when I thought there was nothing new under the sun, I finally made
it to Burning Man, with my friend Cormac. I’ve been meaning to go
for years, just on the theory it was a big party, but something
always fouled my plans. I
wish I had made the effort earlier.
Make the effort. The themes were in some ways contrary to things I normally
care about or even believe in, but it still worked for me. I wonder how long it will last, and what previous years were
like. If anything, it
seems to get a little more civilized every year, as a necessary
result of growing. I
think 24K people came this year.
My only regret is that there can only be one first time.
It’s a mix of big party,
rave, desert adventure, exotic/erotic show, “alternative
community”, “no spectators, only participants”, and art show. I
met a fellow who traveled from Amsterdam just for the event. He
said "There's nothing this wild in the Netherlands."
The beauty of it is that it manages to be more than just the
sum of the parts; it gels to a certain extent.
Isolated in Black Rock Desert, which is an utterly flat and
lifeless ancient lakebed, with not a bug, weed, telephone, or cell
tower anywhere, Burning
Man creates a symbolic separation from the rest of the world, where
it is something special for a week, something transient that you
cannot keep but must experience while there.
The intended spirit does work for the week, where most people
go out of their way to be helpful, give something away, provide some
artistic statement, or just be unusually friendly.
There is no driving after arrival, no sales of anything, nor any
display of commercial logos. Participants
are even required to cover up corporate logos on rental trucks.
One day, I wandered out with a Wilson gym shirt on (a
dreadfully poor thing to wear there, but I came unprepared for
costumes), and a fellow with a roll of “I Love You” stickers
came up to cover the “W” with a heart symbol.
The organizers (and they try to hide that there is any
central organization at all, as this is supposed to be an exercise
in spontaneous anarchy, which it is to a certain extent) permit only
the exception of selling ice and unbranded tea, coffee, lemonade,
and “electrolyte beverage” and then only at one place.
Porta-potties are provided.
Otherwise, you are on your own for everything.
Bartering is encouraged though.
I remember the one guy trading chewing gum for condoms.
One interesting artifact of "no sales allowed" is that people
didn’t need liquor licenses since they were giving away drinks.
You were welcome to drink as much as you wanted anywhere you
wanted. That was such a relief from the normal absurdity of never
being able to drink in public.
The theme this year was the Seven Ages of Man,
which by their count are: infancy, childhood, love, battle,
knowledge, death, and enlightenment, each of which was memorialized
in a particular exhibit, Primal Mother/cradle, playground, chapel,
coliseum, maze, mausoleum, and Burning Man.
Concentric “streets” ringing the central playa were named
similarly. You got a
passport for each of the stages of life as you completed it.
Some were relatively easy, and some rather difficult (or at
least time consuming). Upon
completion of the first six, you could finally reach enlightenment,
which meant getting to climbing in Burning Man, before the burn, and
thus experience the once-ever glory of what you learn at Burning
Man. Okay, in reality
some of these are just fun. But
you could make something of it if you wanted.
Primal Mother was a large uterus/play pen with large inflated
balls to play with. You
were supposed to begin your journey of self-discovery by being
symbolically born and walking out of one of the 5’ vaginas (see
the picture of Cormac). Childhood
was various playground toys, adjusted to adults.
I particularly liked the jungle gym with 3’ steps.
You just had to understand its meaning from its relative
location on your journey. You can see that as I child I hadn’t quite learned to dress
yet. The chapel was
closed when we visited unfortunately.
In the daytime it looked like an odd amalgam of superglued
soda bottles, just randomly juxtaposed shards of plastic debris.
But at night, it was lit from the inside and from a
sufficient distance the shards composed various scenes of life, with
the “stained glass” windows being distinct from the walls,
actually quite impressive they pulled it off.
We didn’t win any battles at the Coliseum. You could also serve as judge or make trophies for the
winners (we didn’t get that done).
Next was knowledge.
This was symbolized with a walking maze where you wandered
around between sheets of plywood looking for the way up to the
second floor and greater sight beyond.
On the walls in the maze were various apropos sayings, and
various dead end rooms, including the room of mirrors (where you
only see yourself instead of greater things?), the room of lost
hopes where you wrote a note on the wall about something that had
gone wrong. From the
top, you take a fireman’s pole back down.
I particularly like the windows cut through the maze. You can see to the inside, to your goal, but yet you don’t
know how to get there. The
one picture is of me on the inside.
The outside wall of the whole maze is a hieroglyphic
representation of progress through life.
The picture is of the back wall, representing different
sexual choices. Next
was the Monkey Temple. This
was a 3-D maze. Each
floor was about 4’, so you had to crawl. There were various
trapdoors, poles, turrets, ramps, and sliding floors to navigate.
I was laughing just at crawling through it.
Finally, was the Mausoleum.
There is no describing this.
Just look at the picture.
Inside, they provided piles of pencils and encouraged people
to write on the walls, mostly memorials.
Some people even stapled up pictures of loved ones they had
lost and wrote something below the picture.
You couldn’t help but regard it as a serious moment.
There were many interesting things, the Thunderdome,
the hypnotic light shows, the 15' burning
heart, the Burning
Scouts (you could earn demerit
badges at Burning Man), Satan's mud wrestling, far too many to
describe here, before your eyes as reader glaze over.
I’ve attached a few select pictures, a couple of which need
explanation. The dual
swing had no chain running to the central axis.
Instead, each seat rotated about its own little axis under
pedal power. So long as both riders pedaled synchronously, each chair
would be overbalanced in just such a way as to make the whole thing
spin, a nice metaphor in cooperation.
The chaotic swing is like the little spinning dolphin toy.
