I write these words from the comfort of my own home, having put off updates for fear of not having enough, or the right things to say. I was stuck and my preferred form of procrastinating, most recently, has been perusing news of events at the 2023 Burning Man arts festival, which I and most other residents of California’s Bay Area (birthplace of the event) simply refer to as Burning Man.
That event started in the early 90’s on San Francisco’s clothing optional Baker’s Beach, it was essentially a bonfire made from a wooden sculpture; The Man. Taking place over the Labor Day holiday weekend it quickly outgrew the confines of what the city considered acceptable for a beach bonfire party. Forming a strategic partnership with anarchist elements of the California’s “maker” community the gathering of these communities would formalize into the juggernaut of a D.I.Y festival making headlines this weekend for getting stuck in the mud.
Burning Man 2001: not even the coldest or wetest.
It’s been nearly 20 years since I was last there. I’ve only been a handful of times; between the years of 1997 and 2004 but have organized my own theme camp, been part of an art-car collective and simply shown up as a friend’s +1: paying for gas and helping out at the camp which hosted us. That year is particularly salient as it may have been one the last events were cold and rain dominated the usually dry lake-bed.
Burning Man 2000: dismantling a repurposed army parachute during a break in the sandstorm.
News reports say that elevated desert last received significant rain in 2014, and delayed the construction of the festival’s Black Rock City by a week. Black Rock City is the name of the temporary city composed of tents, Costco carports, pavilions, RV’s and a plethora of art installations populated by the 70,000+ attendees, the centerpiece of which is The Man which traditionally burns on Saturday night. Well, for the first time in its history the extreme weather of the playa canceled the burn; it was rained out.
The designer of this year’s Man is an old friend of mine. I was there at his first burn during that cold and rainy week of 2000. Or was it the year after, when I organized my own camp focused on the creation of interactive mandala painting? We bonded while painting recognizing, at last, the person behind the various works of art we’d each done for our mutual musician friends. We’d go on to collaborate on a number of projects, CD/Album art, underground parties and other art happenings.
Burning man 2001: Camp-mates
While he continued to attend Burningman, working his way up its social/artistic hierarchy, I would opt for some world travel and time spent as a medical volunteer for festivals and events similar but not exactly Burning Man. These communities would quickly overlap with the burning man aesthetic becoming indistinguishable from every other post millennial bacchanal late-stage capitalism has been desperate to distract society with since the turn of the century.
On a personal level I am certain my friend is being showered with well-earned accolades for the beautifully designed sculpture which remains standing beyond it’s expiration date. I’m also encouraged that this level of prestige is keeping him and those closest to him relatively safe from the worst of the perils current circumstances have brought the event. I would also hope it’s occurred to someone else to tell him that his design was “to good to be burned.” On Sunday (when I wrote this) I predicted that The Man will see the torch on the night of the exodus (Monday 9/4); separating the die-hard burners who will stay from those who’ve got to get back to the real world.
And in a way I’ll morn the loss of a potential metaphor. If this man were to not be burned, could it instead serve as a avatar for the climate catastrophes which were merely theoretical when Burning man first arrived on the Playa? Has the event lived beyond its purpose? Is it still a celebration of the ephemeral nature of inspiration and a willingness to leave-no-trace.
Attendees are now free to leave all their belonging behind and walk if they want to leave the event. That’s a sentiment that is 100% antithetical to one of the 10 commandments of Burningman which insists that if you pack it in, you pack it out. As is typical of the greater society which this event claims to distinguish itself from, social stratification is immediately apparent. Actor/comedian Chris Rock was able to hike out, with the help of friends/fans who were happy to give them a ride once they got on the only road to civilization. How many will be leaving their rentals behind? How many others will have to stay until they can drive their only vehicle home or will leave expecting to comeback for their stuff but never will? Is this the kind of apocalypse attendees have been dress-rehearsing for?
Part of the reasoning behind my loss of interest in Burning Man had to with the contradiction in a LLC sustaining itself on the mission of temporary art installations. For the past couple of decades, this organization has had a significant impact on the lives of independent artists seeking to make a living in the U.S. in general and in the west coast in particular. San Francisco is not the only City which has been beautified by art projects first brought to life on the playa. Yet the costs in resources and the waste was problematic 20 years ago; before stagflation, supply-chain issues, historic wild-fires, flood and other disaster as well as a not-quite-done-with-us pandemic. So I wonder, would it be so bad if this was the final Burningman? What if that man became the centerpiece for some Burningman Museum in nearby Reno Nevada? Or simply a Burningman Resort outside of Las Vegas where every night is the night the man burns (ideally in a more sustainable fashion with fewer harmful pollutants being added to an ailing atmosphere)?
And after 975 words on the subject I can at least look at these musings as a sort of breakthrough. It was a change to uncover some archival images and up into perspective the evolution of an artistic career.