Burning Man strives for relevance beyond the desert playa.
Thursday, September 1, 2011
When Burning Man sold out July 25 (a record 51,454 tickets at up to $360), a friend posted on Facebook:
“You could pay $800 for a BM ticket, or come over, I’ll throw glitter at you, toss on a pair of feather earrings, play music with light effects and dose you on some serious drugs. For an extra $100 I’ll give you a blanket as the sun comes up, hug you and tell you that you’re perfect just the way you are, and that this is somehow saving the world, all this looooove.”
My own tastes of Burning Man, in 2004 and 2005, left me similarly jaded—even though I’d initially been stunned smitten by the alien desert world where humans obey utopian social commandments and wear shiny, fuzzy, leathery costumes and create psychedelic art at a staggering scale, then burn it all down.
The reports I wrote strained to find a greater relevance for all that creative capital. My first piece looked at burners’ tepid political energy during a presidential election; the next, at what felt like a widely held irreverence for the environment. I haven’t been back since.
Former Weekly staff writer Steven T. Jones’ new book, The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture, makes me think I judged too soon.
Tribes picks up in 2004, where the first definitive burner book, Brian Doherty’s This Is Burning Man: The Rise of a New American Underground, leaves off. Jones’ premise is that burners are taking lessons home and developing them into “an organizing tool for the greater good” with philanthropy like Burners Without Borders, Black Rock Solar and the Black Rock Arts Foundation.
I caught Jones on Aug. 26, two days before he left for Black Rock City, where he’s camping in Shadyvil, answering to Scribe and most likely inviting short-skirted, tall-booted women to finger-paint his thematically-shaved chest hair. (“Yes, it’s [a] little dorky, and perhaps even a tad creepy,” he writes.)
Jones, the city editor for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, has been on the burn beat for the past seven years. He’s chronicled the struggles between Black Rock City LLC (“Borg”) and its rebels, the tension between ravers and artists, and founder Larry Harvey’s push toward greater socio-political relevance, a topic Jones confronted by commuting between Black Rock City and the Democratic National Convention in ’08. Those stories form the book’s backbone.
With Tribes, Jones makes a case that the event has spawned family-like units in urban counterculture, creative hives impacting U.S. cities during the year-long preparation for the burn—like S.F.’s all-female metal-shop crew, the Flaming Lotus Girls, who blew my tender mind in 2005 with the divine fire-spitting installation “Angel of the Apocalypse.”
Though Jones is fervent in his faith, he also tells it straight, including ballsy descriptions of himself and his friends in full hedonistic glory. “I couldn’t write a book about Burning Man without talking about drugs and sex,” he says.
If 1986-2003 defined Burning Man’s identity and 2004-2010 marked its renaissance, it’s now entering its third act: a test of whether it can definitively evolve beyond the playa.
“I wanted to write the Burning-Man-changes-the-world book, but it didn’t. It’s still waiting for that crossover,” Jones says. “If it’s simply one of the greatest parties on the planet year after year, that’s fine. But it would be a little disappointing if that’s all it ever was.”
The Tribes of Burning Man can be purchased at steventjones.com.