Burning Man - The Evolution of Radical Self-Expression
The Annual event known as Burning Man began over two decades ago with one man’s inauspicious ritualistic bonfire of a twelve foot wooden figure on a beach in San Francisco, and has subsequently become known worldwide as a radical experiment in art and culture which attracts thousands of devoted participants to one of the least hospitable locations on the planet - the utterly dead alkali flats of the Black Rock desert in Nevada. From the viewpoint of an outside observer, the expense, sacrifice and challenges faced by those who trek to this barren landscape must seem like destructive folly. Yet each year the event known as Burning Man grows, manifest in a self-organizing city in the desert that ranks as one of the largest in the state - a city that includes miles of roads, a US post office, several newspapers, health and safety utilities, more than a dozen radio stations, and more art, installations and performance per person than any other place on earth. Ask a hundred participants what Burning Man means and you’re likely to get a hundred different answers. To some people its an art festival; to others it’s a rave or an experiment in autonomous community. For many, it embodies a significance bordering on religion, while others see it only as a week-long free pass for hedonistic extravagance - a chance to be and act in ways forbidden by society.
How did this phenomenon grow, and why has it become a worldwide incubator for “radical self-expression” and interactive art? To understand the layered and multifaceted meaning of the event, one must look to Larry Harvey, the individual whose beach bonfire marks the beginning of the event, and who remains in many ways the face of Burning Man. Equal parts prophet, guide, and snake-oil salesman, Larry has been called a saint, a sinner, and most importantly - the most dangerous man in America.
During the summer solstice of 1986, Larry and a few friends built a wooden figure of a man, little more than a scarecrow really. They erected it on Baker Beach in San Francisco, and set it on fire. It was, as Larry called it, “ a spontaneous act of radical self-expression”. Many myths and rumors surround that first burn. Whose idea it was? Who was there? Was there a meaning in the fire? While consensus on all the details is unlikely, all seem to agree that out of this simple creative act grew a unique cultural phenomenon. The single most critical facet of the whole event, says Larry, “was that it was conducted in a public space, impetuously as a pure gesture”1 It wasn’t yet called by any specific name, but the gesture resonated with all involved. The first man had burned, and it was good.
Larry and a small crew fully committed to the ritual, and continued for several more years on Baker Beach. By 1998, the wooden man grew to nearly 40 feet tall. That year the ritual was interrupted by the police, who reluctantly agreed after some negotiation to allow the man to be burned, but only if he is lowered, sawed in to pieces and piled together for safety reasons. This undignified end inspired members of the San Francisco Cacophony Society to suggest moving the burn to a little used desert outside of Reno where they have been throwing outrageous events for years.
The Cacophony Society is “a randomly gathered network of free spirits united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society.”2 Emerging from under the same American shadows as Burning Man, the Cacophony Society began in the mid-eighties as a nebulous group of artists and edge-seekers committed to pushing the boundaries of public performance and art. Over the years, they have staged mock protests, turned a public railcar into a cabaret, produced citywide surrealist treasure hunts, as well as many more absurd and anarchistic happenings. They had been using the Black Rock Desert because it allowed for events and activities that were beyond even the boundaries of liberal San Francisco. It was at an established Cacophony tradition on the playa, the annual Zone Trip in 1990, that the man was first transported, erected and burned in that location. It is also around this time that the ritual takes on the moniker Burning Man - a name so basic, primal and direct, both neutral of and loaded with meaning that it’s impossible to imagine it called by any other.
As the event took root in the dead soil of the Black Rock Playa, it grew each year in size, scope and meaning. Yet the event, and the community that grew with it were still mostly wild, unstructured, and utterly free of influences, control and repression from the outside world. As Hakim Bey would refer to it, a TAZ was emerging. A TAZ, or Temporary Autonomous Zone, is the expression of cultural rebels pushing against the world of modern institutions and the control they exert. As implied by the name, these areas beyond society boarders are not intended to last - they are constructions of convenience, in which like-minded outsiders could live by their own rules.
The Sea-Rovers and Corsairs of the 18th century created an "information network" that spanned the globe: primitive and devoted primarily to grim business, the net nevertheless functioned admirably. Scattered throughout the net were islands, remote hideouts where ships could be watered and provisioned, booty traded for luxuries and necessities. Some of these islands supported "intentional communities," whole mini- societies living consciously outside the law and determined to keep it up, even if only for a short but merry life.
