Why Burning Man is like the Bohemian Grove
It is a kind of annual human migration from opposite poles.
Each year, in midsummer, significant numbers of people abandon their homes, jobs, partners and families and travel, sometimes hundreds or thousands of miles, to take up residence in a distant, intentionally remote corner of the American West, where they reconstitute a self-contained society, a retreat from, and in many ways a critique of the larger society they have fled.
One destination is wooded, arboreal, druidic, the other desertine, hermitic. Yet both involve at their core, the shedding like an outer skin one’s routine response to the outside world’s demands and constraints. Both involve the celebratory cremation in a fiery spectacle of a totemic figure. Both form communities, divided into tribal camps, under a nominal devotion to the arts that are as brief, fleeting and ephemeral as frontier boomtowns, yet have had profound influence on the society at large.
Both have influenced our lives, whether we choose to admit it or not.
The Bohemian Grove, the older celebration of the two, an annual encampment of San Francisco’s Bohemian Club, is held in a 2,000 acre redwood forest some seventy miles north of the city. Originally a kind of annual picnic for a city’s hand-to-mouth writers, painters, sculptors, and musicians, it has evolved, (or declined, depending on your view) into a kind of recreation of fraternity row, where (male only) members of the American ownership and managerial classes gather to celebrate music, amateur theatre, guest lecturers, drinking, friendship, and themselves. The Encampment is admission is by membership or invitation only, with both women and the media strictly forbidden entry.
The evolution of The Grove, as it is known by the initiated, into a national gathering place involving men of wealth and power in the absence of media attention has been enhanced or contaminated, depending on your view, by its use as a political meeting place and testing ground. It was here that Richard Nixon, who privately described the Grove as a nest of “faggots”, first suggested the idea of détente with the Soviet Union; where Ronald Reagan privately agreed with Nixon to remain out of the 1968 Presidential election campaign unless Nixon faltered. And where, in September of 1942, in a secret meeting at the Grove boathouse, Ernest Lawrence, J. Robert Oppenheimer, John Conant, and the other members of the presidential S-1 committee on nuclear fission agreed to put the development of the atomic bomb on an industrial basis. The use of the Grove’s isolation for national/political purposes, often deplored by rank-and-file Bohemians as a distortion of the true nature of the Encampment, is also the source of a certain insider pride as a sign of the Grove’s significance. The gathering was considered effective enough to be reconstituted, in a clear case of imitation as flattery, in the Clintons’ Renaissance Weekends at Hilton Head in South Carolina.
Burning Man, which also originated in San Francisco, though more than a century later, shares many of the Grove’s bohemian origins: an aspiring community of writers, painters, sculptors and improvisational artists. Its present-day associations now however, are more Occupy than Wall Street.
Unlike the Grove and its camps, which are permanent installations, 35-year old Burning Man is a yearly recreation from scratch, beginning with the scratchiest of locations, Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, a site chosen to provide a powerful sense of place in the interest of a transformative experience.
On a bleak, sandy plain known as the Playa, burners, both men and women, are required to provide their own food, drink and shelter while constructing artworks, each of which is a combined camp/tribal expression. In structures that can range from steampunk sculptures to participant Z-line rides, to a cathedral complete with playable organ, burners are expected to contribute to the overall desire to dress differently, act differently, and for a period of a week to ten days, be different. A Disneyland, it has been called, where the participants create all the rides. It’s difficult to imagine the Bohemian Grove hosting a movie-set-like reproduction of banks and brokerages titled “Burning Wall Street” All of this, like the eponymous figure of Burning Man himself, are to be torched upon the gathering’s conclusion, a unifying experience like the burning of the figure of Care that celebrates the opening of each year’s Grove encampment.
The goal, in both places is to purge the individual, however briefly, of worldly concerns, while renewing and expanding through sharing, the possibilities of friendship.
Both produce associations that are useful in the outside world, a sense of common experience, mutual acceptance and having undergone an initiation. While the Grove offers a kind of validation for men meeting in the course of business or professional lives, Burning Man suggests a missionary promise of influencing widening circles of people to “get”, whatever it is that needs to be got: a change of career or marriage, a new life, or a transformed outer culture.
