The Black Rocking of America

One of the central challenges of the Burning Man ethos has been how to carry something of the experience back to the “real world” with you. There are many reasons for this. First and foremost perhaps is the concept of the Burning Man himself–the central icon of the festival whose fate, year after year, is to be destroyed in a last, celebratory conflagration. The idea being that art, in this context, is meant to be temporary, either in the moment-by-moment expression of costume (including nudity) or the destruction by fire of more physical installations. The meaning of all this symbolism is clear: check your inhibitions at the door, but also what happens at Burning Man stays at Burning Man.

And even if you want to, the experience is difficult to transport away, due to both official policy and sheer scope. Video cameras are restricted and licensed, still cameras have difficulty with the scale. Audio recordings, blogs and personal accounts all capture only the narrowest of vignettes of the totality of the event.

Yet now we have Burning Man Art showing up at City Hall, albeit in San Francisco. It’s hard to know if this is a result of the art world taking Burning Man more seriously, Burning Man taking art more seriously, or just the quasi-evil Burning Man Project extending its brand reach. I include this last possibility only because of my deep distrust for the reality of the Burning Man experience. Yes, there’s a lot of nudity and drugs and fire. But there’s also a ton of rules and law enforcement and above all a fuck-load of money flowing through the enterprise. And when you liberally mix draconian policies and open flames, cops and feeling-no-pain naked people, volunteerism and large chunks of capital, it’s really hard to trust the results.

So when Burning Man art “escapes” into “the wild” of public plazas, I think we need to ask, is our society opening or is Burning Man becoming more mainstream? Because while on the one hand a War of The Worlds-inspired, skeletal cephalosaurus on stilts would be right at home on the playa, in the city plaza it’s not much different from the annual Johnson City Lights Spectacular, which is put on, incidentally, by the local electric company. And is that art or marketing?

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