As with many facets of Burning Man, whether it has ever truly existed as a TAZ is subject to constant debate, although most agree that it’s current incarnation is a psudo-TAZ at best. A place where autonomy, anarchy and abandon are revered and celebrated within limits- and within sight of police, fire and federal agents. Even if many participants never reach them, law, order and regimented social structures nonetheless define the boundaries of the event. Truly astounding freedom of expression is still the core of the event and all that it represents, but to some, the compromise with the authorities over the 1990 Baker Beach burn marked the beginning of the end of any real TAZ, but the sense of freedom and liberation unlike any other on earth is still a significant motivating factor for those who attend.
Throughout the early 90’s, the event began to gain notoriety outside the small circle of friends who organized it and it’s annual population grew at a steady pace. It was still viewed primarily as a social event - the large scale artworks and installations had just begun to take root - although each year there was an increasing number of costumes, performances, and themed activities. The idea that everyone attending participate in some way was always an unspoken assumption, stemming from its early days as the Zone Party, but interaction and participation truly began solidifying as a social responsibility in response to the number of curiosity seekers and voyeurs that continued to arrive. In addition to the ethos of radical self expression was added the rally cry of “No Spectators”, the expectation that everyone is engaged in the event on some level, that nobody is there simply taking without in some way contributing. While installing art or performing are the most visible ways of contributing to the community, there are many other ways in which people can participate - Burning Man is a huge city, and it runs on volunteers.
Considering the near-total ban on economic transactions at the event, the idea of a gift economy is the foundation upon which the community now organizes itself, and is critical for it’s ability each year to rise seemingly out of nowhere, exist in glory for a week, and then quickly and efficiently vanish, leaving virtually no trace it was ever there. Without the mostly volunteer efforts of thousands of people, Burning Man could not exist, and certainly couldn’t continue to resist the forces of capitalist economies. Drawing upon traditional precedents of tribal cultures, the gift economy allows all involved with Burning Man to avoid the influences which so often stifle creative expression. Having origins in Potlatch rituals of Pacific Northwest Native Americans, a gift economy...
“ is an economic system in which the prevalent mode of exchange is for goods and services to be given without explicit agreement upon a quid pro quo. Typically, this occurs in a cultural context where there is an expectation either of reciprocation - in the form of goods or services of comparable value, or of political support, general loyalty, honor to the giver, etc. - or of the gift being passed on in some other manner”.
In contrast to commodity-based economies, Burning Man has always aimed to avoid the inevitable commercialization of it’s culture by encouraging the gifting of one’s art and labor, without expectation of fame, payment, or rewards associated with the outside world. It is the freedom from these expectations that allows for the unfettered expressions of creativity and sharing. Burning Man artists...
“ believe in the idea of gifting their art to the community and having it exist for a week for everyone’s pleasure and enjoyment, and not for the fact of putting it on their resume or selling it through a gallery. And there are artists (in BM) who do just that, they make art for a living year-round - and that's just fine, But the idea that art can be made for reasons other than for sale is a radical idea in our culture - because the art world is like all the other marketing worlds - its just products, sales and marketing. So we’ve taken it out of that context and focus on the self expression. And artists who are in that art market can take this one opportunity a year to make whatever the hell they want and put it out there without having to be consistent with their body of work, without having t to sell.
The watershed moment when Burning Man really began to crystalize as a art-oriented movement was 1996, the year Burning Man had its first defined theme: The Inferno. In response to growing pressure and tensions among the organizers and community over the future direction of the event, it was decided to revel in the dichotomy emerging among those who saw the event as a hippy be-in and those who wanted, as one Burner puts it, “to fuck, shoot cars, and burn stuff.”
