Tag Archives: burning man

Whom do we burn in effigy?

The Man has been burned once more, and peace and quiet returned to the dry bed of Lake Lahontan. I think it’s time to think a little about who the Man is to begin with, and why we burn him. I came across a petition to save him, after all he was doing his job really well this year, they argued. Apparently they didn’t get enough signatures. In the classic graphic novel Drink Water of David Campbell Wilson, his wild firetribe sees the Man as “the Man”, as in “the One in Power”. An artist this year made a brain for him, inscribed with thoughts by burners: according to him, this gesture allowed the Man to become a participant instead of a spectator.

It’s quite obvious how different our attitudes and interpretations are around this yearly ritual. It’s an open source ritual, no EULA to sign, no creed to subscribe to, no god to appease, you just come and burn the Man and think of it what you want, and that’s it! It’s beautiful! However, I do think it can be interesting to share our own interpretations with each other.

The ritual of burning a puppet is probably older than written history. Some of our written history remembers rituals of human sacrifice that were later supplanted by a less violent version. So is the Man a sacrificial offering, or is he the embodiment of something we wish to exorcize, such as the spirit of winter, or the spirit of Guy Fawkes (though I wonder why the brits are so hung up on him, lol, they’d need more of his kind)? It can certainly be seen that way. We burn “the Man” together, spitting at all the posturing, gloating rulers, corporate campuses and houses of Parliament of the world, in a sort of inverse Fifth of November celebration, burning not the rebel but the ruler, not the treason but the establishment.

Then again, for me, that approach feels somewhat unsatisfying. We live together with the Man for a week, some for longer. He is the center of our city, of our tiny alternative universe, watching and carrying all our hopes, dreams, ideas, artistic and crazy exploits. So to me, the Man is not a stand-in for Trump or Putin or Musk or Zuckerberg, he’s a stand-in for ourselves. Each year he bursts into glorious flames, and arises again a year after. He’s a phoenix. In burning him, we burn ourselves, our old habits, our fears, all the things we no longer need or the things that hold us back. We burn ourselves in the desert sun, in the alkaline dust, in the over the top self-expression, the hectic connections, the crazy preparation and hard work, the rangering, the building our our theme camps and art installations, the long walks through deep playa at four in the morning, and finally, we burn ourselves in effigy, bursting into the flame of life and renewal, only to rise stronger and higher.

That, for me, is being a burner.

Many happy burns!

The TAZ, the Festival and the Burn

Ever since I listened to a presentation about Hakim Bey’s Anarchist philosophy at O.Z.O.R.A. festival, I’ve been quite fascinated by the idea of the Temporary Autonomous Zone. Hakim Bey is a quite controversial philosopher even in hardliner Anarchist circles, due to his preoccupation with the idea of pederasty, and his occasional rants praising illiteracy; even still, in my eyes his writings on the TAZ are fundamental to building livable systems of human cohabitation, at least temporarily free from the total alienation and commodification culture of consumer society.

As the ideator of Nonviolent Communication, Marshal Rosenberg put it, while we’re all raised with the commandment to be “good”, our reward for being “good” is depression. One suppresses one’s own desires and bliss, the very reason one might want to live for, and alienated society simply cannot provide the “good”, self-denying person with any outcomes that are worthy to pursue, and thus one falls into a state of demotivation and depression. This is a truth I have experienced many times over, and the solution I found was to find my bliss in alternative society, a society of hope.

I urge everyone interested to read Hakim Bey’s own writings on the topic; in short, the Temporary Autonomous Zone is a small event, place or social structure that exists outside mainstream society, as a separate culture and set of social norms, hidden and protected through its insignificance to the outside world, and to what Hakim Bey terms The Spectacle. On a sabbatical around freegan communities and open eco-farms, I’ve finally come to see the principle of the TAZ living and working in reality. Even now I’m writing this article sitting among hippies, ‘pirates’ and goatherds, in a location that in my former, urban life believed only exists in stories and films. A location with the sword of Damocles dangling above its head for years now, yet still living on and thriving. And that sword of Damocles is, unfortunately, unavoidable. According to theory, the Temporary Autonomous Zone is necessarily ephemeral. With time it grows, and as the outside world, The Spectacle takes notice, it needs to voluntarily disband before the forces of repression descend upon it in various forms.

What he writes much less about is what comes after. Most festivals start out as a TAZ of sorts, a small group, much like ancient band societies, coming together to celebrate. They cannot, however, stay that way for long. The O.Z.O.R.A. Festival, a psychedelic cultural event in Eastern Europe with more than 50 thousand participants every year, is no Temporary Autonomous Zone, no matter how some may want to make it look like one. Its last claim to the title ended years ago, when police descended on it in a massive raid, and its continued existence could only have been assured through a lucrative contract with the security firm owned by the Minister of Internal Affairs himself. It’s no TAZ, but the mummified corpse of one, dressed for the grave with mugs of chai sold for 5 Euro each, and (faux) Nepalese clothing overpriced 3-5 fold.

