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Mark Pesce

I skipped Burning Man this year and realized something. It’s become a cult. And it’s about time we all woke up and recognized it.

I have an axe to grind. I have a fight to pick. I have a hair across my ass.

And I want to share.

It started when I decided not to go to Burning Man this year. For many of my friends, my presence at Burning Man is a foregone conclusion; it's absolutely accepted that – baring death or dismemberment – I'll be on the Playa with them.

At the end of July I made a very honest assessment of what it would take to get me to the Playa. It would take about a thousand dollars in free cash. And I was already behind on two lease payments on my car. Even with a massive cash infusion – which, strangely enough, arrived in time for Burning Man – it didn't seem as though it was in the cards for me to show up at Black Rock City this year. It felt...hard.

Yet my insides were screaming: I MUST GO TO THE PLAYA. IT'S THE ONLY SANE SPACE LEFT ON EARTH. But the brutal physical realities of survival under the Bush coup d'etat seemed to be closing that opportunity off from me. And I was ready to surrender, to give in, and just behave.

It was a hard decision to make. But an easy one to keep.

Because once I'd made the decision – and freed myself from the almost obsessive nature of the planning that precedes each trip to the Playa, all the toy hunting and costume-making and theme planning and buying buying buying – I found I could step aside from the madness which swept into and consumed all of my friends – as it had for me, year after year – and take a good, honest, objective look at it. Well, at least as objective as I can be.

And I realized something. It's become a cult. And it's about time we all woke the fuck up and recognized it.

I'm not saying a cult is a bad thing, mind you. Christianity started as a cult, as did Mormonism, the Quakers, and Freemasonry. Mohammed was believed to be starting a cult in the deserts of Arabia – one that swept out and conquered the known world, moving from cult to religion in record time. Cults can be forces for enormous good in the world. But the Scientologists are going through their cult stage now – in another hundred years they'll be richer and more mainstream than the Mormons, I predict.

Why has it become a cult? Well, that's actually really easy to explain: Black Rock City is a crucible, combined, more often than not, with intense doses of psychedelic drugs. If you were going to design an environment for brainwashing, you'd be hard pressed to come across a more effective situation than already exists in Black Rock City. The environment is harsh and forces people to cooperate, relaxing their normal ego-boundaries. The drugs intensify this ego-dissolution, and voila! You've got all the makings for a post-apocalyptic Catharism.

So face up to it, kiddies, we're in a cult. No one really recruited us – well, except for the legions of friends who have been telling us for years YOU SIMPLY MUST COME TO BURNING MAN. And god knows I'm guilty of that. I have been a plague-carrier of the Burning Man virus for almost a decade now, happily infecting any seemingly receptive soul with the broad colors of my own beliefs. In those years the population of Black Rock City has moved from three thousand to thirty thousand. And I know it's not only that I've been spreading this virus. They told two friends, and they told two friends, and so on and so on and so on...

So now Black Rock City has a dependable population of roughly thirty thousand people who can be expected to show up, camp in essentially hostile conditions (no one else would willingly choose to live on Lake Lahotan), and have a quintessentially transpersonal experience.

And all of it has become highly ritualized. The greeters, who gleefully shout out "Welcome home!" when you arrive at the gate (the first time I heard this, I wanted to snarl, "Get away from me, you hippies, do you think you're at Rainbow Gathering?"), to the slow trek into camp (at 5 mph, reading the sign-art), through everything else that leads up to the burn of the Man (and the Temple burn, which quickly became the de facto ritual for Sunday evening, the haunt of the hardcore Burners), it proceeds according to schedule, according to plan, according to time-honored tradition. If a tradition that's barely a decade-old can seriously be called time-honored.

I think it's time we all took ourselves a lot less seriously. And in particular, I think it's time that Pope Larry Harvey and Regent Empress Marian Goodell took themselves a whole lot less seriously.

I don't mean to say that they're not good people. They are. They plainly are. They have done wonderful work, built a very respectable arts organization, and have generally contributed to improving the quality of life for tens of thousands of people. That's one hell of an accomplishment.

