Playing with Fire
Burning Man is an anarchistic art festival, pop-up city, and laboratory for social experimentation.
Tumultuous, thundering cheers echo into the evening air as fireworks begin to pierce the inky sky above the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. A 40-foot-tall wooden effigy rises into the air atop a 50-foot pedestal, waiting silently, patiently for his moment. His countdown clock reads 00:00:00.
There is a sudden flash of light, a tremendous WHOMP, and Burning Man ignites.
And so it begins, a fitting end to all the waiting and a defining moment in tribal unity. For the more than 50,000 people who gather in the desert to participate in this climactic annual ritual, Burning Man is a monument to life, hope, and optimism. The burning of Burning Man signals the end of a "year," the clearing of cast-off memories, and anticipation of the year to come.
Burning Man the event is a fiery celebration of art and community. It is also a pop-up city that magically materializes every August as Black Rock City, Nevada, then disappears a week later. It spawns inventive urban planning, groundbreaking art, an infamous party atmosphere, and a laboratory for social experimentation. And all against a ferocious elemental backdrop: desert dust, average temperatures of 115 degrees Fahrenheit, and frequent windstorms and whiteouts.
City of Fire
Beyond its reputation as an anarchistic culture fest (which it is) and week-long campout, Burning Man is also a very controlled organization. Black Rock City LLC builds, manages, promotes, and produces the event and also administers the municipality known as Black Rock City.
Burning Man’s urban landscape is impressive and fantastical. Contained in a radial grid that covers 5 square miles of desert playa, Black Rock City is literally a city in a box, held in storage until it is "unpacked" each year by its very own Department of Public Works, volunteers who build its temporary roads, camp structures, and the Burning Man sculpture.
“Burners” camp out helter-skelter in all manner of temporary housing—tents, teepees, RVs, and geodesic domes that collectively form endless waves of sheltered encampments. Among the street grid, neighborhoods and theme camps emerge organically. Music pours through the streets and, as the week progresses, artworks spring from the desert floor in mind-boggling forms both monumental and small-scale. Burners walk the streets in all manner of costumes. The raison d’etre of Burning Man, after all, is “radical self expression.” To visualize it, think of Mardi Gras combined with Halloween in the middle of Las Vegas and located on Mars.
Burning Man is also an incubator of disparate social experiments: experiential art, bizarre architecture (cardboard yurts), urban planning (commerce-free camping), and inside-out social norms (clothing optional).
Burning Man’s greatest resource is its spirit of community. Just about every aspect of the operation is volunteer-driven: Burners can join up with the Department of Public Works to help build the city, the ARTRery to help manage the art, or Media Mecca, which deals with media queries from around the world. Another volunteer group, the Lamplighters, light more than 600 oil lamps every evening for street safety. The Rangers are an internal security force.
The vibe of social authenticity is reflected in the general camaraderie that infuses the week. For most Burners, it’s a time-out from the real world and the responsibilities of work and everyday life. Couple that with a free-swinging social atmosphere and lots of fantastic art, and you have the beginnings of some kind of a utopian Neverland. Or perhaps it’s closer to an annual Brigadoon.
While many rules govern how Black Rock City functions as a unique entity, perhaps the most amazing is its ban on cash. It is a commercial-free zone, meaning no vendors of any kind (except for the most valuable commodities, ice and coffee). Burning Man economics are defined by a gift culture—Burners exchanging gifts for no other reason than “just because.”
Another stipulation is Burning Man’s “Leave No Trace” ethos, guided by the motto "Pack it In, Pack It Out." Since the event is held in a pristine desert, and at the behest of the Bureau of Land Management, Burners have an obligation and a personal pride in leaving the desert as they found it.
Painting with fire
Art has always been at the core of Burning Man, and over the years several thousand magnificent artworks have been created there. Some are permanent, living second lives in private collections or as public art. But many are destined to be consumed by flames.
For all the performance art that occurs around Burning Man, none is more profound than using fire as a creative resource. The event began, after all, with a bonfire. In 1986, two San Francisco artists, Larry Harvey and Jerry James, built a wooden effigy and invited friends to a local beach to burn it. The flames caught, the following multiplied, and in 1990, Burning Man was moved to the desert.
At Burning Man, where one's level of personal safety is self-defined, fire has become the paintbrush and the canvas for creative expression. That it inspires awe, spectacle, fear, and uncertainty is part of its power. Many of the artworks are predicated on challenging people's comfort level with danger.
Any artworks installed at Burning Man are candidates for the torch. Paintings, wooden sculptures, theme installations—it's all fair game—all in defiance of the notion (and the hubris) that art exists in perpetuity. To understand the existential creativeness of conflagrational artworks, one has to think in terms of art’s transcendence as a physical thing and its second life in memory.
The appeal of Burning Man is complex. Some Burners go for its 24/7 party-like atmosphere, while others value the sense of community. For the artists who populate the desert with their phantasmagorical creations, it is a blank canvas of unrestricted opportunity. And for all of its attendees, it's a unique social event of cross-pollinating cultures, all existing in a chaotic harmony of ongoing celebrations. Day and night, the event is watched over by the Sphinx-like presence of Burning Man, destined for the flames at zero-hour on Saturday night. To those watching, its fiery light marks yet another new beginning.
--By Louis M. Brill, eg magazine No. 01, 2012
Editor's note: Long-time contributor Louis M. Brill is one of the 80 founders who brought Burning Man to the Black Rock Desert in 1990, and has attended the event every year since. He can be contacted at [email protected].