Dancing with the Diaspora

Interview Monique Schiess

We attended a series of workshops with the Western Cape government around measuring the economic impact of events. I am feeling quite frustrated with that because obviously with economic impact, the aperture is so tiny. It is about the money you bring in. But for festivals specifically like Afrika Burn they are supposed to be change agents. There is a massive economic impact to the city to the land, but the other catalysing affect is far more important. The Western Cape government's process is to call in a whole array of different events companies and practitioners and ask us how we would calculate our impact. Impact assessments should be a much broader thing. The tap route of Afrika burn is not only in anarchy but in challenging norms.

Burning Man started in San Francisco thirty years ago in the Haight Ashbury district, a classical hippy area – very much a reaction to cold conservatism. There is a thing called the Cacophony Society, and their mandate was to go and experience things beyond the pale of everyday existence. They were based in practice and playfulness. Playfulness is such a key thing to exercise in what has become such a hyper transactional society. And that equals health and does equal economic impact. It is a social impact totally. In terms of getting funding and support everyone wants to hear about economic impact. We have been doing our own economic evaluation on creative projects specifically using some of the gross national happiness parameters from Bhutan. ( The concept promotes collective happiness of the society as the ultimate goal of development). It is all about agency and access and being able to participate in your world and cultural projects and that equals community health.

And that is what Afrika Burn is at best. It is idealistic – it is in a rough and difficult space, the desert – you have to bring everything you need to survive, you have to gift something. It was funny when we were starting it I would do these talks and tell people about it and they would say hang on a second we have to do all that shit and pay for a ticket. And that is what happens everyone goes there and they leave utterly exhausted and fucked up, often broke and then an activism is broken up in them. It is like exercising a muscle working together, not being in this impersonal hyper-transactional space. And I have seen this over 12 years catalyse change in people. Afrika Burn is a blank canvas and people do on there whatever they want or can imagine. It is like blood flow. People start working better together and imagining the world anew. And that is really what we need in the world. At worst it is a drug fucked party. At best it is a change agent where fun is the vector for change and it catalyses stuff.

I did the MCQP for 10 years. I do not see myself as an event organiser. The event is secondary and it is a vehicle to do something else. And gatherings historically have been hotbeds of change and catalysing moments. I felt pretty omnipotent and surprised after the first one when 1000 people came and the stuff people did was amazing. And it made me realise you can create change. Also it was my response to leaving university. And at the time of a lot of academics and wanted to do something completely non-academic. I had been in the creative world a lot – I went to Waldorf school. My studies were in environmental science and social anthropology. But I had always grown up in a creative world. It was a nice mix for me, not pre-destined but impulsive. I was gratified by what happened that actually my idealism does have a place. In San Francisco during the hippy movement the symbol of wearing the flower in the hair is that you have to go and find the others like you. It was the psychedelic movement and with the first Burn we found the others and a lot of people were doing amazing things. I was freaked out having finished environmental science – like the problems were so big that it kind of anaesthetised as to what we could do about it. But, you can actually catalyse change by inviting people to play. That was my intention. It is an interesting vehicle – a tool for change. Recently it has been interesting watching the trends. They have become well mapped. They were being reinvented all the time and becoming things and now they are well mapped and that is why we are turning a whole lot of stuff on its head next year to make people uncomfortable.

There were other founders not just me, Robert, Vincent etc.

