whatisburningman sectional graphic

BURNING MAN JOURNAL: 2007 SUMMER NEWSLETTER

All The News That's Fit To Burn : 2007 Summer Newsletter

THE DEFAULT WORLD

by Larry Harvey

The road that funnels traffic into Black Rock City is lined with a series of closely spaced signs. Like floating strands of thought, they spell out sentences against the void of the surrounding plain. The first such message always reads: Welcome... to the Vacant Heart... of the Wild West. This is intended as an invitation to create the world anew. Last year, in 2006, participants encountered another, even more prominent, series of signs while exiting our city. Among these, was a greeting and a query: Welcome... to the Default World:... Whose fault... is that?

Burners Without Borders

Experience has shown that we can readily apply the lessons we have learned at Burning Man to the so-called 'default world' of daily life. Never was this more apparent than in the aftermath of our event in 2005. Near the height of our celebration, news of Hurricane Katrina quickly spread through our community. A relief fund was immediately instituted; initial contributions totaled $30,000. More importantly, many Burners chose to volunteer their aid in the disaster zone.

One group, in particular, stood out. It included members of Black Rock City's Department of Public Works, known as the DPW, and volunteers who had helped build the Temple of Dreams. Arriving on the Gulf Coast, they encountered a Vietnamese community in Biloxi, Mississippi. Here, they found the broken remnants of a Buddhist temple. Ironically, the dedication of this recently constructed temple had occurred a mere twelve hours in advance of the oncoming storm. Then, the unimaginable occurred: the winds of Hurricane Katrina swept away the spiritual and social core of a community and its culture.

This ad hoc crew of burners immediately set to work. Over the course of the next three months, they reconstructed the shattered temple. In doing this, the group was guided by the culture they'd absorbed at Burning Man. Radical Self-Reliance was certainly in evidence. They knew what was required to survive and labor in a landscape stripped of usable resources. They had arrived in the disaster zone already equipped with tools, water, fuel, and generators. Communal Effort and Civic Responsibility - two more of the Ten Principles printed on back of this journal - were inherently a part of everything they did.

Over a span of 6 months, 299 volunteers cycled through the ranks of what came to be called Burners Without Borders. This exercise of Radical Inclusion also played its part in other ways. The members of BWB behaved as they would on the playa, forming many personal relationships with local residents. When the group moved on to Pearlington, Mississippi, a rural and more devastated region, they quickly gained the confidence and trust of the surrounding population. A constant stream of gifts poured in. They were fed by local fishermen; a nearby contractor donated much-needed heavy equipment.

Amid the ruin of Pearlington, another basic principle emerged: Radical Self-Expression. This, more than anything, distinguished BWB from other relief groups. At the end of each working day, the crew began to fashion art from the appalling sprawl of storm debris. Every Saturday evening they would toss these sculptures on a bonfire, and the residents of Pearlington soon joined them in this ritual. Over the course of 6 months, BWB demolished many houses while rebuilding others. They also supplied water, fuel, food and clothing to hundreds of people. However, by recreating what had been a sacred place, by transforming the repulsive remnant of a human trauma into art, and by allowing people to redeem their pain and sense of loss by making art, they fulfilled more than a material need. They instilled a vital spirit in the default world. By embodying our culture and its ethos, they changed lives.

Since then, Burners Without Borders has undertaken many other projects, all of which live up to the BWB motto: Building Community Through Art, And Action. At Burning Man 2006, Burners Without Borders volunteers collected 42 units of lumber — six full semi-trucks of recycled building material! This was donated to Habitat For Humanity and used to build homes for low-income families in Reno. In Chicago, BWB artists mentored students at a high school, showing them how to create to create art from 'found objects'. When this first wave of art is replaced during the next semester, it will move to rooftops and become a sculpture garden for the benefit of commuters on the city's elevated trains. These and many other initiatives bear witness to a movement that is happening across the nation. As our culture expands outward, it is not co-opted, exploited or commodified by the so-called mainstream of mass society. Instead, it's radically inserting itself into the Main Street of American life. To learn about this activist aspect of Burning Man or to join please visit the Burners Without Borders web site.

