Tuesday, September 12, 2006

My first Burn

Back in Honolulu, it's hard to describe the Burning Man experience in a way that doesn't seem slightly unhinged -- although it all makes perfect sense when you're there.

After amassing a long list of items to buy for the expedition, and plenty of friendly but puzzling advice from people I knew, who for various reasons were taking a break this year, I gathered everything I could manage during a busy afternoon of shopping in San Francisco -- items included ski goggles, hat, baby wipes, dust masks, and copious quantities of beef jerky and sports bars. I then found that my ride plans to get out to Black Rock City had fallen through, so resorted to that wondrous staple of early 21st century networking, Craigslist, to find someone to take me to the event. I took a phone call at about 11:30pm on Tuesday evening, a day and a half after arriving in town, and the fellow on the line said he was planning to leave in an hour's time, drive through the night, and set up camp at the playa on Wednesday morning. Sorted.

Mark, the guy who had responded to my ad on Craigslist, rolled up at about 1am in a blue sedan, and a trailer, both groaning with provisions, in contrast to which my two backpacks seemed absurdly minimalist. He was a Bay Area native and an entrepreneur between projects (which, a friend back in Honolulu astutely remarked, is San Francisco's answer to LA's ubiquitous unemployed actors). We made our way through the night toward Reno, and after sunrise, beyond into the Nevada desert, and the road-trip provided a good opportunity to exchange stories about our lives, and for Mark to entertain himself by asking me what I expected of the event, knowing that however well researched, my expectations could be but two dimensional sketches that were bound to be shredded by the blooming, buzzing confusion of the experience itself. (I noticed a gleam in the eye of almost any regular participant, or Burner, who discovered a Burning Man virgin in their midst.) As a four-time Burner, he took a certain pride in being prepared for any eventuality that might befall him in the desert, and was pleased to maintain the highest possible level of hedonism in the face of an extremely inhospitable environment. He also brought extras of pretty much everything, which was an unqualified blessing, because -- there's no two ways about it -- like most first timers, I was underprepared.

What can prepare you for Burning Man? I've been wondering about that, and although there are answers I could give, my conclusion is that if you could fully prepare for it, by definition, it wouldn't be as thoroughly worthwhile as it is. The scale and energy of the whole thing are so stupendous that, if they don't take you by surprise the first time, you're probably clinically dead.

That, it turns out, points to one of the signature themes underlying the event. Not indulgence, exactly, but joyful, artistic excess -- a half-million dollar wooden sculpture that looks like an architectural-scale Billy Idol hairstyle -- why the hell not? Three hundred cars, golf buggies, go-karts, school buses, and sailboats made up to look like pirate ships, dragons, UFOs, giant illuminated turtles, etc, most of them pounding out music, while cruising around a giant dustbowl? Naturally. 40,000 people celebrating life in a desert environment where ordinarily, no life survives? Now there's something you have to see to believe.

It's difficult to put in words, but if you combined a pagan feast; the Las Vegas strip; Disneyland reimagined by Dalí; Amsterdam; Woodstock; Mad Max; and the biggest rave you can imagine, you'd still be nowhere near it, but you would at least enjoyed the challenge of trying to mentally blend all that together. The day and night contrast sharply, not just in temperature (one's too hot, the other too cold) but in tone -- there's a shift from carnival to dance party, and each mode has its charms. Sleep, for me a necessary evil, was an agenda item which some participants appeared to find the wherewithal to forego for the duration.

I first heard about the phenomenon -- and it is a phenomenon -- two or three years ago from a splendid book called Breaking Open the Head (mentioned in this earlier post). The author, Daniel Pinchbeck, gives a great description, including the following observations: "Black Rock City is the psychedelic vision made visceral. [...] The event is a highly evolved, brilliantly organized follow-up to the Be-Ins and Happenings of the 1960s." (p. 81) Pinchbeck does well in his account, which I recommend highly, to capture the energy and intensity of the experience, but no number of written descriptions, photo essays or documentaries could possibly substitute for being there. Even so, it's an interesting challenge to try to cram into language the richness of it all. Burning Man is a spirited, as well as spiritual, celebration of life in all its variety and strangeness, with dazzling displays of artwork in every possible medium, ranging from the unmissably huge to the very understated, and shot through with experimentalism, irony, humour and surrealism.

