Why the Rich Love Burning Man

Burning Man became a festival that rich libertarians love because it never had a radical critique at its core.


In principle the annual Burning Man festival sounds a bit like a socialist utopia: bring thousands of people to an empty desert to create an alternative society. Ban money and advertisements and make it a gift economy. Encourage members to bring the necessary ingredients of this new world with them, according to their ability.

Introduce “radical inclusion,” “radical self-expression,” and “decommodification” as tenets, and designate the alternative society as a free space, where sex and gender boundaries are fluid and meant to be transgressed.

These ideas — the essence of Burning Man — are certainly appealing.

Yet capitalists also unironically love Burning Man, and to anyone who has followed the recent history of Burning Man, the idea that it is at all anticapitalist seems absurd: last year, a venture capitalist billionaire threw a $16,500-per-head party at the festival, his camp a hyper-exclusive affair replete with wristbands and models flown in to keep the guests company.

Burning Man is earning a reputation as a “networking event” among Silicon Valley techies, and tech magazines now send reporters to cover it. CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Larry Page of Alphabet are foaming fans, along with conservative anti-tax icon Grover Norquist and many writers of the libertarian (and Koch-funded) Reason magazine. Tesla CEO Elon Musk even went so far as to claim that Burning Man “is Silicon Valley.”

Radical Self-Expression

The weeklong Burning Man festival takes place once a year over Labor Day weekend in a remote alkali flat in northwestern Nevada. Two hours north of Reno, the inhospitable Black Rock Desert seems a poor place to create a temporary sixty-thousand-person city — and yet that’s entirely the point. On the desert playa, an alien world is created and then dismantled within the span of a month. The festival culminates with the deliberate burning of a symbolic effigy, the titular “man,” a wooden sculpture around a hundred feet tall.

Burning Man grew from unpretentious origins: a group of artists and hippies came together to burn an effigy at Baker Beach in San Francisco, and in 1990 set out to have the same festival in a place where the cops wouldn’t hassle them about unlicensed pyrotechnics. The search led them to the Black Rock Desert.

Burning Man is very much a descendent of the counterculture San Francisco of yesteryear, and possesses the same sort of libertine, nudity-positive spirit. Some of the early organizers of the festival professed particular admiration for the Situationists, the group of French leftists whose manifestos and graffitied slogans like “Never Work” became icons of the May 1968 upsurge in France.

Though the Situationists were always a bit ideologically opaque, one of their core beliefs was that cities had become oppressive slabs of consumption and labor, and needed to be reimagined as places of play and revolt. Hence, much of their art involved cutting up and reassembling maps, and consuming intoxicants while wandering about in Paris.

You can feel traces of the Situationists when walking through Black Rock City, Burning Man’s ephemeral village. Though Black Rock City resembles a city in some sense, with a circular dirt street grid oriented around the “man” sculpture, in another sense it is completely surreal: people walk half-naked in furs and glitter, art cars shaped like ships or dragons pump house music as they purr down the street.

Like a real city, Burning Man has bars, restaurants, clubs, and theaters, but they are all brought by participants because everyone is required to “bring something”:

The people who attend Burning Man are no mere “attendees,” but rather active participants in every sense of the word: they create the city, the interaction, the art, the performance and ultimately the “experience.” Participation is at the very core of Burning Man.

Participation sounds egalitarian, but it leads to some interesting contradictions. The most elaborate camps and spectacles tend to be brought by the rich because they have the time, the money, or both, to do so. Wealthier attendees often pay laborers to build and plan their own massive (and often exclusive) camps. If you scan San Francisco’s Craigslist in the month of August, you’ll start to see ads for part-time service labor gigs to plump the metaphorical pillows of wealthy Burners.

The rich also hire sherpas to guide them around the festival and wait on them at the camp. Some burners derogatorily refer to these rich person camps as “turnkey camps.

Silicon Valley’s adoration of Burning Man goes back a long way, and tech workers have always been fans of the festival. But it hasn’t always been the provenance of billionaires — in the early days, it was a free festival with a cluster of pitched tents, weird art, and explosives; but as the years went on, more exclusive, turnkey camps appeared and increased in step with the ticket price — which went from $35 in 1994 to $390 in 2015 (about sixteen times the rate of inflation).

Black Rock City has had its own FAA-licensed airport since 2000, and it’s been getting much busier. These days you can even get from San Carlos in Silicon Valley to the festival for $1500. In 2012, Mark Zuckerberg flew into Burning Man on a private helicopter, staying for just one day, to eat and serve artisanal grilled cheese sandwiches. From the New York Times:

“We used to have R.V.s and precooked meals,” said a man who attends Burning Man with a group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. (He asked not to be named so as not to jeopardize those relationships.) “Now, we have the craziest chefs in the world and people who build yurts for us that have beds and air-conditioning.” He added with a sense of amazement, “Yes, air-conditioning in the middle of the desert!”

