I took this photo of the brand spanking new 2018-2019 Burning Man Calendar at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum during the opening of the exhibit No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man. For the regular museum-goer, this is nothing unusual. This is the kind of object that you expect to see for sale in a museum shop.
However, for Burners who are familiar with the Ten Principles, seeing a product on a museum shop shelf may challenge your expectations of Burning Man and our principle of Decommodification. Before some of you skip down to the comment section to voice various assertions or accusations, let me share some of the creative journey this little calendar has been on for the past 15 years, and its role as a community art project that seeks to cover costs while sharing our culture beyond the playa.
A Calendar Is Born
In 2003 Burning Man asked me to help produce our first ever official printed calendar. After spending several years lovingly and painstakingly telling the story of Burning Man through my own imagery projects via the web, it was quite moving to learn that I had earned the trust of the organization as one of its visual storytellers.
In 2001 I became known as CameraGirl, or CG, and began volunteering as the “Documentrix” for the Center Camp Café, and photographing year-round events and behind-the-scenes in Black Rock City. That same year, I joined the Burning Man Web Team, where my first role was photo editor for burningman.com — before I became the Director of Technology in late 2003. During that time, and for many years afterwards, I spent countless hours and millions of mouse clicks hunting for images, editing photos, gently making colors pop and thoroughly captioning every art installation, mutant vehicle, artist and event as best I could. All this was done as a volunteer, as part of my personal passion to reflect back to our community its amazing beauty and inspiration.
Those were the early years of digital photography, which happened to coincide with the rapid growth of the event in BRC. Numerous people had approached the organization about creating a Burning Man Calendar of their own, usually to sell as camp or project fundraisers. Almost all of them were turned down.
Making a *gasp* product to sell goes against our principle of Decommodification, and even to this day we prevent others from using Burning Man imagery for their own commercial purposes. Our intellectual property team, many of whom are volunteers, is kept very busy making sure that photos from Burning Man, including you and your wonderful creations, are not being co-opted for someone else’s financial gain or brand promotion.
After careful consideration, it was decided that a calendar, if produced carefully and under close guidance, could be a storytelling device that helps our mission to spread Burner culture around the world. It became evident that if anyone was going to produce the Burning Man calendar, it should be Burning Man. That was when I was asked to help with the project, and another dimension of CG was born: CalendarGirl.
I produced the very first calendar with Mike “Gomonk” Fusello, who had recently proposed making a calendar. A graphic designer during the day, he was also a part of the Placement Team, and had a thing for carefully arranging the orange safety cones that block the roads leading into Center Camp. I was asked to partner with him because of my respectful handling of the images, photographers and content.
Since this was a precedent-setting endeavor, Burning Man founders Larry Harvey, Marian Goodell and Danger Ranger, plus Gomonk and I, established some early guidelines for the project. The calendars had to be cubicle-friendly and grandma-friendly, which meant no frontal nudity and imagery that was generally in good taste, please. We would include images from throughout the history of Burning Man, and all forms of artwork and participation.
We wanted the calendar to positively reflect on our event and culture. What if this was the one piece of exposure to Burning Man that someone ever had? We didn’t want to make the traditional calendar format with 12 images and 12 month grids, like the one you might get for free from your dentist. This was partly because there are so many gorgeous photos and projects to include, and also because we didn’t want to “feature” any particular photographer or artist.
We decided to make a “Burn Year” calendar, which started on September and went through to the following August. Let’s face it: Burning Man is the biggest holiday of the year for many Burners, and our annual cycles tend to revolve more around our trip to the playa than anything else. We also wanted to avoid including recognizable faces, except in a few very rare instances. This was to respect the privacy of our attendees and to make sure that we didn’t make people “Sorta Famous at Burning Man.”
We may have pushed our desire for our calendar to be different a bit too far. The first design was a staggered grid of days of the week and images. This met our goal of not being conformist, but we were told it was a bit of a challenge to use for actual planning purposes.
We filled the calendar with tidbits of trivia from culturally relevant history. This is when I learned about important counter-culture events like Bicycle Day, which I had zero knowledge of previously. We also included various countdown markers and reminders to get ready for Burning Man. Somewhere in that process, I created a new holiday, the Burnal Equinox, which marks the midpoint between Burns and has become an annual community event here in San Francisco.
The first calendar was produced back when our image collection consisted of a cabinet full of CDs and binders of slides at the back of the office. Reviewing and selecting images was an epic project in itself, let alone prepping them for press. We definitely spent a few all-nighters at the office to get it done.
On one particularly late and memorable night, we had a 2 am phone call with Larry Harvey, who was traveling in London and wanted to see if we could include three photos of men spinning Zachary Coffin’s Rock Spinner, taken by our Regional Contact, Yomi, as a triptych. This would have been fine, except that one man was naked. Definitely naked. Definitely a man. Definitely a frontal view of a naked man. I pointed out that this was contrary to the guidelines we had just established a few weeks earlier. “Penis, Larry. Penis, Larry? PENIS? LARRY!” I said loudly into the speaker phone to my new boss. His response? “Yes, well that’s true, but can’t you, you know… make it smaller somehow?”
Those words were still echoing in my ears weeks later in the middle of the night as I zoomed in close with Photoshop, carefully touching up shadows and working to you know… make it smaller, and wondering what had become of my life and whether this foreshadowed crazy things to come. It did.
