“Sounds like a cult to me” accused my husband on our fourth or fifth argument about going to Burning Man. This was sometime back when we were living in Ocean Beach, probably in 2007. I didn’t care if it turned out to be a cult, I wanted to check it out for myself.
I’d just attended an official San Diego Regional Burn somewhere near the Anza Borrego Desert. I’d felt awkward and out-of-place yet something about it tugged at a suppressed longing. Maybe it was just being dressed in loose flowing clothes with the desert wind through my hair but I felt freer and more hopeful than I had in a long time.
The people I met during that weekend seemed uninhibited and accepting. Men wore dresses, kaftans, shorts, or tights. Women of all sizes and ages, like the men, wore whatever they pleased. I became aware of how judgmental I was and I felt my restrictions slip away.
There was an almost strident playfulness that I appreciated even though I was uncomfortable joining in. While I theoretically embraced the need for adults to rediscover their playful side, I had trouble finding it in myself. Still, I wanted to overcome my reticence, and here was a place to try. I was delighted by people riding a couch that was being dragged by a 1980s limousine. I accepted a piece of bacon from a stranger who had cooked it on a makeshift BBQ he’d brought to a party on his back. I was offered a ride on a boat that had been cleverly melded to a truck underneath. The captain steered from the cockpit and a beautiful person in silvery wings and high heels stood at the bow, arms outstretched like a mock titanic reenactment, their wings flying majestically behind them. Joy bubbled through my body that weekend and I wanted more of it.
Of course, Burning Man was predictably attractive to me, after all, I had pursued a “career” in the theater. I was a kid who always wanted to go to a playground even though shyness froze me once I got there. My longing to be with people was so obvious that I imagine my husband worried it was possible he could lose me to Burning Man. I didn’t think that was possible. For me, even though I yearned to be a part of a creative community, I felt foolish hoping I might find one at Burning Man. Frequent disappointments and rejections made it embarrassing to acknowledge my ongoing hope.
We didn’t know why we were going to Burning Man yet but in 2008 we packed up our (way too much) stuff and our mixed feelings and headed to Black Rock City.
You’ve Got To Be Fucking Kidding Me!
At Burning Man I found the playground of all playgrounds, a playground to beat any playground my child self could have ever imagined. Not only were there more dangerous things to play on than Spinners and Monkey Bars, but it also didn’t have nearly as many recess monitors, mean girls, or bullies. If my skirt flew over my head, no one made fun of me. It was as if entering the gates of Black Rock City magically imbued people with greater tolerance.
Burning Man was a miracle to me, an impossibility, a desert Brigadoon. How had they done it, I wondered. How were they continuing to get away with it? Why had it not been shut down, crumbled, or imploded? How was it even legal? It was so strange and awesome that I thought it must be too good to be true, there must be a catch.
Burning Man is impossible to absorb in a week, or two, or ten. It is vast in every dimension. It is huge physically of course but it’s the amount of unrestrained human creativity and energy that rarely fails to shock the newcomer. Even old-timers experience this amazement. A friend of mine said, as three of us stood gaping at the open playa of the city, “If this ever fails to amaze me, I’ll know I’m done.”
Burning Man is astounding partly because it is so implausible. At night I find myself venturing beyond the city streets and entering the open playa. I look behind me and there are miles of colored lights blinking everywhere, on tents, built structures, art cars, art installations of all kinds, and on thousands of people walking and on bikes. I ride by a dollar sign made out of old household appliances, a moving diner on wheels serving coffee, and an impossibly thin bridge with no discernible support on which people are risking their lives walking in midair. And every year I find myself yelling in glee; “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me!”
I bike further through the quiet night. I can hear the muted far-off pounding of the city and I come across a tiny little television, a lamp, a carpet, and a lounge chair waiting for a single guest. I sit and watch the mini television set playing an old-time black and white cartoon with tinny music. And there it is, that bubbling up of joy within my chest. I am inexpressibly delighted by this intimate space so unexpected after the din of human activity on this endlessly flat and empty alkaline lakebed.
Whatever You Think Burning Man Is, It Isn’t
What makes Burning Man overwhelming is not just the amount of things to do and see but that it can be anything you make it. Each attendee experiences it differently. And even though this makes it impossible to describe accurately, most of us love to try anyway.
Burning Man defies being captured in a pithy phrase or succinct sentence. Calling it an “event in the desert” isn’t very satisfying to the curious (or suspicious). It isn’t an art, music, or performance festival although it has plenty of each. Calling it “an experiment” is simply weird. Some old-timers refer to it as “that thing in the desert”.
The non-profit that organizes Burning Man or the “Burning Man Project” describes it as “…a global ecosystem of artists, makers, and community organizers who co-create art, events, and local initiatives around the world. Most recognizably, tens of thousands of Burners gather annually to build Black Rock City, a participative temporary metropolis in the Nevada desert.” Not very snappy or helpful when telling your grandmother or the customs agent where you’re heading.
Certainly, Burning Man isn’t what you think it is. I can’t recall exactly what I imagined but I’m sure I wasn’t very close. Each person you ask will describe it according to their unique perspective. Visually Burning Man is full of unusual juxtapositions and surprises. A glittering monolithic art piece emerges out of a dust storm, a howling metal coyote captures the setting sun in his jaws, a kinetic walking chair crawls along the dust transporting a man… Burning Man is beauty and harshness, ballgowns and dusty leather, intricate hairstyles and wind that will blow your house down, it’s the silence of pre-dawn and the whoosh of propane blasting through pipes into enormous flames, it’s the solemn contemplation of life at the Temple and the hijinks of the worshippers of the Spaghetti Monster.
The representation of Burning Man on the internet is grossly misleading. Photographers have inundated the web with images of sparkling bikini-clad beauties. It’s a false representation, making many people feel that the event isn’t for them. Most Burners are uniquely beautiful in our own way but we come in all sizes, races, and ages. Very few of us are fashion models and our outfits aren’t made by paid designers. True, too many idiots insist on turning Burning Man into a backdrop for pictures they later use to sell their own outstanding beauty or other product. This is considered poor behavior as it attempts to profit from an event that is not meant for anyone’s financial gain. However, it is difficult to prevent selfish people from being selfish.
Celebrity depictions are a scourge to understanding Burning Man. Their depiction of it as a consumable experience that will increase one’s cool factor is as harmful as it is antithetical to what Burning Man stands for. Media people are onlookers and not participants by definition, so they almost always represent Burning Man in trite, sensational, or superficial ways.
Media misrepresentations and the complexity of the event make it particularly difficult to encapsulate the event for easy understanding. I’ve been 13 times and I still can’t adequately describe it. When someone asks me what Burning Man is like, I ask them how long they have. How is it that I can go away to a place for such a short time and yet have hours of stories to tell? That’s one of the reasons my husband and I keep going back.
One thing Burning Man does intentionally offer is a lesson in generosity. You can only buy ice at Burning Man, almost everything else is given to you as a gift. Anywhere you go you’ll find people offering you something you might want or need like coffee, a margarita, good beer, a place to repair your bike, shoes or zippers, clothes, a massage (maybe with a car buffer), a pickle, a joke, some bad advice, a souvenir street sign you paint yourself or a chance to make your tutu. If you offer to buy something or trade with someone, you haven’t been paying attention. The event gives us practice on how to give and receive and how good it feels. This can even translate into the world. There is a group in San Diego called “1st Saturday” where one of the founders, a well-known and active Burner, credits Burning Man as his inspiration for starting an organization to help the homeless.
You Are Not A Consumer, You Are The Event.
If you don’t find what you want at Burning Man, you are supposed to create it. Indeed, it is important to know that almost everything at Burning Man is there because someone like you brought it. It is as if Disneyland was built and run by the guests. The result is a staggering amount of funny, beautiful, stupid, dangerous, astounding ideas, art installations, events, performance pieces and decoratively moving vehicles.
This year there were over 400 hundred art installations scattered around the play. While more than 80 artists received grants from Burning Man, including San Diego’s Marco “El Muerto” Turrubiartes art installation called “Jackalope Dream Guide”, many pay for the creation of the art themselves. There are hundreds of huge art cars which you may be able to catch a ride on. There are also mutant vehicles and music, so much music from bluegrass to traditional Irish sessions. You can find yoga pretty much all day long, there’s massage and San Diego’s own carcass wash theme camp.
