September 09, 2003

let it burn, baby, burn, let it burn right to the ground

Burning Man

Avant-garde apocalypse, beatnik bacchanal, counterculture carnival, Discordian Disneyland, Mad Max meets Mardi Gras. "Burning Man is a self-service cult. Wash your own brain." Dehydration, dust storms, and decadence, a potluck Las Vegas, a pyromaniacal playland, a true Bazaar Of The Bizarre. "Burning Man is all about finding playmates. It's like recess for kids." The Road Warrior crossed with Fellini Satyricon as co-written by Pynchon and DeLillo. Sex, drugs, and psychedelic trance, sorrow and survivalism, a camping trip in a neon wonderland, a mad scientist's mirage made flesh.

And ashes to ashes, and dust to dust, and only the desert remains.

People have written a lot of things about Burning Man, some of it even coherent, but I didn't find any actual description of the mechanics of the event, so I think I'll take a hack at it -- partly for others, partly for memory, partly because I think I may be using the playa as a fictional setting sometime soon.


The Black Rock Desert is not made of black rock. There is nothing black at all. It is gray, the gray of cheap computers, a flat featureless monochrome sea of gray 40 miles by 12, decorated only by windblown clouds of gray dust which occasionally spawn high whirling dust devils. It is one of the most visually barren places on this planet.

Think of it as primer.

It is an ancient lakebed, hence its universal name "the playa". The absolutely flat playa, used in the past to set many a land-speed record, consists of talcum-fine dust, computer-gray, layered over an endlessly deep stratum of the same substance baked to nearly the consistency of brick. And nothing else. That's it. That's all you get.

In the week before Labor Day thirty thousand people descend on this wasteland and build a city. Black Rock City. A real city, one of the largest in Nevada, with roads and road signs, a lively city center, quiet suburbs, a fire department, a hospital, and even public transportation of sorts - though when it comes to food, water, shelter, power, fire, and trash removal, you may rely only on yourself and perhaps your close neighbours.

Black Rock City is a circle maybe two miles in diameter, centered on The Man himself, seventy feet high and looming atop a four-story ziggurat. The southern axis is the Gate; about midway between the Gate and the Man is Center Camp, an enormous pavilion, canopied, decorated with posters and sculptures and installation art and a teeming overlapping mass of carpets, stuffed full of couches and pillows, through which people wander, sit, pause for an hour of yoga or capoeira or hula-hooping or a massage, recruit volunteers, meet, greet, catch art cars, set out for Parts Unknown, or sit and listen to live music or spoken-word pieces.

The geography is radial. People say they'll meet you at "3:00 and the Esplanade" or "8:00 and Dogma". Think of a clock. No, silly, an analog clock. The Man is the center, Center Camp is at 6:00, the Temple at 12:00. The innermost street is the Esplanade, which circles - horseshoes, really, I'll explain in a second - the Man at a distance of maybe half a mile. Seven other streets, their names varying depending on this year's theme, march concentrically outwards from the Esplanade. They in turn are intersected by streets which radiate out from the Man, every half hour, starting at 2:00 and ending at 10:00, resulting in a city which, from the air, looks a bit like a one-third-eaten donut. These streets also have names - for example, 6:00 was Paradox this year, 7:00 was Creed, 8:00 was Revered - and every intersection is marked by a road sign, but people generally use the clock coordinates instead. There is too much else jostling for space in your mind to try and remember the names and ordinalities of all sixteen radial roads.

Within the Esplanade is a disc of playa about a mile in diameter surrounding the Man. This disc too is confusingly often called "the playa". As is the dust, the general area, Black Rock City, and one's state of mind. Context is king. This interior disc has no buildings other than art installations. Walkways, lit at night by kerosene lamps hanging from paired rows of 15-foot wooden pillars on either side, mark the main 3:00, 6:00, and 9:00 routes from the Man. To the north, in the mostly empty expanse between 10:00 and 2:00, are more art installations, these generally larger and more elaborate, until Black Rock City ends at a three-foot high "trash fence" about a half-hour walk due north from Center Camp.

Southwest of Center Camp is an agglomeration of trucks wherein the Burning Man organization keeps various spare parts, services, etc. (Details vague because I never went there.) Southeast is the airport, where about thirty or forty small airplanes are parked. The playa as a whole is surrounded by jagged hills which, thanks to the utter featurelessness of the ground, always seem to be no more than a few minutes' walk away.

