Stuart Mangrum’s Serious Philosophy of Shenanigans
Director of Burning Man Project’s Philosophical Center, longtime co-conspirator of founder Larry Harvey, Cacophonist, playa newspaper publisher, billboard liberator, art theme writer, and suspicious character (according to paranoid people), his most realistic alias is Stuart Mangrum.
He holds our legacy, and helps guide our story, while occasionally philosophizing. We brought in a Communications Strategist named kBot to get Stuart talking despite his anti-interrogation training. This is a story of pranks and participation, of 90s Burning Man and modern day miracles. Note: Funny can be deep. This is both.
Burning Man Project’s Philosophical Center
Burning Man Journal: Stuart Mangrum
Burningman.org: Black Rock Gazette
Talesofcacophony.com: Twisted Times
Stuart Mangrum is the director of the Philosophical Center of Burning Man Project. Since 1993 he has held organizational roles in communications and education and has contributed as an artist, theme camp organizer, and bullhorn bon vivant. He’s the host of the Burning Man LIVE podcast and godfather to the Burning Man Documentation Team.
Kirsten Weisenburger (aka Kbot) began her Burning Man journey in 2004 when she touched down in Black Rock City with a handful of disoriented Canadians. Since that early misadventure, she has shared in the wondrous emergence of Montreal’s Regional Burning Man community. A Black Rock Ranger and occasional theme camp organizer, Kirsten spends her summers bounding between Regionals in Eastern Canada and the Northeastern US. Her biggest adventure yet involves joining the Burning Man Project Communications team, where she identifies storytelling opportunities and co-creates the global nonprofit’s communication strategies.
TONY COYOTE PEREZ: Meet the people… Meet the STUART that makes Burning Man happen, beyond the desert and around the world; the dreamer, the doer. He’s the maker, the shaker and the innovator; the artist, activist, freak and fool – cuz there ain’t no fool, there ain’t no fun. Burning Man LIVE.
KBOT: Welcome to another wondrous episode of Burning Man LIVE coming to you from the wilds of Canuckistan. I’m kBot, your robot-girl host for today’s episode. I got to interview the human who normally hosts this podcast. In addition to hosting Burning Man LIVE, Stuart Mangrum is the Director of Burning Man Project’s Philosophical Center. As resident philosopher, one of his duties is to write each year’s art theme.
Stuart’s Burning Man story started way back in the nineties with the Cacophony Society. He’s been doing that thing in Black Rock City since 1993. He published the Black Rock Gazette for a whole bunch of years. He started one of Black Rock City’s first theme camps. He led communications for Burning Man back in the nineties, and has done many weird and wonderful things. He has lots of great stories. Meet my guest, hmmm…Who are you?
STUART: Well, that’s just a great existential question to start with, kBot. I mean, really, who is anyone? What is identity? And what’s the relationship between a name and a person? Is that the same as between a map and the territory, something like that.
KBOT: Who am I interviewing? Trip Hazard?
STUART: No, that was just an alias I used for my little magazine Twisted Times when I felt like it was kind of weird to be the editor and the publisher and the janitor.
KBOT: So are you Lloyd Void?
STUART: Lloyd Void, a Cacophony alias, used that for quite a few Cacophony events. It has kind of a ring to it.
KBOT: How about Klaus MangRamnass?
STUART: Another Cacophony handle for a Yuletide Christmas-themed event, which shall not be mentioned here.
KBOT: Oh, Stu Bob Bodine, is that you?
STUART: No, the Cacophony event, this one for the BoDean family reunion, a series of events featuring really, really disgusting food, like from the Elvis cookbook.
KBOT: Okay. Then am I speaking with Blank DeCoverly?
STUART: One of my favorite aliases, that was my nom de guerre for the Billboard Liberation Front. That one I actually picked out of a book, one of my favorite books, Catch 22 by Joseph Heller. Blank DeCoverly is a minor character there.
All of those names have been associated with me in various rap sheets over the years.
KBOT: Oh, I know who you are; You’re Darryl Van Rhey.
STUART: No, Darryl Van Rhey was actually a mythical unicorn created by Larry Harvey. It’s actually an anagram of Larry’s name: Larry D. Harvey. He created that one for writing the early Burning Man newsletters because he thought it was a little bit ostentatious to interview himself, so he created an alias for the interviewer and then we ended up sharing it. And I wrote under that name a bit. Actually, I think I published the first theme after Larry’s death, Metamorphoses, uh, under the name of Daryl Van Rhey, as a little bit of a tip of the hat to my fallen comrade.
KBOT: And that’s why I’m interviewing you because it would have been really weird if you interviewed yourself, but I guess you could have done it as Daryl and then we just hide your voice.
STUART: It’s tough to do in podcasts. What am I gonna do? Going to make up a fake voice for my inner voice?
KBOT: A Canadian girl voice?
STUART: I’m not that talented. And I was thinking more like, I could do a bad, you know, bad Cockney accent, like “So Stuart, if you were a Spice Girl, what Spice Girl would you be?”
KBOT: What Spice Girl would you be?
STUART: Old Spice.
KBOT: But when you were young, what Spice Girl would you have been?
STUART: When I was young the Spice Girls were just, were just girls. No, Spice Girls. Who’s made a Spice Girls joke in the last 20 years? Honestly.
KBOT: You just did.
KBOT: You still haven’t told us who you are. Man of Mystery.
STUART: Okay. My government name is uh Stuart Arnold Mangrum. That’s what’s on my birth certificate, my passport, all of my Air Force records, along with my fingerprints, my dental records, and (fun fact) my footprints, because when you fly air crew, apparently, worst case scenario, if you become a smoking hole in the ground, the only way they can identify you is by the foot fragment that’s left in your flight boot. So that’s me. Hi, hi kBot.
KBOT: Hi, Stuart. And why are we talking to you today? Well, you usually talk to us, and this time you are the subject of the conversation.
