The vibe is real at Burning Man events, and it’s being studied by social scientists around the world. The vibe is real, but that doesn’t mean we must deny our Dada roots. We can yield a toilet plunger like a royal scepter. We can celebrate porta-loo beautification. We can invent a vibe-sensing device that has no sensors. Stuart Mangrum talks with Dr. Graham St John, cultural anthropologist, author of many books and academic articles about Burning Man culture, festival culture, EDM, psychedelics, and other scholarly adjacencies. Listen in and learn the true meaning of “ephemeropolis.”
The vibe is real. Playa magic. Secret sauce. Atypical serendipity. Whatever you call it, it’s being studied by social scientists around the world and written about in the annals of academia.
The vibe is real, but that doesn’t mean we must deny our Dada roots. We can yield a toilet plunger like a royal scepter. We can celebrate porta-loo beautification, and its absurd juxtaposition, as a legit art experience. We can invent a vibe-sensing device that has no sensors.
Stuart Mangrum talks with Dr. Graham St John, cultural anthropologist, author of many books and academic articles about Burning Man culture, festival culture, EDM, psychedelics, and other scholarly adjacencies. Listen in and learn the true meaning of “efflorescence” and “ephemeropolis.”
Burning Progeny Project
Wurst Storm Rising (Journal of Festive Studies)
The Big Empty (aeon Magazine)
dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture
Black Rock Gazette, Sept 5, 1999
Burning Man Phrase Generator, Javier F. Barrera
GLORIA WEAPONS GRADE: Meet the people who make Burning Man happen, beyond the desert and around the world; the dreamers and doers, the makers, shakers and innovators, the artists, activists, freaks and fools. Burning Man Live
STUART: Welcome friends. You're back listening to another episode of Burning Man Live. It's true. And I'm still Stuart Mangrum. Now, long time listeners of the show are going to know that sometimes we like to get nerdy with the nerds and nerd out, academically speaking, about Burning Man, about the culture, about the event, about the whole phenomenon of what is Burning Man, which believe it or not is actually quite a serious topic of scholarly inquiry in the scholarly world of scholarship. From Anthropology to some discipline that begins with a Z… Okay. Let's go with Zoology because we did that show a year or so ago with Dr. Scirpus on the fabulous flora and fauna of Fly Ranch.
Anyway, the event and the culture have been put under the microscope and analyzed for a long time using a lot of different instruments, not necessarily microscopes, and sometimes including a few made up ones like the vibe-o-meter. But we'll have to come back to that in just a minute.
The big story here is that people - yes, it's true - people actually get paid to go to Burning Man to observe and to write up their findings and publish them in academic journals.
Now between you and me, some of those papers are - let's just say they're of most value to someone who is in precisely the same academic discipline and speaks exactly the same language. As a rule, let's be fair, academic writing, not known for being accessible. That's not what it's for. But good news, scholars who are also Burners are breaking this mold and grinding up the pieces, and starting to publish their findings to a wider audience, increasingly outside the paywalls of academic press in a certainly more readable form, and even (gasp) letting a little of their own personality come through into the research findings.
My guest today is exactly one of those Burner scholars or scholar Burners or burning nerds. Dr. Graham St. John, PhD, is a cultural anthropologist who's held research positions at the University of Freiburg in Switzerland - that's where I met him - and very, very soon at the University of Huddersfield in the UK.
He is the author of eight books and the Executive Editor of Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture. Yes, that is a field, and it's a pretty fascinating one, too. A lot of Graham's work has centered on festival culture and the very closely adjacent areas of electronic dance music and (duh) psychedelics.
He's also studied the diaspora of Burning Man culture through the global network of events, particularly events in Europe. And most recently he's been exploring the historical underpinnings of Burning Man, and it's strange antecedental links back through The Cacophony Society, into the sublime absurdity of Dada and the pseudo-scientific 'Pataphysics’ of the absurdist writer Alfred Jarry.
A brief listener advisory: Graham has an extraordinarily dry sense of humor. Welcome, Graham St. John.
GRAHAM: Hi there, Stuart. Awesome to be here. Thanks for inviting me.
STUART: I've been looking forward to this show for a long time, mostly just because I love talking to you, and since we've been on opposite sides of the world and opposite ends of the clock, it's great that we can meet through the magic of the mystical internets, and have a conversation.
Let's start by just kind of filling people in on this abundance of scholarship around Burning Man, because I think that is going to be surprising to a lot of people. We met actually when you invited me to speak at The Burning Progeny Conference at the University of Freiburg.
