Can You Learn About Culture in a Gift Shop?

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.

The 2015-2016 Burning Man Calendar featured 52 gorgeous photos taken by 41 photographers from across our global community. Considered a colorful vehicle for Burning Man storytelling and sharing of our culture, the calendar featured photos from 12 official Burning Man Regional events around the world, including: Colorado; Miami, Florida; Utah; Mid-Atlantic D.C.; Israel; New Zealand; South Africa; Spain; Vancouver, Canada; and Western Australia. A memoriam was also included in honor of long-time photographer and contributor, Dr. Steven Fritz, who passed in the fall of 2014.

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.

2009-2010 Official Burning Man Wall Calendar (Photo by Heather Gallagher (CameraGirl))

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.”

Burning Man 2003 – 2004 Wall Calendar (Photo by Heather Gallagher (CameraGirl))

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.

2004-2005 Burning Man Wall Calendar (Photo by Heather Gallagher (CameraGirl))

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.

2010-2011 Commemorative Calendar and Photo Book (Photo by Heather Gallagher (CameraGirl))

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.

2008-2009 Official Burning Man Wall Calendar (Photo by Heather Gallagher (CameraGirl))

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.

About the author: CameraGirl

CameraGirl

Heather Gallagher aka CameraGirl is a recovering corporate IT consultant with a Master's degree in Computer Science tucked under her rhinestone-studded belt. Heather first stepped foot onto the playa in 2000 and, in many ways, has not left it since. CameraGirl was born in 2001 as the Documentrix for the Center Camp Cafe and CampArctica, where she got hooked on Burning Man imagery, joined the web team and eventually became the Photo Editor for burningman.com. Since 2003, she has produced each of the Burning Man Wall Calendars. In early 2004, she began managing the Burning Man Technology Department.

9 Comments on “Can You Learn About Culture in a Gift Shop?

  • Dr.K. says:

    I love the calendar. I find it beautiful and appropriate. I was asked by the people who buy for the Renwick gift shop to design some jewelry for them to sell for the BM show as I had some of my work in the show. It forced me to think about my relationship with my craft and to BM. I am a professional jeweler. It is all I do everyday. Yet I value the pieces I gift at BM precisely because they are given away with no regard to financial renumeration. So when I got the call I consulted with Lady Bee and Nora Atkinson to find out what they thought about it. There were a couple of things to be considered. Obviously any of the designs that are derivative of the classic “symbols” of BM were out. My BRC pendant from 2013 and my Man pendant from 2014 specifically. But other work I have been making is evocative of BM but it is my work and I have been it doing long before BM came into existence. So I decided to go ahead and design some work for the store.

    I take my work very seriously and feel that I bring my artistic vision to the Playa every year. It may not be 50′ tall and shoot fire, but when I see a random shot of a Burner in their default world and they are wearing one of my pendants. I know that I have affected people in their lives.

    I think we all like to keep a little bit of Home near to our hearts and I am happy to be a part of that.

    Report comment

    • SloaneAoife says:

      Okay, off the original topic but I know exactly which two pendants you are talking about because I fell in love with both of them, and noticed the similar designs in the museum shop. I bought one, and would be curious to know what -your- interpretation of it would be, though to me I see it as the female symbol and form. I wear it nearly every day.

      So, I guess that’s one more example of your work touching someone and leaving an important mark, even if it wasn’t gifted and even if we never cross paths in person.

      Report comment

  • Charlie says:

    I just saw the exhibit and calendar this week. I thought it was well done, overall. The Temple was a bit emotional, and I’m not sure everyone got it, but a little playe dust in the swamp is a good thing.

    Report comment

  • Heather/honey pleather says:

    Thank you for the information on the history/process of the project. As a long-time burner, when I went to the Renwick Gallery Store, I WAS struck by the irony of all the items for sale and how this contrasted dramatically with the Principle of Decommodification! I have less of an issue with items such as your calendar and the many books offered which serve as visual documentation of the amazing world we all have created. Just like with the exhibit overall, I think it is a positive thing to represent the experience to as large an audience possible — to spread the beauty of the art, the people, the culture, and the Principals — to those not as likely to be exposed to them. However the (expensive!) clothes, jewelry, mugs, tchotchkes, etc that are offered for sale made me laugh (and cringe) and question how I felt about them being sold. Ultimately the Smithsonian Museums are non-profit and I strongly love and support what they offer my local DC community (and the world) — especially by providing free admission to the millions who walk through their doors each year (2017 — Renwick Gallery: 400k; all 20 Smithsonian sites: 30Mil!). So selling Burning Man paraphernalia is probably a “necessary evil” in keeping this amazing institution alive. (And I must admit, I will likely go back and buy your calendar after reading more about it!) )'(

    Report comment

  • LadyBee says:

    Don’t forget that everything sold in the gift shop was carefully considered, and none of the jewelry or other objects could have BMan specific images. Jewelers sold other work they do; no playa schwag was sold.

    Report comment

  • Hey CameraGirl! The shop is tasteful and if that’s the trade off for having one million (the Smithsonian’s estimate) folks from the default world being exposed to our culture, I say it’s just fine. I volunteer at the exhibit weekly and it’s an absolute joy to see the positive reactions.

    Report comment

  • Lisa P says:

    This is some seriously self-serving bullshit. All the time, expense and energy you put into this wasteful pet project could be spent in much more helpful ways. Still shaking my head and looking for where the heck the calendar’s “role as a community art project that seeks to cover costs while sharing our culture beyond the playa.” comes into play.

    Report comment

  • Michele LeBelle says:

    Thank you for your wonderful biography about the calendar. Sounds like you enjoy what you do and you’re happy. You bring happiness to others who cannot make it to the Playa.

    My mom can never make the trip to the Playa. However, she loves hearing all of my stories and looking at pictures of the event. She was a hippy back in her day and the visual experience is appreciated by her 100%. I look forward to receiving my calendar soon. Thank you!

    Report comment

  • Major Blaze says:

    I had the great fortune to be a part of the documentary team working for Camera Girl. I met the most amazing and hard working burner photographers and other artists throughout the playa.
    It was transformative.
    I used to be known as Playarazzi but after years of photography and my love of Fire art, I put down my camera to spin fire.
    I was thrilled to get my first photo chosen for the 2010 calendar and for it to be in the cover!
    Burning Man and all the participants continue to evolve. I am so pumped to return for my 14th year! I am thankful for all the friends I have met and the trips with my wife to be a part of Celestial Bodies, The Neverwas Haul, Sideshow, Zoom and this year, The Flaming Lotus Girls! Larry made quite the experience and chose the right people to make so much happen.

    Report comment

  • Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.