“Once a year, tens of thousands of participants gather in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert to create Black Rock City, dedicated to community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance. They depart one week later, having left no trace whatsoever.”
This is the Burning Man event, and it’s not a festival, and it’s not a party; it’s a performing art experience. It’s a temporary community that promotes radical self-expression and radical self-reliance.
It all began in 1986, on Baker Beach in San Francisco, when Larry Harvey and Jerry James built an eight foot wooden figure, and set fire to it to mark the Summer Solstice. A lady held the hand of the burning man, and this was baptised as the first ‘expression’ in reaction to the burn. That night, there was a crowd of 20 on the beach, but now there are 50,000 Burners who flock to the Nevada desert, every year.
But what are they flocking for? Burning Man isn’t your usual festival, with big acts booked to play on massive stages. In fact, it’s more of a city than a festival, wherein almost everything that happens is created entirely by its citizens, who are active participants in the event. What they are participating in is creating the sense of community they wish to generate, by acting in a certain way. It’s kind, but it’s also crazy.
A focal point of the city is the art. All burners can create their own art and either take it with them, or burn it when they leave. There have been some extraordinary constructions made by both artists and laymen alike. There is also a theme every year in order to “generate a society that connects each individual to his or her creative powers, to participation in community, to the larger realm of civic life,” according to Larry Harvey, the founder.
At Burning Man 2012, the theme is ‘Fertility 2.0’, and the regular temple establishment will be The Temple of Juno, constructed to serve as the “spiritual refuge where thousands gather to reflect and to mourn their loss.” Longtime Temple builder, artist David Best, will once again create the “emotional centrepiece” of Burning Man. He explains, “Juno was a Roman goddess who had many roles and epithets; among those that she held were as a fertility deity and overseer of childbirth, a protectress of women and the community, and a preserver of marriages. A fundraising campaign has started on Kickstarter to bring The Temple of Juno to Black Rock City this year.
You’ll want to reconsider taking substances – the Man is its own drug.
The art is definitely experimental, with installations such as Marco Cochrane’s Bliss Dance, a towering construction of illuminated metal, shaped like a dancing goddess, and the Heart Machine, which had 16 pillars, or “arteries” that emit 25 columns of fire when activated. Kate Raudenbush’s elegant, conceptual work Duel Nature from 2010 was a giant wooden piece of DNA to “show our shared humanity through our shared genetic bond,” says Crimson Rose, Chief Arts Director at Burning Man.
Creative expression includes everything from transport to children. Due to there being a transport ban within the city, the Burners get around the vast distances on customised bikes, and in fluorescent floating shafts on wheels, pedaled by mask-wearing kinky aliens. Indeed, someone who saw only a few snapshots might assume Burning Man is about getting wild in the desert whilst being practically naked. But behind the frivolity and excess, Burning Man is not a trance festival, indulging in sex and drugs. It encourages people to live by its “10 principles,” which include asking attendees to break down the wall between spectator and performer in an effort to reach their creative potential.
The 10 principles are the foundation of the Burning Man community. One of the most important is that the society is based on sharing, and gift giving, so there is no commerce; the only things you can buy in the main tent are coffee and ice. Last year, Krug Champagne made a fateful error and violated the principles with their elaborate champagne dinner, which not only promoted their own brand, but left a huge mess on the playa, which is otherwise, ‘left without a trace’. To show just how seriously the Burners take the principles, they took to the blogosphere: “Can’t we go anywhere without being bombarded by ads?” Burning Man alumni Cory Shaw told The Huffington Post, “Seriously, is no place safe?” But escaping the realities that come with an exponential growth of interest in the event from businesses and journalists is proving more of a challenge than ever for the organisers, even though they claim to “stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation of commodification. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.”
Perhaps one of the most interesting ideas that the principles promote is that of immediacy. Larry Harvey describes it as being, “in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers.” It seems a bit abstract. But the point is more about relying on immediate experience for creative potential rather than being dependent on anything else material for your survival.
Burners want to be remote, yet close. “You’re here to survive”, said Molly Steenson describing her own experience of the Man. “You bring enough food, water, and shelter because the elements of the new planet are harsh. You’re here to build a community that needs you and relies on you. What happens to your brain and body when exposed to 107 degree heat, moisture wicking off your body and dehydrating you within minutes? You know and watch yourself. You’ll want to reconsider drinking that alcohol (or taking those other substances) you brought with you — the mind-altering experience of Burning Man is its own drug.”
The principle of immediacy is respected most actively by the principle of ‘Leaving No Trace’, whereby the community is committed to leaving no physical trace of their activities whatsoever. Indeed, the Afterburn reports published after every event state the clean up operation details, which often take over 4 months. “We clean up after ourselves and endeavour, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them,” it states on their blog.
The endeavour to maintain the physical state of the desert ecologically, is just as important as sustaining the psychological state of the community.
“Burning Man must endure as a self-supporting enterprise that is capable of sustaining the lives of those who dedicate themselves to its work,” says Larry Harvey, which is why the Black Rock Arts Foundation was established to support interactive public art beyond the annual event. They organise and support projects all over the States, which have their foundations at the Burning Man event.
Taking the world they’ve built away with them has lead to mass emigration of the Burners. Colfax artist Jim Bowers says, “Burning Man’s started a movement, and all these regional events are starting to pop up, like Lunar Burn in Modoc County and Fire and Steel Festival. But there are small compromises at these festivals like food and drink vendors, so they give you an idea of what Burning Man is like, but it’s not the real thing.”
To that end, the organisation has 175 volunteer regional contacts in 19 countries across five continents. With the help of the regional contacts, 35 events have been authorised to call themselves official “regional burns,” Andie Grace, a spokeswoman for Black Rock City LLC, said. “They are a way for more people to experience Burning Man. The desert is not for everyone,” Grace said.
Indeed, it may not be for everyone, but many veterans are concerned about the rising popularity and spread of the community, for fear it will water down the ethos of civic responsibility achieving being through doing, rather than observing. Only 2011 and 2012 are the two years to have sold out since 1986. It’s estimated that 40% of this year’s ticket sales have been bought by newcomers to the event who are wealthy enough to bid extortionate prices of up to $5000 for a slice of the magic, whilst the normal ticket price has risen from $340 to $420 dollars this year. This has meant that veterans aren’t able to get their hands on tickets, and the event is now capped by the Nevada Federal Bureau at 50,000 people. In 2011, the event exceeded this capacity, jeopardising their chances of getting a five-year permit.
However, this hasn’t dampened spirits says Hank ‘Squirt’ Faymore, who is attending for his 15th year, this summer. “Inevitably, these events will grow every year with popularity, but as long as people adhere to the 10 principles, then the community remains the same. The principle of radical inclusion means we respect the stranger, so we have to open our doors somewhat.”
Squirt has a point. Whilst it’s always really irritating when somebody tells you ‘I can’t explain it, you just have to go and see for yourself’, but with Burning Man, it seems like that really is the point. It really is a combination of neon and benevolence that there isn’t an App for, a Youtube hit to like, or a Twitter community to follow. A bit like Woodstock, it only happened once, and you were either there, or you weren’t, but that’s the magic that makes the flock worth it.