This is a slightly longer version of a piece that was originally published at The Point, a Chicago-based print journal on contemporary life and culture. It will also be printed in Issue 6, and here’s the Issue 6 Annotated Table Of Contents.
* * *
When I wake up at the hotel in Reno, my memories are a messy pastiche. I reach for an image to encapsulate my review of Burning Man, but everything I grasp feels like a flat cliché. Dancing beside a fluorescent art deco bus and a fire-belching metal octopus. Bonding with a new friend by solving a maze’s secret doors. Randomly encountering a fake film crew composed entirely of trenchcoated noir buffs, who welcome me into their game. Accepting, with gratitude, the recitation of a poem about self-awareness and another about kissing. Walking to the edge of a desert dance floor to stretch and greet the dawn with an exhausted grin.
Each of these are all of it, and yet the smallest piece. So I’ll start at the beginning.
* * *
I am in a garage with a neuroscientist, a sales executive, a teacher, a bike co-op manager, and some dude whose deal I don’t know. Me, I’m a feminist sex writer specializing in S&M and moonlighting as a new media consultant. We’re loading a truck with toolboxes, barrels, bicycles, and more. This camp’s theme is watermelons; the garage is strewn with watermelon umbrellas, and we pack in a bike rack painted to look like a giant watermelon slice. Unknown Deal Dude doesn’t recognize it for a full minute. “Ohhh! It’s supposed to look like a watermelon!”
“Maybe that’s a sign that the theme has become too abstract,” I say to Bike Co-op Manager.
“Maybe it’s a sign that it’s become abstract enough,” he says serenely.
I wander into the back and pick up a plastic bag full of sequined watermelon pins. “Where did these come from?” I ask the teacher. She shrugs. In the corner, someone is wrapping a cooler packed with dry ice in a Mylar space blanket. The plan, apparently, is to transport an ice cream cake to the desert. Apparently, there will also be many watermelons.
The executive is “working from home” during the 40-hour drive, using a batch of car chargers and a cellular uplink. As he clicks away on his laptop, we discuss the philosophy of social networking sites; the neuroscientist’s latest research on rat brains, and her anxieties about handling her undergraduate mentees; the people in our lives who we wish we hadn’t lost touch with; the ethics of eating human meat; plus the spiritual usage of psychedelic drugs.
I learn a new phrase: “thinky thoughts.” The co-op manager tells me that it describes “thoughts one has on acid that seem really deep, and are.”
A few hours in, we pull up at the “World’s Biggest Truck Stop.” (Their words, not mine.) I wander through the place with Unknown Deal Dude. We are floored and astonished by this culture clash. I am so floored that I text my best girlfriend.
Me: Sold here: wolf and horse t-shirts; confederate flags, “don’t tread on me” snake flags, “mess with the best die like the rest” US marine flags; John Wayne DVDs; auto tags for “redneck girl”; infinite self help books
Her: I’VE BEEN THERE OMG
Me: Is there any vegan food?
Me: Fritos it is!
Me: Dude, on the way out I noticed the door says “support independent truckstops.”
I emerge, slightly shell-shocked. “That place is confusing,” I say to Bike Co-op Manager.
He grins. “Confusion is an important state of mind.”
* * *
Burning Man began in 1986 when the founder Larry Harvey decided, on a whim, to Burn a wooden Man on a San Francisco beach. Five years later, Harvey had acquired some dedicated co-conspirators and the event had morphed into a bigger, artier free-for-all in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Twenty years after that, it’s an internationally-famous camping-out festival that drew over 50,000 attendees in 2012.
I first heard about it as an Internet junkie in the 90s; one of my online friends enthused about the explosions and gun usage, another about the drugs. Apparently, when the Burner population got too large and a basic “no gun” rule was instituted, some folks felt this was an unacceptable infringement of their freedoms that made it not worth going anymore. But plenty continued to attend, and the sheer size of the crowd led to further mild regulations and infrastructure. This included the development of a circular layout with street signs, a medical station, a Department of Mutant Vehicles, a post office, radio stations, an airport, etc. The year 2000 marked the creation of the Temple, which became one of the most important structures: a space to meditate, reflect, and mourn loss. The temporary city of Burning Man — which is only fully-realized for a single week per year — is called Black Rock City.
