Viva Las Xmas, 2002

I think that the essential lesson that we’ve learned is, in a way, very simple. People don’t have to go out into the world and create a great city. We’ve only made our city as large and as civic as it is in order to create a sufficiently persuasive model of the world to show people how things could be. I still want it to grow larger, frankly. I mean it won’t be New York, but I want it to feel like a complete model of civilization so that people can go back home with the confidence that they can change the world — that they don’t have to be defined by the context that surrounds them — that they can defined by the context that surrounds them — that they can define the world by the vision that’s inside them, they can share that vision with other people and they can attach to it some transcendent principle. That is why the Man stands at the center of our city.

This process begins with radical self-expression: the feeling that your inmost vital self is real and that you can project a vision of this sense of your own being onto the surrounding world. I mean all these ads say be all that you can be, buy this car and you’ll be free, but they’re just substitutes. You’re not going to be unless you can project a spiritual reality out onto the world. But most people just don’t have the confidence anymore because they’re too isolated; they’re too passive. So it starts with this, and I’ll call it “I Am.” And it proceeds, as in a theme camp, to a feeling that you are united with others, that you are linked in a bonded circle and that together you can share the same experience through an act of giving, because the value of a gift is in its flow — not as you consume it, but as it consumes. And I’ll call this, “We Are.” Finally there is the feeling that somewhere outside this circle there exists some greater gift that everyone is joined together by as they give to it, and I’ll call this “It Is.” And I have come to believe that whenever these feeling states can be strung together like pearls on a string, as if they were parts of one spontaneous gesture, you will then generate an ethos, a culture, that leads, in Jefferie’s words, to a “boundless shower of good things forever descending.”

Now I’ve told you things are getting a bit bleak in our world. We’re just so accustomed to this state of things that we don’t notice. But I don’t think I’ve told you just how bad they can get. So I’m going to tell you a story. It’s like A Christmas Carol. This is where the ghost says to Scrooge, “This is Christmas future.” I’m going to tell you about Christmas future. This is where we’re going.

Some time ago, I went to a dinner that was given for an artist friend who was leaving for a journey up a river into the jungle of New Guinea to confer with some tribal sculptors. And it was a lively party. It was a bunch of my more louche bohemiam friends, and it was held in an Italian restaurant that I’d never been to. I was just given an address, and when I got there I was astonished, because it was located on the edge of our city’s financial district. I mean all these hi-rises and condos, and it was very apparent to me that this was a small family enterprise and that it had been there for years, and I wondered how the hell it had survived. There were family pictures on the walls, mementos, and we went downstairs through a narrow corridor to a very special room that was obviously precious to them. It was naively decorated in primarily colors and we were taken into the place of honor, and there was a big round table and within that round table was a giant Lazy Susan. It felt really communal. It was so cool that everyone could share. And at the center of this thing, at the center of this communal circle, was this transcendent object. It was a bust of the Pope. In fact, they’d surrounded it with a big square Plexiglas cube, so it looked like a miniature Pope-mobile. [laughter]

Now this is what I call a sympathetic bistro! The food was robust, the cuisine of southern Italy, and the waiters were to a one all very jolly. I love this kind of restaurant, I love family places. They brought in bottle after bottle of Chianti. And, of course, we were using this Lazy Susan, so the bottles went round and round, and pretty soon the room was spinning round and round as we got drunker and drunker. As I say, these were bohemians and never noted for any inhibition, and they became increasingly rambunctious, and at a certain point one of the guests by the name of Kaos Kitty climbed up on the table as if it were a rotating state. I remember she was wearing multiple petticoats for some reason, and she had a certain look in her eye. She sidled to the center of the table, which by now was in an uproar, and she removed the Plexiglas cube and proceeded to do things to the head of the Pope that I really don’t want to describe to you — let’s call it radical self-expression. [laughter]

This is, of course, the kind of scandalous story that’s often better in the telling, something you read about in a memoir of the lives of the artists. There was a lot of laughter, shocked looks from people in the adjoining room, [laughter] and my friends, on the whole, were thrilled by their audacity. But I will confess to you tonight that I was inwardly chagrinned. Think about it for a moment. here we were in the bosom of this family place around the altar of their simply Catholic piety… desecrating it? And I left the restaurant that night feeling a pang of guilt and a flush of shame on my face, I really did. I thought about apologizing as I went out, but I was too ashamed, and for weeks afterward I was burdened by this feeling of guilt because I’d sat by… I’d laughed too.

