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The Vanishing Idealism of Burning Man

Artists head to the desert to build a utopia. But does their work hold up in the real world?

"The Tangled Bank" (2009), by Rod Garrett and Larry Harvey. (Scott London)

Last summer, 69,493 people went out into the desert to build a city. They brought with them supplies not only for erecting a temporary infrastructure (tents and RVs, roads, signage, bathrooms), but also for printing newspapers, issuing vehicle licenses, making art, throwing parties, burning a giant sculpture of a man, and eating and staying hydrated for nine days in a place where coffee and ice are two of the only items for sale, and the nearest convenience store is about 22 miles away, in a depopulated former mining town. Between August 27 and September 4, those tens of thousands of people took part in the annual ritual of creating and maintaining Black Rock City, the home of Burning Man.

While living in the middle of an inhospitable desert, each year the attendees, who are often called “Burners,” adhere to a set of ten vaguely utopian principles, including “gifting,” “radical self-expression,” “decommodification,” and “leaving no trace.” They inhabit themed camps and wear whatever they want, from homemade costumes to no clothing at all. They ditch their given names in favor of special ones reserved for use on the playa, the federally owned stretch of dry lake bed on which the festival takes place.

They set out to create, in other words, an alternative society—one removed from the mainstream in both its location and its norms. “Uniting every divergent tendency, spirituality, and attitude at Burning Man,” Brian Doherty writes in his 2004 book, This Is Burning Man, “is a sense that every life is missing something: a spark of creativity, a chance for self-expression, some freedom from judgment and cold personal relations that one must travel far off the grid to find.” For just over a week, the festival and its attendees aspire to that freedom. Then they clean up and pack up their things and return the desert to its state of vast emptiness, as if Black Rock City and all it contained had been a mirage. It is, according to Doherty, both a “true experiment in intentional creative community” and “the hippest party around.”

In recent years, the second sentiment has seemed to prevail—not just because Burning Man is famous for its raves, but also because people are paying more and more to get in. Ticket prices now range from $190 up to $1,200, making it perhaps the consummate capitalistic countercultural happening of our time. The festival (which organizers confusingly insist is not a festival but a “global cultural movement”) has suffered from a perception that it’s a utopian playground for privileged white people. This hasn’t been helped by the increasing presence of Silicon Valley millionaires and billionaires, who’ve taken to buying up large quantities of tickets, hiring workers to build and maintain their camps, and generally disregarding the egalitarian (if also libertarian) spirit of the ten principles.

Burning Man is now a nonprofit, whose net assets in 2016 amounted to $19.9 million, and a museum-worthy phenomenon, with an exhibition of sculptures, installations, costumes, photographs, and more creations from the festival at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., this summer. Being featured in a national institution just up the block from the White House might seem to jar with the festival’s promise of circumventing the establishment. To be sure, it presents an opportunity to spread the gospel of Burning Man, to win over a wider public to the culture of the festival and its particular visions of transcendence. But it’s also a test of how those visions fare out in the permanent, imperfect real world. A weeklong utopia is a wonderful thing, if you can get there. For those who can’t, what does Burning Man have to give?

Art is a part of the festival’s DNA, to an extent that many people may not realize. The first time the man burned was on the summer solstice in 1986, on Baker Beach in San Francisco. For years, the artist Mary Grauberger had organized informal gatherings there, at which she’d scavenge items that had washed ashore, turn them into sculptures, and, at the end of the night, set them on fire. By that summer, Grauberger’s events had stopped, and Larry Harvey, who’d sometimes attended, decided to enlist his friend Jerry James, a carpenter, to construct a man out of wood and burn it down on the shore. When the crude sculpture went up in flames that night, it drew a small crowd.

Harvey and James continued their ritual annually at Baker Beach, with the audience growing larger each year. In 1990, hundreds of people showed up—so many that the police arrived, too, and told the organizers they couldn’t light a fire. By that time, a local group called the Cacophony Society had begun participating. The society was a crew of adventurers, artists, and other “free spirits” with an anarchic bent who undertook pranks, performances, and urban exploration. Some of its members had been planning a trip to the Black Rock Desert in Nevada; after the failure at the beach, they and Harvey made a plan to bring the 40-foot-tall man with them and burn it out there. The excursion, which took place over Labor Day weekend, was advertised in the society’s newsletter as “Bad Day at Black Rock.” About 80 people went. Burning Man had found its home.

