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PRINT November 2003

HEAT OF THE MOMENT: THE ART AND CULTURE OF BURNING MAN

Mirroring the rise of indie culture’s techno-raves and the quasi-spiritualistic language of the ’90s digital revolution, Burning Man has evolved from a grassroots gathering on a San Francisco beach to an organized, annual congregation of some thirty thousand revelers in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Is Burning Man “over,” or is it just the beginning of some larger cultural realignment? With the festival at a crossroads, Daniel Pinchbeck—author of Breaking Open the Head, a study of shamanism and psychedelics, and a Burning Man veteran—argues that the event’s wildly idealistic underpinnings echo the utopian conceits of yesteryear and challenge the hegemony of the “official” art world.

Every August, thirty thousand hardy (or foolhardy) souls pack up food, sleeping bags, and tents, as well as PVC pipe, rebar, thrift-store costumes, blinking lights, mechanical gizmos, and enormous quantities of bottled water, and convoy out to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, which boasts one of the earth’s least hospitable climes. On the five square miles of flat alkaline playa reserved for the event, parched and gray and ringed by red-tinged mountains, there is not one native plant or insect, bird, or mammal. During the day, temperatures may surpass 110 degrees and at night sink to near freezing. Blinding dust storms may appear at any moment; rainstorms convert the entire playa to a mud cake; ferocious winds topple tents and shelters. This harsh locale might seem a strange destination for a hedonistic pilgrimage, yet the masses flock to it for the annual, ephemeral manifestation of Burning Man, a weeklong festival that is also, on many levels, a huge art event.

Once in the desert, the self-described “Burners” build a sprawling metropolis, Black Rock City. The construction and planning of the city—the originary gesture that establishes the container for the gathering—is itself considered a work of art by its organizers. Throughout the city and dotting the playa are sculptures and installations, some easy to find, some several miles away in unmarked territory, left for the intrepid to stumble upon. Last summer’s projects included the massive Temple of Gravity, five thirteen-thousand-pound chunks of granite suspended by tensile steel cords. Burners leaped atop the floating, swaying rocks and sat beneath them, tempting fate. Temple of Chance was a three-story structure formed of giant wooden playing cards. And of course there is the statue for which the festival is named: At the core of Black Rock City stands a fifty-foot-tall stylized stick figure. Placed high on a raised dais, on the lamp-lit processional avenue (the Black Rock equivalent of the Champs-Elysées), the “Man” is filled with explosives and fireworks. Its destruction, followed by the incineration of most of the art projects—while laser beams arc overhead and “fire dancers” pirouette, torches in hand, beneath the stellar umbrella of the night sky—is the festival’s feverish culmination.

Burning Man began modestly enough. In 1986, an unemployed landscape architect named Larry Harvey built an eight-foot statue of a man, brought it to Baker Beach in San Francisco, and set it afire. As he repeated this ritual in subsequent years, it became popular with the Cacophony Society, a Bay Area network of “culture jammers” and pranksters, leftovers from the posthippie, prepunk bohemia of the ’70s. By 1990 the event had grown too big for the beach. It relocated to the Black Rock Desert, which Harvey saw as an “enormous blank canvas.” The festival continued to grow while remaining true to its free-form, anarchic roots until 1996, when a man on a motorcycle fatally collided head-on with a van. The tragedy prompted increased scrutiny by government officials and provoked the Burning Man organizers themselves to impose more order on the proceedings: Guns were banned, and an urban plan for Black Rock City was instituted. As Burning Man gained in popularity with the dot-com crowd, some of the more anarchistic elements split the scene. (In 2000, I witnessed a parade of punks in Road Warrior–esque vehicles chanting at dot-commers, “Go back to your cubicles! Go back to your computers! Get out of our reality!”) Today, Burning Man still draws an impressive brain trust of engineers, scientists, and Silicon Valley CEOs. Indeed, the festival’s expansion parallels that of the Internet. It’s like the World Wide Web brought to life, an endlessly dispersive and distracting series of flesh-filled chat rooms with a trip-hop backbeat.