But when I garnered my own 15 minutes of fame & glory, I was told by those wiser than me that one thing must always be firmly planted in mind: never, ever, under any circumstances, should I believe my own PR. This will only lead to ruin. And how many of the myths of rise and fall center on this very point: someone believes the lies told about them, takes them to heart, and this becomes a point of pride.

And we all know what happens once pride is involved.

So we come to The Article, which I feel compelled to quote in full, to avoid any complaints that I might be taking things out of context. It appeared in the Reno Gazette and Journal, on Labor Day, 1 September 2003:

BLACK ROCK DESERT, Nev. — Burning Man, the counterculture festival held annually in one of the nation's most remote areas, is coming to cities across America.

It's time to try to influence the very culture against which this year's record 30,500 Burning Man participants rebelled, the phenomenon's founder and resident visionary said in an interview.

Ultimately, executive director Larry Harvey sees the festival's values of libertarian freedom, anti-consumerism, radical artistic and self-expression becoming a social movement that will influence American politics.

"We came out here to do an otherworldly thing. We came out here to do a vision — to do the most impractical thing imaginable," Harvey, 55, said as a choking dust storm whipped through the elaborate desert city that participants built and destroyed in a week.

"But now, in this newest phase of the development, we're going back to the world," he said. "I don't want to be a subculture — I want to enter the mainstream culture, but on our terms."

The effort to spread Burning Man already has begun.

About 100 regional representatives met last week at what participants call Black Rock City, or the Republic of Burning Man.

Two full-time employees of Black Rock City LLC are helping develop regional spinoffs beyond those already growing in places like New York, Seattle, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Austin, Tex., — and making sure they adhere to the philosophy of the original.

Internet sites and organizational tools help regional offshoots communicate and avoid some of the mistakes the original Burning Man made growing up.

Black Rock Arts Foundation, meanwhile, has been set up to raise money and to bring radical art to communities nationwide. Organizers also just distributed what they call a "Burning Man film festival in a box," a do-it-yourself kit that they expect will promote avant-garde cinematography.

"Many people will have the Burning Man experience and feel a part of Burning Man without ever coming here," said Harvey, serially smoking cigarettes and sipping iced coffee as his aviator sunglasses turned opaque in the swirling dust. "We are growing at an exponential rate — just not here."

What evolved into Burning Man started when eight people torched an eight-foot wooden figure on a San Francisco beach in 1986. The crowd for what became an annual event soon grew to 800.

Eighty people showed up when the event moved to the remote desert 120 miles north of Reno in 1990. It grew to 8,000 by 1996, and has nearly quadrupled since. Harvey calls those phases one and two.

Phase Three is creating regional festivals and bringing cutting-edge art into communities nationwide.

Phase Four is turning those people into an Internet-connected network for social and ultimately political change, in Harvey's vision.

"I think increasingly the political parties don't matter," he said Saturday as participants prepared the climactic torching of what has now become a 40-foot neon-lit Burning Man affixed atop an elaborate 40-foot Aztec-style wood and canvas pyramid.

"I think leaders will rise up in these (Burning Man) groups and a new kind of value-based politics — drawing renewal from rituals — will emerge. Then you have a rebirth of democracy, but a different kind of democracy."

Burning Man participants got their most overtly politicized event this year, when Bill Talen of New York City assumed his persona as the Rev. Billy and led his Church of Stop Shopping in nightly shows of satirical songs and sermons denouncing consumerism, the nation's energy policy, and Bush administration priorities generally.

Burning Man is a marketer's dream, attracting a preponderance of highly educated, relatively affluent participants in their 30s and 40s, followed in order by those in their 20s and then their 60s, Harvey said.

"If we let them, there'd be Burning Man vodka and Burning Man everything," Harvey said.

Burning Man is rabidly anti-commercial, however. Though organizers have taken lessons from how corporations operate, corporate logos are banned at Burning Man. Participants are encouraged even to mask the logos on rental trucks or RVs, and Black Rock City LLC's legal arm aggressively targets any attempt to commercialize or capitalize on the event.