People set up camp in the blocks delineated by the concentric streets (eg the Esplanade) and the radial streets (eg 7:00). The Esplanade is occupied by the biggest, flashiest, prettiest, and/or most popular theme camps. (More on those in a second.) The next couple of streets out are occupied by the lower-key theme camps. The remainder of the city is populated by the hoi polloi.


The general image of Burning Man is of a freaky-hippy-tattoos-piercings-counterculture-naked-drugfest-lovein kind of event. This perception is about sixty per cent correct. The "hippie" thing, in particular, is way off base; there are far more flamethrowers than guitars. It's a mix of various counterculture subcultures - hippies, yes, and New Agers, ravers, goths, technofetishists, avant-garde Artistes, hordes of the different-like-everyone-else pierced tattooed and purple-haired (I don't mean to sound dismissive; most of them are Very Nice People) - mixed with RVers, rubberneckers, and the curiously mundane, plus a very large contingent of people who do not fall easily into any category at all.

One of the most important things to understand is that it's more a genially anarchic bazaar than an organized event. Many - most? - of its thirty thousand participants come as part of more than 500 "theme camp" groups, ranging in size anywhere from a few people up to maybe a hundred, and each camp does something(s) to entertain, amuse, aid, delight, feed, bewilder, or annoy the passing crowds. Giving out coffee, or Kool-Aid, or pancakes, or massages, or sunscreen. Erecting a giant geodesic nightclub and hosting raves. Displaying an entire, life-size, pirate ship. Showing movies. Constructing a merry-go-round, or a circus trapeze, or a roller-skating rink, or a bowling alley, or a haunted house ride, or a venue for (padded) mano-a-mano battle. Creating an Irish pub, hosting live music, and giving/bartering drinks to all and sundry. Littering their turf with weird sculptures and croaking menacingly at those who approach. Firedancers and flame guns and naked brunches and yoga and temporary tattoos and DJs and art cars. Especially art cars. More on that later.

All of this is given away, or bartered, depending on who you talk to and your point of view. It's supposed to be a gift economy, but this is more of a thin veneer than an actual truth; people brink trinkets and goodies and give them away, or exchange them for other people's tchotchkes. Above this symbolism there is a genuine general sense that Sharing Is Good, and that you take care of your new neighbours and maybe even of complete strangers, though it's worth noting that you get this in all desert cultures, temporary or not.

There are (supposedly) only two things you can actually buy, with green folding US dollars; ice, and coffee. Yes, coffee. Lattes, mochas, etc. Yes, BM is held in the hostile and unforgiving Black Rock Desert, an absolutely flat moonscape of dusty pale alkaline rock, but I think the coffee shows pretty well that folks aren't actually here to rough it. It's actually quite hospitable, as deserts go; the heat rarely if ever broke 104F/40C, the ground is firm and flat and easy to get around on, and I'll take blinding dust storms over skin-grating sandstorms any day of the week.

Most camps - theme or otherwise - go to impressive lengths to construct comfort. Geodesic domes 15' high, covered with parachute fabric (to protect from the blistering sun), bedecked with couches and chairs and Art and carpets and pillows, supplied with coolers full of beer and Coke and Starbucks bottled frappucinos and booze and piles, mountainous pyramids, of water -- that's pretty basic. The big elaborate camps have thousand-watt lights, generators, full bars, sound systems, multiple solar showers, all trucked in on big rental trucks, erected for a week or two, then deconstructed and packed away for another year.

(I, by contrast, was in a minimal microcamp of one. See previous comment about not being a people person.)

The peoplewatching is spectacular. Plenty of us mundanes, plenty of people basically in beachwear, and plenty of retina-scarring outfits. Dreadlocks, tattoos, piercings, body paint, circus outfits, six-foot hats, stilts, veils, theatrical costumes, a hoop dress decorated with a thousand sporks, naked men, bare-breasted women, gold lame, Saran Wrap, parasols, chainmail, far more than I could possibly describe or even imagine, in every colour combination imaginable, all of the above often riding bicycles, a favoured method of getting around.

Me, I'm a natural born pedestrian, but I understand the appeal. This place is Big.