STUART: This is really awkward. How about if I ask the questions?
KBOT: That’s not what we’re doing here.
STUART: Okay. Alright.
KBOT: That’s not what we’re doing. We want to know who you are and what the deal is because the rumor has it that you are one of the unsung architects of Burning Man.
STUART: Well, I guess. You hang around long enough and eventually you’ll get a reputation, maybe not a Wikipedia page, but, perhaps, a little bit of history. I have actually been with Burning Man for going on 30 years now in various capacities. My first Burn was 1993. I’ve done a bunch of stuff inside and outside the organization as a participant, as an artist, as a theme camp organizer, blah, blah, blah.
For the last gosh, almost 10 years, I have been on the payroll with Burning Man Project. And my current role ever since, uh, Larry passed away is, I am the Director of the Philosophical Center, which is ah not nearly as fancy as it sounds. Mostly what I deal with is holding our history, holding our legacy, documentation projects, archival work, all that. And plus maybe a little bit of philosophizing every once in a while. It’s a great privilege, honestly, to be able to serve in this way. I couldn’t think of a better place to be at this point in my, uh, my long and interesting life.
KBOT: But one is not just born a Burning Man philosopher, so how the heck did you get on this crazy train?
STUART: On the philosophy train? I’ve tried…
KBOT: All of it.
STUART: Oh, all of it? Okay. Well, if we jump in the way back machine, I got out of the Air Force in 1988, 1989, moved to the San Francisco area. And, the scene there at the time, late eighties, was super interesting. There were a whole lot of artistically minded groups doing ridiculous things. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence running for Mayor, the crazy gearheads of Survival Research Labs doing their violent acts of destruction under freeway overpasses, and this group called the Cacophony Society, which I read about for several years before I actually became a member, although arguably I already was a member because that was always written on every issue of their newsletter: “You may already be a member.” So yeah, in 1993, I ended up meeting some of the Cacophony members who were planning this crazy thing in the desert called Burning Man, and I signed up, and hopped on the crazy train and, uh, never really looked back.
KBOT: What is the Cacophony Society and how did it get involved in Burning Man?
STUART: Well, that’s a whole episode, probably, or a series of episodes, we should do. The Cacophony Society, at the top level, that same mission statement that appeared on every issue of Rough Draft said “The Cacophony Society is a randomly gathered network of free spirits united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society,” which sounds good, but basically that’s a big, big umbrella for a lot of kooky stuff. Honestly, we were just kind of crazy kids trying to have fun without spending a lot of money, and without going through the usual consumerist channels. Rather than go stand in line at Disneyland, we thought, “Hey, let’s kind of make our own little Disneyland of weird experiences. Let’s take over underused spaces around the city and do that.”
It’s funny. I recently looked Cacophony Society up just to see how it’s remembered historically. According to the all-knowing sages of Wikipedia, uh, Cacophony has been described as “an indirect culture-jamming outgrowth of the Dada movement,” which kind of strikes me as odd because I don’t see any direct lineage back to Zurich in the 1920s. But yeah, I can see some parallels.
KBOT: So was it art?
STUART: There was definitely an anti-art sentiment there. If you asked any member of the Cacophony Society back then if you were an artist, it was almost a swear word. We were out there having experiences. We weren’t really making art for anybody.
KBOT: Was it descended from Dada?
STUART: If you want to get all intellectual about it, I see more of a lineage back to the Situationist Movement, which focused on creating authentic human situations outside of what they call “the spectacle” of commerce and media. I looked at the writings of Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem now as being very prophetic of some of the stuff that we would do. Their notion of psychogeography has always fascinated me that you could rearrange mentally your relationship with a place, by something perhaps as easy as, I don’t know, taking a walk through Paris using a map of London.
So a lot of what we did in Cacophony was very much kind of trying to reinterpret our relationship with urban spaces, sometimes with kind of forbidden spaces, abandoned buildings, old military bases, and that sort of thing.
KBOT: Can you describe one of those authentic experiences that you created?
STUART: Oh sure. There are so many, but you know, talking about kind of being in liminal spaces or outside of the norm of where you’re supposed to go; when the United States Army handed over the keys to the Presidio of San Francisco, there was a long period where it was basically just abandoned, and the jurisdiction was very unclear of whether it was still the Army, whether it was the Federal Government, whether it was the city. They had a beautiful nine hole golf course, so we did a particularly transgressive event. We decided to play midnight golf on the Presidio.
We did kind of sneak in. We didn’t break, but we did enter. Everybody put on every piece of plaid that they owned, and we got a bunch of glow in the dark golf balls and played a round of golf out in the Presidio under the moonlight. That was a ton of fun.
KBOT: Oh the shenanigans. But they say, they say, that Burning Man killed the Cacophony Society, or is it still going on underground and you just don’t want to talk about it?
STUART: It’s not going on for me. I think my tour with Cacophony ended about, uh, about midnight of Y2K, as I was apprehended climbing the Oakland Bay Bridge with a backpack full of martinis in a tuxedo.
To go back to the original question, did Burning Man kill Cacophony? I don’t think it was murder. I think it did sort of suck all of the creative energy out of the Cacophony Society over a period of time. We published a book not too long ago about the history of Cacophony. It’s called “The Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society,” and my favorite review of that book, one of the local reviewers, he described Burning Man and its relationship to Cacophony as the child that devoured its parent.
Like I said, it wasn’t anything mean-spirited. It was just that Burning Man became this whole new playground where we could do anything that we wanted, as far as a Cacophony event, and then some. It just soaked up so much creative juice. There are other Cacophony-type movements going on, and it certainly spawned a lot of spin off and ‘inspired by’ organizations around the world. There are still people out there doing transgressive events. Just like the Billboard Liberation Front is not active anymore, but there are lots of other groups around the world that are going out there and tinkering with outdoor advertising, playing with the hidden persuaders, and inspired by that, so I like to think that both Cacophony and the BLF have a lot of, uh, spiritual children out there still doing the same crazy stuff, still taking some chances, and voting for the imagination over the consumption.