The growing presence of the elite in Burning Man is not just noticed by outsiders — long-time attendees grumble that Burning Man has become “gentrified.” Commenting on the New York Times piece, burners express dismay at attendees who do no work. “Paying people to come and take care of you and build for you . . . and clean up after you . . . those people missed the point.”

Many Burners seethed after reading one woman’s first-person account of how she was exploited while working at the $17,000-per-head camp of venture capitalist Jim Tananbaum. In her account, she documented the many ways in which Tananbaum violated the principles of the festival, maintaining “VIP status” by making events and art cars private and flipping out on one of his hired artists.

Tananbaum’s workers were paid a flat $180 a day with no overtime, but the anonymous whistleblower attests that she and others worked fifteen- to twenty-hour days during the festival.

The emergent class divides of Burning Man attendees is borne out by data: the Burning Man census (yes, they have a census, just like a real nation-state) showed that from 2010 to 2014, the number of attendees who make more than $300,000 a year doubled from 1.4% to 2.7%. This number is especially significant given the outsize presence 1 percenters command at Burning Man.

In a just, democratic society, everyone has equal voice. At Burning Man everyone is invited to participate, but the people who have the most money decide what kind of society Burning Man will be — they commission artists of their choice and build to their own whims. They also determine how generous they are feeling, and whether to withhold money.

It might seem silly to quibble over the lack of democracy in the “governance” of Black Rock City. After all, why should we care whether Jeff Bezos has commissioned a giant metal unicorn or a giant metal pirate ship, or whether Tananbaum wants to spend $2 million on an air-conditioned camp? But the principles of these tech scions — that societies are created through charity, and that the true “world-builders” are the rich and privileged — don’t just play out in the Burning Man fantasy world. They carry over into the real world, often with less-than-positive results.

Remember when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg decided to help “fix” Newark’s public schools? In 2010, Zuckerberg — perhaps hoping to improve his image after his callous depiction in biopic The Social Network donated $100 million to Newark’s education system to overhaul Newark schools.

The money was directed as a part of then–Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s plan to remake the city into the “charter school capital of the nation,” bypassing public oversight through partnership with private philanthropists.

Traditionally, public education has been interwoven with the democratic process: in a given school district, the community elects the school board every few years. School boards then make public decisions and deliberations. Zuckerberg’s donation, and the project it was attached to, directly undermined this democratic process by promoting an agenda to privatize public schools, destroy local unions, disempower teachers, and put the reins of public education into the hands of technocrats and profiteers.

This might seem like an unrelated tangent — after all, Burning Man is supposed to be a fun, liberating world all its own. But it isn’t. The top-down, do what you want, radically express yourself and fuck everyone else worldview is precisely why Burning Man is so appealing to the Silicon Valley technocratic scions.

To these young tech workers — mostly white, mostly men — who flock to the festival, Burning Man reinforces and fosters the idea that they can remake the world without anyone else’s input. It’s a rabid libertarian fantasy. It fluffs their egos and tells them that they have the power and right to make society for all of us, to determine how things should be.

This is the dark heart of Burning Man, the reason that high-powered capitalists — and especially capitalist libertarians — love Burning Man so much. It heralds their ideal world: one where vague notions of participation replace real democracy, and the only form of taxation is self-imposed charity. Recall Whole Foods CEO John Mackey’s op-ed, in the wake of the Obamacare announcement, in which he proposed a healthcare system reliant on “voluntary, tax-deductible donations.”

This is the dream of libertarians and the 1 percent, and it reifies itself at Burning Man — the lower caste of Burners who want to partake in the festival are dependent on the whims and fantasies of the wealthy to create Black Rock City.

Burning Man foreshadows a future social model that is particularly appealing to the wealthy: a libertarian oligarchy, where people of all classes and identities coexist, yet social welfare and the commons exist solely on a charitable basis.

Of course, the wealthy can afford more, both in lodging and in what they “bring” to the table: so at Burning Man, those with more money, who can bring more in terms of participation, labor and charity, are celebrated more.

It is a society that we find ourselves moving closer towards the other 358 (non–Burning Man) days of the year: with a decaying social welfare state, more and more public amenities exist only as the result of the hyper-wealthy donating them. But when the commons are donated by the wealthy, rather than guaranteed by membership in society, the democratic component of civic society is vastly diminished and placed in the hands of the elite few who gained their wealth by using their influence to cut taxes and gut the social welfare state in the first place.

It’s much like how in my former home of Pittsburgh, the library system is named for Andrew Carnegie, who donated a portion of the initial funds. But the donated money was not earned by Carnegie; it trickled up from his workers’ backs, many of them suffering from overwork and illness caused by his steel factories’ pollution. The real social cost of charitable giving is the forgotten labor that builds it and the destructive effects that flow from it.

