The Playa glowed like a flattened, Jesus-free Christmas tree on fire. The cracked desert was filled with noise and shining movement, fanciful creations of freaks and artists, the spitting and exploding light of a dance stage lit with flamethrowers. Despite my fatigue from the day’s drive from Eugene, I couldn’t help but be impressed with how otherworldly it was. The landscape, the lit-upedness of it all, was just neat.
I approached Burning Man with a mix of expectations. On one hand, I was very excited about going to what is essentially one of the biggest parties in the world, a vast, odd collection of all things awesome. What’s more, I was going with Seph and his very cool girlfriend L. Nifty things are always best shared.
On the other hand, my unquenchable skepticism kept acting up, bristling with reflexive spurts of ire at the hippie ethos that seems to float around the thing. (For instance, don’t let anyone ever tell you that Burning Man is ecologically friendly…) On another, third, hand I didn’t know what to expect. I would just check it out, see what was up.
Not that that’s really an option. Everything I’d read about Burning Man emphasized the ideal of complete participation, of having “no spectators.” Not in the sense that all of the art and performances were interactive, but everyone had to do something. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something huge or complicated, but walking around in just jeans and a t-shirt and merely looking at things is not in the spirit of BM. Every single person there is expected to participate in some way, get their freak on, act a bit strange, get into the mindset.
This, I found, is what makes Burning Man so neat. It’s not merely the scale of the event that’s mind-blowing. It’s not the fact that it’s especially large or in such a harsh climate, though that is a bit part of its unique appeal. The thing that makes Burning Man especially incredible is that it is a temporary setting in which different sort of social norms apply. It’s a big swathe of unstructured playtime wherein you can mess with just about everyone and everything there. For instance:
I was walking about on the Playa (that is, the dry lake bed in the Black Rock Desert on which Burning Man is held) alone one day, when all of a sudden I saw a giant slide. It was perhaps sixty feet high and twenty wide, and at any one time perhaps thirty people were either climbing up or going down the thing. At its foot were a collection of large foam blocks to break the fall of the sliders, and several people at the bottom were also chucking them at people who were going down. Of course, I wanted to slide down the thing, but I wondered: Who was in charge? Was there a line? Had a group already claimed the slide, and would I be intruding by climbing onto it? What was the etiquette and protocol? I shook of those thoughts, though, and realized that the protocol was basically “do what thou wilt,” climbed onto the thing, and slid down while going “woo!”
At the foot of the slide a rather large red bus was parked, blasting dance music. The driver was a big butch lesbian dressed as a Catholic priest, and a mostly naked woman lounged on the hood of the vehicle, writhing to the music. Several people were dancing on the bus’ two levels, and I wondered again “what is the protocol for getting on?” And again, I had to remind myself that it was socially acceptable to just climb on it and start dancing.
Now, it may sound like I was overthinking things in those last two examples, but such thoughts and hesitations are valid. How many times have you asked yourself “Ok, how does this work?” or “What do I have to do to get X?” We go through those thoughts all of the time in our daily lives because we want to live in a socially acceptable manner, do things in a socially acceptable way. In general we want to not be (at the least) embarrassed or (at the worst) a total sociopath. Every single day we think “What rules, spoken or unspoken, must I abide by?”
At Burning Man, several of them just aren’t there, and that is simultaneously really odd and a lot of fun. I’ve seen shiny, loud and weird before. Saturday nights in Shibuya and Sundays in Yoyogi Park provided for plenty of that. The upheaval and substitution of social conventions, though, that was the real show. There are almost no monetary transactions in Black Rock City (the temporary community where Burning Man takes place), and that changes the environment fairly dramatically. Two guys came by our camp and just gave us screwdrivers (the drink) no questions asked. A complete stranger gave me a beer. I was given a few memorial trinkets, and obliged several people who asked for hugs. It was awesome. Burning Man is otherworldly in the sense that it is a spectacle, yes, but it is also somewhere where lots of everyday assumptions don’t apply.
Because a complete narrative of what we did there would be tiresome and probably inaccurate, I’ll limit myself to some bullet points of things that I thought were awesome.
Every year a group calling themselves Death Guild reconstructs a Mad Max-style Thunderdome at Burning Man. Just like in the movie, people climb up on the sides of the geodesic dome and shout at the two combatants who are strapped into bouncing harnesses. At Burning Man, the fighters used padded weapons, so unfortunately there as no resorting to chainsaws or spiked hammers. It was all excellent nonetheless, though, particularly in that the goth atmosphere served as an antidote to the hippie love fest that was going on elsewhere. Peace, love, forgiveness, self-expression and all that shit are all well and good, but damn it was nice to see some action. Girls in black corsets, grinding, thrashing guitars, huge shouting dudes bringing the hurt on each other. That was fun. Hippie niceness is okay, but what really got me going was the awesome adrenaline rush of regulated violence.