There may be other places where you can awaken to your neighbours hula-hooping naked atop an enormous RV and singing "The Star Spangled Banner"; where you can watch hand puppets doing beatboxing and singing hip-hop; where you can breakfast for free on freshly shucked oysters beneath a canopy in the desert sun; where you can find a thousand pingpong balls with coloured lights inside them, arranged in 3D spokes so you lie underneath in the dark and have rainbow patterns shower onto your retina; where a serpent as long as 30 people spurts out synchronised bursts of flame; where 1,000 fire dancers put on a half-hour show followed by the ignition of a giant neon-lit effigy of a man, out of whose fiercely burning carcass emerge whistling dervishes of dust created by the heat... but if there are such places, I don't know about them.

Black Rock City is a marvel. While it exists, it is the fourth largest city in the state of Nevada. It's a vast camp arranged in a near circle, as on a clock, with each "hour", from 2:00 around to 10:00, a dusty road radiating from the centre; crossed by eight concentric streets (this year, in keeping with the designated art theme; Anxious, Brave, Chance, Destiny, Eager, Fate, Guess, and Hope). The Esplanade is the inner circle, where most of the larger art camps and villages (collections of camps) can be found. In the middle is a vast alkali dustbowl called the playa, with The Man in the middle, and populated by an ever-changing array of odd, mostly mobile art installations to explore day or night. Every corner and every road is populated with tents, vehicles, shade structures, and other temporary edifices housing all kinds of bars, clubs, stalls, shows, and creatively dressed, or undressed, people doing interesting things to, for and with each other for the hell of it.

It is impressive that the whole thing has managed to reach the scale it has -- about 39,000 people this year -- and yet it's still managed largely invisibly. The actual provided infrastructure and list of enforceable rules are minimal, but highly effective, and rely heavily on the "orgware" of the participants; a solid commitment to the evolved culture, which has its reasons and works exceedingly well. It occurred to me that this would be impossible to implement, fully realised, from scratch; but it's because it has been evolving for 20 years, and a core of returning participants seeds a strong sense of continuity and obligation to do the right thing for the community, that the event is able to keep running. For instance; apart from coffee, tea and ice sold at the Center Camp, money does not change hands on the playa. I was shocked to learn that this actually works -- that the gift economy can be, at least for a while, a reality. I was no less shocked to find that, unlike every other fair, concert or similar community event I've ever attended, where copious amounts of garbage appear underfoot within hours, after a week of outrageous partying, there was hardly any "matter out of place" in evidence: the ideal of "pack it in, pack it out" actually functions amid all the apparent chaos. The notion of "radical self-reliance" which BM proudly manifests of course depends on lots of consumption in advance, since you need to bring everything with you; and the event could be -- and is, by some -- roundly criticised for its profligate use of resources (especially the gas used for the art cars and pyrotechnics). Having weighed those criticisms, though, it seems to me a petty complaint in light of the broader purpose of the event. What feast, party or other worthwhile human celebration is fundamentally "sustainable" in its own right. That this could not continue all year round is beside the point. It isn't intended to continue year round.

Now, the art theme this year, which played no small part in my getting organised to actually attend, was "The Future: Hope and Fear". My colleagues at HRCFS and I had talked about staging a guerrilla campaign to pluralise every singular instance of the term "future" -- making it "futures" -- under the team name "S-cargo", with a logo somehow involving a snail. Yeah, well we thought it would be clever. But our duties to "Hawaii 2050" won out, so that didn't happen, although I did inexplicably find myself having lots of conversations on the playa about studying futures, and what that meant, and didn't mean, and so forth. An interesting question asked more than once was whether I thought the gifting economy could provide a viable model for a future society, or an element thereof. This is a topic I'll surely return to at some stage, because it's a really interesting thought. My reaction at the time was, it would be great to think so, but practically the reason it can work is because it's temporary, and everyone's pretty much on holiday from their "ordinary" lives. Currency -- the medium of exchange, whatever it may be -- evolves independently in different societies because barter is simply too inefficient to get everyone what they want. Money's an indispensible middleman. I'm still thinking about it, though, because what really counts here is the contrast between a spirit of mainly selfish accumulation of wealth, which prevails where most of us live, most of the time, and the largely selfless habit of gifting, and "paying it forward " which prevails at Burning Man. Speaking to someone this morning about this remarkable aspect of the experience, she speculated that the bigger idea of BM, in which people establish experimental communities operating on different values, may well become more common as they grow tired of the exploitation of mainstream capitalist culture. I think she may be right.

