Burning Man’s Dotcom Hangover

Notes From a Festival at the Crossroads

At its core, Burning Man experiments with the notion that the commodification of culture deludes the masses into believing a lifestyle is a life. "We get people out of their cocoon of convenience and place them directly in touch with nature," says founder Larry Harvey, switching between tugs of his wide-brimmed Stetson and his Camel Lights. "We get rid of all these industries and cultural vanguards, and put people directly in touch with art."

The event succeeds spectacularly in that last regard. Without the filters of corporate radio or museum curators, art, music, and fashion splinter and simmer in splendidly recombinant ways. There were no superstar DJs—even the trouble over Spooky's gig turned out to be a miscommunication, and he ended up spinning for about 50 people. No headlining rock bands played. No artists with MOMA cred took over. Instead, Burners got the sounds of Middle Eastern-influenced funk from a six-string bass, a didgeridoo, and a drum machine, or the strangely syncopated rhythms produced from the art car with more than 20 drums attached.

Most of the participants have lived long enough to see the commodification of both the punk and rave scenes, long enough to recognize Burning Man as a kind of bastard, prodigy son of the two. Punks and ravers both consumed bucketfuls of drugs and had a DIY aesthetic until their trappings were co-opted by Madison Avenue, the music industry, and Hollywood. Burning Man may prove tougher to crack, because it's an event centered on an idea, not a singular musical style or particular wardrobe. "Burning Man shampoo? Burning Man cologne? That shit would never work," says Harvey. "And what is our demographic, anyway?"

Illustration by Stanley Martucci and Cheryl Griesbach

Yet the corporate vultures are circling. This year, Rockstar Energy Drink partnered with one of the crews shooting a documentary and rode into Black Rock with a heavily logoed limo, passing out cases of their would-be competition for Red Bull. The ironic potential of a limo packed with rock stars was not appreciated by Burning Man organizers (often called, not so affectionately, the Borg), who insisted that the logos be covered. Later in the week, the pathologically marketed X10 camera managed repeated plugs from the woman doing play-by-play for the webcast of the Burn. The show has since been struck from the Burning Man Web site. Even Sex.com got into the act, hiring a skywriting plane to promote their URL. Irate discussion on the Burning Man message boards suggested that Burning Man hire its own plane to add the word sucks after future such intrusions.

Burning Man stands at a crossroads, struggling to maintain its identity as it grows. When you fork over $250 at the door, the ticket they hand you after you've taken a plane across the country, driven hours into the desert, and spent hundreds preparing, says, in bold print, "You voluntarily assume the risk of serious injury or death by attending."

Truth be told, though, many longtime Burners wish it were so. "What I liked about Burning Man is that you could do shit there you couldn't do anywhere else," says Hackett, the director of the Madagascar Institute, who goes by one name for stealth. Residing in Brooklyn, Madagascar was founded in 1997 at Burning Man, according to one of its partners. It has come to be known for shutting off downtown Manhattan streets long enough to stage performances—complete with costumes, props, and shit blowing up—then splitting before the cops arrive. Hackett hasn't been to Burning Man since 1999. "There's no sense of danger anymore, not even a contrived one," he says.

Harvey hears the complaints, but remains unmoved. "My understanding was that anarchy accepted a few customs for the good of a society," he says. "Nihilists are the nasty ones. But this was never supposed to be a nihilist event." Then the not-so-subtle dig at the bourgeoisie: "Hipsters are afraid of two things," he says. "One is that they won't be invited to the party, and two is that they'll get lost in the crowd."

Still, last year the Borg banned, of all things, burning, or at least the unlicensed variety. It used to be that you could burn anything, pretty much anywhere, anytime. Firecrackers laced the sky. Massive art installations were torched freely. At the now extinct Drive-By Shooting Camp, targets were blasted with live ammunition. This year, Pershing County sheriffs used night-vision goggles to keep all but the truly dodgy and determined from knowing the pleasures of detonation.

The event's decisions are clearly motivated by self-preservation. Each year it gets more difficult to appease the Bureau of Land Management—the administrators who raised Burning Man's 2001 rent nearly 500 percent—or to obtain insurance. But at what point does self-preservation eclipse the integrity of an event?

For some, that threshold was crossed last Friday, when the Pershing County sheriff's office forced the removal of a 12-foot piece of artwork that sat alongside the entrance to the Jiffy Lube Camp. It's a gay camp, gay like the Romans, really, in its orgiastic splendor. To drive home the point, they announced themselves with a mechanized, painted plywood statue of two grinning men, one thrusting into the rear of another with the comical, clinical passion of a metronome. And so, with a maelstrom of laws being broken around them—drug use, public sex, and nudity being the most obvious—county cops in the year 2001 decided the one transgression that could not be tolerated was homosexuality. At the protest the next day, when 50 or so people stormed center camp and demanded that Burning Man administrators fight the power, Harvey asked them to knock it off and cooperate. "You're going to be famous, man," he told the head protester. "And we'll be off the desert."

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