In Black Rock City, almost anything goes—unless an artist crafts something huge and homoerotic for a busy street corner
Burning Man 2001. About a block from the Black Rock City Center, along a street called The Child, was Camp M*A*S*Hcara, a zone billed as “Black Rock’s inadvertent queer ghetto and Drag Queen Petting Zoo.” There, during this year’s Burning Man, you might have visited the Penis Painting Salon, gotten a trial membership at the Black Rock Beauty Bar and Gym or made a quick trip to the Jiffy Lube.
For the 26,000 or so people who attended Burning Man this year, the Jiffy Lube subdivision of Camp M*A*S*Hcara was hard to miss. They might not have seen the sign that read, “Get in, get off, get out.” But it was harder to miss the gigantic mechanical billboard of two muscular men, about 12 feet tall, cut out of plywood. The brightly painted art, a work created by California sculptor Mark Canepa, was hinged with pins to allow movement—more specifically, to portray anal intercourse. The work was placed under a spotlight on a platform that raised it high above the tents.
Just another curious sight at Burning Man, right?
Actually, no. County law enforcement officials decided the art was over the top. Burning Man’s own Black Rock Rangers agreed that the work needed to come down. Some individuals had complained about the art, it was said. After all, there were kids at the event.
“It was pretty obscene,” said Joe Olivier of San Francisco, assistant director of Jiffy Lube. Jiffy Lube was one of more than 100 themed camps created by groups of individuals who still pay between $125 and $250 each for tickets to Burning Man, “where everyone is a participant,” as event organizers maintain.
"[Jiffy Lube camp director] J.D. [Petras] has been going to Burning Man since it was a stick in the dirt that everyone danced around,” Olivier said. “He wanted to do something outlandish and over the edge.”
By the end of Burning Man, the art was stashed away in the back of Petras’ RV.
This treatment of his art didn’t bug Canepa terribly. But he did wonder who gets to draw the line about what’s considered appropriate at Burning Man, where art ranges from absurd to explicit as a matter of course.
“I find decapitated babies to be distasteful,” Canepa said of one piece of art he’d seen. “What we did was just funny. I guess if you’re not into gay people, it’s not funny.”
Some free expressionists are far more rabid.
“You hear that this whole event is about art,” said Bradley Jordan of San Diego, who camped at Jiffy Lube. “What it’s really about is sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll—a lot of sex.”
When Jordan wanted to protest the removal of the art, others tried to calm him down for the good of Burning Man.
“The others wanted to party,” Jordan said. “I was really upset, volunteered to be arrested, wanted to make a point. There were people in the camp who were upset with me. They said, ‘You’re wrecking our fun.’ … People are running scared. [Burning Man founder Larry Harvey] kept beating the drum that this is going to be the end of Burning Man if I pursue this. I think that’s bullshit.”
The Burning Man drama is set on an expanse of the Black Rock Desert, about 12 miles from Gerlach. On the dusty playa, a city is mapped out in a semi-circle of blocks around the non-gendered wooden human figure that is annually torched at the event.
A supporting cast of revelers had fun, in most cases. Jokers with a reported pipe bomb at the entrance to the event had police and the Bureau of Land Management worried, said Les Boni, the BLM’s assistant field manager for nonrenewable resources. A bomb squad showed up. But the “bomb” turned out to be a harmless piece of PVC pipe.
BLM rangers issued about 100 to 120 citations for everything from drug use to violation of closed areas. Only a few individuals were arrested, mostly for possession of controlled substances. But for a community the size of Burning Man, that’s not bad, Boni said.
In the Jiffy Lube drama’s lead role is event founder Harvey, who told the RN&R that the story is still in its infancy.
“What we have so far is a factoid, a thin skin of surmised information around a vacuum,” Harvey said. Most likely, he said, the episode was an intra-community dispute.
“What I really want to do is get the parties together so they can explain their intentions to each other,” Harvey said. “You won’t alter anyone’s heart or mind if your strategy is to take expression to the limit. You’ll simply harden people in their positions.”
But so far, families say they didn’t complain about the art.
Family camp coordinator Kamakhya Devi said that it was easy to avoid the camp’s sign or anything else at the event that might have been considered objectionable.