Well, some months later I found myself in Minneapolis. Earlier that evening I’d delivered a speech at the Walker Art Center, and my girlfriend and I were walking through the slushy streets of Minneapolis in the middle of a mid-winter thaw. There was fog filling the air and we were looking for some place to eat at a late hour. We went around a corner and across the street I saw this nimbus of neon light in the air. We crossed over and, sure enough, it was a neon sign and, sure enough, it was a sympathetic bistro — on fact it was the sympathetic bistro. It was the same place I’d encountered in San Francisco! And I thought, well gee; did a cousin, a nephew branch out to Minneapolis?

We went inside and the atmosphere brimmed with familiar sentiment. Family pictures lined the walls, and they’d painted the exposed plumbing… and then it really dawned on me. This was not a sympathetic bistro. What I’m saying is this was not a communal thing, this was not a bonded group. This was not a family restaurant. The pictures and the keepsakes on the walls had been purchased by the lot at auction. And when I looked at the other diners, all of them white, pretty Anglo-Saxon looking and undoubtably Lutheran, the full implications of this began to sink in. Most of the tables were for large groups. This was the demographic. A waiter came in with a lighted cake, there was a birthday party, and suddenly I understood what this was. It was an R.E.D. R.E.D. is an acronym that stands for Retail Entertainment Destination. This is the fastest growing trend in retail, and it’s remaking our world. R.E.D.s are the finest flower of our marketing system and it’s commodification of our lives. You see most of our desire and addictions are really projections of our need to be. And they’ve become really good at finding out what our desires are, and they’ve learned to create stuff — both goods and entertainment — which we then consume as substitutes for being.

In the case of the jolly bistro, some entrepeneur had determined — using demographic studies and psychographic profiles — what WASP’s really need in their lives. And I can tell you from personal experience what WASP’s really do need in their lives. Family members often live in different states, and family dinners and gatherings can be awkward. You don’t have anything in common with anyone because bonding social capital has broken down a little. So you go to these gatherings, and you find yourself wistfully and secretly wishing that things were, oh, a little warmer, a little more sympathetic, a little more… well, Mediterranean. [laughter] If only we could be Italians! [laughter] And this environment, this bistro, was designed to fill this gap. Art blended with science. If people want to feel that they belong to one another, then it’s wholly feasible and very profitable to manufacture the illusion of this feeling. I had really enjoyed the food at the original restaurant back home, but sitting there with my girlfriend I picked indifferently at my meatball. I kind of herded it around the plate and, as I did so, I forgave Kaos Kitty for her performance. In fact, on the whole, it seemed very appropriate. [applause]

Let me give you a little profile of retail entertainment destinations. They’re usually located in metropolitan areas, and they’re devoted to the proposition long understood by marketers that it’s more lucrative to sell a state of being than a product. There’s nothing new in this. Sell the sizzle, not the steak. That’s what they used to say, but R.E.D.’s in this late stage of capitalism are based on much shrewder and more sophisticated insights. They’re not just selling attractive and desirable sensations; they’re selling a lot more than that. The cream of social scientists have gone to work, and they’ve identified a more complex, a more basic stratum of psychological need that exists in human beings. They’re probing now with their tools right at your soul. And, furthermore, they have designed these retail entertainment destinations to exploit a kind of primal yearning.

R.E.D.’s come in different shapes and sizes. I’ve described the little restaurant, but it works up into larger complexes. These typically combine dining, shopping and entertainment attractions. In the trade journals this is called — I’ve been reading a lot of trade journals — the “trinity of synergy.” Because they know if you’re eating and you’re shopping and you’re being entertained, you’ll spend a lot more money. It grows up into very large-scale complexes, and these are being built at a tremendous rate. You know what I’m talking about: Disneyland and the Strip in Las Vegas, and, in case you haven’t noticed, here in New York, Times Square has become a retail entertainment destination — state of the art.

