Thursday, September 01, 2016

The Exaltation of Imagination
Photographs and Musings in Defense of Burning Man
by Tao Ruspoli




The press around Burning Man had gotten so bad that I almost felt embarrassed to be going this year. Even Daniel Pinchbeck, famed psychonaut and burner par excellence, had written a thoughtful piece explaining why, after 15 consecutive years, he wasn’t going back this year: the festival had changed too much--the rich had taken over, it had gone from a relevant and fascinating social experiment to epitomizing the worst elements of capitalist excess. Besides, he seemed to be saying, the world is going through too many crises, both ecological and humanitarian, to justify the extravagance of an event like this.

Two burners heading to Temple, one of the massive temporary structures in Black Rock City

The burning of the Temple which happens every year the night after the man burns.


Keith Spencer wrote in Jacobin that rich libertarians are now the only ones who love Burning Man because it had “never had a radical critique at its core.” Various exposes of made-to-order camps funded by tech billionaires told tales of exploited “sherpas” who were being badly paid and mistreated while building camps for their bosses to indulge in the most superficial hedonic play, all in an environment totally inaccessible to anyone but the most privileged class, those few who could afford the luxury to spend a week fucking off in the desert. Add to that, my ex-girlfriend kept reminding me how passe’ the entire style of the place was—all that steampunk and electronic music, and those elaborate costumes are “just so 90s”. And here I was, almost 40, sheepishly heading, if the articles I was reading were to be taken seriously, to some silly rave in the desert who’s heyday had long passed.


But it’s fun, that’s why I’m going. That’s what I kept telling myself…that’s the only reason I’m going—for a good party.



This year 70,000 people made the pilgrimage to the Black Rock Desert in Nevada to spend a week at the Burning Man festival.


The LAFCO Bus at Burning Man in 2003

I’ve been going to Burning Man almost every year since 2001. Back then, I’d just bought an old school bus on eBay, ripped out the seats, outfitted it with 3 digital video editing stations and set out to create what I thought was a unique and original idea: The LAFCO Bus ((LA Filmmakers Cooperative) was meant to travel the country with a group of independent filmmakers on board who would make films and share their resources with strangers in an attempt to mix art, technology, community, nomadism and an attempt to live and work outside the confines of traditional media making, all the while encouraging others we met along the way to do the same.

I was surprised and delighted to land on the playa (the name burners give to the black rock desert, the flattest expanse of North America, where the event has taken place since 1990,) for the first time a few months later, and to discover nearly 25,000 like-minded individuals gathered in one place. That’s an understatement—I was in a state of heavenly awe. My school bus was nothing compared to the things I was seeing out there!



There were other buses that had been turned into 17th century galleons, elaborate sculptures and extraordinary nomadic architecture dotted the vast dry lake bed, and mutant vehicles transported people across this seemingly extraterrestrial landscape. And the vastness itself was so astonishing. None of the photo’s I’d seen captured the sheer expanse of the place. It felt as if 25,000 artists, techies and media makers had landed on the moon and had been told they could do anything and everything they wanted. And what they wanted was magnificent: that is, to exalt the imagination above all other concerns, to turn those figments of their imagination into actual things, to share them with each other, and then to engage in deep conversation, challenge social conventions, and take a breather from the countless distractions and banalities that filled their lives the rest of the year back on Earth. 


El Pulpo Mechanico has been roaming the playa for the last 5 years of Burning Man


When I went to Italy and showed my 78 year old father my images from Burning Man, he teared up. He was so moved, as I had been, by the other worldly beauty of what I was showing him. Another friend, also in his 70s, whom I took to Burning Man in 2005, stood in the middle of the playa next to me and wept openly. What strikes one most, standing in this barren landscape in which there is usually no infrastructure, no electricty, no water, no plant or animal life, is the sheer immensity of the effort that goes into bringing and making everything you see there, and it’s all (with the exception of the man and grants for a few of the larger art pieces,) provided by the participants. Nothing I’ve ever seen before or since compares in its ability to remind one of the ingenuity of human creativity, and the fact it is indulged here purely for it’s own sake: nothing at Burning Man is for sale, no logos are even allowed, and as soon as the festival ends, the entire thing is swept away like a giant mandala.


