Saturday, September 16, 2006

A Cultural Geography of Burning Man 2006

What exactly is Burning Man? This challenge to define the essence of Burning Man will evoke a plethora of different reactions to the psychedelic, ephemeral, and brutal qualities of the unique phenom. To start, it is necessary to label Burning Man as an event. As such, it takes place during a set time period every year (around Labor Day weekend), in a specific location (Black Rock City, Nevada, 40^45'32.70N, 119^14'14.03W). This year's festival was in fact the 20th Annual Burning Man, which actually began as a smalltime neo-hippie gathering at Baker Beach in San Francisco. The distinctive style of Burning Man brings together glitz-glam scenesters and kinky progressives as pinko temptresses apocalyptically burn off a year's worth of pent-up deviance.

To give thee a sense of what Burning Man represents and what it encompasses, you must realize that Burning Man connotes a style, an ethos, an attitude, musical aesthetic, etc. SpaceAge references to Mad Max and Thunderdome are often cited as quintessential to the vibe at BM. Mix in neo-hippie spiritualism, neo-pagan pyromania, neo-tribal community relations, psych-trance tempo, and desert survivalist (radical self-reliance cum radical self-expression) chic. At the weeklong festival, a particular form of social interaction reigns supreme. The isloated venue certainly determines how the social dynamic plays out, and the unique desert clime has a grand influence on the nuances of Burning Man existence.

I should state that this was indeed my first trip to Burning Man. I embarked on the trek to Burning Man (what essentially morphs into a desert caravan once you realize that all of the people on the Nevada highways at that late hour are indeed headed for the same desert festival) after securing this ride through Craigslist Rideshare. Burning Man no doubt has emerged from the San Francisco Bay Area's uniquely West Coast communal sprirt of belonging, so my soliciation of a ride from that internet community was indicative of the culture of things to come. My musical appetite was also whetted, as we bumped Gypsy brass tunes, Afrobeat, heavy Swedish folk, and Gnawa chants.

Preparation for the craziness of BM is never sufficient. Though I consider myself lucky for having scrounged together the necessary supplies hastily, it would have been easy to forget packing any of the absolutely crucial elements (food, water, shade structure, illicit substances of all sorts, goods to barter, dust mask, warm vestments, googles, bike). In addition to the elements of style that enable one to fit into the BM cult aesthetically, these necessities ensure survival through a grueling week of debased debauchery, eccentric experimentation, silly spontaneity, artistic allegory, neutered naturalism, and materialistic machismo.

These descriptions must indeed be qualified in order to reveal the extent of BM's outrageous dimensions. The antics that transpire within the confines of Black Rock City are certainly enabled by the state laws of Nevada (which tolerate a high level of lawlessness, even if they remain intolerant of drug use) and by the experimental, proto-Hippie Bay Area scene. Often, BM participants (as all festival goers are called, since the event is all about performance art, and conceptual behavior) revel in what they deem "craziness." Throughout the course of my life, I have been amused at how frequently this term is nonchalantly thrown around. What does it really mean to describe a person, place, or event as "crazy?"

If stupid is as stupid does, then crazy is as Burning Man does. I don't necessarily understand what most people intend to reveal when they depict something with this modifier. Yet, I do know that BM is as crazy as anything possibly could be. The range of stimuli presented by the ambience on the playa (the name for the perfectly flat, dried-up lakebed composed of alkali dust upon which no living thing can survive) is so extensive that one is forever presented with a glut of choices. Venus fly trap mobile party or Puff the Magic Dragon fire-breathing monstrosity? Earthvibe world music with tripped-out tweakers bouncing around on a themed art installation of lit-up bubbles and computer-generated light shifters or neo-Hindu meditational session punctuated by primal sonic outbursts from the ethereal Pacific Dome in which revellers writhe and chant at the request of an organically-fed serial preacher? Whoops, turn around, you're about to be run down by a herd of naked red-lathered folks who are en route to a lecture on psychedelic permaculture in the modern world. But, I don't think you should follow them, since the seance at the Temple of Hope beckons your presence...

