I was, for many years, actively involved with the Burning Man arts and counter culture festival that takes over Nevada’s Black Rock Desert each year around the Labor Day weekend. I was lucky enough to make my first visit back in 1997 when it was still relatively small and you could actually walk around and see everything. I went on to be a founder member of the Burning Man New York local chapter, and returned to Burning Man in 1998 and 2000. After that I was done. In ’97 there were less than 10,000 attendees. That number has now swelled to 50,000 and bigger isn’t always better.
Going to Burning Man is an extraordinary, life changing journey, but it finally got too vast and crowded for me. The art installations and theme camps began—at least in my experience—to be eclipsed by partiers, gawkers and all-night desert raves; the creative elements that are the heart of Burning Man were, to a degree, marginalized.
And now, sadly but I suppose inevitably, our annual All Souls Procession is facing similar hurdles. All Souls is our city’s most fantastic and dazzling event of the year. Read my earlier pieces for TC.com, “It All Started with All Souls” and “All Souls is Tucson’s Night of Nights,” and you will appreciate how much I adore this vibrant spectacle. However, success does come with a price.
Last night I attended my sixth consecutive All Souls parade, and I don’t just show up with a camera. I walk the walk. I also work on costumes and masks so I can make my own small visual contribution to the parade. Yesterday’s procession was staggering in its size. So many people marched, and there were so many floats and giant puppets that Fourth Avenue was nearly choked, and several times the parade came to a complete standstill. Sidewalks were packed with spectators all the way from University and Fourth to the loading docks across from Toole. And this is what I mean by the phrase “Burning Man Problem.” When an arts event is so exciting and intoxicating that it attracts an ever-growing number of participants and spectators, it faces the possibility of getting so big that it loses touch with the very thing that made it fabulous in the first place. When a unique, cutting-edge, local event grows to titanic proportions, is it possible to remain true to its original vision? I think it is, and I have a suggestion:
If you want to watch the parade, then watch the parade from the sidelines. If you want to be a participant, then really be a participant. A rough estimate—based on not very much but walking the length of the parade a few times, and prepared quickly in my somewhat addled brain—told me that at least one in four people walking with the procession were in ordinary house clothes and not bringing anything to it but their bodies. I fully appreciate that All Souls is not only an arts event, but also a spiritual event in which many mark the loss of loved ones during the previous year. As such, of course, it should be open to all. But—and this is a big but—many participants spend weeks or months building marvelous floats and designing elaborate costumes and masks. Out of respect for those who have given up time and money to make something beautiful or scary to bring to All Souls, I propose that marchers either dress up or stand aside. A spectacle like All Souls is only as good as its participants and I’d hate to see it populated by thousands of people shambling down Fourth Avenue in t-shirts and blue jeans. Really, what is the point of mystical parade in which people don’t wear something special?
Thanks are due to the Many Mouths One Stomach volunteers who devote so much time and energy to making All Souls live, and to the Tucson Police Department, who once again managed the large and excitable crowd with courtesy and patience. And finally, it is important to remember that you live in an arts-friendly community in which a giant flaming cauldron is hoisted into the air by a crane, over a crowd of thousands, on a Sunday night. I really cannot think of another city in the country that would even consider allowing such a wonderful thing (San Francisco banned the original Burning Man from Baker Beach because it got too big).
All Souls is still the greatest, but let’s not lose sight of what makes it great. See you in front of Epic Cafe next year, and please, think about wearing a costume.
Photographs © by Geoffrey Notkin. All rights reserved. No reproduction without written permission.