KBOT: All right. So you touched down in Black Rock City or what was then the Black Rock Desert in 1993 with the Cacophony Society. What did you get up to, and how did your role evolve in the Burning Man universe?
STUART: Well, I was recruited, or one might say Tom Sawyered, into publishing the onsite daily newspaper for Burning Man: The Black Rock Gazette. And so my first year I worked. I worked the whole event, that’s what I went out there to do, and had a good time doing it.
It was a really stupid idea, poorly executed. But in the early days of desktop publishing it was possible to take a computer and a printer and a little desktop copy machine out to anywhere that you had power and print off a newspaper. So that’s what we did.
We didn’t have nearly the infrastructure or anything close to it, back in 1993, you got to realize there were no streets, there were no street lights, there was no med tent, there was no airport; there was no nothing, right? The power that we had for the paper was pulled off of one of the only RVs on site, Andy Pector’s bus. And for shelter we were in a windowless cargo trailer behind the bus, which meant we couldn’t really work during the day because it was too hot. So we just kept that trailer open all night, did a lot of our writing and our layout and then printed it in the morning, and then slept all day.
KBOT: That’s it? That was your Burn?
STUART: That was my first burn. And I had so much fun I wanted more. I started getting involved in the year-round communications. You know, we used to publish a paper (newspaper) back then called Building Burning Man. And that’s when my writing partnership with Larry Harvey started to develop. Fun times.
Also that was when, really when the commercial internet first started becoming a real thing. So suddenly in addition to our paper communications, we had online discussion lists, and BBSs, and our first websites, and our first webcast. So that was a really exciting time to be a part of that, to be managing communications back when all these new communications channels and tools were becoming available.
The second year I went back, I realized that we didn’t really have much of a camp. I didn’t want to spend the whole event locked up inside a trailer, so my lovely partner, Paisley Hayes, and I (and a couple of our friends, Rusty Cleaver and Doc Anderson) created Tiki Camp in 1994 – which was arguably I think one of the very first real theme camps. I know there’ve been camps before, like Christmas Camp, but they weren’t any place you’d want to hang out. We wanted a place that had shade and ice, and you’d actually feel like sitting there and having a drink for a while. So we did put the first bar on the playa, and I’ll claim credit for that.
KBOT: It sounds like the first lounge too.
STUART: It was very loungey.
KBOT: Sounds very, very smooth.
All right. So you left Burning Man in 1996 to go and deface some billboards. What do you have to say about that?
STUART: Oh, let’s not use the word ‘deface’, that’s so crude. The billboard liberation front was never anti billboard. We were in fact vigorously pro billboard. We love billboards. We wish everybody could have one in their front yard. What we were against were some of the ad agencies that were hat-stepping on it.
What we’d like to do is sort of unlock the true power of the message and not pussyfoot around. Everybody knows that sex sells, but doesn’t sex sell better when you have a giant inflatable phallus sticking out of the billboard? Come on. Um, so we got pretty playful, and very Dada, I have to say, with some of the messaging that we did in the BLF.
But it was all about the medium not the message. It was actually trying to scramble the message, not for traditional culture jamming reasons, but really just to… I think there was a way of, by causing that sort of moment of confusion, actually getting people to look at a billboard. You know, we spend so much of our time mentally subconsciously screening that crap out, right? But to actually be startled and see that there was a message up there. Just the fact that it was kind of a nonsensical message or something rather, you know, humorous and bizarre, I think just opened people’s eyes up, even for a moment, for the fact that there is a system of manipulation that’s always there. You can’t look away. It’s everywhere you go. So that was a ton of fun.
Plus, we got to climb around on billboards in the middle of the night, pretending to be sort of a secret underground organization. Whenever we’d do media interviews, we’d wear elaborate masks and run the reporters through all sorts of, uh, shenanigans to try to find us and pin us down for the interview. It was a gas.
KBOT: Did you ever release a manifesto?
STUART: There is a bit of a manifesto. It’s actually a how-to manual. It’s called the art and science of billboard improvement. And it is still up there on the interwebs. If you go to billboardliberation.com you can download it right now.
We did do press releases, and that was another really fun part of the process, particularly for me. The Cacophony Society discovered somewhat accidentally that it’s pretty easy to manipulate the media, if you play into their expectations. There was a great event a little bit before I showed up, where a bunch of people went out to protest Disney’s rerelease of the movie Fantasia. And they just picked the most ridiculous complaints and made picket signs, you know, like the dancing hippos were discriminatory of, you know, plus sized people and, and things like that.
But it got enough media attention and it actually made it into a couple of newspapers and see that’s the magic or the least, but the pre-internet magic was it. If it appeared in print anywhere, it became real for the rest of the media. So we would, would issue, uh, really just bizarre humorous press releases.
We made one where Charlie Manson was the spokesperson for Levi jeans, and there’s some pretty genius rhetoric in there. You know, “merging a sixties retro sensibility with the huge and burgeoning prison market for denim made Manson the ideal spokesperson.”
KBOT: Manson. What a charmer. Okay, so you came back to Burning Man after your departure in 1996. When did you come back and what drew you back?
STUART: I never really went away. I mean, I had to step back from being an organizer cause it was killing me and driving me broke, so I did take some time off from being an active organizer of the event, but I still went; I went and did theme camps. I did an art project. I was a fairly regular participant. I stayed friends with Larry Harvey and, and we, we’d get together for a drink now.
We were both on another joke mayoral campaign, when Chicken John Renaldi ran for mayor,\; Larry and I were both part of Chicken’s think tank, if you will. Uh. But yeah, somewhere in there, I think it was the summer of 2012, Larry called me up kind of out of the blue and asked me to help him write the Cargo Cult theme. He said, “Hey, this is, this is kind of bordering on cultural appropriation. They’re gonna kill me unless we make this really funny.” So I kind of took that challenge. “Oh, he thinks I’m funny.”