Another constant feature of these places is an air amenity and authenticity. They often feature monumental architecture, open-air loggias, colonnades, fountains, vaulted ceilings, and decorative plasterwork. And even the old fashioned shopping mall of the 70’s and early 80’s, is rushing to cloak itself in these neo-classical facades. It’s all part of what’s come to be called the “experience economy.” These places are designed to appeal to our need for community and identity. At times they almost seem to waft a sense, albeit rather cheapened, of classical civilization. At least it seems so superficially at an aethetic level, but when you descend to ground level, to the place where humans interact, the place where culture’s roots should grow, it is a very different story.

After my experience with the jolly bistro, I became fascinated with these places. So two years ago at Christmas time I decided to go to Las Vegas. I wanted to see the great mother of them all and learn something from it. Now I’ll admit to you that I dislike the Yuletide season. This great orgy of spending and consumption and forced giving seems to me like the ultimate perversion of what giving should be. So I engage in whatever activity feels like the opposite of Christmas. So it was that in late December of 2000 my girlfriend and I embarked on a holiday and we decided to call it our Viva Las Xmas tour.

We stayed at the home of a friend who was out of town, and one day an acquaintance of his called, and I picked up the phone, thinking it was our friend. It turned out this person was the proprieter, or had been the proprieter, of Las Vegas’s last and only artist’s coffee house and it has just gone belly-up. It couldn’t compete with the casino’s, to say the least, and he sounded like a man who had just lost his daughter to diptheria — I mean he was depressed. But, at the same time, the Guggenheim announced its plan to open a gallery as a magnet attraction at the Venetian. That’s an example of what the trade journals call edutainment. And later, on TV, a young woman representing the museum described this venture as a noble form of democratic outreach to the hoi polloi, to the unwashed masses — and, I might add, a very lucrative proposition for its gift shop. And an art critic was featured looking like he’s just downed a snifter of quinine water. He was actually wearing a turtleneck, and he talked about the postmodern implications of this daring move and how it was ironic… and so forth. [laughter] And the actual developer was on TV, too — he was my favorite, though, I kind of liked this guy. He was clad in a hard hat, he was working class — in sensibility anyway, I’m sure he had a lot of dough — and he said, “This project is classy, classier, classiest… one of those!” [laughter]

You see in the last 20 years Vegas has re-invented itself as a thoroughgoing R.E.D. It used to be this sleazy place where guys went for action, but ah, not anymore! It’s now a center of edutainment, infotainment, eatotainment — every kind of tainment you can think of. They’ve torn down all the old facades and, in their place, they’ve erected palaces that offer up the Holy Trinity of market synergy. We wandered through these great complexes. We loitered in the shadow of animatronic sculptures. We witnessed the musical fountains and beheld the Pharonic mysteries of ancient Egypt at the Luxor. At Caesar’s Palace I actually bought an ashtray, I admit it. [laughter] It was irresistible. But my favourite place was the Rio, because there we discovered a riverboat that they’d mounted on the ceiling on a curvilinear track, and it was filled with performers who, like performers on Broadway, were dancing and singing their hearts out. It actually was interactive, and I got kind of excited about that. They kept coming around and they were waving at us and we were waving at them. It was better than the animatronic sculpture. [laughter]

In fact, this kind of interactivity is typical of R.E.D.’s. This is my favorite quote from a trade. It explains that interactivity is a key component of immersion environments. That’s what these are immersion environments. It says, “Free street performances, another form of ambient entertainment, strive to replicate the spontaneity of the archetypal, if not mythical, marketplace. Yet because they work independently, their performance can be unpredictable making them potentially disruptive to both visitors and tenants. Thus authentic performances are not commonly allowed on the private property of destination complexes.” Instead they hire performers and typically these performances are of short duration. You see the reason R.E.D.’s create these faux civic spaces, and the reason they’re filled with such apparently civilized amenities, is to cause consumers to linger in a retail environment. They’ve studied this and found that maximum spending is reckoned to take place during a period of 3-4 hours. And this is why the ersatz interactions, and this is why they hire these performers and why the performances are so brief.

