Feel the Burn

Preface: Burn Butterflies

Venice Beach, California

23 August 2016

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when I first became aware of Burning Man.

As a teenager, inspired by trips to Australia’s hippie enclave in the Byron Bay hinterland, I became interested in the ‘60s and ‘70s counterculture and the aesthetics, back-to-nature ethos and quasi-revolutionary leanings of that period. It was probably during that phase that I first came across references to the infamous arts festival deep in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, as a vague bookmark of something that would likely appeal to the person I thought I might become.

A few years later, during the life stage Americans call “college” I began to indulge in the kind of youthful expression the hippies placed such value on (albeit inspired more by the nightclubs of Kings Cross than the shawl merchants of Nimbin). It was then that I came across ‘the Burn’ in an altogether different context, as one of the greatest parties on Earth, the location of illustrious dusk-til-dawn DJ sets and tales of weeklong debauchery.

And yet, when the opportunity to actually attend Burning Man presented itself, I needed plenty of convincing, despite the enthusiasm of my former selves.

Seven days of unfiltered hedonism simply no longer sounds like the walk in the park it once did.

First, there is the purely physical factor of surviving in one of the world’s most hostile environments. For whatever else it might be, the Burn is on one level essentially a week’s worth of camping in the desert. If you take away the electronic music, facepaint, feathers, fire and fur, you are still left with the very rational fear of being a city-slicker exposed to the elements for an extended period of time (even with the knowledge that such dalliance with nature can be character-building).

Second, there are some nerves relating to just how substantial this party might be. From some reports the usually quiet desert landscape quickly becomes a canvas for sheer madness and Dionysian pleasure. The idea of abandoning all care for brain cells and career advancement and surrendering once again to the ‘live in the moment’ mantra of youth is frightening for someone who has become accustomed to the suit-and-tie rhythms of the daily grind.

Third, there is a hesitancy that my inherent cynicism will overpower any sense of wonder and excitement – a worry that the whole thing will be kinda lame and I’ll then be stuck for days on end in an experiment I have concluded holds little value and is devoid of the deeper meaning it promises, nothing more than a big dress-up party, some kind of grotesque hippie tailgate.

This particular fear is enhanced by the fact that the Burn – despite its post-materialist claims – is actually really expensive and, in yet another sign that I am perhaps no longer suited to this type of endeavour, I am seeking a return on investment.

Finally, while it may seem trivial, there is a very real and present fear of being off the grid completely, without access to the crutches of modern life: wifi, email and 24/7 information. A few days out from the Burn, and notwithstanding the issues I have just outlined, I am far less worried about anything that might occur at the festival and far more concerned with events that might occur outside in the real world without us knowing: a personal family tragedy, a world-shaking historical event, even just the daily rough-and-tumble of the election campaign.

For some, this disassociation from contemporary trappings would be one of the most refreshing aspects of the Burn, but as someone who doesn’t go an hour (let alone week) without global news headlines, I am quite frankly freaking out.

However, as so often accompanies stomach butterflies, for every nerve, fear and anxiety there is an equal and perhaps greater surge of excitement and anticipation.

This experience promises not only a unique form of escapism but also a refreshing counterpoint to some of our society’s organisational assumptions, namely that hard currency is required for the distribution of goods (money is essentially banned at the festival) and that a coercive government power is required to ensure safety and security (while BM is not completely lawless, it’s pretty much as close as you can get).

It is famous for allowing people to explore hidden desires and identities and truly experience a sense of freedom, one big experiment in “anarchic co-habitation”.

On a personal note it offers the challenging proposition to dwell once again in the present and affirm life through the elixir of experience. Time to drink up.

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Black Rock City from above. Photo credit: N. Kovacs

Baird, Bans and Burn

Tonopah, Nevada

28 August 2016

Taking some brief respite at a roadside casino-motel in ‘historic Tonotopah’ our merry band of Burning Man virgins received the welcome news that the NSW Supreme Court has upheld a challenge brought by Sydney’s Smoking Panda Bar maintaining the government has no jurisdiction to impose its disastrous lockout laws.

The contrast to our current surroundings could not be more stark.

“Excuse me, sir” I inquired of the burly barkeep. “We are celebrating some good news from our homeland, what time does your bar shut?”