BM is highly organized (and absolutely beautiful) chaos. While it sometimes seems that there is absolutely no logic to the progression of sensory inputs in BRC, truth be told that the community is thoroughly enmeshed in a series of rituals and pronouncements that create a sense of law and order throughout the festival. Your meandering throughout the Black Rock Cityscape can take on the utmost randomness, but in truth, the events there unfold with a fair degree of certainty and predictability - these definites being necessary for bands to plan their performances, for art cars not to run over faded desert nomads, for port-a-potties to be emptied of their excretions in time for the next day of dumping.

That being said, BM is so-called crazy (see Stickpeople video above) because of its spontaneity, novelty, and sheer psychedelia. Much of the fantastic transpires at BM when an individual whimsically decides to create his/her piece of the blossoming desert oasis of heat, light, and magic. For me, since it was my first Burn, much of what occurred unraveled chaotically before my virgin burner eyes. First-time burners are indubitably shocked and enthralled by the tremendous variety of netherworldly musical options, sunrise dance marathons, and fire-spewing eclecticism. The newness of all the hotness (on spiritual, musical, stylistic, climatic, economic, and social levels) was beyond anything I could have conceived of previously. My uber-rational side prohibits me from wholly endorsing the notion of some sort of multidimensional enterprise or electro-magnetic other-worldly (be it paranormal or supernatural) facet, but this Burning Man culture was as close as anything I've seen could come to such an existentially alternative position. Such a universe materializes at Burning Man if you can muster up the irrational courage to lay down your credence in Western Enlightenment principles and revert to neo-pagan civilization (which was nonetheless civilized, even if burning witches, lepers, and perverts was a common occurrence). Regardless, the combination of omnipresent neon lights, 70's-psychedelically-charged tunes, and psychoactively-revved up brains produces the proper environs for departing from what you had previously regarded as your "self" as it had existed in reality, instead forsaking your comfortable bourgeois value system for a temporary masochistic psychedelic vacation in a novel civilization removed from the broader confines of Western, capitalist society (which still includes many of the most pernicious elements of that broader social order from which the Burning Man ethos is born).

An Epoch of Burning

Every phenom that lasts more than a few instants could be said to bear a zeitgeist. Burning Man is an entire year squeezed into one week. Characteristic of Burning Man are a number of material and spiritual qualities that differentiate this temporal and spatial ground from the Other that does not partake in the great burning ritual. The fashions found there speak to various cultural affinities harbored by the participants that are tied to the sheer necessities of playa life. Due to the intense daytime heat, frigid night air, white-outs (dust storms), and lack of public lighting, BRC inhabitants must wear a few things to protect optimally from these significant environmental perils. Most importantly, unless you want nature to tax your life-blood on the playa, you best carry dust mask, goggles, and neon lights with you at all times. The alkali dust gets swept up when the art cars and public works trucks are on the prowl and also when the cloud cover rolls in. Neon lights galore produce a spectacularly vivid array of costumes and car embellishments and are so necessary due to the amount of pedestrian, bike, and vehicle traffic during the night. Also, thou shalt watch out for misplaced static electricity from Tesla coils (see Dr. Mega Volt video below).

Geography of Black Rock City

To clarify, Burning Man is the event, and Black Rock City is the isolated location whereabouts 40,000 mad hatters gather to frolic and play. It's one gigantic tea party on a well-structured urban grid. Rather than employing a rectangular urban layout with right angles, this urban unit is designed based upon the idea of the 360 degree clock, with a circular streets running from 2:00 to 10:00 and 8 perpendicular avenues: Anxious, Brave, Chance, Destiny, Eager, Fate, Guess, and Hope. The sculpture of THE man is precisely in the middle of the clock on the 12-3-6-9 o'clock axis, due "north" of Center Camp and due "south" of the Temple of Hope. Only problem is that north is pretty much towards 10:35, which throws off the whole system. They ought to rotate the town for next year so that 12:00 is oriented towards the north and so that the sun rises at 3:00 and so on. Even so, the urban organization of Black Rock City is finessed by a crew of Department of Public Works members who arrive on the playa many weeks prior to the Burn in order to lay out the roads, markers, boundaries, etc. This is one of the many aspects of city life that are enabled due to the fairly steep ticket price. Medical, fire, and sewage are also covered by the entrance fee (which is tyically somewhere between 2 and 3 benjamins, depending on how late the ticket is purchased).

