This Really is Burning Man

Monday Magazine | August 12, 2004
When it comes to writing about that nebulous entity known as Burning Man, most writers—myself included­—rarely get it right. All too often, those of us who have made repeated treks to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert find the experience so (profound? transformative? overwhelming? exhausting?) that it often seems well-nigh impossible to put such a fundamentally personal and experiential event on paper with any degree of success. Then I came across Brian Doherty’s provocative and compelling new book, This Is Burning Man: The Rise of a New American Underground. “Black Rock City is, at its grandest, a mixture of civilization and magic,” Doherty writes, and when I read this simple—but accurate—description, I realized that somebody finally got it right.

Doherty, a respected American journalist and nine-time Burner, has done in a mere 288 pages what nobody else has been able to do. Not only has he managed to write what surely will become the definitive history of Burning Man, but he has done so from the inside out; that is, by using his own life-altering experiences in the Black Rock desert as a template for the cultural impact of this fascinating annual event, Doherty has made the impossible accessible to those who have neither the fortitude nor foolishness to experience it first-hand.

This Is Burning Man is an engrossing—and often hilarious—read for both experienced Burners and curious outsiders. Not only does it serve as an indispensable primer for what exactly Burning Man is (and isn’t), but it also acts as a fascinating cultural history for those of us who have already dedicated ourselves to the Man and never quite managed to get all the playa dust out of our lives. Featuring numerous interviews with many of Burning Man’s key players—including “founder” Larry Harvey, who, it must be said, is not necessarily portrayed in such a good light—Doherty allows the artists, anarchists and sometimes anti-social architects to explain in their own words how it all began, why they are either still involved or have chosen to leave what is arguably one of the most daring creative endeavours in history.

From the event’s 1986 origins with a handful of people and “a burning scarecrow on the beach” to the pyromaniacal happening which is set to draw more than 30,000 people this coming Labour Day weekend, Doherty deconstructs Burning Man’s history with a refreshing clarity. Far from being a wide-eyed convert swayed by all the neon and glitter, Doherty’s journalistic skills remain intact as he examines the who-what-where-when-why-and-how’s of the event—including financial improprieties, political debates, personality clashes, conceptual shifts, police involvements, environmental impacts, unexpected growth, and the recurring tragedies which continue to threaten the event’s survival. (Indeed, Doherty captures a number of times in the past when it seemed like the party was over. “I hope you enjoyed this,” said one of the organizers to the author in 1996, “ ’cause it ain’t ever happening again.”)

But he also gives ample space to the more creative, philosophical and spiritual aspects—including Burning Man’s gift economy and its designation as a “Temporary Autonomous Zone,” the event’s relationship with the nearby town of Gerlach, the various installation projects and art cars and theme camps, plus all the sex, guns, drugs, booze and rock-and-roll you’d expect from such a uniquely American event. And, it should be said, the author never hesitates to admit his own complicity in what were, in retrospect, less than ethical actions . . . including his part in a totally unauthorized burning spree during the 1996 event.

Doherty also spends a fair bit of time contemplating both the future of Burning Man and its wider cultural impact (although admittedly, the latter topic is more touched on than explored in-depth). And for those who are happy to write Burning Man off as little more than a week-long party, consider this apt summation: “So,” Doherty writes, “what do you do after your decision to build a little scrap-skeleton and burn it on the beach transmogrifies over the course of less than two decades into a nearly $6 million culture business, selling that most ephemeral of commodities, community, and gathering tens of thousands of people at hundreds of dollars a head to perhaps the most unpleasant, punishing environment imaginable?” What indeed?

When it comes to Burning Man, I consider myself fairly well-informed; even before reading This Is Burning Man, I probably knew more about the event’s history, art, community and philosophy than the average Burner. In that light, perhaps the best thing I can say about Doherty’s book is that it not only changed the way I see Burning Man, but it also renewed my appreciation for this daring social experiment—of which I consider myself lucky to have been a part.

If, like me, you can’t make it to the playa this year, read This Is Burning Man instead. Short of having a fire cannon in your backyard and an art car in your driveway, it’s the next best thing to being there.

Monday Magazine

Founded in 1975 to provide a critical voice in Victoria's political and cultural communities, Monday Magazine continues to shake British Columbia's conservative capital city with tell-it- like-it-is features and reviews. Targeting educated, active adults and Victoria's growing youth market, Monday...
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