Clearly, Burning Man bears little resemblance to exhibitions such as Documenta or the Venice Biennale, where viewers tend to seek out and contemplate discrete aesthetic experiences. While a citizen of Black Rock City, you are also the work in process: To quote T.S. Eliot, you are “the music while the music lasts” or, in Rilke’s more emphatic formulation, “a resonant glass that shatters while it is ringing.” It seems almost a violation of the gathering’s spirit to isolate individual artists for attention: The purpose of the art is to delight and to inspire improbable interactions.

A central organizing principle of Burning Man is its theme camps, many of which have their own websites and infrastructures developed over years of participation in the festival. Composed of ravers or Microsoft code writers or underground artists or voyeuristic perverts, each theme camp—ranging from chaotic slackertowns to carefully planned environments—presents a unique vision, reflecting a particular community’s musical and aesthetic ideal and subcultural affiliations. Some camps have become elaborate enterprises with several hundred members and equipment stored in warehouses in nearby towns. The theme camps create public areas, chill spaces, or installations, and their artistry and attention to detail can be prodigious. One of my favorite camps last summer was Bollywood, featuring Goa trance music, wafts of incense, projections of Indian films, and a huge plaster statue of an elephant—Ganesh, god of gateways—covered in decorative patterns. At the entrance was a row of objects resembling Tibetan prayer wheels; when they were spun, sequences of images flashed repeatedly, featuring dancing Shivas and burlesques.

The official Burning Man organization, based in San Francisco and employing a full-time staff of ten, has become one of the largest givers of arts grants in the state of California, and it rewards audacity and extravagance of vision. One popular project is Dr. MegaVolt, a truck-mounted Tesla coil that channels visible lightning bolts through the body of a person wearing a special metal suit; it’s the undertaking of a camp formed by a onetime doctoral student in physics at Berkeley. Another camp sights precision lasers, north to south and east to west, directly through the Man—a technical feat requiring hundreds of man-hours of preparation to pull off. The organization also subsidizes the creation of massive “art cars,” sculptural vehicles that roam the desert by night, such as Draka the Dragon, which features two bars within its scaly iron hull and, of course, breathes fire.

Nobody would say that all of the art on the playa is good. In Black Rock City, however, “bad taste” is not denigrated—even failures can be recycled into future fabulosity. From Hello Kitty to Aztec temples, from fairy wings to Minimalism, the stylistic sampling of Burning Man, like the sampling of certain contemporary DJs, suggests a stance beyond aesthetic judgment. In this context, artworks become experiential tools, not final statements or museum pieces. When the work has been experienced, the object that catalyzed the experience can be liberated through its destruction. It doesn’t matter how much time, energy, and skill has been lavished on the object. The point is not to cling to that shell, that structure, but to evolve from it. If Burning Man is a cult, it is above all a cult of transformation.

One crucial aspect of Burning Man is that nothing is for sale (with the extremely appreciated exceptions of coffee, tea, and chai at the café). Everyone must arrive with food and supplies, entirely self-sufficient. Within the “city,” only a gift economy functions, and most people bring trinkets and tokens like handmade books, photos, and buttons to bestow on friendly strangers. The lack of commerce is intended to create a radical inversion of values, a fleeting freedom from mainstream mechanisms of promotion and merchandising. Indeed, the generosity-based economy of Burning Man also recalls assertions by figures from the Dalai Lama to Wilhelm Reich that society’s crises are tied to the ego structure of the West and its incessant demand for satiation and material gain. The implicit Burning Man answer is not to suppress the ego but to expose and liberate it. The celebrated Lacanian theorist Slavoj Žižek has exhorted his readers to “Enjoy your symptom!” At Burning Man, you find a city of freaks doing exactly that. The body, as expression of the self, is a limit to be explored, one expression of one’s symptom. Nakedness, body painting, bizarre costumes, patterns of piercings, and every form of extreme self-modification become commonplace sights after a few hours at the festival. What might have seemed like the individual’s interior darkness or neurosis while trapped in the mainstream culture’s “accelerated grimace” reveals itself as inner illumination and suppressed psychic energy in this other world.