We collaborated on that and then I thought I was done. I mean, I thought it was just a one-off thing. At the time I had a pretty successful consultancy. I’ve been an independent consultant for probably 10 years at that point, working 20 hours a week and mostly in my pajamas and making pretty good money.
But, uh, I got this invitation to a meeting at Burning Man headquarters to talk about something called “Man Base.” I called Larry up and I said, “What is this?” He said, “Well, well, well, you know, I mean, once we published the theme, you know, we have to, we have to design the, the Man Base experience. And I want you to be, be part of that.”
I was like, “Ooookay.” So, they met every couple of weeks. That was interesting. That was the year we designed the giant flying saucer, still one of the best burns ever because when the gas bombs went off on that saucer, there was this horizontal sheet of flame that seemed to go all the way out to the horizon. Definitely one of my three best burns.
I started hanging out with some of the current Burning Man staff, and reacquainting myself with some of the other founders. And I came out of one of those meetings once and both Harley Dubois and Marian Goodell, looking at me with their arms crossed and said, “We need to talk, Stuart.”
KBOT: Somebody’s in trouble.
STUART: Nah, the talk was like, “If you’re just gonna hang around here all the time, we probably should make a job for you.“
KBOT: That’s how it always begins, isn’t it?
STUART: I was like, “Oh, well. Here I go, getting Tom Sawyered again.” By the way, “Tom Sawyer” is a verb now, because I declare it to be so. So they persuaded me that it would be fun to be the Education Director and to activate some of Burning Man’s learning programs, training events, all that sort of stuff.
KBOT: And it was fun, wasn’t it?
STUART: It was really fun. I miss some of those events too. I really hope we can get back to a place where we do, like our Global Leadership Conference was just an amazing, amazing event that brought together folks from all over the regional network all over the world. And it was very much a co-learning event. We put some of our staff in there with some of their staff, and there was really a great opportunity for cross-pollination and for people to learn about each other’s practices and see how the Principles are extending out into the world.
It got a little too big for its britches and a little too expensive to roll. We got up to, I think, 700 people at the last one in Oakland and took a step back to try to figure out how to do that. And now, you know, COVID, nobody’s meeting anywhere. But hopefully we can get back into doing events like that because through this diaspora of Burning Man culture there are so many independent thinkers. There’s so many different ways of doing things that I think it’s particularly valuable for Burning Man Project, for us at the so-called center of the network, to be exposed to some of those other ideas; that there are other ways of not doing it wrong, they’re just different.
KBOT: Or just doing it, whether it’s right or wrong.
STUART: Right. Exactly.
KBOT: As long as it gets done, right? Alrighty. And then you were recruited into the Philosophical Center, or shall I say you were one of the founding members?
STUART: Yes. The Philosophical Center. How do I even begin to tell this story? The Philosophical Center was a brainchild of Larry Harvey’s that dates back to the founding of the nonprofit Burning Man Project. His intention for it was to make it what he called “the conscience and collective memory of the Burning Man community.” Really what he had in mind was that, as he imagined the growth of the organization and its its evolution, he wanted to make sure that, when the founders were gone, when he wasn’t around anymore, people were still paying attention to the ethos of Burning Man, were still paying attention to the 10 Principles, and were still keeping track of and honoring the origin stories, the stories of where we came from. That was the intention behind it.
As far as programmatically, I think at some point, once again, I got invited to a meeting with Larry and he’s like, “Yeah, we’re going to activate the Philosophical Center.” What that really meant to him at the time was a couple hour meeting every two weeks with me and him and Caveat Magister. So we did that for a couple of years. I tried so hard to quit, kBot. I kept telling him “I’m not a philosopher. I’m a practical person. I like to get stuff done.”
KBOT: Did you toss off your fez? You’re like, “I’m done here. I’m getting off this cushion and throwing away this Fez, and no more pipes. This is too much thinking for me.
STUART: I just. I just. Larry wouldn’t let me quit. He’s like, “No, no, no. I mean, Burning Man philosophy is about action. It is about practical matters. It’s not, it’s not highfalutin whatever, it’s about actions in the world.” I was still trying to quit at the last meeting that we had before Larry passed away. I said “I’ve just had it, Larry.” You know, I’m not a philosopher. I took one philosophy course in college and I got an F. It’s just not my bag of tea.
KBOT: But it was a proud F, was it not?
STUART: Oh, it was a proud F. It was the only F I got in my entire college career, and I still managed to get a close to 4.0 average and graduate cum laude, even with that one F. I just had this really jerk Professor. That was my first year in school at USC. And this guy was just a weirdo. He was like, I think he was an ex-Marine. He had a buzz cut and smoked a big nasty cigar in class. The first assignment was “just write a couple page essay about your personal philosophy.” And I even asked, you know, “Does it have to be like one out of the book? Does it have to be like Existentialism or something?” He goes, “No, just whatever your personal, your personal credo, your personal philosophy is.” So I wrote, I thought, a pretty sterling defense of Hedonism, which at the time was my personal philosophy. And he just, he gave me an F! And he wouldn’t even really tell me why. He said, “That’s not a philosophy.” I said “Fuck you.” F is for Fuck you.
KBOT: Your personal philosophy failed.
KBOT: I didn’t know that was possible, as long as you have a philosophy and it works for you, then it should be fine, right?
STUART: Yeah. Well, I just never went back to that class.
KBOT: Then again, this is coming from the guy who worshiped a canned ham, so…
STUART: That is not true! I never worshiped a canned ham. I have no room in my life for worship of anything. Hail Satan. Uh. No, the ham…
KBOT: You talk about Burning Man not being a cult. We’ve all heard that this is a cult that you wash your own brain, self-service cult. But I hear that you tried to start a cult that worshiped a canned ham. Are you not just a secret cult leader?
