Terrain.org Essays.
View Terrain.org Blog.





Burning Man: Creative Fire in the Desert.

by Scott Hess                                                          [launch slideshow]

The Black Rock Desert is a place of sublime expansive space. This 400-square-mile, totally flat, alkali floor, resting between mysterious rugged mountains in Northwest Nevada, was formed when an ancient lake disappeared at the end of the Pleistocene Era tens of thousands of years ago.

The surrounding, austere ranges, ridges and peaks glow with rich reds, browns, and grays that become especially intense at sunrise and sunset. The extreme isolation, lack of familiar vegetation and animal life and the disorienting openness of this place was fearsome and forbidding to those early American travelers and immigrants who had to pass through it trying to reach their western destinations. John Fremont, whose 1843-44 expedition members became the first Euro-Americans to see the Black Rock Desert, called it a “perfect barren” and wrote that the appearance of the country was so strange, austere and unfamiliar that he was afraid to enter it.

Burning man at dusk.
Burning Man at dusk.
Click to view Burning Man slideshow.

Yet the empty playa can also stimulate the imagination and allow for new and expanded perception. It seems to call out unusual dreams and visions. In 1994, a strange new dream began to take real shape and materialize on the desert floor—the Burning Man Art Festival. It is a gathering like no other on earth, with its emphasis on radical creativity and self-reliance on one hand, and an intense, spontaneous sense of community on the other. This collective adventure runs joyously along the thin line between order and chaos, between ecstatic release and gritty danger.

Art in this setting takes on a vibrant surreal glow that—multiplied by 30,000 participants—cannot really be described in images or in words. It is an awesome happening that silences the mind with a roar of creative celebration amidst a landscape filled with vast wonders.

The desert floor is not really “sand” but a fine powder that swirls into great white clouds when the shifting winds stream into the valley from various directions—obscuring all vision and directional orientation. When the rains come, the powders transform into slippery, sticky mud that bogs down any attempt to walk or ride on it. This is not the place one would expect to find a small temporary city bursting with extreme artworks. Yet Black Rock City does materialize each year in the weeks before, during, and after the Labor Day weekend—and the celebrants appear to revel in the discomforts.

Tens of thousands haul themselves, all their supplies and all their art out on the desert floor with no water, electricity or garbage system provided. Everyone must bring all means of survival and expression. No commercial activity is allowed (except for the cafe in Center Camp, which sells coffee and ice). Participants are even encouraged to block out logos on trucks and equipment.

The basic Law of the Land is “Leave no trace.” Everything packed in must be packed out. The land must be clean and relatively undisturbed when we all leave. The Burning Man staff—paid from ticket sales—covers the inevitable gaps in awareness and preparedness of the departing crowd with admirable devotion. That is why the event is allowed to go on by the Bureau of Land Management, current “owners” of the land. I’ve spoken with various BLM employees on and around the site and relations with them appear to be excellent. The communities surrounding Black Rock City, many of them Indian, are given generous helpful donations from festival proceeds. This socio-ecological balance has held for eleven years of playa celebrations. The main impact for the surrounding communities is the traffic during the weeks of the event.

  Mastadon Art car on the roll.
Click to view Burning Man slideshow.

Burning Man is a time of pure personal and collective expression and free interactive experimentation. It runs on a “gift economy” that works in surprisingly delightful ways. The emphasis is on participation rather than passive attendance—and on creating something that can awe, surprise, or delight the assembled “citizens” of the temporary city.

Rules and regulations are very minimal and evolved along with the increasing size of the gathering. There is ongoing challenging debate on this subject. Larry Harvey, the originator of Burning Man, explains that as the city grew, the inhabitants necessarily had to go from a hunter-gatherer model to one of civic society. This development is resisted by some, but to one entering Burning Man for the first time, this civic society is one of the freest, coolest, most exuberant societies ever encountered.

The powerful, deconditioning impact of the Black Rock Desert on the mind and psyche of all who arrive in its vast space often goes unmentioned when people speak of Burning Man, but this gathering could never have achieved its current state of chaotic and unbounded creativity in another location. It has the eerie feel of a new culture sprouting seeds within a post apocalyptic ecology.

View slideshow of 14 Burning Man photographs by Scott Hess  > >   
Please temporarily disable any popup window blockers to view slideshow.


Scott Hess is a commercial and arts photographer based in the north San Francisco Bay area. His work ranges from portraits to landscapes to abstract works carrying layers of symbolic value. He has been widely published in regional media and continually shows work in galleries and other public venues. View his website at www.scotthessphoto.com for more information.
Print   :   Blog   :   Next   



Burning Man Website

eplaya: Burning Man Community Discussion Forum

Friends of Black Rock / High Rock



See photography by Scott Hess in the ARTerrain Gallery, Issue No. 8.




Home : Terrain.org. Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments.