There’s This Thing Called Burning Man. . .

by Whatsblem the Pro

Josh and Chuck -- PHOTO: SYSK

Josh and Chuck — PHOTO: SYSK

The STUFF YOU SHOULD KNOW podcast has a new installment up, and it’s called “How Burning Man Works.”

Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant, hosts of the show, have never been to Burning Man. They don’t plan on going, either. . . they like looking at pictures, but they just don’t feel that an actual trip to the playa would be their cup of tea. They begin the podcast with the question “would you or would you not ever go to Burning Man?” The answer? “Nah.”

It’s interesting to listen to these two talk about Burning Man without ever having been there. The show is a weird mix of pure Org kool-aid with look-at-the-dirty-hippies snark, peppered here and there with moments that make you wonder where they got their information. . . like when they say that there’s no law enforcement presence on the playa; Josh and Chuck seem to think that the BLM is the only law enforcement agency out there, and that the Org deals with BLM so everyone else just gets left alone to do whatever they like. Ah, wishful thinking.

Some of the eyebrow-raisers uttered in this podcast really make you wonder about more than the duo’s grasp of English grammar (which should be excellent but isn’t; Josh touts himself as a professional journalist, and Chuck has a degree in English). Frankly, I’m beginning to question their commitment to Sparkle Motion. We should, however, bear in mind that nobody has an obligation to know much of anything about Burning Man, even if they’re doing a podcast called “How Burning Man Works.” Josh and Chuck are, after all, in the entertainment business.

Motorhomes is what most people stay in.”

“There will be scalpers there [at the Gate], but they’re selling the tickets for less than face value. . . sometimes half of the lowest price.”

“It’s not about trading, even. It’s about giving. I will give you herpes, and you don’t have to give me anything back.”

They cite decommodification in a very gee-whiz sort of way, and naturally they miss the fact that it doesn’t apply to the Org making money. . . but they do go on to speculate about the damaging effects that big money has had on the event over the years, and on the relationships between Board members.

The part they get absolutely right is the idea that you’re supposed to translate your on-playa experience into your life the rest of the year. If ever there was a core Cacophonist value, that would qualify. . . and surprise, surprise: Josh and Chuck may be Burning Man outsiders with some confused views of the event and the culture, but unlike a huge percentage of burners (who ought to be ashamed of themselves), they know what the Cacophony Society is, and actually use the phrase “Temporary Autonomous Zone” at one point. We’ll overlook the fact that Josh and Chuck think that Black Rock City really is a Temporary Autonomous Zone, which is just plain nonsense. Their confusion is highlighted nicely (though ungrammatically) in the phrase “there is rules,” uttered just moments after the false assertion that there’s no law enforcement at Burning Man, and you can do whatever you like there.

I’m not sure what to think of all this, but at the very least it’s a good glimpse into what the casual outsider thinks of Burning Man after having spent an hour or two idly reading about it. Your thoughts?

Free As a Bird/Pig/Prickly Thing

porcfestxBurning Man began its life as a Temporary Autonomous Zone – a place where people could experiment with different ways of living together, for fun and for pleasure and (increasingly these days) for profit. There are still other events around the world true to the TAZ spirit. Perhaps even more true – usually with these things, the smaller they are, the more authentic they are. Porcfest seems like one such event, dedicated to freedom and liberty and maybe even a little dose of anarchy. Their tenth annual festival, Porcfest X, has just wrapped up this weekend. If anyone went this year and has photos, please send. Here’s how the organizers describe it:

The Porcupine Freedom Festival is the flagship annual event of the Free State Project. It is a week long celebration of liberty at Roger’s Campground in Northern New Hampshire. Over 1,000 people are expected to attend this unique camping event which includes activities for all ages. Camp fires, panel discussions, presentations, movies, live talk shows, dancing, singing, music, food, parties, all around liberty-loving good times, and more are to be found at the most exciting liberty event of the year. PorcFest is a showcase of some of New Hampshire’s finest in the scenic view of the White Mountains.

white mountainsWhen I was a kid, the White Mountains was the name of an awesome sci-fi trilogy about Day of the Triffids/War of the Worlds style “tripod” alien invaders to earth. Interesting parallels in those stories with the views of freedom that are celebrated at this festival, and at Burning Man. I’ll take their word for it that it’s a real place – New Hampshire is one of the dozen or so States I haven’t been to visit yet.

