Thursday, September 17, 2015

Spotlight: Burning Man

"If Burning Man was just about cool sculptures, impressive art cars, and amazing outfits, then it wouldn't be that interesting to me. It's also about building a city with a different set of norms, where giving is the currency, creativity the common bond, and openness the expectation. I'm sorry, but if people who have been in the last few years think that is no longer the case, I don't know what city they were hanging out in. For my money, the Playa still provides."
New York Times:
At Burning Man, participants escape from society and most of its demands (including cellphone reception), building art in the desert only to burn much of it down. Once a remote counterculture party, the event, nearly 30 years old, long ago moved from San Francisco to a spot about three hours north of Reno, Nevada, where 65,000 attendees are expected this year.

A multiyear study published in 2013 looked at the psychological effect of Burning Man on its participants and found that people there were more comfortable expressing themselves, particularly positive emotions. The costumes, said Kateri McRae, an author of the study and an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Denver, could be a reason.

SPIN:
About 70,000 people descended upon a Nevada desert this year to camp within a dried-up prehistoric lake to form Black Rock City. This pop-up city is home to the event many people know as Burning Man, or, a pilgrimage of individuals from around the world celebrating human connection, self-expression, and self-reliance. 

First held in 1986, this once-small San Francisco beach gathering has drastically evolved over the years (the ceremonial Burning Man didn't burn, and the cops were called). The organizers behind Burning Man deny any affiliations of being a “music festival,” but, for all intents and purposes, this is the wildest music festival in the world.

Jacobin:
Introduce “radical inclusion,” “radical self-expression,” and “decommodification” as tenets, and designate the alternative society as a free space, where sex and gender boundaries are fluid and meant to be transgressed. These ideas — the essence of Burning Man — are certainly appealing.

Yet capitalists also unironically love Burning Man, and to anyone who has followed the recent history of Burning Man, the idea that it is at all anticapitalist seems absurd: last year, a venture capitalist billionaire threw a $16,500-per-head party at the festival, his camp a hyper-exclusive affair replete with wristbands and models flown in to keep the guests company.

Burning Man is earning a reputation as a “networking event” among Silicon Valley techies, and tech magazines now send reporters to cover it. CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Larry Page of Alphabet are foaming fans, along with conservative anti-tax icon Grover Norquist and many writers of the libertarian (and Koch-funded) Reason magazine. Tesla CEO Elon Musk even went so far as to claim that Burning Man “is Silicon Valley.”

New York Times:
There are two disciplines in which Silicon Valley entrepreneurs excel above almost everyone else. The first is making exorbitant amounts of money. The second is pretending they don’t care about that money. To understand this, let’s enter into evidence Exhibit A: the annual Burning Man festival in Black Rock City, Nevada.

Over the last two years, Burning Man, which this year runs from Aug. 25 to Sept. 1, has been the annual getaway for a new crop of millionaire and billionaire technology moguls, many of whom are one-upping one another in a secret game of I-can-spend-more-money-than-you-can and, some say, ruining it for everyone else.

Some of the biggest names in technology have been making the pilgrimage to the desert for years, happily blending in unnoticed. These include Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the Google founders, and Jeff Bezos, chief executive of Amazon. But now a new set of younger rich techies are heading east, including Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, employees from Twitter, Zynga and Uber, and a slew of khaki-wearing venture capitalists. There's also instagram proof that famous people like Katy Perry, Jared Leto, Diddy, and Susan Sarandon are just as weird as the rest of us.

“Anyone who has been going to Burning Man for the last five years is now seeing things on a level of expense or flash that didn’t exist before,” said Brian Doherty, author of the book This Is Burning Man. “It does have this feeling that, ‘Oh, look, the rich people have moved into my neighborhood.’ It’s gentrifying.”

Salon:
The weeklong Burning Man festival takes place once a year over Labor Day weekend in a remote alkali flat in northwestern Nevada. Two hours north of Reno, the inhospitable Black Rock Desert seems a poor place to create a temporary sixty-thousand-person city — and yet that’s entirely the point. On the desert playa, an alien world is created and then dismantled within the span of a month. The festival culminates with the deliberate burning of a symbolic effigy, the titular “man,” a wooden sculpture around a hundred feet tall.

Burning Man grew from unpretentious origins: a group of artists and hippies came together to burn an effigy at Baker Beach in San Francisco, and in 1990 set out to have the same festival in a place where the cops wouldn’t hassle them about unlicensed pyrotechnics. The search led them to the Black Rock Desert.

Burning Man is very much a descendent of the counterculture San Francisco of yesteryear, and possesses the same sort of libertine, nudity-positive spirit. Some of the early organizers of the festival professed particular admiration for the Situationists, the group of French leftists whose manifestos and graffitied slogans like “Never Work” became icons of the May 1968 upsurge in France.

Though the Situationists were always a bit ideologically opaque, one of their core beliefs was that cities had become oppressive slabs of consumption and labor, and needed to be reimagined as places of play and revolt. Hence, much of their art involved cutting up and reassembling maps, and consuming intoxicants while wandering about in Paris. You can feel traces of the Situationists when walking through Black Rock City, Burning Man’s ephemeral village.

It might seem silly to quibble over the lack of democracy in the “governance” of Black Rock City. After all, why should we care whether Jeff Bezos has commissioned a giant metal unicorn or a giant metal pirate ship, or whether Tananbaum wants to spend $2 million on an air-conditioned camp? But the principles of these tech scions — that societies are created through charity, and that the true “world-builders” are the rich and privileged — don’t just play out in the Burning Man fantasy world. They carry over into the real world, often with less-than-positive results.

It is a society that we find ourselves moving closer towards the other 358 (non–Burning Man) days of the year: with a decaying social welfare state, more and more public amenities exist only as the result of the hyper-wealthy donating them. But when the commons are donated by the wealthy, rather than guaranteed by membership in society, the democratic component of civic society is vastly diminished and placed in the hands of the elite few who gained their wealth by using their influence to cut taxes and gut the social welfare state in the first place.



More information:
» Mark Day's "24 Hours at Burning Man 2014 Edition" Video
» Huffington Post: Burning Man Critics Miss the Point
» SFGate: "Burning Man Becomes a Hotspot for Tech Titans"

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