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The Secrets of Burning Man Style

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The Sunday New York Times style section finally notices the spread of Burning Man style and Burning Manesque celebration across America's major cities. (For full context, see my book on the history and culture of the event, This is Burning Man.) The story sums up the spread of the Burning Man aesthetic into both advertising and public art: 

The Burning Man aesthetic reaches beyond parties to influence public art projects and even advertising and entertainment. "Burning Man is used as an adjective amongst agency art directors now," said Keith Greco, a production designer who uses fellow Burners as performers or artists for clients like Cirque du Soleil, Sony Pictures and Red Bull. "It's up there now with 'Blade Runner' or Cirque du Soleil. They'll say, 'Can you make it a little more Burning-Man-ish?' "

It's fitting that San Francisco — where the first festival took place on a beach in 1986 — now is home to public artworks that originally appeared at Burning Man: "Passage," a giant scrap-metal sculpture of a mother and child on the Embarcadero; and "Stan, the Submerging Man," an 18-foot bell diver covered with 45-r.p.m. records that is headed to a park south of Market Street. The works have been paid for in part by the Black Rock Arts Foundation, the official Burning Man arts organization, which has raised $500,000 this year.

It also documents the damage that such spread can do to the insular sense of self and community that often animates subcultues:

As Burning Man's tentacles stretch outward, some groups have broken away, claiming the mother festival has lost its more confrontational and youthful energy.

"The image that Burning Man has these days is just a bunch of naked 30- to 40-year-olds wearing a bunch of raver lights," said Ryan Doyle, an artist who is part of the Black Label Bike Club, whose members across the country customize bicycles and style themselves after motorcycle gangs like the early Hells Angels. "That's not an image anyone who cares about their image would really want to be associated with."

And the seeping of the Burning Man meme into one's life, as I documented in my book and this New York Times story does as well, goes beyond occasional celebrations, with art collectives forming in many major cities of people who first met at Burning Man, living and making money via Burning Man-style art installations and events.

The most interesting way to look at the Burning Man style, it seems to me, is as a post-industrial return to individuality in cultural production. To be sure, certain cliches have developed in Burning Man "looks," and craftsmen and businesses have begun to arise that semi-mass-produce some of the obvious cultural signifiers of the event and its culture, from wings to electroluminescent wire.

But the central animating principle at Burning Man, from camp structures to art cars to costumes, is individualized production and consumption–an abundant variation that the wealth we built through our mass production economy has allowed us to enjoy. Burning Man is a particularly colorful and excessive example of a beta model of a world we are all more and more living in, where our choices in what to wear, drive, make, and do–and ways to live and thrive–get more and more individualized and varied and wild. The Henry Ford economy, where we can get any color we like as long as it's black, is over. We are all, with increased wealth and improved technologies and motivated by economic liberty, moving into what we could justly call the Burning Man economy–where we have the wealth and time and techniques and beliefs to make everything exactly as we want it, bottom up instead of top down, individualized instead of standardized, in communities of both work and play that are more intentional than accidental.

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  1. No matter how hard I try, the first thing that comes to mind whenever I see anything about the Burning Man festival is actually Wicker Man..and Christopher Lee.

  2. But the central animating principle at Burning Man, from camp structures to art cars to costumes, is individualized production and consumption–an abundant variation that the wealth we built through our mass production economy has allowed us to enjoy. Burning Man is a particularly colorful and excessive example of a beta model of a world we are all more and more living in, where our choices in what to wear, drive, make, and do–and ways to live and thrive–get more and more individualized and varied and wild. The Henry Ford economy, where we can get any color we like as long as it’s black, is over. We are all, with increased wealth and improved technologies and motivated by economic liberty, moving into what we could justly call the Burning Man economy–where we have the wealth and time and techniques and beliefs to make everything exactly as we want it, bottom up instead of top down, individualized instead of standardized, in communities of both work and play that are more intentional than accidental.