Art and Science

When people talk about Burning Man, they'll often say say something to the effect of "It's an art festival." This is basically a lie. Not a malevolent one, but one told because the real answer takes up pages and pages (as I am finding even as I write this, to my regret). It is a festival, yes, and there is art, some of it even good, but it's not like people are standing around the art installations in the desert, stroking chins and sipping chilled white wine, murmuring "hmm, yes, very interesting, the influence of Dale Chihuly is clear, isn't it?" -- or, if it happens (and it might), they're being sardonic.

It's actually a whole lot simpler than that: lots of different people bring bright colourful cool silly stuff and display it to one another. Kind of a cool-stuff swap meet. Whether it be costumes, or camps, or cars, or elaborate installations that take days to construct, the idea is to have everything Look Cool, provoke a raised eyebrow and/or a chuckle and/or a double take, and if it's really big, and flashy, and neon, and colourful, and moving, and breathtakingly over-the-top and ridiculous at the same time, that's even better. Is it art? Who knows? Who cares? It's a festival! It's a carnival! Have fun! Look, over there, there's a dozen firedancing Santas on stilts chasing the giant lobster car towards that huge house of cards! Let's follow them!

Along with the art there's a lot of science. Wait, no, that's not true. There is no science. But there's a lot of engineering. Way more than you might expect. Art cars aren't just painted and decorated; they're just as likely to be welded, deconstructed, turbocharged, rebuilt from the ground up, and outfitted with propane and oxygen tanks connected to flamethrowers synced to the onboard electronic keyboard. There was a gigantic gyroscope. There was a man walking around in a suit which looked and acted very much like the top half of one of those giant waldo-robots from ALIENS. There was an art installation which consisted of a giant ball of flame on the end of a steel pole that robotically whirled and wound itself around another pole, over and over again. (Yes, I'm using the word "giant" a lot. Get over it.) There was a gigantic metal mushroom which was cranked up to a voltage high enough that thick, crackling, visible-from-a-great-distance arcs of lightning wove their way around the giggling nervous people who stepped into the nearby (metal, grounded, perfectly safe) cage. And there was fire. Lots of fire. My favourite, up to the Burn itself, was a giant (there we go again) metal hand, maybe fifteen feet tall, each finger of which could spout a torrent of hundred-foot flame. I only saw it once. I'm sure there was plenty of cool stuff I never saw at all. I saw a considerable number of the art cars for the first and last time at the Burn.

Art cars. I should speak to you of art cars. For the most part, you are expected to drive your car from the Gate to your camp, at a non-dust-storm-triggering 5 MPH, and there park it until the Exodus. Except for art cars, Burning Man's public transportation. There are dozens of them, cars so rebuilt and welded-over that the original chassis is no longer visible, or experimental vehicles designed from scratch, or reticulated buses dressed up as whales or neon ships. UFOs, Mad Max machines, crabs, wheeled couches, chariots, moving pyramids, a giant vehicular banana, an enormous solar-powered tricycle that looked as if it had just wheeled its way out of Alice In Wonderland, a fire-breathing dragon the length of a tractor trailor, et al, et al, et al. They wander around at random, picking up and disgorging passengers at stops or while in motion (at one point, as I rode a bus dressed up as a Heresford cow, the driver stepped out of the bus while it was in motion, jogged around to the other side of the bus to get a can of beer, chatted with the beer-donator for a little while, and only then returned to the steering wheel) and following no route or schedule, but that's OK; their passengers tend to be not big on routes or schedules either.

Art cars are licensed by the DMV, or Department of Mutant Vehicles, an arm - or rather tentacle - of the vast, impressive, and largely volunteer Burning Man administration, of which I should speak more.

Tickets to Burning Man generally go for anywhere between $150 and $250, depending on how early you buy them. Call it an average of $200, multiplied by the 30,000 attendees, and you're looking at a $6 million dollar annual income for Black Rock City LLC, the organization which runs the joint. (The story behind the people behind this organization, and the history of Burning Man, can be found at This is spent on a full-time planning office, an 80-acre ranch near the playa where materials and vehicles and one person are kept year-round, a few paid representatives and administrative folks, and the fearsome DPW, the Department of Public (or Playa) Works.

