State of the art
As Burning Man approaches its 20th year, Bay Area artists are staging a revolt that goes to the soul of the mega-event.
By Steven T. Jones
CHICKEN JOHN KNOWS how to push Larry Harvey's button.
Chicken and I were sitting at a table in his Odeon Bar Dec. 1, talking about the great Burning Man art controversy before his quirky weekly showman's gig, "The Ask Dr. Hal Show," when he gave me a chance too. "Wanna push Larry Harvey's button?"
I thought Chicken had already been pushing the button of Burning Man's founder pretty well, with the We Have a Dream Petition he'd started a couple weeks earlier with Jim Mason, the mad genius behind some of the event's most ambitious artistic creations. The pair had gotten hundreds of Bay Area artists to threaten to leave Burning Man unless there was reform and rejuvenation in the process of selecting and funding its art.
But then Chicken got up from the table and walked over to a button on the wall. He told me to look up, and there, on the ceiling of Chicken's bar, was the huge triangular head of a Burning Man, that central symbol of the 19-year-old desert celebration of free expression.
Chicken pushed the button, and a neon smiley face appeared. "That's the whole story right there," he said, as if revealing some great cosmic truth. "It's about Smiley."
Having just read Brian Doherty's fantastic new book, This Is Burning Man, I already knew the Smiley story. In 1996, a tempestuous turning-point year for Burning Man, the last anarchic year before the exponentially growing event would begin to develop rules and a civic structure, pranksters secretly placed a smiley face on the man, which they flashed occasionally for just seconds at a time.
"It was a defacing of the icon," Chicken said, a challenge to the control that Harvey who has taken Burning Man from a tiny gathering at Baker Beach to a massive annual extravaganza of 35,000 people has always exercised over an event he conceived. Smiley was symbolic of the split between those serious about creating a new kind of community open to all and those who are wary of such high-minded goals and just want to make art, the kind of mind-blowing, fire-spewing art you can only display in the Black Rock Desert.
John Law, who allegedly created Smiley and hasn't returned to Burning Man since 1996, leaned on the bar nearby, paying us no heed. He no longer wants anything to do with the institution he helped create. Now, Chicken and a group of artists are threatening to follow Law out the door, sparking a spirited debate over what Burning Man is, and what the beloved and bemoaned event is to become.
• • •
Like the best art, Burning Man looks different from each perspective. From a detached distance, you might just see a big art party in the desert. Step up to it and study the details and you'll notice dusty artists toiling over impossible creations, ravers feeling their musical bliss, humans making a gift economy work, and disparate tribes building unique camps into a cohesive and fairly substantial temporary city.
But at its most basic level, Burning Man is now a business, a limited liability corporation with an annual budget of about $7.5 million, derived from selling tickets that will next year cost between $175 and $250, depending on when you buy them. The budget pays for permits and other direct costs and for the salaries of dozens of employees, including the board of directors, known as the Borg.
It also pays for art, both on and off the playa. Each of the past three years, the Borg dispensed about $270,000 to Burner artists who applied. Decisions about who gets money and how much, where the art gets placed, and whether it conforms to preset safety and thematic standards are made by a committee of three: Harvey, curator LadyBee (a.k.a. Christine Kristen), and longtime fire artist Crimson Rose.
There are forms to fill out, hoops to jump through, and authority figures to answer to none of which sits well with the counterculture artists who are drawn to the infinite possibilities of desert as canvas. Grumbling about Burning Man is a favorite pastime.
"It's funny," Mason told me. "We all sit around and bitch and complain about Burning Man, but we all continue to pour tremendous amounts of time, energy, and money into it nonetheless."
But the problems came to a head this year because so many people said the art sucked. There wasn't enough of it, and only a few pieces really wowed people. At the very least, between artist no-shows and static art-funding levels, it's certainly true that the art isn't keeping pace with the population growth.
"Everyone noticed, as I did, that there was less work. There not only appeared to be less work, there was," Harvey told me. "We had already planned to increase the art funding next year."
Yet for the Bay Area artists who had spent years trying to alert the Borg to their concerns that art had lost its position of primacy, Harvey's realization was too little, too late. They demanded more than just tinkering with the current model.
