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Worldchanging Art?
Alex Steffen, 13 Aug 04

Burning Man -- the massive art happening and temporary autonomous zone that erupts in Nevada's Black Rock desert at the end of every summer -- is indescribable. But is it helpful? Is it worldchanging?

That's the question John Perry Barlow raised a few months back, in a now-famous email challenging the legitimacy of the idea of so many talented people spending so much of their time, money and imagination in the creation of an isolated cultural experience:

"If someone like Karl Rove had wanted to neutralize the most creative, intelligent, and passionate members of his opposition, he'd have a hard time coming up with a better tool than Burning Man. Exile them to the wilderness, give them a culture in which alpha status requires months of focus and resource-consumptive preparation, provide them with metric tons of psychotropic confusicants, and then . . . ignore them. It's a pretty safe bet that they won't be out registering voters, or doing anything that might actually threaten electoral change, when they have an art car to build."

In what may be one of the most important election years in history, these do not seem to me unreasonable points. Art ghettos don't make great change agents, as Weimar Germany proved.

That said, good political art can most definitely trigger shifts in the culture, and culture ultimately drives politics. Artists and arts groups like The Yes Men, Critical Art Ensemble, Reverend Billy, Jon Stewart, Guerilla Girls, Sheppard Fairey, RTMark, and Banksy -- just to name a few who spring to mind -- are helping provide a critical transfusion of energy and ideas into our tired political culture. We need more work like this, and hopefully we'll be seeing some at the Republican National Convention. Hopefully, the art will go beyond puppets and create some new forms of comment and interaction, new political art for a new century...

Recently, Barlow and Burning Man founder Larry Harvey debated the role of art in our political culture. I would have liked to be there. It's an important conversation to have.

So, what do you think? What's the roll of art in our political culture? Who's doing good work? What would you like to see more of? Got any crazy ideas for performance pieces?

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Out of curiousity, what percentage of contributors to WorldChanging tend towards voting Democrat (for the Americans, at least)?

I love this blog, and read it daily. One of the great things about it is the infrequency of direct politics, and instead, just a discussion and informing of world changing ideas. This post, however, is written as if to change our "our tired political culture", you need to get out and campaign against President Bush. Can art not also be used to promote ideas antithetical to the Democratic Party? Are there any artists out there that espouse a more libertarian or pro-Western civilisation stance?

Posted by: Jason Holliston on 13 Aug 04

We have the FutureShack exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt during the RNC.

Last week I sent an invite to the GOP chairman so perhaps some of the delegates might take a visit - Not all of them can be going to see Aida and attending cocktail parties.

Posted by: Cameron Sinclair on 13 Aug 04

you want to say role, not roll.

I've heard this argument before, and though it does have some merits, in my view there are two crucial points that invalidate it:

1: The most powerful aspect of Burning Man is not its art, it's its community, its creation of networks. (Which Harvey also says in the debate.) It is a hybrid of internet-age affinity-based grouping and old-fashioned location-based face-to-face grouping. The connections people make there can be quite strong, and they continue to exist the rest of the year. For instance, I recently moved to Seattle, and instantly found a huge community of liberal, creative, active people because these people are all Burners; it would've taken years and years for me to ammass those connections without such a convenient rallying point, and even then there'd be fewer connections, because social-group boundaries would be drawn more by neighborhood or "scene" preference. These networks allow people to enlist many others in activities, some of which are political. One of the reasons the radical right is such a powerful political force is its impressively tight social networks.

2: activism / creative energy is not a zero-sum game; in fact, it's the opposite: it's reinforcing. Once you get off your TV-watching butt and start being active in one arena, it makes you more likely to be active in others. Special events are motivational: if you've had this cool idea for doing something creative, a special event gives you a deadline to shoot for and an arena to show off in. As such, some people do political art for the playa and then display it back home, and some people who would never quite cross the threshold from idea to action get tipped over the edge. Sure, most of the art and action that happens on the playa isn't political, but that's because most Americans aren't that actively political, it's not because Burning Man is distracting them from it.

There's also a less-important third point, which is that Burning Man gives people a vision of what's possible, what the world could be if the young hipster/techno-hippies re-made it. This semi-cohesive vision is the other traditional advantage of the radical right--they have a vision (of a 1950's Life Magazine America) that gives them clear direction and motivation. You've probably heard the joke "go ahead and take my civil rights. I wasn't using them anyway." Well, at marginal events like Burning Man, people DO use them. The hippies of the 60's had this vision as well, but there is a crucial difference between Burners and Hippies-- Burners build things. Burners get things done, and use both money and technology to do it. This fundamentally active and organizational spirit (as opposed to the passive "turn on, tune in, drop out" spirit) makes Burners much more of a force to be reckoned with in society.

