Tales from Burning Man

By Sally Fay

Yves Behar and Sabrina Buell on the playa.

The year 2018 was already a big one for Burning Man, arguably the greatest annual art festival ever. A large-scale installation, No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man, opened in March at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C. Most profoundly, April marked the sudden death of Burning Man founder Larry Harvey, who died from a stroke at 70 years old.

The loss sent ripples of grief throughout the Burning Man community in San Francisco, where it all began 32 years ago. There is no doubt, though, that the party that Harvey started will blaze on, with thousands preparing to descend upon the Playa in Black Rock City August 26 through September 3. The theme: “I, Robot.”

In 1986, Harvey, acting on impulse, turned to a friend and said, “Let’s go burn a man!” On that June night, Harvey and his group of rabble-rousers, some from the Cacophony Society, gathered at San Francisco’s Baker Beach to celebrate the Summer Solstice — and burn a wooden effigy of a Man. The gathering grew in popularity and the Man got bigger. Fast-forward four years, when Harvey moved the phenomenon to the Black Rock Desert, changing the date to Labor Day  weekend. Today, it’s both a social statement and even bigger scene, summoning Hollywood celebrities, Silicon Valley libertines and the San Franciscans who helped put the festival on the map. Here are their stories.
Marnie Wright rides out one of Burning Man’s famous dust storms.

Feeling the burn

Nion McEvoy [CEO of Chronicle Books, founder of the McEvoy Foundation for the Arts]: I like to say to people that it is a combination of the Esalen Institute, Halloween in the Castro and spring break in Ft. Lauderdale.
David Best [founder of Burning Man’s David Best Temples]: Burning Man is probably the most expensive ticket you are ever going to buy. It has the possibility of changing one’s life. Jeff Sher [journalist and author]: So here’s the thing about the whole Burning Man cultural experience. For people who have never done anything like that before, when they go, it is this mindblowing experience that is so foreign to anything they have ever tried that it can be, quote, “life-changing.” But for people who have been doing this all their lives, it is just a sort of an iteration. I had been to the Rainbow Festival. I had camped in the desert. There have been a lot of creative people before Burning Man. Nobody built a city out there before — so yes, it’s bigger, better, more modern.
Ana Roth [board member of David Best Temples]: I had the privileged situation of
going [in 2001] on behalf of my brother-in-law, David Best, so that was a really beautiful way of being introduced to Burning Man … and it was quite different then. It was very Japanese that year. Becky Hudson did our whole camp in this Japanese style and we wore kimonos all the time. There was a Japanese make-up artist who was always doing our faces. David looked great for Ladies Night, which is when the men dress up in drag. That was the night I arrived, my first night, and there was David in his kimono, white face and this black wig — and, oh my God, it was hilarious. It was so much fun. It was amazing.
Harrison Watkins [creative producer]: Everyone has their own experience and what they love about it. They love it for the spirituality. Some love it for the parties. I love it for the creativity you come across — all the different camps that people have named and offer services and games and activities or whatever they may be — and the art installations. You can walk around Burning Man and choose your own adventure. I love the impulsiveness of Burning Man. You might have a plan, but you are going to get sidetracked, and that’s OK, because you are going to meet interesting, cool people along the way and experience things that you’ve never done before or expected and it’s super random. You might go out for a sunset bike ride and someone will be burning their art installation.”
Cindy Kamm [artist and conservationist]: You venture out on your bike and you go from place to place and it is just amazing what people do! To me, it restored my faith in humanity because of the creativity and the art. It is phenomenal! No one is paying them to do any of this. Massive infrastructure goes into each camp and there are thousands of camps. They all have a name. They all have a theme. So it’s cool. But it’s for doers. It’s not for people who sit back and don’t do because it takes a lot to put up these camps and to do all the work. It’s a lot of work.
Nion McEvoy, Ana Roth and Roger Greenawalt strike a pose on the dusty playa.

