Burning Man Festival Seeks Social, Political Influence

Burning Man
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Burning Man, the wild counterculture festival held annually in one of the nation's most remote areas, is coming to cities across America.

It's time to try to influence the very culture against which this year's record 30,500 Burning Man participants rebelled, the phenomenon's founder and resident visionary said in an interview.

Ultimately, executive director Larry Harvey sees the festival's values of libertarian freedom, radical artistic and self-expression, and anti-consumerism becoming a social movement that will influence American politics.

"We came out here to do an otherworldly thing. We came out here to do a vision - to do the most impractical thing imaginable," Harvey, 55, said as a choking dust storm whipped through the elaborate desert city that participants built and destroyed in a week.

"But now, in this newest phase of the development, we're going back to the world," he said. "I don't want to be a subculture - I want to enter the mainstream culture, but on our terms."

The effort to spread Burning Man already has begun.

About 100 regional representatives met last week at what participants call Black Rock City, or the Republic of Burning Man.

Two full-time employees of Black Rock City LLC are helping develop regional spinoffs beyond those already growing in places like New York, Seattle, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Austin, Tex., - and making sure they adhere to the philosophy of the original.

Internet sites and organizational tools help regional offshoots communicate and avoid some of the mistakes the original Burning Man made growing up.

Black Rock Arts Foundation, meanwhile, has been set up to raise money and to bring radical art to communities nationwide. Organizers also just distributed what they call a "Burning Man film festival in a box," a do-it-yourself kit that they expect will promote avant-garde cinematography.

"Many people will have the Burning Man experience and feel a part of Burning Man without ever coming here," said Harvey, serially smoking cigarettes and sipping iced coffee as his aviator sunglasses turned opaque in the swirling dust. "We are growing at an exponential rate - just not here."

What evolved into Burning Man started when eight people torched an eight-foot wooden figure on a San Francisco beach in 1986. The crowd for what became an annual event soon grew to 800.

Eighty people showed up when the event moved to the remote desert 120 miles north of Reno in 1990. It grew to 8,000 by 1996, and has nearly quadrupled since. Harvey calls those phases one and two.

Phase Three is creating regional festivals and bringing cutting-edge art into communities nationwide.

Phase Four is turning those people into an Internet-connected network for social and ultimately political change, in Harvey's vision.

"I think increasingly the political parties don't matter," he said Saturday as participants prepared the climactic torching of what has now become a 40-foot neon-lit Burning Man affixed atop an elaborate 40-foot Aztec-style wood and canvas pyramid.

"I think leaders will rise up in these (Burning Man) groups and a new kind of value-based politics - drawing renewal from rituals - will emerge. Then you have a rebirth of democracy, but a different kind of democracy."

Burning Man participants got their most overtly politicized event this year, when Bill Talen of New York City assumed his persona as the Rev. Billy and led his Church of Stop Shopping in nightly shows of satirical songs and sermons denouncing consumerism, the nation's energy policy, and Bush administration priorities generally.

Burning Man is a marketer's dream, attracting a preponderance of highly educated, relatively affluent participants in their 30s and 40s, followed in order by those in their 20s and then their 60s, Harvey said.

"If we let them, there'd be Burning Man vodka and Burning Man everything," Harvey said.

Burning Man is rabidly anti-commercial, however. Though organizers have taken lessons from how corporations operate, corporate logos are banned at Burning Man. Participants are encouraged even to mask the logos on rental trucks or RVs, and Black Rock City LLC's legal arm aggressively targets any attempt to commercialize or capitalize on the event.

"We're the other choice in a consumer world," Harvey said, as extravagantly or barely costumed Burning Man participants donned goggles and pulled up bandanas and face masks against the talcom-fine dust that at times cut visibility to a matter of a few yards. The wind shook the two-story wooden deck on which Harvey sat, and threatened to sail his trademark felt Stetson off into the surrounding desert.

"They're marketing fake authenticity," he said. "We're the real thing. Why else would people come out to this godforsaken place? People think the ultimate thing people want is comfort and convenience. We've proved that's not the case."

Though Harvey inspires near reverential devotion from a cadre of aides and hangers-on, most Burning Man participants have never met him. But many said they also see a grass roots backlash against rampant commercialism.

"This is the influence that needs to go into those Third World cities, not Coca-Cola and Pepsi," said Angela Layton of Beaver Creek, Ore.

"For sure it's going to evolve, and it's going to evolve in society. Burning Man is a reflection of society," said Labro Zabelis, a psychology graduate student from Union, N.J.

Harvey readily acknowledges his vision sounds grandiose.

"But I know what we can accomplish," he said, overlooking the fleeting, illusionary city that sprang up from five square miles of desert. "In the fullness of time, maybe this will disappear - because it will have served its purpose. The children will have left the nursery."


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