2024 Art Theme: Curiouser & Curiouser

“In order to attain the impossible, one must attempt the absurd.”  – Miguel de Cervantes

The 2024 Burning Man theme celebrates puzzles without answers, embraces the irrational and the absurd, and invites the unknown over for tea. Because it’s in those timeless moments of not knowing, when we’re consumed entirely by curiosity, that we experience our most profound learning, growth, and creativity. All great journeys of discovery begin with a question; without that spark of curiosity no movement is possible. Staring into the void of unreason, we experience the wonderfulness of wonder, and the staggering awesomeness of awe. Which leads inexorably to the asking of better questions. Which is, after all, what makes us better than the robots.

The magic of wonder is its power to startle us out of sleep-mode and back into the immediacy of being. Studies say that the average human on an average day is running on autopilot about half the time while they think about something else (possibly cat videos). Even on our best days it’s easy to just believe what we think we believe and stay inside the painted lines. The education system fills us up with all the answers to all the questions on the standardized exams, and we steadily lose the ability to imagine anything that’s not on the test. Sometimes we need to fall down a rabbit hole or step through a drawing-room mirror to encounter the freakiness that was right there all along, just a tornado-ride away in Oz or three wishes over in Faerie. Just past the torii gate on the spirit side, or a short rocket ride over to Antichthon, the Counter-Earth on the far side of the sun where everything is its opposite and nothing is impossible.

“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see?”  – The Mad Hatter

We take our title, of course, from Lewis Carroll’s Alice, who keeps her wits about her with remarkable aplomb as she explores a topsy-turvy world immune to the laws of common sense. Not just another folkloric fantasy realm of magicians and dragons, or a video game with the magic of extra lives, but something profoundly weird, a place where time comes unhinged and causality spins around in circles until it gets dizzy and falls giggling to the ground. A place, one might argue, more like our own Black Rock City than any fairy tale.

One of the beautiful things about Burning Man is that you can so easily find yourself in situations where you have zero clues as to what is going on. Or who that person is doing that thing, or why. And it’s okay. In fact it’s a kind of magic. As much as we value preparedness, and plan out our chaos with an ironic degree of precision, it is these moments of random WTF that bring the serious joy, and keep us coming back for more.

Curiosity and wonder are more than just exhilarating feelings, they are pathways to neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change itself through growth and reorganization. Children are notably good at this, for instance in their capacity to learn a language, and for many years it was thought that the ability to remap one’s brain was lost in adulthood as the once-pliable organ of thought hardened into rigid neural pathways. Today, of course, science sees that as nonsense, and recognizes that practices like art therapy can help people rewire the way they think. Likewise, the therapeutic use of neuroplastogens like ketamine and MDMA is showing promise in helping people recode their brains around deep-seated pathologies like PTSD.

We don’t yet have any clinical research on the Burning Man experience as a neuroplastogen, so I’m not going to make any claims here. But when people talk about having a transformative experience in the desert, what exactly is going on in their brains? Something is clearly happening when studies show Burning Man participants experiencing lasting changes like heightened feelings of connectedness and increased prosocial behaviors like generosity and kindness. Interestingly, research into the nature of awe shows that it can not only trigger the same sort of behavioral and perceptual changes, but also alter our sense of time, immersing us in the present moment. And immediacy is, as we know, pretty awesome in its own right.

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He who can no longer stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”  – Albert Einstein

Thanks to innumerable film adaptations (including this nightmarish 1933 version), along with TV shows, stage plays, theme park rides, and even an opera, the whimsical characters of Wonderland have become pop culture archetypes. Not to go down a rabbit hole here, but these stories have become idiomatic. Yet while the surface of planet Wonderland may have been strip-mined for media products, there remains a rich vein of myth beneath the cartoons — a hero’s journey through the underworld, in which our protagonist must lose her mind to find it. That, rather than artful illustration, may be the real reason why Alice and her adventures have had such a lasting impact on the collective consciousness. A courageous child, cast adrift in a strange world where nothing makes sense, uses her curiosity and pluck to unlock the puzzle of her own existence. Whether the setting is Wonderland or Oz or the Upside-Down, whether you’re adrift on a river of fudge in the Chocolate Factory or lost in a subterranean tunnel with the Goonies, it’s that journey to understanding that is the timeless heart of the story.

“If I had influence with the good fairy… I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life.”  – Rachel Carson

You’ve probably figured out by now that this year’s theme is more than an invitation to put on a caterpillar onesie and puff on a hookah (apologies to Hookah Camp). Instead, it’s my hope that we will be inspired to create art and experiences for each other that are genuinely curious, drawn from our personal wells of weirdness and informed by all the fantasy realms we’ve ever imagined. And that we will in turn be curious — about the world and each other — and go into each encounter with an open mind and a childlike sense of wonder.

Let’s amaze and delight each other, and open ourselves up to new ways of seeing and being.

(Cover image design by Tanner Boeger, incorporating photography by Henry Wu and Scott London)