My American Utopias

The thoughts presented here have been a long time coming. Thanks to Mike Daisey‘s recent performance of American Utopias for inspiring me to finally write this down.

WDW July 1985By the time I arrived at Burning Man, it was already too big. In August of 1999, a friend I met through the Internet met me in Chicago with his (unknown at the time) dying truck, soon to be filled with all we would need for our road trip and week in the desert. Through car trouble, $300 for a broken water pump in Wyoming, and a busted transmission that left us hitchhiking in Utah, we made it to That Thing in the Desert that would rise to a population of over 20,000 people that year.

I was in my early twenties and had recently changed my college major to religious studies. Through the dust storms, the glittering night skies, and alkaline dust that permeated my skin, cracked my feet, the most amazing thing to me was the rise and fall of this city. I had lived for three years in one of the great American cities, built on big shoulders and “no little plans.” The sweat and blood that built Chicago was stained into the concrete and bricks, the human hands that built them forgotten like a mobster built into a bridge.

Every hour of every day in Black Rock City was humming with life and work. The building never stopped, as with its destruction. When it wasn’t the people tearing down and burning, it was the wind, rain and dust chipping at the foundations. Hard work and hard partying, the community brought everything they thought they and the city needed: community colleges, 12-step meetings, a movieplex, a coffee shop, a smut shack with grilled cheese, bars, clubs, souvenirs, fantastical sites, body art, sinners and saints, prayer, yoga and on and on – but all on the terms of the small groups of people, and all as a gift. A shining, blinking, strobing, face-melting gift.

The beauty of Burning Man was what I was learning in my religious studies work in college – human beings are creators. Like my professor, Dr. David Gitomer at DePaul University pointed out, even our July 4th barbecues connect us to our ancient ancestors. We gather in reverent groups for intoxication and gluttony, making a burnt offering over charcoal briquettes to the spirit of freedom, our love and identification with our home and country. The beauty of Burning Man was seeing the play within a play – America within America – freedom pushed to the edges of what the law allows. And I still marvel, today, and wonder at the hands that, before my very eyes, built this city that Daniel Burnham would envy.

Five years and three Burning Man attendances later, I went to Walt Disney World for what I expected to be a torturous nine days. I had been hoping for a Hawaiian vacation instead, but was outvoted by my in-laws. The Goth deep within me shriveled at the thought of The Mouse, the happy and perfect artifice that would surround me. It was painfully ignorant of the horrors of the world, which for all I know, was why Disney was discouraged in my house growing up.

Four days of drinking Florida water, bad coffee, and eating Mickey Mouse shaped waffles, I was hooked. One by one, I started accumulating Tinker Bell-festooned items. We gathered as a family in Epcot one evening to see Illuminations, their spectacular firework extravaganza. As the sun went down, carts of blinking and spinning lights started appearing. People, young and old, wore glow necklaces and children danced with blinking, twirling batons. Oontz-oontz-oontz sounds rose from the shrubbery, and every so often, a voice from the ether would remind us that we were just moments away from Illuminations.

To this day, this is my favorite fireworks show. The park is full, the crowd is electric, and the entire vibe sinks within me, pulling out the psychedelic glasses that make the world shine in the dark. A lit, spinning globe, covered with images and movies takes a journey around the lagoon.

A beer from the Rose and the Crown before Illuminations in 2009

My first Illuminations hit me hard. I realized that Disney was Burning Man and Burning Man was Disney. Some will argue that Disney is for spectators, where Burning Man is for participants, and that the economic differences between the capitalist and gift economies are enough to make them distinct, but I would say no – these places share the same ancestry that Daniel Burnham shared as the architect of Chicago’s White City, these places are testaments to the magnificence of human creation and destruction. They touch on the monuments of fallen cities stretching through the millennia. While Burning Man sees its lifecycle in only a week, it gives us a taste of that ecstasy that every builder of every great palace and cathedral evoked.

Mike Daisey is currently doing a show called American Utopias, and I saw it in Seattle this past weekend. The major elements are Disney, Burning Man, and Occupy Wall Street, two elements I am familiar with, and the final less so. I stood in a disorganized queue after the show, wanting to talk more with him, and specifically ask him about Illuminations, but I didn’t get my chance. Oddly, as another person was talking to Mr. Daisey, I piped up to talk about how even at Burning Man in 2004, I saw the Default World seeping through the cracks, specifically bringing elements of commerce, and though I didn’t mention it, the violence of growing cities. In a flash, I found myself, not standing face to face in a three-person conversation, but rather, talking to a circle of people listening to me, with Mr. Daisey being one of them.

