It's Burning Man
Report from the extraordinary Burning Man Festival
Every year a dry lake-bed in the middle of the Nevada Desert hosts one of the most extraordinary festivals on the planet. With temperatures soaring well over 100 degrees, twenty eight thousand people create a temporary city and spend a week as co-participants of the Burning Man. Roger Lewis frolicked with the freaks and freedoms at this year's event and found himself well and truly fired up.
In 1986 eight people attended a party in California, burnt an effigy and decided to make their gathering an annual event. This year 28,000 people came along. The Burning Man Festival is described as an experiment in radical self-expression, a temporary autonomous zone where anything goes. Anything except money that is. For a period of one week no commercial activity is allowed. With the one exception of coffee and ice sold at the Centre Cafe, you cannot buy or sell goods or services for money. Anything you need must be bartered for. A song or a pair of socks will get you a beer at the bar. A condom for a cocktail. A kiss is good currency. In line with this non-commercial principle, prominent logos on the sides of hire trucks are either covered or amended in an imaginative way. "Truck Rental" is adjusted to become "Fuck Gentle".
One of the few rules in a place where rules are remarkably few is that no spectators are allowed. Everyone must be a participant. Of course in the middle of a hot desert, there are also a few basic rules of survival. You must, for instance, bring all the water you need for a week. But by and large the Burning Man festival is art anarchy in action.
IT THEN DROVE OVER TO A GIANT SCULPTURE OF ELVIS (BEING USED AS A CONFESSIONAL), RIPPED IT OUT OF THE GROUND AND TORCHED IT.
On a dry lake-bed known as the 'playa', Black Rock City springs up with a population of 28,000 people creating geometrically arranged camps which cover five square miles. A bike is more or less essential and, even though I had one, I don't reckon I saw a fraction of what was going on here.
Like most American cities built to the Roman orthogonal design, Black Rock City has a grid system of streets. Uniquely, however, the city forms the shape of a three quarter clock-face with roads from two o'clock to ten o'clock. The streets of concentric circles are named after the Seven Ages of Man, from Infant through to Oblivion. I was staying at 6:30 and Lover.
The constellation of inter-active theme camps which make up the city are both beautiful and bizarre, bearing names like 'Inner Demon Rodeo', the 'Temple of Atonement', and the' Fornication Station'. To enter the camp called 'Flight to Mars' you had to go through a maze of texture and colour representing an alien landscape. At the end you crawled through a giant vagina before emerging into an open-air nightclub.
Meanwhile Dr.Megavolts had built a 15-foot high Tesla coil that shot streaks of lightening into the black night. In his specially adapted suit he walked around the site catching bolts of lightening on his head! Then the Subjugator made its appearance. This is a radio-controlled robot-claw on a tracked vehicle. As we stood around looking at this monster the cowboy in charge told us he barely had control of it. He wasn't kidding either. Seconds later a jet of flame shot out from the front sending everyone diving for cover. It then drove over to a giant sculpture of Elvis (being used as a confessional), ripped it out of the ground and torched it. A stricken voice behind me shouted: "Oh my god y'all, look what they've done to the King!" Another night I came across the 'Bliss Abyss'. I climbed the steps up the side of a large geodesic dome and lifted a flap to see an entangled group of bodies in what is best described as an orgy. In front of you a fireman's pole offered you the opportunity to slide down and join them. Then there was 'SpectatorCamp.com', a stand of seats where people would sit and cajole freaks walking by to perform for them. It completely subverted the "participants not spectators" idea.
SO MANY PEOPLE WALK AROUND NAKED AND PAINTED THAT PUBLIC NUDITY IS UNREMARKABLE, ALTHOUGH I WAS SURPRISED BY THE AMOUNT OF IRONMONGERY WHICH SOME PEOPLE HAVE PIERCED IN THEIR GENITALS.
