Rooted in Utopia’s past, Frank Spinelli’s astounding photographic record of “Burning Man” celebrates the planet’s newest art-driven community. In doing so this native Woodstocker reminds us that our most extraordinary (if largely forgotten) contribution to world culture is alive and well in an annual “techno heathen” rebirth. Burning Man: Into a 21st Century Utopia is an other-worldly, sexy, seriously playful delight. Spinelli will appear with copies of the book at the Woodstock Library Forum, 5 p.m. Saturday, December 13 at the Library.
In the summer of 2012, Spinelli was looking for a new project when his nephew serendipitously recommended “Burning Man” as happy hunting ground for remarkable images. In short order Spinelli procured a press pass, outfitted himself with tent and highly specified survival gear, and drove his pick-up truck to one of the most extreme locations in America, The Black Rock Wilderness, of which he writes: “…an inhospitable environment in Northern Nevada that extends due north from the town of Gerlach for one thousand square miles. The annual rainfall in this desert is under eight inches per year. The Playa, an ancient alkaline lake bed, four thousand feet above sea level, is home to nothing except a rare species, the Fairy Shrimp, that can remain dormant for years within the desert’s crust…I have never been in a more inhospitable place in my life, yet many thousands of people live there for a week in August. There are no hotels, electricity, water, or any type of natural shade. In fact, what one can expect is searing daytime heat, cold night air, ferocious wind-driven white-outs that make infinitesimally small bits of alkaline dust airborne…The dust can dry out a person’s skin until it cracks and blisters, while the heat at noon can feel like a hammer hitting you over the head.”
“Burning Man” was born in 1986 on the beach in San Francisco when Jerry James and Larry Harvey constructed a nine foot Moloch made of straw they set aflame on the night of the summer solstice. Some reverentially irreverent chord was struck in this heathen burn causing its annual re-enactment to outgrow the beach, the city, the state — soon to be embraced by the world. Its popularity exploded exponentially, becoming a movement — a libertarian way of looking at life, indeed of taking back a life many Americans have passively allowed to be wrested from them. “Over the years,” Spinelli writes, “the effigy has morphed into a structure more than sixty feet high…I witnessed the burning of the man on a Saturday night, a climax preceded by an elaborate firework display that attracted more than fifty thousand people.” Larry Harvey quickly emerged as a sociologist-shaman chiefly responsible for the effigy and the community of artists and revelers surrounding it. Last year 233 large works — many of them ritually burned — adorned the grounds traversed by attendees in outlandish dress and various states of undress, who returned nightly to approximately a thousand camps intractably interwoven for eight days and nights.
Of the early movement Harvey wrote: “For those of us who marched out into the Black Rock Desert in 1990, there was an underlying irony awaiting us…because there was no context in the desert…we actually became the Establishment…slowly, step-by-step, circumstances drove us to invent a government. Without intending to, we’d stumbled onto the principle of Civic Responsibility.”
Appropriately, Spinelli quotes Harvey extensively, listing and reacting to the ten principles loosely representing “the Burner’s Manifesto.” For instance: “3. Gifting: Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.” Spinelli: “Since there is no money changing hands at Burning Man, there are fewer ways to demonstrate wealth, and therefore little or no class structure.” And elsewhere: “I cannot remember the last time I walked through the world for a week without a wallet or money. It was probably when I was seven years old.” Of course, there is a price tag attached to this generosity de rigor. The cost of a ticket is $400. Keep in mind, however, that between 20 to 26 million dollars are spent yearly on security, medical facilities, and accompanying “insta-city” infrastructure. On top of that budget, three quarters of all “Burners” do volunteer work which — among dozens of duties — insures the fulfillment of the final dictum: “Leave no trace.” Case in point: “In 2013, there were sixty-eight thousand people at Black Rock City and no garbage cans. The community coined a name for ‘matter out of place: ‘MOOP’.”