DPW are a scary, filthy, attitudinous, bad-tempered set of guys, straight out of The Road Warrior, crusty and scarred and foul-mouthed and angry and scary-looking and bearded and completely untroubled by any sense of social norms or courtesy, by the time Burning Man proper rolls around. You would be too if you had spent the last month living and working in the desert, building the bones of the city and the Man himself. As such they have a certain reputation in the city. "DPW killed a puppy!" I overheard at one point. But, even if the various rumours about the gutters from which the various DPW members were press-ganged are true, no one disputes that they're hard workers and skilled carpenters. At least not to their face. They stick around for the month following Burning Man, as well, deconstructing the city, collecting MOOP (Matter Out Of Place or Manmade Object On Playa, also known as "trash"), and in general returning the playa to its pristine state. LEAVE NO TRACE, it says in bright green neon at the Earth Guardian camp of volunteers who help with cleanup, and they do just that, which is a pretty amazing thought when you stand near the Man during the middle of the week and look around at the madcap neon tent city of tens of thousands around you.

Obviously a few dozen paid employees could not organize, construct, maintain, administer, and erase a city. Volunteers pick up the slack. Hundreds of them light the kerosene lamps, work at the cafe, wield hammers and nails to help finish the Man and the ziggurat, build the Temple, clean up MOOP, don khaki and call themselves Rangers and maintain public order and security, greet incoming cars at the start of the week and/or conduct the great exodus at the end, work at the medical center or the fire department or the commissary or the airport or the library (yes, there's a library) -- volunteers are Burning Man's lifeblood, and its participants are impressively willing to throw themselves into their new jobs.

(No, I didn't volunteer for a damn thing. Your point?)

The Temple

I have referred, a couple of times, to The Temple, a subject which deserves a section of its own, as it is the emotional heart of Burning Man. For four years now an artist named David Best has constructed, and then burnt, a multi-story temple, which has been adopted by the Burning Man population as a memorial to their lost loved ones.

I did not see last year's Temple of Joy, but I wish I had; the pictures I have seen are of otherworldly, extraordinary, staggering beauty. This year, he and his volunteer cast of dozens built cardboard and wallpaper into the spires and minarets of the Temple of Honor, looming austerely above the desert. People left offerings, pictures, necklaces or decks of cards or any memory of a loved one, to burn with the temple. They wrote, memories, pleas for forgiveness, attempts to understand, angry bile, both on the books chained to the temple and on every available space on the temple walls, much of it so raw and searing that I turned away and left the words unread. It may be the only contemplative place in Black Rock City. It is certainly the only place where tears are more common than laughter.

A Brief Circumnavigation Of The Esplanade, circa Wednesday, 10:00, Pacific Highly Irregular Time

Standing here facing the Man, it's darkness to our right, light and chaos to our left. Hard to imagine that only a few weeks ago it would have been absolutely dark and empty here, isn't it? With all these hordes of glowstick-laden people streaming past, and the neon lights of the Esplanade covering two-thirds of the horizon, thousand-watt floor lamps and projected video and live bands playing, and the green lasers beaming from the Man flickering in the clouds of dust, art car stereos and rave camps and live music stages booming music that almost drowns out the din of conversation, it's almost like Times Square here.

Behind us, down 10:00 away from the Man, are a heap of rave camps and nightclubs. Down at the end is the trapeze. Right here on the Esplanade is Xara, a camp that puts down sod and live grass in their tent - it's extraordinary how powerful it is to feel and smell something as simple as that after a few days in the desert. Next door is Paddy Mirage's, the Irish pub, barter for Guinness or get it as a gift, insanely crowded and hopping to a live band. And down a little further are some more of the rave camps, with big projection TVs showing trippy little video loops to the crowds twitching and dancing beneath.

Yeah, I heard that guy too. "I've never been sober on the playa before. It's okay. It's pretty good. But it's weird." Probably a common reaction. There is an enormous amount of drug use, licit and il, out here. Plenty of people who stay more or less sober, too, but you do see hundreds upon thousands of people walking around drastically underdressed, wearing glowsticks, drinking water and sucking lollipops. And you smell, and get offered, an awful lot of pot.