As much as it seemed to contrast, though, nothing going on at Thunderdome was really “against” the spirit of Burning Man. The goths and metal fans were as free as anyone else to show off what they had, regardless. The hippie ethos is very dominant, but not at all mandatory, and those who “transgressed” it were as welcome as anyone else.
There was also roller derby, which was also awesome and combat-filled.
A large, shiny Buck Rogers-style rocketship jutted up from the Playa, and via a gantry one could go inside and take a look around. The interior was a collection of space-age doodads, shiny buttons, comical alien specimens, blinking lights and screens, and a swiveling captain’s chair at the very top. The artists who’d made the rocket said to nearly everyone there that it would be taking off on Friday night.
“Really?” was the inevitable reply, “you’re going to launch this thing?”
“Oh yes,” they said with an entirely straight face, “we have a plasma engine expect to get it a good two or three feet off the ground.” I’ve got to give them credit- they got everyone talking about their installation, and what they were going to do with it. Lots of people wondered if they were serious about it all or not, and whether that thing was going to rise at all. There was no way that they could actually generate enough thrust. Costs alone would have gotten in the way. I thought for a moment that they might have buried a pneumatic elevator underneath it, but that, too, would have been a huge undertaking.
The day before the launch we were sitting around our camp doing nothing in particular when one of our neighbors, an Australian, started talking to us and the subject of the rocket came up.
“You know they’re going to launch it on Friday, right?” he said.
“Well, that’s what they say,” one of us replied.
“Yeah, well. They got this plasma engine in it. You know what plasma engines do, right? They give the finger to technology, that’s what. That’s what they’re all about. They’re going to fuck every bit of technology here. Watch out for your credit cards. They’re not going to work after that. The plasma, you know- it fucks technology. That’s why all of those Chinook helicopters have been circling around. The military is very interested in what’s going on here, all these Silicon Valley types building weird shit out in the desert. You watch. They’re going to launch that thing.”
(I’d assumed that the Chinooks were circling mainly because we were on protected federal land.)
“It has lots of vents in the side,” I said, “I think they’re just going to do a pyrotechnics thing.”
“Nah. It’s going to launch. You’ll see.”
Listening to this guy, I dearly hoped that he was being extraordinarily sarcastic and dry, though I don’t think that he was. It was my least favorite part of Burning Man, all of the people who believe in absurd things like government conspiracies or auras. The rocket, it turned out, did not really “launch” and didn’t fuck all of the technology in the area (my cards work just fine). The rockteers who built it made it the center of a sizable fireworks display, albeit one that I wasn’t able to catch for a variety of reasons. Sure, I only beat out a crazy conspiracy loony, but it still feels good to be right.
While there were a few attractive naked people about (no, not me- I enjoyed dressing oddly) the vast majority of them were older men. I was a bit perplexed by this at first. Promises of public nudity bring with them adolescent male ideas of firm, nubile, unclad women flitting about the atmosphere clothed only in the admiration of my appreciative eyes.
Okay, I know better than that. But still…
While individuals fitting that idealized description did indeed exist, most of the nudity on display was in the form or rather unappealing, aging, graying man-butt. Talking with Joseph about this, it soon became utterly logical as to why that would be the case. Women are probably less likely to doff all of their clothing than men, what with apprehensions regarding sexual harassment and all. What’s more, most young people (I believe) don’t view nudity as an ideological thing at all. I’ve never met anyone my age who thinks that they’re making some sort of political or social point by taking their clothes off. Those kind of ideals belong to an older generation. When viewed in that light, it’s entirely sensible as to why old, gray dude-balls were more likely to be seen than perky, young lady-butt.
There were two sizable dance clubs at Burning Man, and several small ones. (One of the smaller ones insisted on recitation of poetry before dispensing booze, which was fun.) The setups were amazing, all the more because looking at the sound systems, lasers, projectors, props, etc., I was very cognizant that someone carted all of that stuff into the desert, and would be carting it out pretty soon. One of the large ones, aptly named Opulent Temple, featured no small amount of fire dancers performing amidst the appreciative crowd and beneath of blanket of pulsating lasers. One of the fire dancers actually caught himself on fire, which was good for a laugh. Don’t worry. He was alright. I hope.