Maybe start there and tell us a little bit about what happened, through The Burning Progeny Project.
GRAHAM: That was 2018, which was towards the end of a what's that had to be a four year project called Burning Progeny, the Efflorescence of Burning Man, which was a comparative collaborative cultural anthropology project that explored the cultural efflorescence of Burning Man culture around the world.
STUART: Wait a minute. “Efflorescence,” isn't that a word you usually use to describe, like, toxic algae blooms?
GRAHAM: Well, if you like, but, more meaning, like the permeation and pervasiveness, are other words you could use.
STUART: OK, now I get it.
GRAHAM: Even Obama, when Obama jokes about Burning Man at the White House press dinner in 2016, that “there's some sort of efflorescence going on.”
STUART: That’s right. He told his daughter she couldn’t go on national television. Unfair.
GRAHAM: I think he said young people often complain to me about politicians preventing them from enjoying their lives. And he said, “No, Molly, you can't go to Burning Man.”
OBAMA: Just recently a young person came up to me and said that she was sick of politicians standing in the way of her dreams. As if we were actually going to let Malia go to Burning Man this year. Well, it’s not gonna happen.
GRAHAM: And you know, this latest season of Rick and Morty features Burning Man and even porta-loos, interestingly enough.
STUART: Or, port-a-potties as we call them in the Northern hemisphere, but yes, I didn't know that Rick and Morty go to Burning Man? Holy crap. I got to watch that.
RICK AND MORTY: “Attention attendees or Birding Manapalooza Flargabarg…”
GRAHAM: Yeah. I think it's a very short part of the latest season, but it does feature a porta-Johns which we might get around to.
But just to get back to 2018. We had a symposium. I'd always thought of Burning Man as like a Bermuda Triangle of research where researchers seeking ultimate answers go into this zone, and often are never seen again. So I had this desire to create opportunities for a network of researchers and Burnographers and vibeologists from multiple disciplines to share their research findings on Burning Man, and collaborate and form a community of researchers, and pretty much a sort of an extension of Burning Nerds.
STUART: Right, the discussion group that's been going on among academics for probably 20 years now. I was knocked out just at the breadth you know, of the number of different disciplines that were represented there. And I know there wasn't even all of them, but it's people looking at Burning Man through the disciplinary lenses of what, sociology of behavioral psychology, behavioral economics, religious studies, mythology study. What else? What am I missing here?
GRAHAM: Geography, anthropology, of course, I don't know, you might even have parapsychologists in there, maybe archeologists even.
STUART: Yeah. And ‘Pataphysicists. Is that the way you say it? ‘Pataphysicysts or ‘Pataphysicians?
GRAHAM: You could with either I think, but, “Pataphysicians…
STUART: We have to stop and explain ‘Pataphysics right now, because I think you list that among your, your disciplinary credentials. What is ‘Pataphysics?
GRAHAM: When you think of ‘Pata… The ultimate ‘Pataphysician I guess was Alfred Jarry. He was a Frenchman who is one of your mates, who I think inspired last year's theme, right?
STUART: I think he did get a shout out, yes.
GRAHAM: When you think of Alfred Jarry, you think of a guy getting around holding aloft a toilet brush as a sort of royal scepter. But, I guess what that's all about is Dada and the inversion of science, it’s sort of like an anti-science, and the inversion of metaphysics. You're probably best to define what “Pataphysicians are, given that I think that you’re a leading candidate.
STUART: Well, I mean, to me, it's just, it's the science of nonsense or the nonsense of science. Jarry actually showed up in my thinking about the theme last year, because it really seemed like we were living in a country where Ubu was President. Thankfully not so much any more since last January. But, yeah, ‘Pataphysics. I still don't really know what it is. I think it's just fun to talk about in the, in the same way that para, para- anything or pata- anything is.
GRAHAM: It's probably more that it's something fun to do as opposed to talk about, and for me, I felt that I set out to create a pataphysical device, but in recent years I've been involved in the creation of something we called the Vibe-O-Meter.
STUART: Yeah, that's right. Your research has actually led you to have to develop instruments of your own of your own design, hasn't it? What's the Vibe-O-Meter all about?
GRAHAM: Well, it turned out to be, it's definitely one of those devices, liminal devices that sort of emerged within, the burnscape after years of throwing myself onto the playa and into Burning Man. That environment gave birth to the Vibe-O-Meter, but it's turned out to be a nine foot pole with a globe, with a strip of led lights, arrows, that essentially point to the sweet spot because what we needed was a device that measures the vibe's greatness.