“It don’t,” he replied, with a prideful and toothless grin, the sirens and songs of poker machines an appropriate accompaniment to the scene.

It was a reminder that it is no accident Burning Man takes place in Nevada, one of the country’s most freedom-loving states, where prostitution and gambling are legal and the drinks flow freely. The very first Burns back in the mid-eighties took place on a rocky beach in the San Francisco Bay Area (from whence most of the original Burners came). But opposition from safety-mad, Baird-like politicians in the ‘people’s republic of California’ forced the founders to seek out a location governed by folks who would be more sympathetic to their aims.

The Baird government has unsurprisingly appealed the decision but nonetheless we have an extra reason now to clink our cups together (in case any was needed).

Onwards to “Black Rock City”.

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Still saluting the NSW Supreme Court one week later at the Robot Heart stage. Photo credit: S Condell. 

Bumper-to-Bumper Burning

Black Rock City, Nevada

 29 August 2016

Burning Man’s subversion of “civilised” social conventions always provided the potential for chaos.

The process of entering the festival more than lived up to that promise.

Shortly after taking the thin country road heading north from Reno, we hit the convoy of Burners, winding its way through the dark night like a conga line of red taillights, bike racks and palpable excitement. The monotony of the drive was occasionally broken by roadside stalls selling bike lights, gas masks and fur coats (all of which, as Burn virgins, we underestimated the significance of at the time).

Eventually, as the normally three-hour journey neared its seventh, we saw the far-off glow and hum of Black Rock City (BRC) on the horizon, already a beacon of light and energy more than 24 hours out from the official start. We crept passed a simple but slightly ominous roadsign urging us towards the distant lights:

“EXIT PLANET!”

Following the arrow, the RV wobbled off the tarmac for its first encounter with what Burners reverentially call “the playa” –  the great white dust-plain of the Black Rock Desert.

Prematurely letting out some excited squeals, it was many, many hours before we finally reached the festival’s official gates, a seeming eternity of frustrating gridlock spent trying to stave off road rage and adopt a Zen-like acceptance, given our destination.

Suddenly (and not for the last time) the placid-looking desert floor was swept up into a frenzy, the duststorm rapidly rising out of nowhere and engulfing miles of weary travellers. Visibility shot, we inched towards the gates until the kindly faces of a huddle of old Burners emerged from the dust. Among them, a nude man in his 70s with a Prince Albert (a male genital piercing for those blissfully unaware) dangling proudly to greet us.

“Welcome home,” the veteran Burners exclaimed, embracing us in a dusty hug after a quick search for stowaways.

We were then instructed to lie face down in the dust and roll. Having been peacefully asleep throughout the ordeal of arrival (and posing for glamorous photos in Las Vegas not too long before that) most of our crew were more than a little disoriented to find themselves eye to eye with an ancient alkali lakebed at 9 in the morning in the middle of a giant duststorm. The white powder caked to our eyelids, arms, hair and knees, much of it to remain there for the next seven days.

It was a baptism of fire, forcing us to immediately embrace and respect the playa rather than engage in some sort of careful assimilation (baby wipes and sunblock at the ready) that might take days.

For the final step of the ritual we were each handed a mallet and invited to smack it loudly into the centre of a Chinese gong while screaming that we, as festival first timers, were now “no longer virgins”.

With those seven metallic bangs, we had entered this strange new world, ending months of planning and logistics and formally commencing the festivities.

As the storm dissipated, we looked at each other, covered from head to toe in white playa dust, and burst into fits of laughter.

There was no going back now.

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Sunrise over gridlock. Just outside the festival gates. Photo credit: J. Perkins

Burn Beginnings 

Black Rock City, Nevada 

31 August 2016

Despite the chaos of our arrival, it is immediately clear that this place is not a celebration of anarchy, but a functioning metropolis.

With the party not due to start until evening, we arrive at our home for the week – the Rubber Armstrong theme camp within the Tetrix Village – to find a buzzing hub of manual labour. The scene is more akin to an Amish settlement or Soviet co-op than a big bush rave, with Burners jovially hammering and nailing, muttering small talk and making friends as they build dwellings, bars, cafes and art sculptures.