At Burning Man the 1 percenters — who have earned their money in the same way that Carnegie did so long ago — show up with an army of service laborers, yet they take the credit for what they’ve “brought.”

Burning Man’s tagline and central principle is radical self-expression:

Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.

The root of Burning Man’s degeneration may lie in the concept itself. Indeed, the idea of radical self-expression is, at least under the constraints of capitalism, a right-wing, Randian ideal, and could easily be the core motto of any of the large social media companies in Silicon Valley, who profit from people investing unpaid labor into cultivating their digital representations.

It is in their interest that we are as self-interested as possible, since the more we obsess over our digital identity, the more personal information of ours they can mine and sell. Little wonder that the founders of these companies have found their home on the playa.

It doesn’t seem like Burning Man can ever be salvaged, or taken back from the rich power-brokers who’ve come to adore it and now populate its board of directors. It became a festival that rich libertarians love because it never had a radical critique at its core; and, without any semblance of democracy, it could easily be controlled by those with influence, power, and wealth.

Burning Man will be remembered more as the model for Google CEO Larry Page’s dream of a libertarian state, than as the revolutionary Situationist space that it could have been.

As such, it is a cautionary tale for radicals and utopianists. When “freedom” and “inclusion” are disconnected from democracy, they often lead to elitism and reinforcement of the status quo.






The Moksha Tribe collective was organized in August of 2001, and we threw our first event, Aboriginal, in January of 2002. The last event occurred in 2008. The collective was comprised of like-minded souls, passionate about music and dance and the DIY ethic, and interested in unselfishly giving back to the EDM community and those in need in the Bay Area. We threw parties for love, not money, and all profits from our events after expenses were donated to worthy charities like Larkin Street Youth Center www.larkinstreetyouth.org/

Most EDM collectives arise, I believe, when some old friends decide over beers to throw a party. Moksha was somewhat unique: the formation of the tribe involved transforming virtual minds into a physical family. All of the original members came from sfraves, the hyperreal virtual community http://www.hyperreal.org.

Like many people on sfraves I spent lots of time bitching and complaining about dishonest promoters, poor but expensive parties, and the lack of any meaningful, transformative experiences at these events. Someone on the list wrote me and said: “If you’re so unhappy, why don’t you throw your own fuckin’ party?” He was right. After all these years in the music and dance community I had the experience and intuition to do something good for the community. I was just too damn lazy. I decided it was time for me to give something back to the community that had given me so much love and light over the years.

I put out a call to sfraves and to some specific individuals with whom I shared, in many cases, intellectual and spiritual affinities. Apparently there was much of the same frustration I felt out there, because nearly forty people volunteered to form a new collective to provide non-profit parties to the rave community. Of the forty, thirty became the core group that threw the first Aboriginal party. Some in the Moksha Tribe collective had no experience throwing parties; others had significant backgrounds in organizing party events. Many are DJs and producers.

The big challenge initially was to turn this virtual community of people who didn’t really know each other into a community of friends and even, in a non-physical sense, lovers — a genuine family. It has always been one of my firm beliefs that good parties are given by loving friends for friends. Moksha Tribe was really an experiment. I had never organized a collective based on primarily virtual relationships. But my communications with each of these volunteers led me to believe that we all shared some powerful beliefs about raving and true passion for music and dancing.

So we set about to build, really, an intentional community. For three months we had two or three meetings each month. The experienced trained the inexperienced, and we threw parties for each other. Most important, we developed some pretty intense, trusting and caring relationships. I could honestly say that before the first party I had real love and affection for these people. We had built a tribe.

We all agreed, and it is clearly stated in our goals, that we would throw non-profit parties with the intention of giving any profits after expenses to charity. The parties were to reflect the roots of our rave subculture by being thrown for love rather than profit. Moksha Tribe sought to create a genuine family vibe at these parties that is sensual, spiritual, loving and liberating. We welcomed and embraced the diversity of the music and dance community. Ultimately, we hoped to create a new paradigm for our subculture: we will put our raver values into action and give back to the whole of society by helping the needy. Moksha, by the way, means liberation and enlightenment — transcending the temporal and mortal world of ordinary experience. Moksha Tribe hoped to create temporary autonomous zones at our parties where guests can truly experience liberation and freedom in a caring, loving environment.

All Moksha Tribe members were volunteers. Our operating expenses, most of the equipment and supplies, and initial event expenses were either donated by members or funded internally. No members received any compensation from the collective, and individuals even pay for their party tickets.

Much love,

Apollo, founder of the Moksha Tribe collective




Apollo @ Catch 20-2 by Moksha Tribe

Post Capitalism


Jonathan Taplin on Jul 25

The British journalist Paul Mason published a provocative except from his new book Postcapitalism in the Guardian last week. His theory is that the sharing economy is ushering in a new age.