And so the pole sort of indicates perfection while the blinking globe displays the importance of the vibe. And when the more appropriately skilled Vibe Marshals are calculating the total intensity of these qualities, they yield a readout on the vibe's greatness. And indeed in Black Rock City in 2019 we were able to determine that various locations had vibes that were truly great.
So yeah, anyone with an astute sensibility will recognize the imprint of Alfred Jarry in this device, which certainly takes a dig at electronic dance music cultural researchers who are doing things like deploying sensors in their devices to measure the vibe, essentially.
So it brings me a lot of joy in Black Rock City when people come up to me and ask me, you know, how it works and, you know, “Here’s my card. We must talk.” And those sorts of things. But it's very much an expression of poetic anti-science and serious nonsense.
STUART: So there's people who take it seriously without the nonsense though? Like the same folks who, I believe, were trying to levitate the Temple through group meditation a few years back? Is it that crowd?
GRAHAM: Well, possibly. I mean, I had one guy who gave the impression he was a club promoter who wanted to talk about the sensors that were in the device. Of course, there's no sensors.
STUART: To see how it can maximize his vibe to profit ratio, perhaps, because we all know we like to go, we all, we like to go out to a club that has, like, a great vibe, right?
GRAHAM: Exactly, but when we're talking about researchers and this is the thing that I've often said is that, every Burner is a researcher, because, everyone that goes back is seeking to optimize and augment their experience through practical measures.
And so what we have is, after (God, how long is it now?), since ‘86, we have so many decades of optimization. So, you know…
STUART: Is that what I'm doing when I keep going back? I guess. I’m trying to figure out what the hell happened to me. But I guess that is a form of research, isn't it? What was that thing?
Yeah, explaining Burning Man to other people, you seem to have made that central to your career. and I'm glad that you're salting and peppering your explanations with nonsense, but seriously, how do you, say you're going for a grant, how do you explain Burning Man to someone holding a large stack of academic funds, as something that's worthy of research, and why is it, why does it matter?
This is a question I ask a lot of my guests: What is Burning Man? Why does it matter to you?
GRAHAM: I guess it's all about asking the right questions to the right people, in terms of any grants, but the theme of transformation is pretty hot, and it doesn't get much hotter than the Black Rock Desert in late August, early September.
So, the question of what transformation means to Burners is, I think, really important. But that, of course, as you know, is a very complex set of questions because Burning Man is a complex phenomenon. It's not just one thing. Ultimately it's as many things as there are individuals who experience Burning Man. But most of your listeners realize that Burning Man is multiple things. It's a space, a very significant space, the playa, which in fact has shaped all of my research. The fact that this unforgiving expansive fine white alkaline dust has shaped the identity of Burners for whom the playa is, sort of, personified with a spirit, or even a mistress, as harsh as it is generous.
It’s a space, but it's also a gathering, a fire arts gathering. It's a temporary city; it’s become a prototype for other cities around the world. It's a nonprofit organization, the Burning Man Project. It's a global movement. It’s a landowner, land steward. And it's a virtual phenomenon, which of course has been sort of enhanced in the last couple of years. And it's many more things. But the question of transformation has to apply to all of these interacting elements. So I like to use terminology like heterotopia. Rather than defining Burning Man as a utopia, we can recognize it as a heterotopia, which is a complex, radically other space. But it's so radically other, that it constantly shifts, and defies interpretation, so, the idea of ultimately pinning down Burning Man is impossible. So I might as well give up.
STUART: Or you have a long career ahead of you keeping track of that change. There's no end of explanations, right? And you had a lot of good ones there. That's great. I'm glad that there wasn't an elevator pitch, that you didn't answer that in a 30-second soundbite, because I'm a little suspect of that.
You actually wrote a really super essay in Medium called Jumping the Shark, the Enigma of Burning Man, and said in there “Despite a torrent of media, a cumulus of theory, and a mountain of hyperbole, Burning Man has defied explanation.” And then you have the gall to go back into the deep archives and pull out my Burning Man buzz phrase generator from like 1995.
STUART: The Burning Man phrase generator, or buzz-phrase generator. It’s a Pre-Hippie postmodern Freak-Fest. It’s an inter-Bohemian narcissistic conspiracy. We may have to have you record a couple of those…
GRAHAM: So these are a few randomly selected phrases from the Burning Man phrase generator that are all markedly superior to anything that the best minds of our generation could possibly conceive of.
“Pyro-erotic Nihilistic Lollapalooza”
“Meta-weirdo Iconoclastic Conspiracy”
“Proto-psycho Dada Riot”
“Nerdo-archaic Mind-altering Hoedown”
STUART: In the original version it was actually numbers so you could roll the dice for it.