The demands were delivered last month in a letter, an online petition, and a full-page ad in the Bay Guardian. "Give us our event back or we leave," read the statement signed by hundreds of Bay Area artists, including some of the most storied figures in Burning Man's history, from Dr. Megavolt to the Flaming Lotus Girls.
The We Have a Dream Petition sought a renewal of the event's art scene by increasing the funding to 10 percent of the total take, democratizing the art selection process, rotating guest curators drawn from the Burning Man art community, facilitating big ideas, and generally emphasizing art over the competing foci of the party and the community.
"The fix must address many issues, but the core issue for the fix is the art. Art, art, art: that is what this is all about. Fix the art and make the process for doing it fair and fun again, and the rest will likely fall into place," the petition reads.
Ah, but what about "the rest"? That's more complicated, opening up all the core conflicts among the desert denizens: artists versus ravers, punks versus hippies, old-timers versus newcomers, participants versus partyers, anarchy versus order, and temporary autonomy versus a new way of living. And as the event swells to more than 35,000 participants, they all get rolled up in the inertia of the collective.
"What they're really afraid of is that the event will become inauthentic," Harvey said as we talked about the petition. "And if you think further: can you maintain a sense of community at that magnitude?"
That might be a fair translation, if he hadn't used the C word. It's Harvey's focus on the creation of "community" that really rankles many of the artists, particularly Chicken and Mason.
"People go for the art festival, not for the community festival," Chicken said, dripping disdain on the last two words. "If it is to survive, it's going to be for one reason, and that's because of its artists, not because we're a community."
Both Chicken and Mason do appreciate the community that's created every August in Nevada's Black Rock Desert. Yet they say the community flows entirely from the collaborative, creative process of working with others friends and strangers alike to create kick-ass art and watch the wide-open playa steadily be filled with wonders beyond imagination.
"The biggest contribution of Burning Man is that it has convinced a large number of people that it is not just an interesting thing but a critical thing for their humanity, maybe a responsibility of being human, to make a creative comment, and that everyone has the ability to do it," Mason said. "The community aspect of the event is the easiest thing."
• • •
Harvey created Burning Man out of a desire to create art. He had attended some of the art parties sculptor Mary Graubarger threw on Baker Beach in the '80s, where they would build sculptures of driftwood or other found objects and then burn them.
"I liked everything to disappear quickly. The need of people to have something permanent of their creation leaves all this junk sitting around. It's more beautiful to have people experience it and then it's gone," Graubarger says in This Is Burning Man, an insightful and comprehensive look at the event and its history.
So for the summer solstice of 1986, after Graubarger had stopped throwing her parties, Harvey had the idea of building a wooden man to burn on the beach. There was no specific meaning or ritual to it, but it was a striking enough artistic gesture that people were drawn to it, and Harvey became obsessed with it.
By 1988, the man itself had grown to its current height of about 40 feet, and this bit of absurdist theater attracted John Law, Michael Michael, and their Cacophony Society a group of radical freethinkers who would help propel Burning Man toward what it is today.
When the police stopped Harvey from burning the man on Baker Beach in 1990, according to Doherty, it was Law who suggested hauling it out to the Black Rock Desert for a Cacophony Society "zone trip" it had planned for that Labor Day weekend, and the modern ritual was born.
Michael Michael, a.k.a. Danger Ranger, is still on the Borg, but Law's last year was 1996, a year that included death, chaos, and Smiley.
"The utopian anarchy of Burning Man up until 1996 is gone," Doherty, a 10-year veteran, told me. "I don't think they are going to get that level of autonomy anymore."
Or, as Harvey said of the rules, "That is the price you pay for living in a civil setting versus being a hunter-gatherer."
• • •
Harvey told me he was at first bemused by the petition, then perplexed. "It was not only bad policy but unworkable," explained Harvey, who said he prefers the consensus process (at least, among the Borg and Burning Man staff) to cruder democratic methods that would also involve the larger group.