Additionally, media attention had finally started to focus on Burning Man and it’s reputation for sex, drugs and general subversiveness, and many in the community were concerned that with media attention would come the inevitable corporate pressures to capitalize on the event . The idea behind the Inferno theme was that the devil and his corporate arm, Helco were at Burning Man and were planning to purchase the event. Organizers produced a “pageant” in which Larry Harvey is tempted to sell Burning Man to the devil. In the end, the devil is denied, and the Helco corporate tower, an installation which stood on the Playa all week, was burned to the ground in a riotous performance that is now described in terms that transcend memory into the realm of mythology. One Burning Man artist remembers that 1996
“was clearly not a sustainable event. That was an apocalyptical event. Things were going wrong. It felt like we were at war. But there was this curious sense there that something very important was going on - that it was imperative that we, together, create this thing. Something was at stake. A lot of people had come to that collective decision and were self-organizing around an unstable common goal. The public was beginning to take notice. The forces of chaos had also noticed, and those forces collided in a very compelling and scary way”
The 1996 event was significant for other reasons as well. The dangerous quality was tangible, not just perceived, and the Burning Man community experienced it’s first death on the Playa in addition to several other accidents that caused serious injury. Not surprisingly, there was a significantly increased law enforcement presence that year from two local counties, the state, and the Bureau of Land Management. They immediately required that the event organizers change their management approach for the event if they wanted to continue using the location, and began imposing fees, restrictions and requirements in an attempt to badger the event into going elsewhere. As a result, the Burning Man organization, ( the BMorg, or Borg as it was called in a sardonic nod to the cyborg race from the Star Trek television series ), was officially structured into a limited liability corporation, and the event itself began to mature. A city plan was instituted, with well-defined streets, camping zones and art areas, sanitation service, and a centralized, if roughshod, bureaucracy to organize and run the temporary city. Most of the departments created then are still in existence, although they’ve grown and evolved into well organized departments with tasks and responsibilities all year, including the Black Rock Rangers - a volunteer group of community members dedicated to assisting citizens with disputes, playa safety, and other issues; the Department of Public Works - the crew who build, run and dismantle the physical city each year; and the Artery - the volunteers who help artists on-site curate, place, document and map the art and installations.
After the fiery spectacle of the Inferno theme, more and more art was being burned, usually by the creators themselves seeking a similarly cathartic experience, but often by other overzealous participants, who saw the destruction of the art as an entitled expression. Unsurprisingly, this upset many artists, but it also upset the Bureau of Land Management, who regard unregulated fires on the Playa as very environmentally destructive - essentially turning sections of the playa into permanent glass scars that run deep under the surface. If Burning Man wanted to set fires, stated the BLM, they would be required to protect the playa surface. As the number of artworks increased each year, the task of keeping track and insuring the safety of the art and people was becoming too overwhelming to be handled by volunteers, and Burning Man hired a full-time curator, Christine Kristen, (aka LadyBee) who remains in that position today. She oversees and coordinates the onsite needs of hundreds of artists each years, and now that Burning Man helps to fund some of the playa art and installations, her responsibility includes distributing hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money each year - a fact that had remained relatively unknown until a few years ago, but has recently taken center stage in a growing political dispute within the community as a splinter group, the self-labeled Borg2.
Dissatisfied with perceived problems within the Burning Man art funding process, the Borg2 demanded no less that a complete and total overhaul of how Burning Man does business and distributes art grants on the Playa. Burning Man had finally matured to the point of establishing itself as a small, but growing force in the fine art world. The whiff of favoritism and nepotism were in the air, rumors of corruption and backdoor dealing were heard. Burning Man now had to face the fact that in many people’s opinion, it had come to embody the very thing it most opposed - establishment, and all the bureaucratic red tape associated with it. Somehow, the rebels were now the empire. Burning Man had become “the Man”.
As the grumblings of some community members grew, so did the event in general, and soon it was host to more than 30,000 people each year. The city evolved into a visual spectacle as individual camps evolved into outrageous theme camps, expressing whatever the participants wanted. Among the more memorable are: ThunderDome, a recreation of the battle arena from the Road Warrior sequel, complete with harness-suspended combatants beating each other with padded staffs; Barbie Death Camp, an installation of hundreds of the ubiquitous 12” dolls being led to gas chambers and other tortures by various GI Joe and troll figures; Spock Mountain Research, essentially the porch of a rundown Appalachian shack, complete with “shotgun” toting locals in rocking chairs observing the people who pass by observing them. Some camps offered massage or body painting, some offered ice cream, liquor or simply berate pedestrians verbally with an Obnoxicator - a megaphone modified with guitar effects and cheap electronics capable of truly earsplitting sounds and which more than lives up to it’s name.
Each year, theme camps vie for high visibility locations which are mostly mapped out before the event. Like most of the art, theme camps can cost thousands of dollars and take months, if not all year, to produce. They are direct expressions of their creators and take the various forms of serious art, silly parody, social service, community space, dance floor, sex club, jazz bar - whatever the creator intends.
