"Madame, bear in mind That princes govern all things--save the wind." -Victor Hugo, The Infanta's Rose

Friday, September 01, 2006

It's time to burn

When so-called "normal" people go camping, they usually prefer a mild, shady climate, with nearby amenities such as running water and restrooms. But instead, how about camping for a full week in the middle of a barren, alkaline desert with no shade or water (running or otherwise) for miles around, where daytime temperatures top 100 degrees then fall to near-freezing at night, and unpredictable windstorms whip up suddenly with 70-mph fury, creating white-out conditions that drive corrosive dust into every crack and crevice of your body?

Sound like fun? Well, if you're one of the 40,000 or so people attending the annual Burning Man festival being held this week in the Black Rock desert some 140 miles northeast of Reno, Nevada, I have just described Heaven on Earth. For twenty years now, Burners have converged on the desert playa during the week before Labor Day for eight days of fun, art, camaraderie, self-reliance, and "radical self-expression", as they build a small city out of nothing, which then vanishes without a trace after the event is over.

I have never been to Burning Man, but it has fascinated me ever since I learned of it five or six years ago. For a brief moment last week, I momentarily considered extending my road trip to go, but realized that I was woefully unprepared for a week in the dusty desert, and that my reliance on supplemental oxygen and inability to get around freely would not only put me at a major disadvantage, but perhaps seriously jeopardize my health. Not only that, but the additional 3,000 miles (round trip) of driving -- alone -- was a bit more than I was willing to tackle after already spending 5,500 miles on the road. So I will have to put it off for at least another year.

It's been said that trying to describe Burning Man to someone who has never been is a little like trying to describe a certain color to a blind man. In the past, a widely-held misconception among those on the outside was that the event was a Pagan orgy of sex and drugs; while there is some nudity present (this is, after all, how some people choose to express themselves) it is not the hippie love-fest or heathen debauchery that some imagine. At its core, Burning Man is an art and cultural festival. Huge multi-story interactive art installations populate the playa, inviting participants to explore and play with and in them. Elaborately decorated art cars known as "mutant vehicles" cruise the desert, looking like something out of a Mad Max movie. Each year's event has a theme, a loose concept that the various art installations are built around. This year, it is "Hope and Fear: The Future", which will no doubt be interpreted in a variety of innovative ways. This creative free expression is encouraged in every possible way, but the nature of that expression is left to the individual, in however they choose to interact with their fellow Burners. Many people express themselves through their attire; the more outlandish, the better. You might find sculpture, music, performance art, and guerilla street theatre, as well as "theme camps" where like-minded people come together to create a shared experience for passersby, which is uniquely surreal in the desolate surroundings.

Of course, it is exactly these harsh desert conditions that unify the participants. There is a real sense of community, a common bond that comes from not just surviving, but thriving on the dusty playa -- and creating, even if only for a few days, a model of utopian society. Radical self-reliance means bringing everything with you that you need for the week including your own shelter, food, and water. The event is "commerce-free"; no cash transactions are allowed, and participants rely on what's called a "gifting economy" in which you freely share what you have with others, who do the same for you. You bring whatever you have to give, whether it's beads, a photograph, a backrub, or just a smile and a handshake, to exchange for whatever else you may want or need from other people.

Those who have attended Burning Man regularly get much more out of it than just a week of having fun in the desert. For some it is a deeply moving, almost religious, experience. The sense of incongruity between the temporary yet socially inclusive society created at Black Rock City and the mordancy of the "default world" (as anything "not Burning Man" is referred to) can be overwhelming to some, as one previous year's participant noted:
I've never really adjusted to being back. My daily life is again about earning and buying and selling. It's about who I impress, whos approval I need, and what I own. It's again about status and race and titles and the fear of loss that underlies it all. It's about supporting a civilization propped up on prozac, lithium, and heart bypass surgery to mend our shattered spirits and broken hearts. We've created a social environment far more hostile to human life and more damaging to the human spirit than the empty, sunbaked desert of Black Rock City. We call it the "real world", but it's all based on fantasy -- the fantasy that wealth will make us happy, that status will make us secure, that walls will keep us safe. Yet somewhere deep inside we know it's all a lie, and we cover the lie with drink, with drugs, with hatred or sex or work or power or anything that will distract us from the emptiness of this "real world" we've created.
There is something deep in our soul, dating from the earliest cave humans, that responds to fire. Burning Man features plenty of pyrotechnic delights, including firewalkers, fire eaters, fire-breathing robot monsters and flaming tetherballs. But it is the culmination of the festival on Saturday night, when a 40-foot tall stick figure known only as "The Man" will be torched as the 40,000 participants gather around it in a frenzy of dancing to chants and drumbeats, from which the event gets its name. No one can say exactly what "The Man" represents; it could be Authority, or Fear, or Tradition, or anything at all. Everyone has their own interpretation, which is exactly what the organizers of the event intended.

When it's all over, everything will be cleaned up to where in a month's time it will be impossible to tell exactly where on the desert the event occurred. Burners practice a policy of environmentalism known as "Leave No Trace", where every single scrap of "MOOP" (Matter Out Of Place) is removed following the festival. If only the rest of the world could be so responsible.

On Saturday evening, I invite you to pause for a moment in the stillness of the night and reflect on your own hopes and fears for the future. Mentally place yourself in the desert as the flames rise before you, and free your mind by "unplugging" from your hyperconnected day jobs and cell phones. Bridge the world between your dreams and reality, and in so doing you may, if you're lucky, experience the "spirit" of Burning Man.

Some other links:

SF Gate's Culture Blog
East Valley Tribune (Scottsdale, AZ)
San Francisco Chronicle
Scott London's Burning Man 2005 Photo Essay
San Jose Mercury-News
C-NET News: The Tech of Burning Man
The Civilized Explorer's Guide to Burning Man
Los Angeles Times


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