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.