The Paper Arch by Michael Garlington and Natalia Bertotti appears in No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man, currently at the Smithsonian.
Ron Blunt/Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

The event, in its first few years in the desert, was intimate and somewhat lawless; to begin with, the group didn’t have a permit, and they often took drugs, drove cars at high speeds, and shot guns. At the same time, it grew steadily, and certain civic structures fell into place: a layout for the camp, rangers, tickets, radio stations. In 1995, 4,000 people attended. In 1996, a man named Michael Furey died during the setup for the event, when his motorcycle collided with a truck. That year marked a turning point for Burning Man—it became more formalized, starting to take shape as the site of highly contained chaos that it is today.

Although there was no specific effort to commission art in the beginning, artists have always been involved, and the festival has always been centered on the act of creation—of both the sculpture of the man and of community. As Bruce Sterling wrote in his cover story on the festival for Wired in 1996, “Burning Man is an art gig by tradition.” In the early days in the desert, people just decided to make things—performances, sculptures, art cars, spectacles—many of which they ended up setting on fire. It’s likely that they were drawn to the simultaneous romanticism, challenge, and folly of doing so. So a man named Chris DeMonterey began constructing camera obscuras. Steve Heck, a piano mover, hauled out 88 burnt pianos and turned them into a two-story sculpture/structure. Anthropologist Jim Mason lodged 200 timepieces inside a huge ball of ice, which swiftly melted.

There’s a kind of wager of madness required to make art at Burning Man, because you must do it in the blazingly hot and bitterly cold desert, where it will remain on view for only a week. In his book, Doherty sums up the ethos-cum-aesthetic of Burning Man well, writing that “lots of Burning Man art has that same feel, of amusingly absurd intellectualized nonsense, the kinds of ideas that slightly skewed creative people brainstorm about on late nights at cafés and around the hardwood living room floor after the fourth glass of wine or third bowl of pot, but actually executed.” Even today, when there’s an application process, and the organization spends large sums of money funding work ($1.2 million for 58 installations on the playa in 2016, according to the annual report), art at Burning Man still seems to adhere to the same principles: the bigger or more spectacular, the better. And anything goes.

David Best built his first temple out of scrap wood at Burning Man in 2000. Called the Temple of the Mind, it turned into a memorial when a friend of the artist died shortly before he’d planned to head to the festival. Since then, the temple, which is often but not always conceived by Best, has become an annual mainstay of Burning Man. It’s an elegantly designed site of grief and mourning, a place where, over the course of the week, people leave personal items and write on the walls and dedicate memorials to loved ones they’ve lost. Then, the night after the burning of the man, it’s set on fire. Both entering the structure and watching it disintegrate are, by all accounts, profoundly moving.

Nora Atkinson, the curator of No Spectators, experienced the power of the temple firsthand when she attended Burning Man in 2017 and commissioned Best to make one for the exhibition. The work takes over a grand hall–type space at the top of the stairs on the museum’s second floor and is far and away the best piece in the show. Best has re-created, at least in part, the outpouring of emotion that occurs at the festival by inviting Smithsonian visitors to write notes and testaments on small blocks of wood, which they can place into the intricate patterns that form altars and light fixtures and cover every inch of the room’s walls. Doing so is a small but meaningful act, and the beauty of the space amplifies the feelings of sanctity and reverence.

Best’s installation appears with 13 others at the Renwick, each of them by an artist or collective that has shown work at Burning Man. These are the centerpieces of No Spectators, which takes over the entire museum; there’s also a small selection of costumes and jewelry from the festival, photography and video of it, and a mini exhibition within an exhibition—archival material from the Nevada Museum of Art’s City of Dust: The Evolution of Burning Man, which tells the event’s origin story. Six more sculptures are installed outside, on surrounding neighborhood streets.

The title of the Renwick show restates, in essence, one of Burning Man’s core principles—“a radically participatory ethic,” the idea that there are no spectators because everyone can and should be involved in building the contents of Black Rock City. Atkinson wants to replicate this in the Smithsonian—an ambitious goal at a time when museumgoers are prone to treat art as a backdrop for selfies. Here “you can touch the works,” she explains. “You can add to a lot of the works.” Best’s temple provides the most affecting point of connection. Candy Chang’s Before I Die..., which consists of chalkboards on which visitors can complete the title sentence, offers another opportunity for self-reflection. Five Ton Crane’s bus-cum–movie theater invites a more passive form of participation, but its size and meticulousness give you a sense of how art making at Burning Man is also a form of world building.