“Our children are not being brainwashed or otherwise influenced by Jiffy Lube’s antics any more than our children are becoming compulsive gamblers because of supermarket slot machines,” Devi said. “Personally, I think there are better stories to be had out of Burning Man 2001. There was a plethora of beautiful art, a wealth of wonderful people and an entire city that was virtually free of violence and hatred.”
Petras commissioned the controversial two-dimensional piece of art to display in front of the camp, a subdivision within Camp M*A*S*Hcara. Petras wanted a structure modeled after an Italian can opener—except the figures on the can opener had been heterosexual. Canepa, a professional artist, hadn’t made anything like it before.
“We knew when we were building it that it was going to be offensive,” Canepa said. “But we did it in such a way that it was cartoony. We just thought it was a big hoot. … We used lots of festive colors. I think I painted it too good.”
Police had driven by once or twice, taking pictures of the art. Then, on Thursday, Aug. 30, a deputy from the Pershing County Sheriff’s Office asked camp residents to take the sign down, possibly because of complaints from members of the nearby family camp.
“I guess the sheriff found it to be pornography,” Petras said.
Was the Jiffy Lube art singled out? Law enforcement officials said it was a violation of prevailing community standards.
“I understand that they had the right to say we can’t put up that artwork,” Olivier said. “It’s [the sheriff’s] county. And I said, ‘Look, we don’t want any problems with these people.’ One of the things that the sheriff brought up was that there were a lot of children around.”
Jordan, who has a 5-year-old niece, wonders why anyone would deem Burning Man an appropriate environment for children.
“Hanging out with drugged-out adults is no place for kids,” he said. “Kids could be exposed to a lot of things that could screw them up for years. And then there are the health and safety issues—the heat, the sand, the desert, people riding bikes at night with no lights. I don’t believe parents should endanger children by taking them there.”
Making the event open to adults only would likely solve the problem of self-expression, he added. “If kids aren’t there, then … there will be less grounds to discriminate against gay and lesbian art, sex space, public sex. Leave the kids at home. Let grandma take care of them.”
Harvey, for one, disagrees. Demographics indicate, he said, that many more families are attending the event—and why shouldn’t they?
“Sure, a lot of people bring kids to Burning Man,” he said. “And I’m not aware that anyone was ever corrupted by a sign. But I can understand why some parents might be disturbed by taking their kids past a 10-foot depiction of sodomy. They might prefer to talk about the subject at home in their own way.”
At Harvey’s camp, members ranged from 2 to 71 years of age.
“The biggest trend now is for families,” Harvey said. “We’ve never considered Burning Man an adult event. We consider it available to anyone. We don’t exclude anyone a priori.”
The individuals holding down the fort at Camp Jiffy Lube refused at first to take the work down. The police officers complained to the Black Rock Rangers, the legal arm of the Burning Man community. On Friday, Aug. 31, the Rangers came by and ordered that the sign be taken down before 3 p.m., Petras said.
“At that time, people in camp were starting to rally together to fight this issue,” Petras said.
The sign was taken down, but emotions were running high.
“I saw this hatred and angry-mob thing building,” Petras said. Some individuals were willing to be arrested, and Petras supported them at first. But he was concerned about the citizens of Black Rock becoming angry with the rangers.
So, he said, he set up a meeting with rangers, police and members of the Bureau of Land Management to figure out how to defuse the situation. During the meeting, Petras said, he was told that if an arrest were made over the art issue, it would be difficult to convince the BLM to allow a permit for next year’s Burning Man.
“They said the permit for Burning Man would be extremely compromised,” Petras said. The BLM recommended that the sign stay down. Petras was forced to agree.
“The whole thing shouldn’t end because of a protest from my camp,” he said.
But leaving the sign down wouldn’t appease the crowd.
“The truth was, things were getting out of hand,” Petras said.
On Saturday, Sept. 1, the police, the BLM and the rangers agreed to let the protesters have a parade and demonstration in City Center—as long as the demonstration took place in the heat of high noon. Fliers were printed. And the police allowed the art to be driven through the streets on a pre-planned route, as long as rangers went ahead of the art warning parents that an offensive exhibit was coming through.
By the time the art reached the center of Black Rock City, a crowd of 300 to 350 protesters had gathered. After the parading of the structure through town, the art was taken back to Jiffy Lube, put on a trailer and driven to Harvey’s camp.