Postcapitalism is possible because of three major changes information technology has brought about in the past 25 years. First, it has reduced the need for work, blurred the edges between work and free time and loosened the relationship between work and wages. The coming wave of automation, currently stalled because our social infrastructure cannot bear the consequences, will hugely diminish the amount of work needed — not just to subsist but to provide a decent life for all.

Second, information is corroding the market’s ability to form prices correctly. That is because markets are based on scarcity while information is abundant. The system’s defence mechanism is to form monopolies — the giant tech companies — on a scale not seen in the past 200 years, yet they cannot last. By building business models and share valuations based on the capture and privatisation of all socially produced information, such firms are constructing a fragile corporate edifice at odds with the most basic need of humanity, which is to use ideas freely.

Third, we’re seeing the spontaneous rise of collaborative production: goods, services and organisations are appearing that no longer respond to the dictates of the market and the managerial hierarchy. The biggest information product in the world — Wikipedia — is made by volunteers for free, abolishing the encyclopedia business and depriving the advertising industry of an estimated $3bn a year in revenue.

Since the 1930’s when Lord Keynes worried about a future in which we would have so much leisure time that we might not be able to create enough poets to fill our evening hours. So of course I am skeptical as most of my friends are working longer hours than 10 years ago when their every waking hour wasn’t harried by smartphones chirping.

But I do believe that Mason’s point, about the potential of Open Source technology to break up the “fragile corporate edifice” constructed by the tech monopolies that I have written about, is real. Consider the edifice that was Microsoft’s Windows operating system in 1998 when the Justice Department brought its anti-trust action. Since that time two Open Source software systems, Linux and Apache have made huge inroads into the corporate and Web server business. Both systems were constructed by hundreds of thousands of man hours of free labor contributed by geeks interested in improving the software and sharing their improvements with a large community for free. So in that sense, Mason is right that this is a post capitalist construct.

But here is the current problem with the sharing economy. It tends towards a winner take all economy.

Whether Uber ends up buying Lyft is yet to be determined, but my guess is that market will look like markets dominated by AirBnb, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Google. As Susie Cagle recently pointed out:

While technology has provided underlying infrastructure to spark and support new peer-to-peer network behavior, it hasn’t really changed anything about how those networks are built and owned. For example, we now have the tools and ability to disrupt the taxi industry by allowing collectives of drivers to reach customers directly — but instead, we have Lyft and Uber, multibillion dollar companies that neither offer benefits to their drivers, nor truly give them the opportunity to run their own independent businesses.

Likewise, we have the tools and ability to build collectively owned messaging and social platforms — but instead, we have Twitter and Facebook, which mediate what users can see from other users and collect personal data to better tailor advertising sales.

My concerns relate to the media and entertainment industry that we study at the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab. And in that world the possibility of using the Open Source model to build a new kind of Digital Distribution Cooperative seems very possible.

Ask yourself this question: why should YouTube take 55% of the ad revenue from a Beyonce (or any other artist) video when all they provide is the platform?

They provide no production money, no marketing support and their ad engine runs lights out on algorithms.

Imagine in today’s music business a distribution cooperative that would run something like the coops that farmer’s use (think Sunkist for orange growers). Here is how they are described.

Many marketing cooperatives operate through “pooling.” The member delivers his product to the association, which pools it with products of like grade and quality delivered by other members. After doing whatever processing is necessary, the co-op sells the products at the best price it can get and returns to the members their share of total proceeds, less marketing expenses.

In our model (much like the early days of the United Artists film distribution company formed in the 1920’s by Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W.Griffith) the producers of music would upload their new tunes to the coop servers, do their own social marketing and probably end up getting back 85–90% of the revenues rather the 45% they get from YouTube. The coop could rent cloud space from Amazon Web Services just like Netflix and Spotify do.

All of this is possible because in the world of entertainment the artist is the brand. No one ever suggested to you, “let’s go to a Paramount movie tonight.” It is possible that we are entering a post capitalist age, but it cannot exist as long as the sharing economy is dominated by a few monopolists. Perhaps some bold experiments on the part of music artists could point the way towards a truly innovative way of using technology for the good of the artist rather than for her exploitation.


A new film version of Far from the Madding Crowd; Brian Wilson’s story inLove & Mercy

By Joanne Laurier
12 June 2015

Far from the Madding Crowd, directed by Thomas Vinterberg; screenplay by David Nicholls, based on the novel by Thomas Hardy

Far from the Madding Crowd is the latest screen adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s famed 1874 novel. Set in rural England, it is the story of a free-spirited young woman who attracts three suitors of diverse social and psychological make-up.

Directed by Danish-born Thomas Vinterberg, the movie is pleasant and straightforward, but with a flatness that reflects certain artistic problems: above all, a lack of urgency and historical concreteness.

The film begins in a bucolic setting of expansive green fields. (Hardy set his novels in Wessex, a fictional stand-in for his native Dorset in southwest England, where much of the new film was shot.) Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), a willful young woman meets local farmer Gabriel Oak (Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts), who almost immediately proposes marriage.