So he wrote a response that began, "I've read the We Have a Dream petition with interest. I think it will spur discussion and provoke some new ideas. I think real good can come of this. In writing this response, however, I feel called on to examine the very specific proposals that the petition advocates."
He then went on to tear apart the concept and logistics of democratizing the art selection process, the idea of funneling 10 percent of ticket sales to fund the new approach, and the accusation that the decline in the quality and quantity of art this year signaled an institutional shortcoming rather than just an off year.
Even the artists who travel in the same orbit as Chicken and Mason have varying views on the debate. Stella Ru, one of the Flaming Lotus Girls and an eight-year Burner, fully supports the petition. "I think discussion and rejuvenation is always good."
Other key players in the community didn't sign it.
"I think the petition itself is childish and annoying, but I support the ideals of it," said Charlie Gadeken, an artist who cofounded two of the Bay Area's main hubs for Burning Man's industrial artists: the Box Shop in Hunters Point and the Shipyard in Berkeley, which Mason runs. "It's the art-versus-community question that is at its core."
"Jim and Chicken stumbled on this whole continent of activity that I don't think they knew was out there," Harvey said. "[Jim] was encountering people who thought it was about community. And the art? That's OK too."
Burning Man and the Bay Area's underground art community essentially grew up together during the '80s and '90s, feeding off one another. "We were funding the underground here, and nobody else was," Harvey told me. "We were funding this little community that we grew up with."
The event and those who attended it have also left an indelible mark on the Bay Area's counterculture, affecting everything from its focus to its fashions.
"San Francisco is unique in that it has all these little subtribes that you can often trace back to projects or camps of people at Burning Man," Mason said. And they keep coming back to the playa because, as Chicken said, "This is the vehicle we've found that has the highest-percentage chance of blowing people's minds."
That symbiotic relationship understandably led many artists to feel that their contributions created the event and that their departures can kill it. But it may be too late for that now. The contributions artistic, cultural, metaphysical, or just social and entertaining are just too diverse.
"It's given them a broader view of who our community is," Harvey said. "They thought they were the core community, but really, it's been a long time since there was a core community."
Mason admitted that since the conflict began, his eyes have been opened up to a world of Burners who see the event as more than an art festival. Some see it as simply a great party, others as a quasi-spiritual endeavor, and others as an amalgam that's uniquely Burning Man.
Yet Chicken and Mason insist the party isn't enough. It's got to be about the art.
Chicken derisively refers to the other side of Burning Man as "Operation Desert Snuggle." With a punk rock soul, Chicken doesn't have much use for huggers, ravers, and hippies. But he can accept all of the event's other facets, if they're secondary to the art.
"What has incensed me most, as I have wandered these online forums and talked to people about this, is that I've realized that the leadership has stopped focusing on art as our main vehicle toward community. Instead, we now have a vague affirmation of community, in whatever form it is assembled," Mason said. "I think the experiment has lost much of its power because of this vagueness of purpose."
Burning Man has always been deliberately vague, from the meaning of the man himself to the reasons an exponentially growing number of people gather each year in such an inhospitable place. Artists focus on the art, but Harvey said, "I'm used to thinking of it in a much larger context."
Even with hundreds of Burners swept up in the debate over the petition, that still leaves tens of thousands who don't know about the big standoff and may never know. Even notable figures from the Bay Area's music scene like Berkeley's DJ Lorin, an eight-year Burning Man veteran whose performances on the playa have created countless peak experiences for those who love dance music.
"It's the ultimate orgy of expression," Lorin said of Burning Man. "My favorite time of year," a gathering of "counterculture artists and people who are inventing other ways of living."
He keeps a balanced view of the event and is critical of its hedonistic waste of human energy and resources. But Lorin wants to change the world, and he would like to see the Burning Man community help voicing a perspective Harvey sometimes sounds but which Chicken hates.
"Art-shmart," Lorin said. "I would love to see Burning Man as an organization and mobilization front."
"We actually have become a kind of municipality, and that rubs some people wrong," Harvey said. "We're the first scene that went civic. Instead of falling apart, we instituted civic ethics. We said it's a city and anyone can come."
