Creativity is the principle that lies at the fiery heart of Burning Man. It is the sacred act that is celebrated by this neo-Pagan, techno-Hinduist, born-again-hippie festival, which represents to participants the absolute freedom to be one’s true self. It is appropriate that the hellishly hot, sandy basin in which the event sits is called the Playa. Metaphorically, it’s located on the boundaries of modern civilization and the vast unknown, between proverbial sea and sand. Effectively, it’s humanity’s sandbox, a place to play without all of the artificial constraints and prejudices we humans have made for ourselves.
That word, play, is a much underappreciated aspect of human nature. Nora Atkinson would probably agree. As the Lloyd E. Herman Curator of Craft for the Renwick Gallery, Atkinson put together the landmark exhibition, “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man” for many reasons, ranging from the personal (a former resident of the state of Washington, she felt a longing for West Coast culture) to the idealistic. As the quintessential outsider event, bringing Burning Man to the nation’s capital had more than a touch of subversiveness to it.
Burning Man was born in San Francisco, on the original Playa, Baker Beach, in 1986. It all began when carpenter Larry Harvey and his friend, Jerry James, knocked up a crude wooden effigy of a human being, dubbed the Man, bundled him up into the back of a Ford pickup truck, and carried it down to the shoreline. There, they and a group of friends raised the combustible figure, doused him with gasoline, and the rest is history.
Well, not quite. The catalysts that transformed the Baker Beach gathering into a temporary settlement nestled in the sweltering sands of Nevada desert were the po-po, and a group of like-minded malcontents, thrillseekers and iconoclasts known as the Cacophony Society. Like Russian matryoshka dolls, the Society came from a small group of friends who dubbed themselves the Suicide Club—after surviving, according to local lore, a stint hanging precariously from a loose railing over the crashing Pacific Ocean below Fort Point. Afterwards, Gary Warne and three compatriots recovered to safety, with a solemn oath to live each day as their last. These dwellers of the fringe, inhabiting the periphery of the human experience, would attract more like-minded individuals. Happenstance (and word of mouth) brought the flotsam and jetsam of San Francisco together on Baker Beach, celebrating the immolation of the Burning Man.
The festivities were interrupted in 1990, as the local police informed the revelers that the party was over. The community did not waste any time; during Labor Day weekend, a procession set out from Golden Gate Park, to find Burning Man’s new home, in Black Rock Desert, Nevada, far to the north of Reno. Here, in the middle of nowhere, underneath the blazing sun, a member of this band of merry adventurers, Michael Michael, marked the boundary between worlds with a foot dragged through the dirt, baptizing it with the words, “On the other side of this line, everything will be different. Reality itself will change.”
Black Rock City is the real final frontier (pardons to Gene Roddenberry). There might be a lot of wild, unexplored and untamed land left on planet Earth, but Burning Man dives deep into the social, spiritual and ethical territory that lays far out in uncharted waters. Ten Principles girdle the philosophical foundation of Burning Man: Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-Reliance, Radical Self-Expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leave No Trace, Participation, and last, but absolutely not least, Immediacy. It is radical in that most honest of ways, by being a pure expression of what it preaches.
What may surprise those who view the festival as frivolous is the amount of work that goes into organizing Burning Man, and the structures that have grown up around it. The Department of Public Works (whose insignia is the Man circumscribed by the spokes of a tire wheel, embedded in a great black gear) has a laundry list of tasks that include “Building logical roads, creating and placing signage, maintaining approved potable water systems, providing portable and stationary electrical power, assisting with major art projects, and setting up the small-plane airport and runway.” The fact that between all those practical considerations, nestled surreptitiously, is the art, illustrates how the boundaries between practical life and art grow thin and merge together here. Like in many indigenous and folk traditions, there is no separation.
It was this challenge, of authentically presenting the spirit of the event, presenting the glitz and glamour without obscuring the substance, that Nora Atkinson faced in mounting the exhibition at the Renwick, part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Like a living flame, its temporary nature and spontaneity is its essence. How do you communicate that to an audience inside a building that is more than a century old?
The key, Atkinson reveals, is collaboration. “I reached out early on to the Burning Man organization. I had already had in my head a number of artists that I wanted to include, many of them being perennial artists that I thought really represented the aesthetics that have come out of Burning Man. But I also wanted to make sure that the community felt heard, and that the internal community favorites made it into the show, and that we had a really wide spread.” She makes reference to the populist nature that is at the root of Burning Man, an “Anything You Can Do I Can Do” ethos that sees MFA trained artists creating installations alongside carpenters and death metal heads.
