Burners in flux

Why would anyone spend four months and $180,000 building something that will only last a week? The answer says a lot about Burning Man culture

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The 21,000-square-foot Temple of Flux rises in the desert
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY JOHN CURLEY

steve@sfbg.com

Temples are the spiritual centers and gathering places for the communities that build them, standing as testaments to their faith. In traditional culture, they are lasting monuments. At Burning Man, these complex, beautiful structures are destroyed at the end of the festival.

Building something that takes months to plan, design, and construct but lasts only a week takes an unusual attitude and a faith — not in some unknowable deity, but in one another and the value of collective artistic collaboration. In many ways, the Temple of Flux, this year's spiritual centerpiece on the playa, represents the essence of an event that is redefining the American counterculture.

Burning Man has been experiencing a renaissance in recent years as it moves from a wild bohemian celebration on the open frontier into a permanent counterculture with well-developed urban values, vast social networks, and regional manifestations around the world.

The Temple of Flux crew toiled for months in West Oakland's huge, burner-run American Steel workspace, designing, cutting, painting, and assembling the parts and pieces of what would become five massive wooden structures. And for the last few weeks, they camped and worked in the desert to create what looks like a stunning series of peaks and canyons, dotted with caves and niches that tens of thousands of visitors will explore this week.

Even with volunteer labor, this 21,600 square foot project cost $180,000. And on Sunday, Sept. 5th, it will be completely destroyed by a carefully orchestrated fire. Yet its real value will linger on in the spirit, skills, and community that created it. And that's true of many of the projects that comprise Black Rock City and this year's particularly timely art theme: Metropolis: The Life of Cities.

The city that nearly 50,000 citizens build for Burning Man each year is one of world's great urban centers while it stands, with mind-blowing art and world-class entertainment offered free to all in a stunning visual environment. The $210–$360 ticket that people buy to attend the event only entitles them to help build the city.

But it doesn't last — the city is dismantled entirely, and some of the most impressive art is destroyed. Why do people devote months of their lives to build art that will be burned in a week?

An ambitious undertaking like the Temple of Flux required five carefully packed semi trucks to move and a mind-boggling logistical effort to construct in the hostile world of the Nevada desert. Making it happen was like a full-time unpaid job for four months for many of the more than 200 diverse volunteers.

I spent four months embedded with the crew and helped build the Temple, seeking to understand what drove the artists and builders. The question is pronounced, the answers varied, but it comes down to one of the defining characteristics of Burning Man: the process, the work, the experience, the challenge, and the ability to bond with and learn from others was far more important than the final product.

The three project principals and designers — Rebecca Anders, Jessica Hobbs, and PK Kimelman — have been lauded within the Burning Man community, but they say they are humbled by the efforts of the team that supported them and their vision.

"I was under the impression that I'd have to call in a lot of favors, but people have been coming out of the woodwork," PK, a veteran of the Space Cowboys sound collective who is new to making large-scale art, told me in the desert. "It's a very diverse group of people in their personalities and backgrounds, but it's amazing how it's become just one cohesive group without any factions."

Comments

If we wanted to obsess with Burning Man, we'd be there right now.

I'm so glad that Steven T. Jones finds joy in Burning Man.

But can't we have a moment free from his obsession while he's in the desert?

That he makes his obsession ours as we opt out denies us the right to opt out.

Glad you've got a good thing. Now give us a break.

-marc

Posted by marcos on Aug. 31, 2010 @ 8:50 pm

to Marcos - you didn't have to read it!!
I think it is amazing what these guys do in the burn "off season" to enhance the experience of those who pilgrimage to BRC each year!!
give them a break tosser.

Posted by katsoolu on Sep. 02, 2010 @ 1:04 pm

Seven pages of this tripe?

Do you all need approval that bad?

Posted by marcos on Sep. 03, 2010 @ 11:47 am

Well Done Steve! Nice focused piece on the crew that's building the temple. It's nice to hear about a free specific characters and their story. It's also good to hear about the strong focus on teaching/sharing knowledge, which I feel was not as strong in previous years. Rebecca and Jess and the other Flaming Lotus Girls are bringing a real legacy in that regard! Which, I believe, is an important aspect of group collaboration and should expand if BM truly want to survive as many creative collaborative groups of artists. Looking forward to your book!

