Falling through the Looking Glass (a dream about Burning Man and the creative process)

Self-portrait in Infinity Box (N0. 3), from the Awakened Vision series, 2012 by Matt Elson photographed at the Fractal Nation Art Gallery, Burning Man 2012

text and photos copyright Jonathan Zap, 2012

At about 330am (see Predawn Window Zone), just before awakening to resume work on my fantasy epic, Parallel Journeys, I had a dream about relating to the creative muse that used imagery and art from Burning Man. I am talking to Matt Elson who created these wonderful mirror boxes that were on display at the Fractal Nation art gallery dome.

Matt is only vaguely present (essentially I am talking to myself). We are out in the blazing sun looking at a mirror box sitting on the playa. It is long and rectangular and apparently completely sealed to keep out the elements. I tell him that this is too egoistic and that the mirror box should be open to the elements and have portals so that insects could enter it. The mirror box is reconceived so that it now has an open corridor.

Smash cut to next dream scene—

I am biking along the edge of a desert canyon that has steeply slopping sides descending about a hundred feet to a wide river. The sides are made of earth, rather than sheer rock, and there are occasional piñon trees growing out. My bike is heavily laden with stuff. I’m taking in the view, when the top-heavy bike, and I with it, slip and in slow motion fall into the canyon. In the last moment I have slid to the bottom of the canyon and am losing my grip trying to hold on to tree roots and rocks and am about to get swept into the current of the river.

As I interpret the dream, to really engage the creative process you cannot merely look through a sealed looking glass into an alternate reality, you must fall through the looking glass and allow yourself to be swept along by the current. Riding at the edge of the canyon, I am like a tourist having a “Kodak moment.” I act as if I am looking at a picture, but a moment later I slip and find that no, I am in the picture and about to be immersed perilously into its swift current.

Parallel Journeys, more than anything else I work on, has to be like that. It is not just the characters who fall through the looking glass, but me as well. It is highly experimental writing and I don’t know, and I’m not supposed to know, where it’s going. Novelist E.L. Doctorow, who was my mentor at the NYU creative writing program years ago, once compared this sort of fiction writing to driving fast at night with your headlights. You can see only what’s just up ahead.

The creative process means allowing the boundary between subject and object to collapse. When I was doing my first shift of “vibe patrol” in the Fractal Nation art gallery, I saw that people were touching the mirror boxes and sticking their heads right into them which was smearing the mirrors. I found myself busily asking people not to touch the artwork, but it seemed hopeless, the mirror boxes seemed to draw people into them physically and cognitively. In a little while Matt came by and told me that I didn’t need to keep people from touching them, that actually they were specifically made for people to stick their heads into them.

Tubular Vision, Infinity Box (N0. 4), from the Awakened Vision series, 2012 by Matt Elson photographed at the Fractal Nation Art Gallery, Burning Man 2012

What people see when they stick their heads into the mirror boxes is different than what anyone else has ever seen in the mirror boxes. Much of what they see are optically distorted versions of themselves. Art of any sort, including fantasy novels, is like this. No two people hear a song or see a painting the same way. If you write a fantasy novel, you are giving people a screenplay, and they will film it in their minds in ways the author can’t anticipate or control. The consumers of the art, not merely the artists, are subjects. As percipients, they warp and mutate the art as they stick their heads into it. But art is not merely object either. It too is a kind of subject with its own intentions, and it is entitled to warp the perception of those who stick their heads into it.

Theme camp entrance, Burning Man 2012

The dream begins at Burning Man, which is an artistic, quasi temporary autonomous zone where subjects and objects collapse boundaries. For example, an art car is not merely an object you look at like an object d’art behind glass in a museum, but something that may draw you into it and carry you across the technicolor desert.

Burning Man 2012, dinosaur skeleton art car in the distance

It may also be something that you conceive of and make to share with others. Those who go to Burning Man as tourists miss the point. You haven’t really experienced Burning Man unless you are willing to fall through the looking glass and get swept into the swiftly moving currents of the high desert night.

As artist, or as engaged percipient of art, the subject/object boundary must collapse, and you must fall through the looking glass.

A live, collaborative mural being painted at Burning Man, 2012


Tyler Freele painting at Area 51, Burning Man 2012


(more photos coming soon)

For more on the creative process see The Path of the Numinous—Living and Working with the Creative Muse

For more on Burning Man see Incendiary Person in the High Desert Carnival

One morning, under the Fractal Nation parachute tent, I wrote an little amateurish poem in rhyming couplets (but few other metrical considerations,  I’m not a poet) about Burning Man:

Self-portrait under the Fractal Nation parachute tent. Matt Elson is lying in the foreground. His son, Matt Elson is siting up.

Harlequin, Harlequin Burning Bright

Harlequin, Harlequin burning bright,
Following techno currents in the night.

Did you ever find your heart’s desire?
Or did it burn up with the Man, atop a 60,000 person pyre?

What strange currents drove you through the pyrotechnic haze?
Was it merely the same old same old same old golden oldie craze?

Was it merely sex, drugs and rock n’ roll?
Faux fur and steampunk goggles adorning the same old troll?

Or was it an urge toward new provisions?
An urge to see the desert night enchanted with nocturnal visions?

