A Carnival of Smoke and Mirrors

The new theme has been announced. As per the rumor we leaked on November 16, it’s circus-related:

This year’s theme is about mirrors and masks, mazes and merger. It will be a kind of magic show that takes the form of an old-fashioned carnival. This Carnival of Mirrors asks three essential questions: within our media-saturated world, where products and people, consumption and communion morph into an endlessly diverting spectacle, who is the trickster, who is being tricked, and how might we discover who we really are?

Classic carnivals, as theaters of illusion, upheld a very strict dividing line that separated carnies, cast as showmen, from members of a naïve public who were labeled chumps and suckers, marks and rubes. Our carnival, however, will perform an even more subversive trick — its motto is Include the Rube. The wall dividing the observer from observed will disappear, as by an act of magic; through the alchemy of interaction, everyone at once can be the carny and the fool…

Old-fashioned carnivals were dominated by an all-pervading hucksterism; midways featured barkers, shills, rigged games of chance and skill, and not infrequently defrauded customers — “short change” is a carny term. They also featured titillating freak shows, geek acts and museums of the outré and forbidden. Our midway, on the other hand, will satirize deception while inviting all participants to summon up their inner geek, that secret freak who hides behind the mask of what is called normality. We will turn grifting into gifting; otherness becomes creative self-expression.

Read the whole thing here.

Merger? What does that have to do with carnivals? The whole thing is about deception, defrauded customers, tricksters, and the naïve fools who buy into the illusions being spun by the carnival hucksters.

I think the irony of this theme is what the Commodification Camps are really doing is turning our Gifting into Grifting – by the ring-masters who pursue the “alchemy” of monetization of our beloved Playa. The occult continues to be a core element: “the occulting mask will melt away”, “magic show”, “an act of magic”.

The Fool - a throwback to the very first Baker Beach burn, where they burned a Dog effigy too?

The Fool – a throwback to the very first Baker Beach burn, where they burned a dog effigy too?

They are creating a clear division between the “showmen” (presumably, themselves, since they believe it’s BMOrg who create Burning Man, not Burners), and the “chumps and suckers” who buy their product (ie, us). The subversive magic trick of “you’re all showmen and you’re all chumps at the same time” seems to facilitate their attempts to define Commodification Camps as “turnkey camps, on a spectrum like any other camp”. Are you a safari tourist in a wristband-only camp? No problem, everyone is the carny and the fool at once.

We’ve now had three car- themes in three years: CARgo cult, CARavansary, and CARnival. Is Larry just going through the dictionary?

The design of the Man seems to be the same big humanoid stick figure as this year. At the base, instead of the Souk, will be a bunch of funhouse mirrors, ironic fortune tellers, vendors, and whatever else the Regionals can come up with.

Man base design by Larry Harvey and Andrew Johnstone. Illustration by Andrew Johnstone with Hugh D’Andrade

Man base design by Larry Harvey and Andrew Johnstone. Illustration by Andrew Johnstone with Hugh D’Andrade

At the same time as announcing the theme, BMOrg launched their magical new web site, and a new tag line:

Welcome Home. A city in the desert. A culture of possibility. A network of dreamers and doers.

Burningman.com now automagically redirects to burningman.org.

They’ve gone for aesthetics over user-friendliness. It looks visually eclectic, certainly more appealing than it used to be; but it’s become more like a maze to find your way through it all. Some pages like the “Tech Innovation” still look like the old site, with its much cleaner navigation at the top.  ePlaya has not changed. You can find it under Menu (top right), The Network, Get Involved, Connect with Burners, then scroll down the page.

The “Burning Blog” is now called “Voices of Burning Man”, and has been integrated into the site. The many comments from Burners are there intact – however, you’ll have to navigate through a bizarre two-tone color scheme and the grouping of posts by category only, and comments 50 at a time. This makes it much harder to read through the comments, a further indication that they’re more interested in what they want to tell us, than listening to what we Burners have to say.

The oldest post readily available is Halcyon’s Let Them Eat Cake “Burning Cake: A Cautionary Tale”; you’ll have to hunt to find earlier posts such as “Virgins And Turnkey Camps Are Ruining Burning Man” and “Turnkey Camps (Moving Towards Effective Solutions)“, which are filed under “The Ten Principles” and “News” respectively. You are no longer able to use “Previous” and “Next” to scroll through all the blog posts. This appears to be a deliberate design feature, rather than a bug; the same with breaking the comments up onto multiple pages so you can’t just scroll through them all. If they publish a blog post that gets the community up in arms, all they have to do is have their friendly “shills” come in at the end once the people have vented with some peace, love, and unicorns stuff and the negativity can be tucked away in the “Older Comments”. They seem to have been trialling this strategy in the comments on their blog over the last week. For example, the “Turnkey Camps (Moving Towards Effective Solutions)” post has 255 comments; but only the most recent 5 are shown with it.