I couldn’t find it anywhere. The closest I could find was actually, some Spanish fellow had made a YouTube where he was going through it. Actually I’m going to play a little bit of it right now because it’s hilarious. He’s giggling as he goes through the pulldown menus… Phantasmagoria. I love this guy. Esoterica.
Anyway, where were we before we went down that salty, spicy rabbit hole?
GRAHAM: Were we not getting back onto the vibe because…?
STUART: Yeah. The vibe is easy. It's easy to joke about it, but it's a real thing. People do talk all the time about how there's such an awesome vibe in Black Rock City. That's what they love about the place. And they call it different things, they call it ‘playa magic’ or they call it ‘the secret sauce.’ I don't know. But there is something there whether you can measure it or not.
I know that there's that one of the groups that we encountered at the Burning Progeny Festival was that the team out of the psych department at Yale, who was actually trying to do experimentation on people at Burning Man and similar transformative festivals, doing some testing on them with regard to, particularly with regard to generosity before and after the fact. So there are people trying to measure the transformative effect. Is that anything that you've had your fingers in at all? Or that you’re following?
GRAHAM: More following as opposed to measuring the transformative effect. It's not that I have pinned down what the Burning Man vibe is, but I've been very privileged to have a steep learning curve in vibe country, given a background in researching global rave culture and psychedelic trance festivals and eclipse gatherings, which are in specific form of event, and Burning Man, and being in a position to compare these vibes, recognizing that Burning Man is a unique vibe.
But once again, we face the problem of describing what that is because the vibe of course is something notoriously difficult to define in everyday language and people often struggle to identify want this thing is that’s, you know, a life changing experience, an extraordinary experience, and an experience that you live for and travel around the world for, and even something that you might call “home.” And yet, it's not an experience that you would typically have at home alone. So, it's a very enigmatic and ephemeral experience. And of course, ephemerality is built into the Burning Man experience, isn't it? “We can't stay up on the roof forever,” as Hakim Bey once said. It's temporary and that's integral. I mean, it's physically transformative. It's temporary.
So what are these elements that compel Burners to define Burning Man as “home”? Are these the same parameters and elements that have made it a success around the world as the experience has, being transposed and translocated to, I think, something like 90 regional events around the world.
STUART: It was well over a hundred before the plague hit, and you've been to quite a few of those. And, how does the vibe differ - or does it? - between the Black Rock City events and some of the European events, for instance?
GRAHAM: Most of my experiences with European events and Midburn, which is the Israeli event, yeah. I think a lifetime of research is required to ultimately answer that question, but it is integral to what we've been doing. So I've been to events like Borderland in Denmark, which is mostly a Swedish event, it’s a Nordic event, and comparing that with events like Midburn in Israel. Those are two very distinct reproductions of, if you like, of the prototype. Although, a lot of Borderland, given the nature of that event, which emerged probably as much from an event called Futuredrome, which was a live action role playing event, probably inspired by that as much as it was inspired by Burning Man.
STUART: They started as LARPers. Are you kidding me?
GRAHAM: That’s right.
GRAHAM: So, Boti Vitas who was our research assistant on the Burning Progeny Project, and myself, we’ve written another article which will come out in The Journal of Festive Studies, in an issue that I'm co-editing with Sarah Pike, that addresses those roots of Borderland, but also comparing it with MidBurn, and where most of the organizers and participants, given they’re mostly Israelis, have military experience. And they're obligated to be part of the military as their rite of passage as a young adult. So that's inflicted in the way that event is organized. So those two events are very interesting to compare.
STUART: Yeah. I imagine when the vast majority of the participants have been in the military, you have a different outlook on, for instance, on Radical Self-reliance, right? And even on Communal Effort. That's pretty fascinating.
I want to ask you a question about methodology. When you do field work and you visit Burning Man or regional events or other festivals, how do you keep it objective? How do you keep it from turning into, you know, Gonzo anthropology, that's all about Graham?
What are some of the methods that you use to try to raise yourself above your personal experience of it? Or does your personal experience really fuel your findings and your results?
GRAHAM: Well, that's a very good question, Stuart. Ultimately I think it's impossible to be a hundred percent objective, that's not an objective that I'll even attempt to pursue, which I discovered from very early days of my research when I was doing a PhD on Australia's Con Fest - the name comes from conference festival - which is Australia's oldest running alternative lifestyle festival.
