Dispatch From the Front [by Whatsblem the Pro]


12/23/2012 by Whatsblem the Pro

burning_man suitsFirst ignited by Paul Addis‘ early burn of 2007 after the stage was set by John Law’s departure from Burning Man and subsequent lawsuit, the cultural cold war for the very soul of the Man rages on.

In the Facebook forums this week, we saw heated conversations sprout left and right after one forum member started a petition to change the 2013 theme (“Cargo Cult”) on the grounds that it is culturally insensitive and racist, and another forum member (a newly-minted Vegan) posted that “Burning Man needs to look at its bacon issue. It’s not cool to leave a trace but it’s cool to kill and eat an animal with feelings that is smarter than your dog? Evolving takes many forms.” 

Naturally, the phrase “what Burning Man is all about” came up, and everyone had to take a drink. A rollicking round of snarkiness ensued, peppered with spirited cries of “shut up, hippie.”

Snark in the Burning Man forums seems to come mostly from people who live on the rawer side of burner culture; people who enjoy a good mindfuck and have little patience for hippie-dippy pseudowisdom. They’re pranksters, and for the most part, the pranksterism at Burning Man comes from the grass roots up, directly from people like them. It’s not dreamed up, organized, or encouraged by the leaders at the top. It has ever been thus, but there was a time when pranksters had a king of sorts, or at least some representation in the event’s leadership. As a member of the Suicide Club and a founder of both the Cacophony Society and Burning Man, John Law’s credentials as a culture jammer with prankish roots in Dadaism and Guy Debord’s Situationist International are unimpeachable.

Law wasn’t just a burner icon before the big breakup; perhaps even more than Larry Harvey and Michael “Danger Ranger” Mikel, he was a burner archetype. Harvey, the Artist; Mikel, the Shaman; Law, the Prankster.

The three elements that Larry Harvey, Michael Mikel, and John Law represented were all vital to the creation of both the event and the culture. Unfortunately, with the pranksterish third of that triumvirate missing and all the high-level gaps in the organization filled with personnel hand-picked by the Artist and the Shaman, a serious imbalance exists that has, over the years, warped the event inexorably into a safer, less fun, less meaningful, more profitable paradigm. . . and where the event goes, I fear the culture may eventually follow.

If we want Burning Man and burner culture to thrive and remain recognizable to us, we need to give this thing a fat booster shot of pranksterism. We need more cacophony, more physical and intellectual danger in the mix. We need to restore and maintain the event’s mean streak, push the boundaries a bit, and keep Burning Man potentially lethal, both for your body and for your worldview. We need to fuck with people a bit, and find new and louder ways to sing “Free Bird.”

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAOf course we need the influence of the Artist and Shaman archetypes too, nobody is disputing that. . . but if we fail to counterbalance them, if we succumb to the awful trend of becoming nothing more than a safer version of the Rainbow Gathering with better art, we will have lost something precious. Maybe forever.

When we had our archetypes in the precarious balance that gave birth to our culture, we were prone to playfully creating our own myths, legends, and short-duration traditions. If we lose the struggle to reassert that balance, we will eventually be overwhelmed by the overly-serious and the dogmatic, and find ourselves sinking into the oppressive mire of someone else’s sense of the sacred institutionalized, rather than freeing ourselves by indulging only our own.

I would like to give you some examples of what happens when the Shaman has too much influence, the Artist is irrelevant, and the Prankster is marginalized:


tikal temple iiAccording to the Mayan “Long Count” calendar, Friday was the last day of an era that began 5,200 years ago. . . and with the calendar coming to an end at that point, many held their breath in anticipation of the end of the world itself.

The world didn’t end, but on Friday a horde of dewy-eyed truth-seekers over 7,000 strong descended upon Tikal, in Guatemala, to see indigenous priests stage a ceremony marking the beginning of a new era. Tikal, called ‘Yax Mutul’ by the Maya, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. It’s an important archaeological site; the biggest for archaeologists studying the pre-Columbian Maya. The ceremony itself was criticized by many Guatemalans — of whom approximately 42% are of Mayan descent – for being a sham event made up for tourists, and nothing to do with the Maya and their culture at all.

One of Tikal’s most important features is Structure 5D-2, more commonly referred to as Temple II, or more formally as the Temple of the Masks. Temple II faces Tikal’s central plaza, and is about 125 feet high. It features a broad, steep staircase that tourists are forbidden to climb.

