A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

Celebrating Local Creativity and Innovation: Independence, Freedom, Creativity—Maker and DIY Culture

Burning Man image above credit : Tom Varden.

For months New York has been navigating the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Now of course the Black Lives Matter movement has emerged and feels to me like the most important consciousness-raising moment in my lifetime. And it’s global.

We communicate globally and billions of people are online. There are many intense energy vectors encircling and blanketing our planet: climate change, military and police brutality, social and economic inequality, political and commercial maneuvering—to name a few. 

Viewing the Black Lives Matter movement as the tip of an iceberg belying repeated wrong turns taken by our species, we have the challenge of finding a new course. We cannot continue the historical cultural norms of servitude, prejudice, violence, and inequality. We just can’t.

As we face the task of examining our collective human history and capitalist patriarchy (Zillah Eisenstein) and what it has wrought; I want to believe there is a spark of hope in the up-surgence of the maker, DIY (Do It Yourself), and creative cultures. Below I share some of my own practices in this realm that I have used to free my mind from external influences.  Interestingly, the maker and DIY cultures are sizable in the underpinnings of the Burning Man (BM) community. Could this spark of hope circle back to this month’s Livelihood themes of independence, freedom, autonomy, and creativity? I hope so.

At the same time I cannot help but acknowledge the power of the mainstream, and it’s constant appropriation of words and terms that distract and delude us. We use phrases like “sustainable” and “green” and even “maker” as though they are new ideas to be proud of. As a bona fide inventor, I’ll stick my neck out to say this is not good enough. Where is the respect for the wisdom of the world’s Indigenous cultures who were clearly green, sustainable, intensely artistic, creative, and revered nature?  

We need to get real and drop the platitudes. Exorbitant screen usage, trivializing violence in video games and entertainment, and sedentary lifestyles are now cultural norms divorcing us from our empathic sensitivity, and our ability to take physical action.

At this point, I’ve been to Burning Man 11 of the past 13 years. There are many reasons I am a dedicated participant, and ardently support the community. Burners can be overzealous, I know, and It’s not perfect—but what is? It is so different from our accepted worldwide array of cities and countries organized by existing governments…I find myself telling people it’s not like going to another country. It’s like going to another planet, and I love it. If this is new material, a good place to look is BM’s 10 Principles and how they have guided the community’s growth. 

They are:

  1. Radical Inclusion 
  2. Gifting 
  3. Decommodification 
  4. Radical Self-reliance
  5. Radical Self-expression
  6. Communal Effort
  7. Civic Responsibility
  8. Leaving No Trace 
  9. Participation
  10. Immediacy

I include the 10 Principles without elaboration because these are important times. We need more awareness and we do not have the awareness of BM in New York like in California and the West Coast. 

Art and creativity are celebrated virtues for burners. Geographically speaking, many Washington DC burners are also trained social activists on the frontlines working for change.  Poke around the Burning Man website and online. A favorite introductory video I’d recommend is “Charlie Goes to Burning Man.” (Charlie’s 84 years young and a cancer survivor. It is 13 minutes long, be sure to see the last three minutes). 

I once sought insight from David Best, the BM artist renowned for his temples, and expected him to tell me something about design and architecture and spirit. I’ll never forget, he was covered in dust, worn out from days of work, and he took the time to speak with me. He replied the prerequisite for building a temple is to visit and embrace the people and communities experiencing the most suffering. As you feel and understand their pain, the inspiration for a temple will emerge.

Paul Widerman. Photo courtesy of Paul Widerman.

Generally speaking, we have to become more creative and holistic in our problem-solving abilities soon or we will be extinct. The stakes in this are big: We are literally fighting for the planet’s stability to support future generations, and our collective ability to live harmoniously with each other. This dawn of a New Era implores us to be our Best Human. Let’s see what can be gleaned from the cultures of DIY, makers, and artists. 

Below are two simple, real practices that can be done by anyone, that I have consciously done for years to grow and maintain my own creative connection. For me, they are tools that help me unhinge from the cultural machine and grip of the matrix. Stepping stones to a deeper sense of self:

Practice Number One: Get in touch with your physical body by engaging in real, and simple tasks. 

Sweep the floor, rake the leaves, do your dishes by hand. Split wood and stack it. In wrestling rooms I’ve been in, filled with champions, you find out everyone knows how to wash the mats. 

Pick any activity along those lines. Do it with consistency and focus to stay in the moment. Tend your garden, as they say.

This does three things. 

  1. It provides physical activity.  
  2. It’s practical for your daily existence.
  3. It allows your brain to clear, and you’ll receive new information that is not from your rational thinking mind. Like dreaming, but you are awake and conscious.

If you do this with consistency, you may find yourself solving problems that have plagued you, or coming up with new ideas. At the very least, your housemates will appreciate your effort to organize your domestic space. You may even score points with Marie Kondo. Seriously though, important results come from doing simple tasks. 

Imagine every company’s CEO, all political officials, the President—had in their job description the requirement to do the tasks of washing the dishes and sweeping the floor for 30 minutes each work day. Among other things, it would surely change their point of view regarding the people who do these tasks for them. Monks of every denomination seem to have figured this out. Let’s honor and encourage this for everyone.  

Practice Number Two: Learn to Repurpose Objects Consciously

A simple way to do this is to make friends with the “free exchange” section at your town’s landfill. Go there, look around, find objects that attract you. It breaks our conditioning as “consumers” and much more. Here are some of the benefits to cultivate this practice:

  1. When you have your eye out for a recyclable, you’ll soon notice there is rarely “a line to wait” to obtain it, and you’ll be amazed at how freeing this is. You are no longer “shopping”.  Objects you desire start coming to you in a new way.
  2. Then, there is exploration and synchronicity. You look for one thing, and then see another. You’ll see things in new ways due to the randomness of the process. This is a pathway to your creative mind—the way inventors and artists look at the world. And, it’s fun!
  3. There is “freedom” in this process from cultural conditioning. For example, I once had a hankering for a “low chair” to sit in front of our wood stove. Chair shopping didn’t appeal to me. One day the perfect chair appeared at the landfill. I took it home and promptly cut the legs down. I never would’ve gone to the store, bought a chair, and cut the legs down. The landfill gave me freedom.
  4. In this process the object of your desire is FREE. How weird, right? It’s free AND you start to access your own inner freedom to be more independent. Soon, you’ll be creating a space around you with the objects that speak to who you are. This is a small, but real way to break one link in the chains of capitalist thinking.
  5. Also, you can feel good about it. There is now one less object headed out to the Atlantic Ocean with only a remote and lengthy chance of becoming part of the ecosystem again.
  6. Courage. It may take some new found courage to bring home something you have found and make it your own. Not everyone is doing this.
Chair found at landfill. Photo courtesy of Paul Widerman.

These practices are pathways to a bigger part of yourself. They are simple and have been done in one form or another for thousands of years. 

If you do these activities with energy and reflection, you may find a new freedom and joy in yourself, and an increased sense of independence and creativity. And with great hope, your spark of creativity will burn brighter, shedding more light in a world that needs it.