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BLACK ROCK DESERT, NEVADA, SEPTEMBER 1—The starched red pigtails of her wig flying at crooked angles behind her, a volunteer called Evil Pippi speeds across the bleached and dusty desert on her golf cart. To her eyes—sealed beneath opaque black pilot goggles—the very future of Burning Man may be at stake.
Is it police, come to the playa to arrest the naked and the stoned? Anarchists blowing up the 250 people of Gerlach, the closest town, some 10 miles away? No, it’s only New York’s own DJ Spooky, and really just the thought of him, at that.
Celebrity is a slippery subject at Burning Man, and it seems That Subliminal Kid may have been a little too overt. Spooky was heard to announce himself as a headliner for an event that prides itself on a distinct lack of promotion, thus skewering the yearly festival’s guiding principle—that passive entertainment is a horrible waste of a mind.
You won’t find superstar DJ lineups or poster-sized, four-color flyers at Burning Man. The faithful, known as Burners, use scrap metal, mechanical know-how, and a flair for the absurd to organize elaborate theme camps and create jaw-dropping artwork, equal parts Mad Max and Dan Flavin. They wear outlandish costumes, ranging from ninjas to Santa Clauses. In the real world, folks pay to be entertained, but here in the mythical Black Rock City, the approximately 25,000 people who attend are the entertainment. Book and promote celebrities, the founders say, and soon people will come solely to be entertained. By getting Spooky to play right after the Saturday night burning of the Man and spreading the word, the people of Camp Xara have flirted with a serious breach of ethics.
The golf cart whizzes down Black Rock City’s inner circle, a street called the Esplanade. Nothing more than a stretch of dusty desert marked with paper street signs, Esplanade forms a horseshoe that mirrors the curve of the surrounding Black Rock mountains. Inside, randomly placed art installations dot an expanse so wide and flat, some Burners insist they can see the curve of the earth. A pair of room-sized red dice double as a lounge. A billboard proclaims Jesus’ love for sodomy. And of course, the Man, a humanoid figure of wood trimmed with green and lavender neon, towers 70 feet above the ancient river basin.
On the other side of the Esplanade are the theme camps, RVs, and tents that house the 25,000 or so participants. While most camps—gems offering the opportunity to “register your aliens,” “mud-wrestle Satan for your soul,” or group-masturbate—are hidden within the labyrinth of dusty paths, the biggest, most impressive camps line the Esplanade. In the Thunderdome, war-painted combatants in bungee harnesses hang from the triangulated steel rafters; they club each other with foam rubber staffs as gothic techno blares and the masses roar approval. At the camp of Dr. Megavolt, three men alternate wearing a grounded metal suit and dance in the shadows of a tesla coil, playing with its current. You can smell the burn as lightning-like crackles of electricity encircle the armadillo-man.
Pippi weaves around a menagerie of spectacle. One naked man has pierced and arranged his scrotum with pins so as to create a mangina. Pippi’s cart narrowly avoids a station wagon with its hood ripped off and a raised platform seat in the back. As it passes, a man with a flowing fake white beard waves. She darts by Spectator camp, a group of 15 or 20 stoned souls who idle on metallic bleachers and demand a show from all who pass.
At last, Pippi reaches Xara and finds the man responsible for booking talent. He has red hair with a thin, beaded braid on either side of his face, and he pulls at one as he listens to her. When she finishes, his face is pinched with anger. “As far as I’m concerned, you’re fucking everything up,” he says. “If you don’t want Spooky to spin, go find him and tell him yourself.” Evil Pippi sets off again.
In its 16th year, Burning Man remains perhaps the most artistic and challenging way to spend a week in the U.S. The event has managed to grow annually, despite its expense ($250 at the door this year, though tickets are half that if purchased well in advance) and the need to pack all your food and supplies in and out. To enjoy Burning Man, one must be ready for everything nature can hurl, from storms to temperature extremes. Perhaps more importantly, one must appreciate the extremes of people: hippies, ravers, frat boys, perverts, idealist zealots, anarchists, nihilists, quasisexuals, and pudgy men without trousers.
This year, early numbers indicate the population grew in spite of a dotconomy collapse that some speculated would impact the event’s attendance. The loss of dotcom funds did lead to some recycled theme camps and the disappearance of some grandiosities, but there was plenty of art and spectacle left. The sentiment from most was that the downturn kept away those who were less than dedicated. “A lot of people suddenly had a real choice to make,” says James Home, a software interface designer from San Francisco, with evident disdain. “People either decided they’d find another way to live the kind of life they wanted to live or decided they needed real jobs and to make a lot of money and be responsible. Last year at this time I was a millionaire, and this year I’m in debt. But it was never a question whether or not I’d come.”
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?”
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.”
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.
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.”