From 12 October 2019 through 16 February 2020, the Oakland Museum of California is displaying two concurrent exhibitions dedicated to the annual Burning Man festival. City of Dust: The Evolution of Burning Man was premiered by the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno from 1 July 2017 through 7 January 2018, after which it became the companion to the current namesake exhibition No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man, the original version of which was displayed by the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. from 30 March 2018 to 21 January 2019. Afterwards, both travelled to the Cincinnati Art Museum in Ohio before coming to this current and final stop.
Burning Man is an annual, one-week-long event held in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada and attended by tens of thousands of people from all over the world. The name refers to the centerpiece forty-foot-tall wooden effigy that is ritualistically erected and ultimately incinerated in the manner of the mythical wicker man. The event was founded in June 1986 when Larry Harvey and his friend Jerry James along with other acquaintances burned an eight-foot-tall wooden effigy on Baker Beach in San Francisco as a cathartic ritual during a personally troubled time. As the number of attendees spontaneously grew and the feelings were felt to be positive, the group decided to repeat the ceremony the following year and thereafter, eventually giving it its current name of Burning Man in 1988. As the fire continued attracting increasing numbers of people every time, the unlicensed event eventually became too big for the surrounding neighborhood to tolerate.
In response, Harvey joined forces with the San Francisco Cacophony Society, a fantastically playful organization with roots stretching back to earlier similar Bay Area groups such as the Suicide Club and the Merry Pranksters and some of whose members had attended the first burning. Identifying it as another one of their Zone Trips, some eighty people moved the Man for the first time in 1990 to the Black Rock Desert (known as La Playa) in Nevada, where, with only a few exceptions, Black Rock City, an encampment that is officially dedicated to art, community, and culture, has continued to be erected for one week every year. By 1996 when the event was featured on the cover of Wired magazine, an unprecedented eight thousand people attended, leading to the establishment of various organizations the following year that eventually became the Black Rock City Limited Liability Corporation. Over 35,000 people attended in 2004, and for last year’s event, which was held from 25 August to 2 September 2019, the organization agreed to limit attendance to a maximum of 80,000.
Such policies are the result of the interactions that the organization has inevitably had with state and federal authorities, especially the Bureau of Land Management. Simultaneously, the sheer numbers of attendees and admittedly loose nature of the earlier years caused some injuries and fatalities that led to the prohibition of firearms and the driving of motorized vehicles around the Playa after camp has been set up. In 2004, Harvey encapsulated these changing attitudes in a set of ten principles that continue to guide the event’s organization and operations: Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-reliance, Radical Self-expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation (as reflected in the title, No Spectators), and Immediacy.
The exhibition demonstrates how Burning Man overcame its challenges to become an international phenomenon. This can also be seen in the extensive list of books and films below, even though they represent only those items that were available from this author’s public library. Moreover, the titles include claims about how Burning Man is inherently a spiritual or soulful event that provides gifts, is creating a new American counterculture, or, as one book claims, has already changed the world. The list also includes a number of oversized photography books that are essential to gaining a perspective on the unbelievably magnificent breadth and scope of the many artworks that people have created for display on the vast desert expanse over the years along with the outrageousness of the appearance of the many tens-of-thousands of attendees, all living examples of the principle of Radical Inclusion.
Such a long, populous, and ephemeral history throughout which most of the pieces that were created have also been burned, like the Man himself, is difficult to capture in a single exhibition that can necessarily represent only a small portion of its immense totality. Accordingly, the artifacts are complemented by a number of documentary films displayed on the walls or viewable on individual screens along with numerous photographs of the site and one wall highlighting some individual attendees. In many instances, the items on display necessarily paled in contrast to the gigantic kinetic and oftentimes fire-spewing sculptures documented in the videos. Similarly, the exhibition has been complemented throughout by a number of events and demonstrations, such as a block party and panel discussions.
In a sad but poignant irony, Harvey passed away on 28 April 2018, only one month after the original version of the exhibition opened in Washington, but his legacy is suitably traced in City of Dust. In addition to Harvey’s trademark hat and other personal effects, it features early Cacophony Society newsletters and flyers for the event, representative equipment and profiles of some of the earliest organizers and participants, badges and flags from different event-related organizations such as the Black Rock City Department of Public Works and the Black Rock Rangers, as well as the golden spike used to ceremonially survey the City’s position and layout every year. Aerial photographs demonstrate how the semi-circular encampment has been impressively organized every year, with neat groups of vehicles and tents separated by clear pathways.
The adjacent No Spectators room highlighted some of the art that is always made for the festival. The hushed mood of the darkened hall was set by the soothing, occasional tones emitted by the automated four-piece Gamelatron Bidadari (2018) by Aaron Taylor Kuffner. One display included a few examples of the kinds of elaborate costumes and headdresses participants don in accordance with the principle of Radical Self-expression. There were also a few commemorative paintings made by participants.
The larger items included two glowing paper-and-wire mushrooms that viewers could interactively cause to expand or contract in different colors by stepping onto a circular platform. The elaborate Paper Arch (2018) by Michael Garlington and Natalia Bertotti is intricately covered in a variety of collaged, often seemingly historical, images and contains secret dioramas inside the columns that can be viewed through peepholes. The Capitol Theater by Sean Orlando and Bree Hylkema of the Five Ton Crane art collective is a small movie theater built on a flatbed truck used to screen films by Obsolete Pictures, a company that creates clever imitations or parodies of different kinds of classic silent movie styles.
