Friday, September 03, 2004

Growth of the Man

OK, you have a fair sized town that comes into being for one week a year, in the middle of a desert, then dissapears without a trace.  It's not Brigadoon, it's Black Rock City, and this is the second segment in a series on Burning Man, which is going on right now.  Haveing looked at what BM has become, the question is, how did it develop?

The history of Burning Man can be split up roughtly into three periods:

  • the early years on a San Francisco beach (1986-89)
  • the years as a largely "underground" event in the Nevada desert (1990-1996)
  • Burning Man as an established event with major public impact (1997-?)
It started on Baker Beach in the Presidio of San Francisco in 1986 with Larry Harvey, Jerry James and maybe 20 friends (from this interview):
That was one thing, I don't know, you know, it was done on an impulse, I just thought, suddenly, that it'd be a great thing to build a large wooden man and burn him. You know the more I think about it, the farther back I can trace, in a sense, I've always been fascinated by religious ritual, by sacred architecture, by monumentality. ...  And clearly, when we went to the beach so casually, and burnt figure that was only 8 feet tall, slightly taller than us, we weren't quite prepared for the experience. Suddenly, poised against the flat horizon of the ocean, he seemed prodigiously bigger than us. And when soaked with gasoline, he incandesced! Gasoline was the wrong fuel to use; it's very volatile. We're lucky we didn't blow ourselves up. He just turned into this wonderful ball of fire instantly . And we were thrilled, we were transfixed by it . It turned out to be a more moving image than I had guessed it would be, and instantly drew what few people were on the beach to it. People are fascinated by fire, and when you combine fire with the human form, I think it has a certain significance that certainly transcended our intent. So we just came back and did it the next year.
From the beginning, powerful common experiences, such as the Burn or life on the playa, drove the development of the festival.  These experiences created community in the midst of radically diverse expression, gave people a new perspective on their lives, and were good reason to come back each year.  But over time, two key interrelated tensions seem to have developed. The first is between the need for autonomy and the need to manage the effect of the festival on the communities around it.  The other is between the sometimes anarchic past and what Burning Man is becoming.

The burn on the beach was repeated for three more years, until the local authorities started to have a problem with a party burning objects on a public beach.  This is the start of the first essential dilemma of BM: how do you create and maintain that autonomy from the surrounding "real" world that makes powerful self expression and the key common experiences possible, while managing the effect, if not damage, that the festival causes to that surrounding world.  The threat of not being able to hold BM next year has been a constant part of the history of the festival, and seems to have been a supporting cause for some core values of BM, such as Leave No Trace.

Instead of using a beach the next year (1990) Harvey and 100 others headed east to Black Rock Desert in Nevada and burned a 40 foot high man.  For the next several years, the festival grew and developed many of the characteristics is it is best known for, but it stayed an underground event, largely known only in the Bay Area.   By 1996, though 10,000 were attending the event, and media attention arrived as well.  Possibly the best piece on it was by cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling in Wired (which I quoted from in a previous post). Brian Tierney has some pictures of BM from the early 90's (most of the very early BM web sites are now dust).

The next year (1997) it had started to become a media event, especially on the web, and BM's roots in the Bay Area in the mid to late 90's meant that it would get maximun coverage on the web, and later, in the general media.  Burning Man now finds itrself in the position of being famous -- and that causes problems.  There is now a formal organization staging BM, Black Rock City LLC, which organizes activies year round in several locations, and contributes to art organizations.  BRC LLC continues to try to find the balance that will allow the festival to grow and thrive.

Lessley Anderson's article Burning Spin in the SF Weekly outlined the strict control that the BM organization exerts to influence how the festival is seen, to keep it stricly non-commercial, and to protect the privacy of participants.  It's a matter of survival:
For Burning Man organizers, not wanting the event to be widely portrayed as a rave or Mardi Gras is hardly a matter of aesthetics; stories that paint Burning Man as a big party scene jeopardize its hard-won, cordial relationship with local Nevada government and law enforcement officials -- and, therefore, its very existence. Though Burning Man brings cash into Reno and the tiny towns of Gerlach and Empire that sit on the edge of the Black Rock Desert, the festival is still viewed suspiciously by many locals.

