“Like Rome Before The Fall” [Update]

Ohm Kar, from Laguna Beach. photo: Herald Sun

The Balinese-style Ohm Kar, from Laguna Beach, debuted at Caravansary. photo: Herald Sun

The Herald Sun is a daily tabloid newspaper in my old hometown of Melbourne, Australia. It’s the Aussie equivalent of the New York Post or the UK Sun – funnily enough, all three publications are owned by Rupert Murdoch.

They’ve published a pretty comprehensive story “Behind the Burning Man Festival in the Nevada Desert“. Here are a few highlights:

You may think the logistical task of ordering that amount of people into a temporary city impossible and, it probably would be, were this not Burning Man.

This is where the event’s 10 principles kick in, drawn up by Harvey in 2004 as “a reflection of the community’s ethos and culture as it has organically developed since inception”. Or “to make sense of the s–tshow”, as one veteran volunteer told me.

…And it is like a dream. There are jaw-dropping moments, and then there’s the first night you walk out on to the playa. It’s a 360-degree assault on all the senses, a beautiful fusion of childlike wonder and adult ingenuity, a psychedelic playground for grown-ups. You can easily spot the “virgins”. They’re the ones staring in wonder at the bicycle perfectly customised to look like a wooly mammoth, jumping clear as a cupcake-shaped mutant vehicle whizzes past or expressing surprise as a passer by offers them a free mojito

…Those wishing to bring a mutant vehicle or art car must apply months in advance and only about half are approved.

A high level of mutation is encouraged and Tall Neil (his playa name), a Vancouver-based Burner and creative director of The Bleachers art car, said there were about 40 base principles to be met.

“It has to take 15,000 pounds of people jumping up and down and also drive comfortably at 5m/ph for extended periods, through the desert, in 40C or zero,” he said.

“I also think one of the specifications is, ‘if 20 monkeys on acid attacked it, it has to be somewhat acid-attack-by-monkey proof’.

2014 monkey man

photo: Stuart Walmsley/Herald Sun

Tall Neil seemed to nail the juxtaposition with a comparison to another civilisation that went down in a blaze of glory 1500 years ago.

“I try to never forget that what we’re doing right now is arguably the most gluttonous party in the history of humanity, it’s like right before the fall of Rome,” he said. “I think when we look back on this in a couple of hundred years, they’re going to say what the hell? Are you sh–ing me? Climate change was doing what? There was a billion people every day that didn’t have access to fresh water? And I just shot fresh water out of an water gun on an art car that’s blowing diesel driving around the desert with strippers – virtually – on acid.”

But the natural high of making people laugh with his commentary and being able to release the “inner clown” he suppresses for 51 weeks of the year is what brought Tall Neil back for his eighth burn.

photo: Herald Sun

photo: Stuart Walmsley/Herald Sun


…events such as Burning Seed and Afrikaburn, which attracted 7000 participants to a location 300km north of Cape Town this year, is where Burning Man itself is devoting most of its resources.

“Expansion is the future,” said spokesman Jim Graham, better known on the playa as Ron John. “Burning Man has reorganised itself as a non-profit entity to be able to better support the growth around the world. We’ve got 220 representatives in 40 countries and they conduct at least 65 burn-type events every year.”

At least 18 per cent of Burning Man participants come from outside the USA, and Graham notices more Australians every year. “It always impresses me how committed they (Australians) are to bringing art. To come half way around the world to share what they’ve created is just amazing,” he said. Graham believes it’s people such as the Aussies making the pilgrimage to Nevada who will help the original Burning Man message endure.

“The founders now are getting older and they’re looking at what the legacy is they’ll leave behind,” Graham said. “What they’re really focusing on now is this international growth. Can people take those 10 principles of building community, gifting, art and spread it?”

…in other ways Burning Man is a reflection of many problems we are failing to address as a society. This is more apparent late in the week, when everything seems to be on fire, including the giant man that cost about $460,000 to construct. Critics feel this flagrant display of excess reflects our failure to move away from a disposable economy and is hardly the action of a responsible and sustainable community. Burning Man can be beautiful, but it’s undoubtedly debaucherous, and some insist it has come to represent what is rotten in our culture.

“Burning Man doesn’t teach you how to live outside the box, it just shows you that there is a box” 

photo: Herald Sun

photo: Stuart Walmsley/Herald Sun

Read the full story at the Herald Sun.

Art’s in the 10 Principles? That’s news to me. Hey, if Burning Man’s official spokesman says it, it must be true…right?

[Update 10/13/14 6:20pm]

Stu Walmsley, the writer and photographer of this piece, has contacted us to point us to his blog, where you can find:

some reflections post-Burning Man (also a good read)

the unedited version of this story

I asked Stu if he captured any photos of the “Goon of Fortune” installation, but sadly he didn’t. If anyone managed to, please share.

8 comments on ““Like Rome Before The Fall” [Update]

  1. Pingback: Backstage Flare-Up at SF Decom | Burners.Me: Me, Burners and The Man

  2. Wow, if the author really thinks that BM is everything that is rotten with American culture he obviously A: Hasn’t spend much, if any, time in the US and B: Must live in some special kind of hell if BM culture is something vile to him. How can a place where people are themselves, strangers hug, art is glorious and everywhere, and the sense of community is stronger than anywhere I have ever been before? I would hate to live in the world where the opposite is the norm…..Oh….wait….I do….except for one week out of the year. ::Le Sigh::

  3. Murdoch’s people seem to be continuing on with the myth that Rome fell for hedonism. It did not. Rome fell for extending its international commitments (far-flung provinces) so much that they depended on foreign powers (non-Roman troops) that were only friendly so long as Rome kept paying them (increasing int’l debt). Burners aren’t doing that to Western civilization. People that Murdoch and his ilk like to have in power are.

    If Burning Man represents what is rotten in our culture, what’s rotten is the disconnect between founding principles and actual practice. Tsk-tsking Burning Man’s evolution won’t help that. Jailing certain big bankers and defense contractors and dishonest news magnates might.

  4. Off topic, but the bleachers art car is the best idea I’ve ever seen on the playa. So great on every level. I REALLY wish I would have thought of it, ha.

  5. “Art’s in the 10 Principles? That’s news to me. Hey, if Burning Man’s official spokesman says it, it must be true…right?”

    Well, remember they are not really principles…more like suggestions, but as long as they fit your purpose; I believe The white-hat’d man said that himself. So sure, art…why not.

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