The artistry and kaleidoscopic wonder behind the Burning Man experience.
In this fascinating, immersive exploration of the annual weeklong bohemian festival, journalist Shister begins with the event’s grassroots genesis in 1986 as a bonfire in San Francisco first lit by Larry Harvey to assuage a broken heart. To the author, the Bay Area was a place where social rules became “pliant” as the first pulses of a digital revolution coursed across Silicon Valley. As much as Shister’s charming narrative is a tribute to the festival itself, it is also a timely honorarium to Harvey, who died in 2018. The book touches on Harvey’s creatively intelligent, offbeat youth in Oregon, where he tested his practical father’s patience and then figured out how to avoid compulsory military service. Acknowledging that Harvey’s initial vision was light-years away from the $45-million-per-year Black Rock City nonprofit it has morphed into today, Shister moves through episodes of controversy between artists and organizers, financial challenges (Burning Man is a “no-cash zone”), and firsthand accounts of his experiences as a regular attendee who’d first become a “Baby Burner” in 2013. A visit with founding wunderkinds familiarized the author with Burning Man’s Ten Principles (decommodification, radical inclusion, leaving no trace, etc.) and the brainstorming visualizations of festival organization. Each year, Shister notes, the extravaganza integrates more complex music, LED lighting, thematic microcosms, decompression after-events, and gigantic art sculptures, as if in genuflection to the towering steel-structured “psychic landmark” namesake. The book’s pictorial section doesn’t do justice to the dazzling amount of artistry, emotion, passion, and creativity on display at Black Rock City, but Shister does a splendid job of sketching in the features and the future of Burning Man and its residual global influence with a vivid narrative and anecdotal interviews.
A focused insider’s guide to Burning Man and a posthumous nod to its intrepid creator.