The Black Rock Arts Foundation

Another organization, the not-for-profit Black Rock Arts Foundation, embraces very similar goals. It raises money and distributes grants in support of community-based art and civic renewal. BRAF does not fund art for installation at the Burning Man event. Its field of operations is the default world. Its funding comes from several sources. The Burning Man Project has made numerous donations to BRAF, and the Foundation has received generous support from fellow not-for-profit organizations, such as the Rex Foundation, the Irvine Foundation and the San Francisco Foundation. Substantial contributions also issue from BRAF's membership, and many Burning Man participants have chosen to make individual donations to BRAF or to contribute while buying tickets on the Internet. This is very easily accomplished. Simply check a box on the Burning Man Project's ticket ordering form. Finally, in addition to BRAF's own fundraising events, it has received voluntary donations from fundraising undertaken by Burning Man's many regional communities. To learn more about the mission or to sign up as a member visit the Black Rock Arts Foundation.

At the conclusion of its last fiscal year, the Black Rock Arts Foundation netted $250,000 — more than double its income from the previous year! This rapid growth mirrors both the pace and span of Burning Man's emergent culture. Where does all this money go? It goes to projects large and small across the default world. For example, as a part of its ongoing ScrapEden project, BRAF has contributed funds to the Panhandle Band Shell to be constructed in the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. This effort involves many veteran burners. Their object is to build a band shell composed from reclaimed materials, including car hoods, circuit boards and plastic bottles. Devoted to live performance and acoustic music, this venue will become a gathering place where neighborhood residents can mingle with citizens from all over the city.

Further afield, BRAF is supporting the Detroit Dream Project. Led by David Best, a BRAF board member and the creator of this year's Temple of Forgiveness, a local community of burners plans to erect a temple of its own. Entitled The Temple of the American Dream, this large-scale edifice will be constructed from wheel rims, springs, car hoods and plasma cut car doors. Like the art created by Burners Without Borders, this tower will arise from the detritus of America's great Rust Belt. In the words of the Dream Project's web site, "A driving goal is to involve the community and local artists, spreading the message that all of the people can participate and create together. Through broad-based community participation, the project will cross the great racial divide that has plagued Detroit's art and city revitalization for years."

Even further afield, at a truly global reach, BRAF is funding the art of Charlie Smith and Jamie Ladet through a grant given to Paul Jorgenson, the organizer of Afrika Burns, an event occurring near Cape Town in South Africa. Charlie is famous at Burning Man for his Nausts. These massive mobile sculptures serve as fire cauldrons. Over the years, participants have happily pushed them, like gigantic perambulators, throughout Black Rock City. Eventually, Charlie and Jamie began to travel through our regional communities, stopping long enough to allow local participants to craft component parts of one large metal fire sculpture, entitled Synapses. It appeared at Burning Man in 2005, literally integrating the efforts of many communities into a single masterwork.

This year, sponsored by a grant from BRAF, they will create another prepossessing installation, entitled Quadrapass, during three weekend workshops in Cape Town in June and July. Their stated goal is to involve, "...artists of varying gender, social and ethnic classes in the South African region". Against the historic background of apartheid, the organizers of Afrika Burns are striving to prevent the newly liberated world they live in from defaulting to the past.

The Burning Man Network

The Burning Man Network, like Burners Without Borders, arose organically. Upon returning to the default world, participants began to gather and share photographs and stories. They reminisced about their experiences, remembering how wonderful it had felt to be so alive in the immediate here and now. Eventually, it dawned on them: they still inhabited a vital here and now. The world around them wasn't in default. Instead, it was they who were challenged. In response to this spontaneous reaction, the Burning Man Project launched its first participant discussion list in 1998. By the year 2000, a lively discourse had evolved.

Today, many local discussion lists exist, serving 92 communities worldwide. These forums are administered by our 'regional contacts'. As of this writing, 128 volunteers now fill this role, and 73 more people are waiting to be qualified. Regional contacts do not dictate self-expression, nor do they oversee prescribed activities dictated by the Burning Man Project. Their primary mission is to occupy the center ground in a community, providing information and helping people to gather, share resources and coordinate activities. The Network is not a franchise system; no home office imposes licensing fees or levies tithes. It is, instead, a mode of fellowship whose purpose is to aid community initiatives.