In 2004, Larry Harvey tried to pin down Burner culture by laying out “ten principles.” These are:
Radical Inclusion: Anyone is invited and welcome.
Gifting and Decommodification: The event is devoted to “unconditional gift-giving.” Thou shalt not engage in commercial transactions, sponsorships, advertising, or barter.
Radical Self-Reliance: “Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.”
Radical Self-Expression: Do as thou wilt, but don’t hurt anyone.
Communal Effort and Civic Responsibility: Collaborate, cooperate, and take care of each other. Oh, and don’t break the law.
Leave No Trace: Don’t hurt the earth, and especially not the federally-protected environment of the Black Rock Desert.
Participation: “We make the world real through actions that open the heart.”
Immediacy: “No idea can substitute for this experience.”
There are critiques to be launched. So many critiques. Perhaps those of you who share my Advanced Degree In Social Justice Snippiness, claws honed by hundreds of Internet catfights, spotted critiques in my first few paragraphs. For example, while Burners may Leave No Trace upon the surface of the desert, an awful lot of fossil fuels are burned to get there. Scarce resources are used when — say — transporting an ice cream cake in a dry ice freezer. And my spidey sense for “Third World exploitation” was tweaked by those cheap, beautiful, mass-produced sequined watermelon pins.
Plus, the Burning Man organization charges for tickets, which arguably puts a cramp in Radical Inclusion. To be fair, the event has enormous costs to cover, like a $750,000 land usage permit. There are also “low-income” tickets available for a mere $160 apiece (most 2012 tickets ranged from $240-$420), but the bigger individual costs are equipping oneself and getting there. You can already see certain demographics represented in the crew I drove out with — and in our reaction to the World’s Biggest Truck Stop. All my campmates had degrees from prestigious universities, and included a doctor and a Google engineer. Also: I can count the number of people of color I met on one hand.
According to 2010 statistics from the Burning Man census, 20 percent of Black Rock City makes over $100,000 per year (compared to 6 percent of the USA’s general population). A bit over 30 percent of the city makes under $30,000 (compared to a bit over 50 percent of the general population). As a writer, I myself wouldn’t have gone if my journey weren’t heavily subsidized and I hadn’t been given a free ticket by generous, well-heeled friends. And let’s face it: I may not be at my friends’ earning level, but I’m still in their social class. Offering me that access isn’t nearly as Radically Inclusive as offering it to Joe the Plumber would be. But here we have the perennial problem of class segregation: none of us know Joe the Plumber.
Burning Man came from San Francisco, and to San Francisco doth most attendees return. 1986-2012 has seen San Francisco shift from hippie beach town and radical sexuality haven to Silicon Valley boom times. If a bomb hit Black Rock City, then the Valley would need a new crop of CEOs. My understanding is that even the art of Burning Man reflects this evolution. The hippie and radical sex elements remain, but attendees who have watched for ten years say it’s shinier now, costlier, with an “engineered” feel to it.
A worthy comparison might be the super-hippie Rainbow Gathering, which stemmed from a late-60s San Francisco group and first came together in 1972. The Gathering moves from forest to forest each year, is free to attend, does not have a single leader at the helm, and is considerably more working-class than Burning Man. There’s less art at the Gathering and more environmental issues; the Burning Man organization purchases a permit that helps the government deal with its impact on federal land, something the Rainbow Gathering has apparently resisted. On the other hand, the Gathering seems to help genuinely down-and-out folks, like marginalized homeless kids.
