Strange desert

A version of this essay was published in Meanjin, November 2011

Burning Man is a raver Vegas, a sea of fireballs, glow sticks and laser beams spewed across a blistered prehistoric lakebed in Nevada. It is an arts festival that has run for some 25 years, culminating each year in the burning of a hundred-foot high neon effigy. It is a city, Black Rock City, built from the ground up by 60,000 active participants and disappeared just one week later, scorched or carted away with no trace left behind. It is also a philosophy of being, a strange brew of hedonism and humanitarianism, environmentalism and anarchy; of libertarianism, sexual freedom and neo-spiritual bunkum. It runs for a week, but resonates through lives. People don’t just go, they convert.

I tend to resist cults, as a rule. I was a determined non-believer when I hit Black Rock City, an intrepid cultural tourist with an armour of quiet cynicism, mostly interested in seeing large-scale sculpture in the middle of the desert. That’s what a cursory image search for Burning Man reveals: monumental artworks under a blinding sun. But scratch the surface of the interweb and the earnest heart of the festival explodes, the hippy underpinnings of the event reveal themselves. The likelihood of widespread public nudity becomes apparent. If, like me, you are not a hippy and generally dislike seeing the penises of middle-aged men, this is problematic.

I wanted to go but I worried about the penises, and even more alarming were the Ten Principles. On the festival website, alongside a not altogether helpful link titled ‘What Is Burning Man?’, I found a list of values that the festival participants are asked to uphold, with brief, opaque descriptions beneath each item. The principles of Burning Man are: Participation, Radical Inclusion, Immediacy, Radical Self-Expression, Gifting, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Decommodification, Radical Self-Reliance and Leaving No Trace. The only directive that was in any way familiar to me was ‘Leaving No Trace’, as the phrase ‘Love the farm, leave no trace’ is widely employed at the Glastonbury Festival (though along with the request ‘Don’t pee on the land’, in Somerset it is largely ignored.)  Leaving no trace seemed self-explanatory. The rest of the principles were mystifying.

Under the principle of ‘Radical Self-Expression’ the event organisers wrote, ‘Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others.’ Under ‘Radical Self-Reliance’ they simply encouraged participants to ‘discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.’ No suggestion as to what inner resources might be particularly useful in this context. Most disturbing was the principle of ‘Participation’ (also radical), which advised festival attendees to ‘achieve being through doing’ as ‘we make the world real through actions that open the heart.’

It’s not that I disagreed with these principles necessarily, I just had no idea what they meant. I suspected the legions of Burning Man participants had no idea what they meant either, but would take them as license to construct a vaudevillian party commune in which unwashed semi-naked stoner could hug unwashed semi-naked stoner with impunity, before improvising some bad street theatre, dropping acid and twirling fire. I imagined lots of talk about fucking the dominant paradigm and smashing the state, and free-loving on anyone with an orifice to spare. And I was right, more or less. Burning Man is a vaudevillian party commune, as described. It is a collective expression of non-specific, anti-establishment sentiment by adult people dressed for a toddler’s birthday party who take a lot of drugs. Mountains of drugs, in fact, a dominant feature. But the Ten Principles are important, too. The Ten Principles are both specific instructions and signposts to an alternate reality.

A brief history lesson

Burning Man began in 1986 on Baker Beach in San Francisco, where Larry Harvey (now executive director of the event) and Jerry James gathered with a dozen friends and an eight-foot wooden effigy. They set the figure on fire as a ‘spontaneous act of radical self-expression’; to celebrate the winter solstice and revolt against the dehumanising, desensitising effects of Bush Senior’s thriving capitalist agenda. The simple act of building something and then watching it burn was a symbolic rejection of materialism and a purifying act, encompassing both beauty and violence.

The effigy quickly became an annual ritual, gradually migrating to Black Rock Desert. As the size of the effigy grew so did the audience, from hundreds to thousands, then tens of thousands. And as the event evolved, the Ten Principles grew up around it. They were intended to preserve the original spirit of the event, to promote on what is now a massive scale the idea of revolution through creative community, self-empowerment through self-reliance and transformation through destruction. A bonfire on a beach gave birth to a new form of society. Burning Man. Burners. The Burn.

