Inside Burning Man

September 20, 2010

Multiple Pages
Inside Burning Man

Burning Man defies easy categorization. Wikipedia describes it as “an annual week-long event held in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada,” but that doesn’t tell you very much.

Burning Man is many things: a post-apocalyptic phantasmagoria, an experiment in radical self-reliance, a modern tribal gathering, a vast open air art gallery, a forum for self-expression, a platform for exhibitionism, a music festival, a great place to get high, an alternative to the quotidian and, for many, a catalyst for much subsequent proselytizing. But how do all these aspects relate to each other and, more importantly, what is it like when you are there?

The Black Rock Desert is in Nevada, about seven hours northeast of San Francisco. It is a huge, utterly flat expanse of compacted white dust (it was here that Thrust SSC set the land speed record in 1997). Rock strewn hills circle this white expanse. 50,000 people come here every year for the first week of September. They create a temporary settlement shaped like a horseshoe. The horseshoe is 6 miles wide and 6 miles deep and has orderly streets separating the tents, RVs, wigwams, marquees, disco tents, and the occasional festival sized stage with lights and sound system. The 3 mile space in the middle of the horseshoe is entirely open. It is known as the ‘playa’ and is dotted with works of art of every conceivable size and style. The installation of these works begins months earlier.

The absence of regulations and the extreme environment create the potential for many kinds of hazards. And yet, over the week that I was there, I saw nothing untoward.

Cars and tents are not allowed on the Playa. The only exception are ‘art cars’ – vehicles ranging from a fully mechanical spider the size of a mini to an enormous pirate’s ship on wheels, complete with three masts and mega sound system. In the middle of the Playa is the huge wooden effigy of a man. The man is burnt at the end of the week.

A striking aspect of Black Rock Desert is the quality of the light. In September the sun is still strong; it reflects off the white dust and floods the playa with extraordinary intensity. The temperatures are high during the day and low at night. There is a surprising absence of other life forms – no flies, no ants, no mosquitoes, nothing. You can leave food outside all day and it will remain untouched.

Other than the 5 mile an hour speed limit for vehicles, there are no restrictions at Burning Man. People choose to make use of this in different ways. Some walk around naked - a hazardous enterprise given the frequent dust storms. Most people’s daytime garb resembles something from Mad Max – a millenarian hybrid of robot and fur-clad caveman. Psychedelic drugs are also popular, although the increased police presence of recent years means that they are increasingly hard to come by at the event itself. Many people come to Burning Man and do not take drugs at all. However, walking across the playa at night and seeing the fantastical shapes of art cars outlined in neon crossing the horizon, it is hard not to think that this event was designed by people on psychedelics for people on psychedelics.

A unique aspect of Burning Man is the absence of all forms of commerce – you cannot buy or sell anything. You are expected to bring enough water to keep yourself alive, and ideally some food, but beyond that everything is gifted. It is an odd experience to wander around the desert at night, only to find yourself haled at by a stranger inviting you to take a seat at his makeshift bar and enjoy one of his cocktails. No one minds if you have come to Burning Man purely as an observer, although most people who return feel that they want to contribute something. During the day there are tents offering everything from healing sessions to couples classes in S&M.

Of course, there is also a fair amount of hokum. I was sharing an RV with my friend James who has just returned from four years in Afghanistan. He thinks he is suffering from PTSD and wanted to visit a healer. I accompanied him to a healing tent and left him to the ministrations of Ken, a grand master of the healing gaze. Ken made all the participants sit in two rows facing each other, then he instructed James to stare into his male partner’s eyes and to locate his femininity side in his partner’s masculinity. While staring at each other, Ken encouraged the participants to concentrate on giving their partner a gift, no matter what: ‘If you feel you wish to give the gift of Kali the Hindu Goddess of Destruction, then do so. As long as you give it as a gift, it is good.’

James became distracted by his partner’s dust-frosted white eyelashes. As a result, he failed to locate his feminine side in his partner’s eyes or to give a gift, of destruction or otherwise. At the end of five minutes of staring, James politely shook his partner’s hand. His partner remarked: ‘Total polarity, the t-shirt says it all.’ Looking down at his t-shirt, James saw a picture of a superhero with the words ‘The Invincible Iron Man’ emblazoned across it.

However, irrespective of Ken and his ilk, Burning Man does raise some serious issues. It is interesting how, when given a high degree of responsibility, people behave responsibly. The absence of regulations and the extreme environment create the potential for many kinds of hazards. And yet, over the week that I was there, I saw nothing untoward. This confirms my belief in a more general principle: the way we treat people determines the way that they behave. Similarly, if we keep telling children that they are irresponsible, or we keep telling people that they are mentally ill, then we effectively prevent them from changing and improving. Of course it’s not black and white, but currently I do not think we have the right balance.

Secondly, it is interesting how the absence of money, the fact that cell phones don’t work, and participation in a shared enterprise, makes people engage with one another in ways that we have all but forgotten. Standing in a queue at midday, strangers freely talk to each other and neither is afraid that the other is about to ask for money. This unusual human dynamic may be the reason why people return time and again. Perhaps it provides modern urban individualists with a sense of community, be it ever so ephemeral.

Finally, it is initially quite disconcerting constantly to be given things for free. It takes some time to still the inner voice which asks, ‘But what do they want from me?’ However, after a while you overcome the feeling of indebtedness and you realize that you do have something to give, namely the grace of receiving joyfully.  After all, that is what makes giving pleasurable.

What would happen if Burning Man lasted for more than a week? How would it cope if there were competition for resources? I don’t know. However, it is a fascinating experience which I would recommend to everyone.


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