Date: Wed, 22 Jun 94 17:02:40 PDT
Subject: Burning Man
Forwarded-by: bostic@vangogh.CS.Berkeley.EDU (Keith Bostic)
Forwarded-by: Richard Chapman <chapman@Eng.Auburn.EDU>
From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Walter Alter)
Subject: BURNING MAN- 1,000 lunatic artists in a lunatic desert
This Labor Day weekend, September 2-5, 1994, roughly a thousand people from
all over the United States will converge on a dry lake bed in northern Nevada.
At the center of this sere and desolate waste they will construct a
civilization of their own design, a temporary community complete with a daily
newspaper, an FM radio station, and a variety of unique, often bizarre civic
landmarks. Gathered in this surreal desert dreamscape, they will erect and
burn an enormous human figure known as Burning Man. Over the past 8 years the
Burning Man event has grown from a loose convocation of artists and
counterculture types on a San Francisco beach to a virtual gathering of the
clans for artists, performers, cacophonists and cultural desperadoes from all
over the country.
The two articles that follow will provide some background on the event. For
more information, or to pre-register for a campsite, call the Burning Man
hotline at (415) 985-7471. if call back time is slow, contact Walter
Alter via email reply to this posting. Walter also has a 30 minute VHS
PBS documentary of last years Burning Man available- contact him via email
for info on duping and shipping.
YOU ARE HERE
by Stuart Mangrum
Picture if you will: the largest flat expanse of land in North America,
Nevada's Black Rock Desert. It's a late afternoon in late summer, the Sunday
before Labor Day. Heat waves shimmer off the hardpan alkali flat, and a fine
white dust swirls on the wind. Thunderheads build slowly over the distant
mountains that ring the plain, but the sky above your head is a deep,
cloudless blue. Behind you is your camp, a Rube Goldberg mix of vans, tents
and RVs arrayed in a great circle. Scattered across the plain yuou see other
artifacts less easily explained: a giant fiberglass dog head; an enormous,
vaguely phallic mud tower. One of your friends has a radio tuned to the local
microstation; like the daily newspaper folded in your pocket, it will exist
only for a few short days and then disappear, like some rare and exotic desert
mushroom. You press an icy bottle to your forehead, savoring the cold, and
look up. There above you, looming over everything, is Burning Man. Forty feet
tall, the height of a four-story building, this strangely graceful human
figure seems almost too beautiful to be destroyed.
Grabbing a rope, you lend a hand as the Man is lowered to the ground. Final
preparations are made, and the crowd swells. Costumed dancers lay down a drum
beat as the sky darkens. At last, a signal comes down the line and you haul on
your ropes again, raising the Man to his full height, arms outstretched. The
drumming intensifies as the sun drops over the horizon, and the Man erupts
into flame under a vast and impartial desert sky. One by one, the slim neon
tubes illuminating its huge limbs wink out, and carefully concealed explosives
add their staccato thunder to the wild rhythm of many drums. Finally, consumed
by fire, it collapses to the desert floor, where the wreckage burns long into
the night, a bonfire out of some wild primordial dream.
Okay, okay, but what does it all mean? Feel free to ask, but don't expect to
get the same answer twice. Is it a neo-pagan pyro rave or a an avant garde art
festival? A site-specific pan-artistic installation or a cyberculture summit
meeting? A visionary experiment in temporary community or a post-postmodern
weenie roast? Or is it just, as a chemistry grad student from Cal Tech told me
last year, "one hell of a party"? Personally, I've given up trying to peg it
in words. Nowadays, when people ask me about Burning Man, I just say, "Go."
Last year, in the space of an afternoon, I met a journalist from Switzerland,
two journeyman carpenters, three tenured college professors, a pagan masseuse
from Santa Barbara, a gang of anarcho-feminist writers from Texas, an
unemployed gypsum worker from upstate Nevada, and two sisters from Montana who
started an impromptu event in the space between our two cars: molding little
human figures out of bread dough and sticking them to bottle rockets, which we
then lit and launched. Was it art? Was it ritual? How can it possibly matter?
It was fun.
This sort of spontaneous activity is central to the Burning Man experience.