How to conquer dust

The desert is cruel, so come prepared – this is what they mean by ‘Radical Self-Reliance’. Black Rock City has the air of a refugee camp, huddled in arched streets against the brutality of the desert. Cars, tents, RVs and people are coated in fine white dust, which lies heavy on the ground and kicks off in regular wind storms – white outs, they call them, met with goggles and gas masks. Dust etches itself into your fingerprints and crawls down the back of your throat, while the desert robs your body of moisture and the sun bakes the skin off your shoulders. This is a post-apocalyptic scene. Over several days, you are eaten by dust and dry heat. Your cuticles curl back and the corners of your eyes and mouth begin crack while grit and mucus fill your nasal passages. It feels like you’ll never be clean.

To practice ‘Radical Self-Reliance’ at Burning Man is to understand that your body is under constant attack and you are expected to defend yourself. Whatever you need, including moisture, must be carried in and carried out, because the principle of ‘Decommodification’ means that virtually nothing is for sale. There is no corporate sponsorship at Burning Man, commercial signs are not welcome and unlike other camping festivals, Burning Man has no marketplace. Glastonbury is lousy with pop up shops, thrift stores and Chai tea vendors, army surplus dealers, bars and even plucky makeshift hairdressing salons. At Burning Man, you can’t buy food or water, let alone moisturiser or sunscreen. There are toilets, medical stations, and coffee vendors at the centre of camp. Anything else you need, you bring. It’s you against the desert.

The key to a good Burn is preparation, and long-time Burners lead the way. In dozens of ‘theme camps’ across Black Rock City, seasoned festival-goers enact the principle of ‘Communal Effort’ to build fantasy enclaves for all to enjoy. Yoga pods, saunas, jungle gyms and junkyards are erected out of nothing by people who have paid to be there, who have planned and executed these epic projects with teamster-like professionalism. They scheme all year, hire huge rental trucks, and through their coordinated efforts make Black Rock City appear. It is an Amish barn-raising on a massive municipal scale.

How to love

If by some chance you are not prepared, not radically self-reliant and a little naive, you will find yourself beneficiary of the Burning Man principle of ‘Gifting’ (whether you deserve it or not). I arrived at the festival with a tent and some toiletries, and no particular clue about how I would survive. I was rescued from my ignorance by my campmates at Nectar Village who greeted me half naked, with cocktails and kindness in hand. Showers were provided, three meals a day, drugs, affection and expert guidance, and all of these things were bestowed on me before I could think to ask for them. Elsewhere at the festival, people gave away clothes, pancakes, watermelon and ice cream, pickled ginger and cuddles, expecting nothing in return. They came with practical, funny, creative gifts and all I could do was say, ‘Thank you.’

The culture of giving is so fundamental to Burning Man that far more things are on offer than you actually need and it is a kind of duty to accept them – a mode of generosity that is joyful for everyone, far from the consumer-driven world. People were genuinely kind, and went to a lot of effort for the sake of their fellow Burners, giving wholeheartedly, warmly, expecting nothing in return.

On reflection, it was weird that it was weird to me, but we are conditioned to be suspicious. This is what a healthy society should look like, surely. A few more clothes, if it were up to me, but fundamentally the same shape.

How to play

By far and away, the most important principles of Burning Man are ‘Participation’ and ‘Radical Self-Expression’ because these things, more than anything else, are what Burning Man is for. ‘Self-Reliance’ and ‘Gifting’ are how you do it, ‘Participation’ and ‘Self-Expression’ are why.

The organisers of Burning Man curate and provide funding for the biggest art projects and installations, but much of what you experience at the event is created by the festival goers. They want to play a part, to make an impression, to play with metal and fire. These festival goers are the festival, in effect. Black Rock City is built by their wishes and dreams, and their wishes and dreams are endless.

There are countless things to do during the day—mass acapella sing-alongs, steam baths, anal sex workshops, disco yoga, political lectures, nachos brunches, bar mitzvahs, beer tossing, gay marriages, storytelling, topless bike rides and indescribable goat-slapping ceremonies involving paper-mache goats—but Burning Man is truly phenomenal at night. At night, the desert goes supernova and everyone loses their minds.

