New Theme Announced for 2013: “Cargo Cult”

aliens 2013The rumor I’d heard about the new theme was that it involves aliens, which is kind of true – there’s one in the poster. “Cargo Cult” refers to a post-World War II movement in the Pacific, where simple villagers worshipped material items as gods.

From Wikipedia:

“A cargo cult is a religious practice that has appeared in many traditional pre-industrial tribal societies in the wake of interaction with technologically advanced cultures. The cults focus on obtaining the material wealth (the “cargo”) of the advanced culture through magic and religious rituals and practices.

The primary association in cargo cults is between the divine nature of “cargo” (manufactured goods) and the advanced, non-native behavior, clothing and equipment of the recipients of the “cargo”. Since the modern manufacturing process is unknown to them, members, leaders, and prophets of the cults maintain that the manufactured goods of the non-native culture have been created by spiritual means, such as through their deities and ancestors, and are intended for the local indigenous people, but that the foreigners have unfairly gained control of these objects through malice or mistake.”

From laughing squid:

13_theme_cargocultThe theme is based on the still-active Melanesian alt-religion whose followers (“messengers”) worship a mysterious deity figure named John Frum. Frum embodies the spirit of American serviceman who dropped cargo from the sky (in the form of “unimaginable riches,” “magical foodstuffs that never spoiled” and “inconceivable power sources”) to the South Sea island chain during World War II. After these troops left, the primitive islanders constructed a “sky-craft” to woo back “Frum” and hasten the return of his magic life-altering cargo.

“This Myth of Return is no less relevant today. To put this in a modern context, what if your electricity went dead and stayed that way — would you know how to make the current flow again? Can you fix your car if it breaks down, or build yourself a new one? Like the islanders, most of us are many steps removed from the Cargo that entirely shapes our lives. We don’t know how it’s made, where it’s made, or how it works; all we can do is look beyond the sky and pray for magic that will keep consumption flowing.”

To honor the theme, the Burning Man figure will be constructed on top of a spaceship-like “sky-craft” pavilion. Burning Man happens at Nevada’s Black Rock Desert from August 26 to September 2, 2013.

Cargo Cult

The story was also covered in the Huffington Post, who explain things pretty well:

With the often-fanatical devotion of its attendees, outlandish outfits and preponderance of spiked Kool-Aid, Burning Man has long had the external trappings of a cult.

Now, as the week-long annual celebration of innovative art, DIY culture and tripping your face off while dressed like a glowing psychedelic lobster enters its 27th year, organizers are simultaneously embracing and satirizing Burning Man’s appeal with the announcement its 2013 theme: cargo cults.

Burning Man founder Larry Harvey told to the San Francisco Bay Guardian that the theme is intended as jumping off point for the legendarily creative community of Burners. “It’s a spur to invention. People are finding all kinds of ways to riff off of it,” he explained. “This is what Burning Man has always been about and what we try to give to the world.

thunderbird 2Harvey noted that he hoped the specificity would encourage more people to directly engage with the theme on their art projects.

Cargo cults arose around the time of the Second World War, when American and Japanese soldiers visited pre-industrial societies on remote Pacific islands and entranced the natives with their comparatively advanced technologies. These armed forces brought a wealth of things the islanders had never seen before–radios, manufactured clothing, guns–and often drastically increased the standard of living on the islands. However, after the war’s conclusion, the armies withdrew, taking much of the technology with them.

In their wake, the natives of some islands created religious practices worshiping the manufactured goods and began to practice rituals, such constructing makeshift airstrips and handmade airplanes, in the hopes that the divine “cargo” would return.

In a context avowedly anti-materialistic as Burning Man (where using money as a means of transaction is almost entirely prohibited), the idea of waiting for an external entity come down from on high and give everyone material wealth is ripe with satiric potential.

A poster for the event depicts a high-tech alien descending from a spacecraft above a gathering of humans with shopping bags instead of heads. A display on the flying saucer reads “Who Is John Frum?”; a winking nod not only to Ayn Rand’s hyper-capitalist manifesto Atlas Shrugged, but also to the Messianic central figure in the most famous cargo cult, whose name has been thought to be a bastardization of a Western GI introducing himself as “John from…wherever.”

