July 19, 2005

Burning Man

"Think Burning Man, and you think of naked revelers, a sprawling impromptu tent city layered with dust, eye-popping art in the middle of the desert, and the torching of a four-story wooden man." -- the start of a multi-page corporate celebration of Burning Man in the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle a few weeks ago.

Not exactly. What comes to mind to this cynic -- who's watched it grow from a beach-side thing in the fog of San Francisco to a fully-fledged Big Media Event -- is a carefully-calculated spectacle, a desecrated desert, an annual meeting of that great herd of independent minds, a grim determination to express individuality in rigidly (and claustrophobically) tribal terms (a strained tribalism based mostly on generic tats and piercings), whole armies of 30- and 40-something Silicon Valley techies, systems administrators, SoMa design consultants, "creatives", all striving too hard to be different (just like everyone else there), and an atmosphere of rather desperate and determined self-proclaimed "alternativeness".

(The thumbnail sketches of the five highlighted Burning Man participants in yesterday's Chron might give you some sense of the whiff of tragedy surrounding the event (you'd really need to see the accompanying photos to get the full force of it all, though; names have been elided below to protect the guilty...)):

"BP: The 44-year-old quality assurance engineer lives in San Jose. He has been to five festivals. He appreciates what he calls 'Playa Magic' -- things turning up just when one needs them."

"GC: The 36-year-old content manager of a telecommunications firm lives in San Francisco and has attended four events. The best part? 'Learning that I am enough'."

"SS: An artist originally from Los Angeles who now lives in Pacifica, S., 33, has attended four festivals. His best memory: 'Making the impossible happen'."

"BS: The artist and advocate for Burning Man has been to two festivals. Her worst experience was when the wheel of her golf cart fell off mid-playa and she had to carry it back to camp."

"CM: The 30-year-old lawyer from Pacifica [what is it with Pacifica?! -- JL] has been to the festival once. Her worst experience ended up being her best: she got lost but was able to find her friends without any help."

And they all lived happily ever after.)

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