Now the question is whether that makes the festival unworthy of attention, or an event of a lower order, and it is my strong opinion that the festival, while heavily commodified, taken over by the Spectacle, and sold as a canned-and-sterilized uprising for the tired office worker, definitely has its place in the world as a learning ground and an embassy for alternative society, for the Web of Temporary Autonomous Zones. It was, for me, the first exposure, and an experience in immediacy, a gateway toward finding my way to communities one can never find or connect with through Facebook Search.

The Rainbow Gatherings, a surviving stream of the original hippie movement from the 1960s, choose a different approach. Gatherings are intentionally limited in time, and locations where a periodic gathering has grown too well known, too large, and too damaging to the local systems, are intentionally abandoned forever. Keeping with TAZ theory, the Gathering is temporary in one place, but the chain of Gatherings is unbroken, and the movement, the Rainbow Family of Living Light, has held up and thrived throughout the disillusionment of the 1980s and the capitalistic hurrah of the 1990s and early 2000s. The Gatherings have serious issues however, relating to their Anarchistic way of (non)governance, and a reach too large for optimal functioning as a true band society, something people often complain about, but the only proposal to handling it had been smaller, more remote and less public Gatherings.

What I find quite unique about the Burn is that it has taken a different approach. The controversies about some practices of “BMOrg”, the non-profit behind the original Burning Man gathering in Black Rock Desert notwithstanding, the philosophy of the Burn took a separate, and quite noteworthy path. Most burns start out small, as true Temporary Autonomous Zones; Burning Man itself started out as one; however, their growth and reach necessitates a level of integration with outside society that eventually removes most TAZ characteristics. The really noteworthy thing, compared to the Festival, is the specifics of how this happens.

Contrary to the Festival, the Burn doesn’t invite in the Spectacle and the systems of the outside world. There are no outside security forces checking cars, nor profiteering landlords growing rich on 5 Euro chai and 300 Euro entry tickets. The Burn becomes an alternative society, creating a tribe government capable of maintaining security and order to a level where the outside world is content leaving its hand off the event. Burns tend to have low or no police presence, due to the highly professional volunteer force of Rangers, who have over the years kept injuries, deaths and similar incidents low, and due to the principle of Leaving No Trace, a strict and quite literal approach to leaving the environment in just as clean and untouched a state as we arrived in.

Now this means, of course, that the Burn is no longer Anarchistic. It is governed, it has strict rules, it maintains close ties with the outside world in order to maintain its existence and safety, it even has a “policing” force of its own. Which, in a way, is a logical and necessary result of its size and reach. As the Rainbow Gathering struggles to maintain its standards of ecological and societal awareness due to sizes unsuitable for ancient band society governance based on consensus, the Burn faced the same issue, and moved to the next level of governance, that of the Tribe.

Through the tribal government of the Burn itself, with codified rules and roles, the smaller unit of Burning, the Theme Camp, is capable of maintaining a more informal, consensus-based governance suited to its size, while being part of a Web of similar micro-societies in the overall tribe society of the Burn itself, allowing for some form of a Temporary Autonomous Zone to come into being and exist within the manageable family unit of people living, eating and sleeping together.

The Burn is often derided for its perceived break with Anarchist ideals, and apparent marriage with Silicon Valley culture and money-flinging billionaires. However, while maintaining that all such criticism of Burning Man is, to a level, warranted and important, the Burn itself, as a model of alternative society, has succeeded in something few experiments have reached before. I’m quite excited for the future of the movement, regardless whether Black Rock City and BMOrg continues on this route, or will be forced to compromise on their ideals. The Burn, as a model, has already strewn its seeds across the globe, and is growing and multiplying.

Exploring wonder

In art and self-expression, my primary motivation is to inspire wonder. There’s of course also the deep psychological aspect of art, where half-conscious material from the mind can be sublimated into something… sublime… however when it comes to my motivation, the reason I want to explore, to learn and to get better at art, it always comes back to wonder. So taking a closer look at wonder might be a good idea.

There are multiple definitions of wonder from various scholars of art, but it might be easier to define it for ourselves by finding instances when we experienced it, rather than by finding a general description. I know that my personal understanding of wonder has to do with a sense of momentary incredulity. A sense of “does this really exist, or am I dreaming?” Of suddenly finding myself in a storybook.

I vividly remember a profound moment of wonder that was connected to a rather mundane experience. As a teenager I was at a music festival, and I went exploring in the park areas of the festival grounds. It was a dark forested area with trails lit by colorful paper lanterns. The colors of a light painting installation were cast in broken shards across the foliage, and a taste of incense and chill music was on the air. Along with the unique people around me, at that moment I felt like I was in a magical maze in a storybook, where adventure and beauty lives all around me.

