Burning Man's new Cargo Cult art theme intrigues

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From Cargo Cult illustration by DA Dominic Tinio.

Burning Man founder Larry Harvey sent burners scrambling to Wikipedia on Friday when he announced the art theme for the 2013 event, “Cargo Cult,” and posed the intriguing question, “Who is John Frum?” It was perhaps the most esoteric and obscure theme ever, but one that I heard only positive reactions to at a couple of burner-populated parties over the weekend, including the Black Rock Art Foundation's Artumnal Gathering.

The theme draws from stories of indigenous cultures in the South Pacific that have been awed by the advanced technology of American visitors, forming cults and rituals to beckon them and their airplanes back. As an art theme, it then morphs into our own modern fascination with the cargo dropped on us by mysterious visitors, whether they be multinational corporations or extraterrestrial life forms.

As Harvey wrote in a description of the theme that's well-worth reading, “All we can do is look beyond the sky and pray for magic that will keep consumption flowing.” The base of eponymous Man will be a crudely formed flying saucer, artistically trying to summon back alien visitors and their transformative gifts (that is, if they didn't already arrive on 12/21/12).

In an interview with the Guardian, Harvey cast the Cargo Cult theme as the first one since 1996's Hellco, in which a demonic corporation had supposedly taken over Burning Man, to have a theme that he called “satirical,” although he's quick to say this satire sparks layers of meaning as people ponder it.

“People seem to be imagine this in multiple dimensions and that was the intention,” Harvey said, noting the nods it gives to consumerism, religion, anthropology, metaphysics, and a variety of other disciplines and frames of reference. “You see all kinds of glosses on it.”

He said the kernel of the idea began with a rumination on Polynesian themes, sparked by reading Paul Theroux's book The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific. When he hit on the notion of cargo cults, Harvey said the ideas and possibilities of it began to immediately expand in his imagination.

They continued to grow ever outward as he collaborated with others on it, include Stuart Mangrum, a Cachophony Society stalwart who Harvey worked with on the Hellco theme (possibly raising the questions for old-school burners, “Who is John Law?” and might he someday return?), and the architect Lewis Zaumeyer, who designed the Man's UFO base before he died earlier this year

Harvey said the theme prompt is already triggering lots of creative interpretations. “It's a spur to invention. People are finding all kinds of ways to riff off of it,” Harvey said of that creative, collaborative spark that he tries to provide. “This is what Burning Man has always been about and what we try to give to the world.”

Unlike past years, when themes such as Fertility, Rites of Passage, Metropolis, and Evolution have been easy to safely ignore, Harvey said the intrigue and excitement around the 2013 theme is causing the event organizers to plan on incorporating references and reminders throughout Black Rock City.

“We want to work this in more thoroughly into the event than we've done before,” Harvey said, hoping that it prompts all kind of unpredictable and imaginative manifestations. “The beauty of it is it's ambiguous even when you look at it in the academic literature.”