​Burning Man Officials Censor Masturbating Nun Art on the Playa

Is the festival giving up its "radical self-reliance" to keep law enforcement happy?

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Sep 3 2015, 6:00pm

Flickr user mypubliclands

This week, 70,000 people are expected to make the trip to Black Rock City, Nevada for the 29th edition of Burning Man. They'll erect a temporary city dedicated to the principles of community, art radical self-reliance and -expression. Art projects will rise from the playa's alkaline dust. But as the event has grown from its humble origins as a bonfire on San Francisco's Baker Beach, adhering to its original "anything goes" mentality has become difficult. These days, the typical attendee is as likely to be a tech industry CEO flying into a pre-constructed luxury camp as a ragged group of friends in a VW van.

But the changes may go beyond the size and look of the fest and extend to its basic philosophy. This year, some artists are reporting that festival authorities are making requests that would have once been deemed anathema to Burning Man's original mission - namely, that art projects be "family friendly."

Michael Garlington is one of the best known artists at Burning Man. In 2013 he constructed the 44-foot tall Photo Chapel, decorated with photographs taken over 14 years of attending the festival. This year, the Petaluma artist and his partner Natalia Bertotti received a $37,000 grant from Burning Man to build the Totem of Confessions, a five-story building made of paper, wood and plaster that will be burnt at the end of the week-long event. The couple raised the majority of the project's budget through crowd funding sites. They estimated that in total, the Totem of Confessions would cost $87,000 to build. Most if it was constructed in California, and about 20 crew members spent the two weeks before the festival assembling the final configuration.

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"This is what I'd call a dream project," said Jonny Poynton, who has gone to Burning Man for the past 16 years and was a lead carpenter on the Totem of Confessions build. Poynton offered his services to Garlington after seeing his past work on the playa. "The Photo Chapel really, really touched me," Poynton said. "He's just got such an eye, and vision. This year's crew is incredible, the people working on [the Totem] are so committed."

The structure employs Garlington's photo portraits to construct a series of altars and hidden niches. "You walk in through these massive doors and inside the space is this confessional," said Poynton. "You can use it ...to confess, whatever turns you on." Garlington's portraits are featured throughout the piece and one of the main altars features his photo of a woman dressed in a nun's habit. The lower half of her body is obscured by a wooden cabinet, which opens to reveal that the "sister" is masturbating with a cross. Reveals like these within the Totem play on this year's Burning Man theme,"Carnival of Mirrors."

But authorities from the festival's artist services department, known as the ARTery, thought the nun went too far. Project lead Marci Bravo reports that associate director of art management Bettie June asked her weeks before the festival's official start to put a lock on the cabinet, fearing that Pershing County law enforcement would deem the piece inappropriate for the festival's underage attendees. Poyton was shocked to learn that the festival had taken exception to the vision he had helped bring to life. Burning Man representatives did not respond to interview requests for this article.

"You are joking me," Poynton remembered reacting to the news. "I mean, radical free expression?" But the crew complied...kind of. "We did put a lock there, but we never locked it," said Poynton. "It looks fun! I think it makes people want to open it." Bravo said Bettie June came by to inspect the Totem a few days later, emphasizing that the changes were made based on Pershing County's sensibilities and not the festival's. She was polite but firm about the need to comply. "Bettie June has been very good to us," said Bravo.

"They're trying to make it more palatable for the authorities. I think that's really unfortunate for an event that has radical roots and still claims radical values."

To Steven T. Jones, author of The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert Is Shaping the New American Counterculture and long-time Burner, this is all part of the "mainstreaming" of the festival.. He said he was surprised, "but not that surprised," to hear of Burning Man's request to censor the Totem of Confessions. "They're trying to make it more palatable for the authorities. I think that's really unfortunate for an event that has radical roots and still claims radical values."

It's not the first time that art has been censored at the festival. In 2001, in what has come to be known as the "Jiffy Lube Incident," a gay hook-up camp had to go through mediation with Pershing County law enforcement after installing a 12-foot sign showing men having anal sex in front of their campsite. After mass protests, Jiffy Lube agreed to house the sign within the camp. In a statement published on the Burning Man website, founder Larry Harvey called the compromise as a triumph for the festival and saw no precedent being set that would curtail Burning Man artists' freedom, nor give local law enforcement curational power over the art displayed at the festival. "Will official censors now police the content of art at our event?," Harvey wrote. "The answer to all of these questions is a resounding 'no.'"

That 'no' seems less resounding now. Burning Man's objection to the masturbating nun appears to have been made to circumvent problems with the Pershing County Sheriff's Office, which sends law enforcement agents to the festival each year to enforce drug and obscenity regulations.

"We'd rather it be an adults-only event," said Pershing County undersheriff Thom Bjerke. His office is concerned that the permissive atmosphere at Burning Man could be detrimental to children—Bjerke told a VICE reporter that "a couple years ago," officers apprehended "a pedophile who was holding hands with a child. He said he was bringing him back to his parents." Bjerke did assert that art deemed obscene would be referred to the Pershing County District Court, but only after speaking with its creators.. "You do better with honey than vinegar," Bjerke said. This year, he said there are 11 to 13 officers present on the playa at all times, adding that 15 arrests have been made so far.

Law enforcement at the festival is made difficult by its remote location. Bjerke says that throughout the rest of the year, his office only receives three or four calls from the area in which Burning Man takes place. With festival traffic in full swing on the sole service road that leads to the playa it can take law enforcement—correctional officers are used to transport prisoners due to under-staffing—nine hours to travel between the festival and the Sheriff's Office. Pershing County has enough space to hold only 26 prisoners at a time (a fact that has lead officers to favor citations over arrests for drug violations in recent years).

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This year, there was speculation as to whether the appointment of Sheriff Jerry Allen would result in harsher crackdowns on illegal drug use and public sex. Nudity at the festival has also long been a point of contention—though it's illegal in Pershing County, officers don't issue citations to naked people at the festival. "It can be a bit of a double standard when I don't arrest someone for something on the playa, but I would if they were here in town," said Bjerke.

Parents who bring their children to Burning Man don't all seem to share local law enforcement's concerns. Lissa Gandara Hettervig's sons were two and four years old when she brought them to the festival last year. They stayed in "Kidsville," a family camp, and made daily bike trips around the playa. "I never felt like my kids saw anything that they shouldn't see," she said. "Obviously we didn't take them near camps we thought might raise questions. They giggled over naked people, but they've seen that before."

The news that Burning Man is edging towards mainstream values will come as no surprise to long-time attendees who have seen the fest's progression from no-holds-barred revelry in the desert to the ordered city and tech industry networking hub of today. The playa is no longer lawless, and the fest can no longer claim to be ruled by "radical self-reliance" alone. Future artists may need to take in account that their projects could be subject to screening. Not for kids' sake, but for that of local law enforcement.