2013 Art Theme: Cargo Cult

Theme by Larry Harvey, text by Larry Harvey and Stuart Mangrum, illustration by D.A. of Black Rock (aka Dominic Tinio)
Theme by Larry Harvey, text by Larry Harvey and Stuart Mangrum, illustration by D.A. of Black Rock (aka Dominic Tinio)

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
– Arthur C. Clarke

Who is John Frum? He is known to us by many names, this Visitor from Elsewhere, dispenser of endless abundance and wielder of mysterious technologies: John Frum, Quetzalcoatl, Osiris, “Bob.” His cargo is splendid, his generosity boundless, his motives beyond our understanding. But across the ages and around the world, the stories all agree: one day he will return, bearing great gifts. Our theme this year asks three related questions; who is John Frum, where is he really from, and where, on spaceship Earth, are we all going?

“‘E look like you an’ me. ‘E tall man. ‘E live long.”
– Melanesian informant

Cargo Cult Plane

Our story begins in Melanesia during World War II. Thousands of American GIs suddenly descended on this South Sea island chain, bearing with them unimaginable riches: magical foodstuffs that never spoiled, inconceivable power sources. Just as abruptly the troops departed, leaving only broken, rusted Jeeps, crumpled beer cans, and the memory of Spam. To the astonished eyes of the natives, this was a miraculous occurrence, and they yearned for the return of abundance. Accordingly, they built totemic sky-craft in an attempt to summon back these Visitors and their legendary leader, the man the Melanesians called John Frum. They had formed a Cargo Cult.

This Myth of Return is no less relevant today. To put this in a modern context, what if your electricity went dead and stayed that way — would you know how to make the current flow again? Can you fix your car if it breaks down, or build yourself a new one? Like the islanders, most of us are many steps removed from the Cargo that entirely shapes our lives. We don’t know how it’s made, where it’s made, or how it works; all we can do is look beyond the sky and pray for magic that will keep consumption flowing.

Pavilion design by Lewis Zaumeyer, illustration by Andrew Johnstone
Pavilion design by Lewis Zaumeyer, illustration by Andrew Johnstone

Burning Man 2013 will court the return of our benevolent Visitors from Elsewhere by constructing an enormous replica of their sky-craft, hewn from the primitive materials of our backwater planet. Burning Man will stand atop this streamlined structure, majestically revolving like an interstellar beacon. Within this three-decked vessel participants will encounter the Temple of the Navigator, a shrine that features six hand-operated zoetropes that will function as prayer wheels. These will rehearse what little we know, or believe we know, of John Frum’s story. A sweeping observation ring surrounding this central chamber will afford panoramic views of both the playa and our city.

We feel sure our theme will attract many alien Visitors, and hope this will stimulate our planet’s faltering economy. To that end, we invite artists to create altars that may be placed in the vicinity of Burning Man’s pavilion. These installations should be portable and easily removable from our burn circle. Participants are encouraged to contribute propitiatory offerings to these Space Age shrines. Artists are also invited to propose homemade interactive technology that may be installed on our saucer’s upper Flight Deck (consult our online Art Guidelines for details).

“Your spaceship is cramped, and it’s beginning to smell like fast food.”
– Reverend Al Ridenour

Burning Man is of course what one makes of it. So we must recognize that a few participants question the literal existence of John Frum1. They believe that cargo culture is unsustainable; no deus ex machina descending from the sky can possibly provide consumers with relief. The only spaceship worth considering is planet Earth. Each and every one of us, it is held, must find our Inner Frum: the first step toward salvation is to give our gifts to fellow human beings.

As always, any work of art by anyone, regardless of our theme, is welcome at the Burning Man event. If you are planning to do fire art or wish to install a work of art on the open playa, please see our Art Guidelines for more information. To apply for a grant to fund the creation of artwork for Burning Man 2013, please see our art grant guidelines.

1It is speculated that when greeting Melanesians, American soldiers would state, “Hi, I’m John from Tallahassee” or “I am Johnny from Detroit.” John, being a common name, was remembered, but the various place names were soon forgotten. The only other constant being “from”, this word soon morphed into a surname, hence John Frum. However Orthodox Frumites within our community repudiate this interpretation. Note: the Burning Man organization takes no position on religious beliefs.