Burning Man is a five day festival of pyromania and getting naked in the Nevada desert – all in the name of art
So there I was, hurtling down an American freeway with a girl I’d met for the first time the day before in a car with a life-sized balsa wood horse’s head precariously bolted to the roof. Some drivers nearly veered off the asphalt as they turned in their seats to check that they really *had* seen us in their rear view mirrors -others grinned, hitting their horns as they went by, while one even leaned out of his window to take photos. Patti was happy- this was the first outing of PonyBoy Girlie Toolshed, her art car which she’d slaved over for the previous couple of months in order to get it ready for attending Burning Man. As for myself, I was more worried about the whole head coming off and smashing into the car behind us at 70 miles an hour – the roof was groaning and bits of balsa wood had already begun shearing off the head as we pulled out of San Francisco. There were eight more hours to go before we arrived at the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, home of both Burning Man and the Thrust world land speed challenge, who were camped over the other side of the mountains from the Man’s five day festival gathering. That was eight hours of potential to cause a multiple pileup and spend several unscheduled years in an American jail. I tried to figure out how I would explain this to my mother.
I’d managed to thumb a lift with Patti from the other side of the world thanks to the Burning Man web site. She’d left a message on the BM bulletin board saying she had spare seats, I sent an email saying I’d like to go and with ludicrous ease, my passage to Burning Man was set up. Without a car, attending would be impossible – you need to bring everything you require to survive in the desert for five days – water, food, shelter, the works. Burning Man is unlike any other festival in that it’s based around art rather than music. there are no organised acts paid to turn up and perform , no concession stands selling food, merchandise or anything else, no definitive lists of events scheduled to happen. Most of all, there are no spectators, as banners around the site continually proclaim. The only people at Burning Man are the audience and the entertainment *is* the audience, a community appearing and disappearing mirage-like in the desert.
For months beforehand, various groups across the States work on putting together camps to set up at the festival – there are hundred of these outfits, ranging from the Alien Chess camp, where you could pit your wits against extra-terrestrials, the Blue Light District, which handed out free absinthe, the labyrinthine maze of the House Of Doors to the Camp Of Atonement where you could be cleansed of your sins. The days are passed in a haze of heat and recuperating while at night the desert turns into a fantastic, grotesque carnival of wonders, all centred around the neon glow of the five-storey high wooden Man, waiting to incinerated at the climax of the festival.
Some have said Burning Man most closely resembles a pagan gathering, thanks to the ritual of burning the Man, while others dismiss it as some sort of New Age hippy throwback, mainly due to the festival’s prevalent nudity. In truth, it’s difficult to say exactly what Burning Man is – reducing it to an all-encapsulating soundbite fails everytime, while the standard descriptions (“Disneyland in reverse”, “Woodstock inside out”) only increase the enigma. It was a question which I continually debated with Kirsty, a Scot who I ran into soon after arriving. As foreign outsiders, we watched each other lose our veneer of cynicism and bemusement at the goings on around us. On the first day, we wandered round in t-shirts and shorts, baffled but intrigued by what we saw. For a while, we attempted to use each other as touchstones of reality. However, reality soon swiftly exited and we went native – by the last day, Kirsty had taken to wearing a feather-boa, body paint and little else while I was shimmying around in a dress, lipstick and cowboy boots. (I was , after all, an Englishman abroad. Some traditions have to be maintained).
As such, Burning Man seems to be about release – attending the festival is not cheap and many of the inhabitants, like myself, hold down respectable white collars jobs in their civilian lives. But for a few days people can take on new persona, express themselves without fear of vilification, create and contribute – in other words, be part of a community. Perhaps it’s a sweeping generalisation, but such community seems to be getting lost within the strip malls and freeways of America, just as it is beginning to happen in England. Burning Man is one way of recovering that community. Or it’s just an excuse for one hell of a party. Because there’s no definitive reason as to why Burning Man happens, because it seems to be a ritual without a reason, that leaves people open to make of it what they will.
But when all’s said and done, given the chance to embroil yourself in this kaleidoscopic mix of the avant-garde, the otherworldly and the completely absurd, how could you possibly resist? Why would you need reasons for doing it? I still haven’t worked out quite what it was that made me determined to get to Burning Man last year. It’s not something I lose sleep over. Eventually, analysis and reflection about Burning Man , like most things in life, fall short of actually getting out there and doing it.
So would I go again? Definitely. However, there is a large question mark hanging over whether Burning Man will happen in 1998 – the organisation is massively in debt thanks to the local Nevada authorities trying to bankrupt them with ludicrously expensive safety demands so as to stop the festival last year. The full details are at the Burning Man web site (http://www.burningman.com). This clash with authority both symbolises the size Burning Man has reached since its original inception as a beach party in San Francisco 12 years ago, and the threat it poses as a symbol of something different outside the confines of corporate America. I for one hope that there will be a fire next time.