Porcy’s Events include “make your own black powder rifle”, “family shoot” (featuring advanced AK-47 handling) and “field expedient medical kit class”. Last year they managed to get shock jock truth-teller Alex Jones and Libertarian Presidential Candidate Gary Johnson has also been a speaker there. Veterans Today, a site not normally concerned with Burner events, wrote a story on this year’s Porcfest entitled “Liberty or Death – the New American Revolution Begins in New Hampshire”…which is giving it some pretty big props. I mean, how many art cars, lasers, sound systems, and flame throwers can these people possibly have? Sure, they got guns…but we’re in Nevada, we’re an open carry state too, we can have silencers and Ak-47’s too. Anyway, when it comes to 60,000 people fucked up in the desert, guns don’t make the party. Usually, anyway…

What do you get if you mix marijuana mavens, gun-lovers, unschoolers, computer hackers, bitcoin evangelists, survivalists, tax heretics, cop-blockers, cop-watchers, civil disobedience practitioners, gray- and black-market entrepreneurs, anarcho-activists, nullification enthusiasts, freedom theorists, sovereignty rebels, love-our-freedom Muslims, truth terrorists, de facto defectors, and other self-described enemies of the state?

The answer: Porcfest – as in porcupines, not pigmeat. Porcfest, a.k.a. the Porcupine Freedom Festival, showcases the Free State Project, which asks freedom-lovers to move to New Hampshire. Their goal: Make the “live free or die” state live up to its motto. If New Hampshire becomes a haven of liberty, these folks believe, it will not only be a really fun place, but it might even spearhead American Revolution 2.0. and help save America, and the world, from the forces of tyranny.

no, Colombia didn't get one of those indoor ski slopes like Dubai

no, Colombia didn’t get one of those indoor ski slopes like Dubai

In ten years, the Free State Project has convinced more than a thousand liberty-lovers to move to New Hampshire. Their goal is 20,000 – which they calculate would be enough to radically change how business and government are conducted statewide. While they haven’t liberated the whole state yet, I can testify that the Free Staters have set up a wildly successful week-long Temporary Autonomous Zone here in the White Mountains of Northern New Hampshire.

The sweet smell of weed hangs over this place, rivaling the pungent woodsmoke from campfires and spicy meatsmoke from barbecues. All kinds of people are packing serious heat – not just holstered pistols, but also semi-(?)-automatic rifles slung casually over a great many backs. (That may be one reason visible law enforcement has chosen to stay away.) Some of the gun-toting guys look like hippies; a few even wear skirts. Others are skinheads in camouflage.

If you want magic mushrooms, you won’t have to wander around any cow pastures to find them. Unlicensed bars and lounges, some in plushly-furnished tents right out of the Arabian Nights, will serve you up just about anything you might desire, from absinthe to homebrew, from top-shelf wine and liquor to Miller Lite. (Since I’m a love-our-freedom Muslim, I prefer the equally luxurious gourmet tea-house next door.)

porcfest 2013If the fear-mongering media stereotypes were true, PorcFest would be a terrifying place. During this week-long wild-and-crazy party, the official laws governing drugs, sex, firearms, currency, taxation, licensing and regulation are effectively null and void. All of us here at Rogers Campground are at the mercy of our fellow freedom-loving citizens. The state apparatus that normally “protects us” from each other is conspicuous by its absence. And yet somehow I feel safer here, among the pot-smoking survivalists with AK-47s slung over their backs, than I did at the normal campgrounds I stayed at while driving here from Wisconsin, where cops and park rangers are on duty to make sure you and your fellow campers follow all the laws…and if you don’t, they’ll kidnap you and put you in a cage.

It makes you wonder: Do we really need all those uniformed guys with badges threatening to kidnap and cage us, and beat the hell out of us or even shoot us if we resist? To borrow a phrase from police-beating victim Rodney King: Can’t we all just get along…without them?