Many things have issued from this grassroots movement In its earliest phase, regional communities began to organize events that emulated Black Rock City. These gatherings adopted many of the Burning Man Project's methods and institutions. They took the form of camping trips, a journey to some place beyond the mundane world. They incorporated Black Rock Rangers, they strove to leave no trace, they encouraged the formation of theme camps, and all of them, it seemed, culminated in the ritual immolation of a great burning something. Dozens of regional burns now exist. From Playa Del Fuego in Delaware, to Transformus in North Carolina, to Apogaea in the mountains of Colorado, to Nowhere, staged in Zaragazo, Spain, each bears the indelible stamp of its origins. Because our regional contacts are connected through their own discussion list, these events are often scheduled so their dates do not conflict. Now it's possible to undertake a pilgrimage that moves from burn to burn. A kind of cultural cross-pollination is occurring as burners from one region visit another.

More recently, a new movement has arisen within the greater community of Burning Man, especially in urban centers. Local 'town councils' have begun to convene. I can testify firsthand to what is happening. In April of this year, I visited Portland, Oregon. Whisked from the airport, I deposited my bags at a hotel and was then trundled off to what I thought would be some sort panel discussion. I found myself inside a cavernous basement located beneath the hall where I was scheduled to speak the following evening. Forty people sat on folding chairs that formed a circle. Everyone was silent except for a young woman who was seated to my left. She was talking very rapidly, spitting out facts, instances, lessons and examples, spooling out this information like a ticker tape machine.

Then it dawned on me that she was from Seattle. I had visited Seattle two years previously and attended its first burner-organized town meeting. Only later did I learn that I was now attending Portland's first town meeting. I was witnessing something historic, and no one in that room could guess what special significance this held for me. When the Project formally founded the Network in 2002, I'd written a letter addressed to all of our regional contacts (This letter may be found at: regionals.burningman.com/network_coverletter.html). In it, we proposed a system whereby more experienced regional groups would mentor their neighbors, but we had never followed up on this. Now, I was watching this occur organically. Everything she said was pertinent. The knowledge she'd acquired was quite detailed and pragmatic, the product of experience within her own community.

Once this presentation had concluded, Ben Dantoni, our regional contact and the chair of the meeting, invited me to volunteer my thoughts. To tell the truth, I can't remember what I said. What was most needed had already been expressed. Perhaps, my presence in that subfusc basement was enough. In any case, when 15 minutes had elapsed, Ben crisply interjected a reminder. The time had come, he said, to move along with the agenda. At this, I inwardly rejoiced: these people knew what they were doing! A few more items were addressed and then the floor was opened to discussion. One by one, participants stood up, describing local projects. Each of these people represented a network of friends. Furthermore, since this was the first official town meeting, half of those present did not yet know one another. And yet, as each individual described their efforts, someone in the circle would address them. "You need a space?" one person said. "I know a place. It's in my neighborhood." "Power? That's no problem," another offered. "You can use our generator." Soon, these interactions multiplied, exploding like kernels of corn in a kettle. When the meeting broke up, a young woman handed me an envelope. It was a donation to the Black Rock Arts Foundation.

Diaspora

The word diaspora describes the dispersion or spreading of something that was originally localized (as a people or language or culture). To witness the dispersion of our culture in the default world, one need only examine a map displayed on the Regional Network's home page. It indicates the geographic range of Burning Man's communities. From Hawaii to New Hampshire, from Alaska to Florida, communities of burners now inhabit 43 States. Other groups have also coalesced in Canada, Great Britain, Europe, New Zealand, South Africa, Nova Scotia, Australia and Asia.

The force that drives this diaspora is an ethos. The word ethos refers to the fundamental character or spirit of a culture; the underlying sentiment that informs the beliefs, customs, or practices of a group or society. It summons up a vision of way of a life whose values are internalized, a mode of being that is shared. Burners Without Borders, the Black Rock Arts Foundation and the Burning Man Network — indeed, the Burning Man event, itself — exist as social instruments. They are contexts that inspire interaction and spontaneous initiatives. They allow our culture to reach outward and self-propagate, to leap across the bright orange trash fence that encloses Black Rock City and create the world anew. It is, at last, your willingness to give your gifts to a much greater gift that is the medium of change. Another set of signs appeared along the roadway that led out of town last year. They read, "What happens... in Las Vegas… stays in Las Vegas... What happens in... Black Rock City... doesn't stay in…Black Rock City." Who's afraid of the Default World? It needn't be you.