It is fascinating to hear what people who’ve never been to Burning Man think Burning Man is. Isn’t it that rave that takes place in the desert? It’s like a hippie art festival right? Isn’t it some bullshit utopia commune thing?
Not exactly, but the problem is that none of these ideas are completely wrong, so it’s hard to correct the perception. There is dancing, yes; there is art, yes; and there are utopian commune-esque ideals, but what exactly is Burning Man? I don’t know. I’ve been struggling to figure it out. As it turns out, it’s difficult to talk about, like trying to tell a friend about your dreams; it makes sense in the moment but upon recollection it falls apart.
That said, I think the one thing I can say that Burning Man is, is a city. For seven days and seven nights, a mysterious metropolis rises from the alkaline filled lakebed of the Black Rock Desert. In this time Black Rock City becomes home to some seventy thousand people from all over the world, and the city becomes whatever these people bring to it. Some will bring art, some will bring food, some will bring enormous sound systems built into moving vehicles equipped with flashing lights, dance stages, and stripper poles. And others will bring only themselves and an openness to participate.
I had never been before so I was closer to the latter. I went with a camp who brought a range of things (a twenty-eight foot tall viewing tower, a bar, a large pop up dome with a screen printing station inside), but as an individual I just brought the basic things people said I ought to have to survive: a tent, a bike, some food, lots of water, and plenty of silly costumes.
So, months of preparation and about eleven hundred dollars later (food, gas, ticket, and loads of other miscellaneous things), we arrive.
And when we arrive, we arrive in a dust storm.
Because after driving for eight hours, I spend the next three craning my neck, trying to see this place that’s less than a mile from me. But I can’t. It’s cloaked in mystery.
Because for the next seven days I spend my time trying to understand this crazy city I’m in, but even when it’s right in front of me it’s always slipping away. Even when the dust settles at sun down and the line of cars begins to move forward, even when I’m there on the Playa dancing in the middle of it, even when I’m back here remembering it, I can never quite pin it down.
Because that’s what the Playa is like: it’s always hidden in dust and mystery.
“Welcome Home,” they say at the gate. I’ve never been here before, but for the next seven days this will be my home.
It’s strange. On some level I feel like I’m being inducted into a kind of cult; it’s exciting and unsettling. When you ask people who’ve been before what it’s like they talk about lots of things. Some talk about the people, some talk about the dancing, some talk about the art. But at some point their eyes always seem to glaze over like they’re remembering a warm room far away in their childhood. And they sigh, and they smile--a sort of wistful apologetic smile. “It’s hard to put into words,” they say, “But you’ll know once you’re there.”
So here I am. There I was. I’m back now. I went. And they were right. It is hard to put it into words. But I’m trying, now, while it’s still in my head to put it into words--for you--because if you made it this far then you’re like me: you’re curious.
You want to know…
What’s it like?
In a word: Overwhelming.
Because “overwhelming” can be positive or negative, and Burning Man can and is both positive and negative. It all depends on you.
When you get through the gate it’s all happiness and smiles. And that’ll continue for a while because you’re on a great adventure, and everyone is being so damn positive that it’s tough not to be in a good mood. But at some point the tyranny of glee--the pressure to have a good time all the time--grates on you.
You can’t be happy all the time.
It’s fucking impossible.
But you want to be--because you’re in such an incredible place and you worked so hard to get here. “I don’t have time to be miserable! I’m only here for a week!”
But you’re still you, and I’m still me. And if you’re like me sometimes you get sad. Not necessarily for any good reason, but sometimes you do. And that’s okay, because it’ll pass. Sometimes you’ll be sad, sometimes you’ll be lonely, sometimes you’ll be annoyed or angry but that’s OK-AY.
Feel your feelings, just don’t let them get you down and lost inside your head.
Burning Man is the world’s greatest museum of curiosities but unlike every other museum you’ve ever been to--where you were told to stand back and observe from the sidelines--here you need to dive in.
You need to touch the art.
You need to interact with the world.
You need to
I don’t think I ever noticed how beautiful people can be. Maybe it’s all the smiling, or maybe it’s just that I’m looking, but the world is full of strange, beautiful people. They’re riding bikes and walking, or skipping and dancing. They’re wearing costumes and colors and many times nothing at all.
A lot of these people are naked.
But after a few days I realized that they weren’t naked. They were just people.
After a few days I stopped seeing all the different body parts as parts separated from their bodies. There were legs and arms, butts and breasts, and, oh yes, cocks and cunts, but after a while they ceased to grab my attention. I stopped fetishizing cocks and cunts and legs and butts. Our bodies will never not be sexual, of course, but the sexual became a choice, because I could see that these body parts belonged to people.
They were a part of people.
They were people.
So instead of looking at someone and thinking “Her tits!” or “His ass!” I was able to see them for the whole, and think: “He” or “She” or “They” are wonderful.
So when you see these beautiful wonderful people feel free to say hello. And give them a hug, because no one shakes hands here. People hug.
