Originally published in the Ottawa Citizen, Oct. 10, 1999
Imagine that you are treking through the brittle shrubs of the Nevada desert, traveling at night to escape the sun. Suddenly the ground drops swiftly away to a vast plane, shimmering like bleached bone in the moonlight. Toward one end dance the lights of what looks like a city.
As you get closer, you can make out streets curving around the C-shaped metropolis. Dominating the large swath of blackness in its middle is the towering figure of a neon-lit man. Red lights race in an orbit on the ground around it while overhead green lasers carve through the air to strike the mountains in the distance.
You descend to the plane and find it is made of dry, cracked clay, flat as a tabletop. The city now rumbles with a thousand blurred noises. One light stands out from the rest and you make for it. Bathed in the phosphorescence of one dim bulb is a table, and on that table sits a typewriter. On the paper wound through it you read:
I’ve been waiting for you. So glad you’ve finally come.
You stumble away from the table until your ears slowly begin to fill with the sound of lounge music. Like a ship emerging from fog, a barge transporting a fully-functional bar rolls lazily past. You have but a few seconds to take it all in: mid-century furniture, oversized ashtrays, lime-green lampshades, a polished bar, a TV, and well-dressed jet-setters draped comfortably over various chairs and couches, sipping martinis and laughing gaily. Then it dissappears back into the night.
Reaching the edge of town, you pick a street and join the crowd of people who seem to be on parade for each other. Illuminated by flames from the bow of a ship protruding from the earth are people with painted faces and glowing angel wings, in wigs, robes, evening dresses, white lab coats or black leather, dressed as Star Wars characters or driving by on bicycles with spirals of light spinning in their wheels. A game with a flaming soccer ball is underway further out in the desert. A man drives his joystick-controlled Lazy-Boy with side table and lamp up to the fire and clicks the TV at his feet to wrestling.
You pass an elaborate variety of shelters: transparent geodesic domes glowing from within, a tower of scaffolding mounted with blue spotlights, a wooden pyramid, a beach bar strung with patio lanterns and a palm-frond roof. Music booms from an array of dance clubs: bass and drum, trance, jungle, and rock; even some jazz floats over from the Cafe Temps Perdu. Overhead, a helicopter circles, directing a spotlight on the city below.
Where am I, you wonder?
You are, my friend, in Black Rock City, the fifth-largest population centre in the state of Nevada, if only for one week a year. It’s Friday night and 20 000 people from all over the world have gathered to cheer on the conflagration of that 50 foot man in the centre of camp tomorrow night. That’s why this is called Burning Man. You might think it’s a festival, or an event, or even a party, but you’ll learn soon enough. What it is, is a phenomenon.
“I feel an erection coming on,” announces Rico Thunder. He’s referring to the dome made of PVC piping and army-green parachute that he’s preparing to erect. “This will be the seventh erection I’ve supervised since arriving,” he sighs.
Rico is the General Manager of the Cosco Soulmate Trading Outlet – one of roughly 200 theme camps scattered throughout Black Rock City. Theme camps form the structural backbone to Burning Man. They are interactive sites where attendees can participate in loosely planned, often improvisational activities created entirely by other attendees. It might be a life-sized labyrinth made of plywood and infused with strobe lights (aMAZEing), a dance club (Space Lounge), a place to regain your virginity (Space Virgin), an open stage (Zagmianda Sideshow), meat sculptures (The Aesthetic Meat Foundation), or places with names that speak for themselves: Primordial Booze, Lawn Games, Forge Camp, Big Wheels Demolition Derby, Elvis Yoga, Black Rock Boot Camp.