Past this arcade of little camps I don't know so much, to a big circus tent with lights spinning around it, and look, there's a firedancing performance, a couple of dozen of them taking turns with poi and swords and cages and staves and pretty much anything you can set aflame and dance with. Onwards past radio stations, live music, the Turnip Head Cult (acronymize it), artistic video projected onto a geodesic dome backed by an enormous sound system, and there's the Hookah Camp where they had a topless hula hooping contest earlier today...oh, hey, there's the whale! A big white whale, might have been a reticulated bus or something once, unloading and loading passengers before it takes off for wherever. Let's ask. Going to the Temple of Gravity, in maybe fifteen minutes?...well, that's what the driver said. You can't take anything too seriously around here. There's so much stimulation, everyone's so easily distracted, that minds change in a hurry and promises are quickly forgotten.

Lots of other art cars, too many of them, and if you just turn and look out at the desert, the band of light which is the other side of the Esplanade, and the dim profiles of the couple of dozen art installations on either side of the lamplit walkway that proceeds from Center Camp on our left to the Man on our right, and the couple of dozen art cars moving slowly around the playa, particulary weirdly shaped and coloured given that they're half-hidden by the night, it's all pretty surreal, isn't it? Yeah. How long have you been here? Get over it already. Around here we get surreal 24/7. And yes, the peoplewatching is something else, and yes, those girls must be pretty damn cold in this breeze. Hey, look, La Contessa! A full-size, forty-foot high pirate ship. Just because, you know?

If the lights and noises and people and pirates are getting to be too much for you, we can duck into Sanctuary, where they have quiet tents with pillows for meditation and relaxation and such. Though they also have a bar. Oh, hi. Nice to meet you. Good, thanks, how about you? No thanks, I don't smoke. A necklace? Um, sure, thanks. Bye. Oh, here's the roller rink, I haven't actually tried it out, but it's big and they've sure put an awful lot of work into it. And here's some enormous rotating metallic arms with spinning engines thing. I don't think it's finished yet and I haven't the faintest idea what it's for. We're getting close to Center Camp now, there's the Earth Guardian LEAVE NO TRACE neon sign, and there's the giant mock-stone cube with a huge glowing spinning gyroscope to our right, where the walkway to the Man begins. You can almost always see the Man, his hundred-foot-high neon blue skeleton. Until he burns.

No, I don't feel like coffee, let's keep going. Now where the heck are we? The monkey cult camp. Lots of weird chanting going on in there. Bollywood, with its prayer wheels that play movies, next to Bunnywood, some kind of bunny-worshiping spinoff. Yeah, haven't spent too much time there. Space Cowboys, not to be confused with the huge Roman columns of Space Virgins further ahead, and Playa Playland, a chill-out room, literally, they mist it up and keep it cool by day and heap it with pillows by night. Mission to Mars, a kind of theme-park ride, not for claustrophobes. And there's some kind of projection-video art project, and brightly lit pictures from last year's Burning Man, oh and off on your right there's a community burn platform for burning wood, or art, or both, before you leave.

I'm leaving out a whole lot of stuff, and I'm not really describing the feel of being there, of the people walking and cycling and art-carring past, talking or gaping or enjoying their drug or just enjoying the moment or, rarely, in a hurry to get somewhere, and the cool dry desert air and the thin dust it carries which you can always feel at the back of your throat, and the way each camp becomes an instantly recognizable landmark, and the sense you get of Black Rock City as a real city, and this is its Giza Strip, its Times Square, but you know you're only a couple of minutes from its quiet backstreets as well, and the sounds, music and wind and conversation and people barking through megaphones and engines and flamethrowers - flamethrowers are loud - and just the general sensory overload and the way in which nearly everything and everyone you see have been constructed to look memorably cool and fun and over-the-top.

Over there, to the right, those are the glassblowers, for real, taking semiliquid gobs of melted glass from their oven and twisting and lathing and cutting and sculpting them into coloured glass flames or bottles or cups. There's Camp Carp's Skychair, two canvas hammock chairs hanging twenty feet high, a great place to watch the sunrise. On a little further is Thunderdome, as in the movie, hosted by the Deathguild goths, where two people enter, strap themselves into bungee belts that launch them careening around the forty-foot high geodesic dome, and beat at one another with padded swords. Like the movie, people cluster around and climb high up the dome to watch the spectacle. Unlike the movie, both contestants are allowed to leave alive, though one senses that some Deathguild members are unhappy with this concession. Onwards to the conGLOMerate, kind of the town's sordid strip club, and then past more visual art, vertical shimmering lines that stretch themselves into recognizable pictures, this one of the Mona Lisa, when you look at them out of the corner of your eye and twist your head rapidly. Past signs, and another arcade of little camps I never explored much, and now we're past 9:00 and going back out to raver territory, the thumpa-thumpa-thumpa increasing in volume.

