Preface to readers that are not in the burn scene:
I started Töad Meädow because I wanted to give other people the sense of artistic freedom and empowerment that I first experienced upon joining the Burning Man community in 2004. A fire sculpture that I made in 2011 and have displayed at several regional Burning Man events occasionally gets banned at these events. Right now, an online hate mob has formed to assassinate my character and encourage yet more censorship. Amid the din of my haters’ melodramatic caterwauling, some people respectfully approach me in good faith and ask questions about the piece. The following essay is directed at them.
What was your intention when you made it?
My intention was to make something out of fire that looked fucking cool. My inspiration came from my love of extreme heavy metal bands, many of whom use upside-down crosses in their album art.
Here are some examples.
I also suspect that A-list death metal band, Behemoth, saw a picture of my untitled fire piece on the internet and then copied the design (with slight changes) for use in their stage décor.
7 years ago, while making it, I did have a passing thought of a resemblance to burning KKK crosses. In the metal scene, the upside down cross symbolizes a rejection of organized religion. Similarly, I figured if I wanted to interpret it in the context of the KKK and racism, it could mean a rejection of racism.
But this anti-racist message was sort of a free bonus meaning. My motivation for making it was that I wanted a death metal lawn ornament made out of fire.
Why do you keep bringing it to burns when you know it will upset people?
The better question is: why do I bring it if I know it will upset some people? We are a community made of individuals; we are not a hive mind.
The cross is a symbol.
Fire can be a symbol (or just intrinsically cool)
The fact that it’s upside-down is symbolic.
Each of those three things, and a combination of those three things will be interpreted differently by each viewer. Depending on one’s mental predispositions and sense of aesthetics, we’ll all see it in our own way.
I have heard multiple interpretations and enjoy learning about people’s lives when they express their own. Here is a sample of interpretations:
- A cross-pollination of burner art and death metal art (my initial interpretation)
- The Cross of Saint Peter
- A flaming pogo stick. (After it was first banned in 2011 for being anti-Christian, someone online called it a flaming pogo stick as a tongue-in-cheek way of mocking art censorship. The term caught on and spread from there. So now some people see a flaming pogo stick.)
- A Satanist girl told me “As I Satanist, I think it is beautiful.”
- A buddhist told me it reminds him of a Manjurshi sword (Sword of wisdom).
- Some people are indifferent and think it’s boring.
- Some people see racial hate speech
- Some see anti-racism
- I now see it as a statement against art censorship at burns
- Some people are baffled and incredulous that it was ever banned in the first place.
- Some people say, “Of course it should be banned.”
- I also see it as a useful tool for revealing what happens when you refuse to bend to an online hive mind (more on that tomorrow)
Obviously, there are countless ways to interpret it. None are right or wrong. But your interpretation is yours, not mine, and not anyone else’s. Own it, and own it as your own.
By banning untitled fire, you are asserting that your interpretation is the only one that counts and asserting primacy over others’ interpretations. Other people do not get the opportunity to form their own opinion. Because your opinion of an objectively subjective piece is the only correct one. Such hubris!
This is also the reason why, until now, I have been reluctant to tell my “intention” online. Because I want you to have the opportunity to see what you want to see without me polluting your interpretation with my own thoughts.
Question: Is this a community, period, the end? Or is this a community that uses censorship and banning to enforce the “correct” interpretation of art? If I have to use the tortured wailings of an online mob as a tool to get an answer to that question, then I will.
“But but but…Hate Speech!”
Some see hate speech. I don’t. The motorcycle club that owns the land where it was first banned saw an anti-Christian message, and ordered it shut off because some of them were religious Christians. I was sitting next to their leader in a golf cart when he ordered it to be censored, and he told me that I could continue to operate it if I turned it right-side up, which I refused to do.
Over the years, we have entertained many thousands of burners in theme camps that used untitled fire as decoration. Presumably, if you peered into their souls, the vast majority of those burners would be vehemently opposed to hate speech, and that is not what they saw, either.
Because some people see hate speech doesn’t mean that it is hate speech. It means that they see hate speech, when thousands of other people do not. Why is that?
What about the feelings of people of color? Have you asked any of them?
This question presumes that blacks and other people of color all think the same. You may be surprised to learn that they don’t.
At the conclusion of POrtal Burn, where it was banned, a black girl approached me privately and told me that the censorship bothered her so much that she planned to run for the Board of Directors to prevent it from happening again.
Another black girl I was partying with after the POrtal Burn censorship scoffed at the idea of hate speech and said, “I’m from Tennessee. These people have no idea what hate speech is.” And later in the night, when I was describing my (now realized) vision of a flaming photo frame as a “human-sized rectangle made out of fire to light pictures with” she interrupted me to joke, “So are you saying that you’re going to make a rectangle in the shape of a burning cross?”
At Constellation in 2017, people (primarily white females) occasionally approached me to ask this question, totally ignoring the black and other burners that were partying and socializing with us just a few yards away from them, as if they needed a white girl to interpret the art for them.
At Constellation 2018, I had 1 black lady approach and ask me about my intention in creating untitled fire. She said it bothered her and she shared some of her family history with me. I shared some stories of my own, we hugged, parted ways and partied together later that weekend.
So my answer to this question is that people of color are not that different from white people. Some of them like it; some don’t, and most don’t care one way or the other.
Other thoughts: online vs. real-life
I spent Thursday through Monday at Constellation, 2018 and had exactly two people express displeasure at untitled fire. One was the lady mentioned in the previous section. The other was a guy who confronted me, suggested that he would beat me up and then threatened to vandalize our art car.
A few days after the event, an online mob formed and directed their vicious hate towards me. I unplugged Facebook 3 days ago, and when I left, there were already several hundred comments from a handful of people calling me a Nazi, accusing me of cross burning, encouraging my suicide, and so on.
In real life, untitled fire is met with indifference, or support. Online, it is universally despised. Tomorrow, I will explain why that’s so.
What you can do
So far, the Constellation Board of Directors has bravely and steadfastly supported artistic expression at their event. But an online hate mob has mobilized a letter-writing campaign to ban the art, and to ban me personally. If you oppose art censorship at your burns, please write a short note in support of artistic freedom to firstname.lastname@example.org.
My personal art and photography creations can be found on