Yeah, it's important to have networks of collaborators and peers. And I think that's one of the important things about doing things like holding symposiums and having a research community that enables you to generate some feedback and ensure that you're, you know, perhaps not going off the deep end. So having a community of research is really important. This is one of the reasons why we held that symposium in Freiburg, and why we’ll have another one, hopefully at the end of next year, at Huddersfield.
STUART: That’s fantastic. That's good to know. Yeah. I know that our friends in Finland at Aalto University were planning on doing a short version of that right before the pandemic hit in conjunction with the European Leadership Summit. That'd be great. I think getting the band back together and doing a little bit more of that cross-disciplinary work is only gonna be good for everyone.
A lot of things have changed since then, though. Do you think that this period of pause… What effect do you think that's going to have on all of this?
GRAHAM: Yes. It's a good question again. I think people are champing at the bit to get out there, globally. We've had such a long period of seclusion. For Burners that's a very unusual thing because of course, most Burners, especially North American, it's the main thing that you do during the year. Especially if you're involved in key organization positions. You don't get the opportunity to necessarily travel and be involved in other events, other regional Burns. So, I guess that many people have been home, sort of traveling metaphysically a lot more than physically.
Larry, who was one of the first people that we invited to the symposium in 2018, who passed that year, I was wondering what he might've been doing during this break over the last two years. And I suspect he would have been writing and conjuring fresh nomenclature and sort of tending his conceptual garden. So, I guess a lot of people have been optimizing and thinking about how the event and the experience can be improved. I expect that you've been doing something similar, Stuart.
STUART: Well, I know that if Larry had been around, I wouldn't have had to write those last three themes by myself. That would have been a positive thing. But, yeah, part of that too is, I look at the pause as mostly positive in a sense that there were a lot of things that we did just out of organizational inertia. I mean, you write about the tensions between the drive to organize and to optimize versus the inherent threads of anarchy and surrealism that want to keep it weird. Do you think there's an opportunity here for some of the order to relax its grasp on things and let some of the weirdness flourish again?
GRAHAM: Well, yes. And, I did watch the Rebel Burn on my screen and was compelled. I was kicking myself for not… I couldn't be there. But I was fascinated by that. But, as you know, I've spent most of this time not thinking about Burning Man. I’ve been writing a biography on Terence McKenna.
STUART: That's right, on Terrence McKenna. How’s that going?
GRAHAM: It's nearly finished and it did give me the opportunity to think about… Larry and Terry, I think, would have got along fine had they met.
STUART: How so?
GRAHAM: Well, they were both into radical empiricism. They were both radical empiricists who loved to quote William James. Radical libertarians, and writing to self-reliance and immediacy. Terrance went on about the primacy of direct experience as much as Larry spoke about immediacy. Both appear to be representatives of this American propensity for radical immediacy in which we encounter these sort of rugged mystics denying their allegiance to king and country. And they both nurtured a divine spark in individuals, empowered individuals and groups, to be authors of their own experience. They came at this from very different angles. One, did this via the cultivation of mushrooms where the other, the cultivation of events.
In the end you get this sort of paradox where both men were sort of anti-gurus who drew a crowd. Both men knew paradox and recognized this sort of union of opposites which operated in their lives. And of course, with Larry, he was juggling these 10 Principles and exploring the paradox between them.
He probably would have spent this pause thinking more about the paradox of the principles that he was juggling. But yeah, so, I've given a lot of thought to Terry McKenna and how he and Larry were sort of on the same page as these sort of radical libertarians. There are many other characters in, especially North American history, that sort of fit this rugged mystic mentality.
STUART: That's an interesting proposition. I'd never thought of Larry as a radical libertarian, I mean, there's certainly a lot of libertarian sentiment baked into the Burning Man vibe. But you know, when I look at the 10 Principles, I see, yes, there's Radical Self-reliance. But there are also things that actually smack more of socialism to be Communal Effort and Gifting and the notion of Decommodification even. That's probably my favorite internal tension or contradiction within the 10 Principles.
Have you observed any tensions in the spread of that ethos of the 10 Principles into other countries and other cultures - particularly I'm thinking in Europe? Have you seen that some of those principles perhaps resonate more or less with European audiences than they do with American audiences?
GRAHAM: Yeah. Well, I spoke about Midburn in Israel before - and even though that's not in Europe, they are a part of the European sort of the network. I think the concept of radical self-reliance has been a very difficult one for them. After all, they were the fastest growing event. They went from, I think two or three thousand to 12,000 in only three years, which is extraordinary, which meant that the growth of the population outstripped education in the Principles. And so they ended up dealing with a lot of essentially tourists.