Far from the Madding Crowd

But Bathsheba does not want to be any man’s property: “I’m too independent for you.” This, despite the fact that Bathsheba is penniless and Gabriel has a sheep farm. (“I have 100 acres and 200 sheep.”) Soon after, their economic circumstances are reversed. Gabriel loses his herd and Bathsheba inherits a large farm from a deceased uncle. He now becomes her vassal.

Adjacent to Bathsheba’s property lies the farm belonging to the prosperous William Boldwood (Michael Sheen). In a rather irresponsible prank, she sends Boldwood, a lonely and taciturn man, a valentine inscribed with the words “Marry me.” The middle-aged bachelor becomes obsessed with his young neighbor, offering Bathsheba “shelter and comfort … If you will marry me out of guilt and pity, I don’t mind.” Later, highlighting one of the movie’s—and novel’s—themes, she muses: “It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.”

Having dispatched her second suitor, she falls madly in love with the reckless, pleasure-seeking gambler, Sergeant Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), whose plan to wed Bathsheba’s servant, Fanny Robin (Juno Temple), has come to naught due to a misunderstanding. When Troy marries Bathsheba, the union is from the start an unhappy one—the soldier treats his wife and her employees dreadfully—and is finally shipwrecked when a poverty-stricken Fanny dies in childbirth.

Overcome with grief and guilt, Troy plunges into the ocean and is presumed to have drowned. Years later, down on his luck, he reappears like Lazarus risen from the dead. Unable to bear the thought that Bathsheba will now be completely out of reach, Boldwood kills Troy, a desperate act that puts him behind bars for life. A much matured Bathsheba finds true love with Gabriel. Not only are they now economic equals, but having withstood various slings and arrows, they have become emotional partners.

Hardy ’s fourth novel takes its title from a line in Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751), about the dead lying peacefully in their graves. It appears that through the title Hardy was ironically countering the notion that rural folk led less dramatic, complicated lives than urban residents. The economic and social conflicts and contradictions, argues Hardy, are as acute in the countryside as in the city.

The novel concerns itself in particular with rigid Victorian morality and social roles. One historian, K.D.M. Snell, notes that Hardy, in his major novels, was attempting “to formulate the conditions in which affectionate and lasting relationships could take place … [H]is work persistently gives an embittered and bleak account of marriage and marital relations in its descriptions of what he termed the ‘false marriage.’” Bathsheba and Troy are a prime example of a marriage in which the two partners have hardly anything in common and know almost nothing about one another.

Far from the Madding Crowd

Class mobility, and upward mobility in particular, was another of Hardy’s concerns, rooted in his own personal circumstances. Hardy’s father was a stonemason and builder, and the family lacked the means to send Hardy to university. He remained acutely aware of class divisions and his own supposed social “inferiority,” as well as the fragility of an improved social standing, throughout his life.

In Far from the Madding Crowd , Gabriel makes the transition from landowner to wage laborer overnight. One minute he is comfortable enough to ask for Bathsheba’s hand; the next, he is turning his farm over to the creditors and becomes an itinera n t worker. Troy loves Fanny, but he is an opportunist and primarily desires Bathsheba’s wealth and position. When Bathsheba considers marrying Boldwood, who proposes to pay off Troy’s debts, it is as “a mere business compact.”

Hardy (1840-1928) wrote in his 1895 preface to the novel: “The change at the root of this has been the recent supplanting of the class of stationary cottagers, who carried on the local traditions and humours, by a population of more or less migratory labourers, which has led to a break of continuity in local history, more fatal than any other thing to the preservation of legend, folk-lore, close inter-social relations, and eccentric individualities. For these the indispensable conditions of existence are attachment to the soil of one particular spot by generation after generation.” This was a period of vast industrialization, urbanization and the decline of rural society, which Hardy sought to grapple with.

With his movie version of the novel, director Vinterberg (best known for The Celebration, 1998) has created a work that is fortunately some distance removed from the subjectivist and narcissistic Dogme 95 group, which he founded with fellow Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier, and some distance removed from Vinterberg’s own dreadful Dear Wendy, 2004, scripted by Trier.

His Far from the Madding Crowd is respectfully done and drenched in pretty images. But when landscape panoramas play such a dominant role, it is usually at the expense of thought-provoking content. In this case, the film’s default setting is an ahistorical feminism; and laden with a modernist sensibility, historical imagination is barely in play here.

Most of the work’s strengths lie in what the movie is not—it is not bombastic or toxic. It is not violent. It does not bore one with gratuitous sex, etc … Rather than a determined search to locate what’s universal in the novel through concrete historical treatment, the movie is essentially a series of personal relationships, with no particular historical or social significance.