Posted by Olivier Bonin on Aug. 31, 2010 @ 9:22 pm

Congratulations to the folks who are wealthy enough in spirit and energy and giving enough of their lives and time to Burnola to go forth and do great things.

I, for one, welcome our new Harry Larvay overlords and will say for the last time, it was better in past.

Posted by Better in 96 on Aug. 31, 2010 @ 9:32 pm

Wealthy?
I think most of the people on the project live at or around what the Government would call poverty level. I am as jaded as they come in regards to BM but I was a honor the work on the temple with the crew.

Posted by Java Cow on Sep. 10, 2010 @ 11:16 am

Here are some pictures I took as we were working on the Temple, if you would like to see some more angles and stuff check it out

http://www.brandonsolem.com/art/sculpture/

Posted by dj gobi on Sep. 01, 2010 @ 9:32 am

I've read several articles about this year's Burning Man all saying the same thing...

"It's a police state out there," said lawyer David Levin, who offers legal advice to Burning Man attendees.

From the article "Burning Man 2010 Attendees Say Police Too Invasive"

Posted by Guest Bárbara Chelsai on Sep. 01, 2010 @ 4:34 pm

Maybe the Harvey Milk Club can pass a resolution on that?

Posted by Lucretia Snapples on Sep. 01, 2010 @ 6:23 pm

>>>...permanent counterculture with well-developed urban values.

there's nothing counter to the mainstream culture happening at that hipster tail-gate party in the desert. shesh!

Posted by wut on Sep. 02, 2010 @ 7:48 am

$180,000 + all that disposable income. I wonder how many hot meals that would provide for the less fortunate citizens of San Francisco. How revolutionary and creative it would be if all that energy, talent and wealth were put to 'better' use.

Posted by Guest Patrick Monk on Sep. 05, 2010 @ 10:19 am

You're looking at the big picture. Most people don't seem to have the ability to do that. This event is very wasteful, but I think most do not care, which seems to be the growing attitude of many in this country. On the chat thing they had going next to the live feed last night someone asked about the Carbon Footprint for this event. No one responded to the question except one person who said they did not care what the Carbon Footprint was. BM was very pretty to watch with the colored blue and purple LEDs they used as part of it. Some people don't mind spending their money on watching things burn. It's a huge amount of money to spend to watch things burn. Then there are those who don't at all mind welfare for the wealthy.

Posted by Guest Bárbara Chelsai on Sep. 05, 2010 @ 4:09 pm

Seriously why? Individually is the carbon footprint any worse than a flight to visit a relative? How do you get around to visit people not here, do you walk across the nation on trips? We should all be glad these people are out of town making the bars tolerable.

Should people sit at home in the dark reading by imitation whale blubber lamp to suit you?

What is the big picture here?

Posted by matlock on Sep. 05, 2010 @ 7:19 pm

you are absolutely right.
Burning Man should not allow fossil-fuel vehicles.
All those who want to attend should be required to behave like a responsible hipster and ride their fixie from the Panhandle to the Playa like everyone else

Posted by Guest on Sep. 06, 2010 @ 7:07 pm

were put to 'better' use.
but you don't have a sterlization program yet so they can't be

Posted by Guest on Sep. 17, 2010 @ 11:40 am

Meaning - what Patrick Monk wants it to be used for.

Newsflash - people are allowed to spend their personal income anyway they chose in this country.

Posted by Lucretia Snapples on Sep. 05, 2010 @ 2:04 pm

Barbara, I appreciate your considered response. The annual militaristic Blue Angels Flying Circus is another example of the incredible misappropriation of diminishing resources and lack of consideration for others. Many of the patients I visit every day live in the 'loin, SOMA, the Mission, BVHP, etc; many are traumatized vets or new americans who lived through American napalm and carpet bombing. It is a very challenging time for me, but nothing compared to the suffering of the folks I help care for. However I'm sure this display of American macho gets Lucretia's knickers moist and in a twist.
Lucretia, whoever, whatever, you are, I presume, like me, you have a roof over your head; dont go to bed hungry every night; can afford a Bluebottle latte with your croissant every morning, blah, blah ....
Newsflash ??? Duh, of course we have that right, but then we actually have personal income to dispose of.
Whoever or whatever 'Patrick Monk' is, it has nothing to do with what he/she/it wants; but has everything to do with what we as individual human beings and as a society, value and stand for.
While many of us may know who this 'lucretia looser' is; until he/she/it has the cojones or labia to publicly identify herself, 'she's' just another ignorant c**t, who has about as much credibility and relevance as a gnat on the arse of an elephant.