These clubs were not provided by the Burning Man organization. Like everything else, they were put together by participants. They obviously took a staggering amount of time and money to put together, and I wondered what the incentives were for the coordinators. The DJs, I imagined, could gain a fair amount of notoriety by playing at Burning Man, and whoever bankrolled this was in for a fair amount of return with regards to reputation and social capital. But, really, this was it. This was the biggest party in the world. If you’re going to run a dance club, if you like electronic music, this was the place to be. I could see some very dedicated rich people doing this sheerly for fun, purely because no party in any city was going to be better than this.
Every year at Burning Man there are two recurring large-scale art installations, both of which are burned at the end of the event. One, of course, is the Man himself. The other is the Temple, whose structure changes every year.
For a temporary structure, it was impressive, a three story high building that resembled a lotus, each panel cut in patterns that reminded me of classical Islamic art. The timbers themselves were strewn with markings, people’s written messages to lost loved ones or other such personal things, all of which would go up in flames on Sunday night. In all honesty, I was surprised at how sincere they all were. My first reaction on seeing all of the heartfelt personal messages was to write something clever, something cutting or sarcastic that would wither the hippie sentiment. Unexpectedly, though, that I couldn’t find any sarcasm or wit written on the timbers. I was surprised as well, when I actually wrote something sincere on the Temple the day before it burned. I suppose it’s easy to write something honest and heartfelt, to get it out of you, when you know that it will be immolated in the near future. It’s like confessing to a stranger, shouting to an empty room, or tearing up one’s nocturnal poetry. Not that I’ve ever done any of those things. Goodness, no…
Saturday night was the big event, the night that the Man would finally go up into flames. There was a brief moment of doubt, though, because of a considerable dust storm. The winds had been calm for most of the week, but that night we could hardly see twenty feet ahead of us. Tents whipped about and the whole of the Playa seemed to be a swirling mass of white and darkness. We hunkered down in a friend’s camp, set up like a bar. I had some rum, and wondered if the storm would subside at all.
It did, though, and nicely. Just before ten we made our way out onto the Playa and saw nearly the whole of Black Rock City’s population focused upon one point. The art cars were all stopped in a giant bright circle around the Man, pumping music and colored lights into the now-calm desert night. Fire dancers gyrated and gamboled in front of the gigantic wooden effigy and all about us people screamed and buzzed with an undefined enthusiasm.
Preceding the burn itself was a fireworks display made all the better by the thumping music and ambient light. People were jumping around in costumes just as they had been earlier in the week, but now there was a sense of communal anticipation and excitement. The fireworks popped, and suddenly a massive explosion of flame flung itself upwards from beneath the Man. The effigy and all of the wood around him had been licked by flames and heat, and soon the Man himself was on fire.
And he took a damn long time to burn. According to one of my campmates, who’d been to Burning Man the year before, the Man last year took only a little while to burn and fall. This time, though, he and all of the wood around him were on fire for a good half hour before everything collapsed. I was expecting a sort of final fireball or explosion, but it never really came. Instead, the Man and everything around him smoldered in the fashion of a gigantic communal campfire, falling only after taking its sweet time to burn.
Hours later, I rode a bike out to the site of the Man by myself, and walked about amidst the embers. There were people there, sitting down in a heat that I couldn’t tolerate for long, and no one was really talking. One guy did pound on a drum arhythmically, and other people sat off to the side, warming themselves against the huge, orange coals.
The fact that the Man (and the Temple) are both burned, I think, is rather essential to their appreciation. With both structures, I would have been not nearly as impressed with either of them had I not known that they’d been temporary. The fact that a group of artists and engineers can build something that they know will only be appreciated within a given time period is something that I find rather inspirational, a word that I use very sparingly.
Things are not meaningful because they are endless or immutable. They’re not significant because they’ll always be there. Things, people, jobs, relationships, works of art, conversations, whatever can be immensely important and wonderful even if they only last a couple of days. Or hours. The Man, the Temple, and indeed all of Black Rock City are gone now, and that doesn’t invalidate, at all, the temporary experience that they imparted on me or anyone else who was there. If anything the brevity makes me appreciate them all the more.
I’m back now, in Portland. The other day while I was on my bike I saw a pair of goth kids, leaning against a wall, smoking and surrounded by less radical Portlanders. Not an unusual sight. I was immediately reminded of Death Guild and their huge camp and Thunderdome setup, at home in an environment that was unconditionally accepting of whatever they thought was awesome, whatever, on some level worked. I like it that those sort of environments exist. As cynical as I might act about hippie ideals, it was absolutely spectacular being in an environment that unlimited, that unrestrained and free. If I can ever attend again (no idea if that will happen) I know that I’ll be even more into it. I’ll be bringing an art project, or at least a really nifty outfit or camp, with me. Something definitively mine, something that I can throw into that brilliant and beautiful insanity on the Playa.