Friday, August 24, 2012
burning summer's end
When I came across this picture of a multi-storey Victorian traveling house I was reminded of an event I'm kind of sad to have missed. The 'Burning Man' festival begins this weekend and, believe it or not, it's the 26th anniversary of an interactive art event that happens in the Nevada desert at the end of summer. It began in 1986 when Larry Harvey and his friend Jerry James constructed an eight foot tall wooden figure, carried it to a beach park in San Francisco, and set it alight as darkness fell on the Summer Solstice. The two friends were immediately surrounded by a crowd, one woman even held the figure's hand as it began to burn. The event continued to be held as a solstice ceremony on that beach, with the effigy growing larger with the passing years, until 1990 when the park police banned fire. That year the burning ceremony was relocated to Black Rock Desert where it became a five day celebration that's been held on the playa just before every Labor Day weekend since.
I didn't hear about it until the early 90's when the number of people going there was still in the low thousands and well before the web, fb, twitter and what have you. It sounded like a lot of fun but I understood immediately it wasn't something you could just drop in on as a tourist. People make the journey to a desert in Nevada to be part of an experimental community where they'll express themselves and rely on one another to a degree that is not usually found in day-to-day life. Attending means a major commitment on several levels. The following is from a 2000 lecture given by Larry Harvey about the overall philosophy of the lifestyle and the festival itself:
Imagine you are put upon a desert plain, a space which is so vast and blank that only your initiative can make of it a place. Imagine it is swept by fearsome winds and scorching temperatures, and only by your effort can you make of it a home. Imagine you're surrounded by thousands of other people, that together you form a city, and that within this teeming city there is nothing that's for sale.
This city that arises annually and disappears without a trace occurs in an extraordinary setting. The Black Rock desert is an empty void. Not a bird or bush or bump disturb its surface. It is a place that is no place at all apart from what we choose to make of it. Think of it as a vast blank slate, or better yet, think of it as a sort of movie screen upon which every citizen of Black Rock City is encouraged to project some aspect of their inner selves. This novel use of nothingness elicits a superabundant production of spectacle. But it is spectacle with a difference. We have, in fact, reversed the process of spectation by inviting every citizen to create a vision and contribute it to a public environment. We call this process radical self-expression. What makes this self-expression truly radical is its reintegration of the private and personal back into a shared public domain.
What he had to say about our society then is just as relevant now. The event has only grown in complexity and magnificence over the years and I hope you'll get tempted to look at some of the links and pictures available on-line. I like the idea that people who participate in Burning Man are changed by the experience of art and sharing and begin to understand there's room enough in the world for a larger community where culture is created. Then again, maybe I just wish I could ride in that steampunk house.
Would you go there if you could?