The contributions of all four speakers contributed to the sense of Burning Man as a type of experimental art utopia for those seeking an alternative to purely capitalist pursuits.
Born on San Francisco's Baker Beach in 1986, Burning Man has grown into a spectacular annual phenomenon in Nevada’s Black Rock desert, attracting over 70,000 attendees to become denizens of a temporary city around each Labor Day weekend. While public perceptions of the event often emphasize nudity, drugs, commercialization, and the “tech bro” culture drawn to the event, a recent symposium sought to assess Burning Man from multiple scholarly and artistic perspectives, and to explore radical and profound concepts at the core of the movement that lie beyond the reach of easy criticism or categorization..
Held at the de Young Museum in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park on February 23, 2019, "Burning Man: Art & Technology" was the capstone event of the 2018-19 season of the Bill Lane Center's ArtsWest Initiative. Featuring two scholars, a photojournalist, and a museum curator, the four speakers regaled 300 attendees with a visual wonderland of images and critical insight into the ethos of Burning Man as an uniquely western art happening. It was co-sponsored with the Stanford Arts Institute in cooperation with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
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“There’s been a lot of talk in the press about Burning Man today being kind of a jet-setting desert resort,” said Stanford University communication professor Fred Turner in his keynote address. “Anybody that can write that has never been to Burning Man.”
Instead, said Turner, Burning Man is a cultural force that is closely tied to the ascent of Silicon Valley. Having spent years researching the relationship between the two, he came to the conclusion that “Burning Man has paralleled the rise of Silicon Valley, and in many ways helped drive that rise.” The parallel rise of the Burning Man movement in San Francisco and the development of Silicon Valley are linked as global movements with Bay Area roots.
Turner described first walking into Google’s HQ offices in 2006, where Burning Man artworks adorned the front lobby. The Burning Man movement describes ten principles that reflect its culture, and Turner finds those reflected in the practices of tech companies like Google.
“Commons-based peer production” is a term coined by the sociologist Yochai Benkler to describe how engineering is organized in tech firms. It is characterized by an absence of hierarchy, a level space in which people “coordinate rather than dominate,” said Turner. This requires a degree of interpersonal visibility, he said. “You have to be able to see one another to know who’s capable of doing what.”
This philosophy that made tech companies so successful is mirrored in Burning Man’s ten principles: radical inclusion; gifting; decommodification; radical self-reliance; radical self-expression; communal effort; civic responsibility; leaving no trace; participation; and immediacy.
Turner described seeing these principles at work at Burning Man as “a real high.” The experience for an engineer at Burning Man “was making something beautiful. He wasn’t making code to serve up to a firm, he was making something that others would see and that would be expressive.”
“This experience of ecstatic labor is a kind of vocational ecstasy. It is an ecstatic expression of the values that you should be experiencing in your workplace,” said Turner, “but are not.”
This interpretation of Burning Man as a group of builders coming together to create beauty and find meaning is not the narrative most often told in the media. A recent search of Google News for “Burning Man,” for example, returned: “Are the Super Rich Ruining Burning Man?” and “Burning Man Bans $100K Campers After Exploding Toilets.”
Turner acknowledged that on a return visit to Burning Man in 2017, “the level of wealth out there was not something I had really seen or really noticed before.”
Marian Goodell, Burning Man’s CEO, published a letter in February criticizing some of the “millionaire camps,” decrying use of Burning Man backdrops for commercial promotions, and declaring that “Burning Man is not a festival.”
Turner argued that this channeling of self-expression is characteristic of both Burning Man and the business model of Silicon Valley tech companies. Tech companies, he said, seek to “create situations online that generate behaviors,” like sharing photos and connecting with friends, as those companies collect and monetize user data. In that regard, Turner argues, “self-expression has taken on an entirely new valence.”
Thus, the problems that Goodell flagged in her letter are “the problems that emerge as surveillance capitalism does its work and as people profit from it,” Turner said. “The very freedoms we enjoy in the unbounded space of Burning Man are models of the new productive behaviors that surveillance needs to work.”
As Burners collaborate and create content, the information they share online is “monitored, mapped, and resold for the purpose of capitalism,” Turner said.
“Burning Man is a community,” said Turner.”But it’s a community, I would argue, whose values and behaviors inadvertently celebrate and arguably legitimize new modes of manufacturing.”
The photographer and journalist Scott London followed with a reflection on his decade spent documenting Burning Man. Originally reluctant to attend, he was lured by a girlfriend and found himself compelled by the experience.
“Burning Man was less of a festival in the traditional sense, and more of a visionary experiment,” London said. “It seemed to me that there were stories to tell out there.”
So, he started on what began as a commissioned photo essay project, and what ended up as a series of free lance stand-alone photos. London shared some of his most compelling images on the screen throughout the talk: a giant boom box with an enormous teddy bear; naked bodies from all angles covered in paint; a trombone with fire coming out; a “hug deli” in action.
He described the event as an experiment in temporary community: “it’s not a place that you go, in other words, it’s an experience that you have.”