And I'm sorry, our tour is done, and I've only mentioned a small minority of things we might have seen and done, the bigger ones or those that happened to stick in my memory, and never mind that, the truth is I haven't really shown you a damn thing. It's like I'm waving a charred bit of ash at you and trying to make you understand what I mean when I say "tree".

The Burn

One of the most impressive things about The Burn itself was the sheer number of people. It's not often that you see thirty thousand people clustered around a single central figure. The art cars (and trucks and buses and tricycles etc) were circled around The Man, and two cranes kept an eye on the whole business, and a conclave of drummers started drumming a full hour before the burn began. Those many who had them wore their brightest, flashiest costumes, and covered themselves in glow sticks. The mood was kind of primal, electric, everyone waiting breathlessly for an act of destruction. Good-tempered but impatient.

The crowd was thick, but not so thick that you couldn't easily move around the Man -- though getting closer was another matter entirely. As for the edge of the safe area, a circle that began about 200 feet from the Man and the ziggurat, forget it.

About a half-hour before the burn a couple of dozen people held a sign-waving, tongue-in-cheek protest ("Two, four, six, eight! We must not incinerate!"), which met good-hearted boos and hisses. Then the firedancing began. I'm not a huge fan of firedancing -- with individuals or small troupes, it gets old in a hurry -- but several hundred firedancers all spinning and whirling balls and bars and blades of flame at once is a pretty amazing sight.

There was a brief pause after the firedancers finished. The crowd was rumbling with anticipation by now and brief chants of "Burn him" broke out from time to time in random places. The Man himself, whose arms had been lowered by his sides for the whole week, now had them raised high into the sky for the Burn. Then there was a technical problem, and one arm sagged back down, its neon light switched off.

No matter. The fireworks began. With a bang. A dozen huge white plumes rocketed into the air, and the crowd leapt to its collective feet and roared its approval, as clouds and columns and webs of fireworks began to fill the air. They lasted only a few minutes, ending much as they had begun; and then the first tongue of flame began to flicker in the room atop the ziggurat and beneath the Man, and people around me literally began to jump up and down in anticipation.

Other flames had been lit (presumably remotely) within the ziggurat itself, and the building was made of dry wood, and it took maybe thirty seconds before the whole thing was aflame and fire had crawled all the way up the Man's skeleton. The light was so bright it hurt to look at it. The heat was like an oven, and I was nowhere near the front, people there must have found it nearly unbearable, but the crowd stood its ground and breathlessly watched and cheered. The sound of the Burn nearly drowned them out.

The flames went a hundred feet high, at least. Huge flickering vortexes of smoke and burning ash spun off from the center, thirty feet in diameter, and went spinning off in random directions. Some of them made it deep into the crowd but nobody seemed to be hurt. The cloud of smoke blotted out every stars. It smelled like a campfire, the world's biggest campfire.

When the Man toppled over there was a mighty howl. When the ziggurat collapsed there was another. The Burn lasted maybe twenty minutes, if that. When it was over a few thousand die-hards converged on the rectangle of still-ten-foot-high flame that had been the Man, stripped off their shirts and began to dance counterclockwise around the flames. I bet a whole bunch of them got first-degree burns. The rest of us slowly streamed outwards, into the Esplanade, for the second-last night on the playa.

The Temple burn the next night was very different. A soprano sang arias for the intro. People sat quietly, holding hands, many of them crying, and when it finally fell, we responded with gasps, not howls.

It's more an event for high-energy visually expressive people people than for semi-misanthropic utilitarian minimalists such as yours truly -- the HEVEPPs and the SMUMs will never fully mesh, I think -- but I enjoyed my time on the playa, and found elements of it truly wonderful, and I admit to feeling a little wistful as I drove away. Not that it could ever work for more than a week.

Will I be back? I don't know; like much of my life, the answer will probably be at least in part geographically dependent. But I'll certainly be tempted.