The Cambridge Light Parade

Last Sunday I attended the Cambridge Light Parade. I didn't know much about it in advance other than the title, so I wasn't really sure what sort of event it would turn out to be.

What it was was three trucks carrying four waving spotlights each, framing a short parade of:

As something to stand and watch, this was of course dismayingly short. I'd say it took them a little over a minute to pass by any given spot. This turned out to be a hidden asset, though. As the parade proceeded from Linear Park down Mass Ave , through Porter, Harvard, and Central Squares, the chain of recruited dancers grew as if the parade was the Pied Piper.

This is very important! That middle stratum, between player and spectator.

Burningman professes the creed, "No Spectators." It's a mantra--one the tickets, on the websites, on the lips of the Rangers. And in a spectacle culture, it's an important principle to remember. It's relative, though. Of course some people are Lamplighters, and others aren't, of course some people are in the Cirque de Flambe and others aren't.

The key insight though is that, in one sense, there are no spectators anywhere. To attend a performance is always to act on it, to participate through attendance. We have conventions that at the movie theater we act one way, at a baseball game another, and at a rock concert still another. And the presence of others behaving in that way is an inextricable part of the experience of those events.

TV has stolen that awareness from us by obscuring the feedback loop. We need it, though. Our guts need it. Ever wonder why TV has laughtracks and movies don't? Because we want that sense of engaging with an entertainment as a group.

That Burningman provides such things as the Lamplighters and the Cirque is great and cool and entertaining, rah rah. What's important is that it provides such a broad middle ground between the professional-quality diversions available and the passivity of the spectator. I live in fear of the time where the performaces at Burningman get so good and so slick that people start being reluctant to throw their own weirdness into the stewpot for fear of it being deemed inadquate or lame.

At one point in the parade, one woman emerged from the crowd, and, rather than joining the mass of us behind the band, twirled and swayed and stomped at the very front. A band member removed her elaboate headdress and passed it to the dancer, who put it on, and few a few minutes was the Parade Marshal, the Queen of Fools.

May 19, 2000

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