Fiyo On The Playa
Or How I Survived My First Burning Man
You are in the desert. The water bottle that you have been carrying with you all day now contains hot water instead of cool refreshment. You take a swig from it anyway, knowing you can't afford to get dehydrated. The taste is unpleasant, but welcome. Dirt is in everything you own by now. For a second you question how much more of this desert you can stand. A motorized couch rolls by on wheels. It is followed shortly by a jeep full of rowdy individuals dressed in postal uniforms, brandishing firearms and hurling invective. You are too concerned with the heat to think up a snappy retort to the Disgruntled Postal Workers' screams. As you struggle to find shade in the 105 degree heat, a stranger pulls up in a brightly painted ice cream truck and offers you a frozen treat… free of charge. Naked people wander by. The first is painted from head to toe in blue body paint. The next is red. The third and fourth are orange and yellow. Welcome to Black Rock City, for one week the fifth largest city in Nevada. Dedicated to "radical self expression and radical self reliance," it is the home of the Burning Man festival.
Begun in 1986 by Larry Harvey as a personal ritual to come to terms with the difficult end of a relationship, the Burning Man festival has grown to nearly fifteen thousand people and is, arguably, the most creative annual gathering on the planet. For one week a year, the Hualapai Flat, a lifeless desert outside of Gerlach, Nevada is transformed into a psychedelic wonderland, populated by visual artists, performance artists, pyromaniacs, musicians and fringe dwellers. Every square inch of the desert "playa" becomes a blank canvas on which to create. The end result is the complete transformation of a desert floor completely incapable of sustaining life into a visionary landscape. Each participant is invited to generate his or her own atmosphere. In many respects, it is the concrete realization in three-dimensional space of fantasy or hallucination.
One of the festivals central maxims is "No Spectators" and one walk down the Village Way is all that's needed to see that many of the Black Rock City regulars take this to heart. Ordinary camp sites are not the rule here. Elaborate theme camps are constructed, often PVC pipe and parachutes strung with lights and sound run off generators.
To paint the event in broad strokes as a new Woodstock as the media has done all too often in the past is to miss the point entirely. Burning Man certainly shares elements of the '60's counter-culture and the urban tribalism that defined the Woodstock Nation, but it owes as much or more to the San Francisco drag balls, art openings, cyberculture and raves. Festival participants are more likely to have drawn inspiration from Hakim Bey's TAZ: Temporary Autonomous Zones, Ontological Anarchy and Poetic Terrorism than Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
While similar strains of West Coast bohemianism spawned the Merry Pranksters, the Haight-Ashbury and the Grateful Dead community, Burning Man is not "retro" in either its style or approach to contemporary living. The result is an atmosphere that is so refreshingly creative, diverse and mindblowing that it (thankfully) defies definition. Perhaps it can best be described as a Roscharch ink blot festival wherein every participant perceives its meaning in their own way.
I arrived in Black Rock City on Monday night via a ride I'd arranged with a complete stranger over the Internet. He and I threw up tents on the outer rim of the North side of BRC -- the noisy side. Then we ventured inward in search of anyone up and feeling social. The only crew drawing any attention was a group of fire twirlers practicing their art by twirling glow sticks and an impromptu band making music behind them. This camp, I soon found out, was known as "Disturbia."
The following days picked up momentum slowly, offering many opportunities to make new friends and take in all there was to see. Each day, more of the elaborate art installations would take form and I would watch wide-eyed as Black Rock City's many theme camps would flower and bloom. A typical day for me went as follows: By ten AM I'd be cooked out of my tent by a blistering sun and lack of shade. I'd spend some time drinking water and refilling my water bottle, forage a bite of food from our cooler, and take a quick wander to see what new sights had sprung up. From eleven 'til two or three the heat would be too unbearable to do much of anything. Often, the wisest course seemed to be take a siesta, find some shade, relax, read The Black Rock Gazette or Piss Clear ("Black Rock City's Only Alternative Newspaper") and chat with the people in our rapidly expanding camp. In the evening I would explore the night life which offered numerous raves, fashion shows, rolling bar cars and plenty of friendly wandering strangers. Around three or four AM, I'd stumble back to my tent, knowing the desert sun would be my alarm clock.
