Monday, September 13, 2010

Burning Man, Part I: What Is It?

Burning Man is a difficult thing to describe, and in the end no description will really convey a true sense of what it's like to be there. And yet it's important to keep trying, if only to counteract in some small way the vast misconceptions that exist about it. My feelings about Burning Man are echoed in the way Hunter S. Thompson describes his experience in San Francisco in the 60's:
"San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of... but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant... There was madness in any direction, at any hour... There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning... Our energy would simply prevail." --Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Evolution of an outfit: San Francisco'ed up for the chilly morning, playa'ed down for the warm afternoon, and Burning Man'ed out for the night. The only time I've ever felt self-conscious at Burning Man was in 2008 when I arrived on the playa in street clothes. I vowed never to do that again.

Burning Man is not a festival, it's not a concert, it's not a scripted event. No number of Lollapaloozas or Coachellas will give you the vaguest notion of what Burning Man is really all about. At it's most basic, it is camping in an extremely harsh environment and an incredibly free atmosphere where literally anything can happen. At it's most complex, it's a profoundly life-changing experience that alters your sense of human interactions and expression. In fact, I'd argue that if you attended Burning Man and your life wasn't changed, you somehow did it wrong.

Our camp starts to take shape.

Burning Man is really more of a culture than anything else; it's a culture that values self-expression, generosity, community, art, and self-reliance. Imagine this: you're pedaling along on your bike on a city street somewhere. A dirty, unshaven, and quite possibly drunk man steps out of his house to offer you some wine. He's wearing a vaguely vaudevillian outfit and maybe a threadbare top hat. It's 10 am. What would you do?

I can tell you what I'd do, if I were in the default world; I'd put on my stony, city face and ride right by, hoping he didn't leap out and accost me. But in the Burning Man world I stopped, said hello and yes, I'd love some wine. And he gave me the whole bottle. We chatted cordially for a few minutes, and then he excused himself so that he could go help his campmates clean up. At Burning Man you have to be prepared to throw away all your jaded, mistrustful city ways and accept friendliness and open-hearted sharing as if it's the most natural thing in the world. And when you think about it, it should be the most natural thing in the world.

A great way to keep your tent safe from the powerful desert wind: put it inside a steel-frame carport, anchored to the ground with long rebar stakes. The "floor" is made of long strips of burlap.

The luxurious common area we set up with our campmates: kitchen on the right, living area on the left. This was also constructed out of carports.

You might be wondering what people do all day (and all night, because the activity is truly nonstop) at Burning Man, and there's really no simple answer to that question. It's just like any other city in that there are as many things to do as there are interests to be pursued. Burning Man can be quiet and serene; you might go get a massage or learn how to do a craft, you might join a meditation group or construct a memorial to a loved one at the Temple, you might explore the art installations in the deep playa or just veg out in your camp during a windstorm. But it can also be incredibly high energy, where you might choose to dance all night, go roller skating, see live music, or watch a parade of hundreds of naked men. It is, in essence, whatever you want it to be, and many, many things you never expected.

This house drove by as we were setting up camp. Yep, you read that right.

They were serving up margaritas a few camps down from us, using a chainsaw-driven blender.

There's also a lot of pure silliness and light-hearted fun at Burning Man too, and everyone is encouraged to participate in some way. Our campmates Noah and Jeannie built an adult-sized Sit 'n Spin that we put out front for passersby to enjoy; one camp offered free Jewish motherly advice, and another hosted a Sharpie tattoo convention. One camp gave out thousands of pee funnels so that ladies don't need to hover in the porta-potties, another had naked hula-hooping, one had a pancake pajama party and another had a sock monkey workshop. The entire week is comprised of things that are created, built, coordinated, and maintained by participants. No one is paid for their contributions to Burning Man, and no money is ever exchanged for the services, entertainment or refreshment that is offered. The events that are produced, the art that is created, the music that is performed, the food and drinks that are served are all contributed by the participants and are given for free, for the simple joy of making other people happy.

The mutant vehicles offer an alternative to biking or walking around the 7-square mile city (no other cars are allowed to drive around Burning Man). Most have sound systems and are like mobile dance clubs.

This one meowed and made purring sounds.

Many of the mutant vehicles are best appreciated when viewed at night, when the playa is transformed into a completely different world. This butterfly car had an ethereal glow that was truly magical after dark.

The one thing that cannot be conveyed in any photos of Burning Man is the sound. The entire playa is a cacophony of sounds that pulsate nonstop night and day. Sitting in camp you'll hear music and voices coming from various campsites nearby, which might be temporarily drowned out by the passing of a huge mutant vehicle blasting old school country or a Lady Gaga-Culture Club mash-up. You might be pedaling along the playa and hear baroque classical music streaming from Center Camp, or perhaps you'll pass an art installation that sequences light or fire with different sounds.

And then there's the fire. Many, many things on the playa are fashioned with fire, from stationary art pieces to mutant vehicles. So you might be standing next to say, a giant bicycle that looks like a dragon, when suddenly it flings its head back, opens its toothy mouth and shoots forth a huge fountain of flame. And though the fire itself  is impressive, nothing can compare to experiencing not only the sight but also the heat and the sound; the roaring, hissing sound of a powerful gas-fueled inferno erupting right next to you.