Still, there’s a limit to how much you can get involved with art in a museum. Duane Flatmo’s bike-powered dragon made of found metal objects looks delightful, but it would no doubt inspire more wonder moving across the playa than it does sitting stationary in a gallery. The same goes for Richard Wilks’s mobile zoetrope. At Burning Man, by contrast, you can use the art. You can volunteer to help build it. A sculpture can become a directional marker for navigating the playa: Leo Villareal, an artist who’s now represented by the blue-chip Pace Gallery and has a work on view at the Renwick, made his first light sculpture in 1997 at Burning Man “as a way to get home at night” amid the desert darkness, he said. The piece was an “epiphany” that led him to start working with light, which has been his primary artistic material for the past 20 years (he’s continued to attend the festival, too).

Burning Man is “the anti–look but don’t touch,” explained dancer, part-time art critic, and six-time Burner Larissa Archer. “You climb on things and share a drink with your buddies under them. You park a few art cars around them and have a rave. There’s a wonderful casualness to the treatment of art—it’s sacred but not in a fussy, uptight manner.” Casual as they may try to be, art museums are, at the end of the day, uptight. They’re object repositories and arbiters of taste and culture. This makes them an uneasy fit with the rigorous populism of Burning Man, where everyone’s expression of creativity is welcome, no matter how primitive.

For all the emphasis on participation, it’s difficult not to judge the art at the Renwick primarily on its aesthetic value. This does not serve some of the work well. When I toured No Spectators with Atkinson, she explained how, at the festival, Christopher Schardt’s installation Nova provided relief from constant, thumping rave beats by offering a space where you could sit on cushions, watch LED images of flowers and birds take shape on a screen above your head, and listen to classical music. In the museum, the animations look elementary, and it’s unclear what their conceptual connection is to the sound.

Over a span of five years, Marco Cochrane built three giant sculptures of nude women on the playa for his Bliss Project. They were, like a lot of Burning Man art, technically impressive: made from welded steel rods and balls, covered in a stainless steel mesh skin (some even contained programmable LED lighting), and ranging from 40 to 55 feet tall. In the desert, as the women towered over you and competed for pride of place with the iconic man, you could forgive Cochrane for their anatomical imperfections or for advocating that such simple forms could change “human consciousness around the need to end violence against women,” as he writes on his web site. In the museum, where one of the women has been replicated at a smaller size, you can see the flaws in the form up close; they become cracks in a foundation built on simplistic idealism.

Burning Man didn’t start in the desert, but there’s a reason it has thrived there: Miles of parched earth make for a perfect blank canvas. As Doherty writes, “In a place with nothing, anything seemed like everything.” At the heart of Burning Man—not just the artworks but the entire festival—is its ability to inspire in attendees a combination of awe and pride: We made it. Look what we did. Look at what we’re capable of. There’s an earnestness to this sentiment that’s both admirably pure and grossly myopic, as if Burners were the only ones ever to have built a city, experimented with alternative models of living, or spent time in the Black Rock Desert.

This is the root of so much of the self-congratulatory language that can make the festival seem insufferable to those who’ve never been. “You are the hope of the human race,” reads an “award of excellence” given out by a pair of Burners to other attendees in 2007. “Who would do this? We could let our imaginations run wild—who had ever done it in the history of mankind? It felt like glory,” Larry Harvey says in Doherty’s book. The pioneer-savior message gets even more muddled when it’s turned into a commodity, as in the gift shop of the Renwick during No Spectators. There, for $129.99, you can buy a necklace that boasts the word ego in large gold letters. Is the flaunting of one’s ego meant to be a good thing? How do the Burning Man principles of “communal effort” and “radical self-reliance” align?

At the same time, that sentiment is why Villareal and others see Burning Man itself as “one giant artwork,” in his words. “It’s all one huge thing that everyone is collaboratively building, a city. It is hard to take things out of that context and bring them out into the world.” It’s notable that, among all the civic structures that have sprung up within Black Rock City—the census project and the rangers, the newspapers and the radio station—there is no museum. Likely such an institution would seem superfluous because the whole festival functions as one itself.

Indeed, the artworks of Burning Man don’t always make sense outside of the desert because, as much as they exist (or fail) on their own merits, they’re just as importantly only one facet of the demonstration of human creativity that is Burning Man. Art helps Burners tell a story about the kind of enlightened people they are and the kind of glorious place they’ve created. In many cases, that is the only story it can tell.