Their growth was sort of fraught with this sort of compulsion to get back to a sort of grassroots. And I think that they had to cancel the event in 2019, I believe. But they had an event just last year, so they’re back on.
But, by comparison to Borderland who have really embraced, in a decentralized way, radical self-reliance; so those two events there have been fascinating. And, we’ll be hopeful to get back to Borderland this coming year.
STUART: Yeah. It's interesting that you mentioned those two because I see them as a study and opposites, as well; in the way that they've grown? It's not surprising that an event that has grown as fast as Midburn has had acculturation challenges of bringing new people into the fold, but also even in just the way that they organized. I recall that when Midburn was getting started, they modeled their organization very very exactly on the Burning Man Project organization.
Whereas Borderland threw the book out the window and went for a very super flat, distributed organizational model where I believe there's no distinction between organizers and participants? and everyone has some say in the disposition of funds. Is that all absolutely true?
GRAHAM: Yes. Well, it is certainly true to some extent, yeah, the Dreams, projects, funding project, came out of the Nordic community, and that's been a very successful process that's been taken up by other regional communities, the flat structure of user-influenced funding decisions. That's the Dreams process which has been fascinating to look at.
But you know, a close look at some of the ways that some of these regionals operate, like Borderland, from a Burning Man Project point of view, I think would offer a tremendous sort of learning experience from North American Burners, and hopefully some of the publications that have been somewhat on hold due to a COVID bit will be coming out over the next year or two, based on this research that we've done over the last few years, before the pause, will be of interest to the likes of yourself and others in the Burning Man Project.
STUART: So, that's the Burning Progeny related research about the diaspora of Burning Man into various parts of Europe? Yeah, super fascinating. Can't wait to see that.
Graham, tell us about the article that you just put out in Journal of Festival Studies, which has a wonderful title: Wurst Storm Rising: The Dadaist Legacy of Burning Man. Talk to that a little bit. Read us a little bit if you want to.
GRAHAM: This is a piece that was really enjoyable, coauthored with Boti Vitos that came out of our Swiss research and addresses a theme...
STUART: Hey, Boti. Shout out to Boti.
GRAHAM: …a theme that I know that you appreciate. I mean, we quoted you at some length because of your history with the Cacophony Society, which takes quite a place in here. We were really looking at how the zone trip as a surrealist rite of passage, and infamous leave no trace event, we’re essentially looking at the legacy and progeny of the zone trip, essentially.
It's a study of this dadaist, surrealist legacy, specifically from a sort of scatological angle. It's a journey through the heights and bowels of this dadaist diaspora. And if you can let me read a couple of…
STUART: Are you saying Burning Man is one big poop joke? Is that what you mean by “scatological,” Graham?
GRAHAM: Well, that's one way of looking at it.
STUART: We do have some poop jokes in our porta-loos, but yes.
GRAHAM: Well, you know what? I think that porta-loo improvements is an artistic area, and, I suspect, community, that's very little known, but quite fascinating genre of art in its own right - as it's been perfected at Burning Man.
STUART: I don't think we've ever talked about that on the show before. Tell us what you mean by “porta-loo improvements.”
GRAHAM: Well, I was hoping to get to that via a couple of quotes, just a sort of background quote here.
STUART: Please do.
GRAHAM: I'll just read from. This is more of the background, so...
The original desert events were, in John Law’s recollections, “extremely Dada.” With no rules or expectations, “people could bring out whatever they wanted and do whatever they wanted. This open palette allowed for a lot of creative thought.” Such license gave life to elaborate “theme camps,” with Christmas Camp, founded in 1993 by Cacophonists Lisa Archer and Peter Doty, being formative. Materializing on a remote canvas of fine white dust, upon whose stage there appeared a debauched Santa, armed with a shotgun and bottle of bourbon, the camp was an abrasive retort to the White Christmas fantasy, as noted by Mangrum. Cacophonists he said “had a kind of weird and complicated relationships with Christmas,” to the point of “hatred.”
As an affront to the festive acme in the capitalist calendar, Christmas Camp foreshadowed Santacon, the annual trans-city rampage inaugurated in 1994 in which throngs of rampant Santas ravaged urban Christmas festivities, and subverted the consumer frenzy of Christmas Eve. But while originally invested with a rebellious spirit in defiance of the commercial art world, Burning Man, as it is argued by some, became a spectacular commodity, and, what’s more, according to Law’s lore, “a party for rich tech kids.” For a favorable comparison, Law has invoked Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 “Fountain,” the inverted public urinal that had been converted from proto-Dadaist art into an expensive art commodity. Santacon itself suffered a not-dissimilar fate, as the annual event became domesticated into large-scale pub crawls around the globe as an accomplice to the operations of capital. Reflecting on the fading of the Cacophony Society in the shadow of Burning Man’s growth by the end of the eighties, Mangrum laments: “If Burning Man was the child that devoured its parents, then Santacon was the child that took a shit on its parents’ couch, emptied its parents’ bank account, burned down its parents’ house, and ‘broke its parents’ heart.”
