SAY WHAT you will about Burning Man... no, actually, don't. I'm tired of starting conversations this way. If you've never been to Black Rock City, you need to ut-up-shay. I know you've heard that Burning Man is hippie-raver bullshit, a dust-ravaged hellscape teeming with stinky party idiots. Because you've heard that, you're comfortable repeating it, because you assume everyone in the room agrees. Right? We're civilized. And Burners are gross.
As someone who's been there thrice, let me clue you in: Burning Man is a giant, thriving organism, and while it is biled and bedeviled by all the bad stuff you imagine, overall it's one of the world's great wonders. The Burning Man world is as surreal as Salvador Dali, as bizarre as Bosch, as dada as Duchamp. In a word, Burning Man is art. Thousands of distinct pieces and acts within a larger whole that's probably the biggest artistic endeavor we'll ever see in this lifetime.
Burning Man, at its best, is basically a giant gallery and performance art space. Besides the most iconic installation, the Man, the desert hosts literal tons of large-scale statuary, often incorporating kinetic or interactive elements (meaning it has moving parts, and you can climb on it). Then there are the art cars. Not tempera-spattered jalopies, but amazing parade floats that mad scientists dreamed up and brought to life in their backyards. Having engineered, welded, sewed, and transported these masterpieces hundreds of miles, they zip around the desert all day giving people free rides. What lazy hippies, eh? Captain Art School, you have every right to condescend.
Meanwhile, hundreds of theme camps stage wacky interactions and outlandish meet 'n' greets. One camp will fake-marry you to a stranger; one will "Bunnify" you into a rabbit religion and christen you with free ears; several are eager to cleanse your aura, teach you capoeira, or even gleefully wax your crotch. Much of this playful reinterpretation of societal mores could easily be called performance art, social practice, or even modern dance. It's the kind of thing Reedies and PICAns are trying all the time, which brings me to another point:
Some of the Time-Based Art Fest's edgiest experiments are stuff Burning Man burps at breakfast. At 2009's TBA, musician Ethan Rose outfitted a classroom with about 100 musicbox pieces and made tinkly-twinkly sounds. Super cute, but at Burning Man 2011, William Close strung 1,000-foot-long-cables from the steeple of a giant temple and strummed them like harp strings. At TBA 2011, Patrick J. Rock inflated a giant pink elephant once each day, and Jesse Sugarmann staged an über-slow car crash. A week earlier at Burning Man, a giant copper octopus moved its reticulated legs, spouted steam, and breathed fire. Giant galleons with blacklit sails glided through the night. Motorized armchairs zipped across the desert and mechanized cupcakes raced down the roads. Jussayin', if you give due respect to TBA, you ought to give mad props to Burning Man. Ideas that twinkle in TBA's eye explode on Burning Man's playa.
But, hey, if you stubbornly insist on drawing the line at Burning Man, if you're willing to wash all its awesome art out with its graywater... the least you can do is STFU when people mention the event, because you have no earthly idea.