The Burning Man Festival


Burning Man: Just Add Couches

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Joe Winston.

By Bill Boisvert

The Burning Man Festival seems to be all things to all people. As filmmaker Joe Winston describes it, the organizers “build a four-story human effigy and burn it as the basis of a four-day-long, freaky arts festival” in the middle of the Nevada desert. As his camera takes in the spectacle of nonstop seminude revelry, other meanings emerge. To Wired-style techno-libertarians it means the devolution of the state into loose-knit, like-minded communities. To anarchists its blend of free love, casual drug use, and harmless automatic-weapons fire represents “a prototype of a possibly more utopian society” as one festivalgoer tells Winston, where “people have all their freedom and everyone’s getting along.” To its founder, San Francisco artist Larry Harvey, Burning Man is a subversive force “like a blade of grass that buckles pavement,” liberating culture from “the whole mass-consumption operation that turns it into a commodity and destroys it.” Yet, as evidenced in Winston’s video documentaries The Burning Man Festival and Burning Man: Just Add Couches, showing this Sunday at Subterranean Cafe, subversion itself can become a highly salable commodity.

The Burning Man Festival, filmed at the 1995 gathering, does little more than plunge us into its counter-cultural mise-en-scene. The festival’s agenda of “radical self-expression” often takes the structured form of “theme camps” that present jaundiced slices of Americana. Some are witty, like the “Disgruntled Postal Workers Camp,” in which surly, topless letter carriers brandish firearms, while others are more prosaic, like the sand-floored “Bowling Alley,” which inevitably becomes a nude bowling alley. Man-in-the-street interviews turn up nuggets of free-associative wisdom about the “alien hybrids walking around” unnoticed at the festival. At one point a desert rainstorm provides the lubrication necessary for a mud-pit orgy. Always in the background is the din of chanting, drumming, and performance art.

The festivalgoers see it as a sign of things to come, yet the Burning Man Festival represents a venerable, even hoary tradition. Nothing happens at Burning Man that didn’t happen at Woodstock or at any number of Edwardian artist colonies before that. Its mixture of primitivism, spiritualism, and nudism has been around since the turn of the century and has been a mainstream marketing strategy for at least 30 years. In the motorized sofas tooling across the parched landscape, or in the “Art Cars Kamp,” whose vehicles are decked out in giant papier-mache tail fins and cockroaches or festooned with the glued-on effluvia of a thousand roadside souvenir stands, we see how little art has progressed since the heydays of surrealism and kitsch. Even the Burning Man itself, with its polyhedral head and strut-work body of blocks and cylinders, looks backward to cubism.

All of this derives from a specific moment in history, the heady period when modernism finally burst the stays of late-Victorian propriety. The high modernists were fascinated by the vigor of industrial capitalism but repelled by the mechanistic, utilitarian view of human nature inherent in scientific rationalism and market ideology. Certain that God was dead yet desperate for the sacred, they religiously pursued art, sex, and an antirationalist conception of the self based on pseudopagan mythography.

But consumerism has simply turned these avant-garde aesthetic strategies into retailing niches. Picasso, Jung, and Lawrence might have felt at home at Burning Man, but so do the local burghers and sheriff’s deputies, who know a revenue stream when they see one. Nowadays piercing parlors and mud-wrestling establishments are pillars of any suburban chamber of commerce, and as for desert camps featuring freakish costumes and cars done up as objets d’art–well, Mel Gibson got there first. What’s shocking about Burning Man is that no one’s turned it into a boutique franchise.

It seems strange, then, that in Burning Man: Just Add Couches Winston returns to the festival the following year to inject some “good old American normalcy.” What could possibly be more normal and American than Burning Man? Winston and four friends decide to construct the Couch Potato Camp, a perfect replica of a middle-class family room complete with couches, television set, satellite reception of 200 channels, and a refrigerator stocked with beer. Much of the video chronicles the heroic labor that went into this monument to lethargy, rivaling The Bridge on the River Kwai as an epic of logistical improvisation. Couches, televisions, refrigerator, food, and beer must be trucked into the festival site; a tent to shelter them must be erected; a generator must be hooked up to power the extravaganza. The group also sets up an automated video booth in which festivalgoers are taped performing one-minute acts of self-expression (many of which involve waving their genitalia at the camera); its construction entails even more feats of carpentry and wiring.

Both installations turn out to be hits and are filled with people lounging and exposing themselves. Winston and company’s many sleepless nights of planning, frayed nerves, and production setbacks finally pay off; a celebration of indolence and self-indulgence becomes an almost Calvinist saga of redemption through hard work and self-denial. (There’s even a backslider–Joe’s cameraman, who flies in at the last minute and then abandons the project: his fall from grace is chalked up to his “not [having] worked to be there.”) While they fail to “get naked” and “get laid” as they hoped, they get something much more precious. “I felt like I was useful, like I contributed, like I was an effective and productive guy,” says one member of the group. He’s ceased to be a mere voyeur and moved up in the world, having earned the right to “talk to other organizers, to other people who set up theme camps.”

It’s hard to know how seriously the video, with its droll slacker sensibility, takes these pronouncements or the many statements by Burning Man organizers extolling the year-round labor that goes into the camps and displays. But the Couch Potato project deconstructs in a hilariously literal way the central insight of consumer capitalism: that carnival, potlatch, and sexual abandon, far from threatening labor discipline, actually spur investment, technological innovation, and the work ethic. Burning Man demonstrates the triumphant retaming of the modernist id by the Victorian superego. In fact, Couch Potato Camp suggests the Victorian urge to plop down simulacra of “civilized” European institutions in the wild. Nature and civilization clash, and pioneer values triumph: when Joe and his friends learn that drivers are getting lost on the trail because of dust clouds stirred up by the heavy traffic, they take the situation in hand and lead a caravan safely across the desert into camp, in a continent-taming scene straight out of How the West Was Won.

This scene also points to a fatal contradiction in the Burning Man concept. Between the first video and the second, the festival’s attendance explodes from 4,000 to 10,000, making it “the largest city in the county” and bringing sprawl, gridlock, and anomie. As the support system of “relentlessly overworked volunteers” begins to break down, the organizers face a familiar dilemma: to handle a mass audience, they must adopt the organizational forms of a mass market and alienate the avant-gardists who made the festival fashionable in the first place. Instead of facing the contradiction the festival will probably just flame out, as one might expect in a society that relies on accelerating cycles of novelty and obsolescence. Burning Man is the ultimate consumable, every year immolating itself to ash, leaving only a clean white desert beneath a blazing sun.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): The Burning Man Festival film still.