Each year since 1996, Burning Man has adopted an overarching theme for the event, as a way to focus the energies of, and tie together the community. These themes are specific enough to guide creative activities, yet open-ended enough to allow for liberal interpretation. Some past themes include Time, The Vault of Heaven, The Body, The Floating World. As the relevance of the themes evolved each year, LadyBee and the art crew found themselves beginning to distribute funds to individuals and groups for theme-specific art projects on the Playa. At first the funding procedure was informal and largely unknown outside the circle of organizers and a handful of funded artists. In time the process has become more structured and formalized, but still maintains the egalitarian vision of the original intent. Decisions are still based primarily on thematic relevance, interactivity and a general affinity for the work. Essentially irrelevant are the criteria that most granting bodies consider fundamental, such as artist’s education, exhibition history, or even proven skills. The granting of money directly back to a small number of artists has had a profound significance within the culture of Burning Man, and has been instrumental in the emergence of social, political, and economic movements within the community. Organizers quickly realized the potential to effectively communicate their vision through the economic support of artworks on the playa and have continued to increase the yearly grant budget. In 2006, the amount earmarked for distribution is $400,000. Burning Man is generally acknowledged to be the largest private funding source for art in California, an ironic fact considering the funded artworks are all intended for the Nevada desert.
BEYOND BLACK ROCK DESERT
During the late 90’s Burning Man organizers and community members were starting to feel that what was happening on the Playa was an idea important enough to communicate to the rest of the world. The freedom of art unaffected by typical modern art world concerns, combined with a renewed emphasis on community involvement and interactivity, created a sense that a movement was stirring - both an art and a cultural movement. Out of this emerged the Black Rock Arts Foundation (BRAF), a nonprofit organization dedicated to the support of community-based interactive art year-round beyond the borders and scope of the Burning Man event. With a board consisting of longtime burners, and mutually shared goals between the two organizations, the BRAF has become in many ways, the legitimate face of the movement started by Burning Man - a way to spread the idea of radical self expression and community interaction to everyone, regardless of one’s direct involvement with the event. The BRAF has created relationships with other organizations like Burning Man, and has shared the efforts to bring interactive art to these emerging regional events. Most recently, the BRAF has begun working with the San Francisco Arts Commission, as described by LadyBee:
Another outgrowth of the art funding process occurred in the wake of the event in 2004. Several longtime participants began to complain loudly within the community about the perceived inequities and poor management of the arts funding, lackluster artworks on the Playa and, as they saw it, a general failure to support the community of artists. This unrest first manifest itself in a website petition, in which anyone from the community was invited to sign and leave any comments they wished. It soon escalated into online flame wars, personal attacks on LadyBee, Larry Harvey, and anyone who disagreed with the dissenters that the procedure needed repair. As the debate grew, a political group emerged, called the Borg2, with a detailed and specific agenda, elected officials, and a mandate to “take back the event for the artists”.
Burning Man, and Larry in particular, responded to these demands in a way that might surprise those unfamiliar with the event, but to the Burner community seemed like a typically shrewd response. Rather than giving in or rejecting the proposal outright, Larry suggested a contest of sorts. If the Borg2 wanted to fund art based upon the citizenry voting, they were certainly free to do so. However, they would also be responsible for all other aspects of such a decision: curatorial facilitation, including safety compliance, onsite mapping requirements, and most importantly, raising their own money. If the Borg2 met it’s fundraising goals, and people generally agreed that the work chosen via public vote was better than the work curated by LadyBee and staff, then Larry would admit defeat.
In reality, the situation was a win-win for Burning Man. For more than a year a debate raged and people became invigorated with one view or another, but regardless of their opinion, the art at Burning Man was a constant central focus for many - and many feel the diversity and scope of art on the playa was reinvigorated as a result. And ultimately, all the Playa art is seen within the larger context of Burning Man regardless of its funding sources.
One thing overlooked by Borg2 is that most of the playa art and installations are not funded in any way by Burning Man. Perhaps five or ten percent of theme related artworks receive funding, and even then the dollar amount is always partial - the artist still must raise the balance. Most Playa art each year is not related to the theme, and depends entirely upon the artist’s ability to finance the work directly, or raise with private fundraising. Burning Man responded to Borg2 in the same manner as it would to any artist or group on the playa - they were welcomed with open arms to participate in the event how they saw fit - even if expressing direct criticism of the event’s central organizers . Burning Man would be there to insure that legal, safety, and organizational details were addressed. But facilitating their vision, including all fiscal needs, would be the responsibility of Borg2 and it’s volunteer staff, not Burning Man.
While Borg2 failed to meet its fund-raising goals, and it’s efforts on the Playa were smaller in scope then they envisioned, in many ways they achieved success in failure. Most attendees agree that the artwork onsite, which had been less remarkable in recent years, was generally better in 2005. Burning Man also agreed to several modifications to their own granting procedures, including dropping a clause requiring artist to pay back Burning Man in the event that a funded artwork eventually sells ( a scenario that has literally never occurred). Burning Man also agreed to consider earmarking some grant money for works that do not directly address the annual theme. A Borg2 organizer recently stated the unlikelyhood of another attempt to repeat their activities at the 2006 event, stating “We proved our point”.