On day three I dropped by the Media Mecca tent, curious to see some of the official press releases for the event. First I found myself pitching in and hanging a series of cardboard eyes to the tent and chatting amicably. That mission accomplished, I found a chair and began to thumb through one of the press packets. It contained a few BM newsletters and a chronological history of the event.
Begun on Baker Beach, San Francisco in 1986 with 20 attendees, it is astounding to witness the approximately fifteen thousand person city that has evolved. Burning Man was, clearly, a far more renegade event in its earliest years. In efforts to reduce the degree of danger that participants might encounter, it is easy to see where the event has also had to become more regulated, restrictive, and, ultimately, sanitized. But even with all that, what takes place is so far outside of the day to day experience of nearly everyone attending that the event can not help but alter ones perceptions and place one in a non-ordinary reality. Those outlaw BM veterans unable to conceive of a Burning Man without discharging firearms or charging rocket cars across the desert floor have had to move further and further out into the periphery to engage in such activities.
"Participate, Integrate, Be part of the adventure" the press packet encourages.
TAZ theory defines the Temporary Autonomous Zone as existing outside the confines of the Society of the Spectacle. While TAZ theory advises avoidance of publicity, encouraging clandestine behavior as necessary for long-term survival, Burning Man recognizes that the media has already arrived. What Burning Man attempts is the creation of a new phenomenon -- a Spectacle wherein the Media, often considered the Sense Organs of the Society of the Spectacle, are invited to not merely observe, but join in the generation of the Spectacle. In efforts to discourage reporters from remaining aloof and attempting a detached reporting of events, the Media Mecca had its first ever costume party for the press, served up tasty glasses of absinthe and suggested the press should meet people and make themselves a part of the Black Rock community.
By Thursday night, I felt well steeped in the Black Rock community. A neighbor had opened a bar next to our camp and invited me over immediately for a glass of wine. He had informed everyone within earshot that at his bar it was Happy Hour all the time and that we should feel welcome to drop in for a drink any time.
Perhaps the most impressive event I attended during the week was the Temple of Rudra, a complex performance involving hundreds of fire twirlers, dancers and performance artists.
The event was postponed due to high winds and unpredictable weather conditions. Originally scheduled for midnight, the event didn't actually get underway until after 3:15. (I later learned that the delay was also due to the fact that the sail on a land yacht had caught a powerful gust of wind during the storm, causing the yacht and its passengers to collide with the clay temple.)
Instead of sitting patiently waiting for the opera, I wandered off and decided to take in a book burning.
The book burning could not be faulted for a lack of diversity. I appreciated the non-discriminatory policy of the burning hosts, and promptly set about hurling a few texts into the blaze myself.
Republic of Plato" I yelled, "Another Dead White European Male!" into the flames he went. Same with a text on Buddhism, a copy of Wired magazine, a Guiness Book of World Records, an Arthur C. Clarke novel and a few romances for good measure.
Glad to have gotten that out of my system, I returned to the opera to find it was still running late. I then wandered off to Bianca's Smut Shack where I flopped down on one of the many couches there and waited for the event to get underway. Unfortunately, while I was resting comfortably and trying desperately to keep from falling asleep, the Tesla coil went off. Cited by many as one of the most impressive sights there, I was a little bummed to be so nearby and still missing it. Maybe next year…
The opera itself impressed me greatly and was well worth the wait. Originally begun as Pepe Ozan's Fire Lingham, the performance centered around a large clay structure not unlike the sort of altar one would expect to see Hollywood use for chaining victims who would be sacrificed to three headed fire breathing reptiles. Clay stairs lead from the base up to the flat top and in each of the four corners of the temple were forty foot high columns -- unmistakably phallic -- with equally unmistakable vaginal openings at the base. Between the columns were exquisitely detailed sculptures of insectoid creatures resembling deities. Dancing Shiva, a seated Cernnunos, perhaps Indra and Rudra… it was difficult to discern precisely which dieties were depicted or whether the figures were merely there to evoke association, but the craftsmanship that went into their creation was remarkable.