If you are in recovery there are at least 5 meetings a day at Anonymous Village. There’s Hushville, Kidsville, PolyParadise, and a whole gayborhood. There’s a place to camp where no vehicles are allowed. There’s an airport. There is a church service on Sunday, a playa choir and a camp called Religious as Fuck with their own pastor. There’s the Black Rock Philharmonic. There’s wine tasting and flogging and both together if that’s your thing. Yes, there’s an Orgy Dome and an Orgy Bus. There are also traditional tea services and a Space Observatory. This year I saw Saturn and a moon. And so many talks, talks about sustainability, comets, physics, cryptocurrency, consumerism, and inner healing.
Burners can make themselves sick trying to do too much. They might forego sleep or rest, they might try to move from place to place even when the weather is too hot, too cold, too dusty, or too rough. There’s always a moment in the week when I cry over how limited I am, how I am unable to rise to the task of enjoying Burning Man completely.
DIY Cult of Chaos
At first, my husband had reason to think Burning Man was a cult. At the time it even had what looked like a guru in the form of Larry Harvey, a co-founder of the Burning Man event and the executive director until his death. And people talked about it with a reverence that seemed a bit cult-like. Not only that but they called themselves “Burners”. And they had their own dogma called the 10 principles. And even I, with my unstated hope of “finding my tribe” sounded like I was seeking some ideological group of believers. When Larry Harvey was asked if it was a cult, he said; “… it’s a self-service cult. You wash your own brain.”
Yes indeed, if there’s any brainwashing going on, you’ll have to do a lot of it to yourself. Burning Man has several things weaved into its origin story that helped avoid such things as cult ideology. It helps to understand that it sprang from counterculture activism, specifically the Cacophony Society. This group was made of random people dedicated to off-the-wall pranks and unexpected shenanigans meant to be, according to author Karma Bennet, “participatory works of art that both delight and confound.” This society loosely adhered to something author Mark Dery describes as the “joyful demolition of oppressive ideologies”. Their influence on the culture of Burning Man is everywhere.
Fuck Your Burn!
I credit these roots as protection against the event becoming too insular or too mainstream. Beyond the hugs, the ecstasy-soaked ravers, the yoga classes, and bejeweled captain hat-wearing posers, there remains a strong element of anarchy. Everywhere at Burning Man is a challenge to our comfort zone, a poke at our tendencies, and an offer to see something differently, There are jokes everywhere and ironic twists to our expectations.
The ever-changing popular phrases of Burning Man often reflect our anarchist origins. For instance “Safety third” is a gleeful celebration of taking dumb risks like placing a 15-foot slide on an art car that can eject people off the car and onto the road… while moving.
The phrase “It was better next year” makes fun of our shared tendency to bemoan how Burning Man isn’t as good as it used to be, wishing we’d done things better this year and obsessing about how we’ll make it better next year. For me, it’s a reminder to shut up and enjoy the moment.
And most recently the phrase “Fuck your burn!” is a complex and versatile phrase that signals an acceptance of challenges and is often ironically ironic. It can mean anything including; “have a great fucking burn”, “relax the fuck down”, “drive slower you fucking asshole”, “thanks for the awesome fucking gift you fuck!”, “You are too fucking awesome to exist!”, “Fucking stop being a damned tourist” “I’m sorry I’m such an asshole and just walked in front of your fucking bike” or “Put on some lights you fucking Darkwad” The best part of this phrase is that it embraces the fact that at Burning Man, no matter how hard you try, people will fuck with you, things will break and get lost, you will break and get lost – emotionally and/or physically, and you will probably cry. So instead of wishing someone a good burn, you remind them to embrace the inevitable.
One phrase you will likely hear when you arrive after your brutal drive to Burning Man (and if your trip isn’t at least somewhat brutal you’re doing it wrong) is “Welcome Home”. Even if you’re new (aka “A Virgin”), you are still greeted with the phrase “Welcome Home!”. It isn’t a mandatory greeting on entry and many Burners have expressed discomfort or downright animosity to the phrase. Yes, it sounds like a cringy greeting offered by a convert of a utopian sect that promises true happiness and belonging, but I embrace the phrase. For me, “Welcome Home” tells people that this place is theirs and with ownership comes responsibility.
We’d gone to Burning Man to check it out, to see if it was for us. After it was over, I knew I wanted to go back but I wasn’t sure if my husband did. Finally, I worked up the nerve to ask him and he said that we had to go back because of how much we kept talking about it. So, we were going to go return to Burning Man but at the time we didn’t know it would become a big part of our lives for many years.
Continued in: WHY IN HELL WOULD ANYONE GO TO BURNING MAN? (Part 2)