Burning Man: “Welcome Home” (part 1)
There comes a time in every writer’s adventures when you meet your creative match and get Half Nelsoned by its sheer size and overwhelming power. Burning Man floored me, leaving me breathless and disorientated, a dumbstruck primate without the evolutionary skill or reasoning to make sense of its sheer size or imaginative detail. If I had been further along my evolutionary journey, I would have given it two thumbs up but instead I just grunted my approval and drank of its refreshing cool aid.
From the get go I knew it would take more than a clever metaphor or oasis of adjectives to put this desert festival into proper perspective. There’s just too much for a mind to compute, too much for your eyes and ears to process. It’s like having 100 browser windows open at the same time. You go mad trying to focus on one thing and feel restless knowing there is so much more to experience every minute of every day. The music guide alone is 34 pages long; the booklet of camp activities and interactions another 160 pages deep. And that’s not counting the miles you will walk or cycle visiting the 230 commissioned installations and hundreds more that get erected every day. At some point you will do the maths and realise that even with more hours, less sleep and stronger pharmaceuticals you will never ever ever see it all. And the sooner you make peace with that, the sooner you can really start to enjoy this gigantic adult playground for the playful creative experience that it will be, no matter how poor your preparation or challenged your time management skills.
As a virgin burner, I was very lucky to get into an established camp and get an “early entry” ticket, which allowed me to see Black Rock City being raised from its salt bed, a miracle of dust, sweat and imagination no more incredible than a single rib giving rise to Eve. It took just a few days for Nevada to claim Black Rock City as its third largest city (after Vegas and Reno), and a few more to get its 66 000 citizens to tear it all down again, leaving no trace of the enormous energy or effort spent erecting the thousands of camps, art cars, installations, music camps, pimped up bicycles, personal gifting ideas and creative costumes. There was a couple in my camp who spent the better part of their Denver winter collecting cool belts from thrift stores and turning them into 300-odd bracelets that they gifted to random strangers (and this lucky neighbour).
I have to question the work ethic of the ancient Romans. If Burners were around, Rome would have been built in a day, and torn down a week later. To put it into perspective, it took hundreds of volunteers 2 years and 160 000 pounds of wood to create the $266 000 Embrace – a 72 ft wooden cathedral-like sculpture of two human figures embracing. The final structure was completed on the Monday and brought to ashes on the Friday morning before the sun knew to stop casting its shadow. All that work for four days of pleasure. That’s akin to a team of Buddhist monks spending months making a Mandala only to blow it away in a few seconds. And that’s just one art installation, al be it a very big one. And that’s just part of what makes Burning Man so crazy and unique, even 26 years in. It goes against so many social norms and “rules”, like the ones that govern your time and energy, making sure you are well compensated for these or at least suitably recognised for your efforts. Give a pashmina or massage away to a random stranger? What is this malarkey you speak of? Spend months constructing an art car that looks like the Golden Gate Bridge levitating on water when lit up at night? Why would you spend $200 000 putting on a kickass party every night without any means to recoup this spend? How will they know to credit your generosity on Facebook or hashtag your efforts on twitter? The only good advice the default world has given is to wear sunscreen. Creativity is no cure or excuse for melanoma after the Burn.
So much of what goes on at Burning Man wouldn’t work or make sense in the “default” world (as burners call the outside world). Nudity, coffee enemas, polygamy tents, armpit farts, bondage; whatever your fantasy or persuasion you will always find a camp or gifting to support it. Outsiders naturally wonder and ask about the sex and taboos. And yes, it’s there for the taking and swopping. But in my opinion the 10 principles of Burning Man address more important social taboos, ones that we should rather be questioning and shunning. In our default world “decommodification” often seems as reprehensible as “radical expression” and “radical inclusion”. You only have to watch Fox news to know that.
It’s true. Burning Man is not the real world. Not even close (thank God, Allah and Big Foot). It’s the kind of place where you can get your bike serviced (for free) by a woman who was forced to close her startup bike business only to pass Sergey Brin (Mr Google himself) sitting in sequin shorts by the rings at a circus camp. Here, we are all someone and no one at the same time. For one week, someone presses the reset button and you get to be and do whatever you want.
And you can’t find a better environment to test screen your alter ego, exercise your avatar or let your inner child go wild with excitement. The creative energy that burns through these fault lines and default lives is more addictive than sugar, more revitalising than sleep.
“Welcome home”. That’s how the volunteers greet you at the gate. It should be followed up by “Alice”, because once you’ve been made to roll around in the playa dirt and ring your virgin bell, it’s only a matter of time before you go down the the rabbit hole and enter a world where caterpillars smoke hookahs and giant scorpions shoot fire from their tales and Victorian ships sail through the desert.
Watch out for BM: Part Two…. The elemental experience