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.