Burning Man: Not a Place // By Guest Blogger: Rosa del Duca // Photography by Nicholas Leither
One of the very first things Nicholas ever said to me, before we had even met in person, was “I’m more curious than most cats about… nearly everything except Burning Man.” I ignored the comment because I really liked the guy. You see, after having gone to Burning Man just once, I was enamored. Burning Man. People who have gone say it with a different emphasis and a faraway gleam in their eye. If you could magnify the gleam it’d show you dusty boots and lumbering art cars and tiny fire tornadoes and thousands of bicyclists pedaling furiously to reach a speed of ten miles an hour, all the while basking under the woo-woo blissed-out magical energy dome that settles onto this strange temporary city in the middle of the Nevada’s Black Rock Desert every summer.
A capture from Google Maps:
It’s impossible to describe the burn to outsiders, but that doesn’t stop us from trying. The result is people think it’s one wild party, that everyone’s high as a kite, that people fuck with abandon in public and cross lines and descend into debauchery. Okay, so there’s a little of that. But the burn is what each individual chooses to make of it. It’s hard to think of one person who would hate Burning Man. Those with an outdoorsy streak enjoy honing their extreme camping and survival skills. The artsy types are inundated with installations and contraptions and fashion and feats of craftiness. Musicians and music lovers can find live music or DJ’s spinning club music at any hour of the day. Builders, engineers, tech dorks, mechanics, fixers and craftsmen marvel over what it takes to make everything on the open playa and in the city. Sparkle ponies (pretty people) revel in providing eye candy as much as the shirt cockers (men who wear nothing but a Hawaiian shirt and sandals) take pride in offering comic relief. Actually, half of Burning Man is one silly, extravagant joke. So if you hate to laugh, have no sense of humor, are bored by art and music and strange people doing the most unexpected things, and can’t surrender to getting a little sweaty and dusty then no, Burning Man is not for you.
Burning Man’s founder, Larry Harvey, came up with ten principles or guidelines for the event. They are: radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation, and immediacy. It sounds like the charter for a utopian city rather than an “arts and culture” festival. And, miraculously, it’s treated that way. Ninety-five percent of burners do not leave a trace. They don’t trash the port-a-potties. They work to include and welcome. Many camps give out food, drinks, ice cream, otter pops, misting showers, pee funnels, kisses, advice, and any number of far stranger items/ideas. Others give all-night dance parties, back an art installation, teach yoga and meditation, or hold classes/activities on just about everything under the sun. Here are a few descriptions from this year’s planner book:
Middle-Easter Drum and Dance Rhythm Jam: Uli Baba invites middle eastern drummers to join belly dancers in a drum and dance improve for an adoring crowd as our slaves attend you.
Speed Counseling: In a speed dating format, you’ll have six minutes to co-counsel with another person before the ding! bell goes off and you’re on to the next person.
Portal People Power Hour: Learn how the Portals use sacred geometry, color and sound as evolutionary interfaces between the Earth’s and participants’ vibrational energy body.
Bullhorn Poetry Slam: Just what it sounds like! Bring your bullhorn and your original work.
The only things for sale at Burning Man are ice and coffee. No one carries a wallet. Everyone feels compelled to participate, to see and do, to lend a hand, to follow the unwritten ethos. There are all kinds at the burn—metalheads, Goths, hippies, corporate guys, town mice and city mice, young, old, gay, straight, in-between, rich, poor, Northern Hemisphere, Southern Hemisphere, pill poppers, purists, exhibitionists, introverts… Normally, packed into the same little city, that could cause some tension to say the least. But nope. Everyone is accepted. Everywhere you turn, someone is ravenous to connect with you through conversation or art or music or just a look. And with nothing do to, nowhere to be, far removed from the expectations/obligations/laws/rules of the real world, you are entirely free to connect and see and express. And when you get overwhelmed, sitting back and watching is just as rewarding.
This year Nicholas went to Burning Man for the first time. While he’d shed a lot of skepticism, he was still a bit of a cynic about the whole thing. How could it possibly be that great? It took us six hours to travel the final twenty miles into the event, and watching his face I could see he was wondering if this would all be worth it. Hell, I was wondering myself. What if I’d built it up in my head? It had been such a pain in the ass to get here. We’d been on a tug-of-war roller coaster ride to get tickets, we’d engaged in plenty of consumerism to attend this off the grid, decommodified city, planned for months, worried, gotten annoyed and frustrated with each other. And clearly, Burning Man wasn’t doing its part to keep up with growing participation. (During the course of the week, nearly 70,000 people traveled to the playa. All used the one road in. The one Will Call. The one gate into the city. While no one wants to admit it, unless access changes are made, Burning Man is too big for its own good.) You could feel the tension on that long, crawling exodus in. Girls who had obviously never been to the burn stalked through the lanes of stalled traffic like strippers, noses in the air. Men strode, avoiding eye contact. We crossed our arms and set our jaws and sighed a lot. We took turns cutting each other off. We didn’t commiserate or chat. We were hot and tired and thirsty and frustrated and carrying the circuitry of the real world in our gotta-look-out-for-number-one brains.
Us in queue:
But as soon as we hit the streets of the city, the otherworldly quality of Burning Man started to eat away at our shell. Nicholas and I met our friends, threw up a haphazard “camp,” changed into new skins, hopped on our bikes, and pushed toward open playa. We popped out of the city next to the 24-hour roller disco blaring Michael Jackson, but we barely noticed it. In front of us, stood The Man, on top of an enormous wooden UFO we would watch burn at the end of the week. The desert throbbed and hummed with people and old motors and a menagerie of sound systems. Neon lights and flames lit up the sky from all directions. In the distance, pyramids towered, a huge silver ball hung from a crane, a metal wolf howled at the red moon, fire roared from the head and tentacles of a giant octopus, a rubber duckie the size of a parking garage inched toward a giant boom box on wheels, and a woman as tall as a skyscraper shifted in hue from silver to purple to blue. We had breached the middle of a tiny, secret universe.
As an island with people lounging under palm trees floated past us, Nicholas laughed and shook his head at me. Seeing the I-understand-what-Burning-Man-is gleam burst into existence in his eyes, I smiled and randomly pointed, “Let’s go see what that is!”’
All is fine and dandy while you’re at Burning Man. The problem is trying to take it home. At home, there are walls and gatekeepers and loud voices shouting: “You can’t do that.” Can you imagine if we all took a few of Harvey’s guidelines to heart? Radical self-reliance for instance. Civic responsibility. Immediacy. I can’t help but note that Burning Man grows larger every year. I can only assume more and more people are taking home a longing for the real world to “get it,” to quit making excuses, to loosen up a little while at the same time, take things more seriously. I’m not going to hold my breath that the walls between Burning Man and the real world come crashing down anytime soon, but I may start a campaign to move Congress to BRC for one week out of the year. And instead of a prenup, I may insist on a Burning-Man-at-least-every-three-years clause when Nicholas and I get hitched. Somehow I don’t think it’ll be that hard of a sell.
Rosa and Nicholas