What was it about the desert carnival invitation that made me feel I must?
What was it that I saw shimmering and sparkling in the dust?

a pair of desiccated desert flamingos lying in the playa dust


About eleven months before I had the above dream, I had another dream that involved optics and subject/object collapse. It concerns a key paradox of creativity—the deeper in you go, the further out you often reach. I wrote about this dream in The Path of the Numinous—Living and Working with the Creative Muse. Here is the excerpt:

July 27, 2011 Early this morning I had an interesting dream related to the muse.  In a somewhat chaotic situation where anomalous, almost apocalyptic weather is occurring, I am working on a performance art piece. The art piece involves viewers looking down a shaft, partly created by optical illusions, at a person sitting at a table far below. The person at the table is in a state of subterranean isolation and I think of naming the performance art piece after the Dostoevsky novella, Man from Underground. As I play with the optical illusions necessary to create the perception of the long shaft I am in a subject/object reversal state as I experience myself as both the viewer and as the man from underground sitting at a table at the bottom of the shaft.

Many aspects of this dream relate it to the creative muse. Beside the obvious, that it involves a performance art piece, there is also the connection to the novella Man from Underground that has already been discussed in this essay—the encounter with the muse in the form of a voice from a clock radio in the middle of the night when I was fourteen. When I was designing the performance piece in the dream, I was well aware of my artistic intent. I was trying to make a statement that the artist must be a man from underground, must accept subterranean isolation in the depths, but that, paradoxically, from this intense isolation the artist can create things of universal import and of great interest to others. In the dream I am in the classic position of the artist as both performer and observer and am aware that I am creating optical illusions, that what seems like a shaft revealing a person in deep isolation is also a projection, a creative intrusion into the outer world of an artistic statement. For example, if we envision Dostoevsky alone in his garret writing Man from Underground in isolation at night, pages and pen illuminated by the flickering light of a kerosene lamp, it’s like looking down a shaft, seeing a person in the depths of isolated creation. But then if we shift our focus to view the present readers of Dostoevsky, we see, for example,  young college students, 130 years after Dostoevsky’s death holding battered paper back copies of Notes from Underground and reading them with rapt attention. Our expanded view reveals that what looked like a shaft descending into total isolation was actually more like a light house, a beam of light, a telepathic artifact made in the 19th Century that is still glowing in the minds of myriad people in the 21st Century. If we can hold these two views in our minds we see the paradox of creation—that what seems like an isolated tunneling into the depths of our being can also be a telepathic broadcast into the minds of others, a broadcast that can transcend our life span. The optical illusion of isolation when we tunnel inward has never been more illusory than in the internet era.

I woke up before dawn this morning to write about a dream I just had. If you were to project a shaft of remote viewing into the ceiling of my room right now you would see the 21st Century equivalent of the 19th Century garret, an obsessed looking middle-aged guy leaning forward in his chair, shaved head illuminated by a computer monitor, listening to Pink Floyd Echoes and typing on a wireless keyboard. Another image of man underground, working in total isolation. But then, with a few mouse clicks, I post what I’ve written to my website and send it out as a newsletter to a thousand subscribers. From the bottom of the shaft a beacon of zeros and ones has shot out at near light speed and a thousand emails are appearing in email accounts to people who are mostly in other time zones. My predawn is evening for a subscriber in Australia opening the email and reading what I just wrote. The old art form of writing melds with cybertech to create a telepathy as the Australian scans what a few seconds ago were my private thoughts. If you expand your remote view to include all readers and subscribers, and this would have to include you reading this right now, you see that what seemed this solitary ritual is actually a mass telepathic event, one psyche interfacing, time displaced, with many others. All art is the exteriorized artifacts of individual psyches. These exteriorizations, if they are done well, create parallel intrapsychic experiences in those who perceive the art. Thanks to the internet, this inward/outward telepathic paradox is now available to almost all of us.

The context of the dream reinforces this paradox. I hadn’t been thinking much about this essay, but Joe, a new friend, a young poet in a graduate writing program who lives in the same  building as I do, told me on the phone the previous evening that he was reading the Path of the Numinous, and listening to the podcast with great interest and wanted to talk to me about it. We arranged to meeting up the following evening. This social transaction happened just before I went to sleep. In the dream, I am in solitude creating this art piece that has an image of deep isolation, but the dream itself seemed to be seeded by a social transaction. Joe’s numinous interest in the essay, which I hadn’t been thinking about at all, seemed to inject vitality into the subject and catalyzed the dream. This social context adds a layer of parallel meaning. We create in what seems like the depth of solitude, but actually, as I discuss in a recent essay, Pushing the Envelope—Boundary Expansion into Novelty in Personal and Evolutionary Contexts, there are many social contexts to solitary creation. What we create in isolated depth can be broadcast into the collective and become a maximal case of our psyche interfacing with others. But another social aspect of creativity is revealed by the context of the dream. The numinous interests of other creative people can catalyze creative synergies. All human creativity has a social context.  If it were not for the influence of other artists and creative people we would not even be ourselves. For this reason it is very important that we creative people find community with other creative people so that we can tap into the serendipitous synergies that arise when minds on parallel wavelengths converge.

The dream also had some connections to the Singularity Archetype (see my book, Crossing the Event Horizon—The Singularity Archetype and Human Metamorphosis). Outside the building where I was creating the performance art piece,  there was anomalous weather that seemed almost apocalyptic, an inexplicable form of precipitation that seemed explosive. My response to the apocalyptic weather was to access the inward/outward telepathic paradox of art. This process is at the cutting edge of evolution, and Pushing the Envelope—Boundary Expansion into Novelty in Personal and Evolutionary Contexts expands this theme and is, I now realize, a sequel to this essay. Terence McKenna, my late colleague, when talking about what we should do during this critical phase of human evolution said, “Push the art pedal to the metal.”

Self-portrait wearing free dream interpretation sign at the border between Fractal Nation and Area 51, Burning Man 2012


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  1. Love this. Falling in….all the way in…is the way.

  2. I love your website. It is gorgeous. Thank you for it and for your oracle.

  3. I wish I had known you were out there. It has become a yearly ritual for me.
    This year was especially transformative. Look forward to telling you about it my friend.

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