In the Eye of the Beholder

It is a surprise to many to learn that Northern Nevada is home to not one, but two, of the world’s premiere art events. Reno’s “Artown” (formerly “Uptown, Downtown, Artown,” see: was voted the world’s best downtown art festival by a European civic association in 2000. “The Burning Man Project” on the Black Rock Desert north of Reno, is likewise on its way to becoming one of the great art festivals of all time.

Artown runs the entire 31 days of July with over 200 events and exhibits in more than three dozen venues around the city, making it the largest civic art festival in the world. From Clog Dancing to Opera, from live painting demonstrations to ensemble theater performances, Artown covers most of the spectrum of mainstream art, both amateur and professional. For everything else there’s the week long celebration of “radical self expression” called Burning Man.

Artown, with its packed schedule of open air concerts, intimate theater presentations and wine-and-cheese gallery receptions is fairly easy to describe; Burning Man with its art cars and fire twirlers, costumed revelers and naked exhibitionists, massive art installations and practical joke theme camps is equally, and oppositely, nearly impossible. Many who have tried to describe Burning Man have compared it to Woodstock, Mardi Gras, The Rainbow Gatherings or the Grateful Dead concert phenomena, but such comparisons fail utterly. This festival is so truly different that only by attending can one understand it.

Burning Man takes place on a dry lake bed, a vast flat expanse of alkali salt called a playa. In this same place in recent years American and British teams with rocket powered cars vied to set the World Land Speed Record. The Burning Man site, called Black Rock City, is over 100 miles from Reno, and, as one San Francisco writer quipped, even further from civilization. The playa is both literally and figuratively a blank canvas onto which the art of the attendees is painted.

The playa of the Black Rock Desert is a harsh, inhospitable environment. Nothing grows there, nothing lives there; no plants, no birds, no visible insects. Summer day time temperatures exceed 110 degrees Fahrenheit for weeks on end. The dirt beneath your feet, and soon in your hair, under your clothes and in your food, is a pale shade of tan, fine and powdery. The least little breeze raises clouds of it. When the wind comes up, and it can blow at hurricane velocity, white-out conditions occur. Fault-block mountains of the Great Basin, twisted and blackened with ancient lava flows, ring the site. The few sparse junipers on their heights do nothing to soften the stark, sharp outlines of these crags against the pale blue sky. Under some circumstances this strange, inhuman place could be seen as beautiful; under others it could be life threatening. Your ticket to Burning Man makes that clear. At the top of the ticket, in all capital letters, it reads: “YOU VOLUNTARILY ASSUME THE RISK OF SERIOUS INJURY OR DEATH BY ATTENDING.”

Beneath that it reads: “You must bring enough food, water, shelter, and first aid to survive one week in a harsh desert environment. Commercial vending, firearms, fireworks, rockets and all other explosives prohibited. You agree to read and abide by ALL rules in the Survival Guide [handed to you at the entrance gate and also available on the website]. You agree to follow federal, state, and local laws. This is a LEAVE NO TRACE, Pack it in, Pack it OUT event. You are asked to contribute 2 hours of playa clean up before departure.”

For the entire event in 2000 there were about 1,000 people treated for cuts and scrapes, broken bones, dehydration, and such. All of the injuries but for a handful were minor (two people were hit in the head by flying debris and were flown by helicopter to local hospitals). A thousand sounds like a lot, but consider, Burning Man was, for that week, the fifth largest city in the state! How much action would a hospital or urgent care center get in a similar week in a regular town of that size? Lots more! And, this was under extreme camping conditions with extreme weather conditions (75 mile an hour winds, white out blowing dust conditions, rain all of one night and clinging clay mud that followed). Under such circumstances these folks performed very well in deed.

Yes, these were conditions that most normal people would hate, but these folks clearly aren’t normal, and are proud of it! Many Americans, not just Burning Man attendees, are glad that we still have a Bill of Rights sufficiently intact to allow the nonconformist, the truly Free American, a place to be free. The continued existence of Burning Man says that the First Amendment, at least, is still alive and well. Some see Burning Man as something of the sociological equivalent of a canary in a mine – when The Burning Man Project is dead (from the deadly fumes of censorship and religious intolerance) the Republic, they fear, probably won’t be far behind.

While the Burning Man festival lasts but one week, ending Labor Day, Black Rock City is inhabited by a handful of people for several months before and after the event. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) controls the land and they require that the playa be returned to a pristine natural state after the festival. This requires an army of volunteers to rake and sweep the site of any evidence of human presence; and hundreds of dump truck loads to haul away ashes from the ritual burning of dozens of works of art.