Camping for cool kids

Harrison Watkins: Ours is the Salute Your Jorts Camp. Jorts are jean shorts. Our contribution to
Burning Man is that we bring jorts, to fit people, all different sizes and different types of styles.
So last year our camp size grew to about 60 so everyone brought at least 10 pairs of jorts. We
had like 700 pairs of jorts. We have Jort Fashion Shows, Jorts R&B-Hip Hop Nights. We would fit
people for Jorts.

Sabrina Buell [art advisor, Zlot Buell and Associates]: We have stayed at a camp called Disorient. It was founded by Leo Villareal, an artist who did Bay Lights, and also another guy

from San Francisco named Eric McDougal. It is a very “community center” camp. We all
participate, serving meals, or giving out water to people who are passing by. It is a sound camp
so they are known for putting on events in the evenings. It is also an art camp. Leo, and lots of
people there, are artists and contribute compelling and spectacular things at the Playa.
Mike Kamm [real estate entrepreneur]: We went to a great dance party on an old 747. The
camp acquired, somehow, the fuselage of an old 747 and got it to the Playa and it is just plopped
down in the desert. There is a section that has seats. They stripped out seats in a big part of it. So we were in there having cocktails and dancing. Then you go upstairs into the Bubble. It is hilarious. It is a real 747. It is not manufactured. How they got it up there, I have no idea.
Mark Ritchie, by day the founder of the real estate firm Ritchie Commercial, poses alongside a futuristic vehicle that looks like it could have been a set piece from “Back to the Future.”

Braving the elements

David Best: “You can imagine being in a dust storm that is going 60 miles an hour and you can’t see your hand in front of you. There is something really invigorating about that. It neutralizes everyone. It equalizes everyone. It doesn’t matter who you are in a dust storm. When a dust storm or rainstorm comes, everyone gets hit, and it makes the community actually closer.
Scott LeFevre [multi-generational San Franciscan]: When people ask about how Burning Man has changed over the years, I say that I think it is much better, it is much safer. It teaches what they call “Learner Burners.” It teaches them how to be there. When the dust storm comes and it is
blowing at 90 miles an hour and it is taking the enamel off your teeth, it is helpful to have some guidance.
Jennifer Raiser [author, Burning Man: Art on Fire]: It’s the opposite of a museum in that the
art has to withstand very uncontrolled temperatures, 80-mile-an-hour winds, lightning, rain, beating sun, but only for a couple weeks.
Sabrina Buell: I know people are so freaked out about the dust storms. You just have a bandana and or a dust mask and you just duck into someone’s trailer if you need to get out of it and it is completely fine. We have been there for crazy rainstorms. It’s amazing. Being that kind of connected to nature has been incredible. We have never been fazed by the elements. Last year, there was a fire that was very close by. I remember the night we got married [to Yves Behar in September 2017], they closed the airport at Burning Man. People couldn’t get in because of smoke from a fire. But it ended up creating the most spectacular sunset you’ve ever seen on the Playa. All the elements are incredible out there even when they are extreme.
The eponymous Burning Man.

The burning of the man and the temple

Jennifer Raiser: When the Man’s arms go up, it’s time to burn the Man. There is a huge fireworks show that is craziness and then there’s a huge explosion under the Man that lights him on fire! People just roar! It’s just like you are at this crazy, tribal, nutty thing and then the Man Burns, and the next night is the Temple Burn.

Mark Ritchie [founder of the Bay Area real estate firm Ritchie Commercial]: And that’s super dramatic with all the art cars surrounding the site for the Temple Burn. I don’t even know if it’s a set time, but everything shuts down and everything gets dark — and everybody turns off their lights and it’s amazing. Then the Temple — unlike the Man, which is an explosive fire, like space meets a Hawaiian volcano display — is burned from within. It’s a slow start, a natural start of the fire. It burns naturally. There are no incendiaries.

Ana Roth: When you first see the Temple Burn, you are sobbing. You can’t believe the beauty of it. When you first see the Temple, it is so stunningly beautiful. That’s what David is going for, because through beauty, you can grieve and release and find healing. It moves you so much.

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