A low, deafening rumble fills the air, formed by the chorus of assembled humanity. Thousands of travelers from all over a planet gather on an infinite desert plain, an ancient lake bed, to witness. A wooden Man towers over them all. Unmanned aerial vehicles flit above. Mutant vehicles form a wall of music and light around the ritual space. Fire-dancers spin and twirl to the thrum of drumbeats. Fireworks fill the sky. Then there is fire.
Burning Man is a gathering held annually in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, USA. The 2013 incarnation had 68,000 attendees from 36 countries. The Black Rock Desert is flat and extends as far as the eye can see. It has been used to set land speed records. Burners call it the ‘playa’. On the playa, Burning Man forms the temporary city of Black Rock City for a week, complete with roads, a post-office, and even an airport, NV88. Following the principle of ‘decommodification’, no money changes hands at Burning Man. Instead, everything is a gift. At the airport, I asked the first pilot I saw, and was gifted a ride over Black Rock City, which is when I took the photograph below.
Where should we go next?
What’s that purple ball of light?
I know what that purple ball of light is! You’ll see.
Let’s go to the purple ball!
Wow the streaks on the ground make me think the ground is moving. I’m disoriented.
I feel like I’m floating. I could stare at this forever.
If you stand in the center you can really see the lines.
The Penrose Triangle is over there! Let’s go.
Black Rock City is a series of serendipitous encounters. You could be cattle prodded for a shot of whiskey and irish cream. Or be instructed to snort vodka. You could see a monstrous, insectile costumed thing stomp past you. You may exit your tent and see a ship pass by. A ship in the desert with gaudily clad dancers cheering away is most trippy. You learn to accept the magical and the fantastical as the new normal. This is Black Rock City. A refuge from the banality of your quotidian.
What on Earth is that?
Oh…yeah what is that?
Let’s go closer.
I’ve never seen anything so steampunk.
Is that a metal octopus mutant vehicle that breathes fire through its tentacles?
Yes, it’s from Germany.
Burning Man is famous for its mutant vehicles and art cars. On an ordinary day at Burning Man, you may be passed by a ship, a unicorn spouting flames from its horn, a narwhale, a space shuttle or whatever that mutant vehicle over there is supposed to be. Is that a…a Dalek?
Where did David and Alyssa go?
I don’t know. I thought they were at the Penrose Triangle.
It doesn’t matter. They’ll find their way to camp. I can’t see their lights.
I kinda want to experience the temple at night.
Oh you’re definitely going to cry. It’s somber enough by day.
It doesn’t matter. Let’s go. We could go to deep playa after!
The Temple at Burning Man offers a somber, stark and profound counterpoint of pathos to the unrestrained joy that runs through the rest of Burning Man. Located away from the City, it stands, meditative and brooding in the deep playa. A place to mourn, it is covered in precious mementos, little scrawled prayers for love and forgiveness, and personal shrines to those lost and loved. Memento mori the temple whispers. Memento mori. A quiet born of loss draws down its veil across the Temple. There is no chatter. Instead, ghosts flit through. A friend, a mother, a brother, a lover. All who enter will cry, if only for the loss of others. Go to the temple. Go to the temple.
So am I.
I need something. I need to dance.
What about the sounds camps on 10?
Oh I saw Osiris yesterday. Must have been a thousand people dancing.
Okay, let’s go!
Dusk falls. It is night. The city lies transformed. Your perspective is filled with light. Of every hue and stripe. Bicycles decked out in flashing LEDs. People’s costumes light up. Like a million fireflies have descended on the playa, these pinpricks of light fill your vision. The horizon is a rim of light as BRC sparkles and thousands of burners flood the sound-camps, bedecked in flashing lights of every colour and hue to dance and revel. The playa is a sea of light. Colour bursts from every point in your vision. Each point of light is a person. And there are thousands of them. Flames from art cars brighten the sky. Giant powerful green and blue lasers pierce the black night. The occasional UAV flits past you. A fire dancer begins to perform on the dance floor. Osiris’ giant disco ball lights up. White Ocean’s pillars of fire blaze. Apex’s giant video screen makes your visual cortex run wild. This is Black Rock City and it is very different beast by night.
How’s your burn going?
Amazing! I love the way you can just talk to anyone here. There are no barriers.
Yeah I know. I’ve had so many amazing, random conversations.
Yes, and that the first thing you do when you meet someone is hug them.
When the outside world characterizes the people of Black Rock City, it focuses on the optional clothing and the outrageous costumes; turning these people into ‘exhibits’. Which misses the point. Burning Man brings people together in a way you have never experienced before. Social barriers dissolve. The act of gifting somehow purifies and enlightens social transactions. You can talk to anyone, and they want to know about you. Where are you from? What is your story? Why are you here? What do you want? Are you having a good time? Are you happy? What did you see today? Where are you going? Can we be friends? Do you want to go together? Let us go together.