"We're the other choice in a consumer world," Harvey said, as extravagantly or barely costumed Burning Man participants donned goggles and pulled up bandanas and face masks against the talcom-fine dust that at times cut visibility to a matter of a few yards. The wind shook the two-story wooden deck on which Harvey sat, and threatened to sail his trademark felt Stetson off into the surrounding desert.

"They're marketing fake authenticity," he said. "We're the real thing. Why else would people come out to this godforsaken place? People think the ultimate thing people want is comfort and convenience. We've proved that's not the case."

Though Harvey inspires near reverential devotion from a cadre of aides and hangers-on, most Burning Man participants have never met him. But many said they also see a grass roots backlash against rampant commercialism.

"This is the influence that needs to go into those Third World cities, not Coca-Cola and Pepsi," said Angela Layton of Beaver Creek, Ore.

"For sure it's going to evolve, and it's going to evolve in society. Burning Man is a reflection of society," said Labro Zabelis, a psychology graduate student from Union, N.J.

Harvey readily acknowledges his vision sounds grandiose.

"But I know what we can accomplish," he said, overlooking the fleeting, illusionary city that sprang up from five square miles of desert. "In the fullness of time, maybe this will disappear — because it will have served its purpose. The children will have left the nursery."

It's almost too easy to pick this apart, line by line, and read into it the monomaniacal goals of a dynamic cult figure who realizes he's hit the cultural trifecta: the geeks, the freaks, and the artists. Yes, a counter-cultural movement lies quivering beneath Larry Harvey's outstretched finger, ready to be touched, titillated, and taken. And plans have been made. Apparently, they're well underway.

He's franchising Burning Man.

At least it's not an original idea; Ray Kroc, that father of franchising, stole the idea himself. Franchising isn't about original ideas. Quite the contrary. Franchising is taking something that will sell – to everyone.

And, just as with McDonalds, Larry Harvey will oversee the quality control in each of his duly-authorized establishments, ensuring that they live up to the quality and cleanliness of the original in every respect. It's a brilliant strategy, and I am sure it will work. Famously.

But here's the questions that need to be asked: Is this really what we want? And what, in the end, is being sold to us? What kind of textured-vegetable-protein burger are we being asked to eat? And will it poison us?

Before we buy the ticket and take the ride there is a moment, an absolute moment of decision, when our fate lies entirely in our own hands, not in Larry's or Marian's or our friends', or anyone else's. Our own moment of Free Will. We must make a choice. But choice is precisely what's not on the menu at McDonalds; nor will it be on the menu in Larry Harvey's newly-launched global franchising empire. We are being asked to believe.

That's a significant point. When I arrived on the Playa in 1995, I was told repeatedly and emphatically that the Man did not mean anything; that any meaning ascribed to it was entirely a personal affair. That, to me, seems a very appropriate post-modern relationship between participant and event. It is a floor show, all-singing, all-dancing – but it's private. Like the psychedelic experience itself, whatever reveals itself is personal. And confidential.

So now I am being asked to believe in Burning Man. That we all, the tens of thousands of us who are among the Converted, should put our hands together, clap, and bring this alkaline fairy back to life. Again and again and again. Here and there and there.

I thought Burning Man was about originality. Unique experience. Nonconformity. That was what it meant to me. I know others who share this view – many others – but I wonder now if those ideals haven't been stolen away from us. Lured away with the promise of sex and drugs and a really good bass line. And everything that was once creative is now ritualized, down to the very last detail, in the obsessive behavior of a community which now finds itself at a crossroads, about to legitimize itself in the only way that global culture will ever understand – as a global franchise.

How the hell did our karma end us up here?

This is, in large part, our own fault as a community. We haven't been shouldering the load; we've fallen back upon what works, without understanding that all along the way we've been learning new things about what works. There are no rules, at least none that are important. Rule one of the Playa – no commerce – is violated so frequently (particularly on the black market of psychedelics themselves) that it really only means that Nike can't market to you directly. But the café, which started as a good idea and now has become a serious profit center, has proven that commerce can flourish, in its own place, within the City of No Commerce. So there are no rules. Especially the rules that you thought were inviolable.