You could "Discover a New Soul-Mate" - have your photo taken and fill out the questionnaire. By the following day you are matched to someone on-site and given their name and camp. A different person has also been matched to you and likewise they have been given your address so they can track you down. Unfortunately, I never got to meet either soul mate!
There are some extraordinary art installations built for the duration of the festival before being burned; not least is the Man itself, the 70 foot high neon lit figure at the centre of the city. More on him later.
The 'Temple of Tears' was a giant construction made of filigreed wood that represented a mausoleum. As the week went on, people began to write on the walls the names of loved-ones who had died. Then photos and poetry were added which gave the place an incredibly solemn mood. At the end of the week the temple was due for incineration.
THE CITY EVEN HAS ITS OWN LANDING STRIP, AS WELL AS A COUPLE OF DAILY NEWSPAPERS AND ABOUT 50 RADIO STATIONS.
One character I came across was 'Waterboy'; occupying a transparent plastic suit full of water held up by a large frame. Submerged in the suit was a naked man breathing via the oxygen tanks on top of the construction. Passers-by would hug him or poke him. So many people walk around naked and painted that public nudity is unremarkable, although I was surprised by the amount of ironmongery which some people have pierced in their genitals. 'Critical Tits' was a popular event - hundreds of women with painted breasts touring the festival city on bikes!
Most citizens of Black Rock City carry a face-mask and goggles, not a fashion accessory but essential, for when a dust storm starts to blow there can be a complete white-out, and you can't see your hand in front of your face. The 'Human Car Wash' was useful after one of these dust storms. Basically you walk through two lines of naked people some squirting water on you, others rubbing different parts of your body down. When you get to the end you join the line to help wash the next person through. Like a car wash you can get different levels of service vaguely related to the amount of intrusion you can take. I heard one guy emerge saying that someone had stuck a finger up his ass!
ON THE TICKET FOR THE FESTIVAL ARE THE WORDS "YOU VOLUNTARILY ASSUME THE RISK OF SERIOUS INJURY OR DEATH BY ATTENDING" ....AND THIS WARNING IS NOT HYPE.
There were whole villages of communal camps, like 'Disturbia', where you could get mummified in an 'Ancient Kaos Funerary' or play with the naughty but fun animals in the 'Heavy Petting Zoo'.
Numerous art-cars transport people around the playa and overhead you see home-made flying machines which give the place a Mad Max feel (you can also engage in combat at the 'Thunderdome'). Yes and the city even has its own landing strip, as well as a couple of daily newspapers and about 50 radio stations. Silicon Valley's cyber-community ensure you can still get your e-mails on site, by setting up not one but two wireless networks with an up-link to satellite. The dust gets into every nook, cranny and orifice and I was surprised by the number of people with high-tech computer, video and audio equipment prepared to have their gear destroyed during the event.
FETISHISM ABOUNDS AT BURNING MAN BUT NOT COMMODITY FETISHISM. THE FESTIVAL IS A RADICAL ALTERNATIVE BECAUSE MONEY HERE DOES NOT CONFER STATUS.
On Saturday night the Man burns. Well explodes more like. On the ticket for the Festival are the words "You voluntarily assume the risk of serious injury or death by attending" ....and this warning is not hype. As we stood around waiting for the Man to burn, giant jets of flame shot 250 feet into the air, the heat so intense that I was on the verge of running away when the fire cannons stopped. Giant dust-devils swirled like tornadoes around the Burning Man and the atmosphere in the crowd was electric. When the Man finally collapsed everyone rushed forward to dance around the fire. Those at the front, realising it was hotter than they thought turned back but ran straight into the people at the back of the crowd who were still rushing forward. One enduring image was seeing someone in one of those silver suits that you see used by airport fire-fighters. He was right in the middle of the fire while silhouetted against the flames I could pick out people in devil costumes, horns and all! The symbolism of 'the Burn' means many things to many people, pagan ritual or primal regeneration, you can take from it whatever esoteric significance you want. For me it was just a massive party. The following night the 'Temple of Tears' mausoleum went up in smoke. The mood was markedly different from the previous night; very sombre but no less powerful as people remembered their dearly departed.
