I Am … We Are … It Is


 

I usually talk about the flamboyant aspects of Burning Man.
These are what attract attention. Black Rock City, as many of you know, is a
hyperconnective environment. It's full of interactive art. It's very antic and
it's a lot of fun. But I've decided to focus here on economics, the dismal
science, because, in the end, doesn't everything come down to economics, of one
kind or another? I will begin by quoting an almost forgotten author, Richard
Jefferies. His writings belong to a British literary genre called "country
writing" that flourished in the nineteenth century. In "Absence of Design in
Nature: The Prodigality of Nature and the Niggardliness of Man," Jefferies
talks about the law of natural increase, which describes the propensity of
living things to reproduce themselves at exponential rates: "There is no
‘enough' in nature. It is one vast prodigality. It is a feast. There is no
economy: it is all one immense extravagance. It is all giving, giving, giving:
no saving, no penury; a golden shower of good things forever descending."
Contrast this with the material economy of our world, in which each individual
is in order to exist, compelled to labor, save, and compete with other people
for control and possession of scarce resources. Such is the iron law of
economics in our world: the superabundance of nature and the utter
niggardliness of man.

This is the contrast he draws. It
is as if we've fallen out of some happy Eden into a world where we must hoard
and struggle to wrest what we can from the universe and one another. But I am
more hopeful than Jefferies. He was writing about both nature and society in
the midst of the first great phase of the Industrial Revolution, a time of
massive social dislocation and widespread poverty. Think Dickens. The folkways
of rural England and the networks of communal obligation that once sustained it
were being brutally uprooted by the marketplace. An anonymous mass society was
taking shape, and Jefferies came to feel that the factories and enormous cities
of our industrial age represented a principle of evil and selfishness. But I
have had the opportunity to observe a very different kind of city with a very
different kind of economy, and I've come to see that there is more of nature in
the social world of human beings than he or any of us today have yet
understood.

I'm thinking, of course, about
Burning Man and Black Rock City, the civic entity we annually create in the
Black Rock Desert. I would like to start by describing the most radical and
under-reported aspect of our city. It is under-reported because it's so very
foreign to our current way of life. Reporters simply can't perceive it most of
the time, because it just doesn't fit with what we're used to. They see a
vitally creative world, filled with a superabundance of art, animated by an
electric spirit, and full of a whole lot of eccentric and entertaining
behavior. That's the big story that gets reported.

But
if they peel off the onion skin and peer a bit closer, there is another story.
They will find that Black Rock City is one of the most public-spirited places
on earth. We have, for instance, an incredible rate of volunteerism. We did a
poll on the internet recently and the results were astonishing: 84.7 percent of
our citizens contribute some form of volunteer service to our city. I challenge
anyone to find another city in America that can equal that. We're the seventh-largest
city in Nevada for eight days, and our crime rate is negligible. Think what the
police blotter in New Orleans during Mardi Gras must look like. And Black Rock
City is a party that's certainly equal to that in intensity. We are also
committed to a Leave No Trace effort. We say Burning Man is a disappearing act:
we miracle up an entire city, it lasts for one week, and then it absolutely
disappears. And I mean everything disappears: every sequin, every boa feather,
every cigarette butt, and especially those damn pistachio nutshells. Our
cleanup crews work hard, but our organization couldn't possibly cope with this
task if it wasn't for the public spirit of our citizens. There are no trash cans
in our city, yet our citizens take the responsibility to pack out their own
trash. That's almost inconceivable, but that's what happens in Black Rock City.

And that's one of the problems
reporters have. Burning Man is this wild and abandoned party on the one hand,
and it's the most public-spirited city in America on the other. And this leads
to a kind of cognitive dissonance. It doesn't make any sense to them, and
that's because they don't understand the really
big story, the story that lies behind all of this which is the cause of these
two things conjoining. And the reason this doesn't get reported is because it's
profoundly foreign to our current way of life.

The essential cause of all this is the giving of gifts.
We've intentionally designed Black Rock City to foster a gift economy. We allow
no vending, no advertising, no buying or selling of anything. We discourage
bartering because even bartering is a commodity transaction. Instead, we've
originated both an ethos and an economic system devoted to the giving of gifts.
This is a radical departure from the marketplace because, of course, the
marketplace invades every crack and corner of our lives today. A gift economy
is founded on principles that are diametrically opposed to those that dominate
our consumer culture.