Earlier in the week we mentioned the Burning Man Arts Grants online system, which is for Arts Grants for non-Burning Man projects. The deadline for submissions there is December 1, 2015.

The new Arts Honorarium Grant system is now live too. The deadline to submit your Letter of Intent is December 19, 2015. The link on the Front Page to Honoraria Grants – New Process for 2015 won’t take you there, though.  You can find it under “Important Dates” on the main screen.

As we predicted, the “system” turns out to be just an online form. The form is broken out into a few different screens. You’ll need to sign up with Slideroom and create yet another profile. The Honoraria grants applications appear to be free. Perhaps they listened to our griping, or perhaps their plan from the start was that only the artists applying for smaller grants to bring Burner art to the world have to pay $5 to submit their Letter.

They’ve finally put the dates for the 2015 Nevada burn on their main web site – good news for those who were curious if it was even going to happen. The dates are August 31 – September 7.

The main page of the site lists Upcoming Global Events in a scroll-box at the bottom – all 21 of them. The dates of each are “TBA” – if you want to know when the event is, or where it is, you’ll need to go to their Regional Events page which lists 41 events, including Decompressions.

The “Where Does Your Ticket Money Go” page that falsely claimed they pay $4.5 million a year to the BLM (which we proved to be really $3,485,000, with a missing $1 million+ unaccounted for), now re-directs to the Philosophical Center. It no longer shows up from their search box, but it is still visible in the Internet Archive.

I think BMOrg would be very happy for Burners to just move on and focus on 2015 now, where the fools and chumps will be merged together with the hucksters. Will the community leave them be, and take their silence and the new theme as the answer to our questions? What will this word “merger” come to mean to Burners by the time August 2015 rolls around?

Why We Prank

by Whatsblem the Pro

In the wee hours of the morning on April 1st, while it was still dark out, my housemate and I were taping garbage bags to the frame of someone else’s bedroom door and filling the space between the bags and the door with balloons. When we’d stuffed enough balloons into the gap to bury a person opening the door from inside the room in inflated rubber, we high-fived and went to bed wreathed in smiles. Many of the balloons were long sausage-like cylinders; some had been twisted into more explicitly suggestive shapes and decorated or written on with a Sharpie; they bore slogans like “Your Magic Friend While He’s Away,” and “ASS-2-ASS! ASS-2-ASS!

Around dawn, a tiny hullabaloo of confusion, cursing, laughter, and savage balloon-popping took place in the hall outside my door. I woke up long enough to have a good haw-haw, and went back to bed to finish sleeping.

By the time the morning had progressed to a fit hour for decent people, my co-conspirator and I were the only ones home, and retribution was in full effect. I got out of bed first; there were notes taped to the walls over the kitchen and bathroom sinks: “LANDLORD CALLED, WATER OFF UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.” I turned the taps; nothing. I knew the landlord would call my landline in the event of a real outage, so of course I simply turned them on at the wall and did my business. . . and since my accomplice – still new in our house – had no idea, I turned the toilet and sink off again after using them, and played dumb when she got up. Fifteen minutes later she was fleeing to a friend’s place to use the bathroom.

The next day, like a Third World child stepping on an unexploded land mine long after the war has ended, she dipped a spoon into a container marked ‘SUGAR,’ and stirred a heaping helping of salt into her coffee.

Some people decry pranks as unnecessary, disrespectful cruelties, but pranks among friends – especially friends who live together harmoniously – are often sources of bonding and group history-building. They serve as test of and testimony to our confidence in each other as intimates, and give us something to laugh about together weeks, months, and years later.

There’s a similar phenomenon to be found in the way Australians are prone to casually referring to their nearest and dearest as ‘cunts,’ a practice which never fails to horrify uninitiated Septics (aka Americans), who typically wither or bristle at the drop of the dreaded ‘C’ word. The first time I got the C-bomb dropped on me by an Aussie, he was smiling warmly and handing me a free beer with a “welcome home” twinkle in his eye, and I still stopped jaw-slung in my tracks, thinking did he really just call me a cunt? Once I got over the initial shock, though, I realized that I was being welcomed into the fold and hailed as a brother. It was only up to me to pass the test by not being offended. Not a prank per se, but a cultural marker that acts a lot like one.

