Burning Man’s 2013 Theme = “Cargo Cult” | What Does It Mean?

Jesse Cassidy |
Pavilion design by Lewis Zaumeyer, illustration by Andrew Johnstone - Photo: burning man.com
Pavilion design by Lewis Zaumeyer, illustration by Andrew Johnstone – Photo: burning man.com

On Sunday evening in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, gates officially opened, kicking off the 2013 Burning Man event. And with the Man burning in less than 5 days, we thought we would explore this years art theme which plays an integral part in what Burning Man is. Every year Burning Man has a new and unique art theme in which the Man and subsequent art pieces are modeled after. Years past have included themes such as Rites of Passage, American Dream, and The Floating World. The 2013 burn will carry on this theme of eclectic and interesting themes with the introduction of Cargo Cult. Bringing together historical events with extraterrestrial beings, Cargo Cult will ask the questions, “who is John Frum, where is he from, and where on spaceship earth, are we all going?” Sure it sounds crazy, aliens and some dude named John Frum, however there is actually quite an interesting story behind it all.

Cargo Cult 2013, photo: burningman.com
Cargo Cult 2013, photo: burningman.com

In the 1940’s the industrialized world was at war, industry was booming having just come out of the worst economic collapse in history, and the less developed world was stagnating development as developed countries put all their resources toward the war effort. In the Pacific theatre during this time, American troops descended upon the Melanesian Islands as they worked their way toward Japan. When the Americans arrived the local population had never seen such creations, jeeps, food, wealth, and outside peoples. However the Americans stay was brief, and they soon moved on as they jumped from island to island across the Pacific, the islanders of Tanna however were not ready for there departure. A Cargo Cult, or a “movement encompassing a diverse range of practices and occurring in the wake of contact with the commercial networks of colonizing societies” begun. The John Frum Cult was the most widley reported cult, and centered around U.S. serviceman John Frum whom airlifted cargo and goods to the island beginning in the late 30’s. Members of the cult believed that Frum was a “spiritual entity who would provide the cargo to them in the future.”

Cargo Cults are religious practices of Melanesia, focused on obtaining cargo (material wealth) from the western world through magic, religious rituals and practices. Cargo Cult followers believe that their ancestors destined the cargo to them, but crafty western people unfairly took possession of it. – Vlad Sokhin

Ceremonial Cross of John Frum Cult
Ceremonial Cross of John Frum Cult

So there is the brief run down of what a Cargo Cult is, however some of you may be asking what this has to do, if anything, with Burning Man. Well it comes down to material goods, we are a nation, and a world of consumers, and in the process we accumulate a lot of stuff. The theme begs the question, why do we have so much stuff? And, what would extraterrestrials think if they came down to earth and saw the material way we live?

This Myth of Return is no less relevant today. To put this in a modern context, what if your electricity went dead and stayed that way — would you know how to make the current flow again? Can you fix your car if it breaks down, or build yourself a new one? Like the islanders, most of us are many steps removed from the Cargo that entirely shapes our lives. We don’t know how it’s made, where it’s made, or how it works; all we can do is look beyond the sky and pray for magic that will keep consumption flowing. – Burning Man

Cult member in uniform, Photo: Vlad Sokhin
Cult member in uniform, Photo: Vlad Sokhin

The theme this year is fun, interesting, and incorporates a little piece of history that many people are not familiar with. Will John Frum return? Will extraterrestrials visit? How will this theme influence the beautiful art that we all enjoy on the playa? All these questions can only be answered by one simple solution, go to Burning Man. The Man burns in less than 5 days, and who knows, maybe John Frum will descend upon the playa during the burn.

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4 thoughts on “Burning Man’s 2013 Theme = “Cargo Cult” | What Does It Mean?

  1. I just looked at my camcorder, and if you put a gun to my head
    I couldn’t tell you how it works?

    All I could say is “I reckon it’s magic.”

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