London lamented the hedonistic reputation he believes Burning Man has acquired in the media.
“Unfortunately, the media has persisted in framing the event as nothing but a Bacchanalian orgy in the desert. The focus tends to be on the nudity, the drugs, the excess, the self-indulgence of it all,” he said. “Spinning it as a big desert rave missed the significance of the event as a kind of test-tube experiment.” The central tenets of participation and anti-commercialism, he said, are underappreciated but crucial elements of the event.
“How great is it that you can get out there and spend a whole week without ever having to take your wallet out?,” he marveled, “It’s amazing!” The result of this “gift economy” is a variety of creative booths, such as the Pickle Palace and Loving Oven, that meet people’s needs for free.
“How can an event where nothing is for sale be too commercialized?” London asked, as a counter to recent press portrayals.
Typically, London said, “our recreational activities are almost entirely passive. What we do is we spectate,” London said, “always looking at what other people are doing.” London said the “participation” tenet of Burning Man is an antidote to this. “Don’t go to Burning man to be entertained,” he said.”Go to burning man to be the entertainment,”
He compared the experience to a “theater of the absurd” as demonstrated by the string of images he shared as the shock and awe of beauty and humor found there.
“It’s like walking around in a Salvador Dali painting,” London exclaimed. “What you see at Burning Man can be startling, unconventional, hilarious, mystifying, and also in some deep sense eye-opening, even a bit psychedelic.”
The result is a freedom from the “bondage of traditional ways of seeing,” London concluded. “There are very few public places where that’s allowed and encouraged.”
Mounting a Burning Man exhibit in the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery presented an unusual challenge for the curator Nora Atkinson. How do you reconstruct an ephemeral, site-dependent event where the art is “huge and dangerous and get burned at the end,” according to Atkinson. Her masterpiece museum show, called No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man, was a unique challenge to mount and by all measures a smashing success.
Atkinson’s answer was to literally commission scaled-down versions of Burning Man artworks in an exhibit that aimed to “tear down the fourth wall between artist and audience.”
The museum version of Marco Cochrane’s “Truth is Beauty,” a centerpiece sculpture of a standing nude woman, towered over the gallery at 18 feet tall—still just one third of its original size. The sculpture shared space with other works that Atkinson commissioned, such as a paper arch, fire dragon, little car theater, eight-foot-tall Burning Man, and a miniature version of the Playa – the temporary city erected on the dry lake bed of the Black Rock desert.
Among the many challenges she faced in pitching the exhibit was whether “the Smithsonian, as a branch of the Federal Government, could embrace this anarchist event,” she said.
Nonetheless, she got it off the ground with contributions from companies who agreed not to display large promotional logos, to honor the anti-commercialism of Burning Man. The museum also agreed not to sell any Burning Man paraphernalia in its gift shop.
The result was a “fully participatory experience and broke the boundaries in almost every way,” Atkinson said.
Art pieces that looked very small on the Playa became huge in the scope of the museum that was built in the 19th century — casting shadows that danced across the room. To embrace the participatory aspect of Burning Man, the curators permitted visitors to touch and interact with the displayed artworks.
The exhibit was the most popular in the history of the gallery, said Atkinson. Among the 800 thousand visitors was Burning Man’s co-founder, Larry Harvey, who got to see the exhibit just a month before his death last year. The exhibition comes next to the Oakland Museum of California in October 2019.
Finally, the sociologist Katherine Chen addressed the cultivation of creativity within Burning Man. The event started out “surfing the edge of chaos,” and never quite dropped that approach despite its rapid scaling.
In Chen’s experience working on the volunteer crews, she found the managers served as authentic support points in a type of “Do-Ocracy,” that empowers all people to act.
“Anyone can identify a civic need,” Chen said. “Experimentation and failure are expected.” As a result, volunteers introduced a recycling camp, temple art project, and mini post office that distributed people’s letters around the Playa.
On a larger scale, Burning Man facilitates “an expansion of who can be creative and artistic.” Laser engineers, for example, spent a full year toiling in the lab created a dazzling display of LED light art for the Playa on their own time. After one artist’s 80-foot mud labyrinth was destroyed by a desert flash rainstorm, he returned to find it rebuilt “more beautifully than before” by unknown volunteers.
Chen said that the experience of making art outside of commoditized markets is extremely liberating to Burners, and forms part of the magic that draws them to return again and again. As a result, even for volunteers, “menial labor transforms into something very meaningful,” in stark contrast to the capitalist frame where only pay motivates work.
Chen remarked that the meaning of the event is not entirely constrained to its duration. One organization, Burners Without Borders, seeks to apply the Burning Man principles to distressed environments around the world. The participatory arts event FIGMENT attempts to emulate in New York the rituals that have sparked creativity in the Black Rock Desert.
Nonetheless, the history and improbability of Burning Man creates an environment that remains unparalleled.
The contributions of all four speakers contributed to the sense of Burning Man as a type of experimental art utopia for those seeking an alternative to purely capitalist pursuits. The ephemeral nature of the event allows Burners to shed their past identities and fully buy into a more creative and generous self.