STUART: I am endlessly fascinated by cult leaders and by cults, and have found that nothing is too ridiculous. I should say, actually, let me correct that. The Church of the Ham actually was too ridiculous. We didn’t really, I don’t think we got any converts to the Church of the Ham. My friend Dennis Barowsky, he’s a collector of things. He did lots of estate sales, and he cleared out this, this guy had a end of the world bomb shelter stash between two buildings of a commercial complex that he owned, and it was full to the rafters of supplies for the end of the world, like cases and cases of toothpaste and toilet paper, a couple of cases of scotch. But the weirdest thing in there was like a gigantic canned ham. It was like a 20 pound canned ham. So what’s that, 10 kilos of canned ham. It had been there since the Kennedy administration, and it was kind of distorted and blown up like botulism inside. It had this wonderful, wonderful graphics on the front. You know, it was a Corn King brand canned ham.
At the time Chicken John was running these series of church events (Church of this, Church of that) at a little dive club in San Francisco, and we decided we’d be the Church of the Ham. So we came and we created a, created like an ark for the ham. And we came in bearing the ham and had an oracle of the ham. Yeah, but like I said, no converts. I don’t think there’s any ham worshiping going on in the real world, today.
KBOT: Oh, I bet there is.
STUART: Well, bacon is the cult at Burning Man. There’s certainly a lot of bacon worship at Burning Man.
KBOT: So maybe we can say that the Cult of the Canned Ham simply turned into Burning Man.
STUART: You can say that.
KBOT: All of that bacon worship… I was just thinking about that poor guy with his shelter. And so the world ends and he opens this huge can of ham. Well, then you have to eat it. So he would have been eating canned ham for weeks and weeks, right? Kind of terrifying. I think that is worthy of worship.
STUART: Well, he was, it was an act of devotion, I think, on his part.
KBOT: Exactly, exactly. “Eat your idols,” and all that.
So we like to imagine that each year, the art theme is concocted in a magical cloud of wonder where you’re really tapping into the zeitgeist and the spirit of the Black Rock City moment to come up with that art theme for Black Rock City.
STUART: Well, yes, kBot. I actually spend several weeks in an isolation tank dreaming of Black Rock City, and thinking big philosophical thoughts. Then I emerge, dripping. I’m handed a warm towel, and sit down and write the year’s theme, the outlook for the coming year. That’s absolutely how it works.
KBOT: It’s like you know what we’re thinking.
STUART: I do. I tap into the Zeitgeist, put my finger on the throbbing pulse of the Burning Man body corporal.
KBOT: And that’s why the Multiverse art theme was so prescient. You just knew what was coming.
STUART: I wish I could say that so many people have accused me of that. “Stuart, how did you know? How did you see it coming?” I didn’t. That’s just madness.
The Multiverse for me was a way of just having a fun theme with lots of potential for artists. It was the second theme I wrote without Larry. The first one, I was still kind of hung up with the loss of him. It was a little bit darker. Metamorphoses was very much about change and loss and regeneration and regrowth. It was a little bit more brainy. Multiverse was really, to me, just a romp. It was all about looking at the extremely weird world of physics, and looking at that as kind of a metaphor for just how weird it is; “As above, so below,” right? As at the micro, so at the macro, just that notion of, that we just have really no idea why our universe works the way it does. That to me is actually very liberating. It kind of gets us out of that whole predestination and fate, all that business, and kind of leaves open a lot of room for possibilities.
KBOT: That sounds like 2020.
STUART: It was fun. It seemed like it was going to be a world of endless possibility. And in fact, it turned into a world of endless separation into small micro universes, right?
STUART: Yes. It was the impossibility engine. That would have been a good title for that one.
Themes, once again, the Theme was, I think, not Larry’s best idea, and I tried to talk him out of it. I actually kind of laughed him out of the room when he first proposed that we have a theme back in 1995. He wanted to say the art theme was “Heaven and Hell.” And I said, “What are we, are we the Junior Prom, Larry? I don’t think we need a theme for our dance.” But, as often happens, he kind of turned out to be right. And now people expect a theme, and the artists, you know, generally – a lot of them ignore it, but a lot of them do kind of dig into it and really look at that as a springboard for their inspiration, for the art for that year. So it’s a lot of fun.
KBOT: Can you share your favorite Larry Harvey story?
STUART: My favorite Larry Harvey story. Wow.
KBOT: A secret moment between the two of you, maybe.
STUART: Oh, you know Larry had a very playful side. One of the reasons why we kind of went from the more static displays of Man Base back to the more interactive experience Man Bases was so that we could play ourselves. Like in Caravansary, Larry had a store, a store in the souk where everything was on display, but nothing could be purchased because it was all of inestimable value and had been in his family for 500 generations. He just loved doing that shtick.
For the Carnival, he decided that we should all channel our inner geeks and freaks, and so he created this character of the Human Bookworm. I loved it so much. I said, “I don’t want to be a performer. I want to be your barker.” So I was his carney barker.
Every year back then at the Global Leadership Conference we would do a little onstage bit to announce the coming year’s theme. And for that one, we did it in costume. I went out in my red and white striped jacket and my straw boater and my bamboo cane, and introduced him as uh, I had a big, long spiel. It was like “Conversant in all the world’s literature because he has literally devoured it, the Human Bookworm!” Then Larry came on and did his little bookworm thing. But he threw away the script right before we walked out on stage, he threw away the script. He said, “Just work with me, Stuart,”
Then he went off on this tangent about how worms reproduce and how they are sexual at both ends of the body. As he’s giving me this long kind of pseudo-scientific explanation, he sidles up to me and starts humping my leg, dressed in a worm suit.