I went to Waldorf so grew up with the bent in my mind that if people accessed their creative thinking and everyone realised that everyone is creative. There was always this separation for artists. It was a forced separation as with most separations. Some of the best surgeons or inventors were incredible creative people. That was my first thing. I felt that the more people who accessed their creativity the healthier the world would be. That was a bent in my family because my dad was forced to be a quantity surveyor but his passion was the theatre. He would come home every day and write for three hours and once or twice a year take off time to produce a play. His narrative in life was you have to follow your bliss . One of things I love about Afrika Burn is that it is a place of no judgement and everyone is an artist. There is no good art or bad art and that is why we don't use the word art very much we use creative projects – it moves it away from the high art thing. Every year when we get our registrations people write “I am not an artist, but …” One of my favourite stories is James the mining engineer who built this beautiful flame throwing organ on top of a washing machine. And that type of techy playfulness I love. He had a Bluetooth device in his pocket and every time someone would walk past it he would press the button and the thing would sing the national anthem and give you the fright of your life. Flaming, singing, washing machine – beautiful thing. But, he never ever thought of himself as an artist. They are accessing a different side of themselves plus the collaborative side: That is connective tissue. In systems thinking the more attached a thing is to itself – the more connected, the more healthy the system is. You attach more things to itself. Watching the collaborations that come out of Afrika Burn: Someone might go there and do an artwork on their own. They meet someone and start collaborating and the next year they do something together and things in town. So, the connective tissue is fucking incredible. And that is happening globally because there are all regional events. Burning Man was the original and then 15 to 20 years ago regional events started popping up. They are very surprised by Afrika Burn because we started without ever having a critical mass of people who had been to a Burn before. So, we were a complete outlier and we started with a bang with 1000 people. At the time there was one regional event in North America that had 1000 people. We are the second largest in the world! Now all the Americans are coming here. We call them time travellers because they want to experience Burning Man in the 90s. They are coming to us because we are smaller and rougher and a little more dangerous. They are quite shanghaied by ordinances and local laws. We are still fairly lawless which is quite comfortable for us.

Studying environmental science means I do all the environmental stuff at Afrika Burn. I do the town planning. Social anthropology is the best subject in the world in my opinion. I think it should be a standard subject in everyone's world. The discipline of studies is also important. You can't do an environmental science without having a piece of crusader in you because the narrative is trying to save the world. The anthropology side of stuff is there are a million different ways of doing things and being in the world and social interactions.

My thesis was on land reform and that relates to Gross National Happiness which is a very good example when you are trying to relate to a different way of being. Land is never just land – it is the layers of meaning which you slap on top of it. It is how to support your life, social interactions, where you burry people. We are contemplating moving from the site where we are at and I am a big proponent of that because we have found another piece of land. But I am utterly attached to the first piece. I remember every rock on that space and a lot of important historic alchemy happened in that space. In South Africa's land reform process as it has been now – they use such a shallow definition of land. It was taken away and in the interceding 90 years, such gross abuses have happened that restoring the relationship with the land is not just giving it back. People can't support their lives there anymore. They don't want to be farmers and that kind of stuff.

If we do buy the new land we are trying to work out a form of ownership and land tenure that makes provision for our history of dispossession and appropriation plus our current dispossession and disadvantage of the local people – because our mandate is to reinvent the word anew. Everything that we do we must try and reinvent the world anew.

There is a writer Richard Rohr and he talks about movements and how you go from man to movement to machine and then monument. Basically it is about how things can become to solidified and gelled. Basically my aim is to keep it a movement. If the right thing is not happening with Afrika Burn we must be brave and change it. If it's not doing its catalytic work … I certainly did not get involved for it to become a packaged unit to entertain people. That is not what it is there for. With celebs and all sorts of media attention and it is on everyone's bucket list it is turning a little weird. The only mandate we have is to keep it interesting to carry on inventing the world anew, to carry on inventing the Burn anew. It is funny, I do the town planning and people get all territorial about where their camps have been in the past. And now we are switching around the use of the town and that is a small thing to make people uncomfortable but it is an important thing to do – to continuously push the boundaries. We will switch features. The envelope will remain the same. There has been a sound zone and some quiet zones and places where we put the temple. It is really about the layer on top of the envelope – we are calling it the grand switcheroo !

Afrika Burn is an open source model. It is your town and you define it. That is also how we built the original team. To start thing put out your website and intentions. I did a lot of public speaking. I would show a movie called “Gifting it,” it shows the interpersonal connections between people. The charismatic art is great but it represents.

If you position yourself as idealistic you put yourself up for a lot of criticism. Whenever someone was very vociferous I would meet them and say if you want it like that you must make it like that and then they would jump in an become your most ardent supporters and definers of the culture. They identify their energy in you and then try and channel it. That is one of our challenges – keeping people critically involved and that they have to define the space and it is there as a catalyst for change.