When the dust dies down completely, allowing a clear view of your surroundings, you are struck first by the physical beauty of this place. Surrounded on all sides by the dark, jagged mountains that give the desert its name, the natural environment is truly stunning. But the human environment being quickly established by the minute is equally appealing to the eye, with an endless array of colourful camps, flags, scupltures, art cars or “mutant vehicles” and of course, the incredibly creative and beautiful costumes (or lack thereof) of fellow Burners.

Rather than being free of rules, as I had largely assumed, we are quickly informed BRC has many. Above all, there is a widespread and heavily enforced decree that no foreign substance (no beer, no urine, not even water) must touch the playa’s surface. Littering of any kind on the sacred lakebed is a grave sin known as “mooping” i.e. proliferating Matter Out Of Place (MOOP).

Moopers will be derided with very public shame, having created an obstacle to the festival’s overriding goal to “leave no trace” of anyone having been there at all.

Similar public shaming is reserved for “darktards” – i.e. festival attendees with insufficient lighting on their bikes – as one particular Burner, a solicitor by the name of Perkins, very unceremoniously discovered on the first night.

In this way, the Burn does not foster a culture of unchecked liberty, but rather has simply replaced those of society’s rules it finds unpalatable (legal and moral attitudes towards nudity, consumption of recreational drugs and grooming for example) with equally strict rules stemming from an alternative value system or circumstances specific to this environment.

Inherent to that value system is a “cashless” society. The allocation of goods and services in BRC is determined not by the exchange of legal tender, nor by a barter system but according to two concepts fundamental to the Burn: “gifting” and “radical self-reliance”. It is encouraged that each Burner bring enough supplies – that means all the requisite food, first aid, toiletries, non-motorised transport, alcohol, narcotics and most importantly, water –  to survive self-sufficiently for the entire week. However, given that a considerable number of Burners have financially bankrupted themselves with art projects, costumes or simply the barriers to entry (ticket, travel costs etc.) before the event has even begun, reliance on the greater BRC community for sustenance becomes essential for many. Moreover, it is incumbent on each camp – if not each individual Burner – to provide some personal service free of charge to others.

The fine ladies and gentlemen of Rubber Armstrong chose to offer a free bike decoration service, setting up in a large wooden workshop shaped as a robot’s head (as you do). Beyond this, we found ourselves gifting our food, booze and labour when required.

In fact, had you strolled down the BRC avenue known as ‘Knowledge’ on that first afternoon you might have even seen Yours Truly handling some power tools in assistance of the construction of a shower block, if you can believe it. Unfortunately, said shower block became especially moopy shortly thereafter, as some poor Burner felt the need to vomit on the tarpaulin floor. But it least it didn’t touch the playa’s surface!

Wherever you look, humans are participating and co-existing in harmony and with gusto, whether they be erecting a tent, exploring the playa or not wasting anytime bumping and grinding at one of the myriad day clubs.

Spectating comes naturally to me, as is unsurprising of someone in my line of work. But I must admit all this merriment and community spirit is somewhat contagious. There is a distinct sense that for those that embrace the rules and ideals (at least for this week), the hard work, traffic and monetary investment will be rewarded by what is shaping up to be an experience more profound than I ever imagined.

Guess I will just have to get stuck in.

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Exploring the mid-morning playa. Photo credit: S. Condell

Burners, Benders and Buddhists

Black Rock City, Nevada

Date Unknown

While someone flying overhead would see BRC dominated by neon lights, gyrating Millennials and loud soundsystems pumping out techno, in the laneways, neighbourhoods and canvas tents far from the madness, a kinder, gentler Burn does still exist.

You will find camps offering human activities as diverse as traditional bluegrass music; parenting and relationship workshops; and yoga and meditation exercises; alongside some more sinister-sounding locales such as “The OrgyDome” and “Uli Baba and the Horny Thieves’ Flesh Market”.

Even the playa itself, which between the hours of dusk and dawn is a dystopian landscape of lights and noise and dancing and cycling, has moments of serenity. The large temple, a striking multi-storey Buddhist-inspired structure deep in the playa is a moving monument full of genuine emotion and non-denominational spirituality. Even at 3am, as Burners and gurners scurry about the desert floor, the temple is a place of solemn solitude, many visitors mourning for recently lost loved ones.

Like the harsh extremes of hot and cold temperature that descend on the playa, the temple is but one example of the contradictions of the Burn. Euphoria and anguish are rarely so publicly pursued in such proximity to one another and with such mutual respect.

