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Today, practically everyone on earth knows about Burning Man, the countercultural extravaganza that draws tens of thousands of true believers to a barren landscape in Nevada's Black Rock Desert every August to create a temporary city full of monumental art installations and mind-expanding experiences. But far fewer people know that this zeitgeist-shaping powerhouse was created by a small group of artists in the California Bay Area as an ad hoc beach party with a few big ideas under the surface—and one very important cobbled-together sculpture going up in flames at its end.
One person who knows the story intimately is Will Roger, a photographer and professor who long ago left the East Coast in search of more creative freedom out West. Roger was introduced to the earliest champions of Burning Man in the early 1990s, and a life-changing trip to the desert convinced him to join their ranks. His role became to grow the annual celebration by managing the design, construction, and demolition of its increasingly complex infrastructure year after year.
In 2019, Roger published an impressive book titled Compass of the Ephemeral featuring his aerial photographs of the surreal city plans he oversaw and essays about Burning Man's surprising connections to art history. On this week's episode of the Art Angle, Roger joins Andrew Goldstein to discuss the festival's stunning evolution, its impact on the fine-art establishment, and its future at a time when mass gatherings seem as fantastical as the towering marionettes and desert-roving pirate ships that enlivened some of its past editions.