What do you get when you put 70,000 people in the desert for a week with no cell phones and an “anything goes” mentality? …A social experiment celebration called Burning Man. Beginning as a small, end of summer bonfire among friends on San Francisco’s Baker Beach in 1986, it later exploded in popularity in 1991. Now it is a one of the major cultural events on the planet! Attendees, called “burners”, travel to the Black Rock Desert in Nevada every August, shed the confines of normal society, and assume new names like Sizzle, Saute, Headwound, and SparklePony.
Some of the rules in this well-organized temporary city are inclusion, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leave-no-trace, and participation. It is a gifting economy as no money is exchanged (except for ice and coffee), but rather people do tasks to help each other and are gifted items and services. When packing for the event, you throw in extra to share. Pendants are a common gift exchanged out of love or respect (think up-scale Mardi Gras beads).
Interestingly, there seems to be a juxtaposition of opposites swirling around with the desert sand, which is not actually sand but a lightweight dust due to Black Rock being a dried up lake bed. Temperatures soar to 110 degrees during the day but dip below freezing at night. While you don’t spend money there, it’s not cheap as tickets are $400-$1200. The laws of Burning Man say drugs are prohibited but it seems many of the burners are in an altered state(?) Some attendees are on a spiritual journey, and others a hedonistic one. And there’s the juxtaposition of enormous, high tech, sophisticated art displayed in a primitive, desolate setting.
The coolest part of Burning Man for me of course is the art. Some of it is worn, some created for displays at the week-long celebration, and some evolves from ones’ experience as a burner. If you didn’t get your ticket to Nevada this year, there’s good news! An exhibition called No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man is on national tour and is at the Cincinnati Art Museum until September 2, 2019 (after which it travels to Oakland, CA). Below are photos taken at a recent visit to the exhibit which fueled the flames of my curiosity. I hope they spark your interest as well.