Party Madness

Burning Man offers so many different avenues for both pure pleasure and purposeful perusing. It presents partygoers with a nonstop run of hedonistic opportunities, but it also offers up art for art's sake. The aesthetically advanced roots of the festival ought not be overshadowed by the tendency on the part of some raging ravers to turn Burning Man into an endless paroxysm of orgiastic proportions. That being said, Burning Man is the most banging party west of the Mississippi, and IT DON'T STOP. The parties last until well into the morning light, revellers twisting and moseying about on the last fumes of MDMA dust and LSD tablets. While alcohol and marijuana are ubiquitous at the festival, pyschedelics, stimulants, pharmies, and barbituates are also incredibly abundant. Even if the over-stimulation is such that participants don't NEED such substances to enter into dimensions of altered perception and consciousness, these natural and synthetic chemical agents undoubtedly add to the mix. Burning Man is a perfect place to experiment with psychedelic drugs that increase one's awareness of the unparalleled array of sonic, visual, olfactory, and tactile stimuli.

City of Sin

Like its sister city in the southeastern corner of Nevada, this city of sin in the northwestern corner of the state features over-indulgence in many domains. The unapologetic exhibitionism of nude neon wanderers, the incessant flame-spitting of souped-up school buses, and the predominance of tripping neo-hippies creates a uniquely deviant desert garden of earthly delights. Though the Federal Bureau of Land Management Rangers, Nevada State Police, and local sheriffs will be more than happy to confiscate drug paraphrenalia and also arrest, ticket, and fine Burners for conspiring with the enemy in the War on Drugs, the atmosphere is relatively tolerant. The density of humans tripping on any number of psychoactive substances at any given point during the week approaches the density of junkies in the Tenderloin district- though ostensibly these Burners are able to conduct quasi-normal lives during the 51 other weeks of the Gregorian year.

Buffet of Buffoonery

Burning Man tests the limits of free love and confounds participants with the novel ramifications of a moral holiday. To my virgin burner eyes, it seemed at first that the Burning Man culture presented a social and sexaul free-for-all. To the contrary, social controls regulate the levels of deviance that occur, and facades are not always indicative of the true nature of things. To experience the upper echelons of sexual freedom at Burning Man, one must be conversant in the uniquely Burner language of spiritual intimacy. Mere virgins of this festival must learn the ropes before hopping onto the gravy train.

Musical Marathons

At first, it appeared that the Burning Man scene relied too heavily upon inorgnanic and repetitive forms of house and trance music. I initially had a lot of trouble adjusting to the quick bass thump of psy-trance, drum 'n' bass, and other electronically exoteric sonic forms. However, there is much music at Burning Man that delves into the canons of jazz, world music, hip-hop, reggae, and funk. It just takes a while to discover the times and places of the superior brand of aural entertainment. Big ups to Hamsa Lila for playing the playa til sunrise with Gnawa-influenced spiritual vibes that evoke musical images of the original funkmasters of Africa. Either way, psychedelic trance just requires thee to indulge in the substance bartering economy in order to sync up with the esoteric vibe.

Gift Economy in the Internet Age

I sometimes wish the internet would facilitate the exchange of goods for other goods. It truly is possible to establish barter networks of exchange over the internets, but perhaps we just aren't there yet. Thus, one must trek to Black Rock City to unearth the secrets of the tribal-oriented gift economy, in which paper currency just isn't worth the paper on which it's printed. I managed to forgo use of the telephone, internet, and cash money for the entire week of BM (with the exception of a $3 purchase of electrolyte replacement powder at Center Camp - the one place at Burning Man where the organizers oversee cash flow into their coffers, mostly in exchange for coffee and chai). So, the novelty of this economic and technological holiday was more than welcome in my cash-strapped universe. Having brought to the fore a substantial supply of Disarm Bush paraphrenalia, I was sufficiently prepared to barter for all manner of goods and services. This pleased the gods of Burning Man. In fact, the Burning Man himself communicated his approval of my clever appelation of Bush as the Burning Man, i.e. the Burning Bush. The barter system welcomed my contributions and dropped a significant quantity of useful desert goods into my pockets: 3-D glasses, shea butter, mint chapstick, LSD, incense, spiruline, and many other organic and inorganic objects that intensified my sensory smorgesborg. All hail the reversion to a barter economy. The dollar ain't no fiat currency anyhow. It's backed by black gold. I prefer green gold, since I be on it / I be on it / I be on that kryptonite.