Throughout the long weekend people indulge their whims, their fantasies,
their creative impulses. If you choose to start something -- be it as
simple as a card game or as involved as a dada theater piece -- someone
is bound to join you. Like to dress up in costumes? Fine -- bring them.
Clothes too confining? Likewise no problem. However you choose to express
yourself -- through visual art, machine art, poetry, music, dance,
whatever -- you're encouraged to do so in a non-competitive, cooperative
environment where distinctions like "professional" and "amateur",
"audience" and "spectator" are meaningless, even absurd.
Let the Deep Thinkers decide what it all means; in the meantime, let's just
keep doing it. Burning Man is one of the last places on earth where people
from all walks of life, all social strata, and all points of the compass can
come together and share an extraordinary experience, a very primal experience:
surviving as a group in a challenging environment, creating a temporary
culture of their own design, and sharing one of the most primal experiences of
our species, the awesome mystery of fire.
Oh yeah -- and it's also one hell of a party.
[Stuart Mangrum publishes and edits the underground quarterly Twisted Times.]
GOING TO EXTREMES
[a interview with Larry Harvey
by Darryl Van Rhey]
DVR: Burning Man occurs in the middle of a Nevada desert. Even to be there
is very challenging. Yet hundreds of people attend every year. How do you
explain the popularity?
LH: It's a liberating experience. Black Rock Desert's an entirely empty
space-- not a bush, a bump, or blade of grass across hundreds of square
miles. It forms a kind of existential void; so anything that does exist can
have a kind of world-defining power. A line of sawdust lit on fire, a trail
of colored smoke, may cause a sensation. Any object there appears momentous.
Every gesture seems to reach to the horizon. People find this empowering.
It's like being a child again and feeling that you're free to recreate the
world from your imagination. For three days and nights, Black Rock is
transformed into the largest public playground in America.
DVR: Is that the main attraction; Black Rock as a kind of magic slate, a
LH: I think that's often the initial lure, but there's a second experience
that has more to do with why people return.
DVR: What is that?
LH: Community. Remember, we're the only things alive out there. People feel
nakedly human. Taking refuge from a storm inside a stranger's tent can be a
powerful experience. We've found that feeling mortal in a world that's ruled
by forces that we can't control, and sharing this experience with others,
creates a strong communal sentiment. I think that's the chief charm of Black
Rock: an almost magical personal liberty combining with a shared struggle to
attain the most basic conditions of life. I guess you could say we go to
DVR: Couldn't the experiences you're describing happen independently of the
Burning Man? What part does he play in this?
LH: Well, being four stories high, he's easily the tallest object on the
playa. Viewed from very far away or really close at hand he seems to be the
only object on the playa. At night we light its body neon blue. It
functions as a beacon that guides people into camp. It's the ultimate
landmark, the center of our world, its final reference point. He looks
prodigious when transposed against the overwhelming flatness that surrounds
him. It has the impact of a ziggurat or pyramid. He really seems connected
What's more, we've designed our ritual to place people in intimate contact
with Burning Man, to establish an immediate physical link between themselves
and this figure we've built. Watch them pulling on the hauling line that
hoists him upward. How did Larry Gallagher describe it [in the September 1993
edition of Outside Magazine]? "Eighty sets of arms combine to raise our hero.
Eighty sets of legs walk backward toward the setting sun.S
DVR: It sounds like a barn raising.
LH: It's very like that. It produces a pervasive feeling of connectedness.
People feel empowered-- after all, it's entirely their energy that's raising
him-- and since they're joined in one united effort, they also feel connected
to each other. When he reaches 45 degrees it's just as if a window had been
opened on another world. He suddenly increases in apparent size: he looms.
Everyone's connected to a presence that exceeds them-- this giant axis which
itself connects the earth and sky.
DVR: What you're describing is transcendence. It sounds serious and
spiritual. But, in practice, isn't Burning Man irreverent? This year you're
presenting an All-Star Tag-Team wrestling match. I understand you're billing
Moses and the Devil as team captains.