American Utopias, by Mike Daisey, is not my favorite work. It speaks well to the uninitiated, but for me, I wanted to have a longer conversation. Burning Man, Disney, America – there is no singular experience that defines it. We are all building our cities and engaging with a consensual reality, and at times deliberately engaging in subversion. Utopia literally means “no place,” but what I observe is beautiful about the human experience is that so many of us engage with the world and with each other as if there is a means to create or travel to this place physically or spiritually. I am excited that Mr. Daisey finds this subject interesting enough to bring to his audience to engage.

Early Burning of the Man

from Laughing Squid

They’re promising to rebuild the Man for the weekend burn. This just all seems ridiculous to me. Of course, this is because I went to Burning Man for the first time in 99, about 2 years after it was last “cool.” I went in 2000 and 2004, and my last burn was really not all that great. It was too big, and it was starting to show the stresses of the population. I really believe that once you get a certain population density, even for a brief period of time, like a week, you’re going to start having some of the same problems that other American cities have. I’m talking about everything from sanitation to crime. The larger the population, the more infrastructure by the Org required to keep things seeming like nothing has changed on the surface. The Man no longer sits on top of hay stacks, and now they have a well oiled emergency services and the risk of DYING at Burning Man is pretty low. Hell, the risk of an unintentional fire is pretty low. They put out the man in 26 min, and it was not fully consumed.

While I do think arson is bad, I find it amusing that Burning Man has been the haven for people who like to blow shit up, burn it, prance around naked, do drugs and give the finger to the Law. Burning someone elses art is also bad. The thing is, I don’t consider the Man art any more because it’s trademarked and a brand. And besides, it was MEANT to burn. Isn’t this just what the over-commercialized, over-run event needs? A reminder of how EPHEMERAL the event is supposed to be? It seems that one of the wonderful things about Burning Man is that the burn symbolizes the end and beginning — it’s a modern ritual in understanding impermanance and letting what’s burned stay burned, at least for the year. Why build another man to burn the same week?

One year. One Man.

To me, it just says, “How American.” This year is called “Green Man.” Some people have called for an increased emphasis on envioronmental sensitivity and sustainability wrt the event. There are a lot of resources poured into the event — fossil fuels, lumber and sanitation are just parts of the infrastructure, let alone what people bring in – RV’s, generators, etc. Whatever happened to dealing with a non-recouperable experience and moving on? I think in 2K one of the Man’s arms didn’t go up for the burn. Did that mean that it didn’t burn and we waited for it to be fixed? Sometimes things don’t happen the way we want. It’s not like the Temple doesn’t burn at the end of the week.

Whatever happened to packing up all your stuff with a tent and rations and water, going out and having a great time with the threat of death?

It’s just crazy.

I’ll repeat at the end of this: I don’t think it’s cool that someone lit the Man on fire early. I do think that people should just let it stay burned and not build another man. “Suck it up and deal.”

Happy New Year!

First and foremost, I’d like to extend my well wishes to all the people heading out to BurningMan this year. I wish I could go, even though I’m rather skeptical about how much fun one can have in a now huge, manufactured community. When you pretty much HAVE to bring a wheeled device to get you around because it’s so big, it just starts to seem too much.

After a few BurningMan experiences, and living on a school schedule a majority of my life, it very much seems to be like approaching a New Year. I hope this year is a good one, filled with awesome specticals, joys and ecstatic moments. Be safe out there.

I will be spending this next week the same as I have the past year — admitting patient after patient (I’ve now admitted about 100 patients in 8 mo), getting to know them and hoping to help them move on with their criminal charges. Yay mental health!

I suppose it could be almost like BurningMan — crap food, drugs (medications), crazy people running around, making noise, saying weird shit and more than 2 people who would probably try to torch something if they only had incindiary devices. And then there’s the patients! (yuk yuk)

Have a good one, peoples. And light something on fire for me.

Culture of Gathering

Here’s some random thoughts I’ve strung together lately.