Here at PorcFest, the answer is: Yes we can.

Not only do they have economics there…they take Bitcoins. It sounds like an interesting place and a great Zone for experimentation and adventure. This is what the Burner experiment should be about – pop-up civilizations, mobile tribes, spontaneous destinations. Flash villages.

bitcoins2No wonder so many PorcFest participants have phased US dollars out of their lives, and are using Bitcoin and commodity currency (mostly gold and silver) for all of their market-exchange transactions.

Could the crypto-currency revolution bring down the government? That is what many here hope. Their forecast: Because crypto-currencies offer privacy and stable value, all rational economic actors will gradually move out of fiat currencies into crypto-currencies. The dollar, and all other fiat currencies, will collapse. Governments will no longer be able to print currency or tax their subjects. Bankrupt, they will wither away, replaced by mechanisms of voluntary association, beginning with the free market.

In preparation for that day, the Freedom Movement is big on agorism: Entrepreneurship in gray or black markets. Agorism basically just means starting a business – except you do it in such a way as to minimize or eliminate taxation and regulation. If possible, your agorist business will also help spread the word about the movement.

A PorcFest event called The Agorist Pitch offered prizes worth thousands of dollars to those with the best business ideas. The winner: Davi Barker’s plan for crowd-funded follow-ups to the Milgram and Stanford Prison experiments on obedience to authority. Runners-up included an educational game and a chicken farm.

Unlike the 1960s hippies who camped out and partied at places like Woodstock and Altamont, the folks here at PorcFest are not using “freedom” as a vague and mystical slogan. Their intellectual heroes – people like Murray Rothbard, Ludwig von Mises, and of course the overrated Ayn Rand – offer a rigorously analytical libertarian philosophy and economics. Personally, I’m not convinced that these ideas always have straightforward and unambiguous real-world applications; like PorcFest speaker David Friedman, the son of famed Chicago School economist Milton Friedman, I think we need historical observation and empirical reality-testing to complement and sometimes contradict all of the wonderful libertarian theories.

But if the anarchists finally won their argument with the Marxists, as I think history shows they did, it was for a reason. The anarchist critique of government is correct.

“Professional rabble rouser” Adam Kokesh, who advocates among other things “marijuana civil disobedience”, is also part of this crew. A coming together of people interested in changing the world? An event based on liberty and freedom, without many rules? Hmmm….sounds like a good excuse for a party.

Fertility Love Fest

Every year seems to bring us more Burning Man videos. KJ & Stefan Spins are up to 3 now, using the popular “everyone sings a song” format – you probably remember their 2011 “home” one. Their 2012 edition brings us a whole bunch of love from Burners singing along to Michael Franti, a song he wrote in Woody Harrelson’s bathroom.

A great video to get you psyched up for Burning Man this year.

Burning Man and the Meaning of Life

…is the title of the latest movie about Burning Man, which has been launched on iTunes in HD for $12.99 – a standard definition version for $9.99 is out next week.

They set up this photo booth on the Playa, and asked Burners to stop in and explain what they thought the meaning of life was. Some Burners used the opportunity to do drugs and have sex…of course.

burning man photo booth

Here’s an interview with film-maker Julie Pifher:

julie pifher“I had this idea six years ago. I was in film school at the time and learning about the meaning of life in a philosophy class and thinking about that in terms of my own life. And then I got to talking with a friend of mine, and we were saying wouldn’t this be cool to go to this thing, I wonder what it’s like, it must be so cool. And then I thought, that would be such a cool thing to ask these people, who are really out there, really open-minded, really just kind of different from your everyday — or who are in a different environment than your everyday — what they think the meaning of life is.”

Pifher had never been to Burning Man before she went to film her documentary. In addition to a traditional crew armed with two cameras conducting interviews, they set up a special booth designed to capture the Burners at their most unguarded and honest.