Let
me draw a contrast between the market and a gift economy. The value of a thing
in the marketplace is based on its scarcity in relation to demand. And capitalism
itself is based on the competition to acquire the scarce resource of money. The
great utility of this system is that an organized market serves individual
desire. A simple act of purchase allows me to command the resources of the
world. With a single expenditure, the magnesium of South Africa, the oil of
Arabia, and the labor of China can be fetched from around the globe and
delivered into my hands as if by magic; all that's required of me is a sum of
money. There has never been a better method for the productive allocation of
wealth and the distribution of goods and services. As a result, we live today
in a large-scale global economy that continues to expand into every area of
human activity. Adam Smith, many years ago, rightly regarded this as a kind of
miracle. The market, mated today with our modern system of mass production and
mass distribution, has produced more wealth and distributed it more widely than
in all other epochs of human history. This has liberated us from toil, but more
importantly, it has freed us to pursue uniquely personal visions of happiness.

At
least, this is the version of our modern market that is constantly extolled in
our society. But this economic revolution that has occurred so recently in
human history has a darker side. The social contract we have signed contains a
hidden clause and we have failed to read the fine print. And this is because
the very virtues of our system represent its liabilities. The great efficiency
of the marketplace depends on the fluidity of value as it flows in one form of
commodity to another. If I buy something from you, no relationship and no moral
connection is left to relate us to one another. The value of the money I have
spent speeds on to take new forms as further goods and services. This is the
fuel that powers our economy and produces a flow of never-ending capital around
the world.

But
what this transaction does not produce is connections between people. It does
not produce what Robert Putnam has described as "social capital." Social capital
represents the sum of human connection that holds a society together, and it is
fostered by networks of personal relationships. In Bowling Alone, he objectively charts what all of us intuitively
know: the social capital of America has begun to disintegrate.

Putnam
talks about two kinds of social capital. First, there is "bonding" social
capital. This consists of our intimate ties with our family and friends,
communal relationships with that circle of people you know well. It doesn't
consist of more than one hundred people because you can't keep up intimate
rapport with over one hundred people. And these circles tend to be exclusive.
Not intentionally, but when you are huddled with your friends, you turn your
back on the world and it's hard to let the stranger in.

Another
form of social capital is called "bridging" social capital. This refers to looser
ties within a broader social circle that encompasses larger networks. It could
be people you meet at parties or at work, people you exchange cards with.
Here's the difference: if you get sick and you need chicken soup, you'll call
someone you are bonded to because they'll care. On the other hand, if you get
fired and need a job, you are probably not going to talk to your brother or
your close pal. You're going to talk to someone who is part of that bridging
network because they are connected to an extended network that moves out into
the world. This might be a group of people who get together to play cards or
hold softball games. More formally, it might consist of civic organizations or
other sorts of clubs. As a rule, these groups are inclusive. Anyone who is
interested can gain entry. You don't need an intimate tie with other members.
If you're interested in making ships in bottles, anyone is welcome who wants to
make ships in bottles.

Putnam
found that in America today, bonding social capital is eroding rapidly. The
average American household spends seven hours a day watching television. A lot
of people just turn the TV on to listen to the laugh track so they feel that
they are not alone. The average American household possesses 2.4 television
sets. And that means that husbands, wives, teenagers, and toddlers are all
watching television independently of one another. If you could take the roof
off the average suburban home, you would see each family member in a separate
room watching a TV that has a separate set of commercials on it hawking a
separate lifestyle. And if you looked more closely, you'd see that they're
surrounded, barricaded, by all this stuff they've bought to support these
lifestyles that are being sold to them. This is hardly connective: 81 percent
of Americans say they spend most evenings watching TV, but only 56 percent
report that they talk to family members.

There are more cars in America
than there are drivers, and 90 percent of our citizens drive to work alone. In
1992, we each spent nineteen hours per year stuck in traffic jams. We each spent
forty hours stuck in traffic in 1997, and I'm sure it's more than that now. So
here you have an entire nation on the freeway, trapped in the metal carapace of
an automobile, isolated from everybody around them. I think I'm an affable guy.
I think I bond with other people. But when I get into a car I become demonic. "You
jerk! Cut me off?!?!?" You know what's pathetic? Putnam found that people
report they like being in their car during these long commutes because it's a
time to think. To think, as they sit
in these isolation booths cursing their fellow citizens! Here's another
statistic: Putnam has found that each additional ten minutes of daily commuting
reduces involvement in community affairs by 10 percent.

This
leads us to an even darker picture. For when we get to bridging social capital,
we find that membership in clubs and civic organizations has fallen by half
since 1975. He calls his book Bowling
Alone
because bowling leagues, which are a form of bridging social capital,
have declined so precipitously that, if you follow the curve, in another ten
years everyone — even though there is a retro fashion in bowling — could be bowling
alone. This pattern also applies to more formal organizations: organizations
that do good works in the world, like the Lions or the Kiwanis.