A path was cleared so that performers could enter and then an elaborate procession involving hundreds of fire twirlers, dancers and performance artists began filling in the space. Many remained at the base, dancing, twirling fire, and engaging the front rows of the crowd. Others had ascended the temple to the platform top to dance, their forms intertwining behind transparent veils. When the dancers descended from the platform, the bases of the four columns (yoni and lingham respectively) were torched and flames began to shoot from the tops. Dancers continued dancing, drumming began, a chant of "AUM NAMAI RUDRA" (possibly "Praise the Name of Rudra") ensued and the energy began to raise to a frenzied pitch. In the course of the next hour, first one, then another, and a third column collapsed. The fourth was still standing defiantly when I wandered back to my tent, just before daybreak.
The most difficult night of the week for me was the night of the burn itself.
The Burning Man Project is strongly devoted to the ongoing preservation of the desert. Year after year, they've made it a point to leave the playa cleaner than when they'd arrived. Prior to the festival, scores of volunteers are clearing the site, hauling away abandoned cars and vast amounts of discarded garbage left behind by individuals not en route to Burning Man. The site offers theme camps devoted to Alternative Energy and recycling and raises an awareness about the generation of garbage unprecedented at any other event I've attended.
But the night of the burn, the crisp blue sky began to look as though the world was on fire. In addition to the Man itself, people were burning art installations, one lightpost was blazing, a piano had been torched, and, undoubtedly, numerous plastic glow sticks. Every few minutes there would be a BOOM! -- sometimes mild, sometimes thunderous. People were igniting firecrackers, M-80's, even M-1000's.
If the first Burning Man event was a cathartic release for Larry Harvey to bring closure to an intense relationship, it has grown far beyond that. It is not overstating things to say that the moment of the Burn has become a collective catharsis wherein the pains, frustrations, and angers of the festival's participants are symbolically heaped onto the pyre and burned to the ground. A powerful ritual to say the least.
Watching one cloud of black smoke after another rise up from the playa and into the clouds, I couldn't help but think that this cathartic release involved purifying ourselves by releasing our toxins, quite literally, into the atmosphere -- a contradiction I found myself unable to reconcile.
I wandered amidst this haze of smoke and noxious fumes, and began to think of a neighboring piece of land -- the Nevada Test Site. Home to the Western Shoshone people and never legally ceded in treaty, this reservation land has been used by the US government to test nuclear weapons and the Western Shoshone people are considered the most heavily bombed nation in the world. Watching one explosion and toxic cloud after another, I was unable to shake the sense that, in our anger, frustration and alienation, we, the citizens of Black Rock City, had created a microcosm of the culture we were reacting against. "How," I wondered, "Is this any different than the waste generated by the military and corporate industry?" Of course, the primary difference was that even the most zealous Burning Man pyro didn't actually kill anyone. But the disrespect for air and earth was there, plain as day, for any and all to see, in many respects undermining the extreme care taken to focus on removal of garbage and "leaving no trace."
The reconcilliation of this paradox seemed to lie in the fact that whatever its shortcomings, Burning Man is certainly cutting edge. To venture out into unchartered territory requires a certain amount of risk taking and a willingness to allow oneself a few mistakes. Burning Man is not a shrink wrapped finished product. It is a work in progress, concerned more with creating community than with providing entertainment. Nevertheless, it would be a welcome relief to see some of the world's foremost pyrotechnicians integrating eco-friendly emissions into their repertoire. (I can see it now, "The World's First Firebreathing Act fueled entirely on Hemp fuel and complying with all EPA emissions standards.")
Burning Man is a carnival in the truest sense -- a festival of carnage. While a carnival tradition such as Mardi Gras is a feast before purification of the Lenten holidays, BM is not so easily explained. While it is not unfair to state that many people who attend the BM event indulge their desires throughout the week and "burn" their unwanted qualities in the fire, there is no central dogma, creed, or belief system attached to the Burning Man ritual. Participants are encouraged to discover their own understanding of the experience.
As I rolled out of Black Rock City, headed to New York via a ride I had hooked up on the playa, I knew that what I had witnessed was nothing less than extraordinary. The art installations were so brilliant, the raves so ripe with digital wizardry, the theme camps so full of good humor and, best of all, this beast was (mostly) benign. We may well live to see a day when art historians of the future stop speaking of new artistic forms as being "post-modern" and begin to acknowledge that for the art world to venture any further out on the cutting edge, it have to become "post-burning man."