For it is to individual freedom that Burning Man looks. In this sense, Burning Man truly embodies America and yet counters America. Americans use individuality to build barriers and put space between individuals, to live apart. At Burning Man, burners exercise individuality to live together with a common, shared understanding. Where social constraints no longer apply, art and artistic self-expression may blossom. Indeed, it may be said that Burning Man is one of the places where the West ended. It is not so much that social constraints do not apply, but that the walls are broken down between you and your kin; that you are comfortable with and trust anyone at Burning Man, and you can let your inhibitions be. For in the end, it is always about people.
This self-expression leads to the most fantastic, magical art. Art you connect with instantly. Not the dry, academic art that ‘contemporary art’ has come to signify but art that warms and bonds. The art of the playa. What is that you just walked by? The MIR mockup? And is that a giant bird made up of pennies? Oh is that chapel made of blown-up black and white photographs? And that immense, elegant mesh sculpture of a woman, arms uplifted, full of grace and poise. Yes, you traverse a world of magic and wonder, a black rock desert replete with true art.
Emotion. We ever fail to let it run free. Because that depends on the people and the society that we immerse ourselves in. At Burning Man, the people and the society set your emotion free. Smile. Here wait, this person will pour coconut sherbet into your mouth.
Burning Man is more than a gathering. More than a festival. It is a sandbox. For humanity to play in. Here. It is your space. Do as you will. Let your emotion and desire gush forth. Let there be art and music and dance and happiness. Let the Temple remind you of what you have lost. Let the City remind you of the 70,000 strong family you have gained. Let the playa remind you of your nothingness. Let the fantastical art cars passing by remind you of whimsy. Let the glowing lights around you remind you of the people. Let the act of gifting and the hugs and conversations remind you of your humanity. Let Black Rock City remind you of what is possible.
The Man Burn is the apex. You’ve heard about it. But now you are experiencing it. The Man has been your beacon for a week now, a standing enigma in the dead centre of the city. Waiting to be burnt. It is time. A ring of mutant vehicles mark the perimeter. The rhythmic beats and soundscapes of music blend into a dull, sonorous roar. Thousands of burners flood the ritual space. All faces are turned towards the man. Art cars blast flames into the air. This is what brought you here. A guard of fire bearers mark the perimeter.
The drummers begin. To the thrum of drumbeats, the fire dancers begin to twirl. We are in the middle of a ritual. Our senses are elevated. We are one. There is something very primal about fire. About incandescent yellow against the black night sky. The Burn is near and coming.
The fire-dancers retreat. The tension builds. The Burn is close. The first fireworks. The sky is like day. Then the Man ignites. And burns. Like a Sun. A flaming Sun in a black desert in the Wild West. All eyes are turned towards that maelstrom of iridescent fire. Fire tornados spiral away. The sky turns yellow. The crowd erupts in a roar. Then for minutes, no one speaks. Everyone experiences. Transfixed. By that giant inferno.
For it is the Man Burn that brings it all together. That makes it apparent. This isn’t a festival. Or gathering. It’s something more. It’s Burning Man. It could only have been born of California and the Wild West. Of the excess surplus of a wealthy society with no context or tradition. Of a reaction to the impositions and strictions of modern life on tribal souls. Of the conflation of technology and primate. The need to mate the rituals of society with civilization that pulls us apart. Burning Man is about people. Meeting. Talking. Bonding. Coming together. In a little bubble on the infinite black rock desert. To recapture some of what civilization has lost.
Burning Man is based on American surplus and excess. Everything at Black Rock City must be transported hundreds of miles. Much is burned. Gallons of propane go up in smoke. The carbon footprint is immense.
An open question is whether Burning Man can maintain its ethos. Attendance has gone from 50,000 to 68,000 in a year. Can these attendees understand the principles of Burning Man and what it stands for. Will Burning Man become Coachella. Probably not. But it may go in that direction. When the art and exploration of the first few days give way to the unbridled hedonism of the last few.
Again, can Burning Man have impact outside of itself? It has inspired several regional festivals. There is an “Afrika Burn” in South Africa. Burning Man has become well known outside its community. Perhaps there is potential for a lasting positive impact.
An interesting question is what makes humans congregate and go through these huge rituals. What are the parallels between Burning Man and say the Kumbh Mela? What do these tap into and why? How does a disparate, far flung community like Burning Man hold itself together? How does technology enable and collide with these primal drives? How is the individual subsumed by society? Why do people choose to spend a week working in a merciless desert to give away their labour away to strangers whom they will never see again? What does it mean to leave no trace and rebuild a city every year? What is Burning Man? I have tried to chronicle it. And I will go back to understand it better. I hope you will too. See you in the dust mes amis.
I went back to Burning Man again, understood it, and wrote an anthropological analysis.