Politically the two gatherings could not seem further apart. Yet there are some interesting points at which the circles overlap. The Bohemian Grove is a refuge, perhaps the last, of establishment Republicanism. Every Republican President since Calvin Coolidge has spent time here. It is conservative in the true meaning of the term: its existence is an act of preservation of some two thousand acres of redwood forest. You will find few, if any Tea Party zealots among these redwoods. In fact the Grove encampment represents the gathering of the kind of men-businessmen at the level of industrial spokesmen, corporate officers, media proprietors, executives of universities and foundations-that the Tea Party professes to despise. It is Burning Man, liberal-progressive, anarchic, libertarian, where self-defining Tea Party members could more openly declare themselves, build friendships, even proselytize.
In the Grove and on the Playa there is a shared obsession with media. The Bohemian Grove excludes it, even though some media proprietors and performers are attendees and publicity of any kind is loathed and abhorred. The idea of a media prohibition, in fact, is at the heart of the Grove’s appeal to men of outer world prominence, to whom the regular world is a minefield of job-seekers or paparazzi. In the Grove, where one can be both prominent and anonymous, it is possible to make unremarked contacts and, through the daily Lakeside talks and camp lunches, test-drive ideas and get instant feedback from a cross-section of American opinion leaders. After a Grove speech in which Richard Nixon first broached the idea of détente with the Soviet Union, Nixon speech writers were repeatedly referred back to this speech in the interest of establishing a now tested policy. And after a Grove talk by Nelson Rockefeller met with a cool reception from a cross-section of establishment members, Rockefeller abandoned a proposed run at the Presidency. George Bush, the elder, helped launch both his sons’ political careers by bringing them with him to the Encampment, endorsing their clubability, electability , and potential fundability. Here is someone who is coming along, someone you should get to know.
At Burning Man, the attitude toward media is a full-body embrace. Video cams and phones are operating 24/7 to capture what is an overwhelmingly visual experience. Gathering evidence to prove that what has been wrought upon a plain that will soon be restored to desert is the bedrock transformation of the entire transformational experience. A kind of miracle in the empty sort of country associated with the miracles of scripture. If people can make this out of nothing than how can anything be impossible? “In one week,” says a veteran burner, “everything you’ve done before could potentially be wrong.” The shared transformative experience has made Burning Man one of the incubators of the digital age. Eric Schmidt, hired as CEO of Google, supposedly distinguished himself from his fellow interviewees by being the only candidate who had been to Burning Man. One of the prominent dance camps at Burning Man was started by the founder of Monster.com. And according to Peter Rive, president of Solar City, the idea for the alternate-energy startup originated on a trip to Burning Man with his cousin, Elon Musk, the founder of TESLA.
Could Burning Man be the digital age successor to the Bohemian Grove?
It’s possible. The Grove is exclusive, while Burning Man has been open to all who were willing to make the trip, work, buy an increasingly more expensive ticket, and in recent years, submit to a lottery. More significantly, in an era of expanding diversity, Burning Man includes women.
It’s in the role of women that the difference between gatherings is greatest. The Bohemian Grove excludes women to the point of costuming female roles in the climactic Grove Play in drag and challenging in court attempts even to allow women in the Grove during the Encampment.
An exception to this rule occurred several years ago when, after public pressure, women were hired to work in peripheral Grove jobs like parking cars and working security. One woman, assigned to check membership and guest invitations at the entrance was surprised to see down the line of approaching men, someone in a dress. Oh-oh, she thought, this is someone’s wife, or maybe a protest of the kind that occurs outside each Encampment. As the figure in the dress moved closer, the woman at the gate noticed a rather large jaw and up close a coarse complexion. On presentation of credentials, the person proved to be a member, in the process of changing gender. The Bohemian, cleared for admission, advanced to an assigned camp, removed dress and wig, and spent the encampment in male drag. The outcome of this transformation—a member in good standing of an all-male club transformed legally into a female—has yet to be revealed. Was this the First Lady of Bohemia?
Burning Man on the other hand counts women among its founders and administrators, and women participate in every sort of task and installation.. Indeed its artworks include womanist representations such as tributes to goddesses, and its climax, after all is the consumption in flame of a giant male figure.