That focus on building an inclusive community, rather than an exclusive party for the cool kids, is part of the divide. Many artists accuse Harvey of trying to turn Burning Man into some kind of religion, a characterization he always resists. But he now more freely talks about how Burning Man and the regional gatherings it spawned are a "movement" with the potential to affect the mainstream culture.
That, Harvey told me, "is the long-term plan." And it's a plan for which the artists of San Francisco aren't yet onboard.
"If we want to affect the larger culture," Chicken said bluntly, "it's over."
• • •
With Harvey appearing to reject the petition's demands, Chicken tried one last tactic the bet which he fired off in a Dec. 1 e-mail titled "more woo woo for Larry's hoo ha." It was his proposal for a grand compromise, or as he described it to me, "the endgame."
"I humbly propose we test drive these ideas through a somewhat unique 'event within the event.' The idea is that you do everything that you normally do and we do our own thing. And you simply let us. We want to experiment with the MASSIVELY COLLABORATIVE and RADICALLY DEMOCRATIC methods laid out in the We Have a Dream Petition," Chicken wrote.
So he and his supporters formed their own Borg, BORG2, organized through the Web site www.borg2.org. Chicken asked for "some good real estate" at the event, access to the list of event attendees to ask them for donations toward a goal of raising $250,000, and the autonomy to implement their vision without unnecessary interference from the Borg.
And to top it off, Chicken threw down a challenge, or "art duel." If Borg2 can create better art than Borg1, then "I only ask that you consider changing the current Burning Man art system to better reflect the ideas and methods they used to achieve their success. If I am wrong and the petitioners are unsuccessful, I hereby commit to sit in a dunk booth at next year's Burning Man Decompression Party and let everyone soak my ass, all day long."
Art isn't only what started Burning Man, it's what has sustained it, Chicken insisted. It's why people will travel to the desert year after year. And it's why both the government authorities who police and permit it and the private-sector facilitators who rent the generators, trucks, and sound systems have been willing to cut the event so many breaks over the years. They're willing to facilitate an art festival, not just a raucous party in the desert or burgeoning political movement.
" 'Art festival' is the 'get out of jail free' card," Chicken said, noting that Harvey and his clan have long been able to hide behind that banner when outsiders thought this was some kind of cult or revolutionary training camp.
"He married the art festival," Chicken said, "but he didn't divorce the art festival."
• • •
Finally, on Dec. 5, Harvey officially accepted Chicken's challenge. "On behalf of BORG1, I accept your bet. What is more is truly more. Let a hundred flowers bloom!... The art that you produce will then be matched against our own poor efforts at supporting and creating art. Should your woo woo trump our hoo ha on the playa, I pledge to reconsider my opposition to your radically democratic curatorial methods. Should our hoo ha make your woo woo look ho hum, you commit to sit all day in a dunking booth at next year's Decompression. Let Chaos Provide!"
So now Chicken and company have begun to discuss how exactly to go about fundraising and setting up the structure and space for filling the playa with art.
"It seems to be a way to regenerate chaos and change in the experience, which I think the event needs," Doherty told me. "But it's premature to say that an agreement means they won. Now they have to raise the money."
Harvey is also skeptical that they get anywhere close to their $250,000 goal. "If they can raise $50,000, I'll be impressed."
Yet everyone interviewed for this article has big expectations for the coming year. Beyond the likely improvements to the art, the reelection of President George W. Bush has many people feeling more motivated than ever to create an alternative reality, whereas last year many argued for focusing on electoral politics rather than on Burning Man.
Even artists who resisted signing the petition say they'll contribute to next year's experiment.
"This year they had 1,000 people behind them. Next year we'll have 10,000 people behind us," Gadeken said. "And we are going to make mind-boggling art in a concentrated space."
The process of getting there may have been rough. "The sad thing is, we've been forced to do this in this ugly manner and look like complete assholes while doing it," Mason said. But both of the instigators say it was worth it. "This will turn into what saves Burning Man," Chicken predicted.
"It needs to have a new grand experiment within the grand experiment of Burning Man," Mason said. "It could fail grandly, but in its failure, something interesting will surely happen."
E-mail Steven T. Jones, a.k.a. Scribe