That wasn’t part of the agreed-on plan.
“Larry was very upset over this,” Petras said. “He didn’t want to say anything, didn’t want to be involved in it. That made the crowd even angrier.”
Jordan led the protest to Harvey’s camp, shouting criticisms on a megaphone, complaining of unfair censorship. Finally, Harvey came out and demanded that Jordan come down and talk with him one-on-one.
“He was shaking and angry,” Jordan said. “He accused me of wanting to be famous and attract media attention.”
"[Harvey] thought the crowd and Bradley [Jordan] were only doing this to get on the cover of Newsweek or whatever,” Petras said.
Then the art was hauled back to the camp. Some protesters wanted to nail plywood over the offensive parts of the art, paint “censored” on it and hang it back up. But that wasn’t part of the deal Petras had made with the BLM and police. When camp leaders started to put the piece in Petras’ recreational vehicle, Jordan clung to the sign, crying and shouting.
“People wanted to make a statement,” Petras said. “I was physically attacked. … But it was my agreement, and that’s where it was placed—in the back of my RV. I don’t like what happened. But why should everybody else in Black Rock City be affected by something that I did, something that my camp chose to do?”
Finally, a bruised and bleeding Jordan was convinced by friends not to fight any more. But he hasn’t let go of the sense that members of the community were wronged.
“They said, ‘We’re the organizers of the camp,’ and they thwarted the will of the people,” Jordan said.
More than a week after everyone left the desert, nine-year Burning Man veteran Ray Russ of San Francisco said he is “still livid.”
“During the next six to nine months, this will have to be hammered out,” he said. “What happened is so egregious, Larry Harvey will have to answer for it.”
Russ has long considered Burning Man the only place where he could hang out with heterosexuals and not feel condemned, castigated or even physically threatened. This year, that changed.
“For next year, I may put together a camp that is far more offensive than anything [Pershing County Sheriff] Ron Skinner found on the playa this year,” Russ said. “That’s how I feel right now. … The idea is to take the sheriff to the mat to see how far Harvey is willing to go to back up radical free expression.”
Before deciding to attend this year’s festival in the Black Rock Desert, Jordan checked out the event’s Web site, www.burningman.org. There he read of a mystic community given over to art and a new interpretation of society.
“I thought I was going someplace where people could express themselves artistically,” he said. “The Web site paints a picture of freedom and art. I was so pissed off that we were singled out.”
Jordan and Russ both found the Jiffy Lube art to be completely in line with the many other works publicly displayed.
“It wasn’t outside of community standards,” he said. “Other camps had straight porn on big-screen TVs. I saw a guy jerking off in public. There were straights having sex in the streets, vaginas and penises everywhere.”
In fact, several works of art represented large genitals, he said.
“I can’t tell you how many vaginas I climbed through,” Jordan said. “Vagina, vagina, vagina. If I had complained and said it was obscene, would they have shut that down and called it disparaging names? No one would tolerate that. If they’re going to shut us down, they should do it to everybody.”
Russ said: “It’s opened up a interesting and lucid discussion over who does get to make the calls.”
The police didn’t ask that only the gay art be taken down, said Lt. Tom Bjerke of the Pershing County Sheriff’s Office. He’s sure that other offensive signs were taken down and that deputies also banned the porn on the big-screen TVs.
“That’s a real hard place to enforce the law,” Bjerke said.
For example, at Burning Man, nudity is an accepted part of the scenery.
“You have to ask, ‘Does it offend the consciousness of the community?’ “ Bjerke said. “Up there [at Burning Man], it doesn’t. People walk all over the place naked, and they don’t get arrested.”
Bjerke said he appreciates the many good aspects of Burning Man, like the artwork, the way the city is planned and built and the way people “generally get along.”
“That’s the side of the event I would like people to see,” he said.
But things aren’t perfect in Black Rock City.
This year was the second that a kidnapping and sexual assault took place on the same day as the burning of The Man. The victim, a woman who lives far from Nevada, told police she’d gotten tired of the event and couldn’t wait to leave for home. She separated from her friends to head back to her camp, but she lost her way.