Some, like Michael Garlington, graduated from Burning Man University by first working in the Department of Public Works, then apprenticing to celebrities such as David Best, who created the temple made of recycled wood that takes over the Grand Salon on Renwick’s second floor. Now Garlington’s work is exhibited by a gallery, and he erects his own sacred structures on the dusty surface of the Playa. For Atkinson, revealing this network of connections and relationships that develop through the festival was vital, as was giving Burners (a term for Burning Man attendees/devotees that is as contentious as it is ubiquitous) a voice in the show. “We actually put out a call in the Burning Man community, through the Burning Man organization, asking people to submit artists that they thought were important, artists that were some of their favorites, to us. And there were some pieces in the exhibition that made it in that were discovered through people’s suggestions.”
While the art installations may be the most memorable aspect of the festival’s visual milieu, Atkinson wanted to present the experience of Burning Man in a holistic and comprehensive manner, and what is a day on the Playa without body paint, glow-in-the-dark fabrics and otherworldly outfits?
Normally we associate costumes and clothing as being different; one is unserious, fun and fantastical, while the other is outerwear to protect ourselves from the elements. Both however are the same in one very obvious respect: they are objects worn on the body. It is the gentle and not-so-gentle continuous pressure of society that makes certain outfits “costumes,” generally because they are too outlandish for people to comfortably accept as clothing.
In fact, we are rejecting the validity of the wearer’s humanity. A person wearing something so outside the norm that we don’t recognize them as part of “our group” anymore becomes a caricature. Whether it is the loose, voluminous clothing of a clown, replete with red hair and rubber nose, or the dazzling ethnic attire from a foreign culture, for many people that invokes The Label of Other.
The costumes and clothing generated by Burners speak to the dissolution of societal labeling, just as the gifting of food, water and services represents an intentional shift away from a heartless status quo towards a healthy one. What you wear on the Playa is an expression of self; a statement of both exploration and identity where the message is simply, “This is who I am.” Whether the image you are projecting is what you want to be, what you actually are underneath society’s baggage, or the self you are finally, after many years, comfortable with revealing, Burning Man, for all its carnival illusions, is rather more real than the circus it superficially resembles.
With limited space and a huge breadth of material, Atkinson had to establish criteria for what pieces she wanted to display in the exhibition. The route she chose was to present artist and designer-made costumes to highlight the more unusual and fantastic wearables seen at Burning Man, while using photographs to give visitors an idea of what the every day Playa-goer looks like. She jokes about how when she has taken Burners through the exhibition, the most audible criticism is “Where’s the duct tape?” For many, who don’t know how to sew or cut fabric for clothing, ensembles are assembled from thrift-store purchases and random gear shimmied together with glue and a prayer.
That is not the case with the specimens on display here. Even though they appear like the regalia of alien queens, Gelareh Alam’s Cocoon Gown and Nagana Brass Gown, along with Caley Johnson’s collaborative piece the Crown of Nagini, are more than simple costumes. Rather than being made for theatrics or pretending, Alam’s clothing is meant to raise the stature of the wearer, and to create an aura of confidence that elevates them. They are also deeply personal. Alam, who grew up during the Iranian revolution, has been going through a journey of self-realization since she arrived in the States.
When Alam first came to the U.S. to study fashion design at the Art Institute of California, she was moving from a degree in psychology to a new world, without being able to speak English. She found her voice through visual communication, which she feels led to her emphasizing sight above the other four senses. America gave her the room to explore and grow as a human being. When Alam went to Burning Man in 2007, as she was completing her degree, it was because a friend gifted her with a birthday ticket.
What that visit did for her self-confidence was profound. She brought some of her clothing to the festival, and the recognition she received from total strangers was like the cosmos giving her the proverbial wink and nod. “I could not believe the response I was getting. It was amazing to see. Suddenly I was being praised for the creativity that I was not allowed to practice growing up, and that was a huge transformation.
“Burning Man was so natural for me, it felt like home,” says Alam. “Expression in the elements. Sublime. Here was a culture screaming that radical self-expression was not just good, but demanded. It was a place to re-define myself, and align with peace, equality, human empathy. It was transformational and deeply empowering. As an artist I am constantly in search of inspiration and constantly trying to break through those barriers. At Burning Man, this is the whole point of everything anyone does there.”
