The Artwork of Michael Divine

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System Building Machines. I mean: Humans

September 21st, 2013

Burning Man 2013 Aerial View

A funny thing about humans (there’s lots of funny things about humans) is their propensity towards building systems. Often systems they build replicate the very structures they once sloughed off.

Some of us constantly seek out environments where we can experience and experiment with new systems and ways of relating. One such environment: Burning Man. What an experiment! Regardless of what they say, there is still very much a free for all going on. There’s so many groups of people trying to work together, camp together, build together, and play together that the radical experiment in this human experience is still going strong. The only thing that contains it is the mindsets of the participants.

Within that experiment has sprung up the idea of the ‘village’ – this big conglomeration of people all pitching together to create not just an amalgamation of various theme camps – but one great BIG theme camp. The village experiment is like a township within a county. BMORG, the county, so to speak, provides a certain amount of infrastructure – roads, bathrooms, a central art project, a cafe – and then the ‘village’ has tended to step in to try to make up for the rest, for the people who camp within it, that is. Often, for anywhere from 200 to 500 people (when does a camp become a village anyhow?), villages provide showers, meal plans, composting, grey water and electrical systems, entertainment, art projects, etc – all for a festival-worthy camp fee, and four or so hours of ‘volunteer’ work.

Whoa whoa there – wait waitaminit – hold the phone – right there – right off the bat – we’ve got it all wrong. Volunteer shift? What is this!? A festival!? Some kind of be-a-part-now-you’re-done shindig? No, it’s fucking Burning Man and the great edict is EVERYONE IS A PARTICIPANT. We’re ALL volunteers. So people get in their minds that they are owed certain things because they paid their money. Some villages, in an effort to raise a bit more money, allow people to pay extra to skip out on ‘break down’ – entitlement in it’s finest!

So I ask: what are we teaching these people? These first timers who come to Burning Man and we think we can share something with them and they come to our village we set up and they pay their dues and get their meals and complain that there’s no soap in the shower (because they didn’t bring any? WTF?) and get bitchy because breakfast was a long line… and o they did their four hours of work already thank you very much.

I had this moment… this moment at Fractal Planet when I was talking to someone late in the week on Sunday who complained that breakfast that morning was so small – crepes? What the hell, she said.

And I thought about how I had dropped everything I was doing – which was: enjoying myself, hanging out with friends, having a good time – you know – it’s Sunday Morning After the Burn – to go make breakfast for everyone – along with the rest of a good chunk of the core crew. I mean, Android was there washing the dishes for hours (one more artist in a long line of Artists Who Are Former Dishwashers, like myself) and everyone else pitching in because if we didn’t do it, who would? And I stood in front of the hot stove for three or four hours pouring on crepes and flipping crepes and sending the crepes to the line. And cooking the crepes and cooking the crepes and blah blah while Moreno made another another another and another batch of batter…

And this person was complaining? I didn’t see them in there at all helping the process go faster.

I went out into the line, after several hours, because I was quite tired of the heat of the stove and said ‘look, we’ve been making crepes for you for four hours!’ (and I pronounced it crepes when really it’s crepes.) ‘But this isn’t OUR kitchen that YOU’RE eating at! This is YOUR kitchen! All these people are waiting in line to eat at YOUR kitchen! At THEIR kitchen. Want to make it happen faster? PITCH IN!”

I went on for a bit. I can go on for a bit if I want to. If I’m feeling it. One person offered to help.

I’d already helped managed the crew breakfast on the Saturday morning of build week. It needed to happen! So I made the potatoes and got the eggs going and suddenly had the spatula and was directing all this stuff for 100 people and that was along with a bunch of others who at that point had worked a lot and by now – by Sunday – were way overworked. So many people never show up for their ‘volunteer’ shift. So many people with so many expectations.

I also built a giant fucking stage for five days. So did a bunch of others. We paid our dues too.

I’m a volunteer. Just like you.

But I learned early on: bring all the everything that you need. You are not here to observe. You are here to serve. To be a part of it. To get your hands dirty. To break your nails. To rise. To fall. To RISE.

I’m afraid that what we’re teaching people isn’t the Radical Self-Reliance of much lore. We are watering down the grand experiment… Instead we’re coddling them into the Burning Man experience with an echo of the festival culture. They have their showers and their meals and their shade and their music and their power. And for them, for their first time, that ends up being the idea of Burning Man that they take home with them. To some, Burning Man ends up looking like an ever so slightly more difficult festival with a whole lot more music and lights.

If we pride ourselves on the things we have to teach people, is teaching them to be reliant on others via the amount of money they paid in, being a volunteer like they might volunteer at any old festival, paying extra to not deal with breaking stuff down… is that worth it? Do we like that?

How is this any better or worse than providing RVs and decorated bikes to those Burner Vacationer types? Hint: it’s not.

So what I see is that the system has been built to a point where it’s simply replicating what we know. There’s nothing new. It’s so hard to shake it. And what we know is Festivals. Festival culture has become an integral part of todays’ music and, in fact, summertime ‘scene’ and there are so many givens that seem to come along with it. As with anything, if you have the money, you can buy into it and be a part of that cool thing. And that money pays for the stage, the lights, the shade, the art domes, etc. So Burning Man ends up with these villages based on festival culture. But the festival culture is not Burning Man. We don’t need camp dues that are the price of a weekend ticket to LIB and end up funding the giant stage, lights, etc – all of which ends up looking like a festival within a festival. It’s nice. It’s interesting. But it’s not what Burning Man is. It’s not why I go to that inhospitable desert that seems to always just want to chew me up and spit me out again.

What we need – the people who organize these huge camps – who have grand visions – is to break it all back down again. Bring it back to square one. Reimagine what we are doing. How we’re framing this thing. Once again, it’s time to throw out the current system and come up with a new plan and a new method. That’s why this is the experiment. There is never anything wrong. It’s always just exploring ways of doing things.

The first-timers are always welcome. But they better bring their own water. Their own soap. Some rebar. And a willingness to get really dirty really fast.

The problem with reinventing the wheel is that you always just end up with another wheel. It’s best to just imagine something completely different.

How else COULD things work?

The Artwork of Michael Divine

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