LH: It's a grudge match. The forces of Light and Darkness will struggle at
DVR: And I saw the Java Cow last year. A giant mythological cow dispensing
coffee? It filled our cups and asked us, "Do you want cream and sugar?" Our
ritual response was, "No! We want it black!" It was hilarious-- and
strangely moving. Here we were at dawn saluting the sun.
LH: Sure, we do a lot of things like that. It's part of an aesthetic of
appropriation. We expropriate things from popular culture-- the convention of
a morning cup of coffee, say, or neon lighting and recycled industrial
materials-- and give them new expressive form in a communal context. We
salvage junk culture. Sometimes the result is ludicrous, like John Law's
giant dachshund head with neon halo-- it was salvaged from a Doggie Diner.
Just as often the effect is very moving, as you said, and seems to deepen and
redeem otherwise trivial experience. So you liked the Java Cow?
DVR: Yes, I did. But, how are people to know when you're serious? How do you
reconcile this odd blend of reverence and ridicule?
LH: There isn't any fundamental conflict. You see, we don't impose
interpretations. We've got a primary rule on the playa: we never interfere
with anyone's immediate experience. We're not burdened by beliefs. No one
needs to crouch or be correct or defend some dogma, and this is what makes
joking possible, because humor thrives on freedom. The impulse to make fun of
anything that isn't free is strong in all that desert space. And yet, if
humor frees our minds, the actions that we undertake are meant to open peoples
hearts, probe them in a very immediate way. It's this experience, not
anyone's interpretation, that feels worthy of devotional respect.
DVR: Does Burning Man represent a return to tribal culture?
LH: Tribal cultures tend to be intensely local, and they center on received
traditions that evolve over very long periods. They're inseparable from time
and place. Obviously, you can't just create something like that overnight. I
guess the Hippies thought they could, but they also seemed to think they could
plug their stereos into redwood trees.
DVR: So this isn't the gathering of a tribe?
LH: Maybe not in a romantic sense, but we have made a living model of the
unselfconscious process that creates such culture. Already, after nine years,
we've developed a significant body of tradition-- and not the product of a
single mind or something drafted by committee, but produced by people who
create things, individuals contributing whatever is meaningful to them. Since
we encourage work that's interactive, which invites participation, whatever
resonates gets taken up by the community. Uniquely expressive acts get
transformed and elaborated into social rites, and through participation they
accrue a breadth and depth of meaning which can only be produced in a communal
setting. This is how you weave a way of life. It is the primal process by
which culture is created. I don't think this is happening in society at large
DVR: So maybe the Hippies were right?
LH: I didn't mean to be so hard on them. Of course they were right. We need
an immediate connection to Nature. We need community. We need a
counter-culture. But our approach is somewhat different.
DVR: What sort of difference?
LH: For one thing, we're not technophobic. We run a radio station. We
desktop publish a desert newspaper. Via short wave, we're plugged into the
entire planet. Burning Man itself is focused on a giant lever and the use of
fire-- what I call primal technology. Ours is a technological society, and
why pretend otherwise? Real culture is hard-headed in this way. It's based
on survival and uses what materials come readily to hand. The Arapaho and
Sioux made houses out of hides because that was their material culture. At
this point in history, plastic pipe, computers, and recycled rubber are
indigenous to ours.
DVR: Yet you said such culture needs a context in time and a basis in place.
This only lasts a few days.
LH: That's true, nor can we possibly live off the land. Yet people have to
struggle to survive. Already we're creating a desert-adapted architecture.
In a dust storm you've got to live really close to the land. Black Rock's an
arena ruled by natural forces which demand our close attention. The
experience is saturated with a sense of place. Remember too, we're operating
in ritual time. During the remainder of the year people absorb the
experience, only to return and bring more to it. This intensifies and
accelerates the process. A kind of fusion is taking place. Compare it to
what happens at the heart of a star. Instead of complex molecules and
radiation, we're creating elemental culture. In the darkened world we're
living in, I think that's as precious as sunlight.
[Darryl Van Rhey is an impoverished artist living in San Francisco.
Larry Harvey is founder and director of the Burning Man Project.]
Contact the Burning Man project at 415. 985-7471 for information and
registration materials. As the event is entirely self-supporting, early
registration is greatly appreciated.
© 1994 Peter Langston