“Sadly, many tourists climbed Temple II and caused damage,” said Osvaldo Gomez, a technical adviser at Tikal. Gomez noted that climbing Temple II is prohibited, and characterized Friday’s damage as “irreparable.”

“We are fine with the celebration, but (the tourists) should be more aware because this is a World Heritage Site,” Gomez told local media.

7,000 people, most of them no doubt thinking themselves full of respect for the Maya and regarding themselves as more enlightened and less capitalist and far less consumerist than most of us, irreparably damaged an important Mayan archaeological site for the sake of attending a phony-baloney ceremony someone made up to attract their vacation dollars. Why? Because they were operating on someone else’s sense of the sacred instead of making that up for themselves as they went along. They were doing it wrong.


In 1992, the Rainbow Gathering convened in the Gunnison National Forest outside of Paonia, Colorado to pray for peace and, y’now, be environmental and stuff. According to Colorado Forest Service Patrol Captain Harry Shiles, “the Rainbow Family mostly removed its trash and buried its human waste, but the parking areas were compacted, there were dozens of new trails, dogs were left behind, and the wildlife disappeared from the forest for the next five years.”

In 2009, Theresa at the Sustainable Thought Box blog (http://sustainablethoughtbox.wordpress.com/) sat down and did the math on just some of the environmental impact anticipated for the Rainbow Gathering in New Mexico’s Santa Fe National Forest. These were the figures she came up with:

 nude snow23.14 tons of feces

22,222 gallons of urine (82.74 tons)

120 tons of trash

6 miles of compacted soil

18,900 tampons (0.87 ton)

3840 diapers (0.48 ton)

1/2 ton of soiled toilet paper

937.5 gallons of used toothpaste (3.26 tons)

937.5 gallons of soap (3.26 tons)

3,750 gallons of bleach (13.03 tons)

151.2 pounds of cigarette butts (0.06 ton)

1.82 tons of animal feces

Over the course of six days, calculated Theresa, a Rainbow Gathering with 10,000 attendees would deposit nearly 250 tons of waste in the Santa Fe National Forest, including over 23 tons of feces and more than 22,000 gallons of urine. Even if they somehow magically removed every bit of their trash afterward, they would still tramp down the National Forest, compacting the soil and polluting the groundwater, creating a dead, blighted spot in a natural wonderland, just to – supposedly, anyway – pray for peace.

The toilets at a Rainbow Gathering are slit trench latrines, so all the urine from all the people goes on the land or into the water, dumping excess sodium, potassium, and nitrogen into the soil of a fragile wilderness, along with trace chemicals from antidepressants and other prescription drugs, hormones from birth control pills, and metabolic byproducts of recreational chemicals. That’s not even taking into account all the feces.

When it rains at a Rainbow Gathering site, the rainwater carries a slurry of improperly disposed of human feces into groundwater, surface puddles, ponds, lakes and streams. This slurry is laced with disease organisms. Other visitors to the National forest and animals can then come in contact with or drink this polluted water. In 1987, the health hazard posed by the Rainbows’ outdoor latrine trenches asserted itself even before the festival was over, when a large number of attendees were stricken with shigellosis from feces-contaminated water, and came down with dysentery.

getting shot with this hurts more than a hollow point

getting shot with this hurts more than a hollow point

If the destructive force that irreparably damaged a valuable heritage site in Guatamala, that invaded a pristine forest, that drove the animals out for the next five years, that abandoned a bunch of dogs there, and that polluted the groundwater of a National Forest had been anyone but themselves, you can bet there would be plenty of angry Rainbow Family members and other Shaman-followers protesting and trying to cast magic spells and curses on the responsible parties, or at the very least invoking karma upon them. Third-quarter sales of bat’s blood and eye of newt would take a sharp upturn. Instead, they simply delude themselves that not only are they doing no harm, they’re actually making the world a better place. Why? Because they’re operating on someone else’s idea of the sacred, instead of making it up for themselves as they go along. They’ve developed a groupthink, and they’re all swallowing it whole and regurgitating it into each other. “We’re saving the Earth, we’re hastening the evolution of humanity, we’re bringing about a new era of peace ‘n’ love in light and wisdom.” They’re doing it wrong. Nobody is standing up right in the middle of them and saying “HEY, THIS IS KINDA BULLSHIT WHEN YOU THINK ABOUT IT.”