It’s Monday, the first official day of Burning Man, and I’ve just arrived and been unceremoniously inducted into the Costco corporate fold. If you want to be part of a theme camp you have three choices: start one yourself, get involved beforehand over the internet, or do what I did – show up and join the first camp that agrees to take you. If I had come a bit earlier, I could have witnessed the destruction of Costco’s newly set-up camp. Parachute domes are the popular choice for sun-breaking shelter at Burning Man, but unfortunately they sometimes start behaving like the wind-catching devises they were made to be. High winds whipping across the flat expanse of desert shattered the PVC piping frame and tore Costco’s shade structures apart, sending one buffeting across the ancient lake bed. Despite the cold, Rico rallies his troops as the sun sinks and we manage to set-up another dome over carpets, couches, lamps and a fully-stocked bar. “We open for business at 9 tomorrow morning,” proclaims Rico triumphantly.
Burning Man was born 13 years ago on a beach in San Francisco when Larry Harvey, who still oversees the gathering, built an 8-foot tall wooden effigy and burnt it on the summer solstice to help cure his broken heart. As soon as the “man” was lit, about 20 people ran over and spontaneously formed a circle around the flames. It was then that Larry Harvey realized that he had inadvertantly created a community and decided to make it an annual event. By 1990 the Man had grown to 40 feet and the crowd to 800, enough to alert the police, who stopped the climatic burn. After that the gathering moved to the Black Rock Desert, 100 miles north of Reno, on Labour Day weekend. In 1994, when the website was launched, Burning Man ceased to be solely a California phenomenon and people from around the U.S. and the world began showing up. Splinter groups, such as Gigsville in LA or a group in Austin, Texas, formed and held their own Burning Man inspired get-togethers. Projects, performances and art installations for Burning Man and its spinoffs were proposed and organized over the Internet by people who had never met before and who shared nothing in common but a vision for what they wanted to accomplish at next year’s event. The Web and Burning Man were perfect partners – both are non-hierarchical and radically democratic mediums that encourage self-expression and participation. Larry Harvey called the annual assembly a direct analogue to cyberspace – the net made manifest in the desert – and indeed it attracted many from the computer industry in Northern California. In ‘95 the concept of theme camps took off, arguably as a result of the influx of computer proffessionals – a theme camp is, after all, much like a web page conjured up into the physical world. What had begun as a pagan-spirited ritual of fire grew a second head: one that celebrated technology (especially all kinds luminescent) and boasted an ironic, satirical perspective on the society around it. A Burning Man attitude took shape: an economy of mutual gift-giving and barter rather than commercial vending (only coffee and ice are sold), self-reliance (participants must bring all their own food, water and shelter), environmental responsibility (“Leave no trace” is a mantra repeated on the final day as people pack their camps up), complete personal freedom and expression (“so long as it doesn’t interfere with anyone else’s immediate experience”), and, perhaps most importantly – no spectators; participants only. At Burning Man, you are the entertainment.
“So what’s this all about?” asks a potential customer the next morning, stepping under the Costco dome.
“Our mission,” begins Patrick, a fellow Costco camper from B.C., “is to provide the best quality soulmates at the lowest possible prices. You bring in a used soulmate – or someone you just met five minutes ago – of the same gender as the soulmate you’re looking for and trade them in for a new one. We have to keep our inventory in balance, you understand. Then we take your picture with the digital camera and get you to fill out a questionnaire. Then,” he continues, while pointing to a couple of satellite dishes out back, “we send your data via satellite uplink to Costco HQ in Seattle where a giant computer finds the perfect match for you and sends it back to us in under an hour or…we’ll refund your time.”
It’s surprising how many people believe this. To confess as to how the matches are actually made would be to divulge trade secrets to which I have been sworn to silence; suffice to say that the satellite dishes are but an example of ruthlessly exploited serendipity – they’re not ours, but ITV’s, a web broadcaster. But our spiel is convincing enough to get a reporter from Computers Today Magazine very interested in interviewing Rico about exactly how the process works.
Burning Man and the Internet share another characteristic: the proliferation of misinformation. The shortage of sources for reliable information is exasperated by the many who delight in spreading false rumours. Last night a large fiery meteor crashed through the sky. Today the Black Rock Gazette – Burning Man’s official daily newspaper – explains it alternately as a Russian photon experiment gone awry, an Iridium satellite burning up in the atmosphere, and a methane explosion sending one of the Port-O-Potties rocketing over camp.