With all that said: our Advanced Degrees In Social Justice Snippiness are important, but if I lay mine aside for a moment, I can’t help liking Burning Man. A lot of things are just plain cool, like the art. I love the whimsy of bringing an ice cream cake, even though it uses lots of resources. But most importantly, despite my considerable grumpy skepticism, the festival keeps surprising me.
* * *
Our driving crew pulls ridiculous shifts and we nap in the back of the van when we’re tired, refusing to stop, like teenagers. I’ve got the last shift driving, but everyone’s awake as we pass into cloud-grey desert with steel-blue mountains behind it. I’ve only attended once before — 2010 — so I keep quiet as veteran Burners note landmarks, like the guy selling “Indian tacos” with a handwritten sign by the side of the road. Last stop before Black Rock City is Gerlach, which Wikipedia describes as a “hamlet.” Population: less than 200.
The main watermelon camp organizer applied for Early Access passes so our crew could enter the gates of Black Rock City and build some stuff before the event officially begins. We turn off the road soon after Gerlach, and our tires instantly kick up dust on the playa — the ancient dried-out lakebed that forms the Black Rock Desert. Playa dust is a phenomenon unto itself, permeating every aspect of life in Black Rock City. Absent unusually wet conditions, the dust swirls and eddies at every turn. It whitens dark garments, chokes bike chains, corrodes electronics, and occasionally slams the city in blinding storms that can last for hours.
Burners carry goggles and masks and scarves, but the dust still clots eyes and throats. Playa dust is dry, weirdly sticky, and highly alkaline; overexposed skin can crack unless it gets moisturizer and lemon baths. Despite my best efforts to filter my air, I contracted pleurisy this year (a lung ailment). Two years ago, I got a sinus infection. As for hair, unless it’s braided, the wind and dust can convert it to dreadlocks in days. The term of art is “playafied.”
Obviously, there’s no water in the desert. There’s also no food — and none is available for sale, because the Center Camp of Black Rock City sells only café drinks and ice. (Most proceeds are donated to charity.) It’s barely possible to find Internet or cell phone network access; since I can’t count on it, I put up an “out of town” email response before I left. My campmates and I brought everything we need to survive — and will dispose of it, cleanly, afterwards. (The one exception is that the Burning Man organization provides ranks of Port-A-Potties.) Sunblock is crucial; the day is very hot. The night is very cold. The elevation is 4,000 feet, and it’s normal to spend the first 24 hours queasy as the body adjusts. The common cold gets passed around like candy.
Building the city is a not a minor task. Teams of volunteers start big projects like the Temple several weeks in advance. This year, the Temple was designed by David Best, who also designed the first temple in 2000. The 2012 version is an awe-inspiring, multi-tiered, Asian-looking structure in a courtyard 150 feet by 150 feet. Each piece is machine-cut, gorgeously intricate, like wooden filigree. Some production costs are defrayed by the Burning Man organization; Burners have also donated tens of thousands of dollars. Like the Man and much of the other art, the Temple will ultimately burn.
After we arrive, I help my friends at the watermelon camp set up for a while. Through a haze of dust and exhaustion, we hammer down stakes and page through the Black Rock City guide, where different camps have listed themselves and their offerings. The sales executive says, “Hey guys, here’s a challenge: find the weirdest type of yoga class.” We settle on Emotional Freedom Yoga.
There are relatively tame events like tequila lounges or body painting or meditation or mask making, and more extreme ones like Double Penetration: Learn To Make Yourself Airtight. The musical emphasis is electronic, but events range from jazz to goth/industrial to A Cappella Dubstep. Oh, and karaoke, which I end up doing for five hours straight one day. (Don’t judge.) There are thinky events: lectures on basic physics or international charity organizations, or Stand-Up Philosophy. Science-fictional ideas abound. I am transfixed by a lecture on cryonics, which is delivered by someone who seriously works in that field. Afterwards, I say to the speaker: “Do you think about Egyptian pharaohs a lot? You must think of them, like, constantly.”
“Er… I could,” he responds, and pointedly turns to another questioner.