Once printed, we had no idea if people would buy this calendar, and since it was created for our “outsider” community to enjoy, we knew we wouldn’t see it on the shelves of any major bookstores any time soon. It was decided to sell them through our online marketplace, at walk-up ticket outlets (back when we still had them) in San Francisco and Reno, and at a few select stops along the way to the playa in Nevada.
In the spirit of Decommodification and not bombarding you with sales pitches or hideous banner ads, the calendar usually gets one or two simple announcements in the Jackrabbit Speaks. While I am working late nights or weekends on the calendar, I sometimes wonder if that is enough — especially given the calendars’ popularity. Sometimes I grumble about it to my friends in Communications [We can’t pet every bunny! — ed.], but this project’s goal has always been to cover our costs while giving the community something they can enjoy, give to friends and family, and use to help share our story.
The Calendar Grows Up
I brought in another designer for the second calendar, a talented woman who would become my “calendar wife” and friend for the next 14 years and counting, Arin Fishkin. She has also designed many of our survival guides, posters, stickers and other print projects. You may have seen her recent blog post with some of her own insights about the calendar project.
For the second version of the calendar, we returned to a more standard and usable grid layout, and included a sprinkling of artifacts such as patches, lighters, jewelry and other objects often given as part of our Gifting principle. Our friend and BRC Ranger Greg Tse, a.k.a. Da Mongolian, spent countless hours, many late nights and a few all-nighters working beside us as a volunteer, helping to carefully mask out objects and teaching me how to prepare images for press, which I still do for every single image. Will Chase, who was then known as Playaquest and later became the editor of the Jackrabbit Speaks for many years, helped create and edit trivia content, until we decided to phase it out of the calendar a few years later.
Each year since, we have worked to keep the project interesting for ourselves and for the community with different concepts, layouts, printing techniques and art direction. We’ve explored spot varnish, metallic ink overlays, wire-o binding, desktop layouts, wall layouts and more. We’ve played with maps, frames, circles, angles, fonts, blueprints, illustrations and flames. So many flames.
For the 2005-2006 calendar, in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Burn, we took on the daunting task of creating a summary timeline of major events and milestones in Burning Man history. This required numerous interviews with Larry and other founders, reading several books, researching old news articles, and carefully reconciling and negotiating the different opinions and memories about who started what and when. This is when I learned the little-known story of the wooden dog that was built by Larry’s son Tristan and Jerry’s son Robin and burned alongside the first Man on Baker Beach.
Another rarely discussed event happened in 1990 after the Burn was denied on Baker Beach. The Man had to be quickly rebuilt after he was mistakenly reduced to kindling by a zealous neighbor with a chainsaw, who thought it was scrap wood. The new Man was finished just hours before the group left for the first trip to the Black Rock Desert. Sadly, many images from these early adventures were long gone or were only big enough to print the size of a postage stamp, but somehow we pulled it together and included historical moments such as the first web page on The Well, the first Jackrabbit Speaks newsletter, the cover of Wired magazine, and so on.
To this day, I give new employees and friends that calendar so they can study up on the early folklore, significant dates and pivotal moments in Burning Man history. As part of that project, Arin created the first ever side-by-side graphic of the history of the Man height and bases, the concept which has now been borrowed to become a favorite sticker design handed out by the Greeters on the way into Black Rock City.
Five years later, in honor of the 25th anniversary of the Burn, we created a week planner format that also doubled as a commemorative photo book. Weekly calendar pages were printed on a vellum paper inserted between full-page photos, so you could tear out the vellum pages when the calendar expired and keep the book of photos. For that edition, we had the playa surface embossed on the heavy stock cover, along with a very subtle ‘25’ that you can see if you look for it.
I am a sucker for a theme, so one of my favorite calendar years was 2008. We had enough years with an art theme (a tradition that started in 1996 with “The Inferno”) that we could design each calendar month in the spirit of a previous art theme, including representative images, fonts, artifacts and cartouches. That was also the year we incorporated gold metallic ink touches for extra cowbell.
Art direction and printing techniques aside, none of the calendars would have been possible without the amazing generosity of the hundreds of community members who have contributed so much to this project over the years. I bow deeply in gratitude to each of the photographers, artists, mutant vehicle owners, performers, Regional Groups, illustrators and others who have gifted us permission to include their work as part of this annual community project.
Many of them hunted in their archives, sent high-resolution files or tracked down artist contact information or other last-minute requests to help this project get done by our print deadline. I am also grateful to our unsung heroes, our friends at our printer in San Francisco, John and Vincent, who let me practically move in for the days while we get everything perfect from proof to press. Neither of them have been to Burning Man and they may never go, but their collaboration and support feels more like community than a mass production team.
As Burning Man’s story has grown to include the Regional Network, civic arts programs, Burners Without Borders, Black Rock Solar, Fly Ranch and more, we’ve incorporated those images and narratives into the calendars as part of our evolution and work in the world. The most recent edition provides a photographic progression through the history of Burning Man, starting with the first Burn on Baker Beach (thank you, Jerry James!), through the early desert years to Black Rock City 2017 and other recent Regional Events.
When we chose this direction, we saw an opportunity to share our evolutionary storyline with a new audience, one that may be experiencing Burning Man for the very first time in a unique new setting — like maybe a museum in Washington, D.C. But now with Larry’s passing, our calendar feels like an homage to the life’s work of our friend. Whether you are a new Burner, or a long-time community friend, I am pleased to let you know that the official Burning Man Calendar for the Burn Year of 2018-2019 can be bought right here and also at the Smithsonian-Renwick museum shop.