BURNING MAN AT 20
As the social experiment known as Burning Man enters into it’s third decade, it’s reputation is growing as an unique incubator of radical expressions of vision that would otherwise go unrealized. The growth of the population shows no signs of slowing, the number of self-funded works is increasing, and the art grant dollar amount has increased significantly. The artworks on the playa continue to defy easy categorization and the curatorial staff continues it’s penchant for extravagance of scale and audacious experiments in interactivity. The artworks,
“... become experimental 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 top 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.”
This notion of transformation is universally regarded as integral to the experience of Burning Man, whether on a creative, spiritual or physical level. Many individuals regard the event as a kind of postmodern New Year’s celebration - a more organic moment in the yearly cycle to celebrate death and rebirth, endings and beginnings. Indeed, so many Burning Man artists and others can recount tales of on-Playa failures, breakdowns, depression and injury, that the cathartic release experienced from the complete destruction of one’s work offers a chance to observe it from a new point of view, and offers an unique opportunity for creative renewal. This transformation was noted by a group of Stanford business graduates, who recently attempted a sound project at Burning Man as a way of testing a technological proof-of-concept for their business.
"With SoundIron, we failed to convert our love of music into a livelihood. Although we did not build shareholder value, we ultimately found a way to generate a different kind of value. With the help of many talented and generous individuals, we created the value that follows from exercising one's imagination, from committing to an inclusive process, from bringing something extraordinary into being, from sharing that gift with others, and from accepting the impermanence of that creation.
This sentiment, of discovering the hidden value in one’s art beyond the scope of commodity, has become a fundamental idea among those who’ve struggled to bring their work to the desert. There is for many a sense of differentness preceding the event - a shift in perspective and values that for many manifests itself in radical transformation and lifestyle changes. After attending the event, people have been known to give up comfortable, secure lives to pursue their creative goals - some choose to “go native” a level of volunteering and participation in the annual life cycle of Burning Man that often ends in employment within the organization.
With participants from all over the globe, and year-round regional events that share community ideals and continue to spread the message of the original event, Burning Man has taken the form of an art movement. Perhaps not in the traditional notion of an art movement embodied in some distinct style, media, or unified philosophy, but in a kind of post-ism definition of an art movement, one created and supported by a highly literate, technologically savvy, and decentralized community of individuals, all of whom share a common bond, but few of whom would agree on it’s definition. As LadyBee suggests:
“By this point after 20 yrs., it clearly is an art movement, in the sense that there are people who live and make their art from Burning Man to Burning Man. They believe in the idea of gifting their art to the community and having it exist for a week for everyone’s pleasure and enjoyment - and not for the fact of putting it on their resume or selling it through a gallery. The idea that art can be made for reasons other than for sale is a radical idea in our culture because the art world is like all the other marketing worlds - it’s just products, sales and marketing. So we’ve taken it out of that context and instead focus on the self-expression, without artists having to be consistent with their body of work, without having to sell.”
The notion of a space for art that is free from the constraints and pressures of the capitalist art markets is not original to Burning Man, as there is a long and rich tradition of alternative and underground spaces for art, in addition to individuals artists and groups dedicated to that goal. Over the last two decades, Burning Man has becomes a leading force endorsing and supporting aggressively noncommercial art and performances by providing a unique environment in which artists can create experimental works that would struggle to find support, or might be prohibited entirely, in any other fine art realm.
This is due in no small part to the hedonistic abandon and festive atmosphere of the event. But there is a deeper force at work driving Burning Man, which separates it from the myriad art and music festivals throughout the world. The consistent resistance to overexposure in the media, external economic forces and corporate commodification in general has allowed it to maintain a remarkably neutral exhibition environment. The difficulty of reaching the Black Rock City location, the sheer magnitude of the emptiness of the Playa, and the incredibly harsh living conditions function like a filter upon the population, insuring that only those with clear intent actually make it to the event. The central focus on burning and rebirth rituals of both the Man, and potentially one’s own art, insure that for many participants the trek to the event is a profoundly transformative annual pilgrimage. With the emergence of the Black Rock Arts Foundation, committed to supporting the exhibition of interactive, community-based artwork, and the development of the growing network of regional festivals throughout the world, Burning Man, and it’s vision of radical self-expression is becoming viral. As individual groups and subgroups constantly emerge within the community, each reflecting some facet of the core ideals and vision of event and taking it with them back to the real world, they spread the Burning Man virus in the form of TAZ’s in the schools, galleries, and theaters of their default communities.