As most of the people I know pack and gear up for their annual pilgrimage to the desert, I am officially announcing my declaration of independence from Larry Harvey.
The Burning Man festival has been a counter-cultural phenomenon since founder Larry and friends first torched a wooden figure of a man on a beach in San Francisco. And every year it has evolved and grown, sometimes doubling in size from the previous year, into the gargantuan mainstream melee of scatterbrained philosophies, and stupefyingly hypocritical "themes" it is today.
I have been reluctant to write an article about this because I've held onto the last thread of hope that the event I have known and loved for 11 years would come to its senses and see the error of its ways. But sadly, it looks like just when "the borg" was scraping the bottom of the barrel for themes for its yearly bacchanal in the desert, someone figured out a way to dig even lower.
And for this reason, and after careful consideration I have come to the only conclusion possible: Burning Man has jumped the shark.
There. I said it.
For some reason that I am sure has been explained in one of Larry's long-winded diatribes to the press, in 1998, the decision was made to start having a generalized theme for each year's event. The theme is usually disregarded by the veteran burners (participants that have attended more than three burns) and people usually do whatever they want when it comes to their art, their camps or their modes of transportation while at the event.
I had thought this past year's theme was by far the most ridiculous to date. In 2007 the event took a decidedly "politically correct" stance and went with the theme of "Green Man." It was supposed to show how we can do things to change our world around us by employing ecologically conscious efforts, or at least considering what our impact has on the environment and world around us.
But let's look at this rationally: Its a camping trip in the middle of the desert. People burn a shit-load of fossil fuel just to get out there, not to mention dropping hundreds, if not thousands of dollars on poorly-made crap they will give out as "gifts" as well as costumes, dust masks, food, ice chests and several other things that were probably purchased at a mega-billion-dollar corporation's tactic for getting rid of the small business owner.
Oh and let's not forget all that wood, propane, kerosene, lamp oil, and costumes made out of synthetic materials that are all derived from non-renewable resources that contaminate the environment.
And you can't have a burning man without fire, right? It takes a lot of pyrotechnics to produce an over-inflated spectacle such as this and I am pretty sure there aren't many environmentally friendly fireworks out there.
As I said, I had thought that the "Green" theme was one of the craziest ideas yet for this hard-to-describe week of fun. I say "Yet" because the theme for 2008 completely takes the cake. Here is the official description from the Burning Man website:
This year's art theme is about patriotism -- not that kind which freights the nation state with the collective weight of ego, but a patriotism that is based upon a love of country and culture. Leave ideology at home; forget the blue states and the red; let parties, factions and the so-called issues that divide us fall away. Flag burning or flag worship play no part in this year's theme. Ask yourself, instead, a more immediate question. What has America achieved that you admire or feel proud of? What has it done or failed to do that makes you feel dismayed? Put blame aside, in this election year, and dare to ask an even greater question: What can postmodern America, this stumbling, roused, half-conscious giant, yet give to the world?
A noble premise, perhaps, but in the wake of the politically correct theme from 07, it just seems like the founders are trying to put a very legitimate and law-abiding face to their previously anti-establishment flavored soirée. The whole thing just smacks of kissing the government's ass and trying to be more mainstream - or at least attempting to look more mainstream to avoid the government stepping in and shutting the whole thing down.
But wait, it gets better:
"In 2008, the Burning Man will stand atop a high-rise tower. Instead of windows, this edifice will feature images of flags that represent the countries of the world. Ranging from Canada to Chad, from Brazil to Burundi, from Vatican City to the Republic of China, these 244 symbols will shine in the night, gleaming like cut gems upon the surface of a jewel box. The United States of America will be among them. Each country can be said to represent a dream no less radiant or precious than the rest. Each nation may be viewed as a container of identity; yet each one can be said to be a glimmering illusion, an arbitrary entity defined by boundaries on a map. All of us are immigrants to Black Rock City. What can we dream America to be?"
OK, so this year the man will sit on top of a high-rise tower. An iconic symbol of corporate mastery in the modern, post-industrial world. Now branded with the burning man trademark. How lovely!
And in a final symbol to all those countries flags, they'll torch the whole thing to the ground while naked, tweaked out revelers jump through the flames in their pseudo-ritualistic orgy of sight, sound and consciousness.
I have been a die hard proponent of the event, from the moment I first set foot on the prehistoric lake bed at my first burn back in 1997, I have seen the raw beauty that can come from a temporary community filled with artistically creative individuals.
But I have also watched the evolution of the event as more and more people exponentially converge on that barren stretch of nothingness to carve out their own interpretation of a Utopian dream. I have also seen the point of critical mass. I have witnessed first hand the tipping point in the evolutionary ladder where the event went from crazy, alternative-lifestyle-fueled, anything goes, freakfest, to a more mundane, socio-economically benign big business.
I have seen the transition from alternative to the mainstream and while its not possible to single out one solitary event or change in philosophy that was the catalyst for the transition, I would have to say that creating a generalized "theme" for the event that falls in line with popular political trends has got to play a major role.
It's not possible to have the kind of personality the event had in '97 when there are now 50,000 people walking around. Its a basic principle of the law of diminishing returns. It's simply not possible to sustain that kind of social dynamic with that many people. And despite the best intentions of the inhabitants of the temporary city, the kind of idealistic philosophy that permeates the event and makes it so fun has a very limited shelf life. If the event were to exist for longer than one week, all that happy vibe, "peace, love unity and respect" would evaporate as soon as the drugs ran out, reducing things to a desert version of "Lord of the Flies" in short order.
With the over saturation of so many people all wanting to experience that "something special" that originally brought everyone out there in the first place, can that flame of inspiration and "radical self-expression" continue, or will it be snuffed out by expansion and commercialization, helped along by an organization that panders to government bureaucracy and political correctness? Will the amazing counter-cultural phenomenon devolve into just another rave in the middle of nowhere?
It doesn't matter to me anymore, because I wont be there. I have joined the illustrious ranks of veterans whose motto has changed from "leave no trace" to "it was better last year" and as a result of the asinine gentrification and "Disneyfying" of a once-chaotic, not-really organized blow-shit-up-in-the-desert camp out, I am now happy to watch all the folks try futilely to find that one thing that I know honestly cant be found by watching a big wood stick figure burn. It has to be discovered within each person individually. Its not about the event, its about the people that make the event what it is.