The Burning Man is so American in many ways; the 'frontier' feeling and wide-open spaces, the fire and explosions, the mutant vehicles, and the air-conditioned RVs. But on the other hand there's also the anti-consumerism; no promotions, no logos. Capitalist society needs people to consume and we are constantly persuaded to define ourselves through what we buy, what labels we wear. Fetishism abounds at Burning Man but not commodity fetishism. The festival is a radical alternative because money here does not confer status, it is what you give to the community that is important not what you spend. In a culture where TV mediates our immediate experience of life, Burning Man is radical because the emphasis is on collective effort and participation. The event challenges the alienation that our society generates. Which I guess sounds quite strange for a place where you can propagate your talents at the Alien Love Nest!
ALL VIDEO CAMERAS MUST BE REGISTERED AND ARE TAGGED WITH A NUMBER. IF SOMEONE IS INTERFERING WITH YOUR EXPERIENCE AND THEY CONTINUE TO IGNORE YOUR REQUEST TO STOP TAKING PICTURES, YOU CAN REPORT THEM TO THE BLACK ROCK RANGERS - BURNING MAN'S OWN COMMUNITY MEDIATORS.
But the "anything goes" atmosphere is also tempered by the fact that the Law does take an interest. In fact, there are four law-enforcement agencies with jurisdiction in the area including the Bureau of Land Management. Most of the time the Bureau look after the empty desert landscape but they carry guns and hand-out citations at the festival for things like having sex in public and possession of marijuana! One night I saw the County Sheriffs' men searching a group of young people for drugs whilst everyone else just carried on dancing as if nothing was happening. I told my American friends that if this were in England the police would be harangued by other partygoers and that in the UK it was not unknown for people to be de-arrested by a crowd. I was told that the fact that law-enforcers in the US carry firearms makes it totally different and anyone intervening in an arrest is likely to be taken in as well. However, besides the arrests mentioned above I hardly saw any police officers throughout the whole week of the festival.
The way the festival tries to maintain its integrity is interesting as parallels can be drawn with events and movements in Europe. Pragmatism and idealism co-exist. For instance, how do you deal with the media who are notorious for their sensationalism and shallow analysis? Well Burning Man knows it is useless to ignore them so they actually co-opt the media. Journalists are given costumes (and who knows what else) and encouraged to participate in the communal experience. By also giving them ideas about the themes of this community it is hoped that they will file copy which will explore and respect the unique ethos of Burning Man. All video cameras must be registered and are tagged with a number. If someone is interfering with your experience and they continue to ignore your request to stop taking pictures, you can report them to the Black Rock Rangers - Burning Man's own community mediators.
Toilets, always an issue for festival-goers, are known as porta-potties here. Now you could expect that with the heat alone these would be pretty disgusting but I was astounded that they were kept so clean. Everyone here is exhorted to only put into the potties what comes out of your body. Black Rock City depends on people sticking to this and a crisis loomed early in the week when beer bottles were found in some of the potties. The contractor (who had come 140 miles from Reno to empty them) was threatening to pull out which would have meant the end of the Festival. Black Rock Rangers quickly spread the word and the problem did not happen again. One bar had a sign saying, "Latrine abusers not welcome here".
"Leave no trace" is the parting ethic of Burning Man. If you pack it in, you pack it out. No bins are provided and you see no litter on the ground. Everyone takes their own rubbish home and there aren't even any discarded cigarette butts left on the desert floor. Once Black Rock City is dismantled, there is no evidence left of the community that existed there. The slate is wiped clean so that next year another incredible City can be reborn anew.
ASSEMBLIES OF CELEBRATION, ASSEMBLIES OF DISSENT - recent political history of UK raves and festivals - 1998
THERE'S NO SUCH THING AS A FREE FESTIVAL - the UK free festival scene - Squall 14 - Autumn-1996