Some camps are kind of like social services, such as the camp that does Coffee & Aspirin every morning. Or the Hiney Hygiene Station, where a polite and delicate gentleman will gladly don gloves and swab down your chafed nether regions. Not to mention the Human Carcass Wash, where people are trained to wash each other using a minimum of water and a maximum of respect: the event is not just a bath, it’s a workshop on how to deal nicely with other people’s personal boundaries. Some camps serve food or give other gifts, like Black Rock City postcards. And then there’s Career Ending Footage: “Hate your crummy job but too pussy to quit? Get caught in compromising situations in our Career Ending Footage office.”
There are also countless S&M classes, and several camps devoted to educating folks about polyamory (open relationships). I have friends and professional connections at some of them, and I keep meaning to stop by, but over the course of the week I never get around to it. I don’t even make it to the class on jalapeño fisting, although I must admit I’ve never done that before. In fact, I end up attending exactly zero of the listed daytime events, except the one serving vegan coconut ice cream.
When sunset deepens the sky over the watermelon camp, I travel several blocks to find the friends I’ll be camping with myself. Some are old friends, and some are new; my camp is only 15 people, and we’re in such close proximity that we’re bound to bond. My campmates have been on the playa for several days and have built shady hammock havens, a kitchen and a parlor. Just as importantly, they’ve done a lot of work on the camp art project. Pipe Dream is a twenty-foot-tall, two-ton, cube-shaped steel lattice of pipes; each is the width of an arm and capable of bearing many people’s weight. It’s basically a giant cubic jungle gym. I feel lucky that I know artistic, clever engineers as I climb to the center of Pipe Dream and help assemble a streamlined chandelier.
Pipe Dream. Photo credit to arbitragery.
From the top of Pipe Dream, we gaze over the playa and the developing city. The streets are lined with teahouses and cinemas; everything lights up at night. There are lots of geodesic domes and, less romantically, RVs. The Man stands at the center atop a structure several stories tall. Most everything becomes more enormous and fantastical toward that looming figure.
We can’t see it all from here, but I’ll discover it throughout the week: a camp whose front is painted like a giant Tetris display; a roller derby with disco music; a life-size ship, internal shelves stocked with books and bottles and lanterns, more intricate than a movie set, which appears to be “sinking” sideways into the playa; a full-size plywood maze with ladders, secret doors, and misleading signs. This year’s most political art project comprises several huge, satirical Wall Street buildings with logos like “Chaos Manhattan” and “Bank of UnAmerica.” When they’re burned, the project makes headlines from Huffington Post to Business Insider.
There’s a kind of stereotypical Burner fashion sense that meshes gender-bending, raver sparkles and playa practicality. I find myself thinking, Oh, there’s another man in a tutu with a many-pocketed belt and pink dreadlocks woven with LEDs. There are plenty of exceptions, though, and in the streets and plazas and vast open space at the city’s center, some Burners wear horse heads while others wear evening gowns. Or t-shirts. It’s all good.
Those who feel tired of walking or biking can jump on a passing art car, which is usually easy because the speed limit is 5 miles per hour. In order to be allowed through Black Rock City, cars must be suitably whimsical and approved by the Department of Mutant Vehicles. Sometimes people just decorate existing cars or buses, but they are often far more ambitious. There’s a car that looks just like a Western saloon, and several shaped like giant cupcakes. There’s a magic carpet rippling a foot above the road, wheels hidden by tasseled fringe. My favorite art car is an enormous crouching dragon, each scale lined with red lights that occasionally shimmer blue. That one belches fire, of course, much like the tentacles of the rearing octopus-shaped car built from garbage cans. At night, when Black Rock City becomes dominated by techno clubs, many art cars boast DJs. (For my money — haha, see what I did there? — the best DJ set this year was a collaboration from Dr. Toast and DJ Ganucheau.)
* * *
The religious right is obviously displeased about Burning Man. The most intense online rant calls the festival “Satan’s Birthday.” Its Christian author goes on to assert that Burning Man is to blame for the stock market crash plus various natural disasters because God is punishing us, etc. Lucifer is laughing at our self-immolation, he says.
I was raised Unitarian, so this kind of imagery presumably doesn’t resonate with me like it does for those with more traditional upbringings. But I discover it burrowing into my mind one night as I bike along the playa, weaving through hellish glowing clouds of dust, surrounded by topless revelers. LEDs flash, neon burns, everyone is wearing lights. Fire blooms everywhere I turn: fire dancers, fire sculptures. In 1996, the Burning Man theme was actually based on Dante’s Inferno, and one of the founders played Satan. In 2007, Burner artists exploded 900 gallons of jet fuel and 2,000 gallons of liquid propane from an oil derrick, creating a mushroom cloud 300 feet high. (Perhaps ironically, the piece was intended to raise consciousness about environmental issues. Some environmental activists were perturbed.)
Next to a huge dance-club geodesic dome, I run into a man who I once met for a date in San Francisco. He has an elegant face, moves with perfect grace, and is so smoothly expressive that I can’t bring myself to trust him. But I like him anyway — he’s got a quick mind and does interesting technological charity work.
He’s also got a way with his hands: he digs them into my back, and I breathe out slowly. Flutter my eyes closed against the pain. “The way you react when I play with you is interesting,” he says. “Other women sigh with relief, or they ask me to go softer. But you hiss, like you’ve been dropped in hot water.”
This particular dance-club dome has nets at the top: you can climb a tall ladder up the side, lie down and observe the dancers below, with nothing holding you but string. There’s also a slide, and my graceful friend convinces me to try it. Naked terror freezes me in place when I reach the top. I wonder if I could survive an accidental fall. I’m shaking. I can’t bring myself to slide down.
I take a deep breath, look out across the blazing dusty playa, at the brilliant art cars and installations lighting the horizon. The Man, outlined in neon, shines stark white against the night. I’m thrilled and extravagantly afraid. I think of Nero fiddling while Rome burned. I think, again, of damnation. I recently read about a study that found countries with a higher rate of belief in Hell have lower crime rates; the same does not hold true for belief in Heaven.
“No rush,” says my partner below me, “it’s not like there are lots of people coming up below us on the ladder,” so I force myself onto the slide. At the bottom, I’m giddy with relief and throw myself into his arms. “It’s extraordinary up there, isn’t it?” he says. “Sitting on those nets is sitting on a thousand years of human history. Centuries of physics went into designing that dome.”
“That’s a nice way to imagine it,” I say.
“How do you imagine it?”
I make a moue. “I don’t want to think about it right now,” I say. “But I find myself imagining the history in terms of war and suffering. The imperious global context allowing us to build a desert hallucination, while children starve in Africa.” In another time and place, I’d feel self-conscious about my pretentious words. Right now I bury my face in his shoulder to banish my thoughts. Then I gaze at him, caught by the exquisitely balanced planes of his face. “Do you ever worry whether you’re an angel or a demon?” I ask.
“I don’t think about these questions the way you do,” he says, putting his hands on me and clenching them. I arch into his grasp and whine a little. His eyelids go heavy, like a cat’s.
“I’m going to call you Mephistopheles,” I say.
He smiles. Lets go. My body feels abandoned; I wasn’t ready for the pain to stop. “That’s a long nickname,” he says.
“Mephisto,” I say. “For short.”
“Maybe I’ll get it tattooed on my knuckles,” he says, and clenches his fists so he can playfully count off the fingers. “M-e-p-h-i-s-t-o.”