This took some getting used to, and at first people kept shaking my hand. But they always laughed half way through the gesture as if to say, “What are we doing?” and would pull me in for a hug.
And they’re pretty good at hugging there. People give full, strong hugs. There are no polite, pat-you-on-the-back hugs where people stand two feet apart and lean in from the waist. At Burning Man they hug the way my mom does or the way my grandfather did: with their whole bodies.
These are hugs that say, “Hello. I see you.”
And to be seen--truly seen--is one of the great gifts of the Playa.
On my second night out dancing, a man came up to me. He was dressed in a Victorian fashion with a collared shirt and vest, like a sort of steampunk gentleman. He told me he loved my suspenders (they had rainbows on them) and gave me a hug. He asked me if I’d ever been to the Playa before. I said I hadn’t and I asked him if he had. He had. It was his tenth year. He gestured out to the vast expanse of darkness and twinkling lights stretched out beneath the desert night, “How could you see all this and not want to come back?”
With that we hugged again and parted ways.
Another evening, I was bar tending at our camp. I had three specials that I was mixing for people: “Body Shots,” “Whiskey Spanks” (think Whiskey Slaps), and “Le Truc Français.”
A guy with long brown hair and a hat in the shape of lion came up to the bar to look at the specials. “What’s the French thing?” he asked.
“Do you like black licorice?” I said.
“Oh,” he replied in perfectly unaccented English. “It’s Pastis.”
I blinked. It was Pastis, but how did he know that? It turned out he was from France. He was actually there with a bunch of people from France--two were even from Marseilles--and they were overjoyed to find a bar serving the drink of their hometown.
We all talked for a few minutes then I made them their drinks and they went back to mingling. Every once in a while they’d come back to the bar and we’d talk for a minute while I made them a Pastis. Then they’d go back to dancing. It went on like this until they left.
Both these interactions, and the multitude of others I had like them throughout the week, seemed insignificant. Our conversations delved no deeper than the superficial, hardly lasting longer than a minute or two, and I doubt I could recount their substance.
Yet, in a strange way, these conversations were significant. I left each of them with a smile and a peculiar feeling of connectivity I couldn’t quite explain. But I’ve been thinking about it ever since and I think I get it.
It goes back to those hugs. The hugs that say, “Hello. I see you.”
In my day-to-day life in San Francisco I don’t connect with that many people I don’t know. I say hello to the bus drivers, I greet the cashiers in stores, and I try to make polite conversation with fellow strangers, but a lot of the time people just sort of stare back at you. People are colder in cities--more guarded--and in some way each of these gruff interactions leaves us feeling colder and more guarded too. We, as people, crave a certain sense of tribal connectivity--we need to see our emotions reflected back at us--so when a hello is greeted with a blank stare or a friendly nod is outright ignored it makes us feel like we don’t exist.
But at Burning Man the opposite is true. There were seventy thousand people there but I’ve never been in a place where it felt so easy to walk up to someone and say hello.
So these little interactions--these hugs--are like little affirmations of your being. It’s strangers saying to one another, “Yes. I see you. You do exist, and you are beautiful.”
Along with this ability to connect with others, the Playa also seems to embolden people with a willingness to participate that is unheard of in the normal world. To borrow an improv term, Burning Man feels like a place full of “yes-and” ers, meaning that given a strange situation people will go with it and add something to it.
Let me give you an example.
In my third day on the Playa I was biking through the neighborhoods (somewhere along Carnie) when I happened upon a camp giving out pickles. A pickle sounding delicious, I parked my vehicle and strode over. In order to get the pickle, they explained, I would have to complete a randomly generated task. Thus, I drew a card from their deck and a task was given:
I had to stop a random stranger and get them to kiss me.
This sounded impossible. Who would want to do this? But, determined, I walked back to the street.
It was empty for a second, but then a man on a bicycle rounded the corner and headed towards me.
“You, Sir!” I called. “Would you like to help me do something crazy to get a pickle?”
“Of course I would,” he smiled, hopping off his bicycle.
And just like that I had found a random stranger to kiss me.
In another case, a friend of mine, dressed as an enormous blue monkey, decided to go around to little shade structure on the Playa and scare people. He’d run into their tent beating his chest, ooh-ooh aah-aah-ing (as monkeys do) and freak people out. But what was interesting, he said, was that in almost every case people went with it. After collecting themselves they would greet him like a beast: “Hey there, little fella. Are ya hungry? Are ya thirsty?” Then they’d offer him something to eat or drink, he’d accept their gift, and run off.
So like I said earlier, if you do make it to the desert, and you see these wonderful, beautiful people, feel free to say hello. Interact with them. Participate.
Or, if you don’t want to, don’t.
Because most of all: do what you want. Because you can do whatever you want here. Which is the crazy thing.
You can do whatever you want.
Which brings me to my next point: Where are the adults?
Really? Where are they? Where are the people telling you not to do things?
They just weren’t there. I kept thinking that these people were about to appear, to leap from the shadows to scold someone, but they never did.