Posted by Guest Patrick Monk on Sep. 05, 2010 @ 6:16 pm

Why you are interested in how other people spend their own money is a mystery.

What the blue angel's government spending has to do with individuals spending their disposable income, spending on some party you don't have to go to is also a mystery.

It's so sad that we have become a nation of millions of busy bodies with a monumental sense of entitlement to the work, time, and minds of others.

On another note

The NYC anti-mosque types don't want the thing there because it offends them, and SF progressives don't want the Blue Angels because it offends them. Oddly these "I'm offended, I get my way" pathologies are likely reversed when considering the other sides sensitivities here.

Posted by matlock on Sep. 05, 2010 @ 7:10 pm

Well put.

Posted by Guest Bárbara Chelsai on Sep. 05, 2010 @ 8:04 pm

My "well put" comment was in response to Guest Patrick Monk's comment.

Posted by Guest Bárbara Chelsai on Sep. 06, 2010 @ 2:49 pm

Thanks Barbara, I confess I was a trifle confused. Like many other 'activists' of a more progressive and humanitarian consciousness, I dont participate in many 'discussions' here any more as it is heavily populated by 'anonymous guests' who typify the 'ugly american' whose primary concern seems to be ensuring that they have at least two chickens in their pot while others starve. The posters at FogCityJournal are generally far more informed and involved; there is a wide diversity of opinion, and most are willing to identify themselves, argue rationally and engage in constructive dialog with those they disagree with, not hide behind masks and pseudonyms.

Posted by Guest Patrick Monk on Sep. 07, 2010 @ 10:11 am

Hello Patrick. You're welcome. There are several people here who seem to possess no social skills and they come here searching for an argument and when they disagree with someone they can't do so without "showing their knife." They write snarky and snide posts. I just ignore them. I think they really have an agenda going on which includes the promotion of the corporations, big business and Wall Street.

Posted by Guest Bárbara Chelsai on Sep. 07, 2010 @ 1:59 pm

that some people have toward Burning Man and burners, virtually always from people who have never been.

If you have been to Burning Man, and you still feel that way, then I'm really, truly sorry that you're one of the few people who didn't get anything out of the event and you were unable to transcend the superficial. Much more likely, however, is that the people who constantly pooh-pooh it have never been, and their mind is closed to having the experience. All I can say is, you know not what you speak of.

I just returned from my third burn, and for me it is the most mindblowing, life-changing, surreal experience I've ever had. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and the effect it has cannot be measured in dollars, or in carbon. And it's totally impossible to explain, to people who don't want to understand.

Hell, it's totally impossible to explain even if your mind is open to it! My wife went with me for the first time this year. I warned her about all the hardships she'd have to endure, just to make sure she knew. The week before, I asked her if she was excited to go. While she was curious, based on all my past tales, she said, "I'm worried I won't be able to survive a week." Now she says "I don't know how I'll survive till next year." Another thing she said to me as we're driving home (in the default world) was, "I feel like I'm in a foreign country now." Once you've participated, you begin to understand why it has to be out in the middle of nowhere, why the harsh conditions enhance the experience (indeed, are integral and necessary), why people say that they can't wait to go "home" again next year, why words and pictures alone can never convey the meaning of it, and all the other "whys" that you cannot comprehend without actually experiencing it for yourself.

Posted by Greg on Sep. 07, 2010 @ 1:25 pm

But your post is the exact reason I would never go. Thousands of people who "transcend the superficial" is hell.

Posted by matlock on Sep. 07, 2010 @ 2:14 pm

Like you all are the first white people ever to have a gathering that is transformative.

The deal is not that you all go to the desert and have fun--more power to you--rather that you all are so demonstrative about it as if nobody had every done anything similar ever and that you were actually breaking new ground.

This insistence that we validate your fantasy and if we don't, be dismissed as hating you, is what irks so many.

So many of these über bürners would not be happy unless we all agreed to applaud Burning Man with several standing ovations, equivalent to what a freshly potty trained toddler expects when s/he first makes in the toilet.

-marc

Posted by marcos on Sep. 10, 2010 @ 10:12 am

See, it's like this, Marc...