* * *
A review of Burning Man would be incomplete without discussing drugs, especially hallucinogens. The event has ancestors in the San Francisco hippie scene, and is often compared to a giant rave; both subcultures are heavily associated with drugs. Most Burning Man art fits the genre of “visionary art,” which Wikipedia describes as derived from “symbolism, surrealism and psychedelic art.” Some of the more stereotypical examples I saw in 2012 were paintings by Android Jones and Alex Grey at the Fractal Nation camp; they were placed under a color-shifting light that dramatically changed their color balance, moment to moment. One piece showed an exploding head with fiery eyes. Another showed ornamented skeletal and muscular systems. When red-lit, they almost seemed to be different pictures from the blue-lit versions. (The picture to the right is from Android Jones’ website, and was painted in honor of Burning Man 2012.)
I should note that plenty of people come to Burning Man and don’t do drugs. For one thing, it’s against the law, as the Burning Man website and Survival Guide will remind you. There are police at the event and some are undercover. Some attendees allege that there are more police this year, in fact — perhaps because Burning Man is more popular than ever. Many Burners content themselves with alcohol, which is both plentiful and obviously legal. (And no, I don’t understand why alcohol occupies this privileged cultural space, despite being described by prestigious medical journal The Lancet as eight times more dangerous than ecstasy.)
Speaking of drug studies, there’s been a resurgence in recent years. For example: findings have documented the ways that carefully-used hallucinogens can help with mind-body problems like addiction or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It’s not just researchers talking about them, either; when Apple founder Steve Jobs died, his New York Times obituary noted that he once described LSD as “one of the 2-3 most important things he had done in his life.” Psychedelic drugs have never been mainstream, but we seem to have reached a pendulum-swing in the cycle where they’re becoming less feared and reviled. Perhaps this is part of why Burning Man, too, has become a bigger deal in the mainstream. Of course, it’s probably more to do with its current connections to wealth and privilege and hyper-fashionable tech companies.
(Speaking of which, let’s take a moment to imagine what would happen to a hypothetical drugged-out festival mainly composed of people of color. I’ll content myself with a single statistic: African-Americans use and sell drugs at similar rates to whites, but are thirteen times as likely to be arrested for doing so. Thirteen. Times. Have I convinced you that Black Rock City is built on privilege yet?)
I don’t personally believe hallucinogen use should be an irresponsible free-for-all with no regard for potential consequences — any more than alcohol use should be. Or Ritalin for that matter. For every Steve Jobs or Hunter S. Thompson, there’s a Charlie Sheen or a Cat Marnell. And even the “enlightenment” drugs — e.g. acid and mushrooms and ecstasy — are not in themselves a path to enlightenment. Yet when mixed with safe spaces and focused exploration and new ideas, they appear effective for some people. (Admittedly, the line between acid as a spiritual guide and acid as a party drug can wear thin.)
I don’t know how safe it is to request illegal drugs from random Burners; I’ve never tried. Conversation is easy to come by, though. One event describes itself as: “Two nurses and a shrink share their knowledge about the true benefits and consequences of drug use. Come as you are and learn ways of ensuring that your drug experiences are fun and positive.”
While watching a sunset from Pipe Dream, I talk to one guy who nonchalantly calls himself “very accustomed” to LSD. He tells me that, “There’s Burner art you’ll never understand if you don’t take acid. Burning Man has refined the genre — art that causes aesthetic pleasure mingled with a ‘What the fuck?’ moment.”
When I ask for an experiential description, he says, “Acid goes like this: first, my stomach rebels and food becomes puzzling. I know it’s really kicking in when lights and fire become exceptionally interesting, and my skin gets happy and sensitive. Then my creativity leaps. I make connections faster than usual. I find many new metaphors. Hallucinogens never make me see things that aren’t actually there; I merely put the world together differently.”
A lot of people talk about Burning Man as being about togetherness, integrating with people. But it’s also about integrating new experience: altered consciousness, altered states, altered perspectives. Many participants are intimately familiar with how hallucinogens can hurl them into explorations of personal and conceptual space, and accordingly the culture celebrates them. But again, they’re not required. The sheer enormity of Black Rock City can swallow people in itself. While hiding in a shade structure during a dust storm, I meet a woman who says that when friends ask her about Burning Man, she tells them: “It’s a lot like life.”