Prior to the festival’s official opening the Monday before Labor Day, a growing number of artists arrive on site to begin constructing their theme camps and installations. Installations for 2000 included a three story Buddhist Temple, an amazingly elaborate maze, and a giant Pegasus erupting out of the desert floor. Also, Burning Man Project staff spend weeks laying out the City’s unique ground plan, setting up port-a-potties and erecting official structures, like Media Mecca, the gathering place for journalists covering the event.

The very center of Black Rock City is where The Man, a towering wooden stick figure with triangular head and up-raised arms, stands. A circle, a mile or more across, is drawn around him. This space is left open for art installations. Fringing that open circle is the curving arc of streets that make up the camp grounds. The streets that run in parallel concentric arcs are named for body parts. The street that fronts the circle is Head Way. Open on one side to the playa art area and a distant view of The Man, the other side is a miles long curving row of theme camps. For 2000 these camps included a sexual themed miniature golf course with bar called “The Foreplay Lounge;” “Thunder Dome,” a geodesic dome wherein amateur pugilists fought each other a la the Mad Max movie; and “Antarctica,” a 50 foot freezer trailer that provided respite from the desert heat. The remaining streets were The Boulevard of the Brain, Throat Road, Heart Avenue, Gut Alley, Sex Drive, Anal Avenue, Knee Lane and the furthest from The Man, Feet Street. The radial streets that intersect these parallel ones are named for the minutes and hours on the face of a clock. My group, Installation 23, was on the corner of 7:30 and Brain.

Center Camp, at 6:00 and Head Way, is one of three circular structures erected by The Burning Man Project for use by festival attendees. The other two are Community Satellite meeting areas on Brain at 9:00 and 3:00. Center Camp is a vast circular pavilion a couple-a-hundred feet across with two small stages, and a variety of open and sheltered seating, providing a unique meeting area. It is the only permitted vender on the playa, selling hot coffee and cold sodas. One attendee I met there called it “a really cool coffee house.” Stretching left and right of Center Camp, for a mile or more in either direction, the body part named streets terminate at 2:00 and 10:00, leaving the top of the clock face open playa.

Just as a state or county fair has many events, so too has the Burning Man Festival. Without a working time machine, it is impossible to see all of it. With thousands of people expressing themselves through parades, stage shows, dance parties and interactive art exhibits, spread over five square miles of camps and open playa, hundreds of interesting things occur simultaneously – and do so ’round the clock for over a week! The center piece, the grand culmination the week’s activity is the burning of The Man. This is no simple bon fire, but a spectacular pyrotechnic display – one conducted as a mock religious ceremony!

The Man stands atop a 20 foot tall stepped pyramid made out of hay bales. The Man himself is another 40-some feet tall, his outline illuminated by neon tubes of many colors. On the final day of the festival, as sunset ignites the clouds with dazzling reds and pinks, thousands of people begin to converge on The Man. A circle of lights set in the playa, a safe distance from The Man, begins rhythmically flashing, warning the attendees to stay back. Officials stand elbow to elbow around the circle, admitting only those with “pyro passes.” Those who enter form dozens of small circles around The Man and begin a solemn chanting.

When darkness has fully fallen the burning of The Man begins. A cloud burst of fireworks erupts from his head. The chanters become acrobats twirling flaming batons, dancing wildly about his feet. As the fire spreads to The Man’s body more and more fireworks of many types are released. Whirling wheels of fireworks descend to The Man on wires from surrounding towers. More fireworks are shot off from all over the festival site. A fire cannon blasts great scorching balls of black smoke and fire into the starry night sky.

On the Christian Right there are those, who have never attended Burning Man, who say that this is a Satanic Ritual, that The Burning Man Project is Satan worship, and, for all I know, some probably even claim that its founder, Larry Harvey, is the Anti-Christ! This is probably nonsense. I did not see any Satanist activities anywhere in Black Rock City, at any time. I did, however, see a lot of pretty women wearing little red horns – but whether those horns were indications of a religious conviction, or just last year’s Halloween costume, I will let you decide. I have to admit, though, the fire twirlers around the base of the Burning Man creeped me out a little. They reminded me way too much of the fire imps dancing about the giant Devil in the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence of Walt Disney’s film Fantasia. But, I must add, that was just me.

Burning Man truly is what each attendee brings to it. It is a blank slate, an elaborate physical ink blot test, a kaleidoscopic Etch-a-sketch left in the desert for those who can find it to draw onto
it, or from it, what they will.

The core philosophy of The Burning Man Project is given as “radical self expression.” Let’s break that down, starting with the word “radical.”

