Black Rock, Nev. – During the week leading up to Labor Day, almost 70,000 revelers will gather in the Black Rock desert in Nevada, 110 miles north of Reno, to experience the annual Burning Man Festival, an elaborate and colorful art spectacle like no other in the world. The festival takes its name from the ritual burning of a wooden effigy known as the “Man,” an ancient and primal ritual.
In this barren playa (dry lake bed), once the Pleistocene-era Lake Lahontan, people from all around the world and all walks of life gather to create an experimental and communal experience devoted to art, music, and joyful self-expression. The temporary “city” they create, one of Nevada’s largest, vanishes after a week, leaving the desert pristine once again.
THE DEFINITIVE BOOK ON BURNING MAN
I’d first heard Burning Man mentioned five years ago, but took notice only last year when friends worldwide were headed to Black Rock for the event. But what was it?
When I received and took a look at Burning Man: Art on Fire, the coffee table book written by Jennifer Raiser, a friend who’s been involved with the festival for years, I finally started to get it—and wow, was I impressed!
THE SPECTACULAR PHOTOGRAPHY
Tantalized by the testimonials and the stunning images taken by Sidney Erthal and Scott London in Burning Man: Art on Fire, I immediately added attending the festival to my bucket list. (You might, too.)
GENESIS OF BURNING MAN DURING A SUMMER SOLSTICE
Back in 1986, the Burning Man tradition began in San Francisco on the long, pristine white sand Baker Beach. To celebrate the summer solstice, friends Larry Harvey and Jerry James built an eight-foot human effigy from scrap lumber found on the beach.
When they lit the “Man” on fire, a small crowd gathered to watch. Someone started playing guitar, people began singing along, and from that serendipitous beginning evolved an annual celebration that grows ever more expansive, mind-boggling, and unusual.
THE MOVE TO BLACK ROCK DESERT, NEVADA
The effigy burn continued in San Francisco for three more years, but by 1990 the event had grown too large and was considered a fire hazard. So the Man was built on Baker Beach and then taken to burn at Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, where friends of Larry and Jerry had attended a wind sculpture event the prior year.
The remote desert location made larger crowds and greater artistic freedom possible. Although getting there is difficult and planning for the week-long event is complicated, still people come.
The original group of watchers has grown from three-dozen to tens of thousands, and the once eight-foot-tall Man has grown to 40 feet atop a base of up to 64 feet. In 2014, the largest-ever effigy, a 105-foot Man, was burned.
BURNING MAN GROWS
Burning Man to me is an update of a ’60s “happening”: a combination of performance art and audience participation. Now there are Burning Man celebrations across the US and in 26 different countries, but Jennifer says the event could only have only started in San Francisco, with its tradition of free expression, free love, inclusiveness, and a “try anything” attitude.
In 2014, nearly 70,000 attendees (known as “Burners”) arrived in the playa with costumes, food, water, and boundless enthusiasm, and set up themed camps and villages. Here, strangers come together to “foster inclusion, participation, and enthusiastic expression as one tribe,” explains Jennifer. There’s little talk of quotidian matters and no cell phone reception or Wi-Fi. It’s all about being in the moment.
JENNIFER’S TAKE ON BURNING MAN
I was curious how Jennifer, a Harvard MBA who for 17 years juggled work as a manager of luxury retirement communities with writing for numerous publications, became Treasurer of the Burning Man Project non-profit.
It all began in 2006, when her brother Phillip Raiser told her to pack a costume and took her to her first Burning Man. She was immediately hooked by the art and has returned annually ever since.
“I’d never seen anything like it anywhere else on the planet.” Jennifer says. “For one week a year, it’s the largest art gallery in the world. And then it disappears.”
Other than safety regulations, the only requirements are that any installation engages the audience and is in some way participatory. The Burning Man guidelines stipulate that the art “must inspire, engage, question, puzzle, amuse, seduce, and otherwise influence the citizens of Black Rock City.”
Jennifer points out that there are no velvet ropes, no curators, no judges. Everyone responds in his or her own way. Each year, more than 400 pieces of art are displayed. Some are burned at the end of the festival and the remainder are packed up to go elsewhere.
The installations are art on a grand scale, staggeringly large and varied. The artists work without restrictions and without pay, and the work reflects their free spirit and ardor.
COMMUNAL SPIRIT PREVAILS
Along with amazing art, the festival fosters a sense of community. People must bring in their own food and water. Bartering and selling—except for coffee and ice, a necessity in the sweltering summer heat—are not allowed. Gifting is encouraged, however.
For the sheer pleasure of sharing, people give away efforts, ideas, and useful items, a grand mix that includes massages, meals, cocktails, art tours, musical interludes, and sunscreen, helping others they’ve only just met. The spirit of inclusion, participation, and spontaneous community make the event a celebration of what a good place the world can be.
THE RAISER FAMILY BABYLON TOWER
Jennifer’s mother, Helen Hilton Raiser, came to the festival in 2008, when the theme was “American Dream.” To honor their father, the late John Raiser, Jennifer’s brother Phillip Raiser, along with Robert Simmons, Mik Hillebrand, and Arthur Rodriguez, built a 10-story tower named Babylon.
IT’S ON MY CALENDAR
In the book’s foreword, writer Will Chase, who publishes Burning Man’s online newsletter, sums up the festival succinctly: “Burning Man, at its core, is a permission engine. It gives you permission to create practically anything you want while surrounded by people eager to help and to celebrate with you. For any artist, it’s the best place on Earth to find out who you are, and who you could be.”
I didn’t get enough of a head start to participate in Burning Man 2015, the theme of which is “Carnival of Mirrors.” But I’m going to let my imagination run wild—since Burning Man is all about expanding boundaries—and I’m hoping to be there as a Burner in 2016.
THE BOOK SIGNING PARTY IN SAN FRANCISCO
On another note, in San Francisco last spring Jennifer’s friends threw her a book-signing party for the publication of Burning Man: Art on Fire, with photography by Sidney Erthal and Scott London.
Co-hosts were Jennifer’s dear friends, designers Jay Jeffers and Michael Purdy, along with Chip Conley (founder of Joie de Vivre Hotels and now AirBnB’s Head of Global Hospitality) and industrial designer Yves Béhar and his partner, art consultant Sabrina Buell.
THE PARTY INVITATION
The party invitation read, “Playa dust not required, but radical self-expression is encouraged.” Guests arrived at Jeffers’s and Purdy’s Cavalier Goods on Post Street, an interior design shop in San Francisco’s Tenderloin (newly dubbed the “TrendyLoin” thanks to gentrification).
While waiting for this year’s Burning Man trip, Jennifer finished what I expect will be another gorgeous book, In the Spirit of Napa, with publisher Assouline.
Photographs by Drew Altizer, Sidney Erthal, Scott London, Stewart Harvey, and Wikimedia Commons.
*Urbanite Jeanne Lawrence reports on lifestyle and travel from her homes in San Francisco, Shanghai, and New York, and wherever else she finds a good story.