"These people, they look different. The onus is on them to, you know, they're going to be scrutinized," says Joanne Bond, a county commissioner for Washoe County, through which participants drive and shop on their way to Burning Man. "You can't have purple hair and not stand out."

"I have people make comments all the time about Burning Man, and their perception is driven by media coverage," says Sheriff Ron Skinner of Pershing County, where the event is held. "I think the media has focused on the party atmosphere of Burning Man rather than the art aspects of it. And I think that those people looking to that type of atmosphere have flocked to Burning Man."
Anderson outlines one news report of widespread drug problems that, while inaccurate, caused a crackdown by local law enforcement.
It is exactly the kind of public misperception created by an inaccurate and simplistic wire report that Burning Man's organizers seek to avoid via hard-edged media relations tactics -- and simple repetition. "Burning Man is a celebration of self-expression," says Goodell. "It's not a giant party."


At first glance, Burning Man's media policies may seem draconian. In the abstract, it is easy to hold that Burning Man intrudes too far on journalists' right to report the news, and on documentary-makers' ability to express themselves through their art. But when you remove Burning Man from the world of abstraction, and look at it in the context of the real world and real-world media practices, you can see that the event's press-relations strategy is necessary for survival. Without spin control, Burning Man could spin right out of the organizers' hands into an environment controlled by people who fear, suspect, or simply dislike the event's essential messiness, and its aims.
Not everybody is happy with BRC LLC.  As time has gone by, the list of rules that will be enforced has grown.  For example, dogs are now forbidden, and local police are much more numerous on the playa with a change in attitude -- they will make arrests for activities such as selling drugs.  And that leads to the second dilemma -- the conflict between the past and the future.  Google the term "BMorg" and you will find a sizeable set of complaints about the effect that the growing BM organization has on the once anarchic playa.  These complaints run the gamut from decrying the influence of some people close to founder Larry Harvey have, to the amount of time it takes to get a permit for using their flame thrower.  (It is Burning Man after all, and fire art remains a big thing.)  Sone of the posts read like the normal nose-out-of-joint complaints you find in any smal town or nonprofit organization.  Others, in my opinion, are expressions of nostalgia for the anarchists summer camp that the early Black Rock festivals reportedly were, when Burning Man was flying under the radar of just about everybody.  That won't work now, when Black Rock City is for one week, reportedly the seventh largest city in Nevada.  The early days are gone, and can't be brought back, so for some of the pioneers, the Burning Man is dead.

Changes continue at BRC -- The SF Chrionicle has a good story about efforts to better handle the growing number of families with children at the Burn, and a some of the artists that would be at the festival this year were part of the protest activities at the Republican convention this week.

The two essential dillemas are still visible in the latest development -- the possibility of a permanent home for the festival.  The existence of Burning Man each year is dependent on how well the federal Bureau of Land Managment feels the festival met their commitments the previous year.  As part of the effort to make Burning Man a year round organization, BRC LLC is looking for a place of thier own, according to the SF Chronicle:
Founder Larry Harvey envisions a place where affiliated nonprofit organizations could gather -- perhaps with a conference center, a park for the event's trademark huge outdoor exhibits, and facilities for creating interactive artworks that could be transported to gatherings nationwide.  "That's going to be a huge leap, and it's going to take some fund-raising," Harvey said. The most likely location is in Nevada or nearby, relatively close to the festival 120 miles north of Reno.

But some participants at this year's event said the thought of permanence is contrary to the Burning Man experience.

"This is about leave no trace and that includes the art," said Colleen Wynn, 35, of Seattle. "It's temporary art for a temporary audience. That's what's so unique -- people spend thousands and thousands of dollars for something that goes away. Forming a permanent collection, I think, would take away from the original spirit,"
A permanent home would probably mark a fourth and different age in the future life of the Burning Man. That future will rely on how well Larry Harvey and the BM organization find that balace between the festival and the outside world, and between their own past and future.

We've taken a look at the festival, and how it got here.  Next, Larry Harvey's opinons on why Burning Man exists, and what may keep it going.

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