I'm on the left.
This is just the text version of the story. If you want to see the good stuff, check out the text AND image presentaion
Disclaimer: Burning Man can't be described, only experienced.
"Welcome to Black Rock City…you may want to wait a while before you set up your tent. We're gonna have a storm."
The greeter stepped aside and pointed behind him…A gray dust tidal wave was rolling toward us.
We inched our loaded-down Honda down the dirt road toward the camping area. We'd been driving for 12 hours packed-in with our food and costumes and drugs and all the water we'd need for drinking and cleaning for the next 3 days. Signs read. "DUST SUCKS. 5mph PLEASE" and "Vehicles not abiding by traffic guidelines will lose their right to tire pressure."
Another road sign echoed the statement on the back of the ticket:
Participants only. No spectators.
And then the dust storm hit. Like the car was suddenly submerged in a milky sea. Total white out. The smell of dust seeped through the vents and the storm surrounded us. We could barely see the brake lights on the truck 10 feet in front of us. Wheels barely moving. Swimming through the thickness. Almost there. Break through…
Then the fury slowed. We come up for air on the other side of The Wardrobe to see row upon row of tents. Colorful flags whipped in the remnants of the windstorm. As visibility increased, the physical magnitude of the temporary city became evident. But the true scope of this community was only beginning to unfold.
It would be impossible to describe the sights. It was a combination of Mad Max and Willy Wonka. Desert survivalist techno-whimsy.
Art cars, random sculptures, nonsensical signs, naked people with painted bodies, elaborate costumes…all contributing to the overwhelming Burning Man experience. There was too much to see. Too much to do. It was mindblowing.
People are organized into theme camps. There was the Lego camp with 1000's and 1000's of legos to play with. There was Radio-Free Burning man (actually several pirate stations broadcast in the desert), The Pinata Fuckers Camp, Camp Atari (yes, they had Ms. Pacman). There were over 400 theme camps, each with its own piece to add to the Gestalt creative Milkshake.
I was with Fraycamp. We were an offshoot of fray.com that invited people to contribute to a project of personal storytelling.
Its like an anti-business convention. Instead of people representing corporate entities…they come representing the creative forces of their group. Instead of a name-badge, people decorate themselves in paint, or feathers, or nothing at all.
I was blown away by the level of commitment. This was not a show. This was a group participation. People spent huge amounts of energy bringing toys and instruments and costumes and things to play with and community meals all the way to the desert. Mountains of props and playthings dragged from San Francisco and Los Angeles and Austin and God-Knows-Where to the Black Rock desert outside Reno, Nevada.
Individual sculptures were set up at random intervals by their creators on the bleak desert plane. There was a huge billowing tower of red fabric…A human form with a Television for a head staring off into the desert…an organic metal vine that spewed fire. Everywhere you turned was another bundle of creative expression. The artists didn't create the pieces to make a buck or spread their name or for any of the things that motivate people back in "the real world." The only motivation was to share the vision and add to the collective experience. I was inspired by the pure artistic motivations. Creations for expressions sake. In fact, at the end of the week, the majority of these sculptures would be burned. Wow.
The motto of Burning Man is "No Spectators." Before we arrived, I had a hard time believing that statement was any more than rhetoric. But I understand now. These are people who make the trek to the middle of nowhere to hang out in 100 degree windstorms with no running water for a week at a time. Many of them renting trucks to haul the aforementioned loads of fun. It takes commitment. It takes a certain lunacy.
And for the people who sneak by…the ones in Bermuda shorts and camcorders? Black Rock City is not a comfortable place for spectators. Being a spectator is a sure way to be ridiculed or better yet, enveloped by a participatory event:
At the Confess Your Conformities booth, I saw a man in a Priest outfit walk into a group of people and put his arm around a man holding a camcorder. "Looks like you're taking pictures and not participating…Its time to confess your sins." He then escorted him into the confessional booth to be broadcast via megaphone to the surrounding area.
You can certainly record the event, just make sure you are a part of it all.
When nighttime falls, the personality of the city changes. It cools down enough so that basic movement is possible without sweating. The glowsticks come out. The fires start. Motorized couches cruise around the dusty desert. The sound systems crank up. Gas generators power a fully-functioning Thunderdome city. Processions and mini parades cruise by intermittently. Some are scheduled. Many are not. One morning our camp went on an impromptu sock-puppet parade and protest march.
And that summed up the attitude of the Event to me: Do whatever you want. Follow whatever impulse you get. Listen to that inner muse. And the more hardcore you get, the more it is appreciated by your fellow participants. No holding back. No having to be subtle. Anything goes. Just let the creative impulses flow.
On Sunday night they burn the man. 15,000 people huddled around a huge figure screaming "BURN IT! BURN IT!" Bodies are decorated. Faces painted. This is the culmination of a week of creative unleashing…and the pitch is incredible. 1000's of complicated lives are for a moment focused on the fire. Nothing exists except for that single element. We all get a phoenix-treatment as pent-up remorse, guilt, anger, and frustration ignites in the communal burn.
A week later. Re-emerged on this side of the dust storm. I can still feel the fire gurgling inside.
For some photos that give a peek at the event (and my smashing blue tutu outfit) check out this slideshow. (will open a new window)
Mardi Gras Madness
Crossing Over the Line