STUART: Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, prepare yourself for a spectacle so shocking that it may make you question your tenuous grip on the fabric of reality. Anyone using a pacemaker for reliable fibrillation is advised to turn it up to 11. For your elucidation and edu-ma-cation, conversant with all of the world’s literature because he has literally devoured it. Half man, half worm, half genius, he walks, he talks, he crawls on his belly like an annelid, welcome the Human Bookworm!
LARRY: I want you to give me one big sloppy worm hug. But before you do, I want to point out that I have three segmented rolls of fat around my body, which are like triple love handles, and I actually can reproduce from either end. Ooooohhhh. See I told you you need that barker’s voice. That was good for me, I don’t know about you.
KBOT: I heard that he actually took the worm suit out into the world and wandered into Plug and Play camps to strike up conversations and see if they were really as radically inclusive as they claimed to be.
STUART: He did. He said if they were truly radically inclusive, even a lowly worm would be able to get a welcome in their camp. And he did, he sort of snuck into a lot of camps.
I have another good Larry story, if you wanna hear it.
STUART: During the Cargo Cult year, we built this enormous gigantic wooden flying saucer, reminiscent of the way that the actual cargo cults of the South Pacific would build airplanes out of palm fronds. It was quite the impressive structure. To get into it you had to climb up a long ladder stairs assemblage. You walked around inside, and the way out of it was down a couple of slides. Well, the slides worked fine for a while, but after a little bit of wear and tear, after sitting out in the hot sun, they started to delaminate a little, and they were made out of bent plywood.
And so that actually turned into a few fairly serious calls to our hospital of people who had wooden splinters in their gluteus maximus. I was sitting around with Larry in First Camp one day and he was besieged, he was swarmed by representatives of the medical staff, of the Black Rock Rangers, of the Man Base crew, telling him that we basically had this crisis, that people were getting gigantic splinters in their asses from the slide. And we had to figure out some way to solve this problem. They started throwing all these solutions around, like, “We can resurface them. We can just close the whole thing.” And Larry listened calmly for about the duration of an entire cigarette, and he finally looked up and said, “Why can’t they just wear pants?”
KBOT: So sensible. So sensible. Burners: words from Larry. Wear your pants.
STUART: I actually was going to get a giant, like Frankie Goes to Hollywood shirt made that says, “Larry says wear pants,” I may still do that one of these days. “Larry says wear pants.”
KBOT: It’s never too late to tell people to put their pants on.
I saw a video of two guys in their basement talking about how you went to spook school. They claim that Burning Man is just one big MK-Ultra secret op.
STUART: You know. At some level I just have infinite respect for just how batshit crazy people can go, and the lengths that they’ll go to to make up an insane story.
Wow. Where do I even begin to dismantle that one? Did I go to spook school? I went to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, and took the year-long Chinese Mandarin course there. And I went to various technical schools. And I went to water survival school, mountain survival school. None of them had the word ‘spook’ in them.
I looked at that video, kBot, and they held up documents which were actually based on real documents. They did an FOIA request on me, and they got some of my service records, but they went through it themselves with a black marker and redacted enough to where it looked suspicious. They made my story way more interesting and compelling and perhaps suspicious than it might otherwise be. It’s not quite that sexy.
My career field was, and this is commonly available even without a freedom of information act, was Airborne Cryptologic Linguist, which meant that I was part of the aircrew that flew around on reconnaissance planes, eavesdropping on a foreign nation’s military. Kind of spooky a little bit, and I did have a super high security clearance. I had over a hundred missions, flying on a big snooper plane called the RC135, but spookiness, not so much.
And as far as MK-Ultra, that was the secret CIA program to experiment with psychedelics on people, right? Give people acid.
KBOT: Yeah, mind control experiments to see if they can get truth serum.
STUART: MIND CONTROL! A: That was way before my time. I think I was still in grammar school when that was happening. And B: I will say outright that I have never, ever given LSD or any psychedelic drug to anybody who didn’t ask for it.
KBOT: There you go straight from the horse’s mouth.
STUART: Yeah. That show is really fun to watch. I think I’m going to watch it again now just to get a sense. You know, they latched on to anybody who had a military background which interestingly was me and Michael Mikel, and Larry Harvey, all did some stints in the service, and saw that as like the key to unraveling the mystery of Burning Man’s nefarious plans for world takeover and MIND CONTROL. Uh, yeah.
KBOT: It is wildly entertaining. And I mean, as a Canadian, it seems to me like most men of your generation have a military background. It’s not like some exceptionally rare thing that they were able to correlate.
STUART: Actually, my generation, I joined up a little late. It was the end of the seventies. The Vietnam war was over, and I didn’t really like all the prospects that were laid out ahead of me. I went to college on a debate scholarship and I was very much on a pre-law track. I looked around and I saw all my friends turning into – pardon the expression – into fucking lawyers. And on a personal level, I got really uncomfortable with… You know, in the debate process, you literally flip a coin to see which side of an issue you’re going to be on. That made me increasingly nervous that I could successfully, persuasively win an argument about something that I really absolutely did not believe in – that whole peril of advocacy.
So I just looked around for something weird and off the menu, and ended up in this crazy wonderful, short, but, very worthwhile Air Force career. Flying on airplanes. I spent most of in it visiting interesting foreign countries; I lived in Japan for four years, and I got to visit countries all over the world.
STUART: I don’t regret either going in or getting kicked out. Those are two of the best days of my life.
KBOT: Well, that’s a pretty crafty transition you just made, Stuart. Do you, by any chance, have training in how to evade hard questions? Interrogation training, perhaps?
STUART: Once again, no big secrets. All air crew go through resistance training. Part of the survival school experience is to learn how to face up to interrogation with “apparent innocence and sincerity” – as the saying goes. Because of my career field I actually got the advanced version of that, which we lovingly refer to as S&M Theater, where the wonderful, magnificent people who run the survival school up in Spokane built an interrogation room with a one-way mirror on it, but your classmates sit on the other side of the one way mirror, and you take turns going in and practicing your resistance techniques.