* * *
My first year at Burning Man, I was underwhelmed. I remember thinking: Well, I can see how this festival would seem like a big deal to people who don’t have access to alternative sexuality, or good dance music, or intentional communities, or hippies, or smart people, or fire art, or San Francisco. Since I have semi-regular access to all those things, I was unconvinced that it was worth the considerable trouble and expense to see them in Black Rock City.
I also felt — and still feel, sometimes, despite my best efforts — some eye-rolling resentment at the “tourism” aspect. If this social experiment is so compelling, then why compartmentalize it? Why is it useful to question assumptions about cities, economies, social norms, if people leave those questions in the desert behind them? I once heard an aphorism that has always stuck with me: that artists exist to take society’s blame for the things we explore. Seeing things I love hemmed in so thoroughly makes me uneasy. Like we’re being made into easier targets.
Yet I remind myself that people often need a safe and/or different space to try new things. Even I — now a pro S&M writer — had some of my seminal S&M experiences on vacation to distant cities. Something about drastic scene-changes allows us to shake up our psyches. So although I’m uncomfortable with the idea that Burning Man is a utopia, there’s something compelling about it as an inspirational pilgrimage.
In 2012, I deliberately avoid pre-scheduling; I also avoid things that I already know a lot about, and I find the city very different. The difference starts with a woman I dance with at one of the raver tents. She’s a former dominatrix and teaches writing at a community college, so we bond right away. After an hour of conversation, she tells me and my companion that she has to run, but she wants to offer us a gift first: poetry recitation. She lets us choose from a list of five topics; my friend chooses “kissing,” and I choose “self-awareness.” The teacher throws back her shoulders and offers wide, dramatic gestures as she speaks. The poems make her eyes blaze.
On another late night, I’m walking back to camp when I come upon a group clad in khaki-colored trenchcoats and sunglasses. They’ve set up a small table with a rotary phone in the middle of an intersection. One is sitting in a folding chair with a megaphone; another holds a camcorder. As I watch, they flag down a passing couple. “You’re late for your scene,” exclaims the woman with the megaphone, who is wearing dark red lipstick. A dude with a huge pad of paper bounds forward and opens it in front of the bewildered couple; a classic film noir line is written on the first page, something about where the money’s at. The group convinces the couple to play out a full scene, during which the rotary phone is a crucial prop. Then the couple departs, laughing.
Many onlookers have gathered. Two ask if they, too, can play a scene. The director becomes excited: “Wow, no one’s ever requested to play a scene before!” I watch the event over again with the new actors, and then ask the group if I can join. For a brief and glorious time I am their makeup artist, rushing up to recruits and brushing their faces with invisible cosmetics. (Some recruits decline to participate, but always politely.)
The next evening, I drop by the film crew’s camp: a 1920s-style office with a picture-perfect iron lamppost, and Deus Ex Detective Agency stenciled on the door. They’re hosting a speakeasy party in back, but I spend half the night being interrogated by a handsome detective in the office — until he turns the tables and puts me behind the desk to receive walk-in cases.
All this is undoubtedly awesome, and it’s beginning to win me over, but I’ve seen it before. (I recommend the group Improv Everywhere for clever street-based pranks in major cities.) For me, the clincher pops up on my last day. The Burning Man organization sells ice at various locations across the playa, and every day someone in our camp volunteers to grab some for our coolers. I’m several blocks from Pipe Dream when I buy today’s batch; I stagger outside with three full bags and look at my bike, realizing just how awkward and unpleasant this task will be.
Then an art car pulls up. It’s decked with animal print couches, paisley hangings and Tibetan prayer flags. “Jump on,” invites the driver, and climbs down to help with my bike. He also picks up two more ice-carrying dudes.
As I sink gratefully into one of the couches, a lady in a spangled white harem costume passes me a hookah full of grape-and-mint-flavored smoke. “We love doing ice runs,” she explains. “It improves people’s day so much when we offer them a ride, plus we get to explore the city. What’s your name?”
