Don’t think we forgot! Burning Man just wrapped up this past week in Black Rock Desert, Nevada. The self-proclaimed “vibrant participatory metropolis generated by its citizens” is a week-long arts and culture festival inspired by an annual theme. With technology restrictions on photography, audio and media coverage of the week’s events, encapsulating the year’s Burning Man experiences comes after the famous “man” effigy is burned and participants return to their iPhones and everyday lives. With this past week serving as a time for attendees to paint a picture on social media of what this year’s Burning Man was like, Quiznos is painting their own picture (and may be sued) with their latest commercial. It parodies Burning Man and encourages millennials to take a risk and partake for a “real” festival experience.
However, Burning Man totes that adequate participation requires more than a bro tank and flower crown. The festival is deep rooted in history and “burners” abide by a set of ten principles. The festival’s organizers believe that Quiznos’ commercial directly violates the “decommodification” principle. This principle requires burners to avoid corporate plugs and materialism during their time in Black Rock Desert. It also excludes corporations from sponsorship and/or gifting their goods at Burning Man. In Quiznos’ commercial, their footlong subs are used as bartering booty, i.e. give a back rub to a glitter and feather festooned burner and in return, you get a Quiznos chicken parm.
It’s hard to know who is in the right in the Quiznos versus Burning Man debacle. It is unlikely burners went technology “silent” considering the millennial desire to incessantly document life through a lens, even in the desert. But even if they did reduce their screen time, media is meant to define and redefine society and culture for the masses. That being said, Burning Man can never avoid media portrayal.
However, the “Immediacy” principle of the event is regarded by the organizers of Burning Man as the “most important touchstone of value in our culture” because, they wrote, “we seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society.”
Burning Man came to life in the 80s when cell phones, iPads and Google watches did not exist. So it is valid to question whether the principle applies today. Ultimately, it asks burners to take a week away from anything that detracts from the festival’s mission of sending participants on a journey to overcome the barriers that stand between a burner and reality. Immediacy also emphasizes the power of a first hand, undistracted experience (my typical routine of texting, changing to a new song on Spotify and checking e-mail would not cut it).
The Burning Man experience is rooted in the art installations that punctuate the desert backdrop of the festival. Inspired by an annual theme, Burning Man art explores current culture in the same way media defines culture. This year’s theme—Carnival of Mirrors— took into consideration the presence of technology in society especially because Burning Man has become a destination for Silicon Valley elite.
Two particular installations gained recognition for directly questioning technology. “Becoming Human”, a 30-foot stationary robot, was created by Christian Ristow of El Prado, New Mexico. Ristow’s artist statement for his sensitive, flower-smelling robot reads that he wants to “inspire viewers to ask questions about technology and nature, and the value of slowing down.”
With an artistic reach like that, it is no coincidence that Ristow’s art has most often found its home at large scale festivals. He has also created art for Coachella, Big Day Out, The Voodoo Experience and Glastonbury Festival, to name a few. Without doubt one of the tallest art installations at Burning Man, “Becoming Human” was unavoidable and its presence directly addressed the line between humans and human robots in the face of technology.
The other installation, entitled “Hare Today, Gone Tomorrow”, was created by the South Bay HardCORE, a diehard group of San Francisco burners who meet all year round instead of just at Burning Man. Considering their proximity to Silicon Valley, it is possible that a few of these burners are some of tech’s most elite.
Their artist statement speaks to this hypothesis in stating that “the air of mystery has vanished from the world, replaced with the oversaturation of easily accessible information. The South Bay Burners seek to restore that magic and mystery with Hare Today, Gone Tomorrow. A top hat, forgotten by the desert, provides refuge for those clever enough to unlock its secrets.”
The structure “Hare Today, Gone Tomorrow” is a glorified “think tank” where burners could come together during the festival to use their creativity and clever intellect to seek solutions that technology would otherwise solve. The hare is a metaphor for coming and going, much like the hare character that appears throughout the iconic fairy tale, Alice in Wonderland. The South Bay Burners’ installation is a response to society’s reliance on technology. Just as Wifi wavers, we waver between searching for solutions with the help of Google or racking on own brains and trusting in our intellect.
Striving for Immediacy in our everyday lives is difficult, even when it is a requirement of attending Burning Man. Screen time is present in real time interactions and experiences (when is the last time you had dinner with someone and their phone wasn’t sitting next to their wine glass?) because technology and media are an integral part of modern day society.
But Burning Man is ardent about maintaining a festival environment that is so radical and surreal, technology could never adequately capture it and the media could never fully define it (sorry, Quiznos). Grounded in a lack of corporate sponsors but a plethora of art installations that ask difficult questions of its viewers, Burning Man is onto something. Why else would Google execs go?