Tuesday, 29 June 2004
I find it really hard to write about Burning Man. Many people have heard of it, and some have an idea what it's about, and more have heard all kinds of random and bizarre things about it. I can only speak to my own experience, which was years ago. Burning Man is many things to an increasing amount of people, and while I have only minor, vague interest in ever going again, I am truly glad that it exists.
If you want the history of Burning Man, I suggest you go to their website and look it up. I'm pretty sure it's there. There are also (or used to be) links to sites put up by Burners, where you can find stories and pictures and all kinds of interesting, strange things. I am going to tell you about my Burning experience, from 1998 and 1999.
One of my best friends from college, she who I call Fanta a.k.a. Spaghetti Western Woman, lives in the Tahoe area. Her friends are artists, and one of them has (or had) gone to burn for six years, the first time I went. Fanta talked me into going, that year. She said it would be a fountain of renewal for my creative mind, because Burning Man is all about Art. All kinds of Art. The point of Burning Man was to bring your art with you, to share it with other people, and for everyone to collectively walk around for a week getting off on the art. (Not literally, unless that was your thing. Just in whatever way worked for you.) There were unbelievably elaborate art installations. Burning Man tends to the visual, and there are people who come in with semi trailers full of stuff for their art. People take a month or more to put stuff up. There's an opera, and there's the Burn.
I don't think I had any art, that first year. That was the year I met Mr D, and was unemployed, and coming off being depressed and broke. Fanta bought my ticket, which I think was $85 that year. All I had to do was get down there. I shared her tent, I brought a sleeping bag, and we went and bought a ton of food and drink on our way out.
1997 and 1998 were hard years for me. My grandfather, the last of my grandparents, died in April 1997. I had just broken up with the German, which was good but still hard. I bought a condo, killed my car, spent a month lying in fetal position on my bed, and only came out of it when my other college friend dragged me to Maine with her that August. It got better, I found fun and happiness and the Danskin, lost weight, felt good. Then I got laid off in March 1998, and spent five months drinking and smoking and trying to figure out how the hell to get the job I wanted (technical editing) without any credentials. I met Mr D, which brought all kinds of new anxieties into my life. (Example: I knew he and I would get married before I left for Burning Man that August, even though we'd only known each other three months.)
I was completely ready to relax and yet tied up in knots I didn't even know the name for, when I got to Nevada that summer. I was touchy and diffident and shy and quite ready for diversion without being able to handle it.
We got out there and the first Burner I saw was a woman in a tutu, silver lame tube top, and cowboy boots. She was taking tickets at the gate. Fanta was amused at my reaction, and warned me that this was entirely tame compared to the delights that awaited. Drove in and found our spot, where I met her friends. I spent the next three days in a semi-torpor on a plastic blow-up lounge chair, watching the freaks go by.
Freaks. Naked people. Costumes. Art cars. Anything and everything. Part of the culture of Burning Man is that it is an experiment in planned community, without rules. There were as few rules as possible. Because there had been a fatality the year before, and also somewhat because of the dust, cars were not allowed (except the aforementioned art cars, which were kept to a strict five mile per hour speed). No one could buy or sell anything, it was all about trade or barter or gifts. You know how people make swag for cons? It's somewhat like that.
My visual sense was completely assaulted, as was my aural. Music everywhere, at great volume. We were on the quiet sie of camp, which apparently didn't mean much. Every night when I lay on the ground in my sleeping bag, the clay vibrated from the bass of the near-by rave. I slept through it anyway, and got up at sunrise every morning to wander and look at art while everyone else slept.
Another part of the experience is that you bring everything you need to survive for as long as you're out there. The only exeption to the no selling rule was the coffee shop at center camp, where you could get a latte and bags of ice. Our group also had a Burning Man insider, who was allowed to leave and come back. He went into town and came back with burgers or ice cream. There is no electricity, there are no showers. There are porta-potties, although never enough. The second year, we dug a pee trench at our camp and put a tarp around it, because by mid-afternoon the line for the toilets was up to 50 or more people.
We had enough water to wash our hair once, but regular bathing was not really an option. We used baby wipes for everything, especially feet before entering the tent. It's alkali clay desert out there, so it's very dusty. By the fourth day, my hair was disgusting. That, I think, was the day we washed our hair. And I think it was that afternoon that I stood up and said, "I'm here."
Which made Fanta cheer (everyone else was napping, she was recovering from an extremely strong pot brownie that made her puke pink), and caused a dust storm to roll in.
Well, not really, but I do have pictures somewhere that show the dust rolling in. Within minutes, we were hanging onto tent poles in an effort to keep the tarps (our shade shelter) from flying off. We had to wake everyone up to come batten down the hatches and hang on. I don't think it lasted more than half an hour, but by the end of it we were all coated in dust and really tired. (Break out the baby wipes!) And then it rained, which caused the top level of alkali clay to soften and come lose and then stick to the bottoms of our shoes.
What you do at Burning Man is experiment. People try on facets of new personas, or allow themselves to publicly express what had always been private. Bianca's Smut Shack was not too far from our campsite, and although I never made it over I understand it was all about the sex. It really was a place where people hung out and ate grilled cheese sandwiches (Bianca provided) and had sex right there in public if they so chose. Lots of people do drugs, or act out fantasies of being pixies or hippies or anything. There is a lot of nudity, and lots of body paint and glitter.
There is also a lot of art. Go look at the pictures at Burning Man's website, which will tell you a better story than I can. I spent a lot of time wandering around, interacting with the art installations and getting inspired, and wondering what people meant by some of it. There was a sinking ship one year, and a big wheel of fortune table with rows of trees leading up to it with word banners hung above them - the same words that were on the wheel. Somewhere I have a picture of myself under one of those, and if I can find it I'll post it. (The reason there are no pictures here is that we appear to have mislaid all the picture files from prior to 2003. I'm searching, but in the meantime you'll have to go look at BM's site.)
Burning Man is overwhelming it's an inspiration, it's too much and not enough and everything and nothing. It's what you make of it. I don't know what it's like now, although I know it's getting much bigger every year and the sherrif's department has stopped turning a blind eye to open drug use on the playa. It gets increasingly commercial, even though you can't buy or sell anything, and the number of people who come to play tourist and gawk is growing while the number of artists who come to show off something they spent the year building and to get inspired by the other artists is either staying the same or decreasing. My first year, we had a fairly elaborate temple in our yard, plus a copper pipe installation with a disco ball, blue feathers, and a flashlight on one side. The second year, we had some boards stuck in the earth with written pieces spraymounted (including my somewhat obscene piece written to the tune of "mine eyes have seen the glory").
My second year was also the year that they burned the man on Saturday night instead of Sunday, and the burning did not go smoothly. His arms fell off before his head caught fire, and the big balls round the base didn't catch properly. It was anti-climactic and not at all the catharsis I'd experienced the year before. No one's fault, it just is what it is.
If you are artistic, I'd recommend checking it out. There's a definite "in" culture, and a whole lot of tedious people to deal with, but the art is worth it. If you have a high tolerance for gobs of people in an altered state, so much the better. Don't go unprepared, and I highly recommend finding other people in your area who are going. There are usually fund raisers and planning meetings held all over the place, so you can attach yourself to a group if you want to. Even if you don't want to be part of a group, it still helps to get an idea of what it's like out there, and what to bring. (Lots of water! Baby wipes that smell good!)
You can always ask me more, if you want. It's hard to describe the mind altering that goes on out there. I don't do drugs, so it's not that. I imagine it would be quite an experience out there, where the reality is so bizarre.
If you want to: contact