I was on an art car--a giant parade float of sorts with a built in sound system and dance floor and the head of a unicorn that shot fire (THEY ALWAYS SHOOT FIRE)--and I saw a guy sitting on the edge of the dance floor swigging from a handle of whiskey. Then, someone in a light up neon safety vest ran up to him. This is it, I thought. Of course you can’t drink from a fricking handle of whiskey on a moving vehicle--that’s insane. He’s about to get arrested. But the guy in the vest, a guy who worked with the art car and made sure it didn’t run over people, just high fived the whiskey drinker and made sure he was okay. The whiskey drinker poured him a shot, and that was that.
Where ARE the adults?
Another time I saw two guys wrestling, and let me tell you, the guys in the leather chaps? He was kicking jean-jacket’s ass. Oh no, I thought, looks like the cops are busting someone. Nope. I talked to their friends. They were just two strangers who had decided to wrestle. They didn’t even know each other’s names. But after they were done, they hugged, and went their separate ways.
WHERE ARE THE ADULTS?! I wondered aloud for the umpteenth time that week.
But eventually I figured it out. Oh the adults? Oh they’re running things. They’re running the Orgy dome. They’re making Bloody-Maries for people with hangovers. They’re teaching people how to shoot flame throwers.
Where are the adults? They’re running the Thunderdome. That thing from the third Mad Max movie? Where people are suspended from bungee cords attached to a steel dome and duke it out? Yeah they do that there, albeit with pool noodles instead of chain saws, but with the same spirit of anarchy and the same number of people hanging from the rafters, screaming for blood.
But maybe the craziest thing about all this is that it’s free. No the ticket to Burning Man isn’t free, getting there isn’t free, and buying everything you need to survive there isn’t free, but once you’re in through the gate everything is free. The Thunderdome, the yoga lessons, the cocktails people are offering you? All of it is offered freely as a gift.
This is the so-called “gift economy” you may have heard about, but economy isn’t really the right word. Economy implies some sort of system on which everything hinges. It implies an exchange of goods and a certain level of sustainability, and none of these are true of the gift giving at burning man. Gifts are given unconditionally, meaning that when someone gives you something they expect nothing in return. No one shows up expecting that if they gift a bunch of water into the gift economy the economy will gift them back the food they need to survive. Everyone arrives through the gate with everything they need to get by for the week. The gifts are something extra.
And in an abstract way all of the art and the crazy stuff like the Thunderdome is a sort of gift from it’s creators to the citizens of Black Rock city, which is mind boggling considering how expensive and difficult some of it is to fabricate.
While on the Playa I saw…
A forty-eight foot tall steel woman standing proud, nude, powerful, eyes closed facing into the horizon. Every so often her chest would rise and fall as she took a breath.
A series of LED-wrapped Poles pounded into the ground, stretching straight out over two miles. At night, once a minute, the LEDs would flash in unison, illustrating the curvature of the earth.
Two wireframe adult sculptures sat back-to-back, unable to connect. Inside of them, reaching out to one another, stood their inner child, glowing white, luminous, and hopeful.
And those were just a few. There were others--so many others. Some were big, some were small, but each was created for no other reason than the joy of making art.
In my own life, I write stories. I’ve yet to get paid for any of the writing I do, but it’s something I’m working towards. I spend hours every day writing and rewriting, trying to get better so that someone somewhere will publish me. It’s what I need to do to get where I want to be--it’s what I think almost all artists have to do.
But at Burning Man no one thinks like this. The people who make things at Burning Man don’t create them with any thought of profit. They aren’t thinking about getting into a museum. The art at Burning Man exists almost exclusively to be seen and experienced at Burning Man--much of it is even burned before the week’s end. These are pieces created by people who simply saw things in their heads and could not live without bringing them into the world. And perhaps because it is art without pretentions towards greatness it is also art without fear of judgment. Like the unfettered drawings of children, the pieces out there crackle with naïve exuberance; they have the power of that created with no thought towards the future; they are art that dares to exist in the now.
But above all else, these pieces are a humbling monument to art for art’s sake, and powerful reminder that we are all at our best when we aren’t worrying about making something “great,” but just trying to make something we love.
On the second to last night, I was out dancing with Catriona and Rachel and everyone else, and I decided to head to sleep. “Goodnight,” I said, hugging them all. “I’m going home.”
“Okay,” said Catriona, giving me one of her smiles. “We’ll see you at home.”
What happened then--what I said--didn’t register until later.
As we were driving away on Sunday a man on a bike yells after us “You’re running away from Home, kids!” And then it hits me: he’s right. We are. Because somehow for one week this strange city that rises from the sand like a dream from the Arabian Nights actually did become my home. And these people became my tribe.
So that’s it. I came. I saw. I’m back now (it was marvelous) and I hope I shed a little bit of light on that strange place. Yes, there’s more to tell, but it’s for another time. So if we meet some day and you’re still curious, I promise I’ll do my best to tell you whatever you want to know. But, really, it isn’t easy to describe, and I can’t promise that I won’t just smile as I get that far off look in my eye.
“It’s hard to put into words, but you’ll know once you’re there.”