Posted by: Jer on 13 Aug 04

Mark Pesce also has some interesting counter-Burning Man points here:

That said, even though I don't know a huge amount about Burning Man, Barlow's comments seem slightly unfair in ignoring how people's experience of Burning Man may feed back into their "real world" lives. Probably hard to quantify, but surely worth considering.

Posted by: Gyrus on 14 Aug 04

If you spend a lot of time going to sustainability and leadership and economics conventions and other academic meetings, then "it's a pretty safe bet that [you] won't be out registering voters, or doing anything that might actually threaten electoral change, when [you] have a [paper or two to present.]"

It's the same set of decisions that everyone faces anyway.

JPB is right to point out that the spirit of involvement and participatory culture needs to draw itself out and into the 'real world,' but saying Karl Rove approves... That's a low, low blow. :-)

Posted by: Paul on 14 Aug 04

I agree! That's why I founded the "Real World Greeters" Project! Everyone on the playa knows that participation and "no spectators" are moral imperatives - yet many of us don't participate in our real-world communities. That's where the Real World Greeters come in. The Real World Greeters will work at the end of Burning Man to welcome people back to the "real world" and remind people of the many ways they can participate year-round. You'll see us during Exodus as you leave, either on the gate road or in the city. If YOU'D like to become a Real World Greeter - to help register people to vote, teach people how to register others to vote, and gently remind everyone about participation and "no spectators" in the real world (community service, politics, activism, and self-organization...) please join us at!

We had our first meeting last Wednesday and it was great. We got an announcement in the official Burning Man Newsletter ("The Jack Rabbit Speaks") yesterday, and enthusiasm is building for the project. Learn more about the project at

JX Bell, founder of the Real World Greeters

Posted by: The Real World Greeters on 14 Aug 04

Burning Man operates on at least three levels. A lot of it is the masculine counterbalance to the incredibly feminine vision of the 1960s. The feminine vision of peace love and harmony didn't stand, didn't work in the real world, and lead to the bombed-out psychedelic ghetto of the 1970s, the failure of the commune movement due to consensus-leadership resuilting in political failures (read the history of The Farm for more on this) and generally unbalanced and unrealistic thinking.

Burning Man is a potent antidote. It makes people fierce, tough, smart. It makes good engineers.

And the network is real: Burners are like Free Masons. You can turn up in any city, go to the next Burner party / recompression / lodge meeting and find people with the same radicalism, the same vision of independence and community fused at a higher level than previous visions.

Burning Man is a libertarian utopia, in the same way that Rainbow Gathering is essentially a socialist one. They're both spiritual visions and they inform, fuel, and recharge us on the level where hope dies in the minefields, valleys and pits of the mundane.

To stay alive and fuel Utopia in the mundane world, there have to be places to see an aspect of the future in the real world, to reconnect to the hope which drives us on.

Posted by: Vinay on 15 Aug 04

And, frankly, I think that Barlow doesn't understand the difference between the Hippie Vision which he did so much to form and maintain (remember he was a lyricist for the Greatful Dead, among other things).

The Hippies bent to material pressure because they were poor, disorganized, anti-authoritarian and generally anti-force.

Burners are capable of massive organization, creating and handling intense amounts of wealth, dealing with political coercion (threating to move the legal residences of 5,000 people to Utah to simply elect the county government they needed, for example, if I remember that story right) and making a disciplined stand against entities like the BLM - working for fair treatment. They really are Leave No Trace - and if they weren't, they wouldn't exist.

Burning Man continues to exist because it continues to play - and win - the political game.

To really boil this down to it's essence: in Woodstock, it rained was was a disaster - frozen, hungry hippies huddling together in droves waiting for the locals to feed them.

At Burning Man, there's a 60 mph dust storm which lasts for three hours, and it's a minor incident, adds some color.

We're a new and different breed of freak, and I'm not sure that Barlow is entirely comfortable with that. Although most Burners aren't old enough to be interested in politics yet, when it happens (next five or ten years) they're going to display the same level of guts and skill that it takes to organize to survive in the desert, and we're going to kick amazing amounts of ass. Just give us time.

Posted by: Vinay on 15 Aug 04

The social networking aspect, as Jer points out, is non-trivial. Many folk I know take the pattern of leaning towards BM a few years and then back towards working in the world for a few years.

Jason, I'm not quite sure how Democrats stand in any more opposition to libertarianism or Western civilisation than the Republicans; most of the artists I know of espouse a stance not readily found in either party.

Since so many levels of self expression are criminalised in this country, the ongoing existence of TAZs are essential; Burning Man keeps the energy for it and many reigonal fires going.

