To See, Or Not To See

So maybe you’re packing your bags and buying the things and being distracted at work because you can’t wait go to Burning Man for the first time or the 15th time. Or maybe you had to do the adulting this year and you’re staying home, but you’re still looking at pictures of the desert and seeing what your friends are posting, and sometimes you feel soooo good about staying home, and sometimes you just feel like crap.

Or maybe you wanted to go but you couldn’t get a ticket, and maybe that helplessness is the worst feeling of all.

Whatever the case, there are still all those pictures online. Depending on your circumstances, they tease you, excite you, depress you – maybe even anger you.

It hasn’t always been like this, of course. There wasn’t any cell service here before the event, and certainly not during it. There weren’t any smartphones at all, and even

after they appeared, it took awhile for the sharing society to develop. We haven’t always been so deliriously self-obsessed, and we haven’t always been able to carefully craft our online personas, to put makeup on the face we show to the world.

But that’s ancient history, and who cares? These days there is reasonably decent, if spotty, cell service on the playa, without even going on roaming. AT&T has a new tower operating, and Camera Girl says the org is aware of the company’s plans to put more towers here, maybe even enough to have cell service during the event. We don’t think that will happen, but who knows?

So, what happens out here isn’t private anymore. You see the city being built, you see the people building it, and you can even see what the art looks like in all its desert glory a long time before you actually get to step foot in Black Rock City.

But is this a good thing? Are there no more surprises if you’re on your way to Burning Man?

A piece of the plaza
A piece of the plaza

We’ve thought for awhile that it might be possible to persuade the Burning Man community to simply not share photos of big art until the gates open. Make it an Articulated Community Value (trademark pending) to keep the surprises alive.

We thought about not posting pictures of completed or nearly completed big art pieces on the playa. We know you can see artists’ conceptions of them in lots of places — fundraising sites, the Burning Man grants page, even Facebook pages devoted to the projects. But those drawings and renderings are not the real thing, and they are not the real thing in the desert.

We thought we would only show pictures of PEOPLE; the ones building the city, the ones building the art. We’d show only PIECES of the art – detail shots, not the entire piece.

But we also thought it would make sense to ask the artists what they thought about it, if they thought about it at all. And the answers are yes, no, and maybe so. They are all over the place, probably not surprisingly.

Marco Cochran and his crew, the people behind the Bliss Dance series, have had a strict “no pictures” policy during the build for each of their three projects. We didn’t know about these preferences, and so of course we violated them regularly until we were brought up to speed.

And other big gatherings strictly prohibit posting “pre” photos. Presumably the organizers want to amaze and enthrall you when you get there, not before. But let’s face it, seeing pictures AFTER an event is just not the same.

Andrew Johnstone is the person most responsible for bringing this version of the Man into being. “I’ve got a unique perspective,” he said, which is almost always true, but in this case especially so. “I’ve seen it in 3D, I’ve seen it in virtual reality … it’s still astonishing in person. An image will give you an inkling, but it’s not the experience.”

It didn’t seem like veteran Temple builder David Best could have been any less interested in the question. There are going to be pictures, he said, and there’s nothing that can be done about it. “It’s all different now,” he said in exasperation, or resignation, or something. But he was not in the least concerned about anyone’s surprise being spoiled by seeing photos of art beforehand.

Andrew Johnstone
Andrew Johnstone

On the other hand, “I’m a surprise addict,” said Dan Sullivan, the leader of the Catacomb of Veils project. “For me, personally, I choose not to look” at pictures of the art beforehand. “Everyone is in charge of their own consumption of media.”

For Alfonso Salcedo, building a big art project is a new experience, but photographing one is not – he’s an exceptional photographer and videographer, and does that for a living in the default world. But now he’s helping build the Catacomb, so does seeing pictures spoil the surprise? “I don’t think it does,” he said. “It depends on the kind of photography. I think there’s a way of doing it that inspires people. … I think there are a lot of people who would like to be part of the build, but can’t. (Photography) allows people to experience the build.”

So that concludes today’s magnificent display of navel gazing. We’ve let ourselves be talked out of the whole idea. Unless someone specifically asks us not to take photos, we’ll just go on about our business of giving you an idea of what’s happening here. If you want to be surprised, then don’t look at us. You’re in charge.

Some more pics:


In other news, the folks in the Yellow Bikes camp opened their doors last night to help workers find bikes to use during Burning Man. (You know you should bring a bike here, right? Burning Man is big. You’re going to want to get around, and being on a bike is a lot better than walking. So bring a bike, and don’t forget to bring it home. Don’t be that guy who uses it for the week and just leaves it behind for someone else to take care of. DON’T BE THAT GUY.)

Anyway, the Yellow Bikes people have been rescuing and rehabilitating bikes for years, and they make them available to the general population of Black Rock City. You’re not allowed to keep it or put a lock on it or do anything else that might imply ownership, but if you need a bike and there’s a Yellow Bike around, feel free to take it. (Yellow Bikes are, as everyone knows, green. So don’t be confused. Just use the green bike and then leave it for someone else to use.)

But the project/party last night was a little different. Workers were welcome to bring in their bikes for repair, or they could rifle through the big containers of spare parts and put one together for their own use. Pick a frame, find some handlebars, find a seat, add any other missing pieces, and off you go with your pedal-powered Frankenstein.

We’re happy to report that we have a new(ish) bike to use for the first time in 13 years. We hope our new steed serves us as ably as our former one.

Here are some pics of the bike party:





About the author: John Curley

John Curley (that's me) has been Burning since the relatively late date of 2004, and in 2008 I spent the better part of a month on the playa, documenting the building and burning of Black Rock City in words and pictures. I loved it, and I've been doing it ever since. I was a newspaper person in a previous life, and I spent many years at the San Francisco Chronicle. At the time I left, in 2007, I was the deputy managing editor in charge of Page One and the news sections of the paper. Since then, I've turned a passion for photography into a second career. I shoot for editorial, commercial and private clients. I've also taught a little bit, including two years at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and a year at San Francisco State University. I live on the San Mateo coast, just south of San Francisco in California.

6 Comments on “To See, Or Not To See

  • Wavey (Robert Lizanetz) Gravy says:

    Keep up the work,it looks good !!!)'(

    Report comment

    • GARY says:


      Report comment

  • Amber jo honeybadger says:

    I’m reminded every year that there are two distinct sides to burning man. There is the virtual view and discussion and then there is the reality of being there. I assure you these are two widely differing view points and nothing can substitute for the awe struck reality of being there.

    Report comment

  • Carine Vandeuren says:

    Thank you, from my little heart, to share some pictures “to see” ;) they make me dream…

    Report comment

  • Dr. Bungee says:

    Cell phones??? We don’t need no stinking cell phones.
    Although I can see how they are necessary for the task now at hand, the thought of countless burners yakking to their friends back in default, while “experiencing” BM, is distressing to say the least. Immediacy, even though it’s at the bottom of the list, is still one of our ten principals. When people are focused on their little screens, instead of what is actually happening in front of them, it diminishes the interactions with others.

    Be here now!

    Report comment

  • Patty says:

    Emergency cell only! I leave my phone in the glove box, off. I am blissfully unplugged for the week.

    Report comment

  • Comments are closed.