What is it to be a journalist? Is it offering an objective outsider's view? Or is an event, organization, group or cultural phenomenon best described by a participant?
Steven T. Jones, aka Scribe, has penned a new book about Burning Man, The Tribes of Burning Man. Jones is not only a Burner--a person who participates in the annual week-long event--but he is also an experienced journalist. Hunter S. Thompson broke through the boundaries separating participant and reporter long ago, but for journalists trying to walk that fine line between insider and outsider, it seems that, to some degree, objectivity is the casualty.
I, too, am a fellow journalist, trained in the arcane arts of mainstream media. I am also a Burner, and I attended Burning Man, which is held over Labor Day weekend in Nevada's Black Rock Desert, during the times The Tribes of Burning Man covers--a six-year period from 2004 to 2010 that Jones has proclaimed "the Burning Man renaissance," a time of bigger art, larger camps and greater attendance. It was also a time when those who attended influenced their communities after returning home. While Jones does look at Burning Man's global impact, his focus is more on San Francisco, ground zero and home of the Burning Man organization.
The book is structured in a chronological format tapping into Jones' articles in the San Francisco Bay Guardian with some additional reporting and interviews. Jones reports from within certain Burning Man groups as a journalist who put down his notepad and became a participant. He rounds out his coverage by stepping back into a journalist's role as he covers other tribes.
Jones covers a diverse range of enclaves, including rave/sound camps; sex-themed groups; Burners without Borders (they helped rebuild communities after Katrina and after the 2007 Peruvian earthquake); Black Rock Solar, which helps to create low-cost energy alternatives for communities in need; and even the clown and circus resurgence that has prospered in the creative environment of San Francisco's Burning Man community.
Throughout the book, Jones explores the maturation of Burning Man, known to many outsiders as little more than a drug- and sex-filled art party in the desert, as it grew from a community of less than 10,000 in the 1990s, to Nevada's third-largest city at a population of 50,000, at least for one week a year.
He makes a case that the "anything goes" mantra that is part of the ethos of Burning Man has spilled out into American society, influencing it in a new and profound way. Nowhere is this seen more than in San Francisco, but the seeds are being sown through regional events across the country and even Europe. Jones proclaims that the Burning Man philosophy that includes helping others, de-commoditizing communal effort, gifting, radical self-reliance and leaving no trace is slowly seeping into an American society broken by over-consumerism, cynicism of our leaders, and a capitalistic society run amok.
Jones doesn't go so far as to claim a new cultural revolution reminiscent of the 1960s, but he and the Burners he interviewed for his book believe that as the people influenced by Burning Man gather in tribes and go forth, they are having a positive effect on their communities across the world.
Jones has had some positive feedback on the book.
"People who have read it really like it," he said. "I feel like the timing of the book was good."
However, he said the ruling Burning Man organization known as The Borg has mixed feelings due to some of the criticism of the organization in the book.
"I expected them to be more supportive," he said, referring to The Borg's one-time habit of promoting other Burner projects and creative endeavors in its newsletters and on its website.
"Chicken John" Rinaldi, a San Francisco-based Burner, former mayoral candidate, social activist and prominent figure in The Tribes of Burning Man, said that someone who hasn't been to Burning Man "may not be able to make it to the fifth page." Asked if Jones missed anything about Burning Man, Chicken John just laughed.
"He set his focus so narrow and wrote from his own perspective," Rinaldi said. "He amplified the importance of what he was doing ... What I think is important is that literature, art and song are represented in something as big as Burning Man. The correct response ... is to make art about it. So if someone writes a book about it, then that's art. That's the correct response, and I support that."
The end of days may be ahead for what we knew as Burning Man. For the first time in its nearly 30-year history, tickets to Burning Man have sold out. As of press time, tickets were available on Ebay for $600-$800 each, more than double the cost of the last ticket sold through burningman.com. With a population cap, Burning Man is entering unknown territory. The event may become an elitist playground of only the rich who can afford tickets. Maybe the privilege of attending the festival has become commodified, the exact opposite of the gifting, anti-capitalism ethos.
The beauty of Burning Man is that, over the years, it has evolved and changed to meet the needs, wants and desires of the participants. It's an indescribable event. And no matter how much your friend who went to Burning Man talks your ear off about it, you can't understand the sights, sounds and smells of this life-changing experience without going yourself. But if that isn't an option, at least this year, start with The Tribes of Burning Man.