It comes down to acknowledgement of a “live and let live” mindset that all Burners must agree to, from the bluegrass banjo player with disdain for “doof doof” music to the Burn virgin who would really rather not hug a naked old dude with a cock ring.

And yet, despite this “radical inclusiveness” that is among the Burn’s 10 Principles, another clear contradiction is the obvious, if unspecified, social hierarchy on display.

Multi-decade Burners and those who have contributed most to the creation of this project (artists, camp leaders, volunteers etc.) enjoy the view from the top of the food chain while Burn virgins and frat-boy revellers are at the bottom.

Where the world outside these temporary walls determines hierarchy based on wealth, legislative and corporate influence and so on, here status is determined by factors of creativity, gameness and levels of participation.

But this apportionment of social status – natural to any place where humans gather – doesn’t manifest itself in a divisive or negative way, with old hippies pitted against drunken youths. Instead, there is a subtle acknowledgement, even enjoyment, at the fact that for some Burners – sometimes dubbed “real Burners” – this place holds a singularly important place in their lives.

These BRC citizens are identifiable not so much for their appearance (as most attendees take on a typically Burn aesthetic to varying degrees) but in the subtle sense you get that this is the only week of their year they truly enjoy, their playa identities vastly outweighing their lives of wages and struggle in some flyover middle American town.

For the artists and misfits and peaceniks, here they get to experience that satisfying sense of belonging and contentment that successful and powerful folks feel in the real world. Here, their stories matter and they are a somebody.

Both the Burn and the “default world” ostensibly subscribe to a view that elders should be respected. It’s just a different kind of elder that each world truly respects.

That is partly why so many Burners come back year after year. Perhaps I will become one of them. It seems my social status in this city depends on it.

burn-night

The whole city congregates as the Man is about to Burn. Photo credit: N. Kovacs

Epilogue: Battling the AfterBurn

Thousand Oaks, California

12 September 2016

Every night since leaving Black Rock City I have dreamt of the playa, jumbled images of roving art cars, sunrise bike adventures, fiery effigies and beautiful women in desert goggles, hijabs and little else.

Seven nights is a long time to be in any desert, let alone one with 70,000 other people and a whole lot of sensory overload. When the time came to de-moop, pack up our dusty and broken belongings and jump head first into another slow-moving convoy, I was more than ready to leave.

For of course, unlike some Burners, I really rather like the “default world”. I enjoy transacting for goods and supporting businesses and products I deem valuable, settling disputes via the instant gratification of Google and occasionally even committing a little “matter out of place” in a suitable bush on the way home from the pub.

Moreover, it would be foolish to not acknowledge that while legal tender does not change hands inside the festival, ultimately real money (and a lot of it) is required to participate in this experience. Indeed, from the tickets, to the artworks, to the clothes and accessories that no washing machine will make useable again, the entire process is one big exercise in setting cash alight, as much a sacrifice to the playa as the Man himself.

But the principles of volunteerism and gifting that lie at the heart of the Burning Man philosophy are hugely important, and a giant party in the desert is a hell of a novel way to remind people of that.

The default world could learn much from Black Rock City in its insistence that people are inherently good and that collaboration and compassion can survive and thrive even in the absence of “civilisation”.

It is an experience that would appeal not just to hedonists and clubbers and hippies but to anyone deeply interested in the human condition, as evidenced by the wide range of people I saw having the time of their lives, from intoxicated Irish backpackers to Vietnam vets in wheelchairs to toddlers waist deep in playa dust.

Burning Man seeks to leave no trace on the desert floor upon which it stages its temporary community. But the playa enters no such contract in return, leaving what I suspect is a significant (and in some cases life-changing) mark on almost all of its temporary inhabitants.

I guess that’s what we in the default world call a “return on investment”.

temple

Burners pray, mourn, sing and meditate at the Temple. Photo credit: J. Hardy.

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Burners enjoy hands-on art at ‘The Boar’. Photo credit: C. Forslof.

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Like moths to a flame, Burners flock to watch the Pyramids burn. Photo credit: N. Kovacs.

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Tetrix Villagers enjoy a view over the White Ocean stage and deep playa. Photo credit: C. Forslof

Published on 24 September 2016