At the back of the book he
features charts that are really quite fascinating. Chart after chart crests at
the height of civic involvement in America in the last century, around 1950,
and then starts a decline until it reaches a point about twenty years ago, and
then it makes a beeline for the drain. It resembles one of those mass die-offs
when asteroids hit the earth, and that is what is happening to the civic tissue
of our country.

I
think we all know what some of the causes for this are: TV, cars, metropolitan
sprawl. In a land of megamalls, cineplexes, gated communities, anonymous fast
food outlets, and retail chain stores it's difficult to connect with anyone or
anything. I was born in 1948, and I have seen all of these changes over the
span of my lifetime.

But
I think if we take a larger view and look at the character of modern-day capitalism,
we can diagnose an even more essential cause. It is in the nature of our mass
marketing to cater to the desires of the individual. Indeed, it's not
surprising that the social ills Putnam describes have accelerated during the
last twenty years, because it's during this period that capitalism has
perfected many marketing techniques isolating us even more radically from one
another. Marketers have identified thousands of new market niches allowing
manufacturers to gratify each sector of the population. In other words, we have
been sorted by age, class, and income much as cattle might be herded into
stalls within a feedlot. And the best minds of our generation aren't writing
books like Putnam's, they're doing market research and working for ad agencies.

When
parents, teenagers, and toddlers are planted in front of different television
sets the commercials they watch do not provide them with a way of life. They
merely offer commodities that are presented in such a way that they simulate states of being, which is the
sin of simony: an unhallowed trafficking in sacred things. Whereas the only
thing I know that is sacred is the immediate experience of being, of belonging
to your self, belonging to others, belonging to the world, belonging to the
cosmos. And all this stuff that we acquire stands between us and the world
beyond ourselves. It muffles our being. The spiritual damage caused by living
this way has worked the greatest evil in our world.

In
a final statistic, Putnam finds that Americans born and raised in the seventies
and eighties are three or four times more likely to commit suicide as people of
the same age at the middle of the last century. If you are a latchkey kid and
you're watching TV in your separate room, and your only way of belonging to other
people is through stuff that simulates
your being, and you're feeling really lonely, you might be willing to kill
yourself.

Well, having painted for you a rather dismal picture of
what became wrong with our world, let me now return to the gift economy of
Burning Man and Black Rock City. Gifts are very
good conductors of social capital. Let me illustrate. If I give you a gift,
this represents a personal gesture. It is a bonding experience, unlike buying
something from someone, where the great convenience is that we aren't connected. In a market
transaction people who are party to it feel no further sense of human
obligation. But interactions based on gifting operate quite differently. In the
words of Lewis Hyde, who wrote a wonderful book called The Gift, "When gifts circulate within a group, their commerce
leaves a series of interconnected relationships in its wake, and a kind of
decentralized cohesiveness emerges." What he's saying is that in a gift economy
everybody begins to feel like they belong to one another. Value passes from
person to person, from heart to heart. To put this another way, gifts are
bearers of being. Think about a gift that you loved giving. Didn't it feel as
though it already belonged to the person you gave it to? Didn't it feel as if
it was just flowing through you?

Black
Rock City is devoted to the giving of all sorts of things, the sharing of
survival resources, interactive artwork, and our public service roles. The
whole tissue of our city is one vast gift. If you look at our budget it
amounted to five million dollars in 2001. But if you want to understand what
makes our city come alive as a civic entity, then look at the gifts that all
our people give to us. It would run into the millions. I cannot begin to
estimate it. We've actually created much of our civic infrastructure out of
gifts. Volunteers greet every person who comes into our city, they police the
environment, and they light the lamps that illuminate Black Rock City.

But
I particularly want to call attention to a special kind of gift we call a theme
camp, because it best illustrates the gift-giving process. This begins with
what we call radical self-expression. We ask participants to commune with
themselves and to regard their own reality, that essential inner portion of
experience that makes them feel real,
as if it were a vision or a gift, and then project this vision out onto the
world. Now artists have been doing that for a long time. And it is an almost
irresistible impulse out there in the Black Rock Desert because the environment
is a blank slate. You can project your inner vision out onto the world as if
you were projecting a movie. That is what makes radical self-expression so
radical.

Along
with radical self-expression comes radical self-reliance. Most of our citizens
pool survival resources — they have to. They must prepare to survive in really
drastic wilderness conditions: one-hundred-degree temperatures, hundred-mile-an-hour
winds. And what tends to happen is that people respond communally. They form
organized groups and someone says you bring the shelter, you bring the food,
you bring the boa feathers, and we'll survive together. And we didn't tell them
to do this. They realized that they had to form bonding social capital in order
to survive. That's how cultures developed originally, you know. They developed
an ethos and a sense of belonging because people had to share resources and
struggle to survive together in the world not like the economy of convenience
that we live in today.