With its utopian spirit and creative aims, Burning Man can be compared to a range of twentieth-century art movements, from Dada to the radical community of the Viennese Actionists. The festival’s expressive mode could be called post-Pop surrealist—last summer’s artworks included a giant urinal (a nod to Duchamp) and a chandelier so large it seemed to have fallen from a god’s banquet hall—but pushed to the point where irony cannibalizes itself and disappears, leaving a sincere and seamless merging of the profound and the profane. Occasionally, Burning Man achieves a shocking level of transcendent beauty. Each year, sculptor David Best builds an extraordinary sanctuary on the playa. In the summer of 2001, he constructed The Temple of Tears from balsamwood boards with cutout patterns, discarded by a factory that made dinosaur models for children. The temple was six stories high, and its intricate spires resembled the ancient Hindu centers of Bhaktapur. Best dedicated the structure to a friend who had committed suicide, and over the course of the week, Burners stopped to pray and weep for loved ones who had died. Thousands of memorials were written on the wood; some people created miniature shrines. The torching of the temple was a tremendously cathartic and moving event.

Of course, on another level, Burning Man is also a huge and raucous party. After a while, the festival’s emphasis on hedonism and overt displays of sexuality can seem like a hipster straitjacket and the overtones of New Age spirituality a gloss for a new type of vapid and self-congratulatory consumerism. On the other hand, some feel that Burning Man’s sheer size and popularity have attracted too many “straights” and lurkers, diminishing the participatory ideal espoused by the creators. While these criticisms are valid, the essential point of Burning Man is not what it is now but what it suggests for the future, which is not just a new cultural form but the possibility of a new way of being, a kind of radical openness toward experience that maintains responsibility for the community. Radical openness means no closure, perpetual process and transformation, and embracing paradox, contradiction, and uncomfortable states. Every instant becomes synchronistic, every contact a contact high.

Burning Man is now seeking to expand into new locales; and, somewhat ironically, the organization is looking at methods to franchise the event’s do-it-yourself inspiration. This may or may not work in the way the organizers imagine—time will tell. “Emergence” and “self-organization” are catchphrases of contemporary science, and the social organism of Burning Man resembles an emergent life form, proving itself able to adapt to threatening challenges whether from the government or marketplace. Personally, I admit that I see Burning Man as a model and a potential seedbed for a culture that, as it comes to self-consciousness, will supplant and replace the current moribund cultural system. This experience on the playa bears significant resemblance to the oldest human culture on the planet: that of the Australian Aboriginals, as described in Robert Lawlor’s Voices of the First Day: Awakening in the Aboriginal Dreamtime (1991). For the Aboriginals, in Lawlor’s account, every day is the first day, the origin point, and they perform rituals and songs in order to maintain the creation, which was dreamed into being by the Ancestors in the Dreamtime.

Lawlor writes: “No objective can be of greater significance for human survival than the recovery of the Dreaming. The Aboriginal way of life and the Aboriginal revelation hold the seeds for the rebirth of the Dreamtime in humanity.” Modern time is based on perpetual postponement and sublimation. Aboriginal time—Burning Man time—is pure presence and celebration. All of the structures and artifices of the modern world collude to keep us from remembering the unlimited potential of the Dreaming. For one week a year, under admittedly ridiculous circumstances, Burning Man reminds us that play, dream, and freedom are at the center of existence, manifestations of the only space-time we can ever experience, which is here and now.

Daniel Pinchbeck is the author of Breaking Open the Head (Broadway Books, 2002).