Energy Levels

One of the most important lessons I derived from tripping involved the increased awareness of energy. While engaging in radical self-reliance on the playa, it is necessary to avoid drastic changes in the amount of one's energy. Due to the extreme temperatures in the Black Rock desert and the importation of massive quantities of fossil fuels, one must grapple with the intense fluctuation in available heat energy from the atmosphere. Acid accentuates knowledge of this perpetual energy exchange between human bodies and the harsh yet beautiful natural environment, thumping soundsystems, flaming art monster-vehicles, and fellow citizens of the nation of altered consciousness. Open flame makes the basic process of energy exchange that much more accessible to semi-nomadic Black Rock dwellers. Additionally, the presence of psychoactive dinosaurs, providential robots, broiling jumpropes, star wars insects, shapeshifting reptiles, and miscellaneous other futuristic machines affords day or night trippers the opportunity to commune with a cast of psychedelically calibrated characters.

Cult Worship (Watch that Man Burn)

To communicate with other dimensions, one must first be in touch with the present, plainly visible, and basic dimension. I'm still trying to get a grasp of this dimension I was born into, but I've made some progress interpreting the passage of other folks into those other dimensions of psychospiritual awareness. Observing the behavior of wailers at the spiritual nexus of Burning Man, I was floored by the raw religiosity that ruled that sanctuary. Burning Man truly becomes a creed for many folks who make use of the annual holiday to remember deceased loved ones, repent for transgressions, and carry on the eternal process of rejuvenation and rebirth. While, in my opinion, Burning Man emphasizes some of the destructive aspects of life too strongly, there is no doubt that this authentic religion possesses all of the necessary traits to qualify as a broad-based faith. I observed and celebrated a beautiful marriage at the same temple where mourners cast off the curses and untruths that plagued their consciences. Though Burning Man is an exaltation of the power of human destruction and the harnessing of tremendous quanities of energy to modify our natural surroundings, there is a tremendous respect for the sanctity of life and the infinite curiosities of our postmodern social order. This means that the Burning Man religion consists of a neo-tribal set of rituals that cover the gamut of creation, continuation, and cessation. And this all takes place under the aegis of a different sort of deity than is commonly embraced by the Western tradition.

The Earth Goddess Is Back

Burning Man - burning phallus, torched virility, halted domination = triumph of the feminine will. Even so, the cult of Burning Man does not worship on the altar of just one deity. The festival encompasses the celebration of a uniquely feminine respect for Mother Nature and her loving embrace, but it also hinges upon the cathartic and quintessentially male obsession with fire's power and awe. The clique of fire intermediaries (Promethean interlocutors) at Burning Man includes flame-breathers, propane shooters, pyrotechnic prodigies, and kerosene killjoys. To that end, it is clear that men regulate the most potent of destructive capabilities at Burning Man. The second sex no doubt gets to revel in man's self-immolation, but perhaps man is merely burning down a phony doppelganger-effigy-icon of himself so that he lets off a whole year's worth of hatred and rage - which quells the urge to light up real (Iraqi?) people and permanent habitats when he re-assumes his existence outisde of Black Rock City.