The rise of rules and bureaucracy at Burning Man: Unlike the early days, in order to drive on the playa, your vehicle must now be registered and approved by the DMV (Department of Mutant Vehicles) and after the first death on the playa in 1996, a 5mph speed limit is strictly enforced.

We hear that art is meant to move us, deeply, but how often does a piece in a museum have this effect on us? What we call “art” is so often detached, our appreciation so often cerebral, academic and dutiful. How often is human artistic creation actually awesome—that is, inspiring and evoking awe.

The art at this year’s Burning Man was better than ever. This 50 foot tall woman actually breathed in and out of her enormous metal lungs. I’d imagine a piece like this at the MoMa, except given its size, it could never fit in a museum...
“Last Year at Burning Man”


People I met back in 2001 were already saying that Burning Man was over; that I should’ve been there before! I was told of people in the early days putting bricks on the accelerators of old pick up trucks, tying the steering wheel all the way to one side and letting the truck go, driverless, while people shot guns at it in an attempt to stop it. Anarchy reigned, and man was it beautiful. I sympathized with their nostalgia and wished I had heard of the festival earlier. I felt not quite as cool as those who had known about it before me. That said, 2 or 3 years in I was so fed up with hearing people saying it was better before, that I made a t-shirt that said, “THIS IS SO MUCH BETTER THAN NEXT YEAR” (another idea I considered: “Come on guys, nostalgia’s not as good as it used to be.”)

One of founder Larry Harvey’s goals with Burning Man was to give people the opportunity to go to the desert, sit in trailers, and think.


While Burning Man has some lofty principles behind it (Leave no Trace, Radical Self Expression, Radical Inclusion, etc.) Burning Man qua social experiment was never meant to address all the issues progressives care about. It’s never been about ending war (it’s anarchic mad max flavor gave it an edge that set it apart from hippie festivals of yore,) it’s never been about fighting poverty and income inequality, getting greater social justice, it’s never been about civil rights, labor rights, women’s rights, environmentalism or any number of the other worthy issues we care about. However, these issues, which we can be fighting for the rest of the year, are not and should not necessarily be the only things that define radicalism, and movements that don’t specifically address any of these issues should not be written off.


The Belly of the Beast? The Cirque Gitane camp, made of authentic 19th century circus tents, where anyone who passed by was invited to take shelter from the dust this year and enjoy a free drink at the bar.

So this year I was invited to stay in one of the camps everyone has been complaining about as having ruined Burning Man. My old middle and high school friend Stefan Ashkenazy has become a successful and creative hotelier. He owns and runs the Petit Ermitage in West Hollywood, a boutique hotel with a rooftop swimming pool and an exclusive private membership club. Last year was his first at Burning Man and this year he was going back for the second iteration of his opulent Cirque Gitane camp. Given my apprehensions about going to Burning Man this year, my plan had been to just take my little old RV and camp with a couple of friends in the outskirts of Black Rock City, and part of me scoffed at the idea of camping at one of the maligned 1%er camps.

This year, the Burning Man experience was more Fellinian than ever before.


Stefan Ahskenazy introduces Susan Sarandon to the cast and crew of Cirque Gitane before we drink cocktails seasoned with a sprinkling of Timothy Leary’s ashes.

But Stefan insisted I park my Vixen21 motorhome at his camp, and both my curiosity and the temptation of 3 delicious meals a day, prepared by a top chef, made me set aside my burnier-than-thou sanctimony and join the fun. My God, was I glad I did. What I experienced was so above and beyond my wildest expectations of what was possible in terms of hedonism, decadence, excess and outrageousness that I felt I felt even more transported from everyday reality than I ever had before at Burning Man. I felt like an ancient Roman, guest to a decadent emperor. Stefan, it must be said, doesn’t have a puritanical bone in his body, and there were no holds barred in terms of excess and extravagance.