Tyler FuQua has been constructing giant puppets for over fifteen years as his true passion, while making a living as a contractor. Building things is in his blood, whether it’s remodeling a bathroom or creating large metal installations. “Of course, it’s way more fun to build a giant robot instead of remodeling a bathroom,” he explains, “but sometimes I get projects that combine art and functionality.” His wearable costume, grandly titled Thorax, Ambassador of the Insects, was inspired as he mused about the speaker grills on his stereo, which resembled alien bug eyes. “I made the first helmet using these grills but it was just too ominous. I build fun things for all ages so this just wasn’t doing it for me. I went back to the drawing board and made what you see now. I really wanted to use as many reclaimed materials as possible, so the creation of Thorax was really determined by what I could find on the shelves at thrift stores. I would just walk around with an open mind until I found something that would work for what I needed. A lot of my art is creature-based, and I am a huge superhero fan, so Thorax is a conglomeration of those two things.”
There is also an element of self-invention. For many, Burning Man is that rare time in their life when they can be someone else. The straitjacket of their work, home or family life is temporarily lifted, and they are free to experiment with who they are. On the Playa, Burners find themselves anew, break apart previous conceptions of self, and come back together, rejuvenated, in some cases reborn, no LSD or ayahuasca required.
That isn’t to say everyone who comes to Burning Man finds it a transcendent experience; indeed, the point is the festival represents different things to different people. Perhaps that’s what makes it such a uniquely American phenomenon. Atkinson notes one of the reasons why she chose it as the subject of an exhibition was that Burning Man is as American as apple pie. “It was born in this very frontier culture, this sort of West Coast culture and Silicon Valley, believing that just because something has been done one way before doesn’t mean that’s the way it has to be done. The idea of being out in a vast, empty environment and creating something entirely new from scratch has a lot to do with the entire American dream and the spirit of what we are as a country.”
Such a multidimensional entity as Burning Man isn’t meant to be pinned down by taxonomists, although many will try. One flailing wing of the butterfly might be identified in that the festival is a radical social experiment. By undergirding the laboratory with strong, actively exercised principles, the Mad Scientist is unleashed into “the real world.” This doesn’t take place in a vacuum, a society without rules that is the nightmare of many a dystopian take on the future. In fact what we have here is a nascent utopia, taken to its practical heights by the wild and untameable spirit of the people involved. But the dream doesn’t die with the end of each year’s festivities; it keeps being passed on by those who lived it, out there on the dusty earth of the Nevada desert.
Bruder, Jessica. Burning Book: A Visual History of Burning Man. New York: Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2007.
Christians, Karen and Christine Kristen. Jewelry of Burning Man. Santa Rosa, CA: Global Interprint, Inc., 2015.
Raiser, Jennifer. Burning Man: Art on Fire. New York: RacePoint Publishing, 2016.
King, Nicholas. Burners. Cochiti Lake, NM: Laughing Coyote Press, 2017.
Galbraith, Carrie and John Law. Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society. San Francisco: Last Gasp, 2013.
Jones, Steven T. The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert Is Shaping the New American Counterculture. San Francisco: CCC Publishing, 2011.
“No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man” is showing in two phases, with the full exhibition through September 16, 2018, then certain works will be viewable through January 21, 2019, at the Renwick Gallery, Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20006.
Visit their website at www.americanart.si.edu/visit/renwick.
Burning Man debuts annually; for 2018 it met from August 26 - September 3.
Visit their website at www.burningman.org.
Patrick R. Benesh-Liu is Associate Editor of Ornament and continues to find time to enjoy craft in between writing, travel and tech support. A scene hopper, Benesh-Liu has spent time in a variety of art and craft-based communities, from millennial pop culture fan groups like Anime cosplay and furry costumes to outsider art museums like the John M. Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. While in Washington, D.C. at the Renwick Gallery’s landmark exhibition, “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man,” he realized his interests were all leading to one place, Black Rock City. After interviewing Nora Atkinson, the Renwick’s Lloyd E. Herman Curator of Craft, as well as artists whose work was featured, the interconnectivity of this event with creative communities became apparent. As Ornament’s reporter, he also provides a zesty compilation of the latest news in craft.