Now
we don't dictate the content of radical self-expression in the theme camps, but
we create the societal vessel that helps to contain this creative, interactive,
utterly uncontrollable process. We've created a few simple rules. We've said a
theme camp must function as a public environment that is accessible to other
people whom one doesn't know, and that it must result in some kind of social
interaction. I don't know if you notice what I'm saying here, but that's
bonding social capital turning into bridging social capital.

Before
I go further, let me describe a theme camp because it's hard to imagine in the
abstract. I think my all-time-favorite theme camp, after all these years, is
Camp Fink. I encountered Camp Fink by chance. I walked into a tent that looked
like a seedy sportsman's bar. There were crossed tennis racquets on the wall,
and it had all these portraits of famous finks: Roy Cohn, Joe McCarthy, and Richard
Nixon — because he finked himself out. But here's the interactive part. They had
an ancient Corona typewriter out in front with an endless spool of paper, and
they invited you to rat out on your friends. And you'd be surprised, it got
really interactive, because everyone wanted to read what everybody else was
saying!

In
recent years, many of these theme camps have become increasingly ambitious — and
that's only a natural tendency because in a space with no physical limits your
imagination grows larger and larger. A vision is not defined by the context of
the world around it, but radiates reality outward: it starts to define the
surrounding world. And people get these visions and end up incorporating two or
three hundred people. Now all people are collaborating to produce a public
service or an expressive theme of some kind. And they form large communal
networks in which everyone is cooperating toward a common goal; this is what
Putnam called bonding social capital.

But
observe what we've done. We've told people: OK, you've got your tight little
world of your mates and your friends, don't close the circle. Leave it open so you
can bridge out to a larger world, and, indeed, so you can feel the great world
has the same sense of inner reality that you feel in yourself. And the shape of
the entire city is like that. It's planned as a huge semicircle with the Man at
the geographic center and the streets radiating out. One time someone said, "Larry,
why don't you just close that circle?" and I said, "Good God, we'd go
psychotic. Don't close the circle!"

So,
theme camps are essentially collective gifts, and this, in turn, begins to
generate gift-giving networks. We've found that when people join together for
the purpose of producing a gift whose scope extends beyond the limits of their
little bonded world, it produces a kind of social convection current. The
hotter the flame, the more oxygen it will suck in. And these networks suck in a
whole lot of resources. They begin in simple ways — and no one plans this — let me
make that clear. They just happen. For instance, someone in a camp knows
someone else — a friend outside the group who possesses some needed resourcem — and
soon this person is drawn into the circle. If he's willing to give to the gift
you don't exclude him, you say come on in. That's the principle of radical
inclusivity we discovered many years ago.

As
the greater gift imagined by the group begins to grow, this process starts to
spread out through networks of acquaintance, connections multiply and a new
kind of superabundant wealth appears. A metal grate abandoned in a basement
becomes a dragon's jaw, some ancient string of Christmas lights forgotten in
the attic forms the perfect accent for its tail. Manifold resources stream in.
It's precisely the opposite of what happens in a capitalistic society where a
struggle for scarce resources produces relentless competition. And this process
can actually rival the capabilities of mass production. Social networks tend to
grow on an organic principle. They expand exponentially.

Here's
an example of how we are growing. A group of New Yorkers, affiliated with the
nonprofit organization SEAL, came to our event in 2001. Burning Man occurs over
Labor Day, so that, of course means that when this group returned from Black
Rock City in they encountered the events of September 11th. For days afterward
a pall of dust and smoke drifted over the island of Manhattan as police manned
emergency checkpoints all over the city. Now this group had lived communally at
Burning Man. They had seen their bonding world become a bridging world and they
responded to this public trauma in a unique way. They began to craft burn
barrels. These are oil barrels into which we cut designs. These objects are
beautiful — they look like jack-o'-lanterns — and serve as fireplaces that protect
the desert surface. So this group put the word out to create a network of
people to manufacture burn barrels. They donated several of these beautiful
pieces to the New York City Police Department; now, emergency workers had a
place to warm their hands during the long winter nights. As I say, the rate of
return on social capital is a lot better than the rate of return on normal
capital investment in the market world.

This
is the good news. All over this country, people are starting to organize.
They're starting to form networks and we're helping them. We don't dictate the
content of radical self-expression. But we help people create the social
circumstances that will sustain an ethos of gift giving. And I can tell you
what's going to happen next because I have watched Burning Man grow from two
thousand to four thousand to eight thousand participants in the span of three
years. In fact, it only stopped growing at this rate because we slowed it down.
We didn't want it to grow too fast. We took measures so that we could
culturally assimilate people, so they wouldn't just come looking for a party, so
they'd realize that our ethos was about giving and not about consuming. We knew
that they'd destroy us if we didn't slow it down. But what this growth
represents is a rate of natural increase; it's how things grow in nature. And
the next big story is that networks all over the country are about to rapidly
expand in scope. There have now been burns in several states; we have regional
contacts in every place except Mississippi. There's even been a burn on a boat
in the Baltic Sea and one in Antarctica.

