Wednesday, March 04, 2009

HOMO SUSTAINIBILIS

This past weekend, I had a revelation of sorts. It wasn't exactly out-of-the-blue. It was more a breaking over the horizon kind of revelation.

On Saturday, I dropped by the Burning Man offices where there was a conference-like gathering of about 150 folks all representing the various "regional" groups from around the country.

I went to see my friend Tom La Porte from Chicago, present to a break-out session on how arts organizations (or even art disorganizations) can better navigate the ins and outs of government bureaucracies, the permitting process, police and fire departments, etc.

Though I wasn't at the conference for very long beyond that session.. in the time that I was there, I was much impressed with the people and the issues being discussed.

Different folks spoke of the projects they had been working on; in some cases, for long periods of time; civic projects, community art centers, large free to the public events, etc. There was clearly a dedication and an altruism that came through in what they were talking about. I heard several references to the "10 Principles" behind the Burning Man project. Those would be Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-Reliance, Radical Self-Expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation and Immediacy.

What united the various speakers I heard was this; each person was speaking to the point of what it would take for them to succeed on their own terms. What they were there to do it seemed was simply to help each other to sustain their various collective visions.

What defines "sustainability?" That was the question I found myself asking.

And what I began to see more clearly was how an expanded definition of that term, "sustainability" - could apply across a much wider spectrum of disciplines and activities than I had heretofore imagined.

The key for me was in seeing sustainability not only as a process, but also as the organizing principle by which that process is generated. What I saw was how sustainability could stand as a new and more specific definition of "collaboration" - a word that I had long been familiar with and whose meaning I had by now long absorbed into my core - and perhaps taken for granted.

Sustainability could then be seen as a system-wide ability of several levels of collaboration components collectively striking an effective and economic balance among all those parts so as to enhance the competitive edge and influence of the larger system. Thus the system could better hold its own alongside less distributed but perhaps better "armed" systems in the subsequent scramble for resources and public mind-share.

We tend to think of political systems and economic systems in this way because of the great number of components and "collaborative" participants involved in their operations. But the same principle could apply to 'art' systems as well. Art, at least art that is created by more than one person is by it nature collaborative. We know that. What we are less inclined to see is art as a broad social movement, as a more public and even civic-minded pursuit.

In its persistent way, and by cleaving to those 10 Principles, particularly to those radical ones.. Inclusion, Self-Reliance and Self-Expression, a great many people who have been through the Burning Man experience, and might not otherwise have seen themselves as "artists," have now become responsible for initiating all sorts of actions and techniques that are essentially no different than any of those practiced by artists who practice in more traditional ways.

Much of our current popular "alternative" discussion centers around alternative "energy" initiatives; solar, wind, bio-diesel, greening, re-cycling. And that's as it should be.

What hasn't been so obvious (at least to me) is how the act of working on such bottom-up team projects, can over time help generate new "prosthetic" affordances usable by all members of the system that has spawned them. This is the lesson people learn working inside their "theme" camps building art collectively. Afterwards, they find themselves changed in subtle but lasting ways. In a way Burning Man is art school for those who never went to art school. And if you did go to art school, then Burning Man is church for ye of little faith, in that it teaches humility, and makes a virtue of generosity, group effort and personal responsibility

If we accept in the bi-(ped) centennial spirt of Darwin, the primacy of "evolution" to all that we do and are, then we can perhaps see how such collectivized activities can have a completely unpredictable side-effect, which might be to steadily transform individuals into collaborators; into better team players, and by so doing, to extend the range and reach of our previously disconnected and isolated selves into entirely new dimensions of possibility. And whereas before, we could only sustain such activity intermittently, now we suddenly find ourselves more and more feeling the inevitability of this direction.

In a sense, a great many people by virtue of their being exposed to such seriously alternative versions of reality, have by instinct begun to "mutate," if you will, in this new and most promising, positive direction.

If the various prophecies of the future that circle us each day mean anything, it just might be that they are a call to follow this path.. to work together locally in collaborative realization of deserving systems and by so doing, to erode the focus and direction of those consumptive, isolating, and selfish principles that have brought us to this historical and globally frightening turning point.

It has often been said that the path to spiritual awakening can only be taken individually. Perhaps something conversely could be said about art.. that the path to artistic awakening can only be taken collectively. And that the crossing of these two paths can only result in a third new thing.. a more evolutionarily awakened species of human.

At this point, the call seems clear, the alternatives few. We have little to lose and much to gain by giving our hearts and minds to such generous and creative purposes. Where, of where, shall we each begin?

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