Tribe of the Westerly Winds

Burning Man has never received the endorsement of the United Nations. Burning Man does not represent too many nations. Burning Man's participants are overwhelmingly the same color of the alkali dust that covers the playa. A blanket of cultural and aesthetic whiteness enshrouds the festival, ensuring the domination of affluent Americans of European origin in Black Rock City. As was previously stated, large contingents of mid-Atlantic and Western European participants add to the massive core of West Coast heads. The lack of cultural and ethnic diversity at Burning Man thus speaks to the geographic and racial specificity of this event. The apex/nadir of Burning Man realizes unity of the neo-tribal attendees under the flag of the psych trance nation. Celtic bagpipes, Viking garb, and Germanic fire rites solidify the proto-European pagan nature of the gathering. The dearth of the American ethnic Other says something about 1) how crazy white people are to voluntarily spend a grueling week in the desert; 2)how the festival requires possession of sufficient material wealth to subsist successfully; and 3)how this Burning Man religion is intended for a particularly narrow sociocultural segment of the population. These assertions must be qualified by a few important statements. While there are indubitably a number of participants dressed according to the Arabian-Semitic or neo-Hindu traditions, the dominant cultural type on the playa ascribes to the fur-goggle-glitter-neon-boots prototype. A tribal mentality pervades, especially at the Saturday and Sunday night burning sessions, which ultimately seemed a bit excessive for reasons that will be described later on in this account. Are swarthy brothers and sisters outcast from this festival? Why is there not more funk and soul infused with the oft-chafing machinations of house music. Well, there is substantial allegiance to the healing, meditational, and visual arts of the Indian subcontinent, and perhaps this is indicative of a common Indo-European tribal heritage. But, for the most part, the folks engaging in Burning Man's unique cultural and aesthetic experimentation are of a homogeneous background.

Burning Man Enforced

Though some critics correctly assail the West Coast art-car vibe of Burning Man as a sort of thuggish and frattish enterprise, this perspective does not account for the full diversity of activities and sights that abound at Burning Man. It also ignores the bedazzling level of community that is achieved by the inhabitants of the Black Rock hamlet. Those tens of thousands of critters who crawl out from geodesic domes to get their collective barter-dance-flame ON til the break of dawn create an immaculate sense of communal wellbeing. The manner in which all individuals monitor the enforcement of basic Burning Man rules and regulations regarding the sharing of sustenance, transportation efficiency, and the disposal of waste is rather impressive. Burning Man is a relatively self-sustaining community of people who simultaneously value economic egalitarianism, radical aesthetic individualism, and spiritual oneness.

Leave No Trace

This fundamental Burning Man precept is observed by the vast majority of burners. Thus, the organizers attempt to ensure that the impact upon the Black Rock Desert is minimal. A core of Department of Public Works employees and volunteers ensure that this mandate is carried out both before and after the hordes of pilgrims arrive at Black Rock City. However, the festival could be characterized as wasteful for a few different reasons. First, the amount of fuel consumed by burners is astronomical. There is a reasonable amount of gasoline, diesel, biodiesel, methane, and propane that must be used to provide electricity, climate control, and transportation at Burning Man. Yet, there is an absurd amount of fuel that is burned off for aesthetic, spiritual, and intentionally destructive/wasteful purposes. Many of the vehicles strutting around on the playa at night blast off flames in order to provide visual stimulation for the dancers, performers, and trippers who mingle on the playa. There is a lower level of fuel consumption that could still satisfy the visually needy trippers and the pyromaniacal set. Perhaps my appreciation for fire is not at the acceptable burner threshold, but in my opinion, the fire-burning tends to the extreme. Undoubtedly, much of the art for art's sake requires the appearance of flame. Fire also provides a medium for spiritual connection and focus. Moreover, there is the heat element which is absolutely necessary to insulate dance parties in the middle of the otherwise-bare playa. So, Burning Man relies on mobile flame-shooters to provide energy in the artistic, spiritual, and transportational realms. But, a moderation of the consistently over-the-top flame indulgence would provide for a more environmentally sound interaction between burners and their perfect-man/perfect-god of Fire.

Living in a Material World

Pyromania and fuel-gluttony aside, Burning Man culture is intensely materialistic in a paradoxical way. Commodities are highly fetishized in Black Rock City, even if participants attempt to undergo decommodification. Though the barter economy is able to transcend the limitations of a cash&credit world, burners ascribe high status to those who merely possess. Well, this form of possessing is not one of simple acquisition for the sake of redeeming monetary wealth for an increase in one's prestige. However, it is about indulging in a creative system of finding and modifying clothing, props, accessories, structures, and vehicles for the sake of surrounding oneself with more aesthetically pleasing (and much more unique) material possessions. While these are nontheless material goods that stem from an initial level of material wealth, the goals do indeed revolve around cashing in material objects for a higher level of aesthetic and spiritual infrastructure. It is proper at Burning Man to use one's material advantage to devise novel methods of transport and habitation, entertainment and worship. Therefore, although this Burning Man system certainly requires substantial material inputs, the teleological result is enrichment of artistic uranium in a Nevadan nuclear-tribal setting. The meeting of inspired creation and thorough destruction produces a cyclically holistic sense of order over the material universe that trumps the linear tendency of Western-Abrahamic civilization.

