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Burning Man Fest-Goers Disillusioned
Friday, August 31, 2007 10:51:51 AM

After the signature effigy of the Burning Man festival went up in flames four days ahead of schedule, festival-goers vowed to rebuild the 40-foot icon by Saturday's planned climax.

But not everyone was disappointed by Tuesday's incineration.

The alleged torching of the wood-and-neon figure by a San Francisco performance artist has cast light on the disillusionment of many who feel the annual celebration of radical self-expression has lost touch with its spontaneous, subversive roots.

"People have been trying to set that thing on fire for years," said Hugh D'Andrade, a San Francisco artist who attended the festival for many years. "This is not a new phenomenon."

Organizers trace the first Burning Man back to a 1986 party on a San Francisco beach where Larry Harvey, who still runs the festival, set ablaze a crude 8-foot wooden figure.

Since then, the event has evolved into a weeklong gathering of nearly 40,000 people who descend on the Black Rock Desert in northwestern Nevada around Labor Day each year to celebrate countercultural creativity.

In San Francisco, especially, Burning Man has emerged as a kind of underground high holiday as legions of so-called Burners devote the rest of the year to choreographing fire dances, decorating art cars and building elaborate interactive sculptures.

The event has become such a mainstay of the city's cultural calendar that Burner parents in 2005 unsuccessfully urged the San Francisco school board to postpone the first day of school so their children could attend.

But the rise in Burning Man's popularity has also brought a backlash.

In the immediate aftermath of this week's unscheduled burn, gleeful expressions of approval for the alleged prank rained down on blogs and Internet forums.

Some comments came from conservative posters ready to mock anything carrying a hint of hippiedom.

But many originated from self-described former attendees complaining that Burning Man has been spoiled by crowds of "yuppies" and "frat boys" mostly interested in doing drugs and ogling naked participants.

Steven Black, a 40-something librarian at the University of California, Berkeley, has attended Burning Man 11 times. But even though he had a ticket this year, he said, he didn't go.

"What has happened here is giving pause for a degree of introspection and reflection on what it means to burn this man that is perhaps long overdue," Black said.

According to Black, Burning Man's huge crowds have attracted heavy law enforcement attention to an event that was originally meant to be an exultation, leaving him feeling "less secure and less free" than if he had just stayed home.

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Someone had the torch a little early. Oooops.
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