One of the Prankster’s vital functions is the constant questioning of authority, and the slaughtering of sacred cows. The Prankster calls bullshit on the world, and as such he is often a hardnosed agent of objectivity and a wellspring of practical solutions. The seekers at Tikal and the would-be peacemakers at the Rainbow Gathering are avowed followers of the Shaman; they lack the Prankster, and are therefore more prone to infecting and oppressing each other with persistent traditions and dogma that accrete into an institutionalized sense of the sacred.

Sisters, brothers. . . the reins are in our hands. Seize the day. Be the Prankster you want to see in the world. The future of the burn and of our culture depends upon our willingness to shape it; we must lead ourselves. Fuck shit up once in a while, just for laughs, or just to interrupt the comfortable flow of other peoples’ lives a little and make them think. Deface a billboard. Say what you really think. Trick the living shit out of someone, for no discernible reason. Make laughter your weapon of choice, and mock the sacred cows of others. Make it up for yourself as you go along.

8 comments on “Dispatch From the Front [by Whatsblem the Pro]

  1. The Long Count cycle was 5125 years.

    Thanks for the info on the projected waste and damage done by DRainbow Gatherings. I am sure the DRainbows who descended on Palenque in Dec 2012 had a similar negative impact on the land, as it rained hard on Solstice, flooding the creek where they were camped. Many of them also didn’t exercise caution in drinking the water; I heard that they purified it with their “good vibes”. Apparently, the Mesoamerican microbes had a good, long laugh at that, and decided to infect many of the heepies with Moctezuma’s revenge anyway.

    I won’t go into the long story about how the DRainbows disrespected the Maya guardians of Palenque and refused to pay admission to enter on Solstice — admission fees that help support the smaller sites of Bonampak and Yaxchilan, as well as fund jobs for local Maya INAH workers. Let’s just say those folks have a looooong way to go in examining their privilege and the detrimental impact they always seem to have when encountering Native people, not unlike their ancestors.

    • Thanks, Juliana.

      The news about Palenque is particularly upsetting to me; I was there sometime around 1985(?) and ended up visiting the pueblo where the local indigenas live and spending the night there. They were lovely people and fine hosts, and my stay in the jungle with them remains one of my most vivid and cherished travel memories.

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  4. “I say, old chap, isn’t that outfit a little… y’know….. racist?”

    “Not really. It’s prankster-racist. It’s like old-school Santa Con, or, in this case, the plastic bone through my nose is really playing with your assumptions of what is or is not appropriate. Come by our camp later, we’re having a happy hour where we’ll be ‘boiling’ an ‘explorer’ alive in some sort of cannibal soup cauldron full of booze. Million Native March to follow, presuming we’re not culturally predisposed to some sort of booze fueled cultural self-immolation. At which point, we’ll be claiming tribal land rights and opening a casino.”

    “Oh, right. Prankster racist! Not racist-racist at all! That’s OK then. Really kind of awesome, actually. Can I have one of those “ooga booga” stickers?”

    Let’s face it, only time will tell whether this really results in a bunch of frat-rats in Halloween-store grass skirts and EL-wire spears. But it has surfaced some conversation around race and that’s harder for some burners to wrap their heads around than the notion of pranksterism is.

    And of course, *some* of the same people who are saying, “hold on, this could get messy….” are exactly the same people who might find the cod-spirituality of the Rainbow Family or the feather-headed Robot Heart idjits (who clearly have a lot in common, income brackets and hygene habits aside….) to be kind of dip-shit.

    So yes, more pranksterism. Obviously, it’s not to everyone’s tastes — however ill-executed, Burn Wall Street was enough to harsh this blog’s editor’s loved-up buzz, so presumably he’d have been a quivering wreck in the face of HellCo — but don’t discount a less ironic conversation around race that starts with some burners going, “dude, this is just so much political correctness, I can’t see why anyone would be uncomfortable with this?”

    Unless this was really just a few degrees of Kevin Bacon to get you bitching about the Rainbow Gathering again.

    In which case, could you get round to that post that joins the obvious dots between Rainbow Collective and Robot Heart? Follow the trail of feathery tears, please….

    • You make some valid points and your comments were fun to read.

      I think it’s important to keep in mind that what I write about (and how I treat it) has nothing to do with what anyone else writes here at burners.me in the slightest.

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