Ever wonder what festivals will be like under the coming totalitarian regime? Now you don't have to guess. Gratitude Migration, a regional Burning Man event by New York promoters held on a New Jersey beach, has come out ahead of the pack in embracing police state technology. Guests were issued RFID-enabled wristbands at the gate, which they could load up with their credit cards in order to pay for food and $14 drinks (no BYOB allowed). A uniformed police officer searched attendees’ bags, performing not merely the security-theater eyeballing familiar to veteran festival attendees and meant to catch explosives, weapons and other egregious violations, but an intricate ballet of intrusiveness intended to sniff out the drugs that basically fuel such festivals. Many guests had their substances confiscated, though no arrests were made - at least, not publicly.
Burning Man itself is commerce-free - nothing can be purchased at the entire festival except $1 bags of ice. Gratitude, on the other hand, boasted a cluster of high-priced food trucks, several bars selling the aforementioned $14 drinks, and a sprawling bazaar at center camp with stands selling clothing, jewelry, art and accessories; every checkout counter was equipped with a chip reader, creating an airtight cashless controlled economy. Guests merely placed their wrists, palm down, on the chip readers and their accounts were debited. By normalizing this gesture, these wristbands served as an intermediate step towards full-on "mark of the beast" chip implants, the likes of which are already in use at a few trendy clubs in Madrid and Barcelona frequented by the rich and gullible. As festivalgoers become acclimatized to placing their wrists on chip readers to pay, subdermal implants begin to seem almost reasonable.
Why was Gratitude chosen to showcase this police state technology? Burning Man originated as an alternative lifestyle in the truest sense, an attempt to live off the grid using “radical self-reliance” and other virtues that have degenerated over the years into meaningless buzzwords. Now crawling with tech-bros and celebrities, Burning Man is a mockery of itself, and Gratitude is merely a logical extension of this devolution. Ticket prices nearly doubled from last year, though it was hard to tell where the money went - if anything, there were fewer attendees, fewer dance floors and a similar quantity of art installations. Security patrols did seem stepped up, and golf carts patrolled the beach lackadaisically warding off unauthorized boat landings; fences were higher and extended into the water to prevent intrepid interlopers attempting to swim their way in. One wonders how much of a profit the organizers took home.
Discussions with festivalgoers revealed relatively little concern about the privacy and civil liberties implications of RFID wristbands. “It’s convenient,” one guest opined, as if that excused whatever abuses could follow. Others groused that the chips didn’t even work half the time, rendering the rationale of ‘convenience’ moot. Some vendors quietly rebelled by accepting cash payments for their merchandise, eager to voice their concern with the intrusive technology when asked. But for the most part, the New York burner crowd could be counted upon to willingly swallow the totalitarian trappings of the festival, proving an ideal softening-up point for the introduction of the technologies into society at large. Festivals like Gratitude are trendsetters - where better to plant the seeds of the idea that “chipping” is not only OK but desirable? Burning Man has spawned countless trends as attendees return home fired up about their festival experience. Gratitude is an ideal dissemination point for acceptance of these technologies.
Burning Man doesn’t even issue wristbands and that event is spread over miles of inhospitable desert, where a guest who gets lost without adequate water supply could actually die. Gratitude takes place on a small, temperate beach in the middle of civilization. A guest couldn’t get into a life-threatening situation on festival grounds if they tried. Outside the beach is another matter. Keansburg is an economically depressed area that was hit hard by hurricane Sandy and never really recovered. A teenage girl was stabbed there a few days before the festival. One might conceivably argue that guests need protection from the locals, but one could also argue, far more logically, that security is already employed to keep the locals out and should a guest wander into town in search of reasonably-priced food or drinks, the presence of an RFID wristband could signal to a prospective mugger that the individual has money worth stealing and therefore makes a juicier target. As for rapists and murderers, an RFID tag isn’t going to discourage them from their potential crimes.
The Burning Man spirit is one of gifting, sharing, and cooperation, not one of exploitation and cashing in. Yes, this is New York and paying the rent is a major concern, but the financial goal of a party should be merely to pay for itself. This means adequate compensation for musicians, DJs, performers, bartenders, security and other staff, not lining the pockets of the promoters. Forcing guests to pay $14 for cocktails (and insulting their intelligence by claiming bringing their own alcohol was against New Jersey law) merely proved the point that the festival has become a cash cow for the promoters who took over this year from the event’s founder. Last year, a free pina colada stand was set up on the beach complete with blender, ice, rum, frozen fruit and juice. People bartended for their friends and a large number of guests cooled off in the Sunday morning heat without being charged a dime. There is no logical reason why this year’s organizers should have sought to prevent this from re-occurring.
Attendees were encouraged to arrive by boat, though they were instructed to register their craft on the event’s website. In order to control for the “piracy” factor, all toilets were stationed outside the security perimeter, forcing those well-meaning souls who truly believe in the “leave no trace” edict to make their presence known to security every time they wanted to take a leak. These measures didn’t stop infiltrators, as several reports surfaced of locals sneaking in, disrupting performances, harassing guests and otherwise making their discontent apparent. One person blocked a row of port-a-potties with his vehicle, stating his wish to disrupt the festival and telling guests they were not welcome in Keansburg. It’s hard to fault the locals for their resentment - the fences and security, not to mention the 24/7 pounding house music and the fact that attending the festival was economically out of reach for the majority of residents, created a definite Gaza Strip/occupying force vibe, with security guards swaggering up and down the perimeter while residents observed the party from the sliver of beach they had left to themselves. The town of Keansburg has welcomed the festival back two years in a row because of the economic stimulus it has brought to the area, but clearly not everyone is benefiting from the yearly invasion of privileged burners. In future years it might be wise to offer discounted tickets or day passes to locals (I do not know to what extent security and vendors are hired from the area, but if they aren’t already they should be). Gratitude will have to make peace with the locals if organizers don’t want hostilities to escalate, unless they plan on arming security guards next year and really ramping up the totalitarian flavor of the proceedings.
While I did have fun at the festival, mostly due to circumventing the police-state measures described above, Gratitude in a way made me ashamed to be a New Yorker, especially following as it was so closely on the heels of the decade-old Philly-run regional burn the Philadelphia Experiment. PEX uses wristbands, sure, and guests are required to sign waivers at the gate, but there are no bag checks, no RFID chips, no cash bars, and no security standing between campers and port-a-potties (no security at all, really, except for the rangers who volunteer in lieu of paying for their tickets); bringing one’s own alcohol and food is encouraged, and tickets cost $75 less. If Gratitude embodies the spirit of the New York burner community, it’s because it distills all the worst elements of the city and filters them through a pretentious, pseudo-spiritual Burning Man lens. High rent, over-policing, price gouging, monopolies, crass commercialism, pretension, preoccupation with appearances/surfaces, blatant classism, solipsism and so on - what exactly are we supposed to feel “gratitude” for?