how i learned to love the playa and hate the game

There are a few things gnawing at me since my return from vacation. I’ve discovered I’ve got issues, and some of these issues also plague others.

Cynicism, overly critical thinking, and downright negativity overwhelmingly permeate society these days.

Conflict is the crux of drama; news organizations, bloggers, and advertisers are all responsible for taking drama’s foundation to create buzz. But, have we entered an era in which everyone is critical of everything?

Over the past eight years, I’ve been a curator and a producer. By nature, these roles require a keen eye and sharp critique. The audience demands it. The curator weeds out bad work and presents the cream of the crop.

Last week, I spent my time at the Burning Man Festival in Black Rock, NV. I went with expectations, and if there’s one thing I can encourage of festival newbies: don’t go with any expectations. I thought my mind would be blown at every step of the way, and though many times it was shaken, I found myself criticizing the art with an inner monologue that made me angry. I’d see a giant art car in the shape of a ship sailing across the dark desert, and I’d think, “Hmm…that’s all right, but you can see the wheels when you get up close.”


You seriously aren’t impressed?

This critical nature is a part of me, and I realized as I searched the playa for a coyote voiced by Johnny Cash what a closed minded snob I’ve become about art, performance and theatre. For years, I’d looked at art and wouldn’t even consider it if I’d seen it before. It had to be unique. It had to be earth shattering. It had to be the best thing I’d ever seen.

You know what? That doesn’t exist.

There is nothing new. It’s all a remix. Everything you’ve seen in the art world (whether it be performance, visual or music) has been done before. And, often, it’s been done better than what you’re creating or watching.

It took me the better part of the week to realize this great connection with my soon to be wife, my best friends and the art around me hung in a huge gap of my hyper-critical mind. I spent most of my time theorizing and judging rather than engaging and enjoying. This discovery dawned the day before I left the grand social experiment. I finally found my mind blown. The intense critical eye through which I saw the world became like a child’s, and I soaked up the sun, dust, lights, costumes, art and love completely. I didn’t know what I was experiencing, and I just cried. I apologized to my love and my friends, wishing I could go back to the beginning of the week and experience it all over again with this open heart.

Then, it was over.

It wasn’t until we returned to Brooklyn I discovered @jlbhart and @sparrowhall over on Twitter with this exchange:

@sparrowhall: Does anyone have a #transmedia perspective on Burning Man?

@jlbhart: @sparrowhall talk to @jdcarter, he’s there right now

I read Sparrow’s blog post and shook my head over its ignorant snarky tone. I saw myself in the writing. I realized it was this attitude I feared. The judgment. The elitism. The disconnect. I use to be an open and gregarious person, but these days I spend my time hoping to get the right jab in to get a giggle from some nameless, faceless Twitter follower or blog reader.

Who cares? Really?

I get it if someone doesn’t want to attend a festival like Burning Man because she or he doesn’t want to deal with dust, heat or separation from an iPhone for a week, but why disparage it? The festival didn’t do anything to you. Obviously, everyone is entitled to her or his own opinion; however, creating drama from nothing just to draw people to a news station, blog or Twitter feed is increasingly the norm. Why create drama when there is none?

Often, life is good. Still, people find reasons to destroy and detract – even in one’s own mind – before absorbing the complete experience.

These days, I’m aiming to maintain these fresh eyes opened at Burning Man and look at every aspect of life with love and hope. This isn’t some hippy bullshit programmed from the festival. It’s reviving a memory of how I saw the world before false conflict solidified cynicism in my soul.

I once heard, “If art makes you cry, laugh, dance or think, then there’s something to it. Explore it more.” Burning Man made me do all four. Now, life is, too.


In my previous post, I proclaimed I would write a poem for people I met at Burning Man. Another misunderstanding about how things work. The society is a gifting one, and gifts are more immediate and tangible (like sharing coffee, baked goods and misting strangers with spray bottles filled with water and essential oils). Also, I met few new people. Most of the time, I was with close friends. Still, I felt like sharing a little verse to sum up some of the experience. This is for them:

El Pulpo Mecanico breathes fire from
Golden tentacles.
Bikes kick up earth into
Haze of happy heat.
Banana bread, pop tarts and chocolate
Spin brains into joy.
Art work
Disintegrate to dust.
So long, playa.
See ya, pals.
Till we meet again in
Another phantasm spectacle
In the vast imagination
Of time.


  1. PunBandhu · November 10, 2011

    Great post, James. If its any consolation, I know many people far more detached and snobbish than you. Haha. I always think of you as one of the generous ones, and the fact that you had the self-awareness to change (or desire to change) speaks volumes. Would love a follow up post to hear how your new outlook’s workin’ out fer ya. Ultimately, I don’t think criticism is bad, but we also have to appreciate things more, to understand the intent and the time and artistry that went into creating a piece of art, to recognize the positives as often as we do the negatives. I found this post as a result of doing research on Burning Man! I wanna go! It’s scary (but also cool) that google results will return articles your friends have posted.

    • dumsumla · November 11, 2011

      Pun –

      First off – GO! I highly recommend. It’s an amazing occurrence of art, social experimentation, and self reliance (if you’re not in a mobile home). Honestly, it’s one of the easiest places to camp in a tent because there are no animals to get into your things and very few bugs. If there’s one thing I learned (other than what I detailed in the post), Burning Man will give you what you need. No one will let you die out there. People will support you.

      As far as criticism, I certainly don’t think it’s bad. The only way to grow as an artist is through constructive criticism. I just realized my inner critic wasn’t very constructive anymore. The voice wasn’t allowing me to fail because I wanted everything I presented to be “perfect.” Perfection is an artists’ foe, for it boxes the artist in to the point of non-creation.

      Since I wrote this, I’ve discovered myself writing almost daily, posting here a couple times a week, and looking at the positive in the plays or other art events I attend before shining a light onto the flaws. And, I’m discovering joy in what I do again. Sometimes, it’s difficult (old habits are hard to break), but when people like you encourage and suggest I might be “one of the generous ones” it’s easy to see this is the right path.

      Thanks for your comment, and I hope all’s going swell in your world. If you have any questions about Burning Man, feel free to email me. I’m happy to share more details.

  2. Keldon · April 28, 2012

    I had a similar experience my first year (2010) – a beautiful friend of mine had given me the best foreshadowing : “burning man will open you up”. I watched my analytical-critical mind go into overdrive trying to maintain my sense of propriety – then on Thursday (4 days into it) the dust, sun, art, music, and amazing people finally overcame my hastily piled sandbags and flooded in. Burning Man opened me up!! I’m really looking forward to this year!

    • dumsumla · April 30, 2012

      Thanks for sharing, Keldon. I, too, am looking forward to this year. Wondering what will happen, since most of my camp from last year didn’t get tix, but I’m sure it’ll all work out. It always does.

  3. Pingback: enter the burn – part deux | james carter

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