Burning Man is a raver Vegas, a sea of fireballs, glow sticks and laser beams spewed across a blistered prehistoric lake bed in Nevada. It is a week-long arts festival which has run for some 25 years, culminating each year in the burning of a hundred foot high neon effigy. It is a city, Black Rock City, built from the ground up by 60,000 active participants and disappeared just one week later, scorched or carted away with no trace left behind. It is also a philosophy of being, a strange hybrid of hedonism and humanitarianism, environmentalism and anarchy, extrapolated into the 365 day grind of the ‘real world’ through newfound sexual liberation or ongoing creative community, through charitable work or a vague but passionate intention to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life. People don’t just go to Burning Man, they convert.
I was a determined non-believer when I hit Black Rock City, an intrepid cultural tourist with an armour of quiet cynicism, strictly interested in seeing large-scale sculpture in the middle of the desert. That’s what a cursory Google image search for Burning Man reveals: monumental artworks under a blinding sun. But scratch the surface of the interweb and the earnest heart of the festival explodes, the hippy underpinnings of the event reveal themselves and the likelihood of widespread public nudity becomes apparent. If, like me, you are not a hippy and generally dislike seeing the penises of middle-aged men, this is problematic.
I worried about the penises, but even more alarming were the Ten Principles. On the festival website, alongside a not altogether helpful link titled What Is Burning Man?, I found a list of values that the festival participants are asked to uphold, with brief, opaque descriptions beneath each item. The principles of Burning Man are: Participation, Radical Inclusion, Immediacy, Radical Self-Expression, Gifting, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Decommodification, Radical Self-Reliance and Leaving No Trace. The only directive that was in any way familiar to me was Leaving No Trace, as the phrase ‘Love the farm, leave no trace’ is widely employed at the Glastonbury Festival, held on Worthy Farm in Somerset, and it seems fairly self-explanatory. The rest had me mystified.
Under the principle of Radical Self-Expression the Burning Man organisers wrote, ‘Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others.’ Under Radical Self-Reliance they simply encouraged participants to ‘discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.’ No suggestion as to what inner resources might be particularly useful in this context. Most disturbing was the principle of Participation (also radical), which advised festival attendees to ‘achieve being through doing’ as ‘we make the world real through actions that open the heart.’
It’s not that I disagreed with these principles, necessarily; I just had no idea what they meant. I suspected the legions of Burning Man participants had no idea what they meant either, but they would take them as license to build a vaudevillian party commune in which unwashed semi-naked stoner could hug unwashed semi-naked stoner with impunity, before improvising some bad street theatre, dropping some acid and twirling some fire. I imagined lots of talk about fucking the dominant paradigm and smashing the state, and free-loving on anyone with an orifice to spare. And I was right, more or less, Burning Man is a vaudevillian party commune. It is a collective expression of non-specific, anti-establishment sentiment by people dressed for a toddler’s birthday party who take a lot of drugs (and I mean, a lot of drugs). But… god help me, here is the but: the Ten Principles do actually mean something. More importantly, the principles do amount to something—something quite unbelievably amazing.
To understand what the festival is today, you need to understand its origins. Burning Man began in 1986 on Baker Beach in San Francisco, where Larry Harvey (now executive director of the event) and Jerry James gathered with a dozen friends and an eight-foot wooden effigy. They set the figure on fire as a ‘spontaneous act of radical self-expression’; to celebrate the winter solstice and revolt against the dehumanising, desensitising effects of Bush senior’s thriving capitalist agenda. The simple act of building something and then watching it burn was a symbolic rejection of materialism and a kind of purifying act encompassing both beauty and violence.
The ‘Burn’ quickly became an annual ritual, gradually migrating to the Black Rock Desert. As the size of the effigy grew so did the audience, from hundreds to thousands, then tens of thousands. And as the event evolved, the Ten Principles grew up around it. They were intended to preserve the original spirit of the Burn, to promote on what is now a massive scale the idea of revolution through creative community, self-empowerment through self-reliance and transformation through destruction.
So first of all, the principle of Radical Self-Reliance: what they mean by this is ‘The desert is brutal, so come prepared.’ When you cruise the barren multi-lane highway towards the festival site, you are not met with a silvery oasis at the end of the road. By day, Black Rock City has the air of a lean-to refugee camp, functional but ugly, thrown together against the elements. Everything—cars, tents, RVs, people, absolutely everything—is coated in a fine white dust, which kicks off of the desert in regular wind storms, seeping into your pores and etching itself into your fingerprints. During the day, there is a constant dry heat with temperatures that soar above 35 degrees. Starved of moisture, your cuticles curl back and the corners of your eyes begin to crack while your nose blocks up with grit and mucus. It’s like a scene out of Gus Van Sant’s Gerry; a terrain that seems harmless enough until you find yourself lost in it.
To practice Radical Self-Reliance at Burning Man is to understand that your body is constantly under attack and you are expected to defend yourself. The complicating factor is that virtually nothing is for sale at the festival, which is where the principle of Decommodification comes in. The big picture idea is that Burning Man is not a corporate-sponsored event and commercial signs and slogans of any kind are not welcome. In practical terms, it means that Burning Man has no marketplace. At other large-scale camping festivals, the price of entry covers all manner of on-site amenities and what isn’t provided for free is available to buy—water, food, alcohol, a daily shower. Glastonbury is lousy with pop up shops, thrift stores and Chai tea vendors, army surplus dealers, bars and even plucky makeshift hairdressing salons (although the queue can be miles and hours long). Conversely, you can’t buy food or water at Burning Man. You can’t buy moisturiser or sunscreen. There are toilets, medical stations, ice and coffee vendors at the camp centre. Whatever else you need, you have to bring with you.
