By Dylan Bergeson/ The AS Review
You are walking down a crowded street listening to a woman bellow after you into a megaphone about the lingerie party just down the block. You pass a naked man with a curly pink tail and fuzzy pig ears. The couple next to you is debating whether or not to hitch a ride on the giant Snuffleupagus that just drove by. Just as you are beginning to wonder when something interesting might happen, you stumble upon what you’ve been looking for: a life-sized game of Mousetrap in which human players are the game pieces.
Either you just accidentally ate the moldy rye bread your roommate was trying to culture in the garage, or you’re in the middle of the desert, attending a world famous art festival called Burning Man.
Several months ago I glimpsed the cover of a new-agey magazine with Burning Man as the leading story. It read, “Social experiment or week-long party in the desert?” Having just returned from my first year at the event I am struck, in retrospect, by the absurdity of this question. The answer is clearly and quite obviously, “yes.”
Attempting to define or explain the experience of Burning Man is sort of like trying to catch a sound. It is difficult to fathom how the event moved from an amateur art project on a beach in San Francisco to a bustling city of over 35,000 in a remote Nevadan desert. Founder Larry Harvey, raised in a suburb of Portland, Ore., first built and burned a large human effigy in 1985. The festival was one of many offshoots of the legendary Bread and Puppet Theater, an annual arts and culture undertaking which had recently disintegrated. Harvey’s idea quickly turned into a massively-scaled annual social experiment of sorts, with an agog following in the underground art scene.
During the 1990 festivities, however, an excited crowd turned into a rowdy and agitated mob when one lone police officer arrived on the scene and forbade the ritual burning of the Man. Harvey knew then it was the end of an era for his beach-based creation. Insisting that the burning ritual proceed, he immediately went to work on finding another location. What he did next changed the face of the Burning Man festival and solidified its historical importance forever.
Harvey and a small group of dedicated “burners” headed out to the Black Rock Desert, one hour north of Reno. Hidden amongst a bowl-shaped set of mountains is an ancient dried-up lakebed known as the playa. The Black Rock playa is the second largest flat part of the United States at 400 square miles, second only to the Bonneville Salt Flats. Some people even believe the curvature of the Earth can be observed with the naked eye there.
Moving the event to the playa created a pilgrimage aspect that has, over time, bonded the community more tightly than ever. It is now a six-hour drive from San Francisco on direct route to Burning Man, and even further out of the way for the tens of thousands of Black Rock citizens who must backtrack along small rural highways to get there.
The strange and extremely photogenic playa has created a trademark public image for the temporary city, which becomes the seventh most populous in the state, and the most densely populated in the country, for one week, then disappears.
My friend Afrose and I set off to experience this phenomenon late last August. In our early teens, long before we knew each other, we each stumbled across Burning Man on the internet and felt a simultaneous drive to go. It was a drive that could be referred to as a calling. This year our time had finally come. A series of bizarrely synchronistic events leading up to our departure date somehow affirmed for me that this was something I was meant to do.
We were initiated on our first full day by one of the playa’s infamous dawn-‘till-dusk wind storms. The desert floor is entirely composed of microfine crystalline dust that quickly leads to extreme whiteout conditions in the wind. The dust, the high alkalinity of which is corrosive to metals and skin, coated every nook and cranny of our tents, bikes, and bodies. We combated “playa foot” with handfuls of lotion and Bag Balm.
Our trials were insignificant, though, next to the indescribable feelings of wholeness and community. Over and over, again and again, throughout the week, I found the same words escaping my lips: “I love people.” It isn’t that I ever particularly despised them (a few angsty years in high school notwithstanding), only that I had never before been so conscious of the degree of complexity and beauty our species is able to create. I was occasionally caught off guard by a sudden welling of indiscriminate love for that complexity.
I could never do justice to the experience of Burning Man by attempting to explain every quirky and wonderful thing that I saw. Instead I have chosen just a few things to write about. Following is my top three from Burning Man 2005:
Bunny Rebellion: Last year an army of people dressed as bunnies formed the “Million Bunny March Against Humanity,” in which they marched to the Burning Man to insist that he should be a Burning Bunny instead. The march was compromised by Black Rock Animal Control, an agency which traps stray “animals” and takes them to Center Camp to auction off. The mayhem resulted in an agreement between the BRAC and protest organizers in which bunnies would only be tagged and released in the future (to the enragement of other furry things).
This year’s demonstration was further complicated by an unexpected counter-protest carried out by the militant group Carrot Liberation Front. CLF brandished signs reading “repent cruelty to carrots or burn in bunny hell!” and tackled carrot-munching bunnies. A carrot-founded peace group attempted to mediate by handing out stalks of celery.
Afrose’s Big Two-One: Halfway through the week Afrose celebrated her twenty-first birthday, and I’ll just come out and say it: you have not seen nightlife until you’ve been barhopping at Burning Man. Aside from the obvious plus of unlimited free drinks (monetary exchanges are not allowed within the borders of Black Rock City), there is a general Dionysian vibe constantly in the background that resulted in us prowling the streets with a makeshift fabric tail, announcing to the world our newly invented game of “Pin the Tail on the Birthday Girl.”
A Flaming Messenger: In mid July I discovered that a distant cousin whom I’d met only one year prior would be attending Burning Man for her ninth straight year. Jessica, it turned out, is a member of an art group that builds large sculptures; this year the Black Rock Arts Foundation awarded them a full grant to create “The Angel of the Apocalypse.” The sculpture was a large phoenix, rising belly first from the earth. A wood fire burned in the Angel’s open mouth, while the metal tips of its wings flamed and shot fire. Afrose and I were invited to help build the project, which was large enough to walk around the spire-like wings and straight into the middle of the piece where its driftwood chest protruded from the ground. One night I got to be in charge of the flame throwers.
Founder Larry Harvey once described Burning Man as a satirical poke at the outside world. “We use our shows to create collective stories, myths which dramatize the life of our community,” Harvey said in a 1997 interview with Darryl Van Rhey. At the same time, however, the festival creates a new community from the ash of the things each citizen of Black Rock City places symbolically in the Man to burn in effigy. Black Rock is a city rooted in the principles of sacrifice and rebirth. I left the city gates early this month with a new sense of hope. Hope fueled by having caught a glimpse of the kind of society people are capable of building.
The entirety of my the Burning Man experience can perhaps be best encapsulated by the several times an unfamiliar person approached me, gave me a warm hug, and said, “Welcome home.”