    That’s funny. I always thought Burning Man was about road-tripping to the Nevada desert and having a three-day drug and alcohol-fueled bender that is capped off by waking up naked with a strange Hippy girl named “Raven”.

  3. Captain Holly,

    Well, that’s just part of it! 🙂

    Actually, you could try going and find out what it’s about — for YOU!

    bzial,

    Luckily for them, devout Christian virgins know to stay away now!

    Regarding Brian’s post, when I first read the word “confrontational” I though, oh c’mon. But then, I remember t-shirst in ’96 saying, “Burning Man — Woodstock or Altamount? You decide!” I also remember a bus (that was obviously lived in) painted with the words, “We may be dirty, but we’re not hippies!” Nowadays it’s largely seen as a big hippy fest, but Burners certainly didn’t see themselves that way in the earlier days (setting aside the fact that, as Captain Holly and bzial aptly demonstrate, how Burners see themselves and how others see them may not have much in common anyway).

  4. I love that Burning Man now has breakaway groups. The People’s Front of Burning Man vs the Burning Manian People’s Front. “My naked painted body riding a cock-shaped bicyle whose wheels are covered in Wiccan symbols is WAY more Burning Man-ish than your giant plaster Pope head which dispenses condoms while being worn by a woman dressed as a purple demon with rhinestones on her nipples!”

  5. I would love to go to Burning Man and express my true self. Unfortunately, expressing my true self generally involves wearing a polo shirt and a pair of blue jeans, so I think I’d just be shunned as a norm. There are no observers, man!

  6. Captain Holly,

    For me, it’s always been about both.

    fyodor,

    I don’t see it as very hippie-ish now, either, though I guess it depends on how you want to define “hippie.”

  7. I love that Burning Man now has breakaway groups. The People’s Front of Burning Man vs the Burning Manian People’s Front.

    Splitters!

    “My naked painted body riding a cock-shaped bicyle whose wheels are covered in Wiccan symbols is WAY more Burning Man-ish than your giant plaster Pope head which dispenses condoms while being worn by a woman dressed as a purple demon with rhinestones on her nipples!”

    Wow. I have been missing quite a show.

  8. That Ryan Doyle guy is basically saying, “We want to recycle old stuff somebody has already done, but different old stuff. Not that 90s stuff.”

    The 90s were the ideal decade to be in your 20s, in my opinion. Poor kids nowadays.

  9. Burning Man is still happening? I thought it collapsed under its own massive pretentiousness years ago.

  10. “I would love to go to Burning Man and express my true self. Unfortunately, expressing my true self generally involves wearing a polo shirt and a pair of blue jeans, so I think I’d just be shunned as a norm. There are no observers, man!”

    I feel much the same way. I would love to go to Burning Man, but have no idea what I would contribute.

    Hell, in college, I once got mistaken for a cop at a party.

    That sucked.

  11. From what I’ve seen Burning Man is mostly yuppies from the SF Bay area. Obviously very cool yuppies but the thing is fucking expensive. I went to a satelite burner commnuity gathering this past weekend and it was hands down the best party i’ve ever been too in Boston.

    Here’s a pretty good idea of what these people are like. There’s 6 of us. One of our friends is on the guest list plus one. We decide to go at 1:30 AM and they let us all in for free because we brought a bunch of fresh fruit to pass out.

    Of course there are lots of good drugs there, but it’s less about the drugs and more about the people and the atmosphere. You can get drugs pretty much anywhere, but you won’t get the people who live in the loft to cook a huge breakfast for everyone thats still there the next morning.

  12. You guys should come to Iowa and try Ragbrai. It lasts a whole week, plus you get to ride your bike and the food is awesome.

  13. As a mildly misanthropic libertarian, what Mr. Doherty reported on seemed to me to be a waste of a perfectly fine empty desert.

  14. Is just me or is there something oddly ironic about celbrating idividualism and self expression in groups of 100,000 plus. Why is that so many “non-conformist” hippies and the like all dress and think exactly like all of their friends?