We did witness the great speaking statue of Neptune at Caesar’s Palace. It was set in a courtyard, and, in a weird kind of cartoon way it might have been Florence. It could have been a northern Italian hill town; a public square, a very civic setting. This robotic Neptune spoke to us for about 7 minutes, it attracted a large crowd, and then it stopped and everyone dispersed — and where did they go? Right into all these shops that strategically surrounded it. And every one was a brand name high-end retail outlet selling goods at a 200% mark-up! And I’ll make an even more embarrassing confession. I went into one and bought a pair of Gucci’s. [laughter] Even knowing what it was, I was caught up in the trance.

You see these settings are engineered with the precision of a hermetically sealed engine. Though they may look like urban spaces, you’ll find no posters pasted to the lampposts, as you would in my hometown, in my neighborhood in San Francisco. You’ll not discover any pocket parks that have been hidden away as true amenities of leisure. No, you will experience none of the spontaneous encounters that are the lifeblood of culture. No clinging tendrils of association mar these perfectly hardened surfaces. You will see people trudging forward in a Day of the Locust sort of way, giving nothing of themselves to the world that surrounds them and receiving no inspiration from it.

What you will discover is what we discovered: the people chute. This is the last aspect of the R.E.D. that I’ll describe to you. My girlfriend and I became fascinated by this. In the process of reinventing itself, Vegas has built an elaborate system of pedestrian transportation. They’ve located large parking complexes on the periphery of the Strip and people are funneled through casino environments by an integrated system of escalators, bridges, elevators, tramways, and a variety of other mechanical devices. These are essentially designed to keep people moving, whirling along this slalom ride. And, as we did so, we realized we were never more than ten feet away from an opportunity to buy something. It was virtually impossible to escape this. The space of one casino bled seamlessly into the next, and so we decided for relief to amuse ourselves by looking for some crack, some break, some fissure in this plumbing. And at last we found one, got out of the chute and fled gleefully across the street holding hands, running through the traffic of the Strip like giggling children.

At the very end of our stay we took the elevator upstairs at the Rio, walked into a restaurant and went out on the terrace, and there, spread out before us, was the Strip: this great evil drive train glittering in the desert night. And I thought to myself, this is just like Burning Man! We, too, create a scene, a fantasy environment. Each year we creat an annual art theme because we believe that stories and myths are one way that people belong to each other and one way that you can get artists to collaborate, to co-operate with one another, and it leads to a re-telling of the story that embodies identity — we do that, we are a themed environment! What is more, we fill it with interaction and ambient entertainment. Well, we don’t participants do, but the space is furnished with art. It’s a little better than the art of Vegas, but still, the theme camps and art are magnet attractions. We even have our own Electric Parade every year! Spread out on the desert floor, our glittering city is a capsule world that obliges people to linger and loiter and totally immerse themselves in an environment. It’s an immersive environment. The only difference is that you cannot buy or sell anything. The only difference is that you must struggle to survive. The only difference is that you are seldom more than ten feet away from opportunities to interact with art and other human beings. The only difference is that you must give of yourself. The only difference, finally, is that it is real.

You see the great irony of this is that the creators of these R.E.D.’s have almost inadvertently reinvented a model of classical civilization. Pursuing a path of market research, they’ve learned that human beings crave something greater than themselves to which they can belong. They’ve learned that we need myths and stories that can tell us who we are. They’ve learned that we need unities of time and place, a coherent theatre in which to act out life’s drama: a place you can belong to. The prospect of such things, this idea of a greater home on earth, is extremely attractive to human beings.

And yet, pre-eminently, marketers also know that in our modern world the public craves variety and choice. The Palladium facades and the Venetian palaces that they conconct allude to an older order in which traditions shaped and governed everything. They nostalgically summon up a past in which people belonged to history, in which great civic spaces and the political and social life they signified were a reality. They have invented a kind of replica of that sort of civilization, that societal vessel that once contained, protected and symbolized the process of culture, this sense of belonging to one another. But underneath it all, beneath the plaster facades and the faux marbling, they know that in today’s consuming world the individual and individual’s desires are king. It is, in fact, our desires as individuals disassociated from history and disassociated from place and disassociated, at last, from any sense of a surrounding community that drive our economic system.