Both Mulligan as Bathsheba and Schoenaerts as Gabriel spend an inordinate amount of time in gazing mode—the human equivalent of the film’s preoccupation with scenery—although one suspects the Belgian-born Schoenaerts is otherwise a fine actor. Sheen is always striking, but his Boldwood strains, no doubt because the actor must fill in too many blanks. Jessica Barden as Liddy—Bathsheba’s maid—is amusing and endearing in the film’s opening sequences, but recedes into the background for most of the movie. Sturridge as Troy barely makes a ripple.

In comparing Vinterberg’s interpretation with British director John Schlesinger’s well-known 1967 version of Far from the Madding Crowd, the most significant difference is that Schlesinger’s nearly three-hour film, although uneven and occasionally awkward, retains more of the novel than Vinterberg’s movie.

Graced with a remarkable cast—Julie Christie as Bathsheba, Alan Bates as Gabriel, Peter Finch as Boldwood and Troy marvelously performed by Terence Stamp—Schlesinger’s work does not tend to scrub away the novel’s tension-filled rough edges. And, unlike Vinterberg, Schlesinger attempts to maintain the humor of the lower rustic classes, an important element in Hardy’s classic, embodied by characters such as Matthew Moon and Joseph Poorgrass. Vinterberg comes close with Liddy, but is not really interested in concentrating on this social layer.

Also treated more effectively by Schlesinger is the pivotal, wrenching scene when Troy discovers Fanny and their child in a coffin in Bathsheba’s house. Horribly, Troy tells Bathsheba: “This woman [Fanny] is more to me, dead as she is, than you ever were, or are, or can be … I am not morally yours.” In the new movie, the scene is fairly brief and tepid, devoid of the requisite dramatic punch, much to the work’s overall detriment.

A great deal of effort and talent has been expended to make an agreeable and rather forgettable trifle.


Love & Mercy

Love & Mercy, directed by Bill Pohlad; screenplay by Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner, based on the life of Brian Wilson

[Reposted from our coverage of the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.]

I keep looking for a place to fit / Where I can speak my mind / I’ve been trying hard to find the people / That I won’t leave behind / They say I got brains / But they ain’t doing me no good / I wish they could,” Brian Wilson sings in “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” a song on The Beach Boys’ seminal album,Pet Sounds, released in 1966.

Love & Mercy

Wilson was, in fact, very much made for “these times,” as his remarkable music and the widespread popular response to it over the years so clearly demonstrate. However, he was definitely not made to conform to—or escape intact—the soul-crushing music industry in “these times.”

Attempting to tackle the pop genius’ complicated history, director Bill Pohlad’s biopic Love and Mercy divides Wilson’s life into two different phases: the early Beach Boys years, including the artist’s acute mental collapse, and the more recent decades when Wilson is rescued from the clutches of a Machiavellian psychiatrist by his future wife Melinda. The movie cuts back and forth between the two periods. The younger Brian is played by Paul Dano, while Wilson’s older self is played by John Cusack. Elizabeth Banks plays Melinda and Paul Giamatti is the manipulative Dr. Eugene Landy.

The film is at its most interesting and creative when it tries to dissect Wilson’s inner turmoil. The scenes featuring Dano are more intricate and convincing than those with Cusack, which tend to be rather conventional, even superficial. Unfortunately, Love and Mercy makes little effort to grapple with the postwar social climate and conditions in America that produced such an extraordinary figure. This helps account for the movie’s relative thinness.

To Pohlad’s credit, he does capture something of Wilson’s manic search for musical perfection. A segment in Love and Mercy corresponds to the statement Wilson has posted on his web site: “I would have the musicians keep playing over and over again till the sound made sense. I worked overtime on that; I worked hours to get it right. If the sound didn’t make any sense, then I wouldn’t know what to do—I’d be lost! It’s instinct that tells me. I have an instinct for music, or a feeling about it, and I’ll have my feelings guide my hands.”



How House Music Was Born

House Music Was Born

How a stolen piece of vinyl and a primitive drum machine inspired a young Chicago DJ to invent a new genre


by Jesse Saunders

The whole thing started with a drum machine.

In the summer of 1983, I was living in Chicago and DJing every Friday/Saturday night at one of the biggest clubs in town, The Playground, where I’d spin new wave, electronic hip-hop, disco, synth-pop and everything in between. The Playground was known for bringing together an eclectic mix of Chicagoans, people from all walks of life, and my job was to make everyone dance to equally eclectic music.

Around that time, I’d gotten my hands on a Roland TR-808, one of the first programmable drum machines, and it quickly became my pride and joy. I’d program tracks on my new toy and play them during my sets each weekend, using the club as my own private focus group. I’d watch and study as 1,500 high school and college kids moved their bodies to the upbeat, exotic sounds I’d been making.

I’d even mix and re-edit tracks right there on the turntables, using a synthesizer to add sounds. I’d add a new melody here, or experiment with different drum tracks there. Pushing the envelope with my sets and using the club as a space to explore new sounds — whether they were my own or new discoveries I made at the record store — became an integral part of my approach to DJing. It became my signature sound.