The man’s UFO base was designed by architect Lewis Zaumeyer, who passed away earlier this year. Some have questioned whether the theme is racist, asserting cultural superiority from a predominantly white event.

Personally, I love the theme. It’s as good (and timely) as The Green Man was back in the day. I was not a fan of Fertility 2.0. What were we giving birth to? Now we have the answer: an advanced Cargo Cult – inspired by aliens like those who brought us the transistor, the laser, and the iPhone – bringing technology to the  Emerging World Natives in their spaceships. I think Burning Man has really tapped the San Francisco zeitgeist with this one.

From the official announcement:

13_theme_planeBurning Man 2013 will court the return of our benevolent Visitors from Elsewhere by constructing an enormous replica of their sky-craft, hewn from the primitive materials of our backwater planet. Burning Man will stand atop this streamlined structure, majestically revolving like an interstellar beacon. Within this three-decked vessel participants will encounter the Temple of the Navigator, a shrine that features six hand-operated zoetropes that will function as prayer wheels. These will rehearse what little we know, or believe we know, of John Frum’s story. A sweeping observation ring surrounding this central chamber will afford panoramic views of both the playa and our city.

We feel sure our theme will attract many alien Visitors, and hope this will stimulate our planet’s faltering economy. To that end, we invite artists to create altars that may be placed in the vicinity of Burning Man’s pavilion. These installations should be portable and easily removable from our burn circle. Participants are encouraged to contribute propitiatory offerings to these Space Age shrines. Artists are also invited to propose homemade interactive technology that may be installed on our saucer’s upper Flight Deck (consult our online Art Guidelines for details).

“Your spaceship is cramped, and it’s beginning to smell like fast food.”
      — Reverend Al Ridenour

Burning Man is of course what one makes of it. So we must recognize that a few participants question the literal existence of John Frum1. They believe that cargo culture is unsustainable; no deus ex machina descending from the sky can possibly provide consumers with relief. The only spaceship worth considering is planet Earth. Each and every one of us, it is held, must find our Inner Frum: the first step toward salvation is to give our gifts to fellow human beings.

Burning Man has many cult-like aspects. It also is strongly related to cargo, in the sense that we are transporting a city out to the desert and back. If you just show up with a low-income ticket and walk around naked, enjoying all the gifting, you may not have any idea what a massive logistical operation it is to run a camp of 100 or more people, or a major art installation. Burning Man creates all kinds of logistics challenges, and with freight costs being $2-3/mile, its isolation (325 miles from San Francisco) creates great expense for the contributors to this cargo cult.

Burning Man’s DPW have long used shipping containers as strong, weather and wind proof bases of operations for people who are out in the desert for 3 months or more. Last year the BMOrg had over 200 shipping containers out there.

containers bm insane

DPW heavy machinery crew spelled out INSANE in containers; image from GeoEye satellite

Our camp had 4 shipping containers last year, including two transformed into art works by leading San Francisco street artists Ian Ross and Max Ehrmann. We’re already planning to bring more, this theme will only cement our plans. And the sky-craft is perfect for the art car we’ve been discussing!

ekoLounge at Reallocate, Burning Man 2012; painted by Ian Ross and Max Ehrmann

ekoLounge at Reallocate, Burning Man 2012; painted by Ian Ross and Max Ehrmann

What do you think Burners? Love it, hate it, or don’t care?

8 comments on “New Theme Announced for 2013: “Cargo Cult”

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  5. Cargo Cult : Last year we came to our plug and play camp and the mysterious gods of the outside world brought us all sorts of food and water and stuff we didn’t need to bring ourselves.

    This year we showed up and waited, and waited, and waited.


    Maybe if we build an effigy they will bring us more cargo. Lord knows we can’t bring out own.

    Actually, awesome theme…..

    • Why can’t you bring your own? As a Plug and Player, you are decidedly in the minority. Do as most other Burner’s do, bring everything you need to be on the playa yourself.

      • But I’m a Sparkle Pony. Why should I do anything when the men in camp do everything for me? It’s my right as a woman to be catered to. Why else do you think I go to the gym 3 days a week – for my health? LOL!

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