The Guardian has a blog entry on literature readings and book reviews. I just clicked on it for the first time to see what was in there. And yep, indeed I found that I'm not interested in Melissa Stein's new poetry collection, or a book on how a Buddist woman confronts cancer, or Cynthia Robinson's new book with an "opera singer as an unlikely protagonist."

I'm just not that interested in that stuff.

So I don't read that blog. Wow, what a concept.

But I also don't go purposefully making comments just to trash it. Some other people get value out of those books, and that's cool. Why would I trash something that I don't bother to read for myself? If I did that, I'd be an idiot, because I'd be talking about something that I know nothing about. And I'd be a first class asshole.

Nobody is asking you to applaud Burning Man, but what really irks people is that you go *out of your way* to trash something that you've never experienced and never care to. Think about how you come off when you do that.

....

And then there are the "jaded burners"... I have somewhat more respect for them because at least they know what they're talking about. But still... you know, I know a woman who doesn't go anymore, for many of the same reasons I've heard from other jaded burners. But she pointedly refuses to get judgemental about it. She told me (and I'm paraphrasing), "I don't go anymore, because I no longer get out of it the things I got out of it before. But I'm not going to be one of those people who say 'it was better in this or that year' or 'it was better when they didn't allow this or allowed that', because I know that a lot of people still find value in it, and I'm not going to try to ruin their experience. Yeah, it's changed. But everything changes. It's not better, it's not worse. It's just different."

And that's totally cool. At some point I'll probably stop going. And when I do, I hope it's still there, and I hope it still has the same impact on other people's lives that it had on mine.

That said, I want to add one final word for some of you jaded burners... The person I went with last year, went for his first time since 2001. He didn't have a particularly good burn that year, and never came back. Now he says, "I don't know why I stayed away so long." For every jaded burner, there's a born-again burner. You may want to take another look... you might just find that the good (still) far outweighs the bad.

Posted by Greg on Sep. 10, 2010 @ 11:30 pm

The point is that although burning is very important to you, nobody else cares. And you care that nobody else cares. Because you want validation from everyone else for your efforts. Anyone who is not with you is against you.

Look, there are serious political crises facing the US, California and San Francisco, crises that journalistic outlets like the Guardian should be focusing on. If we lose these political contests, your inability to burn again will be the least of your concerns.

It is annoying enough that Steven T. Jones lays claim on scarce pages of news to tickle his tribe during several of the 51 weeks out of the year when you all are not up in the desert.

But when the SFBG to force us to read about internecine BM politics during that one week when we've made a choice to remain in our beautiful burner-free city, it goes a long way to indicate that their concern for significant journalism is minimal, preferring to focus on an insider joke, on meaning less fluff.

-marc

Posted by marcos on Sep. 12, 2010 @ 8:40 am

You could choose to ignore it like I choose to ignore the things I don't care about, but you go out of your way to spread negativity.

Having an article on Burning Man doesn't take away from other journalistic priorities, and bandwith (unlike the pages of a newspaper) is infinite for all intents and purposes.

It was written for those who are interested and curious about it, both Burners and non-Burners. It obviously wasn't written for the likes of you and Snapples and Matlock, but for some reason you guys feel like you need to go out of your way to express how much you hate it. Sometimes I feel like you say things just to offend.

Posted by Greg on Sep. 12, 2010 @ 1:15 pm

it's amazing that you could spend so much time around the process of construction for this piece, and yet understand so little about it.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 07, 2010 @ 3:43 pm

You know, I don't think I've seen you say one positive thing about anyone or anything, ever.

Try opening your mind and spreading kindness for a change, instead of closed-minded hatred and nastiness.

Posted by Greg on Sep. 07, 2010 @ 5:43 pm

I don't care, it's your fellow progressives who want to butt into your business and tell you how to spend your money.

If you want to hang out with other cultists and explore your whatever, feel free. It's not closed minded to not want to spend time with people who want to include me on their good time, do you spend your days conversing with Mormons?

Jim Jones where are you, San Francisco needs you.

Posted by matlock on Sep. 10, 2010 @ 11:46 am

'matlock', in your defense I would say that you have done a helluva good job, time and time again - ad nauseam - of transcending even the superficial.