I first went to BurningMan in 1999. I was coming from Chicago, and had newly attached myself to a portion of the subculture that the festival exemplifies. I went there with almost buzz-cut blue hair and got there by way of misadventure (it’s really another story altogether.) The whole experience was awe-inspiring, harrowing and dramatic. I was 21 years old, had only been away from the insulation of growing up in suburban Cincinatti for two years, and was ready for a mind-fuck. To this day, what I remember the most fondly of the BurningMan experience are things that I have since identified in our rather pedestrian or banal culture. I have started to come to the conclusion that BurningMan is really not that special an event, but as with most things in human society through the ages, is merely a carbon copy of our deep, collective unconscious that desires ritual, ecstasy and communion on a sublime level.

Our world has been sterilized, homogenized and legitamized for our protection. It is in branding we trust, and when some stop trusting the brands of giant corporations, the trust transitions to non-branding, which becomes a brand in itself. This really isn’t much of a modern phenomenon, but just the current incarnation of the human need for juxtaposition to impart meaning.

Human beings are curious creatures. We cluster together creating urban centers, we huddle for warmth, we gather on specific days for feasts and fasts, we build great monuments to our inspirations, we gather in great halls that inspire reverence, awe and legitamacy, we wear symbols, badges, uniforms to let the world know who we are. We do it all without having to think about it. And only on occasion does anyone really sit and ponder why we do it.
I recently read the WONDERFUL book, The Devil in the White City. It presents in GREAT detail the Columbian Exhibition (Chicago Worlds Fair) of the late 1800’s, the architects who built it (and a large portion of the great architecture of the time) and the serial killer who dwelled nearby. The book claims that the spectacle that was the Columbian Exhibition was one of the things that inspired Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom. Indeed, when reading how the Worlds Fair came together in a flurry of sights, sounds and smells of the far-flung reaches of the world combined with the excitement of new technologies and thrills, it’s not hard for me to bring Disney World and Disneyland to mind. People flocked from all over the US (and the world) during an economic depression to see and experience it. It became a community of revelrie that was pristine in comparison to the modern urban environment. It was all the optimism of what a city and society could be.

And at the very end, the architects sat back and wondered what to do once the gates closed and the Fair was closed forever. The truth that eventually, it would fall to ruin didn’t set well, and the awesomeness of the experience was something that was supposed to be finite. Some of the architects sentiments were to burn it instead of letting it to become a ruin. Alas, without their hand, Fate took care of it herself.
My husband and I went to Disney World in Orlando, FL last year. It was the first time I had been there since I was a child in 1985. It had been 2 yrs since I had last been to BurningMan, and I was stunned with the similarities between my BurningMan experience and my Disney World experience. They are both idealized versions of our world, and thrust the participant into an experience that is withdrawn from the modern world, allowing a sense of freedom, security and pleasure within its confines. I think that what REALLY drew the comparison for me was at dusk in the Magic Kingdom, as people with funny hats and blinky lights crowded around together at the best viewing points for a fireworks extravaganza, complete with mildly thumping electronic music and laser light, the world around becoming magical and twinkling.

What is BurningMan but a carnival? What is BurningMan but an exposition of our hopes and dreams laid out for all who will be present to experience? It’s a festival showcasing the same basic nature that some of in society can’t help but market and attempt a profit. At the end, it all disappears through a coordination of fire and packing up the rest. It is over, like a dream, and the participants attempt a transition back to the banal.
Last night we went to Golden Gardens to celebrate our friend’s birthday. We had never been there before, and it turns out to be a sandy beach on the northwest part of the city. People were gathered all over the place, barbecuing and celebrating other birthdays, or just soaking up the sun. I haven’t been on a coastal beach since I was a kid, so I was amazed at the gathering of people around fire, communing with each other, and sharing in feast. I started thinking about the story of the beginning of BurningMan, with Larry Harvey just hanging out and burning a man in effigy on a California beach, and people gathering around making it into an annual event. As I was standing on the beach, it became obvious to me how it all happened .

Humans just can’t help it. The way I see it, about all ritualistic/religious behavior calls to a basic human need that some people feel uncomfortable scrutinizing. I think that sometimes it causes that nasty cognative dissonance that gives birth to the paradigm shift. I consider it an essentially terrifying experience –take a comfort zone of fundamentally believed in vehicle for ecstatic revelrie (ie. specific denomination or counter-culture ideal) and see it as being no less special or different from any other mode, including those one is directly opposed to, and watch for the fireworks. I think this is why many people focus so much on difference instead of similarity. The possibility of acknowledging that we’re just as loony as anyone else in our beliefs is too much to bear.

But then there are a few like me that find cognative dissonance is the best thing about being alive.