“Hey Stefan, It’s Tao. I’m writing an article about Burning Man and I’m saying that rather than ruining burning man, your camp exemplified the spirit of the place and brought it to the next level in terms of the surreal, the imaginative, the outrageous, the Dyonisian. Do you mind if I tell people about the dwarves and the psychedelics?” “Tell them everything, Tao! Next year I want to have lactating women serving white russians made with their breast milk.”
On Friday night, 5 days into the festival, a time during which in years past I had been reduced to eating cold soup out of cans, there was a black tie dinner for 50 guests which began with appetizers of chocolates (which may or may not have been infused with magic mushrooms.) Dwarves dressed in lobster suits served shrimp and other hors d’ouvres. Whole roasted piglets were laid out on the table with flames shooting out of their mouths. The 100 foot long table had cages filled with roasted quail in them which guests were encouraged to reach into, grab whole, take a bite of and pass around. There were raw oysters and champagne aplenty. 

Being at Burning Man puts one in a constant sense of child like wonder and spirit of mischief.


And rather than ruining Burning Man, it occurred to me that all of this is the essence of Burning Man, taken to the next level. In other words, Stefan captured the spirit of the place perfectly. The surreal, the extreme, the breaking down of boundaries and expectations that structure and define our lives the rest of the year were tossed aside to prove that life can be more. You see, there’s always been a Fuck You element to Burning Man that’s made it great and Stefan’s camp was true to this tradition. Fuck you and your petty morality. Fuck you for telling me I can’t set things on fire. Fuck you I can’t take drugs and stay up all night. Fuck you telling us we can’t fuck in public, in groups. Fuck you telling us we can’t do this. You have no idea what we can do. Yeah this is going to piss off the sanctimonious, left right and center. So what? That’s the point. Fuck you.


Along with unashamed hedonism and excess, the Cirque Gitane brought a refreshing change from the usually monochromatic symphony of EDM to the playa. Here LA singer TOLEDO performed for Susan Sarandon and other guests (including anyone who happened to be walking by and wanted to come in and listen) backed by a live jazz trio, including stand up bass and violin.

Susan Sarandon was one of many celebrities at Burning Man this year. She was at our camp and brought with her some of Timothy Leary’s ashes, which were “re-burned” after a ceremony and procession. In many ways, the controversies about the place of Burning Man as a counter-cultural movement perfectly echo the debates around Leary in the 1960s. On the on hand he was a true (if somewhat playful) revolutionary, advocating for the overthrow of 2000 years of western civilization through the consumption of LSD and ushering in the breaking down of the boundaries that defined 1950s culture. On the other hand he was accused (often with reason) of being frivolous, egotistical, reckless, and removed from the more serious political concerns of the era. The debate of the place of personal tranformation in wider human tranformation is one that actually goes back thousands of years to different sects of Buddhist practice (Is it better to seek my own enlightenment first or help make the world a better place first and then worry about myself,) and probably will never be resolved. 

There’s an often unspoken tenet of conservative ideology that human nature is something not to be trusted, that it’s something that has to be controlled and tamed, that our fundamental impulses are evil and that unchecked nature breeds chaos. We need rules, conservative reasoning seems to imply, imposed either by government or religious institutions, that will keep this dark nature in check. Laws that govern our sexual behavior, our intake of drugs and alcohol, are all needed because the alternative is a regression to base animal instincts. Burning man to me has always provided empirical evidence that this isn’t the case. The amazing thing is that amongst all this decadence, this play, this abandonment of inhibitions, people seem to be their best, their nicest, their happiest, their most inspired, and it’s an affront to conservative Christian morality. Burning Man is Dyonisian. The Greek God Dyonisis was known as “The Liberator”. His “wine, music and ecstatic dance frees his followers from self-conscious fear and care, and subverts the oppressive restraints of the powerful.”



The anarchic, Mad Max flavor of Burning Man has always set it apart from more earnest festivals.

Sandy Hill and Mia Maestro roam the playa at dawn.

