Burning Man’s Dotcom Hangover

Notes From a Festival at the Crossroads

So how does an event that seeps hatred for the commodification of culture gracefully transition into being a cultural commodity itself? Why, carefully, of course.

On one front, academia is starting to give Burning Man some real credit. This year a Harvard doctoral candidate by the name of Katherine Chen—looking every bit the modest Burner in a see-through black dress and black bikini—shows up to finish research on her thesis pertaining to the event's organizational model. "I think there's a lot of relevance to the business world," she says. "Start-ups, for example, go from two people to 10 and beyond, and all of a sudden it's like, 'Are we the same organization? Do we have the ideals we began with?' "

On another front, Burning Man is making a run at the art establishment. The nonprofit Black Rock Arts Foundation, started in July, wants to support the non-artist artisans of the world, the folks who are working in media too experimental to garner mainstream funding. Director Claudia Haskel was running the more mainstream Luther Burbank Center for the Arts in Sonoma County when a friend talked her into going to Burning Man in 1998. "I was completely enamored by the art that was there," she says. "Most of the media reports on Burning Man knock the fringe element to the top and the artistic aesthetics to the bottom. But I saw aerial art that I never knew existed, and numerous installations that I thought were pure genius." Haskel says she was convinced that this art—much of which was only ever seen on the playa and then burned at event's end—needed to be seen in other places.

Illustration by Stanley Martucci and Cheryl Griesbach

Ultimately, if history is to validate Larry Harvey's vision of a movement (and not just a killer party), the lessons learned at Burning Man will have to follow folks off the playa, and spread into everyday environs. Unlike proprietary festivals, Burning Man helps to create "competition," the idea being that the more events that go on like Burning Man, the more people will wake up and smell the commodification. Harvey and company have helped events take place in Japan and Texas in the past year, sharing experience and advice.

Here in New York, Burning Man has inspired some impressive work and a growing community. A few Burners met in a downtown café after the '98 event to discuss the fostering of community on a local level; today they have an e-mail list with more than 200 subscribers. Leslie Bocskor and Cory Mervis run the list, and this year organized a 48-foot container to ship art installations and gear out to the playa via train.

The third front, then, and the most important, concerns the daily lives of the Burners exposed to the truly radical and the intense—namely, themselves. "Some of these people treat Burning Man like a cult," says Hackett. "The most revolutionary thing they do is paint their dick blue and walk around the playa. Burning Man is good for inspiration, but you have to use it as such."

Like so many flashes of light on the fringe of an acid trip, Burners and their ilk have been fighting the good fight around the city, for the citizens of this town who need it the most. The Hungry March Band leads spontaneous performances down city streets. The Blackkat collective uses its roving sound system to throw parties in Brooklyn that spread political info through a grassroots network of good times. Fire spinners meet under bridges and on Williamsburg rooftops to practice their art. Madagascar recently orchestrated the Running of the Bulls, in which 40 creative types made their interpretation of a bull, using bicycles, scooters, and the like. They chased 300 gathered hipsters, yuppies, and kids from the projects over the Carroll Street drawbridge on the Gowanus Canal. Not all of these organizations are directly descended from Burning Man, but at the least, they work with folks inspired by it.

"Our stuff, Spencer Tunick's stuff, the Hungry March Band, Chengwin's stuff . . . it's just this thing where you walk around the corner and you see something fucking awesome," says Hackett. "Four-hundred naked people lying on the street. Or there's a half-chicken, half-penguin marching down the street with dancing girls and 600 people walking down the street with masks of either chickens or penguins. You should see shit like that and be thrilled that you stumbled across it, but you shouldn't be shocked. This is New York City, and it should be like that. And it will be again."

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