2021 Art Theme: The Great Unknown

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”  –Marcel Proust

The theme was previously released under the title “Terra Incognita.” When we learned that the phrase has a colonial history, and it reflected back some of our own implicit biases and default perspectives, we retitled it.

This year’s Burning Man theme is an invitation to emerge from our collective isolation, to explore the unfamiliar contours of a changed world, and to reimagine ourselves, our community, and our culture in ways that might not have been possible before this period of plague and pause. After a long year adrift in the Multiverse, beset by angst and uncertainty, it’s time to climb up out of our escape pods and look outside to see where we’ve landed. On top of a mountain, like Noah? At the bottom of a rabbit hole, like Alice? Or are we on a vast and endless plain, ringed by ancient mountains, the sort of unfathomable territory that once caused mapmakers to throw up their hands and write “here be dragons” at the margins of the known world?

Which, of course, if you’ve ever been to Burning Man, sounds a lot like home. Not the home where you’ve been hunkered down for the past year, not the place where you’ve been sheltering-in-place, but that other place, the home you think of when you say “welcome home” to another Burner, or they say it to you. That otherworldly place that there’s no place like, now or ever.

After a year without Black Rock City we’re all longing to reconnect – for a going home after all that staying home. Yet our enforced apartness has also served as a powerful reminder that the idea of home is just that – an idea – and not a particular place. Quarantine has led us to rethink the very meaning of place, and rid us of certain illusions about it – like the notion that our city was always there somehow, always a certain way, which was never true at all. It was always a figment of our collective imaginations, and fundamentally different each and every year.

“Reinvent yourself over and over and over and over and over until you find home.” –Malebo Sephodi

Our year apart has afforded us all a chance to step back and reconsider what it is we build and why. Are there things about the Burning Man experience you’d like to change? About your camp? About yourself? Do you want to make more art? Fill less landfill? Open up and cut loose or tighten up and go back to basics?  The city we return to will not be the one we left behind. But what will it be now?

The embarkation point of our journey is a place of sadness and separation, with millions gone forever and empty places in our lives where loved ones used to be. It’s a time of great loss, but also of rare opportunity: a chance to reevaluate, reconnect, and return to our roots, to the values that brought us together in the first place. After thirty years of growth and expansion, can anyone say that we are closer to embodying our 10 Principles? That we are demonstrably more inclusive, or leaving less of a trace? Or has our year of pause instead made it easier to pinpoint ways to get better at what we do, just as it has revealed so many structural cracks in our off-playa institutions, both public and private? Now more than ever, the work ahead is about more than Black Rock City. The qualities that we have practiced in ourselves, while far from perfected, are some of the same qualities the world needs most to reinvent itself. The generosity of Gifting, and the creativity of Radical Self-expression. The compassion of Radical Inclusion, and the proactive spirit of Participation.

“Whether we know it or not, our lives are acts of imagination and the world is constantly re-imagined through us.” –Michael Meade

When we first went out to the Black Rock Desert in 1990 we had no idea what we would find, and to a large extent that ignorance was purposeful.  It was a Zone Trip – a style of Cacophony Society event marked by a collective and willful disregard of everything one knows about a place, so as to experience it in a state of awe and wonder. Inspired by the classic Russian sci-fi film Stalker, in which an area known as “the zone” has been altered by some unknowable alien technology to render it totally unpredictable, it also recalls the Situationists and their exercises in “psychogeography,” for instance, navigating the streets of Paris using a map of London. The point being: if you already know what’s there, you’re never going to find anything. So once upon a time a caravan of Cacophonists stopped somewhere in the desert, drew a line in the dust, and with the words, “it’s up to us what we create,” stepped into the Zone that we now think of as Black Rock City. Let’s recapture that spirit, reset our psychogeography dials to zero, and prepare to be surprised and amazed all over again.

“When we cross this line, move into this desert, nothing will be the same. Everything will be different. And it’s up to us what we create.” –Danger Ranger

Cover image and theme graphic design by D.A. of Black Rock and Tanner Boeger
Additional images and inspiration by Sig. Serafini