Burning Man Festival 2001
review by Goozil 3.Oct.01
The Burning Man Festival is often described as an experiment in radical self-expression, a temporary autonomous zone where anything goes.
Analogies are drawn with the World Wide Web generating "manifold personal connections that transcend normal boundaries within our society" (http://www.burningman.com/press/myths.htm)
People here create unique worlds, there are no limits to what goes on apart from the imagination of the participants.
And everyone is a participant, there are no spectators, and that it one of the few rules in a place where rules are seemingly few. But there are some basic rules of survival that must be followed because this all takes place in a harsh Nevada desert where the daytime temperature soars to well over 100 degrees.
You must bring all the water you need for a week, which leads me to the other fundamental characteristic that underlies this event. There is no commercial activity allowed. With the one exception of coffee and ice sold at the Centre Cafe you cannot buy or sell anything for money. Anything you need must be bartered for.
A song or a pair of socks will get you a beer at the bar. A condom a cocktail. A kiss is equally good currency. In line with this non-commercial principle, prominent logos on the side of hire trucks are covered or amended in some imaginative ways eg. "Truck Rental" becoming "Fuck Gentle".
On the dry lakebed known as the playa, Black Rock City springs up as 28,000 people create the camps that make up this amazing place. BRC covers five square miles so a bike is more or less essential, even so I don’t reckon I saw a fraction of what was going on here.
Like most American cities with their grid system of streets, this one is easy to navigate because it is forms the shape of the clock with roads from two o’clock to ten o’clock. The streets of concentric circles are named after the Seven Ages of Man, from Infant through to Oblivion (we were at 6:30 and Lover). The inter-active theme camps that make up the city are beautiful and bizarre and bear names like Inner Demon Rodeo, the Temple of Atonement, and the Fornication Station.
There was a camp called Flight to Mars; to enter you had to go through a maze of texture and colour that represented an alien landscape. At the end was a giant vagina that you crawled through before emerging into an open-air nightclub. Or how about Dr.Megavolts – he had built a 15-foot high tesla coil that shot streaks of lightening into the black night.
In his specially adapted suit he walked around it catching bolts of lightening on his head! Then the Subjugator made its appearance. This is a radio-controlled robot claw on a tracked vehicle. As we stood around looking at this monster the cowboy in control told us that he barely had control of it. He wasn’t kidding either.
Seconds later a jet of flame shot out from the front sending everyone diving for cover. It then drove over to a giant sculpture of Elvis (being used as a Confessional), ripped it out of the ground and torched it. A stricken voice behind me shouted "Oh my god, look what they’ve done to the King!"
Another night I came across the Bliss Abyss. I climbed the steps up the side of this large geodesic dome and lifted a flap to see an entangled group of bodies in what is best described as an orgy. In front of you there is a fireman’s pole that you can slide down if you wanted to join them. Then there was SpectatorCamp.com; a stand of seats where people would sit and shout at the freaks walking by, completely subverting the "participants not spectators" idea.
Never let it be said that Americans do not have a sense of irony! You could "Discover a New Soul-Mate" – have your photo taken and fill out the questionnaire. By the following day you are matched to someone on-site and given their name and camp.
A different person has also been matched to you and likewise they have been given your address so they can track you down. Unfortunately, I never got to meet either soul mate!
There are some extraordinary art installations which are built for the duration of the festival before being burned; not least is the Man itself, the 70 foot high neon lit figure at the centre of the city.
The Temple of Tears was a giant construction made of filigreed wood that represented a mausoleum. As the week went on, people began to write on the walls the names of love-ones that had died. Photos and poetry gave the place an incredible solemn mood. One character I found was Waterboy, a structure holding up a transparent plastic suit full of water. Submerged in the suit was a naked man breathing via the oxygen tanks on top of the construction. Passers-by would hug him or poke him.
So many people walk around naked and painted that it is unremarkable although I was surprised by the amount of ironmongery that some people have pierced in their genitals.
Critical Tits was a popular event – hundreds of women with painted breasts touring BRC on bikes!
Most citizens of Black Rock City carry a face-mask and goggles, not a fashion accessory but essential, for when a dust storm starts to blow there can be a complete white-out, where you cannot see your hand in front of your face. The Human Car Wash was useful after one of these dust storms.
Basically you walk through two lines of naked people some squirting water on you, others rubbing different parts of your body down. When you get to the end you join the line to help wash the next person through.
Like a car wash you can get different levels of service vaguely related to the amount of intrusion you can take. I heard one guy emerge saying that someone had stuck a finger up his ass!
There were whole villages of communal camps, like Disturbia, where you could get mummified in an Ancient Kaos Funerary or play with the naughty but fun animals in the Heavy Petting Zoo.
