It’s been a longer road than most to get here for me, having lived in South Africa for nearly seven years the existence of Afrikaburn came into my consciousness in whispers; about a party in the desert where they burned things, big structures, just like Burning Man. It sounded interesting, and yet, chaotic scenes of Burning Man and the average American heading out into the desert in search of survival skills for the apocalypse still felt strangely experimental. Combine that with a group of white South African’s that were used to being cleaned up after and it almost certainly felt like a joke. Radical self-reliance? How is that even possible in the middle of the desert with no water?
I’ve been living in the shadow of Afrikaburn here in Observatory in Cape Town for the last four years. Afrikaburn has revolutionised my own life, bringing me friends and acquaintances that shared my left-wing views of a radical community-based future that encourages us to love more and live my life alongside these desert dream weavers. The broke ones, the desperate and the daring all trying to find a little piece of paradise here on planet Earth. Here in Cape Town, with all the Mother City has to offer. I often joke that certain areas of Cape Town are the places that we come to escape from escapism. Yup, it’s a fucking thing all those beachfront bars all over the world are a constant and continuous reminder that the awe-inspiring gifts of planet Earth are never quite enough to soothe us. Sunshine and Blue skies = Desert.
What does all that have to do with my first time in the desert anyway?
I’d attended Tankwa Town meetings. I’d read the guiding principles and the survival guide. I’d consulted with Burners been to De-compression as well as some smaller burns and even been out to the Afrikaburn site for a meetup. I knew about theme camps, grants, plug and plays and regionals and I felt it was something I could certain thrive through. If I’d been more committed maybe I would have contributed more and yet as a radical curator was it really something I wanted to give that much energy to? I’d been observing from the sidelines for a while and curatorial decisions are very difficult for me. Helping, harming? Vanity project and self-gratification are all warning signs I look out for.
Secondly additional cash I had some, accompanied with time and so maybe it was time to see what all the fuss was about, and finally head out into the desert to find all these radically self-expressive, self-reliant people who really were really doing out here in the desert.
It was only on buying the tickets didn’t I truly begin to understand how much this little adventure was going to cost me in South African Rands of course. Everyone had said that even with a free ticket it would cost about R4000 to go. It’s an expensive party to attend on the basis of radical inclusion in country built on inequality. It wasn’t just the money either it was the time collecting and buying all the stuff you needed and the fact that unless you were an ultraorthodox ethical consumer you were buying straight into the capitalist trap. First aid kits, toilet paper, wet wipes, water, dry-packed foods, road snack and of course costumes. Already I was baulking at the idea. Only a few months earlier I was standing up for climate change and now I was running round with a millennial desperate to buy plastic fast fashion in order to grab at instafame. I did my best to brace myself against and yet I still got sucked in. The woman who buys natural fashion that lasts yet seems to have a soft spot for acrylic knitwear. Oh well. I wonder when the eco-nazis take power if this will be the kind of interrogation that we are up against. All of a sudden I wasn’t sure what I was heading into the desert to learn? As my microplastics would painfully outlive anything that I might gain there, even me. The quiet guilt permeates me even now.
Eventually, after a lot of shopping we were ready to hit the road, of course, I had to pick up a hand made musical table of Andre the Crystal Sound Healer before I could pack my own car.
By the time I’d hit the road to Tankwa the radical inclusion had already begun. I’d been invited to stay at a theme camp that I had had absolutely nothing to do with until the point of my invitation. I had however picked up and to some degree rescued the theme camp organisers on the same stretch of road I was driving along now after a car crash. They were not returning the favour of support in a very amplified and appreciative way. I was grateful that my plan of scratching out a patch of dust had turned to co-creative fluff and it was a positive reminder that wherever possible to pay it forward. I arrived at the camp and was almost immediately welcomed once Tash and Peter remembered who I was and then introduced to the rest of the team.
