"I didn't want to write a love letter": Steven T. Jones talks about his new book on Burning Man
LIT "I didn't want to write a love letter to Burning Man." Those words may come as a surprise out of the mouth of Guardian City Editor Steven T. Jones, who has been covering the freaky desert art festival and its year-round scene for nearly seven years in these very pages. They're also surprising given that news of the book has already spread across the country by the vast Burning Man network: listserves, counterculture word-of-mouth, and through an important nod by the festival itself, which included a mention of Jones' in-depth exploration of 2004-10 burner culture, The Tribes of Burning Man (Consortium of Collective Consciousness, 312 pages, $17.95) in its Jack Rabbit Speaks newsletter, which lands in 70,000 inboxes across the country.
Although Jones critiques many aspects of playa life, the book seems to be resonating with people immersed in the DIY, creativity a-go-go, Black Rock City milieu. "Man," a burner friend told me on a recent trip to Washington, D.C. "You just don't see books about Burning Man around these parts!" Which is kind of the point — Jones wanted to highlight a culture he says is vastly underreported yet culturally significant (and have a good time in the process). The book may be the most researched history of the festival to date, and romps through some of the biggest parties and most innovative art experiments on the playa in first person. "I was lucky to be reporting on this event at this time," Jones says. "It was really epic stuff."
Love the burn? Find yourself in the book's pages — and at Jones' series of readings all over town, he'll be holding to celebrate its release. Hate everything it stands for? Read it and you'll never have to go. I sat down with Jones at the newly remodeled Zeitgeist last week to learn more about the Man.
SFBG Why did you write this book?
Steven T. Jones Burning Man has been largely misunderstood and marginalized. Even those who know something about the event assume that its moment has past, that it's "gone corporate" or otherwise lost its essential energy and appeal. Those who aren't familiar think of it as just a festival. But it still absolutely floors newcomers, giving them what many describe as a chance to rediscover some more authentic sense of self in this strange and challenging new world. In recent years, this culture has expanded outward all over the world, a development that has begun to be even more important than the event itself to many people. It's spawned vast social networks of creative, engaged people pursuing really interesting projects, and I'm honored to be able to tell their stories.
SFBG What initially drew you to write about Burning Man? You're the Guardian city editor and most of your pieces are about politics.
SJ I think it's hard to separate political culture from the counterculture. This book is probably more about San Francisco than it is about Black Rock City. Burning Man is the most significant culture to come out of San Francisco in years, especially considering its longevity and reach. I mean, some of our progressive political views have spread, but there are groups of burners in every major American city.
SFBG Who are the burners?
SJ There's a census taken every year, so we know exact demographics on this one. There's a wide age range and a wide cultural range in terms of ethnicities and geographic regions, and a range of how people live. There are the super-conservatives ...
SJ Yeah, there are plenty of libertarians there. That's how it was founded — the gun nuts and the freaks. Then the hippies discovered it. There's the old hippie-punk divide at Burning Man that we see play out in San Francisco politics all the time over the last 40 years.
SFBG Throughout much of the book, you're struggling with Burning Man's political significance. In 2008 you even took a break in the middle of the festival to attend the Democratic National Convention and Barack Obama's nomination. What was your final conclusion — is Burning Man important, politically speaking?
SJ It's a good question. I wanted it to be. Larry Harvey wanted it to be, given what was going on with the rest of the country at the time. Ultimately, it just is what it is. I think it's at least as relevant as the Tea Party — it's got a better thought-out ethos and value system, but it doesn't get as much press. It is a city, and the example the city offers is very relevant to the rest of the country.
SFBG Let's say I've never gone to Burning Man and I'm never going to go. What does this book have for me?
SJ Burners are my main target audience, but it was important to me to make this book interesting and accessible to those who don't go to Burning Man. I firmly ground this book in an intriguing sociopolitical moment in 2004, when the country really lost its mind. Bush was being reelected president and things were about to turn really ugly with the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina, events that would further divide an already fractured country. I don't think it's an accident that the country hit its nadir just as Burning Man hit its zenith. People were desperate for authenticity, creativity, and a life-affirming way to spend their time. The most innovative and impactful cultural developments often happen on the margins, so to ignore Burning Man is to be incurious about what is animating the counterculture in San Francisco and other cities — people who will help lead this country back from this cultural desert we're in, if that is ever going to happen.
SFBG Are you going to continue to write about burner culture as extensively as you've been doing?
SJ No, I think I'll back off on it. I've got a few ideas for the next project — I'm fascinated by bike culture. I think it'd be fascinating to explore the international bike movement in the fashion of this book.
STEVEN T. JONES READS FROM TRIBES OF BURNING MAN
"Burning Man and the Art of Urbanism"
Tues/8 6 p.m., free for SPUR members, $20 for nonmembers
654 Mission, SF
"Tribes of Burning Man Reading and Powwow"
Fri/11 7:30-10 p.m., $5–$20
1198 Fulton, SF
Facebook: Tribes of Burning Man Reading and Powwow