Black Rock City curves around a vast circular plain called the ‘playa’ and out there that Burning Man really happens, in the wide open expanse of the desert. At night, the playa is a dark ocean flooded with light. There are tens of thousands of bicycles draped in electroluminescent ‘glow’ wire, zipping about like fireflies. There are slow-trawling ‘mutant vehicles’, cars and trucks rendered unrecognisable by design, which appear on the horizon as neon-hued pirate ships, giant sharks, Death Stars and mountain-sized insects. There are sound camps, too, of various designs – Thunderdome structures that glitter like disco balls, multi-coloured castles and stepped neon valleys, where dubstep and house DJs drown the air in bass. There are hundreds of radiant sculptures that litter the horizon, catching your eye with a far glint of light and drawing you off on new and unexpected adventures.

At night, you walk and walk and walk, jaw trailing on the ground. There is so much, so astonishing, so impossible and delightful, that you never see the same thing twice. It is a lean-to fantasy, a carnival in the dust, a ton of cool shit in the desert. And towering above it all, there is The Temple and The Man, two colossal structures that will burn.

How to pray

Over several dusty days, I came to love Burning Man, but not without caveats. They talk about the principle of ‘Radical Inclusion’, but it is an overwhelmingly white and middle class festival, so expensive to get there, to prepare and participate. The ubiquitous nudity becomes bland very quickly, but the dominant fashion aesthetic is dire: industrial corsets, hot pants, fairy wings and fuzzy raver boots, designed to make West Coast yoga vixens look like anime sex objects, taking its cue from nineties rave culture and geeky steampunk fantasy. People at Burning Man are sometimes too earnest about Burning Man, without properly acknowledging the 24-hour party culture that drives the event, and the brain-pounding sound of techno is everywhere, inescapable and dull. Some of it is silly, some of it is tacky, and some of it is just plain stupid. There actually was a lecture called Fuck the Dominant Paradigm and, believe me, it was nonsense. But whatever doubts or criticisms I may hold, however much I want to giggle at the mention of anal sex workshops, there is no denying the power of a massive burning effigy. The ritual at the heart of Burning Man is the best reason to go.

There are now two Burns, taking place over the last two nights of the festival—first The Man that stands in the dead centre of the playa, then The Temple at its outermost edge. They burn the Man on the Saturday night in a hurricane of noise, with dance music blaring from assembled art cars, fireworks and fire twirling, and screaming from the crowd. Amid high traffic and hysteria, the most recognisable landmark in Black Rock City becomes a hundred foot high blazing inferno, then the night descends into chaos. The Man is your compass when you’re out on the playa and without him orientation is hopeless.

On the Sunday night, the last night of Burning Man, they burn the Temple. Each year, the Temple is a new and astonishing architectural creation, towering several stories above the dust. For most of the festival participants, it is a spiritual place, which by the end of the week is festooned with messages and memento mori honouring loved ones, old friends, pets and ex-girlfriends, and graffiti proclaiming the healing powers of the desert. When the Temple burns, it burns in silence. It burns away grief and regret.

I visited the Temple—a series of domed pagodas connected by arched bridges, pale against the playa—but I didn’t leave anything behind. I had no inclination to participate. The scribbled messages of sadness and triumph that coated the walls read like a high school yearbook to me; no matter how real the sentiments, it seemed like a juvenile way to express them. I found myself standing outside of that experience, trying to be respectful, but quietly rolling my eyes at that communal performance of spirituality and growth.

The Temple itself was lovely but it meant nothing to me. I was surprised that when it burned, I began to cry.

It was the greatest bonfire I had ever seen, a hundred metres wide, consuming the whole sky. Burning forever, it seemed, with sixty thousand people clustered around in quiet witness. While the Temple burned, I thought about the people that had built it. I thought about the year they slaved to conceive of this amazing work of art; the year they took to design it, to construct it, and decorate it here in the desert, knowing all the time that it was destined to become a smoldering pile of ashes.

I wondered if I could devote myself to something so completely, invest my whole heart in it, knowing that it’s destruction was inevitable. And it occurred to me that that was my life, burning away to nothing. That was how I came in my own small way to be converted to the Burner cause—a revelation; a transformative moment at an art happening in the desert. I realised that even though I was going to die, I had invested my whole heart in living; that life is such a bittersweet thing, only beautiful because it ends.


Image: Burning Man 2011 by photojournalist Scott London.