I don’t know if it was my own energy or the festival’s, in 2012 — perhaps a combination of both — but it took a second visit to Burning Man for me to know the magic of it: emergence. Sure, there are brilliant artists, and some are world-class professionals. It’s also true that this community is biased, that it is not perfectly inclusive or even-handed or open-minded. And plenty of people will experience Black Rock City as no more than an incredible rave, or meditational gathering, or place to find a hookup and experiment. Which is fine by me. The city is all those things, and those things are great (in moderation).
But what’s better is that those things combine to create an inspiring stage for imaginative generosity, for cooperative art. It sounds so corny that I’m embarrassed to quote it, but as the Principle of Participation puts it: “we make the world real through actions that open the heart.” Emergence is born from people choosing active engagement with a place that’s designed to surprise. Black Rock City is the most total monument to creativity that I have ever seen.
* * *
On my last day I track down the poetry-reciting teacher at her camp so I can give her one of my books. (I bring six copies to the playa for gifts, and by the end I wish I’d brought more.) Her camp is called Love Potion; they distribute tiny two-dose glass bottles of herbal aphrodisiacs, to be shared with a lover. She ties a string around a bottle, then ties it around my neck. It’s my only souvenir.
I arrived a little early and I’m leaving a little early, but right before I go, I watch the Man burn from Pipe Dream. The Black Rock City skyline is so vivid: most of the glowing art cars have gathered at the base of that familiar icon. Lasers spear across the sky. Fireworks spray. I’m not close enough to see them, but I know performers are twirling around the Man’s base, many dancing with fiery hula hoops or fiery sticks or fiery fans. A few days after the festival ends, I will realize I’m not sure what the Man officially represents and call one of my campmates. “It’s like an anti-establishment thing, right?” I’ll ask. “As in: ‘Damn the Man’?”
“Huh,” she’ll say, “you know, I’ve been going for years and I never thought about it. I guess I figured that the Man represents ego, and we’re seeking ego-dissolution.”
It will require fifteen full minutes of Internet research to find an old, brief statement from Larry Harvey: “Representing nothing, the Man becomes tabula rasa: any meaning may be projected onto him.”
Harvey, whose personality has been described as “messianic,” recently announced his intention to oversee the spread of Burner culture throughout the world. Indeed, this is already happening: plenty of major cities, including Chicago, have Burner events year-round, up to and including camp-out “regional Burns.” (This year, I heard about a South African regional Burn.) The Chicago community also awards a microgrant for community activism.
Burner art is increasingly placed in parks and museums. There’s a funny phenomenon of wealthy people hiring experienced Burners to guide them around the playa, which one such guide defended by saying that “it makes rich, important people friendly towards Burning Man.” Because so many technological innovators attend, some inevitably think up and field-test projects on the playa, like the inventor Vinay Gupta, whose cheap and durable temporary “hexayurt” shelters were first used in Black Rock City. Hexayurts are now standard in disaster relief.
I have reservations about Burning Man — more than most of my friends. I get impatient with people who can’t see the class issues, and — call me a cynic — I suspect that this batch of activists and artists wouldn’t have nearly the pull that they do if it weren’t for the wealth of Black Rock City. If the difference between “high art” and “low art” is nothing but the difference in privilege between artists, then Burner art is turning into “high art” as we watch because its associated industry has gained so much status in our economy.
There’s also the creepy cult comparison. One might wonder how long we have before we start seeing missionaries. (Please, somebody, write a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel in which Burning Man has become the state religion.)
Yet. Personally? I love the culture of Burning Man, and I love the creativity. And I look forward to seeing the culture spread, combine and recombine with new things.
On my way out of the city, I spot Bike Co-op Manager. “Did you have a good Burn?” he asks, and I nod. “It was better next year,” he says; we grin at the standard Burner line, and give each other a hug.
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