Now, despite the art theme, which gave rise to some very cool stuff, it is the conceptual and community level at which the Burn was most interesting from a futurist perspective, rather than the details of the art per se: I don't have other years to compare, but my impression was that the chosen theme didn't make a huge difference to what people produced; it tended to provide a loose inspiration, or a final gloss. The event is therefore likely to be equally interesting in any other year, and I urge futurists who haven't been to make it a priority -- if you're interested in being exposed to other ways to be, Burning Man is an inspiring and overwhelmingly energetic place to do that.

And as I reflect on the experience., there are two other ideas that stand out for me more than the "Hope and Fear" of the official theme. The first is serendipity. There is no much going on, all the time, that a saner strategy than trying to dart between scheduled events is simply to go with the flow of whatever you might stumble upon. There's plenty I missed that I would have liked to see (a thick program of scheduled events I barely glanced at all week), but each person's experience there is uniquely their own, and embracing that is one of its pleasures. (This is also true of life generally, but a heightened awareness of that fact is among the interesting lessons Burning Man gave me.)

The second theme is impermanence. On the playa, almost everything is moving, albeit at different rates. Most people get around on bikes, which are extremely useful in view of the scale of the event, but when you're exploring you need to be careful to park your wheels near some kind of landmark that looks like it might be there for at least an hour or two. Impermanence also comes through at a broader level, though, and there is a palpable life cycle to the build up and winding down of each day and night, and of the Burn as a whole. Mark stayed on several more days to volunteer with the cleanup, so I had to hitchhike back to civilisation, and shortly after being picked up by three kind souls in an RV, we were each given a parting gift through the window by a fellow Burner: a small purple box containing some of the ashes from The Man, and the salutary inscription:

Ashes to ashes
dust to dust
The Man
2006
RIP
Death is
the only
certainty

It boggles the mind to consider that this whole community springs forth in the wasteland of the playa each year, and that much of the art -- including vast installations representing thousands of hours of work -- are designed and produced specifically for the enjoyment of participants. And The Man himself is not the only ritual burning; many other artworks are also ceremonially sent off in the same way. The end of a particular art piece in this way is deliberately and appropriately celebrated with not a whimper, but a bang. For all we might say to bemoan the instant gratification ethos of disposable consumer culture, an equally insidious syndrome in our common experience is arguably a reluctance or inability to let go of things whose day is done. A life lived to the full is lived in recognition of its inevitable ending, and I liked the fact that there this was (implicitly) celebrated, eyes wide open, deepening rather than lessening the joy of the experience.

But overall, I think the best thing about this experience was that I used to feel sometimes like I was born too late, missing out on the major cultural shifts, experiments and innovations of the sixties and seventies. I don't feel that way quite so strongly anymore, because there is indeed a vibrant, growing group of cultural creatives looking for new ways to see, to express themselves, and develop in their lives and communities. It was inspiring and exciting to be a part of it in this case; and having completed what I now see as a reconnaissance mission, I'm looking forward to the chance to get back to the next incarnation of Black Rock City, and more fully engaging the Burning Man creed of active participation.

5 comments:

shali_isdes said...

Hi Stuart!

So nice to meet you in person the other day at the Futures Center. I loved your BM story! So funny, and I almost felt like I was there. Never been myself, but used to attend Rainbow Family functions, a community in a similar vein.

See you 'round the blogosphere!

Alicia

Stuart said...

Hey Alicia,

Thanks for stopping by (both the Center and the blog). Definitely stay in touch, and let us know when and how you'd like to get more involved.

Cheers
SC

shali_isdes said...

natch.

Kevin said...

Hey Stuart.

Finally had a chance to sit down and read the full account. The art of putting such an experience into words can be elusive...well done. It brought up so many memories of those eight days...thanks for that. Be well and see you next year. Kevin

Stuart said...

Thanks for your feedback, Kevin. I'm glad you got something out of my rambling reflections. That week in the the desert was quite an experience... to be outdone next year for sure!