There’s a certain puritanical and moralistic undertone to all the complaints I’ve been reading: All these people haven’t done the WORK it takes to build their camps in the desert. They are too comfortable out there! They have air conditioning and cozy beds in their RVs. They SHOULD be worrying about more pressing issues; look at the carbon footprint of this place; it’s just a party, and on and on.




The real existential threat to the essence of Burning Man came not with the rich people’s camps but rather with the advent of cell phone reception for the first time this year, thus reconnecting the event to our more ordinary lives and removing people from that ever rarer sense of presence that was so unique to the place.





Two things seem to happen in parallel when a radical movement “works”. On the one hand, the mainstream co-opts, commodifies and trivializes the threat (eg. Che Guevara becomes a t-shirt, punk becomes fashion;) but there’s also a tendency on the left, amongst the radicals themselves, never to acknowldedge a successful transformation by the mainstream. Take something seemingly insignificant like men wearing their hair long. In the 1960’s you’d easily get beaten up and called a hippie if your hair so much as touched your collar. The 1950s culture was so boundary defined that a small act like that was seen as threatening challenge to traditional gender roles and the background assumption that conformism was in itself an important value. As late as 1970 you had Crosby, Stills Nash and Young singing, “Almost Cut my Hair”


Almost cut my hair, it happened just the other day.

It's getting' kinda long, I coulda said it wasn't in my way.

But I didn't and I wonder why, I feel like letting my freak flag fly…


The freaks and the hippies won this battle, and we live in a different cultural landscape because of it. We now take it for granted that even a banker can wear his hair as long as a woman’s and not lose his job. The other side of that coin is that wearing one’s hair long is no longer a revolutionary act. It seems to have lost all its political significance. But that doesn’t mean the style of the culture and what it’s like to be human now is different now from what it was then, thanks to these (at the time) risky acts of defiance. To me the fact that every “normal” person I know now either has gone or wants to go to Burning Man represents another such victory. And the changes to the outside world, if they exist, will be subtle. My feeling, when I come back from the event, and I imagine this happens at some level to everyone who attends, is that anything is possible, that we shouldn’t ignore our most outlandish creative impulses, that we need to put our devices away and commune with one another in an embodied way, that we should be nicer and more inviting to strangers, that we should clean up after ourselves, that our resources are limited and precious, but most importantly, that we should allow ourselves to dream and act on those dreams and make the world

There’s no question that Burning Man is more mainstream than it’s ever been before, but the upside of this is this year I encountered a much more international and diverse set than the very white counterculture crowd I remember from earlier days.

Frederick Lewis grew up in rural Louisiana, the 9th of 9 children. After studying film producing at UCLA, he became involved in a project to build a stunningly well elaborate movie theater which would screen classic films on the playa (at midnight, 2 and 4am every night.) We chatted for hours and he has offered to help me with my next film, about a mixed race woman who moves to Louisiana. One of the complaints of the new direction that Burning Man has taken is that it’s now seen as a networking event. I’m not sure that this is a bad thing. Unfortunately, there aren’t many other opportunities in life to chat with a complete stranger for hours on end and discover that despite utterly different backgrounds, there are so many common interests.


Finally, for all the talk of how much Burning Man has changed, I’m not sure I see it. I know I wasn’t there when it was just a few freaks barreling around the playa at full speed and shooting guns in the early days when it was a tiny and truly anarchic mad max style gathering, but since 2001 the vibe of the place, for all intents and purposes, is pretty much the same, and if you’re able, I certainly recommend going.



On the other hand: “Hey Daniel [Pinchbeck,] my thesis is that Burning Man isn't supposed to be earnest...it's always supposed to have thumbed its nose at both conservative and left wing puritanism and sanctimony. What do you think?”

“We can already seeing what's happening with the fires and droughts in California - the refugees from the Middle East. This is nothing yet. The whole thing could go into a doom spiral very quickly. The whole Burning Man gestalt is like a massive knowing wink at the fact we are killing the planet and making it uninhabitable for future generations - for our own kids. I have enjoyed the joke as much as everyone, but at this point I think it has become a self-perpetuating culture, like the new Disneyland, and it represents a kind of false consciousness, a fake spirituality, for the most part...”




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