Appreciation of Techno-Innovation

The advanced technology that is on display at Burning Man shows how this phenom emerges from a highly sophisticated subculture (indeed a veritable counterculture) within American society. The Western world's emphasis on linear progress gets flipped at Burning Man, where creators build and subsequently destroy their psychedelilia within a few days. The impermanence of the Burning Man culture provides a healthy framework for a cycle of being that carries burners from cradle to grave. Given this simultaneously avant-gardist and neo-tribal framework, there are countless benefits to recognizing ephemerality, the insignificance of material civilization, and the primal act of burning.

Burning Man 2007 Possibilities

Overall, my criticisms of Burning Man stem from the socio-economic exclusivity of the event and from the hedonistically destructive attitude of much of the burning ritual. However, I tremendously value my weeklong adventure in Black Rock City, and I'm infinitely appreciative of the love and kindness that I experienced there. I definitely hope that I will be able to partake in the festivities again next year. In the meantime, I do have a few suggestions about how to enrich the Burning Man experience. In addition to the cultural, aesthetic, and social critiques delineated already, here are a couple more. 1)The Burning Man axis ought to use North as 12:00 so that the sun rises and sets at 3:00 and 9:00. It would not be terribly difficult to re-align the city in this manner, given that each year the DPW moves the city a few hundred meters or more anyway. Self-orientation would be much easier if the city relied upon the four cardinal directions. I also think that the event would benefit from using a central clock tower to indicate streets, especially at night. There are a lot of extra ways that the city's layout would benefit from directing color-coded lasers down the time streets to aid in night-time navigation. Also, all-day and all-night festivities could be coordinated based on place-time convergence (i.e. a party that moves around the clock grid according to actual times that correspond to places on the map). This is not to say that Burning Man should become bogged down with the notion of time, but accentuating awareness of the time-space continuum would invigorate Black Rock City. 2)Since Burning Man 2007 has already been called The Green Man, it is time to discard our urge to waste, if even for this one week. Perhaps a period of moral, energy, and sexual deviance allows for all of us to be ultra-cognizant of these things throughout the rest of the year. Regardless, the use of biodiesel, solar panels, and increased fuel efficiency would make for an ecologically richer Burning Man. Cooling Man has explored the relationship between Burning Man and the Greenhouse Effect and is working towards counterbalancing the substantial release of carbon into the atmosphere during the festival. Focusing more on the environmental, political, and social implications of Black Rock City will enable burners in 2007 to decide who the real man is that they wish to burn. Burning Pharaonic Bush is the greenery that the desert nomads will torch triumphantly from August 27 to September 3, 2007.

Visions of the Future of Space-Time

Art cars provide for a majestically uber-modern form of transport, precisely because they mock the purely functional inclinations of most motor vehicles. Also, a bicycle-reliant society is not as dependent on more wasteful modes of getting around. Costume culture and aggressive accessorizing activates certain potentialities that are beyond the mundane, profane, and subnormal existences that modern Western civilization sponsors. The genesis of a new level of symbiotic psychedelic energy, which draws on the successes of 70's counterculture, elevates Burning Man to mythic status. The philosophy of art for art's sake synthesizes with an emphasis on raw desert survivalism and functionality to create a flowing oasis of brilliance in an unforgiving yet miraculous natural clime. If we manage to use just a few of the useful Burning Man innovations in our daily struggles, our cities, psyches, and ecosystems will be all the more revolutionary. This is the pinnacle of disco inferno: burn, baby, burn!


aerin said...

good work. xo.

zentinal said...

This is excellent work. Kudos!

Can you point me towards other works which cover the ethnic and socio-economic specificity of Burning Man?

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