Believing in burning man
Most people have probably never heard of Black Rock City. It exists for only a brief week, deep in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.
But just about everyone has heard of the event that happens there — Burning Man.
What started as one man’s gift of a burning man on a San Francisco beach in 1986 has grown to 60,000-plus people traveling to the desert for a week of art, sharing and community.
The infrastructure for the temporary city for the annual event, which takes place the week leading up to and including Labor Day, is created by the Burning Man organization, Black Rock City LLC.
Just about everyone who’s heard of it has an idea about what Burning Man is — most would dub it a week-long festival dedicated to what ever hedonistic pursuits attendees can dream of.
“It is kind of anything goes,” says Peralta photographer Karen Kuehn. “It’s wild. But that’s not all it is.”
Since 2009, Kuehn has traveled to the playa — a dried lake bed of dried mud stretching for hundreds of miles, encircled by a mountain range — to capture the people, the art and the true spirit of Burning Man.
“I feel that my works on the playa have been very helpful to those whom have not gone,” she said. “It has inspired many to go and shifted consciousness.”
As the event has grown, the LLC has been able to get grant funding to build a safe, functioning city in the desert. There are first aid tents, firefighters and EMTs on hand around the clock and local law enforcement patrol the grounds.
One of the 10 tenets of Burning Man is radical self-reliance, so when people come to the desert, they have to bring everything they will need. The organization provides portable toilets and sells ice and coffee, Kuehn said. Other than that, the participants have to survive on their own.
But that doesn’t mean they are really alone though.
“You’ll be walking across the playa and out of nowhere there will be a hot dog stand or a place making waffles with strawberries and whipped cream,” Kuehn said. “And it’s all free.”
That is also one of the 10 Burning Man principles — gifting. Kuehn said one year, a painter brought a display of his work, one painting for each day of the year. At the end of the week, he had given every single one away.
Working on her fifth book about Burning Man and life on the playa, Kuehn said the acceptance of all beings is also a very cool aspect of the event.
“Part of what I want to do with these books is to dispel some of the myths around Burning Man. It really is about radical self-reliance, gifting, love,” Kuehn says. “And for me, it is the most creative place on the planet that I have experienced. It beat 16 years of living in New York City in 12 days time.”
Kuehn has built a career as a custom portrait and commercial photographer.
In the years before going to her first Burning Man, Kuehn said she was frequently asked if she was a Burner, one of the thousands who attended Burning Man regularly.
After saying no for years, in 2009, the year she turned 50, Kuehn found herself in California with her son looking at colleges.
“We were just camping and surfing and one night we were sitting around a campfire with a bunch of other people and I found myself in the middle of a beautiful jam session,” she said.
A French man from an adjacent site joined them. Before the group broke up for the evening, he gifted them all with a DVD — a film about Burning Man.
“I took it home and parked it for about three months,” she said.
Not long after, while holding an artists’ workshop, someone noticed the DVD on her shelf and the topic came up again.
Through what Kuehn would only describe as a “long, weird story,” she found herself getting ready to go to Burning Man that year. When she arrived, she found herself immersed in the most creative experience of her life.
“I came out of the camper and I was surrounded by dozens of beautiful people of all shapes and sizes,” she said.
During her time on the playa, Kuehn has captured artwork so large it is hard to fathom. Many of the installations are so big, they have to be brought in on flatbed trailers, in pieces, then reassembled on site with cranes.
Massive, outlandish, surreal pieces of art dominate the landscape, but Kuehn’s attention to the people there, to the little details that capture someone’s personality in the blink of a shutter is uncanny.
Many of the pieces are brought to the desert to be seen, experienced and then burned. At the end of the week, not only does the man burn but so do dozens of other works, including the city’s temple — towering above the floor of the world, seemingly made of wooden lace, the temple is a beautiful confection.
Many of the installations have places for Burning Man pilgrims to write a message of grief, put up a small shrine and in the end, let it all be made ash.
“A lot of people think it’s a waste to burn these things at the end,” Kuehn said. “But it can be such a healing, cleansing experience. Letting it all go in the fire.”
From the lighting of the first flame, to the final act of returning the desert to what it was before tens of thousands of people came, Kuehn’s books document the entirety of Burning Man.
The finished hardback books are 12-by-12 inch, printed in full color on heavy, glossy paper. Each book follows the theme of that years festival, such as Fertility and Beyond Belief.
The 2013 theme was Cargo Cult and was represented with the man perched on top of a huge saucer, echoing Roswell’s own alien heritage.
For her newest book, Kuehn asked her subjects “If you were going to a new world, what one concept would you bring to better humanity?” The answers ranged from creativity to libraries to Kuehn’s answer of national parks.
For the first four books, Kuehn did what’s called print on demand — the books were printed as they were ordered. This year, she decided she wanted to do a single pressing to have the books on hand when they were ordered. She set up a Kick Starter page and was able to raise a bit more than the $60,000 goal she set.
Those funds will cover the costs of pressing the books, as well as pay “the editor, publisher, a lot of people, me,” Kuehn said with a smile.
The book will be available in July.
Kuehn says this is the last book she’ll do of portraits on the playa for Burning Man for a while. She is being pulled in a different direction. And for anyone who knows her, the direction won’t be a surprise.
With nine dogs, a handful of cats, two turtles and other livestock on her small Peralta farm, Kuehn is a friend of animals.
She wants her next project to focus on animals and New Mexico, specifically the problems she sees with animals being chained and confined without adequate shelter and water.
“I know it will be with animals, a different direction,” she said of her next project. “I’m not sure where it’s going.”
Kuehn is looking for patrons to help with the project.
And if you ever go to Burning Man, Kuehn has some advice.
“Come to give, leave no trace. It’s not just one big party. It’s about love and generosity.”
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