Judged by any civilized standard, the mass culture of an R.E.D. is an oxymoron. Yet I think there is much we can learn from it. I’ll return to this idea in just a moment, but let me first confront the peculiar nature of the problem we must face if we are to change the world. I mean, listen, I’ve been inveighing against consumerism, and I could preach a Jeramiad about materialism and the need for collective values and the need for self-sacrifice, but I believe that there’ve been enough sermons on this subject, and, furthermore, I don’t think they’re doing a damn bit of good.

On both the left and the right of the political spectrum, critics of consumerism call for self-restraint. From the Left, we’re told that we should curb our appetite for goods, our endless desire for material things. We should stop consuming oil, we should protect the environment, we should adopt solar energy, we should wear hemp clothing, we should eat more tofu, we should bask in the glow of multi-culturism and accept the dictates of a liberal Nanny-state. I’m from California, so… [laughter] But from the Right, we’re urged to return to those values that nostalgically symbolize the nuclear family. Let’s bond. We should attend church, outlaw abortion and self-indulgent homosexuality. We should get tough on crime, repress our civil liberties and adopt the values of a theocratic state.

Well these are plans for creating a collective identity, I suppose, but, really, neither of them has much social traction in our world. And I will tell you why. A man named Gary Cross recently published a book called An All-Consuming Century. And he suggests that these political agendas and their forms of social ideology are doomed to failure. He tells us that the ideological wars of the 20th century are over. The great political upheavals that characterized the last hundred years now seem reather quaint and out of date. The final battle has been won, he tells us, and it’s not been won by Communism or Fascism. It’s been won by consumerism, and consumerism does not bear with it a political ideology. This is a lower case phenomenon, not a social movement with bands and banners and marches in the street in which people are asked to believe in some great collective political ideal. It’s a pervaseive economic process that’s penetrating every crack of our globe. And he argues that collective ideologies cannot correct the ills brought on us by consumerism because they ignore consumerism’s great appeal.

And this goes back to where I began. I said the great value of our modern system is that it uniquely caters to the individual. We are in the forefront of this consumer revolution, but all around our globe traditional societies that once housed cultural processes, that formed social vessels of belonging, are beginning to shatter. We used to call these societies the Third World, but now they’re called emerging economies — you’ll notice that they’ve changed the terminology. We, as a people, have tasted the fruits of a more individualized way of life than that of the past. We are the inheritors of a long tradition of Western history that began in Asia Minor, crossed the Aegean, went through Rome, spread through Europe, leaped over the Atlantic, and every stage in its development has elaborated and glorified and refined the supreme value of individuality. We are now, today in America, the most individualized and the most self-conscious people that have ever existed on the face of the earth. And I don’t think we are ready to return to a simpler life or the type of society that once sustained culture.

That kind of vessel, that kind of society, has been shattered. There is no way on earth we can put it back together again, and any political system that asks us to subordinate our individuality for the sake of the collective good will not avail. Demands for self-restraint will not be heard because we demand choice, we demand freedom, and we value our individuality more that anything else. Nor do I think we can reconstruct the kinds of societies that once helped culture to thrive. They depended on the fact that people had to struggle together, that circumstances held people together over long periods of time. We want to change our jobs, we want to move freely through the world, we want to redefine ourselves continually: we have exploded that ancient world of tradition.

I’ve talked of a continuum of being tonight. I’ve spoken of an I am, a We are, and an It is. But if you look at all previous ages of human culture, the order of this continuum was different. It started with It is, with gods and myths of supernatural origin, progressed in long-sustained traditions among people who struggled to survive in a challenging world, We are, and it ended somewhat tenuously with the experience of the individual. Today this sequence works and must work in reverse. It must necessarily being with I am, at the level, radically fathomed, of each individual’s experience.

