Foreword to “Dancing with the Playa Messiah”

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Longtime burner and photographer George Post has created a beautiful new book of his Burning Man photos from the last 21 years, for which he asked me to write the following Foreword. Check it out and look for the book later this year.

Building a New World

By Steven T. Jones, aka Scribe, author of “The Tribes of Burning Man”

Burning Man was going through some hard times when George Post came by my office to show me this book. The Great Burning Man Ticket Fiasco of 2012 was in full swing, and the Internet was filled with expressions of anger, frustration, condemnation, and despair from the roughly two-thirds of veteran burners who had been denied tickets under the new lottery-based system, threatening the very fabric of Black Rock City.

Demand for tickets had far exceeded anyone’s expectations, and everybody was speculating about why. Had Burning Man just hit a tipping point in popularity? What role did the event selling out for the first time the previous year play? Did profit-minded ticket scalpers game the new system? They were probably all factors, but that February, nobody knew exactly what was going on, what to do, or what it would mean for Burning Man.

I had been covering the event and the vast culture it spawned for almost eight years for my newspaper, the San Francisco Bay Guardian. And it had been a year since the release of my book, The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture. So I was deeply embedded reporter, writing regularly about what was happening and doing interviews with other newspapers that were also covering the controversy.

In fact, this was just the latest in a series of incidents in the last year that I wrote about in a way that was sometimes critical of Black Rock City LLC, aka the Borg, the company that stages Burning Man. I’d known about the plan to turn the event over to a new nonprofit since before my book was published, but I was dismayed by aspects of how that transition would take place once founder Larry Harvey announced the details in April 2011. And that was followed by the ticket sell-out, the announcement of a new ticketing system, and a sales launch that was plagued by the exact flaws many had predicted.

Bashing the Borg is favorite pastime among many veteran burners. I’d covered many of those conflicts in my book and I found myself slipping into that same cynicism I’d heard from so many others: that Burning Man had crossed over into something else, something less cool and authentic, that it had finally jumped the shark, that the six board members who controlled it were only giving lip service to concepts like collaboration and community.

But then George came in with his book, and something inside me snapped back into place. With its colorful, evocative photos spanning more than two decades of these weird and wonderful people building a city from scratch in the Black Rock Desert, seeing this world through George’s lens somehow restored my perspective. Some of those creators are long gone, but there were also countless photos of the board members that I’d been bellyaching about – much younger, a sense of possibility gleaming in their eyes.

It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and to second-guess how this grand experiment could have been improved, and to feel frustrated by its shortcomings and missed opportunities. Yet the remarkable fact that Burning Man is not only still around, but that it continues to grow and thrive and morph and send its tendrils out into almost every corner of the globe – that seems almost impossible to believe.

Just that one photo from 1991, of the Man floating out onto a barge on San Francisco Bay, reinforced what a simple yet powerful export Burning Man has been. San Francisco has been incubating ideas, percolating possibilities, distilling decadence, and cultivating culture since its inception, and this was a vehicle for it to travel out into the big wide world.

Somehow, that simple stick figure on Baker Beach, transplanted onto a vast alien terrain with infinite possibilities, became a canvas onto which generations of dreamers and searchers could project a world of their own design. And when that was multiplied by the tens of thousands, and repeated for decades, an entirely new culture, with a unique set of norms and values, could grow.

I’ve been honored by the opportunity to help capture and tell its story, but I was a relative latecomer to the party, attending my first Burning Man in 2001. My contribution was built on the work of others who came before me, on writers such as Brian Doherty and photographers including George Post and Barbara Traub, who amplified the ideas and actions of Larry Harvey and other Burning Man originals, work that drew from influences such as the Dadaists, Bohemians, and the French Impressionists.

There’s nothing new under the sun, everything gets recycled and reinvented, but that’s not the impression one gets from flipping through this book. Somehow, it all seems so fresh and original, these pages and pages of colorful burners inventing a new world for themselves and those that followed. And even though readers can watch the progression and see the art get bigger and more ambitious as the years pass, there’s a comforting continuity to all of it.

From the moment when Borg original Michael Mikel first drew that line in the playa, in the legend telling those assembled that they’d be different people once they crossed over, everyone who goes to Burning Man is indelibly altered by the experience. And that’s something worth celebrating, and reliving again and again, so we can remember where we’ve come from and where we may yet be headed.

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