If I break it down, the festival was a rather mainstream, commercial event; the park was unkempt and average; the lights were pretty simple, just a ready-bought festive lantern chain from a Chinese store; the light painting was aimed somewhere else; ultimately, there was no artistic genius or true natural magnificence behind my sense of wonder, and yet it was real and complete.

Thinking back at an exhibition by contemporary painter Attila Szűcs, I can recall a very similar sensation. His art is visually realistic, often based on photographs, but with a dream-like quality added to them. There’s a level of mystery to his work, a sense of not being quite sure what one is truly looking at. A middle-aged man in shirt and tie, standing knee-deep in water in a nothingness of whites and greys. A teenage boy in amidst lantern-lit trees, himself decorated with lanterns like a human Christmas tree. A fighter airplane, or the ghost of one, resting erotically on a freshly made bed.

According to an interview, he often paints in a meditative state, and at least for me, it seems his work invites the viewer to experience a mirror to that state, to mentally step into the frame, and get lost in this strangely detached dreamworld, foreboding and beautiful. And somehow it feels like that this component of mystery, or openness, really contributes to true wonder. The sense of there being “more than you can encompass with your senses”. The sense of being invited to imagine an entire universe through a single, surreal glimpse.

So one wonders (sry for the pun) what exactly links the sensation of getting lost at a music festival, and seeing surreal and magical paintings. I might be jumping the gun here, but there is a sense of reality opening up, a sense of discovery, of new horizons. And that’s where I think true wonder and simple amazement diverge.

Consider for a moment magic tricks; if they are executed properly, they are obviously amazing. Where did the coin go? Where did it come from? Wow! Amazing! However, it takes a master performer to make them wondrous. To hold your attention. It’s sad, but most of circus can get somewhat boring, even though it’s a group of arts all about amazement. Reading this book on clowning (Clowns by Ezra Lebank & David Bridel), it was interesting to read that many of the greatest masters in the art of clowning today say that they weren’t really into circus as kids. Thinking about it, it’s no big surprise, as a kid I was also often bored at circus.

Amazement can be overloaded. Also, in and of itself it’s not all that interesting. Watching the olympics is only interesting at length if one is invested in national pride connected to it, or as a fellow athlete, can truly relate to the level of refinement exhibited at world class level. Otherwise, it’s just hairless monkeys running in circles. You can see that on the playground. Sure, the don’t run as fast, but who cares, at least the kids are being cute while doing it.

I see the success of Cirque du Soleil in no other thing than the fact that they put wonder back in circus. It’s no longer just amazing feats of skill following each other, it’s a story, a whole world told through the language of amazing feats of skill. I think there really may be something to my idea of “opening up reality”.

I started writing this post mainly as a way to rehash my opinions to myself as well as my readers, and I do think I may have grasped something that I was only vaguely feeling before. And there’s some really good news in here for everyone who’s a burner. It’s a lot easier to create wonder at a burn than it is in a circus. The burn is open. It’s participatory. It’s an experiment in how to create, in how to be artists and humans. It carries its own level of wonder, that we can piggyback on.

So let’s go out, create and burn. :)

Five years gone

It’s been five years since my last post, nearly, and now I decided I need a place to blog again. So why not here. I left the blog online, as I think there’s some important information here for the DIY tDCS crowd, and didn’t want to take that away. Too much stupid was (and sometimes is) going on in the biohacking scene, and a sane voice is always a good thing.

It’s been a long and busy 5 years for me. Things changed. I hopped countries again. Probably will do it again soon. I went through a major crisis, came out, and found new callings. I’m still a hacker, and now I’m a burner, too. The Burning Man movement and subculture has shown me that life can be worth living, and pulled out some deeply buried childhood dreams. Like that of being a clown.

I don’t feel talented at clowning, only motivated. I’ve never been very good at theater arts. That said, the very mild neuroatypia I grew up with may have the benefit that I can see humans one step removed, and I do think I have the right heart for this. So now I’m applying the stuff I blogged about in How to Be Someone Else years ago. Learning to see the world through the lens of poetic comedy, learning flow arts, and hanging out with burners and amateur circus people. And somehow I have the feeling that if I can learn to be a clown, I’ll at the same time learn to be a good human being.

As for tDCS, I started getting headaches after stimulation, so I don’t use it frequently anymore. I do want to experiment with tACS still, I just need time and energy to design and build a device I can trust. I was, and am keeping myself busy with a number of things at all times, and this kinda slid to the bottom of the product backlog of my life.

I’ll probably be blogging about more psychological, philosophical and artistic topics going forward, with some hacking thrown in.