“She was picked up under the guise that people wanted to help her get across the playa,” Bjerke said. When she saw that the people were not going in the direction of her camp, she tried to get away. At that point, she was forcefully kidnapped and sexually assaulted out in the desert.
“At one point, she feared for her life and decided to fight her way out of it,” Bjerke said. And she finally did escape.
During the police interview, Bjerke said, it was hard to get the victim to tell the story. Instead, she kept talking about the Burning Man event.
“She said that Burning Man people should tell what Burning Man really is,” he said. “She compared it to a college fraternity party that had gotten out of hand.”
While yes, Burning Man is a place where much is tolerated, rules—such as “no public sex"—still exist for the benefit of community members, Harvey said. Black Rock City is also subject to the rules of Pershing County, the state of Nevada and the United States via the BLM.
Still, organizers have some real latitude in how the event is structured.
“This is a world we can design, create and make rules that don’t affect freedom in any serious way,” Harvey said. Still, if a community member is persistently abusive and “refuses to mend his ways,” he can be expelled from the party. About 12 people were kicked out of Burning Man this year.
“If you gave a party, and someone came in and started insulting someone else, you might take that person aside and talk to him about it,” Harvey explained. If the person continued to act inappropriately, you might ask him to leave, he said.
Burning Man follows that model. A few years ago, residents at one camp hollered threats and insults into the street using a megaphone. For a while, the Burning Man staff protected this group, especially from a neighbor who’d expressed a desire to tear these foul-mouthed guys up.
“These are people you’d boot out of your party real fast,” Harvey said. The last straw came when the men yelled a sexually suggestive remark to a man walking by with his adolescent daughter.
“It didn’t take much thought beyond that,” Harvey said. He later heard that this group had come to Burning Man expressly to get kicked out.
“They wanted to make the point that Burning Man wasn’t free by going beyond the limit of what anybody in their right mind would think is decent,” Harvey said.
So how does a person in his right mind draw the decency line? Are there ever any gray areas? Well, the Jiffy Lube art would probably qualify, Harvey said.
“This is an interesting case,” Harvey said. “There are merits on both sides.”
In news accounts of the protest, Harvey is quoted as saying that the mores of a rural community like Pershing County needed to be understood: “These cowboys are so far in the closet, they can’t find a way out.”
Harvey explained to the RN&R that those comments were addressed to a specific angry audience. He didn’t mean to infer that the inhabitants of Pershing County were in any sense “rednecks.”
“I was talking to a group of irate homosexuals, and I was sympathizing with them,” Harvey said. He complained that news stories didn’t include his next comments, which included a quote from Gandhi. “I said, ‘I know you’re angry, but what’s needed is a dialogue and some forgiveness on your part. It’s impossible to forgive from a position of weakness; you can only forgive from a position of strength.’ “
The members of Camp Jiffy Lube “yielded to reason,” he said.
Was there a real threat to the Burning Man permit over this issue?
Harvey replied: “If there were a mass arrest at Burning Man, that wouldn’t exactly be conducive to relationships between Pershing County and the citizens of Black Rock City, now would it?”
Burning Man 2001 bears little resemblance these days to the first Burning Man in the sand of Baker Beach, San Francisco, 1986. Even though numbers were down from the projected turnout by 2,000 or 3,000 people, Harvey hopes this year’s event can be remembered for its positive side, not the controversy over a sign.
“Those people who did come were really committed,” Harvey said. “They come for the individual self-expression, but they stay for the community. … That’s why people come and brave the sand, wind and high temperatures. They feel so damn connected to other people.”
When I called Canepa, the sculptor, at his home in El Cerrito last week, he said he’d been crying on and off all morning. Despite the controversy over the art that he had created, he felt changed by the desert experience.
“I got to see the native-slash-hysterical people at the burning of The Man,” he said. “It was like going back thousands of years. The burning was like a sacrifice, like Jesus on a cross. I felt wiped away of everything.”
Even the fine, silty dust of the playa felt sacred to 42-year-old Canepa. He can’t bring himself to clean the tools he brought back from the desert. He likes looking at them and remembering.
“I’m still wearing my boots with the dust on them,” he said. “I don’t want to ever forget.”
Canepa said he plans to come back next year, and he’ll bring new works of art.
“Maybe just two goldfish or something, goldfish with bubbles. Or two geckos on top of each other."