This
returns me to Richard Jefferies and his essay on the prodigality of nature and
the niggardliness of man: "There is no 'enough' in nature. It is all one vast
prodigality." I believe that human culture — as distinct from the social
institutions that surround it — is a pure phenomenon of nature. Social
institutions have the power to protect it and sustain it, much as any vessel — a
petri dish or ceramic pot — might help or hinder the growth of any living thing.
But the innate vitality of culture belongs to the world of nature; it occurs
spontaneously, it is without a plan, and when it is allowed to grow it has a
power to affect our world in ways that dwarf our normal estimate of our
resources.

I
think that the essential lesson that we've learned is, in a way, very simple.
People don't have to go out into the world and create a great city. We've made
our city as large and as civic as it is in order to create a sufficiently
persuasive model of the world to show people how things could be. I still want
it to grow larger, frankly. I mean it won't be New York, but I want it to feel
like a complete model of civilization so that people can go back home with the
confidence that they can change the world and they can share that vision with
other people and they can attach to it some transcendent principle. That is why
the Man stands at the center of our city.

This
process begins with radical self-expression: the feeling that your inmost vital
self is real. But most people just don't have the confidence anymore because
they're too isolated; they're too passive. So it starts with this, I'll call it
"I Am." And it proceeds, as in a theme camp, to a feeling that you are united
with others, that you are linked in a bonded circle and together you can share
the same experience through an act of giving. And I'll call this, "We Are."
Finally there is the feeling that somewhere outside this circle there exists
some greater gift that everyone is joined together by as they give to it, and I'll call this "It Is." And I
have come to believe that whenever these feeling states can be strung together
like pearls on a string, as if they were parts of one spontaneous gesture, you
will then generate an ethos, a culture, that leads, in Jefferies's words, to a "boundless
shower of good things forever descending."

Now I've told you things are getting a bit bleak in our
world. We're just so accustomed to this state of things that we don't notice.
But I don't think I've told you just how bad they can get. So I'm going to tell
you a story. It's like A Christmas Carol.
This is where the ghost says to Scrooge, "This is Christmas future." I'm going
to tell you about Christmas future. This is where we're going.

Some
time ago, I went to a dinner that was given for an artist friend who was
leaving for a journey up a river into the jungle of New Guinea to confer with
some tribal sculptors. And it was a lively party. It was a bunch of my more
louche bohemian friends, and it was held in an Italian restaurant that I'd
never been to. I was just given an address, and when I got there I was
astonished, because it was located on the edge of San Francisco' financial
district. I mean all these high-rises and condos, and it was very apparent to
me that this was a small family enterprise and that it had been there for
years, and I wondered how the hell it had survived. There were family pictures
on the walls, mementos, and we went downstairs through a narrow corridor to a
special room that was obviously precious to them. It was decorated in primary
colors and we were taken into the place of honor, and there was a big round
table and on that round table was a giant lazy Susan. It felt really communal.
It was so cool that everyone could share. And at the center of this thing, at
the center of this communal circle, was this transcendent object. It was a bust
of the Pope. In fact, they'd surrounded it with a big square Plexiglas cube, so
it looked like a miniature Popemobile.

Now
this is what I call a sympathetic bistro! The food was robust, the cuisine of
southern Italy, and the waiters were to a one all very jolly. I love this kind
of restaurant; I love family places. They brought in bottle after bottle of
Chianti. And, of course, we were using this lazy Susan, so the bottles went
round and round, and pretty soon the room was spinning round and round as we
got drunker and drunker. As I say, these were bohemians and never noted for any
inhibition, and they became increasingly rambunctious, and at a certain point
one of the guests by the name of Kaos Kitty climbed up on the table and proceeded
to do things to the head of the Pope that I
really don't want to describe to you
— let's call it radical self-expression.

This
is, of course, the kind of scandalous story that's often better in the telling,
something you read about in a memoir of the lives of the artists. There was a
lot of laughter, shocked looks from people in the adjoining room, and my
friends, on the whole, were thrilled by their audacity. But I will confess to
you tonight that I was inwardly chagrined. Think about it for a moment. Here we
were in the bosom of this family place around the altar of their simply
Catholic piety … desecrating it? And I left the restaurant that night feeling a
pang of guilt and a flush of shame on my face, I really did. I thought about
apologizing as I went out, but I was too ashamed, and for weeks afterward I was
burdened by this feeling of guilt because I'd sat by … I'd laughed too.