“We built this big photo booth, soundproof booth, in the middle of the desert, and it had a motion sensored camera, so every time someone came into the booth, it recorded them. There were questions on the walls, just some things to point them in the right direction. We had hundreds of people throughout the week come into that booth and be really honest. In one clip, somebody is crying; in another, people are just laughing and having a good time. Somebody had sex in our booth; some people definitely did drugs in the booth.

meaning of lifeThe wild costumes and uninhibited behavior in the trailer are enough to reaffirm beliefs that Burning Man is nothing more than a big hippie party in the desert. But Pifher had an instinct that people who voluntarily trek into the middle of the desert to commune might have a perspective worth exploring, and her hunch was right.

“I saw this festival as a microcosm of life; it’s born anew each year, and you live it, and then they burn it down, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and then they rebuild it next year. So in that week, you can almost sort of experience a lifetime. I think that a lot of people go there looking for transformative change. They’re looking for an escape from their life because modern-day life is such a grind, and that’s not really natural. We’re put in this box and people go there to step outside that box and experience something different.”

So, what — according to the free love, communal living Burners — is the meaning of life? What else?

“Love. I think that the strongest answers, the most common answer, the one we received the most, and the most succinct is love. It’s all just kind of part of living, and it is that part of life that keeps us going. It definitely tested my answer. Part of love is loving yourself and loving others, and so for me, this documentary really tested my skills as an artist and as a human being. Dream big, do big things, ’cause that’s love, it’s all love, and it gives you purpose.”

The 2008 documentary “Confessions of a Burning Man” is also available for purchase or rental on iTunes.

Flash Santas

Perhaps CNet felt a bit left out from my round-up of Burning Man’s recent media blitz. The computer industry news site has just published a story on Burning Man founder John Law’s new book Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society. Flash mobs of 35 Santas – in the days before text messages. Before email, even.



Although the police sometimes thought Cacophony Society members like John Law, left, were up to no good, Law and his fellow Santas were usually just trying to help people enjoy life more. A new book, ‘Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society’ aims to help people understand the influence of the group on modern digital culture.

(Credit: Michele Mangrum)

OAKLAND, Calif. — If you live in Austin, San Francisco, New York, or any number of other cites, the sight of hundreds of Santa Clauses prowling around, ducking in and out of bars, department stores, or parks as part of the annual SantaCon has probably become second nature.

But imagine seeing dozens of St. Nicks walking toward you on a San Francisco street in 1994 or 1995 , when the Internet was anything but ubiquitous, when culture jamming was a phrase no one had heard before, and Improv Everywhere, the Yes Men, and flash mobs were still a thing of the future.

“You could show up with 30 Santas, as we did,” said John Law, an early SantaCon participant, “and [people would] literally be bewildered, and in shock….You can see it in people’s faces. Literally, their jaws are hanging open in shock. People hadn’t thought of it” before.

Though not a founder, Law was one of the first members of the San Francisco Cacophony Society, a loosely-knit group of pranksters, adventurers, and experimenters that helped put SantaCon on the cultural map in the mid-1990s.

Now, a new book, titled “Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society,” goes a long way toward introducing the group, and its exploits, to new audiences more familiar with taking in planned, packaged entertainment than with being responsible for their own excitement and fun.

The motto of the San Francisco Cacophony Society was “you may already be a member.” That’s because, while actual membership may never have been very large, the Cacophony Society was really all about enabling out-of-the-box thinkers to find their people.

Law and fellow editors Carrie Galbraith and Kevin Evans put the book together because there seemed to be a danger that the memory of the Cacophony Society, and the reasons why it mattered so much, might fade away. As Galbraith put it, “the story [of the Cacophony Society] needed to be told.” Before it was too late.

Spawn of the Suicide Club
In 1977, a small, secretive, group of San Franciscans began pulling off a series of pranks and other adventures built around helping the participants challenge their personal fears and explore their fantasies. Known as the Suicide Club, for the next five years, its members did things like climb the Golden Gate Bridge and ride San Francisco’s Cable cars naked. But few were part of the Suicide Club, and by 1982, some felt that its exclusionary nature wasn’t sustainable.

One favorite pastime of the Cacophony Society — and its precursor, the Suicide Club — was climbing bridges, especially the Golden Gate Bridge.

