Burning Man

Wow!  Just 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.

The Burn!  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. 

With those extinguished, it was dark and the crowd started chanting, “burn”.  Momentarily, 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 departing.

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.

Click for bigger images

Some of the stages

Cormac, being reborn
Cormac, being reborn
Childhood stage
Seeking knowledge
The mystery of knowledge
Monkey Temple
Monkey Temple
The Burn
The Burn


The Playa
The Playa
arch of forgotten promises
Arch of Forgotten Promises,
In person, this was so large that you didn't get the idea at first, which made it all the more compelling
Death Bed
"No one can [?] say they will still be living tomorrow"
this was a fitting use of the desert, and an interesting reflection on the Burning Man theme
Art cars
Art cars
computer grave
Computer grave 


cormac in burn ring
Cormac in burn ring,
we were desperate for costumes, so we used the only thing we had in our camping kit: emergency blankets
Cross Toss
Toss Cross,
this was on the way to the WUB contest


Furby gets a surprise at Come Play with our Toys
Marge Simpson
Marge Simpson
members of Weird Underwear Brigade
Butt Painting Contest t
Butt-Painting Contest
butt painting judging
Judging the butt-painting contest
Bow Tie
Bow Tie,
keep looking, it's there
afternoon stroll
Afternoon stroll
Critical Tit
Critical Tit
technicolor cheerleaders
Technicolor cheerleaders
red and greent
Dutch, Red & green
Battle bot
Battle bot 
Zip line
Zip line
Chaotic swing
Chaotic swing
Dual Swing
Dual swing