Shut Up and Spectate!

Burners. We’re a proud and preachy lot. Admit it. Our occasional zeal often stems from the catchphrases that are impressed upon us during our virgin year. “No Spectators” is a particularly hollow sentiment that enthusiasts have been kicking around the dust like a taxidermy hedgehog. It has gone from a plucky encouragement of participation to the low-hanging fruit for burners who desperately need to be better than somebody.

Let’s take a look at this overworn battle cry and explore its relevancy.

No Spectators is not in the Ten Principles. There is the Participation principle, which includes “We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play.”

In the brief span of my Burning Man years, I’ve had some painful conversations with very self-satisfied attendees (especially newbies) explaining how spectating ruins the event. It’s like listening to teenagers on a bus talk tough about snitches. Or adults on Facebook complain about haters.

As far as I can tell, the primary targets of our righteous Burning brethren are usually a) people with cameras, or to a lesser extent b) people who are standing still.

We have this idea of a lecherous “tourist” snapping nudie photos to smuggle back to his dorm room, abduction van, country club, etc. I can agree that attendees with a rude fixation on anatomy are a drag. You should always ask before you a photograph or film a disrobed stranger.

But we all like to commemorate our exploits, right? What if photography or filmmaking is your art? You would think that it goes without saying that using a camera is not taboo in and of itself.

But of course, burners love to hammer flexible suggestions into dogma. Larry Harvey was quoted as saying:

“… photographers are sometimes harassed. And not necessarily because they’re being intrusive or violating someone’s personal boundaries, but simply because the use of a camera indicates to somebody that they’re a spectator. Sometimes I wish we’d never promoted the phrase, ‘No Spectators.’ Who are these people to say that these individuals aren’t participating? The fruit of a photographer’s work doesn’t appear until after the event when they produce images. They’re engaged in a creative pastime, it just isn’t immediately apparent…”

There’s also a peripheral tendency to brand anyone on the playa who is quiet, observant, shy, subdued or not radically-something. Can you imagine someone calling David Best a spectator if he didn’t want to do the cabbage patch dance for a grilled cheese sandwich?

Perhaps a true spectator just sits around without contributing art, labor or charm. Even then, you’d have to conduct an investigation with character witnesses, background checks, DNA samples…

The whole No Spectators notion, or at least the level to which we take it, begs the question “Are we expected to be interactive at every given opportunity?”

I think a fair amount of problems at Burning Man come from over-participation. People invite themselves into private areas, climb structures, break toys, interrupt conversations, disrupt performances and rituals, take and touch without asking, overcrowd, overdose, overreact, and literally party till they drop.

Pictured: your constant obligation

My point is that it wouldn’t kill some of us to chill out and just take in the ambiance. There are now over 60,000 of us, there’s a lot going on and we’re in the middle of the goddamn desert (I call it that lovingly). Sit down. Shut up. Drink some water. It’s still an art festival, right? Go contemplate a masterpiece. We got plenty. Try using your eyes, ears and brain. Your mouth, hands and ass could probably use a break. Maybe, just maybe, being a spectator every once in a while isn’t such a bad thing.


(Picture by Jim Lee. Yeah, it’s from Batman. Trademark of DC Comics and Warner Brothers. The other is from South Park. The one where Cartman and Cthulhu destroy Burning Man. It was hilarious. Trademark of Comedy Central, Trey Parker, Matt Stone, etc)