“Welcome Home” it was obvious it was a burner greeting and I wonder how many people really knew how much truer that was than it might be. After all, everyone is African and more importantly the rumour is that everybody in genetically 10% Khoi San. We were all returning home. Literally to our earliest ancestral home, where we had endured as a species out here in the desert on the oldest part of the Earth crust. Where Dinasaurs had almost certainly roamed here in the pre-life geography. Where up until century ago you could still have watched great migrations of animal life and humans too. The flat desolation of the landscape opened up questions for me far deeper than the transidentatl shift of a party. Why here in this place, were we practicing radical anything without understanding the very landscape around us.
Then all of a sudden it was back to the here and now. I had a stretch tent to sleep under, a kitchen to cook in, water and shower and a functional waste system. When I think about where I could have ended up it seemed like a major miracle and the word I used to reinforce the good feeling was “pleased” and grateful to be included. Everyone was welcomed here and love seemed to permiate and I wondered how long it would last? I’m incredibly impressed to say that it did.
What the big news was that burner culture and politics was at the forefront of conversation. The camp had originally been set up as Sentella International Camp that represented another regional burn that Tash and Pete ran in the north. The Sentella International Theme Camp had been rejected as being to Plug and Play. It was somehow clear that organisational politics was at play. Which seemed weird to me, as the Tankwa Town Town Hall Meeting I had attended they wanted a camp that supported internationals. Hmmmm? So instead it was now The Potatoe Heads and we gifted potato meals every day.
At first, I couldn’t figure out how it worked. “The Theme Camp”, as an entity. How radical self-reliance fitted in with a group of people that had just driven from Joburg or thereabouts and all the other internationals that were at the camp. It would appear that no-one at the camp had built the camp and that service providers had brought the tent and the water and that the farm owner had a profitable business serving the burn and of course he should. It made me wonder about the circular nature of the South African econonomy and what was being fed back to the locals. Who was hired and where any excess money flowed out here in the desolate landscape? Was that something that was even considered? The main news was still we had a camp and water that allowed us to thrive here. Even if radical self-reliance seemed to come with money.
The Potatoes Heads were gifting potaoe based meals each day between 12 and 3 every day. The communal effort in that process was combined with both bringing potatoes, as well as cooking, seving and cleaning up after. Given that I didn’t know to bring potatoes I headed up one of the daily meals. Which I must say I was incredibly proud of creating a new recipes Peasent Potaotes Gratin, boiled potatoes with a milk, garlic, onion and cheese sauce, yes nothing like potaoe grain but hey.
Due to the nature of our camp and the fact that it was integrated wth a regional burn, many of the camp attendees were already burners. Which lead to a lot of burner culture conversations. Almost all the camp members that I spoke to had signed up for ranger duty, which I didn’t know I could do until it was too late to do the training…. It really impressed me that a lot of first time burners had commited fully to that element of participation and civic responsibulity, that they were deeply invested in finding a new way of being and integrating as a community. It was also very interesting to discover burner names and find people negotiating that for themselves. That they could be somebody else.
The conversations also focused alot around the guiding principles and how they contradicted one another. How navigating them was an arts practice in and of itself. I talked to a few burners about what had grivitated them towards The Burn, some of them having been to Black Rock. One person told me it was the art, another couple were into community building and leading intentional drug taking.
Radical Self Expression is from what I can sense the main driving force behind a big party in the desert. It is an extended sense of freedom and liberation for those who can afford it. For me it was far from revolutionary and how could it be? A whole load of white people using their privilige to create a space of radical self-expression. It reminded me of life in the Capital of Panem. It was less than representative of Afrofurturism than you might hope in 2019. I watched and a wondered how many of the people here parading about in unicorn leggins were actually into it? Much like so many of the things we do were trying it on for size. Maybe its more about radical experimentation? That you can pretend to be someone else in this escapist mirage, That you can pretend to be someone else in this escapist mirage, where no photogrpahs are taken (without consent) and the adoptation of a burner name can guarantee anonymity. It became clear as the costumes wafted by that it was all they were, a fancy dress show, only to be rivalled by the drudgery of office day wear. The parade made me think back to freshers week, it was fresher week with no social ramifications. What happened in the desert stayed in the desert, because for the most part everybody here was attempting to be free. However they would go home put on clothes they didn’t like, for a job that they hated, in the hope that one day life might become the desert. Isn’t that what millenial and influencers are all about? Selling the dream as opposed to living it?