Among the few items displayed outside were David Best’s beautifully detailed Temple of Reunion (2019). Dedicated to those who have been lost to violence, deportation, immigration, incarceration, suicide, or alienation, visitors could write commemorative messages about them either directly on the structure itself or on tiles that could be affixed to the existing structure. The Temple, many of which have been designed by Best and are always dedicated to different contemplative themes every year, is also ritually burned after the Man in a lesser-known ceremony at the end of the event.
Burning Man should be commended for recognizing the potentially adverse environmental effects of its impact and addressing them through the principle of Leaving No Trace. This includes the concept of MOOP, or Matter Out of Place that needs to be cleaned up because it should not even exist in the first place. The organization has implemented the use of platforms and fire blankets to protect the Playa grounds from the fires and pursues aggressive clean-up efforts afterwards while simultaneously encouraging all participants to do the same for themselves according to the principles of Radical Self-reliance coupled with Civic Responsibility.
This year, Burning Man is scheduled to occur from 30 August to 7 September 2020 with a theme that celebrates the concept of the Multiverse. Overall, the event appears to still be well-run and based on a solid foundation despite Harvey’s passing. The organization’s comprehensive website demonstrates an impressive degree of organization and thoughtful consideration, as it includes definitions of the ten principles and other philosophical discussions (including a free e-book of conversations with Harvey), advice for first-time attendees, frank discussions of legal issues and interactions with governmental authorities, and even annual reports for the event itself and financial statements for the Burning Man Project nonprofit parent organization. Perhaps most importantly, the spirit of the event is created by each of its participants, who obviously carry it with them, as demonstrated by the many “decompression” events that occur afterwards in cities around the world where large enough numbers of returning attendees live. Ultimately, regardless of the fact that its less-crowded and anarchic heydays have passed, ticket prices have risen, or that wealthy attendees reportedly have adversely affected the composition and experience of Black Rock City in violation of some of the principles, it is clear that Burning Man would still be a remarkable, memorable, and transformative event to attend, experience, and participate in.
Text and photos: Nikolai Sadik-Ogli
AfterBurn: Reflections on Burning Man. Lee Gilmore and Mark Van Proyen, eds. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005.
Bruder, Jessica. Burning Book: A Visual History of Burning Man. New York: Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2007.
Burning Man Live: 13 Years of Piss Clear, Black Rock City’s Alternative Newspaper. Adrian Roberts, ed. San Francisco: RE/Search Publications, 2009.
Cash, Julian. The People of Burning Man: Portraits of Revolutionary Spirits. United States, 2011.
Chen, Katherine Kang-Ning. Enabling Creative Chaos: The Organization Behind the Burning Man Event. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Doherty, Brian. This Is Burning Man: The Rise of A New American Underground. New York: Little, Brown, 2004.
Drama in the Desert: The Sights and Sounds of Burning Man. San Francisco: Raised Barn Press, 2002.
Greenwald, Jeff. Out of Nothing Everything: Conversations with Larry Harvey. San Francisco: Burning Man Philosophical Center, 2018.
Guy, NK. Art of Burning Man. Köln: Taschen, 2015.
Harvey, Stewart. Playa Fire: Spirit and Soul at Burning Man. New York: HarperElixir, 2017.
Jarnow, Jesse. Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America. Boston: Da Capo Press, 2016.
Jones, Steven. Tribes of Burning Man: How An Experimental City in the Desert Is Shaping the New American Counterculture. San Francisco: Consortium of Collective Consciousness, 2011.
Nash, A. Leo. Burning Man: Art in the Desert. New York: Abrams, 2007.
Overgaard, Anders. Nothing Left Behind: Frames & Contemplations of A Seven-day City. 2017.
Pendell, Dale. Inspired Madness: The Gifts of Burning Man. Berkeley: Frog, Ltd., 2006.
Post, George P. Dancing With the Playa Messiah: Neon, Fire & Dust: A 21-year Burning Man Photo Album. Richmond: Dragon Fotografix, 2012.
Raiser, Jennifer. Burning Man: Art on Fire. New York, New York: Race Point Publishing, 2016.
Shister, Neil. Radical Ritual: How Burning Man Changed the World. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2019.
Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society. Kevin Evans, Carrie Galbraith, and John Law, eds. San Francisco: Last Gasp of San Francisco, 2013.
Traub, Barbara. Desert to Dream: A Decade of Burning Man Photography. San Francisco: Immedium, 2006.
As the Dust Settles: A Participatory Documentary Shot at Burning Man / A Multi-perspective Mosaic of Personal Experiences at Burning Man. United States: Kinonation, 2013.
Burning Man Beyond Black Rock: Authorized Documentary. New York: Lightyear Entertainment, 2006.
The Burning Man Festival. Chicago: Ow Myeye Productions, 1994, 1997, 2001.
Burning Man: Journey to the Flames. Encino: Back to One Productions, 2006.
Burning Man: Voyage in Utopia. San Rafael: Free Run Pictures, 2008.
Spark: A Burning Man Story. Woodside: Spark Pictures, 2014.