Yep, the giant flame-spewing dragon bike was actually real.

I have two more installations planned for my Burning Man report, in which I'll get to the main attractions: the fashion and the art. Stay tuned for more pictures from the playa! And if you were there this year, be sure to stop by and share your stories and impressions.


Emily Kennedy said...

Awww. YAAAAYYYYY! This is so much fun!!!

Rebecca said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I'm looking forward to parts two and three.

freeda said...

Looking forward to the next installments... Burning Man is one of those bucket list things for me. I'm living vicariously for now.

Sheila said...

Wow, that looks amazing! I love your outfits - perfect.

Raquelita said...

Bad ass! I can't wait to read more!

rija said...

Very cool! I had to write to tell you my 3 year old son loved the pics of the vehicles.

CoudreMODE said...

But I have to ask: What about crime, excessive consumption of recreational substances and just plain old stupid/dangerous behavior? How is that dealt with? I've always wondered about that aspect of human activity with respect to Burning Man (not a snark either, I've just always really wondered how the darker aspects of humans are kept in check at that event) Phyllis

tinyjunco said...

never burned, no desire to. but love reading about/taking to people about burning man! fantastic pictures, Audi!

CoudreMODE: there's apparently all sorts of volunteer groups who focus on safety, de-escalation of tense situations, certifying 'art cars', cleaning up after......all the organizational, self-policing stuff.

This Is Burning Man: The Rise Of A New American Underground by Brian Doherty is a well-researched, 300+ pg. history of BM. LOTS of interviews with main players. plenty of stories.
Burning Book: A Visual History of Burning Man by Jessica Bruder is 350+ full-color pages of pictures and info on BM.

i always wondered what the suicide club and the cacophony society got up to after the seventies.....

Audi said...

CoudreMODE: In addition to the volunteer organizations that tinyjunco mentioned, the event is also heavily policed by enough local law enforcement agencies to make your head spin. Even the Forest Service gets in on the action, though I fail to understand how an empty lake bed is within their jurisdiction (it's probably not, and they're just there to look at naked people). These agencies give out tickets for all sorts of things, including drug possession and/or use, which explains all the shiny new, night vision-equipped vehicles they all drive. It's sort of disgusting, really; giving out tickets for smoking pot at Burning Man is like shooting fish in a barrel. But it brings in a lot of money. As for people getting out of hand or just being stupid, remember that one of the main focuses of Burning Man is radical self-reliance. People are expected to look after themselves, and that includes not doing stupid shit that might get you killed. Not that it never happens, but the vast majority of attendees are of the same midset, understand the risks, and take the necessary precautions. We should not need authority figures present at all times to force us to behave; that's one of the things that Burning Man is all about. Amazingly, people CAN live in a less structured society and not immediately dissolve into anarchy and crime.

Kantiki Jayamana Whateva said...

Thank You #1: "No number of Lollapaloozas or Coachellas will give you the vaguest notion of what Burning Man is really all about."

Thank You #2: "The only time I've ever felt self-conscious at Burning Man was in 2008 when I arrived on the playa in street clothes. I vowed never to do that again."

...seriously, in street clothes, you really think: "Eek, I'm naked!" Actually, naked would be the better (or, at least, more immediate) alternative. Now I make it a point to go street at least one day out, mostly to mess with others.

BTW, your photo of Duane Flatmo's Chimera breathing fire is pristine, capturing the colors and detail to his metalcrafted kinetic sculptures with beautiful clarity. I love the dragon he brings out as well.

I think the misconceptions about the City in the Desert source back to the fact that the majority of it cannot be explained. So the mind latches on to things that it gets: sex, drugs, parties, music. The media focuses on them as well. Yeah, they're there... but there's so much more. Like you said, you have to keep trying to explain... if only to give yet a few more peeks into a world with no replacement.

As to the law enforcement, one of the best nights out on the playa this year was spent going around and issuing tickets to police officers. Seriously. The devious Ramona Mayhem schemed it up and (once well wined) dragged me into it. We made some real connections and had a lot of fun. More on that on my blogger here.

Easily the best burn in six years... at least for me. I love this part afterward where I get to see the burn thru other eyes, as there is no possible way to see and experience it all. Mad thanks for the awesome photos and stories. Cheers!

Sharpiegirl said...

man that looks like fun! That would be a great place to take our teardrop to....

Kylara7 said...

I'm a regular blog lurker and adore your outfits, but this post about Burning Man really made me want to go for the first time ever. Your description and pictures resonated with many of my idealistic fantasies about what communities can be like, even temporary ones :)

ReaderRita said...

Wow. Thank you for this. I never really had the straight dope on Burning Man. Now I do. I must go there.

whitneybee said...

Such a great description of the event! I just linked to this post over on my blog because my mediocre review of going for the first time last year just doesn't do it justice!

Stef said...

Ah, this really makes me want to go back to Gerlach! I went in 2005 and had a blast. If I return, there are many things I'd try to plan differently, as it was impossible to know completely what it's like until you actually go. Looking forward to the next parts of the recap!

Anonymous said...

Great description of the burn.