Sep. 5th, 2008

chimerically: (Default)

Burning Man 2008 costumes
Originally uploaded by morganya
Burning Man was, as I expected, intense. Not being much of a wild partier, I found some aspects somewhat unpleasant, particularly the incessant thumping music (especially bad right next to Center Camp, where we were staying -- though the music was much more diverse than the techno techno and more techno I had been led to expect!) and the hordes of obnoxious partygoers (often drunk and/or high) hollering stupid things, defacing things, pissing on the playa, littering, etc. (Ruth noted that this year, for the first time, there was more MOOP than she and Saryn could pick up on the way to the port-a-potties in the morning.) There were parts that didn't bother me, but didn't attract me either: the casual sex, the public nudity (I don't mind nudity per se but I didn't want to participate in the weird gender implications that I'll get into more later), the smoking and drugs. But there were aspects of the experience that were just incredible.

I knew I'd love the art, and indeed, it was mind-blowing to see (and interact with) it in person rather than just through photographs and videos, as I had in previous years. The general consensus seemed to be that there weren't as many really great art pieces but that there were more art cars this year than previously. But even so, this was my favorite part.

I was surprised (though perhaps I shouldn't have been, given all that I've heard) at the friendliness and openness of some of the people there: I have noticed that the friendliness that I grew up with and used to take for granted in Salt Lake City is often either absent or viewed with suspicion in the Bay Area, and I do miss it (though there are some reasons for it -- such as the cultural and religious homogeneity -- that I'm happy to be away from). I especially enjoyed interacting with camp-mates; even though a few members of the camp said that the group seemed less cohesive than in previous years, I really enjoyed getting to know such a diverse but consistently interesting group.

Finally, throughout my week at Burning Man, I was thinking about the interviews I did last spring on Second Life and on my research interests in the role of fantasy worlds in our lives more generally. Many at Burning Man, like in Second Life, seemed to like that there is some separation between that fantasy world and the "real" world. (Other online spaces, like Facebook, are much more contiguous with everyday life -- "online" is hardly monolithic.) And Burning Man, like Second Life and like the MUDs and MOOs so heavily researched in the 1990s, largely appeals to a fringe community (call them "early adopters" if you will, though the label isn't accurate). However, both also feel the stresses of becoming more mainstream, and there is discussion among "old-timers" about the changes. Both also reflect a certain idealization, and distortion, of societal norms and ideals. The "freedom" to create your own avatar in Second Life means you have the freedom to make her/him conform perfectly to social ideals (and the ostracism for "choosing" not to do so is surprisingly vehement and ubiquitous). The "freedom" at Burning Man to express sexuality or other aspects of one's personality generally not done elsewhere means that, for some, sexual stereotypes can be realized even more fully and publicly. There are other spaces, both online and off, that exhibit some of these characteristics, but I was especially struck with the similarities between these two. I'll be following up on the Second Life interviews soon, so expect more musings in that direction.

Overall, Burning Man felt very familiar. (I had even camped in the area before with parts of my mom's family, who are also known for their "radical self-expression," though not so much in technological terms. They were on my mind throughout the week.) ... and the obligatory reconsideration of my life direction resulted! )

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