Generally speaking, the key to a good Burn is preparation, and experienced festival goers are experts in the field. Black Rock City features several major ‘theme camps’ where hundreds of Burners enact the principle of Communal Effort to build impressive tent cities, decorated with sculptures and makeshift artwork, where food, couches and water are plentiful. The construction and survival materials are shipped in and out in huge rental trucks, then erected and pulled down with teamster-like professionalism—an Amish barn-raising on a massive municipal scale.
And if, by some chance, you are not prepared, you are still likely to benefit from the principle of Gifting. I arrived at the festival with a tent and some toiletries, and might have wilted but for the incredible hospitality of the Bumblepuss collective, an inconceivably big-hearted group from the Nectar Village camp who greeted me with a cocktail and kept me fed and showered for the better part of a week. Elsewhere at the festival, people were giving away clothes and booze, watermelon and ice cream, pickled ginger and cuddles, expecting nothing in return. No one had to ask for anything, since the culture of giving is so fundamental to Burning Man that far more things are on offer than you could ever think to need. People come with practical, funny, sometimes creative gifts and take great joy in doling them out. I found this culture of user-friendly generosity mind-blowing. People were genuinely kind, and went to a lot of effort for the sake of their fellow man. And eventually it occurred to me that it was strange to find this so strange, because surely that is what a healthy society should look like? Maybe with more clothes, but fundamentally the same shape.
By far and away, the most important principles of Burning Man are Participation and Radical Self-Expression because these things, more than anything else, are what Burning Man is for. Self-Reliance and Gifting is how you do it, Participation and Self-Expression is why. The art and the experiences that make the festival so spectacular are created by festival goers—festival goers who are obsessed with weirdness, beauty and fire (they really like fire). The organisers of the festival curate and provide funding for many of the art projects on site, but those projects are conceived by independent artists. Meanwhile, the vast majority of things you see (and you never see the same thing twice) are funded by festival participants. The festival goers are the festival. Black Rock City is built by the wishes and dreams of its citizens. And to paraphrase The Neverending Story, the more wishes they make, the more magnificent it becomes.
There are countless things to do during the day—mass a capella sing-alongs, steam baths, anal sex workshops, disco yoga, political lectures, nachos brunches, bar mitzvahs, beer tossing, gay marriages, storytelling, topless bike rides and bizarre goat-slapping ceremonies involving ridiculous paper-mache goats – but Burning Man is truly phenomenal at night. At night, the ‘playa’, a vast circular plain at the centre of Black Rock City, is a dark ocean flooded with light. There are tens of thousands of bicycles draped in electroluminescent ‘glow’ wire, zipping around like fireflies. There are slow-trawling ‘mutant vehicles’, cars and trucks rendered unrecognisable by design, which appear on the horizon as neon-bedecked pirate ships, giant sharks, Death Stars and mountain-sized insects. There are ‘sound camps’, where Thunderdome-like structures glitter like disco balls and dub step DJs drown the air in bass. There are hundreds of radiant sculptures, which catch your eye and constantly pull you in new and unexpected directions as you walk and walk and walk, your mouth dangling open in paralysed astonishment. And towering above all of this, there are three colossal structures that will eventually burn to the ground: the Trojan Horse, the Temple and the Man.
My joy for all of this is not without caveats. They talk about Radical Inclusion at Burning Man, but it is an overwhelmingly white festival and the high cost of entry and preparation makes it overwhelmingly middle class, too. The nudity becomes bland very quickly, but the dominant fashion aesthetic—industrial corsets, hot pants, fairy wings and fuzzy raver boots— takes its cues from mid-nineties rave culture, and is largely designed to make West Coast yoga vixens look like anime sex objects. People at Burning Man are sometimes too earnest about Burning Man, without properly acknowledging the 24-hour sex, drugs and booze culture that drives the event, and the brain-pounding sound of techno is everywhere. Some of it is silly, some of it is tacky, and some of it is just plain stupid. There actually was a lecture called Fuck the Dominant Paradigm and, believe me, it was nonsense. But whatever doubts, criticisms and mockery I hold, there is no denying the power of the Burn.
The burning of the effigies takes place over the last three nights of the festival. The Trojan Horse goes up on the Friday, preceded by a 45-minute fireworks display and surrounded by a sea of screaming, dancing spectators. They burn the Man on the Saturday, and again it is a hurricane of noise, fireworks and fire twirling, before the most recognisable landmark in Black Rock City becomes a hundred foot high blazing inferno.
On the Sunday night, the last night of Burning Man, they burn the Temple. Each year, the Temple is a new and astonishing architectural creation, towering several stories above the playa. For most of the festival participants, it is a spiritual place, which by the end of the week is festooned with messages and memento mori honouring loved ones, old friends, pets and ex-girlfriends, and graffiti proclaiming the healing powers of the desert. When the Temple burns, it burns in silence. People hold each other and cry, mourning and releasing whatever personal demons they left on its walls.
I didn’t leave anything in the Temple. I had no inclination, and the scribbled expressions of grief and redemption embarrassed me. But when the flames engulfed that beautiful structure, I was moved. It was the greatest bonfire I had ever seen, a hundred metres wide, consuming the whole sky. It lasted forever. And while the Temple burned, I thought about the people that built it. I thought about the year they slaved to conceive of such an amazing work of art, to design it, to construct it, to decorate it, knowing all the time that it was destined to become a pile of ashes. I wondered if I could devote myself to something so completely, invest my whole heart in it, knowing that it’s destruction was inevitable. And then it occurred to me, that was the story of my life. That was what I learned at Burning Man, and how I came in my own small way to be converted. I realised that even though I was going to die, I was still willing to invest my whole heart in every moment that I lived.
Photographs courtesy of Dale Holden.