Yet radical self-expression is necessary, as fucked up as that sounds, especially here in South Africa where the remenant of the propoganda state are still very much cut into the pscyche along with the accompanying religious abuse. How else you going to get yourself free if you have never witness a straight man parading about shirtless under a pink fluffy coat, in spaceship covered tutu with leapard print underpants over the top, in a sombero and a pair of glittery sunglasses. How else are you meant to discover that society is a construct that we have inherited rather than created. That there are different ways to be in the world beyond your financial productivity, that your true value is greater than what you own and who you are have been constructed largely on how people have rejected you. Imagine you just belonged and that in fact you were able to feel more at home in the desert with no faciliaties than you do in your mantion in Camps Bay.
Sparkle Pony? What’s that. I think I might be one. Not every burner is aware of the guiding princples. That there is an ideology that informs this party. That you a supposed to turn up prepared. Though I do love the idea of someone turning up naked with nothing but glitter. Sparkle Pony is a laughable idea. A party based on the priciples of giftin and radical-inclusion and particiaption? I’ll be your Sparkle Pony, that seems like a party throw down if ever I heard one. Yet somehow a term a shaming term has come into play for people who might embrace those those priciples fully. If it were me I’d get me a posie of Sparkle Pony Police and start riding round town as part of the communal effort. Hmmm yes guiding principles can be tricky little fuckers especialy when there are more than a few. Maybe the Sparkle Pony Posy could embrace fun, the frolicking and freedom of containing microplastics exspecially bought for the occasion drifting accross and peremiating geological time. I love being able to think about time in this way. Leave No Trace an absolutest idea that intends to educate and yet denies the truth that our age may well become synomus with plastic should our digital technology and histories be lost. I like the idea of fast forwarding through time to schools in the future “From 1907 – 2030 we can see that plastic deposited around the globe and much like the carbon based fuels of the steam age there residue premiated everthing. There dust is still found in some of the most remote locations on earth and we have yet to discover the larger imapcts on the ocean floor and how these generation managed cause mass extinction even within the moast ancient Earthly life forms’. On that note I too keenly signed up for making my own glitter emblased tutu for Tutu Tuesdays. An deeply embraced the delights of plastic fantastic gifting.
An imaginary town on the in the desert with Sparkle Pony Bandits, taking over civic responsibility from those pesky Rangers. Civic Responsibility, so much easier and so much more fun when everybodies vested interest is to have a good time. Imagine that if life and the greater structures of society where based on the idea of good vibes only. Is that even attainable beyond a week in the desert? I wonder? It makes me think beyond what is created and how restorative justce might play out if the party continued. It also feed back into the idea Adreinee Brown idea of pleasure activism and makes us wonder about what we think society is all about anyway? At this point my mind is exploding, imagine if we could get everybody on the same page, in real life? That everything can get better, if we work together. That’s the amazing news, for the most part across human society it has.
It was hard for me to grasp the idea of immediacy in an imagined environment. After all what is immediate about fantasy? After all the buring issues of the day had all been put on hold so we could head out into an experimental society in the desert. Where impact of the positive impact of the party was far more understood to be vibrational that it was practical. I consider pleasure activisim. It is true Burners were a special breed, especially here in South Africa. That out here we were living on the edge, a wild untamed kind of existance that made us extraordinary. Maybe I’ve had a far to extreme life to find people playing at survivial a immediate. I mean after all at anytime you can call in the instacrew to document the process at any time. Though I speculate if it was real survival it might represent a Blair Withc scenario, where everybody just walk round in circles, whenthere is a perfectly ggod stream to navigate. Maybe this imaginary hardship of one week in the desert take the urban human to understand of deeper humaness and yet how? When out here on the playa we are doising ourselves with drugs in order to connect. Meanwhile I’m still advocating for conversation as a means to heal as a means to connect. What is truly real about the burn is the spirit of collaboration. That we are all here to help one another. That without one another we can never truly thrive it’s the way the we relate that brings the greatest highs.