But of course, this is no simple story.
STUART: OK. Go back to quoting me more. No, just kidding.
GRAHAM: But I do want to quote another bit.
STUART: I probably said it on one of these shows.
GRAHAM: It's a classic. It's worth repeating. This is the part of the text where we get into a little bit of toilet humor.
“Upon my first visit to Black Rock City, I discovered that venturing to the toilets was something of a minor Zone Trip. My curiosity was piqued by the practice in which portable public toilet stalls—which typically suffer the ravages of use—were adopted and revivified by anonymous curators. Participants unknown to users have long customized and domesticated the interiors of these plastic “porta-loos,” which are sometimes decorated with wallpaper, curtains, and other domiciliary affects.
On other occasions, objects and images were arranged to create exotic atmospheres, such as a Balinese shrine, an alien city, or absurdly blended scenarios. These strategies complemented widespread efforts to educate participants about waste disposal practices. In this way, the repulsive badlands of event stalls were converted into cozy, educational, and amusing temporary excretory zones. These stalls remained dedicated to their original purpose, modifications held something in common with the billboard “improvements” of the Billboard Liberation Front. In this tradition, the art of stall transformation may be enhanced through interior sound design.”
And then this article gets into some of Boti's projects at regional events in Europe where he was converting and improving toilet stalls.
That gives you some insight into one of my earliest Burner memories, back in 2003 and subsequent fascination with how toilet stalls, however you want to name them, become the context for improvements. Most Burners understand and probably experienced those improvements.
STUART: That's interesting that you liken that to the BLF and billboard improvements, because I think it's just that unexpectedness that causes a lot of delight.
I imagine if you’d taken your Vibe-O-Meter into a porta-loo that had been decorated as a Balinese temple, it would have been off the charts. But it's things like that that really do stay with people. So that's a really great story. I also just want to say, Graham, I love the way you write. For a guy who's read… I have suffered through so many academic papers that seem to go out of their way to speak in dry-as-toast-without-butter jargony crap. You really have a way with a phrase, sir. Thank you.
GRAHAM: Thank you. And my writing, perhaps more in the distant past, but still these days, suffers from those terrible ravages that you've just mentioned. It does depend on the audience. For instance, if we could go to another paper, which is from Aon magazine, perhaps I could quote something from that.
STUART: If it's for a broader more popular audience, then probably it's going to tickle my fancy. Yes. Read me a bit, please.
GRAHAM: So, this is an example of my non-academic writing. This article which was called “The Big Empty,” which was very much inspired by an approach to the Black Rock Desert as this sort of paradoxical homespace.
Pushing out beyond exhaustion, I’m enveloped by a fog of white dust unsettled from the flat expanse beneath my pedals. My head is wrapped in goggles and bandana – the mask de rigueur in this carnival at the edge of the known. Hitched on opposite sides of my utility belt are items of equal weight, albeit disparate utility: a corkwood water bottle and a pink toy vacuum cleaner. Suddenly, through the thick curtain of this reverie appears another rider, likewise begoggled, and blanketed in fine alkaline particulates. Encountering another self, we share an unspoken revelation: ‘…and to dust we shall return.’
A cumulus of such encounters – some pragmatic, others absurd – reveal our coordinates: the Black Rock Desert, 120 miles from Reno, Nevada. More decisively, we are in this desert’s 200-square-mile salt pan, or playa, Spanish for beach. Intimacy with this extraordinary space enhances the perception of boundary dissolution, the blurring of outlines, a sensation mediated by the powdery surface dust animated, even under a gentle breeze, into a pervading white noise. This tangible fuzziness is familiar to denizens of Black Rock City, the annual gathering known as Burning Man. On my virgin encounter with the crescent-shaped city in 2003, the playa showed clear signs of habituation. It had been occupied for weeks by dust-encrusted volunteers manifesting a city amid white-outs and withering heat; it also exhibited the labours of dedicated stalwarts assembling an ‘ephemeropolis’, co-creating epic works of art, and most often reducing them to ash, year in and out. The Black Rock playa, I discovered, had been hallowed by a significant populace calling the place ‘home’.