Well,
some months later my girlfriend and I were walking through the slushy streets
of Minneapolis in the middle of a midwinter thaw. There was fog filling the air
and we were looking for some place to eat at a late hour. We went around a
corner and across the street I saw this nimbus of neon light in the air. We
crossed over and, sure enough, it was a neon sign and, sure enough, it was a
sympathetic bistro — in fact it was the
sympathetic bistro. It was the same place I'd encountered in San Francisco! And
I thought, well gee, did a cousin, a nephew branch out to Minneapolis?

We
went inside and the atmosphere brimmed with familiar sentiment. Family pictures
lined the walls, and they'd painted the exposed plumbing … and then it really
dawned on me. This was not a
sympathetic bistro. What I'm saying is this was not a communal thing, this was
not a bonded group. This was not a family restaurant. The pictures and the
keepsakes on the walls had been purchased by the lot at auction. And when I
looked at the other diners, all of them white, pretty Anglo-Saxon looking and
undoubtedly Lutheran, the full implications of this began to sink in. Most of
the tables were for large groups. This was the demographic. A waiter came in
with a lighted cake, there was a birthday party, and suddenly I understood what
this was. It was a RED, an acronym for retail entertainment destination. This
is the fastest-growing trend in retail, and it's remaking our world. REDs are
the finest flower of our marketing system and they are a commodification of our
lives. You see most of our desire and addictions are really projections of our
need to be. And they've become really
good at finding out what our desires are, and they've learned to create
stuff-both goods and entertainment — which we then consume as substitutes for
being.

In
the case of the jolly bistro, some entrepreneur had determined — using
demographic studies and psychographic profiles — what WASPs really need in their
lives. And I can tell you from personal experience what WASPs really do need in their lives. Family members
often live in different states, and family dinners and gatherings can be
awkward. You don't have anything in common with anyone because bonding social
capital has broken down a little. So you go to these gatherings, and you find
yourself wistfully and secretly wishing that things were, oh, a little warmer,
a little more sympathetic, a little more … well, Mediterranean. If only we could be Italians! And this
environment, this bistro, was designed to fill this gap. Art blended with
science. If people want to feel that they belong to one another, then it's
wholly feasible and very profitable to manufacture the illusion of this
feeling. I had really enjoyed the food at the original restaurant back home,
but sitting there with my girlfriend I picked indifferently at my meatball. I
kind of herded it around the plate and, as I did so, I forgave Kaos Kitty for
her performance. In fact, on the whole, it
seemed very appropriate.

Let
me give you a little profile of retail entertainment destinations. They're
usually located in metropolitan areas, and they're devoted to the proposition
long understood by marketers that it's more lucrative to sell a state of being
than a product. There's nothing new in this. Sell the sizzle, not the steak.
That's what they used to say, but REDs in this late stage of capitalism are
based on much shrewder and more sophisticated insights. They're not just
selling attractive and desirable sensations; they're selling a lot more than
that.

REDs come in different shapes and
sizes. I've described the little restaurant, but it works up into larger
complexes. These typically combine dining, shopping, and entertainment
attractions. In the trade journals this is called the "trinity of synergy."
Because they know if you're eating and you're shopping and you're being
entertained, you'll spend a lot more money. It grows up into very large-scale
complexes, and these are being built at a tremendous rate. You know what I'm
talking about: Disneyland, the Strip in Las Vegas, New York's Times Square.

Another
feature of these places is an air of amenity and authenticity: monumental
architecture, open-air loggias, colonnades, fountains, vaulted ceilings, and
decorative plasterwork. It's all part of what's come to be called the "experience
economy." These places are designed to appeal to our need for community and
identity. At times they almost seem to waft a sense, albeit rather cheapened,
of classical civilization. At least it seems so superficially, but when you
descend to ground level, to the place where humans interact, the place where
culture's roots should grow, it is a very different story.

After my experience with the jolly bistro, I became
fascinated with these places. So two years ago at Christmas time I decided to
go to Las Vegas. I wanted to see the great mother of them all and learn
something from it. Now I'll admit to you that I dislike the yuletide season.
This great orgy of spending and consumption and forced giving seems to me like
the ultimate perversion of what giving should be. So I engage in whatever
activity feels like the opposite of
Christmas. So it was that in late December of 2000 my girlfriend and I embarked
on a holiday and we decided to call it our Viva Las Xmas tour.