So let me return to my comparison of Burning Man with retail entertainment destinations. I know, of course, that I’ve portrayed these institutions as a form of cultural abomination. But if we hope to create social contexts that can actually regenerate our culture, I think we must be ready to employ new tools that are adapted to the kind of world we really live in. I mean, like an R.E.D., Black Rock City forms a kind of social envelope that imitates amenities that typified cultures of the past. Look at these lampposts here [gestures to wooden lampposts at the edge of stage]. They’re part of a civic architecture that we create in the desert. Something that’s larger than you, a great civic entity that you can belong to, that symbolizes our common life together.

Furthermore, the essential appeal of Burning Man is to the individual, just like R.E.D.’s, just like consumerism. We’ve achieved an ethos, and we have a few basic rules, and God knows I’ve got a lot of ideas. But no one is required to subordinate themselves. Instead, they are invited to expand themselves. Burning Man is available on their terms: anyone can engage in radical self-expression. Everyone is free to do and be. The great difference between us and the consumer marketplace, however, is that we have inverted the essential nature of the capitalist system. We may be like Disneyland, but we are like Disneyland turned inside out. Because at the heart and center of this thing you will not find a commodity to be consumed. You will encounter a gift and, in so doing, you yourself, your unique spirit will itself become a gift and be consumed like fire in its passage to the sky.

I’d like to conclude my talk tonight by telling one last story. 17 years ago, I started Burning Man on a beach in San Francisco. This is frequently the first thing that people ask me about. They want a myth, and I was once incautious enough to tell a reporter that it corresponded to the anniversary of a lost love affair. That story has now circles the globe, and it’s been interpreted and reinterpreted as myths often are. I’ve been told that I was burning myself, that I was burning my ex-girlfriend, that I was burning my ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend, that I was burning my ex-girlfriend’s lawyer — actually, I started that one just to stir the pot [laughter] — but none of these stories are true. They’re factoids. They’re myths in the modern sense of the word: distortions of the truth. And yet people keep asking me this question, and I think it’s because they’re looking for a myth in the older and more profound sense of the term. You see myths are the souls of our actions. They’re not about historic circumstances or personal contingency. We moderns think that if we add all these things up we can explain what happens in the world by a rational process. But myths are not about chains of causation or rational reasoning. They contemplate an unconditional reality. They tell us that the essence of things is contained in first causes, and that everything, as in any vision, emanates radically out of this. That’s what people are asking me to tell them. That’s the nature of the story that they need to hear. So I will tell you that story.

One day in 1986 I called a friend and said, let’s build a man and burn him on the beach. I did this on impulse. There was really nothing on my mind. [laughter, applause] I’ve thought about it over the years, because they keep asking, and the best I can say is that some passionate prompting, some immediate vision just had to be embodied in the world. Call it radical self-expression… I Am. We built our man from scraps of wood, then called some friends and took it to the beach. We saturated it with gasoline and put a match to it, and within minutes our numbers doubled. [laughter] That’s actually when Burning Man began as an institution, you know. We were so moved by that we knew we had to do it again. If we’d done it as a private and personal thing, I’m sure we wouldn’t have repeated it. And I remember holding my son in my arms, and I looked at each fact illuminated in the firelight. They had formed a semi-circle about it, and I thought — no, I didn’t think it, but I felt it, I was so moved — We Are. They’d all come to see this gift. A woman ran over and held its hand. I didn’t know who she was. The wind was shunting the flames to one side, and someone took a picture of it — it’s the only recorded instant. She just had to touch it. She wanted to belong to it. And then, of course, there was the Man himself. Standing there against the limitless horizon of the broad Pacific, it seemed to belong to the ocean, to belong to the sky — to exist in some realm immeasurably beyond us. It formed a fireball, a second sun brought down to earth, a sudden, uncontrollable and completely spontaneous emission of energy. It Is… and when I look at Black Rock City today, I notice that its curving streets are like that semi-circle of people so many years ago on Baker Beach. Our city seems to reach out to the Man as if it could capture him, but can never quite possess this gift at its center. I Am… We Are… It Is.

What more is there to say, except that I believe there is a way that all of us can be together.

Thank you.