At Burning Man, Walter Isaacson could have gotten a public pubic-hair trimming at the Body Hair Barber Shop or stepped into Camp Hand Job and had his palm brightly painted. Yet the 48-year-old managing editor of Time, flagship magazine of the upcoming AOL Time Warner media empire, tried dressing down to blend in with the gutterpunks, ravers, gearheads, techno-pagans, neohippies, rednecks, nudists, goths, jocks, dot-commers and artists of all types to witness the gathering in Nevada's Black Rock Desert.
"Time editors spend a lot of time going to political conventions and to G-7 summits," he says. "I figured that we should also go to Burning Man because the world has many variations of exciting gatherings."
The founders of Burning Man might be surprised that the festival is becoming a critical stop for representatives of the most powerful corporate conglomerates in the world. Sure the annual arts festival has exploded with people and media attention since its initial pyrotechnics event 15 years ago, but it's still a bit incongruous to go from the Aspen Institute to the lunatic playa.
At its core, the festival is anti-commercial, and prides itself on giving the middle finger to the antics of global business. As an extended principle, it's anti-corporate, even though the event is a favorite with Silicon Valley types and San Francisco dot-communists. Campers cover the logos on their rental trucks with posters or parody logos like "Big Penis" or "Q-Baul." And this year, in a week of extended theater, a camp calling itself Costco offered soul mates at a bulk rate, then promised to take over all the other theme camps through mergers and acquisitions. Instead, on Thursday, Kamp Kanda "invaded" Costco and repatriated the camp in a hostile takeover.
So you might think that Isaacson, who -- though he might protest that he's just "a journalist" -- is a key executive at a major media conglomerate, would feel a bit out of place. But Isaacson says he found his visit "unbelievably cool." "It's a whole lot of great art and fun performances that I've always wanted to see."
The editor has been trying to attend ever since Time ran a story about the festival in 1997. He never made it. This year, however, Isaacson's wife was going to be in California and he had a cover package on the Olympics in the can at Time. At the spur of the moment, he joined Time humor columnist Joel Stein and two other editors, arriving in the temporary city two hours north of Reno on Tuesday. He left on Friday, as scheduled, long before the ritual Saturday night burning of the 52-foot wooden man.
Isaacson camped in an R.V. parked in the Black Light District, one of Black Rock City's large villages, named after the dozen towers that bathe the desert floor in surreal purple light. At the various theme camps in Isaacson's village, the media mogul could have raved all night at Debbie Petting Zoo, taken a ride on the Ethereal Plane slide, gotten people to listen to him at Attention Camp or gone for a nice pubic-hair sculpture.
Isaacson says he spent most of his time walking the grounds with a water bottle in hand, talking to the locals. "Obviously it's different from most things you ever do, but so is the Democratic Convention," he says. "They're just weird in different ways. There are thousands of people there; some are totally fascinating and interesting and some are fascinating and weird and some ... are ... are different."
Isaacson might have been thinking about the sex slave kid, chained and clad in cutaway leather, who spent a lot of time hanging out on four stilts in the cafe in Center Camp. Or the guy who was walking around with a giant stuffed ostrich between his legs. Or perhaps not. "Everywhere you turn there are people doing fascinating things," he says. "I guess the thing that struck me was that people really liked to talk and explain what they were doing."
What was the strangest thing he witnessed? "Dawn nude tai chi."
"I don't know if you've ever seen tai chi," he says, "so you're going to have to figure that one out."
As Isaacson saw, Burning Man works because of two tenets. One, everyone is supposed to participate: Campers make art and install it on the open desert floor, don elaborate costumes that light up at night, drive vehicles modified to look like dragons or pirate ships, or build theme camps with names like Jiffy Lube or Space Cowboys.
Two, after buying a ticket that pays for land use, insurance, infrastructure and grants to artists, campers find extremely limited commerce in the city. The only things that money can buy -- legally -- are ice and coffee. All other supplies, including water, must be brought from home.
"I fear that we were not the most interesting participants," says Isaacson.
No worry, says Marian Goodell, Burning Man's mistress of communications, who met Isaacson on Wednesday and introduced him to Burning Man honcho Larry Harvey. (The two spent two hours talking on Thursday.) "Anonymity is a way you can enjoy yourself at Burning Man. Cafe kids and circus performers can hang out with media moguls," she says. "Out here, [sculptor] Dan Das Mann is a bigger celebrity than Walter Isaacson."
Isaacson and his fellow Time staffers did, however, consider a theme camp of sorts. As a joke, they figured they could get maximum yuks from a couple of suits and an AOL Time Warner sign. Isaacson says he talked about the idea with his fellow campers first and then eventually David Carr of Inside.com. He ruled it out before he left. But Stein, as a surprise, presented his boss with a special banner at the event. In a two-minute session, they attached it to their Winnebago, took a couple of photos and then promptly pulled it down. "It was done to be funny and ironic, not clueless and stupid," says Isaacson. "I beseech you to make it clear that we understood the joke and the irony of it and then took it right down."
Isaacson stressed that he appreciates the festival's anti-commercial ethos. "The anti-commercialism makes sense," he says. "We were certainly not there to be commercial; we were there to be low-key. Just because I work for a commercial enterprise does not mean that I can't go."