And spectators. Let's talk about spectators. The one thing that Burning Man has done - largely through the offices of Marian and without a single flat note sounding - is handle the press. The press are so in love with Burning Man they're doing most of the heavy lifting that will be involved in the global marketing of the franchise. Don't believe me? Just go to the Burning Man homepage, where they've carefully arranged a selection of articles from the media which continue to describe the festival in glowing, nearly religious terms.

The Press are the spectators at Burning Man. And evidentially spectators are welcome. Come and watch the freakshow. Come and see us Burn that Man, yet again. Year after year after fucking year.

Doesn't it seem as though the thrill's gone out of it? Somehow Burning Man now feels like what Christmas becomes in your grown-up years: a lot of spending, a brief party, and twelve months of fond reminiscences.

If this community is about creativity, then FUCK, MAN, let's be creative. Reinvent everything. Including the things you know best. Including the things you love best. Forget everything you've learned. Throw it all away. Start again. Start anew. Start over. Because where this has gone – now that the whole grand architecture has been revealed by Larry and Marian – is where every franchise wants you to be: a passive receptacle for the product. Whether that product is a double cheeseburger or the Playa, it matters little so long as it's reproducible, en masse, for the whole planet.

I don't want this. I don't want to see the sacred things in my life turned into a prepackaged experience. And I most certainly don't want to see it become a political party.

The most uncomfortable moment, emotionally, of my first burn, back in 1995, came when a fellow wandered into camp, under our shade structure, and began to proselytize for Willie Brown, who was running for Mayor of San Francisco. It was a weird experience, as we became aware that this fellow – who was otherwise having a normal conversation – was really nothing more than a mouthpiece for the Brown campaign. It seemed so fundamentally at odds with my own experience of my first Burning Man that it stands out, all these years later, as an inconceivably false note in an otherwise perfect symphony of experience. So I can't say that politics and the Playa are entirely separate. In some ways my experience of both have been polluted from the very beginning.

And now Larry wants you to join his political party. Well, really, you're already members. You're part of Generation Burning Man, ready to carry a new message to the people through all of the pumped-up-primed-and-rearing-to-go media outlets who already love the festival. The strategy is simple: first the franchises, then the politics.

It'll all be over before the first shot is ever fired. What Communism could not do to the West, Larry Harvey could – within a generation – effect. If Burning Man goes global, and this highly ritualized form of creativity at the intersection of technology and art and weirdness becomes a new cultural mode, it'll make Islam look like a flash in the pan.

Here's the thing: there is no religion of Burning Man, there are no politics of Burning Man. There is only yourself, and what you bring to the experience. Anyone else – including Larry Harvey – who tells you otherwise is selling you a big, stinking sack of bullshit. And it's probably not a good buy. And besides, "No commerce!"

Oh, and that includes me. You go right ahead and believe in Burning Man if you want to. I promise not to interfere with your religious or political beliefs.

But for my part, I just have to say: really. Are you being entirely serious? Is this really something to base your beliefs around? I want my religion to be a hell of a lot more interesting than Black Rock City, and certainly my heaven is a lot more fun. There is more creativity in just one of us than has ever or will ever appear on the Playa. The Playa is a dead form, a corpse, a thing of the past, and it needs to be discarded immediately or we'll catch rot from it. Everything we ever thought about Burning Man is wrong.

And this is the best of all possible worlds.

Carl Jung coined a word for us. Endotromania. A movement, charismatic in its origins, which at its greatest extent becomes its opposite, ritualized and routine. It is the repeated lesson of human history, with its greatest example in the Catholic Church. Say what you like about the Church, it's nevertheless generally agreed that the Church had a "bad period" that started during the Crusades and lasted about seven hundred years. The amazing thing about the charisma of Christ is that it's managed to survive even the most dedicated attempts to wipe it from the Earth, and it's never entirely left the Church.

Which makes it all the more horrifying when "Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not" becomes pedophile priest John Geoghan murdered in his prison cell by a Nazi skinhead who was himself abused as a child.

Charisma becomes dogma, sure as day follows night. And Larry Harvey is going into franchising.

God have mercy on our souls.

Mark Pesce
Los Angeles
5–6 September 2003

Tags : psychedelic
Rating : Teen - Drugs
Posted on: 2004-02-06 00:00:00