The social change thing is the sculptures are not just sculptures – they are representations of communal efforts – of collaborations, inventions, lots of different strands coming together. We try to not get involved or mediate that. We do a certain level but the aim is to enable people groups and that kind of stuff. As it gets bigger you have to have rules and regulations which is a little tiring. The irony that the tap route is in anarchy and that you have to become an establishment sucks shit.

But it is about managing people and anarchy is not about no rules but about rules from the bottom up and very often people misread that but in terms of social change also the environmental side – when you live in the desert, and live on 5 liters of water a day you do become inventive. It is important lessons. Funnily enough we have been doing carbon audits and that is one of our biggest critics. But there is another analysis tool called Julies Bicycle which looks at the environmental advantage of people living condensed and away from home because you are camping and you are not running your millions of electronic devices at home. It is quiet at home and the noise is there. Also communal living. It comes in swings and roundabouts. As soon as we start getting too comfortable, we get sent a year of very harsh weather or something really difficult and that challenge is always good for the whole. We had such easy years in 2010 and 2011 and then in 2012 this storm from hell hit. It was beautiful to see massive sculptures failing and the whole community pulling in to pull the thing up. It was a really good moment. It is not meant to be easy. It is meant to be uncomfortable and that is the kernel of its catalytic effect. You come away feeling far more alive. That is why we are doing the monitoring and evaluation. I know these people have exercised being self organising groups in the desert. They are being playful, happy, irreverent, serious, whatever it is but they are collaborating. And then you see those collectives organising themselves back in town. “Lets fix the beautiful cul-de-sac in Muizenberg. People get together on the weekend.” Having a braai and talking politics doesn't have the same kudos anymore. You actually want to organise into doing little things and that I have seen a shit tonne of in the last 12 years and that is what keeps me involved.

There are these things called the Plug and Play camps which have started arising. The principle is radical self-reliance. You have to bring everything you need to survive or you use your collective to do it. Recently people have been having camps put up for them and then they pay a premium and then they plug in and play. And someone cleans up after them. For me that is the single that we are going tits up – so we have taken a hard line on that.

Also with foreigners coming in, there is always the excuse that they need stuff supplied. This year we had an insanely luxury camp. They had sushi flown in for them on a Thursday night, underpaid Malawians putting up their tents and making their beds. We have now made an anti plug & play policy. The question you have to ask yourself is are you paying anybody to do anything for you: It is quite difficult. People are noticing that it has so much purchase that they are trying to make money off the Burn. It is interesting to be in that fight. We are sending a lot of cease and desist letters to people who are aligning their branding with Afrika Burn and using our logo's. We are open source for people who are not trying to make money off of it.

At the Burn there is nothing to buy and nothing to sell. Everyone who comes to the event has to bring a gift or gifts. That can range with walking around with a spray bottle giving people a misting experience in the heat to a massive sculpture that costs R400k. Trays of cookies, foot massages and very often people mistake that for the barter economy. But, no you must give without any expectation of anything in return. In essence that widens the loop of exchange – it is not a direct transaction. One of out other principles is immediacy: that you are in the moment with someone else – not expecting anything in return. It is just unmediated. And that is where we can't do the money making thing. We make money out of ticket sales and that is for event costs. Our salaries and infrastructural needs. We go year on year like that and try and bring the ticket price down, because we are a community.

The entire site of Burning Man is 5 miles across and we are 1.4km across and about 800M in width. And then the open arts space is 500M in the middle. The town plan is in circles. The interior area is all for art and creative activations. And there is a street network behind where people camp and suburbs. And on the inside line there are theme camps with activated spaces created by people. And it can be anything from offering coffee to pancakes to music. People have been bringing bigger and bigger sound systems and it is just this noise bun-fight. So, what we are doing is limiting the amount of a certain size rig and we are going to cut it off and first come first served. We used to be open – what you must bring – bring. And we used to put all the loud shit there and the quiet stuff here. But, now we are swopping the loud and quiet zones around. There is a lot of territoriality around the quiet zones which are the best addresses in Tankwa Town. People are emotionally attached to them. But, the biggest camping area that we had was closest to the loud zone so basically no-one was getting any sleep. So now where the thinner camp is we will put the loud music and where the bulk of the camping is we will put the quiet zone. You have your yoga camps and the temple space, gentler live music and that kind of stuff. The other thing we are imposing is a general switch off with all sound off between 6AM and 11AM because listening to the silent desert is also part of it.