Radical comes from the Latin radicalis meaning “having roots.” The first definition of radical in my Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary is “of or from the root or roots; going to the center, foundation, or source of something; fundamental; basic.” The political definition of radical is given, in part, as “favoring fundamental or extreme change; very leftist.” Burning Man certainly goes to the very core, the root of what being a human means. It is also extreme, in just about every possible sense of the word. “Leftist” on the other hand doesn’t really apply. While it is hardly a
“conservative” activity, Burning Man eschews politics in any conventional sense. Indeed, one of the funniest moments for me was when a group of “protesters” came by our camp. They were dressed head to toe in white and carried large white “protest signs” that were totally blank. While they went through motions as though they were shouting or chanting slogans, they uttered not a sound!

“Self” is defined as “the identity, character, or essential qualities of any person or thing,” and “the identity, personality, individuality, etc. of a given person; one’s own person as distinct from all others.” While “expression” is partially defined as “a putting into words; a representing in language; a stating,” and “a picturing, representing, or symbolizing in art, music, etc.” and “a manner of expressing; especially, a meaningful and eloquent manner of speaking, singing, etc.” We are not talking about mere hedonist self gratification, as some who have not attended the event have mislabled it. This is a celebration of identity. Breaking the bondage of conformity to peer pressure and corporate image, the individual is free to shed the three-piece suit and power tie, the Crew Kid cap, the pants-suit and sensible shoes, and wear a wild costume, or absolutely nothing, reveling in the nearly unlimited possibilities of self statement.

In that “a stating” definition we see that Burning Man is far more than self indulgence, it is communication. 25,000 people are there to tell, and to listen, to who they are. As a Utopianist I am struck to my core by what this means. Black Rock City is an ongoing experiment in community building, and more. Unlike cities of the past, based on mutual protection against the elements or enemies, or on making money, Black Rock City is built to further communication. Here we see, in all its strange glory, the missing element of the Internet: physical communication. Black Rock City is the Internet in hard copy. It is the first true city of the Information Age, the first metropolis of the Twenty-First Century.

Further, in “a manner of expressing; especially, a meaningful and eloquent manner of speaking, singing, etc,” we see the artistic expression of self that is the greatness of The Burning Man Project. For Burning Man 2000 something like 150 major art installations were erected over the five square mile site, quite possibly making it the world’s largest art gallery. From live music to performance art, from interactive art pieces to body painting, from a fake Post Office where one waits in line to be yelled at by the clerk to elaborate quasi-religious rituals, hundreds of art events happen continuously. Parades of one sort or another were just about hourly occurrences.

At other “art festivals” one encounters venders hocking alleged “arts and crafts:” wooden name plates, Aussie hats, tole painted saw blades, Indian beadwork made in Taiwan, and on and on. Not a speck of that at Burning Man! Absolutely no vending, no display of corporate logos permitted. Purity of message is thus maintained.

Of course, just because its “art” doesn’t mean its “good.” Some artists don’t grasp that they need to communicate with their audiences. Some art is just done for shock value. Some is done simply because it can be done. Some is clearly the work of disturbed minds. But then, that is true of nearly every gallery and modern art museum I have ever visited. On the other hand, some of the pieces were impressive, moving, inspirational and/or delightful. As a working artist I was thrilled, awed, and, yes, even made a little envious.

A very high percentage of the attendees work in high tech jobs. Many techies are frustrated artists. I was once a computer programmer. I know many of these folks found tech jobs as a way to express their innate creativity and still make a living. Many find building crazy artsy stuff, like turning a VW Bug into a flying saucer, covering a bicycle in lights or building tiny robots that scuttle about the desert performing strange feats, a much needed outlet.

The quasi-religious rituals of Burning Man are another important outlet. The religious urge is one of the great human drives. I am sure I could babble like a pop psychologist, or a graduate student working up his doctorial thesis, on the deeper meaning of Burning Man — but I will spare you. Let me just say, I felt something…

Saturday night, as the last of The Man turned to ashes and the crowd began to disperse, I felt a sudden and quite surprising feeling of release, like a heavy burden I didn’t even know I had had suddenly been removed. This was followed instantly a joyous sense of renewal. “Release and renewal!” I said aloud to no one. I looked around, wondering if others were feeling this. I wondered if I were telepathically experiencing the sensations of some in the crowd around me, or if something in me had somehow burned up with The Man. Buoyant, I returned to camp and a wild and wonderful evening.

Before I next fell asleep in my own bed back home I had already conceived of a design for our camp at next year’s Burning Man. Yes, once you go, you’re hooked. To quote one of my fellow “burners,” a tall brunette Operating Room Nurse from a major regional hospital, “Its the ultimate!”

by Jerry E. Smith

About the author: Tales From the Playa

Tales From the Playa

Tales From the Playa are dreams and memories of events that took place at Burning Man, as told by participants. Submit your story here.