As radical curator the art was underwhelming. It spoke to me less about fully actualised concepts and more about human labour. They reminded me of the quitisential Scottish folly that dotted the landscape of only the most extravagent Scottish estate. Yes folly in a country with so much poverty and the extravangence to create soemthing to burn. I’ve always said that I work with the back end of the arts. That I am far more interested in what drives someone to create, far more than the creation itself. That exhbitions and artworks are just byproductos of a pschological process. I wondered about the people that built the structures had to watch them burn. How much ego, self-actualisation, healing and release was caught up in it? Far more than the beauty or symbolisms of the structure; it felt like such nilihistic creative pursuit. It was hard to find the motivation.
Burners talked about the burns as some kind of spiritual gathering and I wondered at the truth of that? Then I remember I’m for all intense purposes and indigent white person. I forget that that is what so many people are looking for the connection to the tribe or in this case the clan. (Even this choice of words seems bodly and very deliberately out of kilter with wider South African culture). Wood is fuel. Ultimately it seems like fuck tonne of effort to try and figure out what it is to connect our their beyond the realm of the digital nomads. That even an istamoment is be curated rather than lived.
The Khoi San were rolled out as you might expect for some kind of cultural cudos and understanding and yet there seems to be very little orientation on offer as to why they are there or indeed what the significance of the ceremony is. Is the silent ceremony simply silencing? I wonder what they really make of all this? I’m sure it all feels rather strange.
I have watched the fires burn in my village on Guy Faulkes night. Where we celebrated revolution and democracy all at the same time. What a smart move it was of the overlords to let us burn something every once in a while to fuel and vent our destructive tendancies? While celebrating collectively and the commune? I forget that the children of colonialist societies have so little to connect to. Half histories, lost inbetween oceans and airport lounges. Is it any wonder they have to drive into the desert to feel like they belong.
Buying into the idea of equality seemed poetic for a party to based on radical inclusion. Money has over the course of history bought freedom and for some priviliges. There is nothing radically self-reliant about service providers. If this was real politics it’s the quazi left policies of a neo liberalist system playing out full force. A very long way beyond the socialist ideal decommodification.
Discover what it is to be free and to discover what it is to trade in exhange. That there is value beyond the material. What are we really trading anyway? Potaotes. Pancakes, Gin all things that don’t seem to belong in the Tankwa Karoo.
How does branding fit into that too? It’s hardly the dull drudgery of the socialist block? What was really meant was real world brands. Real world brands also made me laugh when it extended to branded drinks. So that one of my best memories was the image of one of my theme cmaps members being alomost permenantly in posession of Savanas in varying states of consumption. It was only when I got back and a burner friend pointed out to me how much she enjoyed spending aweek without money that it even crossed my mind. However the glut of spending that proceed that level of financial freedom seemed to permaiate though out and that that too had been the experience of the majority of attendees. Isn’t Afrikaburn after all selling an experieince. Why else are rich interns turning up in there droves talking about connectivity that took them a 16 hour flight to find in acountry with estimated 76% unemployment. Each One Teach One was adopted by Africaburn principle? Did I mentioned I learned how to make a tutu? Does teaching people to cook witout a recipe count? You can’t help but call bullshit.
Afrikaburn and Burner cluture cracks open far more questions about it’s very being rather than offer tengible global or community solutions. It’s guiding principles represent the deeply tangible paradox for the the planet. Tanka Town tells us far more about our dystopian present that I want to build my way out of, than the utopian present that I want to create. It’s this curiosity that has lead me to investigate further; more out of understanding anti-human rhetoric than the idea that a new way of living in the desert.Premesthfors the theme for 2019 screamed far more about designed obsolescence than some mystical city lost in time. That the long shadows of a passing caravan might have a more enduring footprint on human memory and the earth crust than 15,000 non-present human connections experimenting with the idea of humanity, society and radicalism. Maybe I just want more of it in real life.