Wall Street Finally Put in Its Place by Burning Man Attendees

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Photo: Jim Urquhart /Reuters

Burning Man has typically steered clear of overt Wall Street criticism. The annual free-spirit convention, held in Nevada's Black Rock Desert every August and attended by every single one of my college friends, typically avoids targeting any single political ideology with its artistic expression.

But this year, one group of Burners decided they'd had enough of Wall Street's greed. So they constructed a replica Wall Street consisting of buildings like "Bank of Un-America," "Merrill Lynched," "Goldman Sucks," and "Chaos Manhattan." And on Saturday night, they burned it to the ground in protest.

"Burn Wall Street," as this bit of desert-based protest art was called, was the brainchild of Otto Von Danger, an Oakland-based artist. Von Danger did not immediately respond to our e-mail requesting comment, but before the Burn, he told SF Weekly that building a life-size Wall Street replica was his attempt to inject some sanity back in the debate over the global financial industry.

"Wall Street is manipulating the political parties to divide the Tea Parties and the Occupiers when they both want the same thing," he said. "They think of themselves as enemies when the real enemy is the thing that got them both mad in the first place."

Von Danger and his crew reportedly spent two months putting together the life-size installation, at an estimated cost of $100,000. That might sound like a lot for a flammable art installation, but look at what it got them:

  • A replica New York Stock Exchange building, billed as the place "where people can dress for success and be or pretend to be 1%ers jeering at the hippies across the way." After a daily bell-ringing (so lifelike!), Burners could also "share diverse perspectives" on the financial scandal du jour.
  • “Tecate Park," a replica of Zuccotti Park where organizers set up "a small mock encampment" in the Occupy style and held protests.
  • "Bank of Un-America," a red-and-blue façade where participants could affix their foreclosure notices and "release the negativity of their experience when the building burns."
  • "Goldman Sucks," a huge, LED-lit building "representing the huge power that Goldman Sachs wields in our world." Inside, participants could climb on a "giant jungle gym" meant to symbolize "how twisted Goldman Sachs is on the inside, as they sell stocks to their customers while betting against those same stocks."
  • "Merrill Lynched," same idea but without the jungle gym.
  • "Chaos Manhattan," a Chase replica where attendees could "turn in their receipt for the collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) for Burn Wall Street bucks." Outside the branch, fake tellers were charging attendees for "outrageous things like using the pen, standing on the floor, and breathing bank air — just like banks seem to do these days."

So, yeah, no slapdash job. And then, on Saturday night, after a 24-hour weather delay, Von Danger and his crew set the thing ablaze. It went from looking like this:

Photo: gruntzooki/Flickr

To this:

Were the two months of work and the hundred-large worth it? Hard to say. True, thousands of miles away from Black Rock Desert, the global financial system marches on, largely unencumbered by regulation and undeterred by a bunch of hippies in the desert.

But on the plus side, there were probably a few vacationing bankers camping on the playa who looked up, saw the symbols of their daily labor being burned in effigy, and had a momentary tingle of regret before going back to their shrooming sessions.