At the same time, the Guggenheim
announced its plan to open a gallery as a magnet attraction at the Venetian.
That's an example of what the trade journals call edutainment. And later, on TV, a young woman representing the
museum described this venture as a noble form of democratic outreach to the hoi
polloi, to the unwashed masses — and, I might add, a very lucrative proposition
for its gift shop. And an art critic was featured looking like he'd just downed
a snifter of quinine water. He was actually wearing a turtleneck, and he talked
about the postmodern implications of this daring move and how it was ironic …
and so forth.

You
see, in the last twenty years Vegas has reinvented itself as a thoroughgoing
RED. It used to be this sleazy place where guys went for action, but ah, not
anymore! It's now a center of edutainment, infotainment, eatotainment — every
kind of 'tainment you can think of. They've torn down all the old facades and,
in their place, they've erected palaces that offer up the holy trinity of
market synergy. We wandered through these great complexes. We loitered in the
shadow of animatronic sculptures. We witnessed the musical fountains and beheld
the pharaonic mysteries of ancient Egypt at the Luxor. At Caesar's Palace I
actually bought an ashtray, I admit it. It was irresistible. But my favorite
place was the Rio, because there we discovered a riverboat that they'd mounted
on the ceiling on a curvilinear track, and it was filled with performers who,
like performers on Broadway, were dancing and singing their hearts out. It
actually was interactive, and I got kind of excited about that. They kept
coming around and they were waving at us and we were waving at them.

In
fact, this kind of interactivity is typical of REDs. Here is my favorite quote
from a trade. It explains that interactivity is a key component of immersion
environments: "Free street performances, another form of ambient entertainment,
strive to replicate the spontaneity of the archetypal, if not mythical,
marketplace. Yet because they work independently, their performance can be
unpredictable making them potentially disruptive to both visitors and tenants.
Thus authentic performances are not commonly allowed on the private property of
destination complexes." Instead they hire performers and typically these
performances are of short duration. They've studied this and found that maximum
spending is reckoned to take place during a period of three to four hours. This
is the reason for the ersatz interactions, why they hire these performers, and
why the performances are so brief.

We
did witness the great speaking statue of Neptune at Caesar's Palace. It was set
in a courtyard, and, in a weird kind of cartoon way it might have been
Florence. It could have been a northern Italian hill town with its a public
square, a very civic setting. This robotic Neptune spoke to us for about seven
minutes, it attracted a large crowd, and then it stopped and everyone
dispersed-and where did they go? Right into all these shops that strategically
surrounded it. And every one was a brand name high-end retail outlet selling
goods at a 200 percent markup! And I'll make an even more embarrassing
confession: I went into one and bought a pair of Gucci's. Even knowing what it
was, I was caught up in the trance.

You
see, these settings are engineered with the precision of a hermetically sealed
engine. Though they may look like urban spaces, you'll find no posters pasted to
the lampposts, and you will experience none of the spontaneous encounters that
are the lifeblood of culture.

What
you will discover is what we discovered: the people chute. In the process of
reinventing itself, Vegas has built an elaborate system of pedestrian
transportation. They've located large parking complexes on the periphery of the
Strip, and they funnel people through casino environments by an integrated
system of escalators, bridges, elevators, tramways, and a variety of other
mechanical devices. We were never more than ten feet away from an opportunity
to buy something. It was virtually impossible to escape this. The space of one
casino bled seamlessly into the next.

At
the very end of our stay we took the elevator upstairs at the Rio, walked into
a restaurant and went out on the terrace, and there, spread out before us, was
the Strip: this great evil drive train glittering in the desert night. And I
thought to myself, this is just like
Burning Man
! We, too, create a scene, a fantasy environment. Each year we
create an annual art theme because we believe that stories and myths are one
way that people belong to each other and one way that you can get artists to
collaborate. What is more, we fill it with interaction and ambient
entertainment. The theme camps and art are magnet attractions. We even have our
own Electric Parade every year! Spread out on the desert floor, our glittering
city is a capsule world that obliges people to linger and loiter and totally
immerse themselves in an environment. The only difference is that you cannot
buy or sell anything. The only difference is that you are seldom more than ten
feet away from opportunities to interact with art and other human beings. The
only difference is that you must give of yourself. The only difference,
finally, is that it is real.

You
see, the great irony of this is that the creators of these REDs have almost
inadvertently reinvented a model of classical civilization. Pursuing a path of
market research, they've learned that human beings crave something greater than
themselves to which they can belong. They've learned that we need myths and
stories that can tell us who we are. They've learned that we need a coherent theater
in which to act out life's drama.

And
yet, marketers also know that in our modern world the public craves variety and
choice. The palladium facades and the Venetian palaces that they concoct allude
to an older order in which traditions shaped and governed everything. But
underneath it all, beneath the plaster facades and the faux marbling, they know
that in today's consuming world the individual and individual's desires are
king. It is, in fact, our desires as individuals disassociated from history,
place, and any sense of a surrounding community that drive our economic system.
Judged by any civilized standard, the mass culture of an RED. is an oxymoron.
Yet I think there is much we can learn from it.