One day as I was perusing the new releases at Importes Etc, the local 12-inch store, an assistant manager name Frank Sells approached me in the aisles. As I sifted through crates of vinyl, he casually told me that people had been coming by to ask about a record I’d been playing during my sets. “Any idea what it is?” he asked.

I couldn’t figure out which track he was referring to, so he asked if I’d make a cassette recording of my set that weekend. The following week, we figured out that the track in question was one I’d made using my TR-808, which would later be titled “On & On,” itself a remake of a vinyl record that had been stolen from me a couple months prior.

Sells had an idea: “We could sell a shitload of these if you could get them pressed on vinyl.” I was shocked. While I always knew the record was great, the confluence of events that had led me to create my version of “On & On” has been so unlikely.

The original version, also titled “On & On,” had been introduced to me by my brother Wayne Williams, who was also a DJ and the inspiration for getting into the game. Wayne had bought a “bootleg” record (I don’t recall the title), a mix of various disco songs that pilfered the best aspects from different tunes and brought them together to create the ultimate disco record. The only crediting info on the record sleeve was “Remix by Mach.” Wayne used to play the A-side mix sometimes — a 15-minute-long pre-mixed version — to give us a bathroom break during our sets.

One day while sitting in my living room, I flipped the record over to check out the B-side and found a bootleg mashup. This song used the bassline from Player One’s “Space Invaders,” the “toot toot, heeeeey, beep beep” refrain from Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls,” and the horns from Lipps Inc’s “Funkytown.” It was called “On & On” and I knew right away that it was special. The first time I played it in a set, it created such a frenzy on the dancefloor that I immediately made it my signature record, using it as an intro every time I DJed. Looking back, it was probably the first mashup ever created.

Unfortunately — or fortunately, now that I have the privilege of hindsight — it was among a number of vinyl records stolen from the booth at The Playground. While I was devastated at the time, that record thief gave me all the inspiration I needed to create my own version.

I quickly found myself in my bedroom at 7234 South King Drive, piecing the elements of my prized record back together on a Tascam 4-track cassette recorder. I also began to see this as opportunity to take the original “On & On” and expand upon the things that made it great, fleshing it out into a more fully-formatted song. I banged out new drum programming on my TR-808; my songwriter buddy, Vince Lawrence, wrote the lyrics and the melody.

We wanted to properly evoke the feelings of unadulterated euphoria, the release associated with dancing and jacking your body in the club. House music, as we would come to know it, was a lot like my DJ sets had always been: defined by the drive to make people dance.

I even began to think about the new “On and On” as a pinnacle dance record, taking the four-on-the-floor beat of disco, the electronic thump of Kraftwerk, the popsynth impulses of Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer’s “I Need Love,” and arranging them into one expertly calibrated rush for the dancefloor.

I had an instinct that we might be onto something. I started playing this new version in all of my sets, and it became a massive hit.

 I sought out Vince to help hook me up with a pressing plant. A week later, I was holding the first 500 copies of my version of “On & On” which I promptly delivered to Importes Etc. Considering the high demand for the record before anyone had even known exactly what it was, the original sold out in a matter of days and and another 1000 copies were quickly manufactured. We distributed them to local stores and radio stations and the record began to gain traction.

And the rest, as they say, is history. A local radio station in Chicago played it, and the song took on a life of its own, spreading to other U.S. cities and to nightclubs across the world.

The influence of “On and On” has been far-reaching, both in terms of distance and time. It inspired a whole new sound, ultimately branded as Chicago House, and this new genre immediately informed recordings like “Move Your Body.” What we know as EDM today also owes much to “On and On” — both are essentially engineered for the dance floor.

Indeed, the story of “On and On” is the story of house music as we know it. It’s a story that continues to go on. And On. And On.

Illustrations by Thoka Maer
Photography by Jessica Chou | Grooming by Su Han/Dew Beauty Agency
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How Dancing Boosts Brain Cells and Lifelong Learning

There’s a hidden value to dancing.

Merely art? Recreation? Dance may be the Cinderella of education. About 400 studies related to interdisciplinary 21st-century neuroscience lead to the discovery that there is a hidden value to dance education for young and old alike.

Dance is a language of physical exercise that sparks new brain cells (neurogenesis) and their connections that are responsible for acquiring knowledge and thinking. Dancing makes some neurons nimble so that they readily wire into the neural network. Neural plasticity is the brain’s remarkable abil­ity to change through­out life. As a septuagenarian, I’m dancing: flamenco, belly dance, jazz, and salsa!

Dance stimulates the release of the brain-derived protein neurotropic factor that promotes the growth, maintenance and plasticity of neurons necessary for learning and memory. And dance is a means to help us improve mood and cope with stress that can motivate or interfere with learning. Influenced by body senses, environment and culture, the brain “choreographs” dance and more.