KBOT: So you neither confirm nor deny?
STUART: I can’t understand why you’re asking me this question, Kirsten.
KBOT: Well, it’s a very simple question.
STUART: I really want to answer all your questions. I just, I just don’t understand.
KBOT: You seem very intelligent to me, Stuart. You should be able to come up with something.
STUART: I’m just really at a loss for understanding why that would have any relevance to what we’re talking about. I’ll try, I’ll try to answer your questions.
KBOT: Are you gaslighting me?
STUART: I’m not sure I know what that means. What’s a gaslight?
KBOT: Was my question too difficult for you?
STUART: I’m not sure. What was the question, again?
KBOT: Here’s the question. You’ve been doing this Burning Man thing since 1993. Do you still go out into deep playa and feel the wonder and magic and go, “Ooh” and “Ahh” at the lights and the art?
STUART: I still try to fit in an art tour every visit to Black Rock City because I am continually amazed by the power of radical self-expression. It’s not going to be on my bicycle anymore. I’m looking around for a golf cart or perhaps an art car ride these days. I’m 62, kBot, and I have experienced the playa just about every inconvenient way you can imagine. I’ve camped in tents. I’ve slept under my truck when my tent was blown to pieces by a storm. I’ve slept in the back of a box truck. These days I’m not ashamed to say that I sleep in a trailer and I ride around in a golf cart because that’s how I roll. But yes, I love to get out and see some Burning Man. I mean, and at the same time, I am way past my FOMO, my fear of missing out.
I’ve learned over the years that Burning Man is everywhere, that the center is wherever you want it to be, and that, like it or not, you can’t avoid it. Burning Man is going to come to you wherever you are. So I do spend a lot of time hunkered down at the camps with my friends. For me, it’s a rare once a year opportunity to reunite with some really wonderful people that I don’t get to see so much of. So, sit around in their camps and maybe have a cold beverage and swap some lies. That to me is, is really the heart of the Burning Man experience. It’s rekindling those friendships and sparking often some new creative ideas to new ways to, to collaborate and work on future (What was that word you used?) shenanigans.
KBOT: Shenanigans. So, do you have a job in Black Rock City or do you just philosophize with people all week?
STUART: Yeah, I just philosophize. They’ve actually built me a small mountain top that I sit on in the lotus position. And if anybody has the gumption to scale that mountain and ask me the meaning of life, I will give them a nonsense answer. No, my role on playa these days is to support our Documentation Team: photographers, videographers, the people who are capturing the footage, or getting the shots that we’re going to use all year round in our communications. And, oddly enough, a lot of meetings. Burning Man Project is sometimes referred to as “Meeting Man,” and there’s no escape. Even on playa there are a lot of meetings.
But yeah, mostly it’s connecting with people who have the fun part of it for me. And the really exciting part of it is to connect with the really creative, imaginative, wonderful people that I know, and talking with them about what we might do next. So I do spend a lot of time – I wouldn’t say philosophizing – but sitting around and shootin’ the shit. Absolutely. That, to me, is a lot of what it’s about.
KBOT: That is one of the core activities at Burning Man. You see pictures of the Instagram models and the fancy, fancy art cars, but let’s face it, it’s really just about sitting around shooting the shit, isn’t it?
STUART: Yeah. I want all of those Instagram influencers to just eat some bacon and do some day drinking, alright. Turn the goddamn camera off. Let the battery die on your phone, and just be here now.
KBOT: Imagine if Burning Man became a holiday for people not to take pictures of themselves. Imagine…
STUART: It’d be a dream of mine. Yeah. I have a complicated relationship with phones on the playa. You know, when we first went out there, of course, it was impossible. It was absolutely a communications black hole. The only way we were able to do a webcast of any kind was to actually create a point to point, a direct line-of-sight link. These days, I don’t know, part of me regrets that we ever even actually did the webcast because that was taking an immediate experience and putting it out there in the ether, letting people experience it vicariously.
But then again, you know, I’ve also spoken to a lot of people who, for various reasons, never, ever would have been able to be there in person. And for them that is the closest they’ll get. It’s the same kind of dilemma that I see when I think about online spaces like BRCvr. On the one hand, it seems kind of like a pale chimera of the actual Burning Man experience. But on the other hand, we see real human interaction, we see people living at least some of the principles and making connections, and expressing themselves creatively. So yeah, it’s one that I’ve got my eye on, and I don’t really want to come down too hard on one side or the other. But I do appreciate that point in the City’s population growth when the cell towers get maxed out. At somewhere around Wednesday or Thursday of event week there are just too many people with their phones on, and nobody can get a signal anymore.
KBOT: Imagine if Burning Man continued to be a blackout zone for everyone. So when you arrive, that’s it, no information in, no information out, how the culture would have continued to mutate in interesting ways. But now culture is mutating as a mirror of what it presents to the world.
STUART: You sound like a philosopher, kBot. Are you angling for a job in the Philosophical Center? We should talk.
KBOT: You too may be a member!
STUART: Because as I said earlier, I am severely under-qualified, so. You may have a future in the Philosophy department. Let’s talk.
KBOT: Oh, I think you’ve earned your credential, Stuart.
STUART: Oh, you’re too kind.
KBOT: All right. What does Burning Man mean to you personally? And why do you keep going back?
STUART: Why do I keep going back, kBot? Because in 1994, when the gate was all cash, there was a coffee can full of money buried somewhere in the playa. And for some reason, somebody’s GPS transmitter was losing its batteries, and so we lost the GPS coordinates. There’s a coffee can out there somewhere with around $20,000 in it. So I go back every year with a metal detector to look for that missing cash.
KBOT: At two in the morning on Wednesday night, there’s Stuart frantically digging.
STUART: Shhh. Shhh. It’s just an art. It’s my art project. Like the year that I vacuumed, the year I brought a vacuum out and just vacuumed the playa: Just an art project.
