Saturday, August 21, 2004

Out in the Desert

Labor day weekend sees a lot of strangeness in a lot of places -- it's the end of "official" summer -- but for the past decade something rather strange has been going on out in the Nevada desert for the week leading into Labor Day - Burning Man.

Mark Morford tried to capture the essence of BM in the SF Chronicle:

This is the essence of Burning Man. It is extraordinary and dirty and dangerous and hilarious and annoying and raw and smelly and hot and spiritual and real in its deep, deep whimsicality.

It breaks down everything you think you know and replaces it all with scenes and images and odors and a purified, skewed, inverted sense of community you will very likely never know again, unless you go again next year.

Some people disagree. Some think BM is just one big drug-addled rave party in the desert. Some think it's a giant dumb naked group-sex romp. Some believe it's Satan's own breeding ground, a giant filthy Club Med for neo-hippie drifters, a glorified yuppie ogle-fest, a creepy fire ritual, some sort of overblown self-important masturbatory quasi-tribal jamboree masquerading as sensual adventure.

These people are absolutely right. But they are also completely wrong.
The first detailed description that many people read of BM was in cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling's 1996 article in Wired:
The place feels like the afterlife. When you walk across it, you just drift over endless cracked whiteness, lifting your feet maybe a quarter inch from the surface. It's all mobile; it's all temporary. Twist the ignition key and drift with the wind.

Burning Man is an art gig by tradition. Over the longer term it's evolved into something else; maybe something like a physical version of the Internet. The art here is like fan art. It's very throwaway, very appropriative, very cut-and-paste. The camp is like a giant swap meet where no one sells stuff, but people trade postures, clip art, and attitude. People come here in clumps: performance people, drumming enthusiasts, site-specific sculptors, sailplane people, ravers, journalists, cops. I'm a journalist and a newbie, but even I can tell the pros from my fellow newbies. The veterans have brought their own pennants, bicycles, flashlights, and tiki torches, plus enough water for anything.

The alkali dust is like a fine and bitter talcum. It gets into everything, so why fight it? Just throw off your clothes. Keep maybe a straw hat, shades, and boots. Throwing off all your clothes is the cheapest, quickest way that was ever invented to cop an attitude. It's also a cool youth-culture solidarity move. Young people look great without clothes. Young people don't need 'em.

Vehicles have scattered all over the playa. It's as if a giant bowl of mixed nuts had dropped off a kitchen counter onto white linoleum. The parachute-covered Central Camp does duty as the broken bowl. All around it are cashews, peanuts, and sunflower seeds: dinky pup tents, some bigger pop tents, RVs, pickups, trailers. There's even an honest-to-goodness geodome erected by some ambitious guys who have brought a crane. Their towering construction crane arouses much envy, and they get to boast of having "the biggest tech on the playa."

The streets are vaporous formalities. They're premarked with tiny colored plastic flags: the flags get bent, they get stepped on, they even get run over. But once the idea of a street is established, the community standard holds.

You're not supposed to throw anything away on the playa. You're supposed to leave nothing at all. The idea of leaving no visible trace is a central part of the Burning Man zeitgeist, a performance-art process move. The organizers are very specifically eco-correct - maybe because they're so lighthearted about tolerating most anything else.
That was in 1996 with 10,000 attendees -- and at least three trimes as many show up now, to a more organized evert. Certain things seem to be consistent from then to now, and here is my take on some of them.
Black Rock City, a "Temporary Autonomous Zone" -- One of the fundamentals of Burning Man is that you are now in a completely different place than the "normal" world -- whatever that means. As I understand it, this is an experimental, temporary, and recurring community removed in many ways from the framework of expectations, prohibitions, and perspectives that surrounding society imposes on individuals and groups. There is nothing unconditional about this autonomy -- while any number of laws seem to be winked at during the festival, Burning Man has rules, and they are enforced, often to preserve that temporary autonomy from the outside world. Black Rock City is laid out in a set of coincentric circular and radial streets, centering on the figure of the Burning Man. The Esplanade at the center is where many art displays and theme camps are set up and where the most people are. But one large segment of the circle is left open, for various activities and temporary structures.

Radical Self Expression -- The stated purpose of Burning Man -- A purpose of "temporary autonomy" is to remove any unnecessary barriers to self expression, which can result in art objects, performance, or just walking around the playa looking weird. One of the requirements of truly radical self expression (from one's own roots or center) is self knowledge -- and such expression can also enhance that self knowledge. This ends up including all the raucous and notorious activities that Burning Man is known for -- as well as some truly sublime art.

No Spectators -- Yes, you over there behind the car. Everybody is a participant at BM so get cracking and find some way to express yourself, even if it is as small as being a volunteer or creating a really snazzy camp with flags and lots of lights. This is a show, but everybody is a member of the cast. I don't think this is a minor point, it plays a major part in protecting radical self-expression. You don't worry about looking like a fool if everybody looks a little crazy -- you're just part of the club.

Radical Self Sufficency/Gift Economy -- The only things that you can buy at BM (after paying a couple of hundred for the ticket in the first place) are ice at Camparctica and coffee/chai at Center Camp. Everything else you either have to bring with you, trade with some one else, or recieve as a gift from someone else. It's a long, long way to the nearest 7-11. One form of self-expression is to bring things to BM to simply give away. The outside economy in reverse.

Leave No Trace -- Everything you bring in, you take out with you, unless you can burn it. The agreement that BM has with the Bureau of Land Management requires them to leave the playa (intermittent dry lake) with little or no trace that Black Rock City was there. They are still cleaning up scorch marks from campfires built directly on the playa years ago, when the rules were looser. One part of this is that you cant use your car or motocycle in Black Rock City, unless it has been recognized as an "art car" by the DMV (the Department of Mutant Vehicles).

Theme Art -- Each year, Black Rock City has a theme (this year it is the Vault of Heaven) that many of the individual campers try to work into their expressions. Of course, many ignore it. There are buidings, camps, exhibits, displays, costumes, performances -- the best way to understand it at this distance is to either browse the Burning Man site or just Google it. There are thousands of pictures and books full of stories out on the net about people's art and experiences. In recent years, one specific expression has gained a great deal of attention. Marin County artist David Best has been building, often out of scrap plywood, incredibly beautiful multistory temples, offered as places of memory, mourning and remembrance. Along with the Man, these temples are burned at the end of the festival.

The Burn -- The climax. On Sunday evening, everything comes together at the center of Black Rock City for displays of fireworks, fire art, the burning of art objects created only for the week, and the Burning Man itself.

This is an introduction to a the much larger subject of an annual event producing intense and life changing experiences for thousands of people. Next post -- the development and meaning of BM in the words of it's primary founder, Larry Harvey.

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