And
this goes back to where I began. I said the great value of our modern system is
that it uniquely caters to the individual. We are in the forefront of this
consumer revolution, but all around the globe traditional societies that once
housed cultural processes and formed social vessels of belonging are beginning
to shatter. We used to call these societies the third world, but now they're
called emerging economies — but we are
now, today in America, the most individualized and the most self-conscious
people that have ever existed on the face of the earth. And I don't think we
are ready to return to a simpler life or the type of society that once
sustained culture.

Demands
for self-restraint will not be heard because we demand choice, we demand
freedom, and we value our individuality more that anything else. Nor do I think
we can reconstruct the kinds of societies that once helped culture to thrive.
They depended on the fact that people had to struggle together, that
circumstances held people together over long periods of time. We want to change
our jobs, we want to move freely through the world, we want to redefine
ourselves continually: we have exploded that ancient world of tradition.

I've
discussed a continuum of being: an I am,
a We are, and an It is. But if you look at all previous ages of human culture, the
order of this continuum started with It
is
, with gods and myths of supernatural origin, sustained by traditions
among people who struggled to survive in a challenging world. And it ended
somewhat tenuously with the experience of the individual. Today this sequence
works and must work in reverse. It
must necessarily begin with I am, at
the level of each individual's experience.

So
let me return to my comparison of Burning Man with retail entertainment
destinations. The essential appeal of Burning Man is to the individual. We've
achieved an ethos, and we have a few basic rules. But no one is required to
subordinate himself or herself. Instead, all are invited to expand themselves.
Burning Man is available on their
terms: anyone can engage in radical self-expression. Everyone is free to do and
be. The great difference between us and the consumer marketplace, however, is
that we have inverted the essential nature of the capitalist system. We are
like Disneyland turned inside out.
Because at the heart and center of this thing you will find a gift and, in so
doing, you yourself, your unique spirit will itself become a gift and be
consumed like fire in its passage to the sky.

Seventeen years ago, I started
Burning Man on a beach in San Francisco. This is frequently the first thing
that people ask me about. They want a myth, and I was once incautious enough to
tell a reporter that it corresponded to the anniversary of a lost love affair.
That story has now circled the globe, and it's been interpreted and
reinterpreted as myths often are. I've been told that I was burning myself,
that I was burning my ex-girlfriend, that I was burning my ex-girlfriend's new
boyfriend, but none of these stories are true. They're factoids. They're myths
in the modern sense of the word: distortions of the truth. And yet people keep
asking me this question, and I think it's because they're looking for a myth in
the older and more profound sense of the term. But myths are not about chains
of causation or rational reasoning. They tell us that the essence of things is
contained in first causes, and that everything, as in any vision, emanates
radically out of this. That's what people are asking me to tell them. That's
the nature of the story that they need
to hear. So I will tell you that
story.

One
day in 1986 I called a friend and said, let's build a man and burn him on the
beach. I did this on impulse. There was really nothing on my mind. I've thought
about it over the years, and the best I can say is that some passionate
prompting, some immediate vision just had to be embodied in the world. Call it
radical self-expression … I Am. We
built our man from scraps of wood, then called some friends and took it to the
beach. We saturated it with gasoline and put a match to it, and within minutes
our numbers doubled. That's actually when Burning Man began as an institution,
you know. We were so moved by that we knew we had to do it again. If we'd done
it as a private and personal thing, I'm sure we wouldn't have repeated it. And
I remember holding my son in my arms, and I looked at each face illuminated in
the firelight. They had formed a semicircle about it, and I was so moved — We Are. They'd all come to see this
gift. A woman ran over and held its hand. I didn't know who she was. The wind
was shunting the flames to one side, and someone took a picture of it — it's the
only recorded instant. She just had to touch it. She wanted to belong to it.
And then, of course, there was the Man himself. Standing there against the
limitless horizon of the broad Pacific, it seemed to belong to the ocean, to
belong to the sky — to exist in some realm immeasurably beyond us. It formed a
fireball, a second sun brought down to earth, a sudden, uncontrollable and
completely spontaneous emission of energy. It
Is.
And when I look at Black Rock City today, I notice that its curving
streets are like that semicircle of people so many years ago on Baker Beach.
Our city seems to reach out to the Man as if it could capture him, but can
never quite possess this gift at its center. I Am … We Are … It Is. What more is there to say, except that I
believe there is a way that all of us can be
together.

 

This article originated as a talk given at Cooper Union in
New York City, April 25, 2002.

 

Image by Jesse Wagstaff, courtesy of Creative Commons license.