Vinay's gendered analysis of Burning Man seems rather stretched. I am aware of no evidence that the BM organization engaged in any substantive political action in Utah. It also seems dubious to assert what the members of Burning Man are. Before we get too pleased with ourselves for being able to make things capable of surviving a week in an alkaline desert, engineering for the playa is a fairly narrow set of design constraints; most playa works I've seen would degrade rapidly in a monsoon.

Posted by: Ethan Fremen on 15 Aug 04

I too had similar thoughts at last year's Burning Man, wondering what this same energy might accomplish if directed elsewhere. But in a rather lengthy travelogue that you're welcome to read, I've come to the conclusion that there's too much good at Burning Man to ultimately condemn it.

A friend had encouraged me to channel that same rebellious energy into political activism, but I've come to the conclusion that such energy may also be misdirected. As much as I and others may want Bush out of office, I hardly see Kerry as a significant alternative, and this to me is the core of the problem. We have a political system that channels all our energies into a very narrow set of activities that does not in fact represent real change.

Burning Man, for all its faults (and they are legion), represents real people behaving differently, outside the constraints the "system" offers us. It is this spirit that I think will win the day. Rather than demanding that the majority behave differently, we the minority need to simply lead the way. Jumping up and down and crying that things are bad is not as effective as simply living differently, and it's in this latter respect that Burning Man can serve as an example.

Posted by: neil verplank on 16 Aug 04

I can see why people who are heavily involved in politics would want us to "channel that same rebellious energy into political activism", but it just doesn't work that way. Politics should serve real life, not the other way 'round. I've put (more or less) all the time and money I can muster for the last month or two into my Human Skybeam project, but even if there was a political campaign that felt like it would be a worthwhile use of time I wouldn't put that kind of effort into it. My Burning Man project is intrinsically satisfying; it's somewhere between art and engineering, and in the process of getting it built I'm spending lots of time sharing efforts with other local burners. Put simply, it's pure play. This is the sort of thing you keep a day job for.

Politics, on the other hand, is scut-work: a necessary evil. That government is best which governs least, and which requires the least continuous tinkering about in its affairs. I'll do it when I have to - and I have, in fact, participated in several political campaigns, and showed up at more rallies than I can remember - but that's not where I get my life satisfaction. It's just something I do to help prevent other people from screwing things up too badly.

It makes about as much sense to suggest that people should divert the energy into Burning Man off to some practical political end as it would to suggest that they skip Christmas and spend the holiday season working a phone bank soliciting donations for a political campaign. It just doesn't work that way.

Even if you look at the event through Puritan glasses, though, there's still value to be seen. As others pointed out, one remarkable side-effect of the whole phenomenon is a thriving local Burner culture in cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and Austin - perhaps other places as well. This is a year round social network that has proven remarkably adept at sharing effort and resources. It's too early to tell what the long term effect of this this new layer of social fabric will be, but I'm looking forward to finding out.

Posted by: Mars Saxman on 16 Aug 04

Cool project, Mars.

Just to make sure I'm not misunderstood here:

I think Burning Man rocks. Going last year was one of the coolest things I've ever done. I'm not going this year simply because I'm in the middle of a move and don't have the time to prepare. I think everyone, or at least some people, ought to go at least once.

And I passionately believe in the threat of a good example. Making something happen on the ground is worth a thousand Masters theses deconstructing the power relationships that keep anything from happening.

That said, I do think that Barlow has some points which Burners ought to wrestle with.

What is the role of creative people in creating change? Are we all living up to our responsibilities? What can we do that the nation and the world need to have done?

Those seem to me questions worth sitting with.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 16 Aug 04

I think there are three main approaches to changing the world:

1> shifting balances within existing frameworks
- for example, higher or lower vehicle efficiency standards
- incremental technological refinement

2> creating or destroying politlcal powerbases
- for example, the formation of unions, or the right wing think tank networks

3> creating new possibilities
- either technologically (my favored approach, and with the best historical batting average)
- or politically

I think that Burning Man is a Type 2 and Type 3 endevor - there's some politicla network building, and (for example) a lot of the Sensible Drug Policy groups have heavy Burner connections. But on the Type 3 front, Burning Man shows, fairly conclusively in my opinion, that the cure for aggression is freedom.


The passive-aggressive menace of large Sixties-style Hippie gatherings (and, dammit, I'm speaking from personal experience here - been there, done that) is *completely* abscent at Burning Man. People are friendly, open, cooperative, peaceful and considerate - and when they're not, you just move away or they move away - open space, lack of a party line etc. all seem to facilitiate natural cooperative instincts.

A commune without rules, without consensus, is still a commune.

And that, to me, is a critical insight into the nature of human organization and cooperation.

Posted by: Vinay on 16 Aug 04



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