Monday, April 18, 2011

Art & Culture: The Tribes of Burning Man by Steven T. Jones

When the counter-culture was but a gleam in a few proto-stoner’s eyes, this is what they dreamed of. A glimmering city of art and ideas in the desert. Not Las Vegas, but something near it, yet utterly different. This is only right, Steven T. Jones tells us in The Tribes of Burning Man (CCC Publishing), because Burning Man and contemporary American counterculture share common roots.

He explains the genesis of Burning Man in his introduction:
The essential history goes like this: After a few years of this weird little summer solstice beach party called Burning Man, the San Francisco police cracked down, so its staggers and supporters moved the event out to the Black Rock Desert in rural Nevada …. And there, it grew and grew and grew, every year, eventually morphing from scattershot frontier filled with freedom-loving freaks into a dynamic city of about 50,000 colorful souls -- Black Rock City -- that burns brightly for a week in late August and then disappears into dust after Labour Day.
That is, of course, the bare bones of the thing: the sketch of Burning Man’s history. Award-winning San Francisco journalist Stephen T. Jones delivers an insider’s vision of what has grown to be an important cultural and counter-cultural annual event.

Burning Man, Jones contends, is important and has grown beyond Nevada, reaching out into its community in myriad and surprising ways, including Burners Without Borders, the Burning Man alumni who offered their hands and experience in building cities out of nothing after the Katrina catastrophe of 2005. Though the organization gelled for Katrina, it has offered willing hands in international catastrophes since: the massive earthquakes in Peru in 2008 and Haiti in 2010.

The Tribes of Burning Man offers a very trenchant look, not just at Burning Man, but at all the event has come to mean and the reverberations it still may have. “Because,” Jones offers, Burning Man “isn’t a counterculture as much as a space that reflects and helps shape a wide variety of distinct subcultures, ultimately giving these disparate groups a bit of shared culture, uniting them into a new American counterculture.” ◊

David Middleton is art director and art & culture editor of January Magazine.

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