(Credit: John Law)

But the ethos of the Suicide Club had hardly withered, and in its place, the San Francisco Cacophony Society filled the void. This time, though, the goal was to be more open. Anyone could organize an event, and its regular newsletter became the best place for people who had probably never been part of the popular crowd to find out the craziest, and oddest, ways to have fun. “It wasn’t about fashion, and there was nothing cool about the Cacophony Society,” Galbraith said. “It was a bunch of nerds [who] had our own ideas, and our own ways of thinking.”

Whether it was attending marathon watchings of the TV show “The Prisoner,” or sneaking into abandoned missile silos or having dinners on the Golden Gate Bridge, the Cacophony Society was all about promoting silly — and helping those for whom silly living is essential have people to play with.

Zone Trips
A signature of the Cacophony Society was a series of events called Zone Trips. The idea was to take a group of people into an alien environment with no preconceptions, Law said. “You were opening up yourself to any interpretation of any environment.”

Added Galbraith, “We made a decision that once you stepped over a line, anything that happened to you was fair game. It was almost like you changed your consciousness. All rules were off. All bets were off.”

One of the very first Zone Trips involved a bunch of Cacophonists jumping in a van and driving to Los Angeles for the weekend. Galbraith’s family was fifth-generation L.A., “but I saw and did things in L.A. I’d never heard of,” she said, things like sneaking into buildings that had appeared in movies or climbing the Hollywood sign.

The most famous Zone Trip was unquestionably the fourth. In 1990, Burning Man was already four years old. But that year, police in San Francisco refused organizers the right to burn their wooden effigy of a man on the beach, citing safety concerns.

It fell to the Cacophony Society to propose an alternate venue: Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, one of the most remote places in the country and a seven-hour drive from San Francisco. A small collection of Cacophonists (and Burning Man’s founder, Larry Harvey) took the trip, and crossing the line they drew in the desert sand, the group inadvertently kicked off what has since become one of the most influential counterculture events in the world.

But the Cacophonists went back to their normal lives. They had bridges to climb, billboards to liberate, Santas to prowl with, and so much more.

One arm of the Cacophony Society was the Billboard Liberation Front, which made temporary modifications to make social commentary on public billboards.

(Credit: A. Leo Nash)

The end was in sight, though. An organization built around local experiences and a newsletter informing members of upcoming nearby events didn’t have a place in a modern communications world.

Whereas groups like Improv Everywhere blossomed in the age of YouTube, thanks to the ability to build a huge audience, and, of course, grow a base of participants — the Cacophonists were discovering that their thing wasn’t compatible with instant, global, digital communications. “Cacophoney as it was is simply not possible necessary today,” Galbraith lamented. “The Internet completely supplanted any need for a newsletter….Geography was (vital). It was all based on place, and the Internet changed all that.”

Plus which, Cacophony’s own spawn was stealing its thunder. As Law put it, the advent of the Internet was only part of the problem the organization was facing. Perhaps more problematic was that, as he put it, Burning Man was “kind of sucking the air out of the room.”

To be fair, Law was a co-founder (and co-owner) of Burning Man, and eventually had a falling out with that event’s leadership that culminated in a (now-settled) lawsuit.

Still, the Cacophony Society was very much an analog group, and by the late 1990s, the world had gone very digital. As a result, the society began to fade away until it no longer existed as a distinct organization.

Yet its spirit remains very much alive. Today’s regular giant public pillow fights, zombie marches, flash mobs, and so many other events found around the world owe it a spiritual debt. Yet some may have forgotten — or, perhaps never knew — how much fun can be had taking your own entertainment in your own hands.

“I’ve been teaching [about the Cacophony Society, among other things] for the last 12 years,” Galbraith said. “I have never once encountered a student who wasn’t hanging on ever word. They want to know. They didn’t encounter this…They’ve got [social games] but they’re not thinking in terms of ways of playing with their social environment.”

More to the point, it’s what happens after those lessons that really matters. “I just tell them the stories,” Galbraith added, “and they go and do whatever they want. That’s the whole idea. You may already be a member. Anything you can think of, you can do.”