Numerous art-cars take people around the playa and overhead you see homemade flying machines that give the place a Max Max feel (the Thunderdome is there too). Yes this city has it’s own landing strip, as well as couple of daily newspapers and about 50 radio stations. The numerous dot-commers who attend from Silicon Valley have ensured you can still get your e-mail by setting up a couple of wireless networks with uplinks to satellite.
The dust gets into every nook, cranny and orifice and I was surprised by the amount of high-tech computer, video and audio equipment people were prepared to have destroyed during the event.
On Saturday night the Man burns, well explodes would be a better description. On the ticket for the Festival are the words "You voluntarily assume the risk of serious injury or death by attending" and this is not hype.
As we stood around waiting for the Man to burn giant jets of flame shot 250 feet into the air, the heat so intense that I was on the verge of running away when the fire cannons stopped. Giant dust-devils swirled like tornadoes around the Burning Man; the atmosphere in the crowd was electric.
When the Man finally collapsed everyone rushed forward to dance around the fire. Those at the front, realising it was hotter than they thought turned back but ran straight into the people at the back of the crowd who were still rushing forward. One enduring image was seeing someone in one of those silver suits that you see used by airport fire-fighters.
He was right in the middle of the fire while silhouetted against the flames I could pick out people in devil costumes, horns and all! The symbolism of the Burn means many things to many people, and you can take from it whatever esoteric significance you want. For me it was just a massive celebration.
The following night the Mausoleum went up. The mood was and markedly different from the previous night; very sombre but no less powerful as people remembered their dearly departed.
This event is so American in many ways; the Frontier feeling and wide-open spaces, the fire and explosions, the mutant vehicles, and the air-conditioned RVs.
But on the other hand there’s also the anti-consumerism; no promotions, no logos. Capitalist society needs people to consume and we are constantly persuaded to define ourselves through what we buy, what labels we wear. Fetishism abounds here but not commodity fetishism. BMan is a radical alternative because money here does not confer status, it is what you give to the community that is important not what you spend.
In a culture where TV mediates our immediate experience of life, BMan is radical because the emphasis is on collective effort and participation. Burning Man challenges the alienation that our society generates. Which I guess sounds quite strange for a place where you can propagate your talents at the Alien Love Nest!
But the "anything goes" atmos is also tempered by the fact that the law does take an interest. In fact, there are four law-enforcement agencies that have jurisdiction in the area including the Bureau of Land Management.
Most of the time the BLM look after the empty desert landscape but they carry guns and hand-out citations at the festival for things like having sex in public and possession of marijuana! One night I saw the County Sheriffs’ men searching a group of young people for drugs whilst everyone else just carried on dancing as if nothing was happening.
I told my American friends that if this were in England the police would be harangued by other partygoers and it was not unknown for people to be de-arrested by the crowd. I was told that the fact the law-enforcement in the US carry firearms makes it totally different and anyone intervening in an arrest is likely to be taken in as well.
The way the festival tries to maintain its integrity is interesting as parallels can be drawn with events and movements in Europe. Pragmatism and idealism co-exist. For instance, how do you deal with the media who are notorious for their sensationalism and shallow analysis?
Well BMan knows it is useless to ignore them so they actually co-opt the media. Journalists are given costumes (and who knows what else) and encouraged to participate in the communal experience.
By also giving them ideas about the themes of this community it is hoped that they will write articles for their papers that explore and respect the unique ethos of Burning Man.
All video cameras must be registered and are tagged with a number. If someone is interfering with your experience and they continue to ignore your request to stop taking pictures, you can report them to the Black Rock Rangers - BM’s own community mediators.
Toilets, always an issue for festival goers, are known as porta-potties here. Now you could expect that with the heat alone these would be pretty disgusting but I was astounded that they were kept so clean.
Everyone here is exhorted to only put into the potties what comes out of your body. BRC depends on people sticking to this and a crisis loomed early in the week when beer bottles were found in some of the potties.
The contractor (who had come 140 miles from Reno to empty them) was threatening to pull out which would have meant the end of the Festival. BRC Rangers quickly spread the word and the problem did not happen again. One bar had a sign saying, "Latrine abusers not welcome here".
"Leave no trace" is the parting ethic of Burning Man - if you pack it in, you pack it out. No bins are provided and you see no litter on the ground.
Everyone takes their own rubbish home and there aren’t even any discarded cigarette butts on the desert floor. Once Black Rock City is dismantled, there is no evidence left of the community that existed there.
The slate is wiped clean so that next year another incredible City can be reborn anew. www.burningman.com
(Photos by Virgil Mirano, Mark Klein and Ian Wood)
- action - mag
- rave - drugs
- punch - soccer
- us - contact
design - search
- © - help/FAQs