Psychologists have been studying pranks for some time, usually in the very negative light of malice, bigotry, and exclusion, but anthropologists have found that practical jokes are far more commonly an effort to bring a person into a group rather than drive or keep them out. The kind of frat-boy hazing that sociologist Erving Goffman characterized as ceremonial degradation turns out to be an integral part of rituals in human cultures throughout the globe, serving to temper the initiate’s sense of success at gaining entrée in a splash of cold humility. Being duped and brought low even for a moment can prompt a powerful self-reflection and a new alertness to the world; this may in fact be the looked-for metamorphosis that the hazing is meant to induce in the neophyte.

In other words, the difference between what goes on during Rush Week on Fraternity Row, and what goes on in the course of ten thousand other prankish social gluing rites all over the globe, is mainly a matter of form and not function. The dangerously drunk college boy getting paddled and peed on is being ushered into a society and acknowledged as having a place there in a more aggressive, juvenile, irresponsible, and homoerotic manner than a newlywed couple getting a shivaree, but the idea is the same. . . and in both cases the victims are being put through a positive metamorphic process that draws them closer to the culture administering it, rather than simply being embarrassed, inconvenienced, victimized, and/or degraded for its own sake.Image

Dr. Jonathan Wynn, a cultural sociologist and lecturer at Smith College, says these kinds of induction-into-the-culture pranks help elevate the victim even as they seemingly demean and degrade. “You gain status by being picked on in some ways. It can be a kind of flattery, if you’re being brought in.” According to Wynn, the vast majority of ritualistic pranks played on newcomers are sending a message – that the pranksters like you and want to recognize you as one of them – and are demanding a response in the form of good-natured acceptance.

Hazing rituals have another effect that they share with one-on-one pranks – and outright scams – that have nothing to do with being welcomed into a new circle of people; they can trigger a feedback and correction mechanism for the victim’s own defense instincts. The shock and embarrassment of being the patsy leads to a self-evaluation and adjustment of our vigilance against the depredations of others; it may heighten our paranoia, but paradoxically, being duped can also prompt us to be less vigilant than before.

“As humans, we develop this notion of fairness as a part of our self-concept, and of course it’s extremely important in exchange relationships,” says consumer psychologist Kathleen D. Vohs, co-author of Feeling Duped: Emotional, Motivational, and Cognitive Aspects of Being Exploited by Others.

Take off my pants too, get a free cup of coffee

Take off my pants too, get a free cup of coffee

“Being duped holds up this mirror to people,” says Dr. Vohs, “and may in fact show them where they are on the scale” between total obliviousness and hyper-vigilance, thus helping them to form a more realistic view of themselves and adjust their defense mechanisms to be more effective in exchange relationships.

The mirror Dr. Vohs refers to is something psychologists call “counterfactual thinking,” in which the duped victim goes over and over the events that led to them being duped, playing the scenario out in their heads in different ways in an attempt to figure out where they went wrong. The intense self-examination often leads to better perspective and even full-blown epiphanies that improve the victim’s skill at dealing with others and successfully distinguishing good information from bad information, and good deals from not-so-good deals.

“There appears to be stable individual differences in the motivation (called sugrophobia) to avoid being a sucker,” says Dr. Vohs. “High sugrophobes will be vigilant and skeptical of potential deals. Low sugrophobes may not even realize in some instances that they were duped. The aversive reaction to feeling duped stimulates counterfactual ruminations that may intensify sugrophobia but also aids in extracting useful lessons.”

Other researchers have offered evidence that the insights gleaned from counterfactual thinking can have a major positive impact on behavior that enhances our social interactions.

Now consider Burning Man. In the absence of commerce, in an environment of abundance in which everything (or nearly everything) is given freely, the motivations for duping others become less obvious. With no money or trade goods in play, decommodification allows us the luxury – or possibly creates the dire hazard – of pranking and being pranked with only our bodies, our preconceptions, our ingrained habits, and our personal pride at stake.

Transformative experience, anyone? Just let go. Black Rock City is a place where you can willingly suspend your disbelief and judiciously allow yourself to be delightfully misdirected, bamboozled, flim-flammed, monkey-talked, and played in a thousand different ways. Be alert for the lessons you might learn thereby. . . and pass them on to others.

Hey, what’s that on your shirt?