Archive for August, 2007

Too much expression at Burning Man

Thursday, August 30th, 2007

Attention, class. Today’s conundrum comes to us from the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, where at the end of every summer a temporary city springs up to celebrate free expression. Extra credit will be given to the first person who can solve this riddle of logic: How can you be charged with arson for setting something on fire that was specifically designed to be burned?

There’s a second conundrum to also chew on, but we’ll get to that one in a moment.

These riddles originate with the 2007 edition of Burning Man, the annual festival in the desert that celebrates “radical self-expression.” The event started in 1986 as a gathering of fewer than two dozen people on a San Francisco beach, where an eight-foot tall wooden figure was burned. A few years later it moved to the desert, where attendance exploded. This year, about 40,000 people are expected to join the festivities, which conclude this weekend with the burning of the trademark stick figure — which, like the crowds, has itself grown, to 40 feet.

For a while, a trip to Burning Man was on my list of Things To Do Before I Die, somewhere between a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon and pouring a beer on Barry Bonds’ head when he goes to the outfield wall to catch a fly ball. But my enchantment with the festival faded when I realized that it apparently had gone the way of all such events that start as exercises in freewheeling anarchy and eventually give way to rules, regulations and hierarchies.

Apparently, that disenchantment is shared by some Burning Man old-timers. Two days ago, a fellow was arrested at this year’s festival and charged with arson after the 40-foot centerpiece was set ablaze several days early. The first conundrum revealed itself as I read a news report on the incident. How can it be considered arson when the figure was created with arson in mind? I can see criminal mischief, maybe, or vandalism. But arson? Surely I can’t be the only person whose circuit board of reason and logic overheats while processing this information.

One web site reports that the man arrested for the, uh, “crime” is a long-time burner (as festival-goers call themselves) “and one heck of a loose cannon.” In other words, he sounds exactly like the sort of person the Burning Man festival was created to serve: anti-authoritarian, non-mainstream and prone to impulsive acts of defiance. Which brings me to my second conundrum:

How can the organizers of a festival devoted to radical self-expression condemn a participant who expresses himself in the most flagrantly radical way possible? That’s something The Man would do– establish rules and timetables, and then get all huffy when somebody decides to light the fire now rather than later.

Good thing the Burning Man organizers don’t also run the ballpark. Otherwise I might find out there’s a designated inning for pouring a drink on Barry Bonds’ head, and that only premium beer is allowed.