Burning Man was started in 1986 on Baker Beach in San Francisco by Larry Harvey, at the time a depressed 37-year-old landscape gardener.
He and some friends were burning stuff, including an 8-foot-tall wooden figurine, with, it seems, no particular mission in mind.
According to the lore that has grown moss-like around this moment, people on the beach came running over to watch, leaving Harvey convinced that there was a need out there for some kind of ceremony like this. It became a "project."
The organizers refer to it as an "experiment" and describe its aim as "radical self-expression."
The more fanatical participants call it a temporary utopia
Andrew Heintz, 25, and his girlfriend Amy Joe Alstead, 26, sold their house in Minneapolis, Minn., paid all their bills and their credit cards, and bought a year's worth of health insurance. Now, towing a pickup truck and canoe behind their RV, they've hit the road. Their first stop is the annual spectacle known as the Burning Man project, held in Nevada's Black Rock desert in the week leading up to Labor Day.
In Andrew's words, Burning Man is "an art festival for pyromaniacs." That's because the week culminates in the ritualistic torching of the large wooden dummy that gives the event its name. But Burning Man is both more and less than that. It has a reputation for being popular among Silicon Valley types, but attendees represent a somewhat wider swath of young urban professionals, most of them from the San Francisco Bay area. They pay $100 apiece for the privilege of camping on a playa 120 miles north of Reno.
This year's Burning Man in 1999 attracted some 24,000 people, most of them from the San Francisco Bay area.
There is a lot of conceptual talk at the event-of Burning Man as an analogue to the Internet, with lots of ad hoc "communities" springing up; of the joys of non-commercialism (no money is supposed to change hands after arrival). It is a slice of the sort of Americana beloved of NPR's All Things Considered馼ell-educated people with a penchant for self-dramatization doing strange things in an out of the way place. There are night clubs, musical performances, theme villages, fashion shows, and talent contests.
One fight-like spectacle, named Thunderdome after the Mad Max movie, uses elastic pulleys to swing people holding foam-wrapped weapons into each other to do battle. Most sites are less ambitious, like Wimminbago camp, which as far as I could tell consisted of a Winnebago, a sign that read "Got ovaries?" and a half-dozen or so topless, overweight, and rather butch lesbians. Walking around Burning Man, you might wonder if you've stumbled into a mass audition for NEA grants. Artists erect various postmodern structures all over the four-square-mile area of the camp; flame-throwers belch forth; people paint their nude bodies and dance. Despite the festival's oft-repeated slogan�"No Spectators"𨩅 sort of equilibrium has been achieved: About half the people are either naked or costumed, and the other half are watching them.
But for all the highfalutin talk, it's hard to avoid the obvious: The counterculture remains, as it has always been, a sort of shell game. It's considered bad manners to say so, but the art is often just decoration for a lot of sex and drugs. In an informal survey taken by Burning Man's "Ministry of Statistics," 60 percent of female respondents and 20 percent of male respondents said they had taken drugs in the last 24 hours. Sculptor Ray Cirino, whose "water woman" was on display, is in this sense emblematic of Burning Man, since he is perhaps more famous for multi-colored feather sex toys, which grace a 13-page spread in the October issue of Penthouse magazine.
Burning Man was started in 1986 on Baker Beach in San Francisco by Larry Harvey, at the time a depressed 37-year-old landscape gardener. He and some friends were burning stuff, including an 8-foot-tall wooden figurine, with, it seems, no particular mission in mind. According to the lore that has grown moss-like around this moment, people on the beach came running over to watch, leaving Harvey convinced that there was a need out there for some kind of ceremony like this. It became a "project." The organizers refer to it as an "experiment" and describe its aim as "radical self-expression."
The more fanatical participants call it a temporary utopia. They write down wishes on pieces of paper and burn them with the man. They talk about discovering themselves. It's radicalism circa high school: They want to "break down the barriers" that separate people in the "normal" world; they express themselves and celebrate what the "normal" world would prefer they repress; they want to show each other kindness and generosity, bringing to life an ideal community. They want, in short, to do a lot of drugs, preferably someone else's. The utopia is what pop psychology calls a "positive environment," promoting and affirming the members' bad habits.
Still, there is something charming about a guy like Andrew Heintz, who is neither a social misfit graduating from the identity-warping games of the Internet nor a completely respectable professional atoning for an otherwise conventional and bourgeois existence. His light, bluish eyes give him the look of a wild man as they peer out from his sunburned face. Balding prematurely around a widow's peak, he has yellow blond hair that hangs long in the back and, except for the rounds of firecrackers he has taped along the brim of his brown leather hat, he looks like he could have just stepped out of a daguerreotype of cattle ranchers.
Before dropping out, Andrew bought an RV. A few years back, he says,