But ‘home’ is complicated here since Burning Man resists simple classification. A week-long fire-arts gathering. A temporary city that, in 2018, had a total population of nearly 80,000. A non-profit organisation. The Burning Man Project oversees a cultural movement with a network of more than 85 regional events in 35-plus countries. It is a land steward that, in 2016, purchased the 3,800-acre Fly Ranch, Nevada. Perhaps foremost, Burning Man is a place that is no place at all. The ephemeral and otherworldly qualities of this dust-filled desolation bear heavily on the status Burning Man has earned as a benchmark in ‘transformational’ events.
The sublime quality of the playa is integral to the story of Burning Man. Home to a seasonal fire ceremony culminating with the incineration of a towering effigy called ‘the Man’, Burning Man is a frontier settlement imagined as a tabula rasa, Petri dish, blank canvas. These ideas reveal a founding paradox: abundance and possibility are propagated in one of the driest open expanses in North America.
So this understanding that the event is held in the ne plus ultra of deserts, a 200 square mile salt flat, the playa is ultimately what compels me, as it does compel emissaries from around the world who attempt to replicate and mirror in some respects, and evolve and iterate, the playa, even referring to their event spaces as the playa is fascinating. And I'm fascinated by the fact that I'll go to events and someone will pull out a jar of this dust and crack it open and offer me a taste of their playa dust.
STUART: Don’t eat it! Who knows what's in that dust. Dinosaurs have crapped in that dust. I wouldn’t eat it at all. Although it does have salient effects on the skin. Contrary to popular belief, it is not bad for your skin. It's a combination dermabrasion and chemical peel that you would pay hundreds of dollars for in a spa. But, no, that notion of playa becoming a word just for the liminal space itself is super interesting. I'm also fascinated by the word ‘ephemeropolis.’ Did I coin that word or did you?
GRAHAM: Maybe you did, but you weren't credited because. I think it’s someone whose surname is Black, I don't remember the first name, but I believe…
STUART: Oh, Steven Black? Oh, yeah. That makes sense.
GRAHAM: You might've been the first to use it.
GRAHAM: Yes. When I'm talking to people about Burning Man who’ve never heard of it before, that's the big word I start with. There it is, an ephemeral city. That's what we're talking about.
I do look forward to stepping back into Burning Man research because this will be the next, the continuating phase of ongoing research.
STUART: What do you see ahead in that field? What are you going to work on?
GRAHAM: It's still to be decided, but it will be an experimental study of ritual dynamics of Burning Man, the Burning Man movement. This is very much an inquiry into the cultural logic, if you like, of Burning Man, by way of a comparative ethnography or vibeography, if you like, of its spacio ritual complex summary. I’m really interested in the integral role of fire, dust and music in rituals at Burning Man and its progeny events.
So it's going to be sort of a focus on ephemerality and sort of polyphonic conditions that are conventionally difficult, if not impossible, to translate. So once again, I'm on an impossible mission and I'll ultimately be testing my hypothesis that Burning Man is a Bermuda Triangle of research. And then I'll just see if I can't get lost.
STUART: Leave a trail of breadcrumbs or a piece of string behind you as you navigate the labyrinth. I'm super fascinated to see how that turns out. I'm looking forward to seeing you out on the big playa in August of this year Graham.
STUART: We can have some fun, we'll get that. Maybe we'll take five Vibe-O-Meter 3.0. Can we look for maybe an all digital Vibe-O-Meter? I don't know, just a thought.
GRAHAM: A Mark 2. And, we definitely need some Vibe Marshals, so we'll be stopping by your camp.
STUART: Vibe Marshall Training and Certification? Yes, I see dollar signs in your future.
All right. Hey Graham St. John, thank you so much for dropping into our little show today. Let's have you back when you’ve got more research to talk about, OK? And maybe we'll get together on playa and record a little something, when we're deep in the vibe. How about that?
GRAHAM: Love it, Stuart. Thanks for having me, and I’ll see you in the dust.
OUTRO: STUART: That's it for this go around the maypole. Thanks everyone for listening.
Burning Man Live is a production of the Philosophical Center of Burning Man Project made possible by generous donations by burners, the burner-curious, the burner adjacent, and anyone who feels like visiting donate.burningman.org. Thank you. Thank you. As always you can reach us by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can follow us on all the socials as @burningmanlive.
Thanks to everyone who helped get this one out the door: Our Tech Producer is the fabulous Michael Vav. This week's intro was voiced by Weapons Grade. A big xie xie to Andie Grace. A merci beaucoup to kBot. An arigato to DJ Toil. And as always, thanks, Larry.