KBOT: Fantastic. The playa is mighty dusty.
STUART: It’s a Sisyphean task to keep that playa clean.
KBOT: All of it is a Sisyphean task, my friend.
STUART: Oh boy. Sisyphus. Sisyphus had it easy, really. It was just one rock. Here’s a good thought exercise. If you think about all of the hours that are put in by everyone, not just the employees, not just the volunteers, but all the artists, all the theme campers, all the year round work that goes into making Black Rock City, I’m going to wager that it’s about as much human effort as putting a man on the moon, or a woman on the moon, or building a pyramid, right? Or building a pyramid on the moon!
KBOT: I would wager it’s considerably more human effort. And then you multiply that by what, 29 years that you’ve been doing this. It kind of boggles my mind. How much energy, time, thought…
STUART: Exploding head emoji.
KBOT: So Stuart, what is your favorite principle and why?
STUART: My favorite principle is Decommodification, hands down. Even though it is a supporting principle, and it says in the text specifically that it’s designed to support Gifting. Honestly it’s the key to what I call the triangulation of principles that are all about creating a radically different way of economic life. If you look at Gifting and Decommodification and Communal Effort together, they combine to make an effect that is incredibly different than what our experiences growing up in the west, really in any consumer economy.
We’re so deep in it that we don’t even know it exists until you go to an environment where everything is not for sale and where everybody is not trying to hustle you and where everybody is not evaluating each other on economic terms. It’s like, who’s a buyer, who’s a seller, who’s higher up the economic ladder or lower than I am. As it’s been said, if you live your life as a fish, you don’t see the water. That commerce and consumerism that we all swim in is not really obvious to us until we’re outside of it.
So even if it’s just for a bubble, even if it’s just like the span of a fish jumping out of the water and back in, to me, that is key to a lot of the life-changing moments that happen out there, when people realize that they are more than the sum of their economic roles.
KBOT: Well, most people realize that…
STUART: It’s true. And I say Burning Man is not for everyone. A lot of people go out there and it’s not their cup of tea. They go once and that’s fine, but there’s a certain percentage of people who do get it and want more of it and can’t stay away. My favorite time of any Burning Man event is somewhere usually around Wednesday or Thursday of event week when I start hearing the words “next year” over and over again from so many people’s conversations. They’re like, “Next year I’m going to learn to weld so I can have a bike like that,” or whatever it is, right? People get wildly imaginative and creative when they see the scope of what they could do.
It’s sometimes called the sophomore phenomenon. Your freshman year at Burning Man you’re lucky just to make it out in one piece and not leave a bunch of trash behind. But that sophomore year is where it starts to get really, really interesting. If people come back, I think they do generally start to get it, even in that economic sense as well, but the first time around, it’s just so alien. Nobody, unless you grew up in some kind of a utopian commune somewhere, you’ve never experienced life without, uh, you’d never been in a place where you could actually leave your house without your wallet and not have a panic attack.
KBOT: Does that happen to you, Stuart?
STUART: If you left your house today without, without your billfold?
KBOT: Yeah. I could go to the park. I could go to the library.
STUART: Okay. But would you, or would you rush home to make sure you had your ID and a little cash on you?
KBOT: I’d probably rush home. You’re right. Okay. What has been your favorite Black Rock City art theme?
STUART: Oh, that’s an unfair question. They’re all my babies. I love them all. I will say this year’s: Waking Dreams because it’s about time. We had something that was upbeat, positive, a little surrealistic, a little playful, because we’re going back to Black Rock City and it’ll have been three long years since we were there last time.
And there’s a lot of, a whole lot of, pent up creativity and imagination. So I just can’t wait to see… It’s going to be a huge year for art. I just can’t wait to get out there and see how people wake up from this long, uncomfortable slumber of this whole COVID business.
It’s going to be a big temple year too because we lost a lot of people. I’ve lost people, everyone has. But it’s a new day and I really see it turning that page and just creating a note of hope and optimism for the future. That’s why I love this one.
KBOT: I think a lot of us are still sort of hoping that Burning Man happens, but there’s going to be that moment when the scales tip, when we all realize, “Yes, it is actually happening.”
STUART: Oh, it’s happening.
KBOT: It’s happening.
STUART: Take it from me. It is happening. We’re going.
KBOT: You heard it from Stuart.
STUART: We are going!
KBOT: We’re going to Black Rock City.
STUART: WE’RE GOING HOME!
KBOT: I don’t have any more questions. That was fun.
STUART: OK, you got enough, Vav?
VAV: I think I do!
KBOT: All right.
STUART: This interview is over, kBot. No. I meant, thanks for interviewing me.
KBOT: Oh, are you going to throw up your hands and walk out of the room?
STUART: Vav, can you insert mic drop sound here?
KBOT: And that, friends, was our conversation with Burning Man Live’s good host, Stuart Mangrum.
STUART: No, I end the interview. Thanks a lot for listening. This has been Burning Man Live. Thank you, kBot. Thanks, Vav. Thanks, Larry. No. Wait, we can’t do that. It’s your show. You take it out.
KBOT: Well, you’re certainly acting like it’s your show.
STUART: Sorry, muscle memory.
KBOT: All, right. It’s a wrap, but wrapped in old school wax paper, not cling wrap. Stay classy friends.
Burning Man Live is a production of the Philosophical Center of Burning Man Project made possible by generous donations from Burners who believe in what we’re doing. Support us at donate.burningman.org. We like to get email. You can email us at email@example.com.
I’m kBot. Blinky lights bleeps and bloops of gratitude go to Story Producer Andie Grace, Executive Producer and my gracious interviewee Stuart Mangrum, Story Editor and Technical Producer Michael Vav. And thank you to DJ Toil for all the things you do. And of course our gratitude to Tony Coyote Perez for voicing the intro. Thanks to all of you. Stay weird.
And thanks, Larry.