatives would not settle our questions, much as shanzhai enterprise has not resolved the contradictions of Chinese capitalism.
Like the shanzhai world, Burning Man has grown not only under and against the formal economy, but has become a mode of its reproduction. In a society dominated by modern conditions of production, no space can serve forever as an outlaw zone of freedom or a reconstructed past of mythical purity. We may, however, consider more carefully the parts we play in the unfolding of our future.
Now speaking of the future, this brings us to the third and final question about the Regionals as our future: much as ideas such as “freedom” and “democracy” were used by colonies to hold the imperium accountable or even overturn it, terms like “Decommodification” and “Civic Responsibility” may someday be used by the far-flung outposts of our emergent global community to not only hold the center accountable, but to remap the geography of the rhizomatic assemblage it articulates.
This talk began by alliterating three words that start with C — culture, capitalism and copycats. I’ll circle again now to the actual end of the talk, as if tracing a wider concentric arc from one end of Black Rock City to the other, with a few more words that start with C — China, communism, contradiction and commemoration.
This year marks not only the 50th anniversary of May 1968, but also the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx. The Chinese Communist Party, itself a kind of shanzhai copycat of the Soviets, has just gifted a gargantuan statue of Karl Marx to his hometown in Germany. Is it not ironic that the Chinese Communist Party, perhaps the most concentrated force of capitalism in human history, has sent such a representation to the birthplace of its greatest critic?
Burning Man may still be somewhat young and scrappy in comparison, but with its claims of Decommodification, enshrinement in the Smithsonian, collaboration with Google and national government agencies, and event proliferation across the globe, it may well be blazing a path towards becoming one of the most seductive forms of commodity fetishism yet seen, a spectacle of world-conquering power.
Yet, for all its contradictions, this spectacle may harbor the seeds of its own transcendence, if Marx, Debord or even Uncle Larry are to be trusted. Everyone in the room is part of this story.
Let’s remember such a future as we face ourselves and our robot overlords, and hope that no authoritarian party-state gifts a grotesque statue of Larry to Portland or San Francisco on his 200th birthday. He, and we, deserve to do much better.