An annual festival in a particularly bleak and remote part of America, Burning Man is often portrayed by the media as a hedonistic bacchanal, a drug-fuelled rave, a hippie gathering, a playground for the technorich, a huge party, a wealth-generating tool for its owners. Those conceptions are accurate in some ways and inaccurate in others, but for me the primary lure of the event has been something more essential: the remarkable art installations that rise annually from the plain.
And the results of this annual journey are encapsulated in my new book, published this summer by Taschen: Art of Burning Man.
The temporary city of the Burning Man festival, out on the vast plain of Nevada's Black Rock Desert. Burning Man 2011.
In a century's time, when art historians look back at the complex legacy of this uniquely American event, I hope one thing will stand out. I hope it will be remembered as an event for doers and for makers.
Western art of the twenty first century follows an intensely institutionalized and corporate model. Art is mostly the product of a kind of professional underclass, churning out product for resale as glamorous collectibles for the wealthy, or perhaps décor for corporations to line their boardrooms. Artists go through art schools and colleges, honing their skills and developing marketable personal signatures.
Art isn't really seen as a form of personal expression for the individual. We may be encouraged to draw and paint as children, but in adulthood most of us experience art only as passive viewers and consumers.
Even voices of rebellion are tied to a kind of professional infrastructure. I was struck by this recently, visiting Britain's Royal Academy for an exhibition of dissident Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei. The work was remarkable, powerful, and moving. But I also couldn't help shake the fact that most of it wasn't his own personal handiwork. It was mainly constructed by legions of skilled artisans and craftspeople, following his directions. I wouldn't say that this lessened the impact of his work, exactly, but it did lend a sense of detached distance.
The art of Burning Man is different. Nearly all the work is made by the artists themselves. Individuals, teams of friends, collectives: all hands-on makers and creators. The art may be a bit rough and raw, mostly lacking the kind of professional polish seen in the work of someone like Ai. But there's also a certain emotional purity in the work of a team of unpaid friends and enthusiastic volunteers, rather than the product of a bunch of paid workers.
And this changes things. At its best, the work can embody genuine honesty and emotional intimacy, since labour and skill are freely given. You can help out your favourite artist as she struggles with her work in an unheated warehouse. You can chat with him as he gazes on his installation, placed in the desert for the first time. You can be inspired to produce your own work and haul it out to the Burning Man site, known as a playa, yourself.
Naturally there's been plenty of mordant criticism of this kind of welcoming all-inclusiveness. A piece of homemade art may carry a certain cachet when plucked from a mental institution and framed on a gallery wall, but sneeringly derided when produced by an earnest bunch of Bay Area technicians. This isn't entirely surprising since art critics, reviewers, and gallerists are essentially irrelevant to the world of Burning Man.
Now it's true that not all playa art is particularly brilliant. But, having said that, who am I to cast judgement on someone else's emotional product? Who should be the final arbiter of taste and talent? I wouldn't argue in favour of complete cultural relativism, but surely it's incumbent on artists to fight stifling strictures of hierarchy and power. And I think the track record of Burning Man artists speaks for itself –each year boasts a handful of undeniable masterpieces scattered across the vast plain.
It should be no surprise that Burning Man, while held in Nevada, is a product of San Francisco's Bay Area, the birthplace of many 20th century cultural revolutions. Hippies and hackers are the awkward parents of the event, with a contingency of punks snarling on the sidelines. The do-it-yourself tradition of the late 60s and 70s has transitioned into the CPU-driven world of contemporary makers, and these diverse cultural strands are all critical ingredients that make up the Burning Man of today.
In fact, I'd argue that, after the promotion of user-generated art, Burning Man's chief cultural legacy may be inadvertently helping to stoke the fires of the modern "maker" movement. A loose and freewheeling reaction to the corporate universe of sealed iPhones and locked-down operating systems, makers are keen on wresting mass-market technology out of the grasp of large companies, and building homegrown micro-utopias of 3D printing, cheap CPUs and open source code. Countless fascinating projects have had their origins in a Burning Man-hosted idea. The event has become a place for social networking, for beta testing new projects in a very unforgiving environment, for technofetishists to bond while partying in the desert. Just as importantly, the "how did they do that?" sentiment changes quickly to an inspired "I can do that too!"
But just as the rise of tech firms, and the increased flow of highly selective rivers of cash, have split and divided the Bay Area, so funding of Burning Man projects is a key area of contention. Playa projects have ballooned in scale and ambition, and so have the costs. A single big project such as a Temple can easily costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. These costs aren't easily covered by a casual passing of the hat, or even a Kickstarter or Indiegogo begathon.
Burning Man itself will contribute partial budgets to certain projects each year, following a grant process, but will almost never cover the entirety of a work: the organization has expenditures to cover elsewhere. Accordingly, though Burning Man prohibits the overt display of corporate logos, many projects have been quietly funded by wealthy benefactors; individual and corporate. While the results are undeniably awesome, they do also represent a step away from the proudly amateur and naive roots of the event, just as personal computers of today barely resemble their garage-built ancestors. And these controversies also have hit the builders of the stage upon which the artists perform – the Burning Man org itself.
So what of the future of the event? Well, it's obviously hard to say. I released my book in 2015, after 16 years of writing and photography, for a number of reasons. One was that 2014 felt like a sort of turning point year for me. I wouldn't be so foolish as to say that it was peak Burning Man — I'm sure every attendee has a year that they feel could be that. (though it could perhaps be literally true, as the Man was 105 feet tall in 2014, versus his usual 40 foot size) But things do seem to be shifting, to be changing. As the event becomes more professional, will it be able to maintain the freewheeling passion that brought it where it is today?
And making the book was, to be frank, a lot of hard work. Out on the playa I'd work from dawn to night, shooting for days at a time. I'd run into fellow playa photographers sweating over their hot cameras, and we'd share a moment, nod, and move on. Yet it was worth it. I think we all feel that we've been contributing to a record, both emotive and factual, of the transient works and achievements of an event that will one day be seen as an important inflection point in the history of contemporary art.
Photos and text by NK Guy. Art by its respective makers.