Burn, Baby, Burn

Burning Man Art Festival Draws 30,000 'Burners' Into Nevada Desert

ABC News/August 28, 2006
By Bede Moore

Explaining Burning Man is impossible.

You could try and start with the basics: a weeklong art festival, middle of the desert, 30,000 participants, a massive drug-fueled orgy of the senses.

You could try -- and fail -- making comparisons: Burning Man is the Woodstock of Generation X, a weeklong party for iPod nerds and punk-rock pixies.

Or, you could try and ask the participants.

Then, you'd be back to square one because, as they'll tell you, explaining Burning Man is impossible.

"There's just a lack of reference points, of things to compare it to," said Mike Wilson, producer of the film "Burning Man: Beyond Black Rock."

"It's just very hard to describe."

Burning Man, however, requires at least an attempt at explanation.

After all, what inspires tens of thousands of people to build a temporary city in the middle of a barren desert, with average temperatures in the triple digits, and no services to speak of?

"[It's] the creative energy that's brought out," said serial participant Mariana Goodin, a health-services coordinator from Berkeley, Calif.

"In regular society, creative energy is often stifled. At Burning Man, whatever self-expression you want, just go for it."

The organizers, at least, provide some broad guidelines for participation in the festival.

Buyer beware, though, this isn't a cushy event.

The 'Typical' Burner

The typical "burner" travels to Nevada's Black Rock Desert the week before Labor Day weekend.

The festival takes place on part of a prehistoric salt pan or playa and forms a circle, roughly two miles in diameter, where organizers lay the ground plans for a temporary city prior to the event.

When the gates to the city are swung open, entering participants -- who need to purchase a ticket for entry -- agree to "leave no trace" on the environment.

This means the city's 30,000-plus population must bring a whole week's necessities in their vehicles, as only coffee, ice and portable toilets are made available by the organizers.

Throughout the week, participants set up theme-based camps in the city and then walk or ride around the playa to view the art installations that are scattered across the landscape.

If you're wondering whether these creative campers ever get up to any mischief, there's no need to worry.

Come nighttime, the playa is illuminated by glow sticks and neon, while bass booms across the desert and masses of "burners" rave all night.

Understandably, this mixture of survival, art, crazy costumes and huge parties has often led to disparaging reports about Burning Man, something which most "burners" say are misplaced.

For Brian Doherty, author of the book "This Is Burning Man," the festival is often misunderstood and not given the proper respect.

"A lot of East Coasters look on it as stupid hippie indulgence," he said, "[but] Burning Man is one of the most interesting things on the American scene. It's attracting people from around the country and around the world."

History of 'Black Rock City'

Today, "Black Rock City" is open again.

Since the early morning, cars have wound their way through the gates to begin celebrating the 20th Burning Man festival.

The movement originally began on a San Francisco beach in 1986, when Larry Harvey and Jerry James had an impulse to burn an eight-foot wooden effigy of a man.

The procession created so much attention from curious onlookers that the two returned the following year, kicking off an annual tradition that continued until local police demanded the event be relocated.

For the last 15 years the festival has taken place in the desert, attracting ever larger crowds and a growing variety of artworks and installations.

"They have really become a proper organization and production," Wilson said. "They had to get it together in '97 when the population exploded."

Now the event is bigger than ever, requiring impressive coordination to continue living up to the festival's "leave no trace" motto, an attempt to minimize the event's environmental impact.

Even though the growing size might suggest Burning Man is losing its alternative roots, "burners" say this is not the case.

"If it were the usual suspects, it would have been a lot less interesting to me," Wilson said. "For a mass gathering, it is a much more enlightened crowd than you'd find at any art festival or concert that I've been to."

Scott London, a Santa Barbara journalist and "burner," agrees.

"The organizers had a very enlightened idea. They've managed to stay true to those ideals, and the participants have embraced them and internalized them."

In June, the organizers of Burning Man received permission to continue using the Black Rock Desert for the next five years, securing the event's short-term future.

"I don't know of anything else on the planet that's in the same ballpark," Wilson said.

With that sort of reputation, Burning Man's long-term future hardly seems in doubt.

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