With the often-fanatical devotion of its attendees, outlandish outfits and preponderance of spiked Kool-Aid, Burning Man has long had the external trappings of a cult.
Now, as the week-long annual celebration of innovative art, DIY culture and tripping your face off while dressed like a glowing psychedelic lobster enters its 27th year, organizers are simultaneously embracing and satirizing Burning Man's appeal with the announcement its 2013 theme: cargo cults.
Burning Man founder Larry Harvey told to the San Francisco Bay Guardian that the theme is intended as jumping off point for the legendarily creative community of Burners. "It's a spur to invention. People are finding all kinds of ways to riff off of it," he explained. "This is what Burning Man has always been about and what we try to give to the world.
Harvey noted that he hoped the specificity would encourage more people to directly engage with the theme on their art projects.
Cargo cults arose around the time of the Second World War, when American and Japanese soldiers visited pre-industrial societies on remote Pacific islands and entranced the natives with their comparatively advanced technologies. These armed forces brought a wealth of things the islanders had never seen before--radios, manufactured clothing, guns--and often drastically increased the standard of living on the islands. However, after the war's conclusion, the armies withdrew, taking much of the technology with them.
In their wake, the natives of some islands created religious practices worshiping the manufactured goods and began to practice rituals, such constructing makeshift airstrips and handmade airplanes, in the hopes that the divine "cargo" would return.
In a context avowedly anti-materialistic as Burning Man (where using money as a means of transaction is almost entirely prohibited), the idea of waiting for an external entity come down from on high and give everyone material wealth is ripe with satiric potential.
A poster for the event depicts a high-tech alien descending from a spacecraft above a gathering of humans with shopping bags instead of heads. A display on the flying saucer reads "Who Is John Frum?"; a winking nod not only to Ayn Rand's hyper-capitalist manifesto Atlas Shrugged, but also to the Messianic central figure in the most famous cargo cult, whose name has been thought to be a bastardization of a Western GI introducing himself as "John from...wherever."
Harvey explains in a blog post announcing the theme:
This Myth of Return is no less relevant today. To put this in a modern context, what if your electricity went dead and stayed that way -- would you know how to make the current flow again? Can you fix your car if it breaks down, or build yourself a new one? Like the islanders, most of us are many steps removed from the Cargo that entirely shapes our lives. We don't know how it's made, where it's made, or how it works; all we can do is look beyond the sky and pray for magic that will keep consumption flowing...We feel sure our theme will attract many alien Visitors, and hope this will stimulate our planet's faltering economy.
Burning Man is of course what one makes of it. So we must recognize that a few participants question the literal existence of John Frum. They believe that cargo culture is unsustainable; no deus ex machina descending from the sky can possibly provide consumers with relief. The only spaceship worth considering is planet Earth. Each and every one of us, it is held, must find our Inner Frum: the first step toward salvation is to give our gifts to fellow human beings.
Burners have already begun to riff on the theme, with one merging the iconic flammable man with an advertisement for Old Navy cargo shorts.
Burning Man runs from August 26 to September 2 in Black Rock City, Nevada.
Check out these photos from last year's burn (and be sure to submit your own):