Like Burning Man, the Grove Encampment was faced with an existential crisis that threatened the nature and purpose of the event. The Bohemians, early on, realized it was impossible to support an enduring organization on the financial contributions of writers, artists and musicians: men of wealth with some degree of interest in the arts were invited in and soon were running things. At Burning Man, the event was endangered by its exploding popularity: with tens of thousands of burners gathering each year on the Playa, it became necessary to provide some sort of infrastructure to assure safety, sanitation and some sort of crowd control. The result was a lottery for admissions that has produced the same kind of originalist grumbling that some Bohemians express toward the public-figure notoriety of the Encampment. According to The Wall Street Journal, some burners were upset in 2012 when Elon Musk established a compound with eight Recreational Vehicles providing air-conditioning, fresh sheets, groceries, Gatorade, and rum. It is interesting that Burning Man now also offers one of the upscale attractions associated with the Bohemian Grove: access by private or corporate jet.
Like the consuming in flame of the figure of Burning Man, the climactic Gove Play involves a performance that both ephemeral and timeless. On a wooded hillside a cast and crew of more than a hundred men act out a play written for the occasion, often based on familiar legend, and accompanied by a full pit orchestra. Like the figure of Burning Man it represents many hours of combined group effort in the interest of a unifying experience that, upon its conclusion, exists mainly as memory.
That there should be a yearning among a wide range of people to withdraw for a time to a shared, simpler life should come as no surprise. Human beings, we are told by writers such as Bruce Chatwin, originated as nomads, hunter-gatherers, living in tribes that wandered with the seasons, in search of food and game. It was only with the development of agriculture that settlement became necessary, and with it the need for roots, responsibilities, daily routine, the binding ties that the Grove torches in the figure of “dull care”. Responses to what has become the human condition that involve withdrawal and reconstitution are as elemental as male initiation groups and rites, and the sequestering of women during menstruation and birthing. Something in us hungers to return to a simpler, cleansing existence, an experience to remind us that comfort always exacts a price in freedom.
Gatherings like the Grove Encampment and Burning Man can serve as a necessary coming up for air that allows us to plunge back into the quotidian, whether it is pushing paper or following a plow. And however new-agey or old-agey they seem, they are infinitely preferable to some of the otherwise chosen alternatives to ordinary everyday life: extreme nationalism, folkish or religious cults, worship of money or possessions. There is, common to both events a certain playfulness, a permission once a year, to be like children, alive in the moment, freed from thinking for a time of the responsibilities behind and to come.
There is also the ancient need for shared ecstatic experience, the shared communal expression that extends from religious and folk festivals to rock concerts and sports events: the use of festivities to relieve anxiety and melancholy.
“By giving liberty,” wrote Adam Smith, as quoted by Barbara Ehrenreich in DANCING IN THE STREETS, “to all those who for their own interest would attempt, without scandal or indecency, to amuse and divert the people by painting, poetry, music, dancing…would easily dissipate, in the greater part of them, that melancholy and gloomy humor which is almost always the nurse of popular superstition..”
And so they gather, men before the figure of Care, men and women in the shadow of Burning Man, sharing in the consumption by flame of a totem in a unifying experience that links them with humans at altars and bonfires as old as the first rock glyphs, linking them even today with people of exotic, even opposed, politics, culture and beliefs, finding our common humanity even in our forms of transcendence.
Chatwin, Bruce, Anatomy of Restlessness, New York, Viking Press, 1996
Davis, Nuell Pharr, Lawrence and Oppenheimer, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1968
Ehrenreich, Barbara, Dancing In the Streets, New York, Henry Holt, 2006
Kukura, Joe, “Which tech CEOs are going to Burning Man this year?’ allvoices.com
Phaneuf, Whitney, “Welcome to Burning Man: Friend to Fire-Shooting Octopus Robots, Enemy of Tesla Roadsters” panodaily.com Aug. 28, 2012
SPARK, A Burning Man Story, a film by Steve Brown and Jesse Deeker
van der Zee, John, The Greatest Men’s Party on Earth, New York, Harcourt, 1974.