Posted by Guest Patrick Monk on Sep. 07, 2010 @ 6:53 pm

oh dear matlock, snapples, et al; silence is such bliss. check back in a month or so maybe, when i'm not scheduled for a root canal. Barbara, check out FogCity, much more stimulating and rewarding than trolling with these bottom feeders.

Posted by Guest Patrick Monk on Sep. 09, 2010 @ 7:31 pm
heh

We are all too stupid for our progressive betters, they hate how other people live their lives and spend their money, then obsess about how we need to let them be them.

Posted by matlock on Sep. 10, 2010 @ 11:06 am

>>>Much more likely, however, is that the people who constantly pooh-pooh it have never been,

that's a classic burning man shaming tactic. i've been 10 years in a row, and stopped going in 07 because of how the event has been transformed by authoritarians, and those who follow them.

you're gulping down the kool-aid. you're oblivious to what is going on around you as a burner, your rose-colored glasses block out the light. it will just be many more years until you see clearly. until then, you'll poo poo anyone who poo poos your "transcending the superficial", as someone who doesn't understand what you understand because [name your reason here].

Posted by transcending burning man on Sep. 10, 2010 @ 7:50 am

OK, that's fine, some of your criticisms are totally valid. I'm not saying that everything is perfect. And you'll certainly find no shortage of jaded burners saying "it was better in fill-in-the-blank year."

But I'm here to say that in spite of all the "authoritarians" both in and outside of the Burning Man organization, it's still an event that provides incredible joy to a lot of people -51,000 this year, up 20% from last. And maybe that's part of the problem... as the event grows, it becomes more mainstream, and some of the people who felt like they were part of an exclusive club, don't feel so elite anymore. And some people go as tourists rather than participants, and that affects the character somewhat.

Everything evolves. It's actually amazing that this event has been going on for 25 years in some form. If and when it changes to the point where I no longer find value in it, I simply won't go. But for now I still do, so I go. It's not a matter of gulping kool-aid. I'm just speaking from a very personal level and saying that for me, I get a lot out of the event, and there are a lot of people who feel the same way.

Posted by Greg on Sep. 10, 2010 @ 8:36 am

Burning Man is my worst nightmare. I wouldn't caught dead there. I wish the burners would just stay out there and never come back. SF is so much better without you all!

Posted by The Big NB on Sep. 10, 2010 @ 8:58 am

Having just returned from a very positive and life-changing first burn, I can say that these multiple viewpoints about Burning Man are important to keep my understanding of the event in perspective. I wholly agree that there are some collective blindspots. I've been told, and attested myself, that Burning Man is not the Holy Grail, but is perhaps an important milestone along the way to it. I've also been told, and attested myself, that Burning Man is an extravagantly consumerist society. It is, after all, an American event and I have yet to hear anyone attempt to authoritatively claim that it isn't consumerist, or claim that it's the end-all-be-all-we-will-save-the-world. Objectively speaking, at least from the official website, it's a "social experiment" in "radical self expression" and "radical self reliance". The event is at least true to its word in this sense.

Yes as a result the event can be wasteful, even while people are discovering and experimenting with sustainability. And yes, people who have not experienced anything like Burning Man will have nothing to compare it against when attempting to share their experiences.

But overall, Burning Man is a positive experience, and even if it's wasteful and contradictory, can lead to positive changes on the individual level, which eventually finds its way back to collective positive changes in society. Even if lots of smoke was released into the atmosphere.

My final word is that a lot of the comments here are unnecessarily negative, as if people spent a lot of time continually revisiting this comments section trying to make everyone as unhappy as they are about this event. Which at the very least, is as unproductive as paying money to watch something burn. Since these people obviously are very passionate about burners damaging the environment, why not educate burners about how to reduce carbon footprints while having a good time? Why not educate "ignorant white burners" about other transcendent gatherings that are apparently a much better use of time than Burning Man? I'm rather curious myself :) I'm sure both burners and non-burners can benefit from all this wonderful information apparently being withheld.

Looking forward to tips on how to reduce my carbon footprint for next year! Thanks in advance

Posted by Guest on Sep. 10, 2010 @ 2:01 pm

@matlock, finally you acknowledge that you acknowledge that you he are just too stupid, ignorant, arrogant and self satisfied to live. how retarded are you that it took so long to become enlightened. STFUADYWMF.

Posted by Guest Patrick Monk on Sep. 10, 2010 @ 8:34 pm