It has always been our intention to expand what happens in the desert to the default world. It has happened on the open source level. 3.5% of our takings we put to our outreach arm. We have outreach grants on an open source saying if anyone has a well-meaning social intervention – write it up and apply for a spark grant and we will give you money to actualise your project. Also we are having a town event. There is an event end of November called Streetopia – basically taking the model. Having never been a burner I asked why is it that people are so inspired and so full of joy here? In my opinion it is because your city infrastructure to creative project ratio is completely inverted compared to what it is in town. You have a town that it is utterly dominated by creative projects and it feels like a healthier space. Everyone is having the best time ever with funny whimsical interactions or just happy people. Also if you get up very early in the morning it feels like you are in Lilliput because everyone is smaller. All the kids get up early in the morning and they go running while all the parents are sleeping. All the sculptures look bigger because all the humans are smaller. It is gratifying to see that. Streetopia is taking a day to do the Afrika Burn experiment in town. We flood Obs with full on creativity. Sculptures all over the village Green, parades up and down the road and lots of lovely content going on. And we have a fund where we sponsor murals and art boxes so that artists can display their art on the street and the latest one is the streetlight project – my pet project – getting artist to create a beautiful street light which is resilient and can be on the street. Observatory will end up with all these beautiful art lights on the street which is a very positive art intervention which uplifts it.

Observatory has a high density of NGO's so we partner with all the NGO's and do ranger training. At Afrika Burn we have these community mediators called rangers. You don't have to go to Burn to learn that kind of mediation. We do moop swoops, we clean the roads up. Loaves and Fishes are people in the half way house moving people off the street. In fact our office manager Bongi used to live on the street outside the front door. She is great. For me it is reimagining our city spaces. We can do that shot we do in the desert over here. For everyone it is utopia, but you can bring it back here. It is a very nice day. And people love it. We close off the street and blast the street with creative projects. It makes for a healthier environment. Creative projects as an intervention. We are just not getting funding anymore from government. So, we are just bank-rolling it all. Venues and businesses are slow on the up take. They were all burnt by the Obs festival. That ended up really badly. They started shutting the place off and charging people to come in. At night it turned into a night fight and people were stabbed. It just got dark. They were not keen but we talked people into it. We shut it down at 6PM in the evening. It starts getting rowdy and then people must go off into the venue. All the venues organise their own little parties and we are starting to get more uptake from the shops in Obs. It is also the open source model so they must also generate content. Decorate your piece of pavement and slowly it is starting to happen. The bottle store is an early adopter. They get buskers in from Ocean View and they give them power and they sit on the pavement and play lovely music and then we got a whole lot of businesses that requested we extend down to the furthest end of lower main road and they are going to activate that with an afrobeat stage. We had to intervene a lot in the beginning and now it is generating its own content which is really cool – that is it working.

In essence, the principles guide the experiment that we do with AfrikaBurn, Streetopia is us trying elements of that experiment in Town. Transporting what we do out there back into the “default world” as it were. Seeing what happens. AfrikaBurn and so Streetopia provides a blank canvas and challenges people to put on it what they will, a gift….a piece  of art, a service, a performance, music, a tray of cookies, a massive sculpture. Which all makes up the whole; Turns out that that whole ends up being inspiring, at best, catalytic for people.

A note about the principles is that they were never pre-thought out, they arose out of a norm-questioning, prankster-ish, Cacophony society and Bohemian climate in San Francisco back in the day. They were just people doing lovely stuff until they were written down. And thats why burns seem to work well, because its kind of archetypal, we all want to play and create and be participants. When they asked Larry Harvey (Burning Man founder) to write them down he was reluctant, but then did, and came up with the ten. AfrikaBurn added the "Each One Teach One" principle. 

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