Then off-axis secondary swing has chaotic momentum transfer
with the main swing. You
can be moving quickly one moment, stopped the next and your partner
is swinging wildly. Trying
to control it is difficult.
At the risk of creating a spoiler, I must describe this.
This was the moment that brought the rest of it together.
As unreligious as I am, I couldn’t help appreciating that
this was a carefully orchestrated pagan ritual that drew one into
looking for some deeper meaning and feeling part of some mystic
experience. The weather
was perfect for it Saturday night, calm, no dust in the air, and a
comfortable temperature. It
was a surreal experience, compared to the previous night’s
dust-blown and relatively empty playa, crowded tonight with people,
many costumed with light sticks and others near smaller fires,
pouring on various wooden artifacts.
The Coliseum, Wedding Chapel, and Maze were all lit nearby
with Esplanade (street circling the playa) making the final
encompassing arc of brighter lights.
The firelight and dim, indirect, colored light lent the whole
an atmosphere of mystery. The
mass of thousands of visible but indistinct people in the crowd
added tension. 70' Burning
Man was framed in the center.
There was a circle of
lights in the sand that was the closest approach.
People sat behind them, then further back rows stood.
They had two burning ember-beds on either side, within the
circle. Almost spooky,
but totally appropriate drum music was playing, adding to the feel
of it being a ritual. The
poi dancers lit their balls and spread out around the inner circle.
They were dressed in leather pants, leather halter-tops, and
long gloves, all black, with the flaming poi balls swinging about on
nearly invisible (in the dark) tethers in various circles and
figure-eights that seemed sure to tangle.
The effect was as if the balls were magically orbiting in a
dance with the dancers. The
outfits added to the pagan ritual effect.
Burning Man was lit with pastel-colored lights behind the
more ominous orange of poi fire.
The whole of it was hypnotic and added to the suspense.
I stood amazed while watching.
At the end of the poi
dance, they brought out the flamethrowers.
There were four immediately in front of us.
It was difficult to see them clearly in the light, but they
stood maybe 10’ tall with some slanted shielding around the torch
itself, along with some grillwork, making them look like medieval
weapons. The flamethrowers mixed shots of serial bursts down the line
interspersed with bursts in unison, as if they were a musical
instrument being played, but a threatening one, tuning up for its
denouement. The flames
shot vertically but also spread everywhere during the shots, running
down the shielding, the poles, and on to the ground, leaving
everything constantly burning. It was scary how far those flames would go, and that they had
big propane tanks just beneath them.
For the finale, they opened them all higher than before and
sent four jets 30’ (?) into the air, so intensely the crowd cowed
to the ground and I had to cover my face to take the heat.
extinguished, it was dark and the crowd started chanting,
small fireworks ignited at the base of the pedestal and Burning
Man’s feet. Larger
ones followed. It
seemed to convey achievement, or glory, basking Burning Man.
Then the fire proper started at Burning Man’s feet.
It seemed to me to be a continuance of the fireworks.
As the fire rose, more fireworks joined it, shooting through
it. The electrical
lights went out. The
flames went in a steep chimney from the base to the tip with a
crescendo of fireworks directly overhead.
I was an amazing rush to be so close to the flame and
directly under the fireworks that were its fingers going further.
The smoke put a dark ceiling overhead that could be seen even
at night. Black-smoke
tornadoes, solidly connected from the cloud to the ground, spun out
of the pyre and headed for the crowd.
That was all part of the metaphorical energy of it being
dissipated, and served to animate the whole as if it were a spirit
The frame stood for a
few minutes until the right arm fell.
A few minutes later the body joined it.
It was part horror at seeing something majestic, as it lit
the center, held the focus, and made the theme of BRC, destroyed.
It was part spookiness at sharing a quasi-religious
experience. It was part
exhilaration, as it seemed not so much a death, but ascension.
The flames went upward with the fireworks and the spirit in
the moment with them. On
a previous day, I saw a sticker that said “Life is temporary, so
should art be.” I
took that ultimately to be the point, that the end must come,
whatever is shared at BRC is a moment out of time, before we all
return from it. The
desert will return to being the desert.
Burning Man spent his time well and left in glory.
At the moment it
fell, it was a race forward.
As close as we were to the front, there was no stopping,
other people would have run over you.
I ran forward with the crowd to the fire.
Even several rows back, there was no choice but to keep
moving in a counterclockwise circle, with the more inner rows moving
faster. It was a
crush difficult to get out of.
Everyone wanted to approach the fire, but then it was too
hot. I had my moment of an opening at the front.
It was an amazing thing, the flames were way over my head
making a solid wall that I couldn’t see through and so bright that
everything else was drowned out to black.
Somehow that had to be the energy for the greatness of the
moment and not just a huge fire.
It was scary because things would explode in the fire or big
pieces would fall outward; the crowd would try to retreat but having
nowhere to go would just start to knock down people behind them.
I never hit the ground though.
The fire died only a
bit when the artwork started showing up.
The art was meant to be transient, there for Burning Man
only, to be appreciated in that context, and then gone.
People were pouring everything on the fire.
It’s still hard to
characterize the whole. There
are many possible messages, the fate of death, nihilism, communal
spirit. As Cormac said,
it’s something of a blank slate for people to write their own
meaning on to. I’m left with seeing it as a statement of transience, that
good things come and go, but have their place, which should be
valued for what it is and not mourned for what it cannot be.
The Burning Man, like BRC, is for a moment, then gone, leaving
the desert as it was. Even the beautiful night scenes with flame,
lasers, and whirling lights, were hard to capture on film and to be
experienced as they were there, not to be kept in any physical way.