The mysterious brain, probably the most complex living system in the world, hides from our sight the wondrously complex operations that underlie the feat of dance. I was surprised to witness 6,800 people fill a room at a Society for Neuroscience annual meeting to hear renowned choreographer Mark Morris field questions about creativity and the process and production of dance. Although there are many secrets to unravel about the power of the brain and dance, advances in technology, such as brain scanning techniques/experiments of dancers, dance-makers, and dance-viewers, reveal to us that dance activity registers in regions of the brain responsible for cognition.

The brain is comprised of about 100 billion electrically active cells (neurons), each connected to approximately tens of thousands of its neighbors at perhaps 100 trillion synapses (the spaces between neurons where information transfers occur between the senders and receivers). These atoms of thought relay information through voltage spikes that convert into chemical signals to bridge the gap to other neurons. All thought, movement and sensation emanate from electrical impulses coursing through the brain’s interconnected neurons. When they fire together they connect and reconnect, and the connections between them grow stronger in impacting our perception, comprehension and different kinds of memory.

If a pattern is repeated, the associ­ated group of neurons fire together resulting in a new memory, its consolidation and ease of retrieving it. Neurons can improve intellect, memory and certain kinds of learning if they join the existing neural networks instead of rattling aimlessly around in the brain for a while before dying.

Scientists have turned to dancers creating, doing and watching, primarily not to improve dance teaching, learning and performance. Rather the researchers find dance is a rich and multifaceted source to try to understand how the brain coordinates the body to perform complex, precise movements that express emotion and convey meaning. Dancers possess an extraordinary skill set—coordination of limbs, posture, balance, gesture, facial expression, perception, and action in sequences that create meaning in time, space, and with effort. Learning a dance genre requires discipline, persistence, engagement, auditory sensibility, visual acuity, memory, and imagination. Studies explore how dancers’ brains can illuminate the relationship between experience and observation.

As a method of conveying ideas and emotions with or without recourse to sound, the language of dance draws upon similar places and education processes in the brain as verbal language. Dance feeds the brain in the process of communication. The brain does mind and consciousness, a state of mind with agency. Through dance, a person can learn about herself, including sexual, gender, ethnic, regional, national, and career identities.

We acquire knowledge and develop cognitively because dance bulks up the brain. Consequently, dance as an art in education is a good investment in well-being. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio points out, “Learning and creating memory are simply the process of chiseling, modeling, shaping, doing, and redoing our individual brain wiring diagrams.” The “brain that dances” is changed by it.

Brain research has given us many insights for dance and other kinds of education. Illustratively, we can apply what psycholinguists have found about learning a second or third verbal language to learning more than one nonverbal language—that is, another dance vocabulary (gesture and locomotion) and grammar (ways movements are put together), and meaning. Children who grow up multilingual have greater brain plasticity and multitask more easily. Learning a second or third language uses parts of the brain that knowing only one’s mother tongue doesn’t. Students who learn more than one dance language not only are giving their brains and bodies a workout, they are also increasing their resources for creative dance-making.

A goal in teaching is to enhance procedural learning; that is, how to do something. In traditional approaches (blocked), the learner is encouraged to focus on mastering a particular dance movement before moving on to new problems. By comparison, varied practice (interleaving) that includes frequent changes of task so that the performer is constantly confronting novel components of the to-be-learned information is more effective. If dance education has such brain-enhancing potential to promote cognitive growth, how can it be offered?  Multiple venues range from arts magnet schools and academies to dance in regular schools K–12 and universities, studios, and community and recreation centers.

Venues may have their own dance faculty. Performing arts organizations, nonprofit operations and dance companies offer dance education, often as partners with academic schools. Illustrative dance programs, some established in the last century but continuing to develop, show how dance education promotes skills for academe, citizenship, and the workplace. Obviously curricula and assessment vary. Dance may be a distinct per­forming art discipline with in-depth sequential exploration of a coherent body of knowledge guided by highly qualified dance teachers. Dance may also be a liberal art, complementary to or part of another subject. Brief introductions to dance may fill gaps in school curricula. Historical serendipity, leadership, teacher interest, parent involvement, and economic resources affect how youngsters experience dance.

Society privileges mental capacity—mind over matter and emotion. Talking, writing and numbers are the media of knowledge. However, we now know that dance is a language, brain-driven art, and also a creative knowledge base for learning subjects other than dance. In short, dance is a way of thinking, translating, interpreting, communicating, feeling, moving, and creat­ing. As multimedia communication that generates new brain cells and their connections, dance at any age enriches our cognitive, emotional, and physical development beyond dance to most facets of life.

Judith Lynne Hanna is author of “Dancing to Learn: The Brain’s Cognition, Emotion, and Movement” (2015). She is a former California-certified social studies and English teacher who has taught dance. Learn more at www.judithhanna.com.