    It is a free country. I with the burning man folks well. Hope they have a great time. Why exactly it should be worthy of anyone not involved’s attention is beyond me.

  15. I feel much the same way. I would love to go to Burning Man, but have no idea what I would contribute.

    I hear ya. If I went, I’d be so square I’d stick out like a sore thumb.

    Which, come to think of it, would be so novel and unusual for Burning Man that I’d probably be the life of the party:

    “Didja see that cool dude’s costume over there? He’s, like, dressed up like a Republican!”

  16. John, one reason is that it’s the closest thing to a large Temporary Autonomous Zone in existence.

    I believe there’s a lot of individualism amongst the 39,000ish that go, but I’m loath to sell you on that, because the event’s already large enough that I can’t see everything in a week.

  17. John, one reason is that it’s the closest thing to a large Temporary Autonomous Zone in existence.

    Why would a “Temporary Autonomous Zone” place restrictions on the use of photography of said zone?

    Frankly the whole concept of a T.A.Z. always seemed fishy to me. How are you “eluding systems of control” if you’re setting a boundary between the two, and effectively imparting your will on that area?

  18. Why do I need a temporay autonomous zone full of dirty hippies when I can buy a ranch in West Texas and have a perminant autonomous zone that is hippie free?


  19. Frankly the whole concept of a T.A.Z. always seemed fishy to me. How are you “eluding systems of control” if you’re setting a boundary between the two, and effectively imparting your will on that area?”

    it’s the difference between my will be done and thy will be done.

  20. rafuzo,

    There’s reasons why they place restrictions on photography, a practice that likely dates to the making of a porn flick called The Nudes of Burning Man several years back. It’s one thing to wanna wander around a great big party in the buff, it’s another to have folks you don’t know selling images of your flesh to other folks you don’t know around the world. There’s also nothing non-libertarian about requiring a contract for admission to a privately organized event. I don’t know enough about the concept of “temporary autonomous zone” to know if this disqualifies it per se. There certainly are internally created and enforced rules at BM (aside from the fact that real cops do attend and bust people), such as no open commerce except at the central camp run by the organization. Whether that makes the organization hypocritical, I’ll leave for others more concerned with the matter to decide. I’ll only add that I see pros and cons with the whole BM gestalt or philosophy, and it only grates when BM’ers think the festival shows that “gifting it” can replace the cash economy that makes the event possible.

  21. Hell, in college, I once got mistaken for a cop at a party. That sucked

    You fit in fine at a Little Fyodor gig!! 🙂

  22. Why do I need a temporay autonomous zone full of dirty hippies when I can buy a ranch in West Texas and have a perminant autonomous zone that is hippie free?

    Don’t forget to stock up on Slayer CDs. *

  23. The event started off very anarchic, but as it increases in size, more rules happen (another reason I’m loath to sell people on it). I’m only saying it gets closer to the TAZ than you will likely see elsewhere.

    Rules tend to be added for reasons, and my favorite quote from the founder of BM was when a KFJC radio host asked him about guns being banned for the first time:
    “Well, a lot of times, you have things that are great, but then you add a new element and they’re not so great. Like when you have drugs and guns, you can have a really good time – but then you add idiots…”

  24. When I think of Burning Man, three words run through my mind: “trust fund babies.”

    I miss the GeekFest and Libertatia gatherings outta East Bay. Fun times, good music, and not a goddamn art student in sight.

  25. If you wanted to find some new style for BM, including EL Wire Hair braids and other cool stuff, go to ellumiglow.com.

  26. Burning Man festival is an event which has grown from being a beach party celebrating the summer solstice to the incarnation of personal freedom, radical self expression. If you’re looking for a totally unique experience, The Burning Man Festival will provide you with one, but only if you participate.

  27. Burning Man Festival is a creative and innovative festival I have ever seen. It is an annual event held in the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada, in the United States. The event starts on the Monday before, and ends on the day of, the American Labor Day holiday.

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