That evening we learn that the Pirates – another theme camp – are planning a raid. When they pull up in a ship on wheels, crying, “Arr! Costco, prepare to be boarded!” we’re ready for them. Wearing our red Costco vests with pride, we spring from our hiding places and swarm over the ship.
I let loose with a burst from my water pistol at one of the raiders. “Ah! My hair! You’re ruining my hair!” she protests. Meanwhile Rico lassoes one of their women and carries her kicking and screaming to our camp. “Where’s me rum?!” calls their captain. They hurl candy at us as they retreat in search of rum. I pick up a gummy watch and only then realize that they are reverse pirates – they had come to distribute booty, not capture it.
Later that night, I meet the Colonel at a party at the Tiki Bar. He introduces himself as the Military Attaché to the Soup Advisory Board, but everyone knows him as the Colonel. He wears a tan suit, waistcoat and dark sunglasses (day and night), attire that remains absolutely constant, down to the cocktail and black cigarette clutched suavely in one gloved hand, for the remainder of the week. He admits that he is enjoying himself tonight since he has a duel to fight at dawn.
The next evening we receive a summons from Dante’s, a theme camp that features a nightly battle of the camps, “broadcast live to all seven levels of hell.” The Costco crew sip coffee in the green room while we wait for the competition to show. Finally, the producers find some fodder from Light Bright Camp willing to take us on.
Sunflower, one of our own, takes the ring for the first event. Her challenge, intones the host into the camera, is to face one minute of Verbal Abuse. Dante’s expert abuser strides across the ring in her knee length leather boots and sneers at Sunflower. “Nobody likes you!” she screams, inches from Sunflower’s face. “All your Costco friends are laughing at you behind your back!”
After the punishment is over the host asks Sunflower how she feels. “Fantastic!” she spits out. The judges hold up three 6’s – a perfect score! The flaming applause sign ignites and Costco cheers. After two more events – the Cock Fight and Midget Spinning (both of which I will leave to your imagination) – Costco emerges the clear winner.
Numbers for Thursday morning (from the Black Rock Ministry of Statistics):
Pop. of Black Rock City: 13,213
People per Port-O-Potty: 56.3
Gallons of human waste emptied this morning from Port-O-Potties: 40,000
All morning the sound of arias, musical instruments, jokes and laughter come from the tent of our next-door neighbours, BEHOP (Barter/Exchange House ‘O Pancakes). The idea is simple, and perfect for Burning Man: bring in something to trade for a tasty pancake breakfast. A wish list of items sits by the door: pointy Chinese hat, drugs, fine ales, muesli, massage, costume stuff. If you don’t have anything material to trade you can take to the stage and showcase your talents to the cooks and long line-up of patrons. The morning I went featured a naked elderly gentleman singing WWII songs and a Shel Silverstein poetry reading while I lounged on the cushions in BEHOP’s shaded casbah and ate my pancakes.
We can barely keep up with demand at the Costco Soulmate Trading Outlet after breakfast. Perhaps that is partly due to Adrian, our British bartender, who pours free drinks for the customers and, especially, staff. “Another Bombay Smash, Age!” I call, sifting through possible soulmate match-ups in the files. Adrian, dressed in nothing but a black bow tie and bikini briefs covered coyly by a web mini-skirt, gets out his electric swivel-stick and puts more of his self-described “Brit traveler ambience” music into the CD player. On his bar sits a stack of Personal Treason Devises, lighters with little American flags taped over the flame. From the roof of our dome hang dozens of condom packets, waiting to be plucked by anyone leaving in search of their new soulmate.
After things die down I chat with Stephanie, a German who discovered Burning Man on the Net and made the trip just to attend. She was fed up with German conservatism, she says, and was lured by the idea of going somewhere untouched by civilization, the kind of wilderness that has long been extinct from Germany.
While we’re talking, the Colonel strolls into camp with a 5-iron slung over his shoulder and asks all assembled, “Has anybody seen my balls?”
Statistics for Friday morning (from Bernie’s Index in The Black Rock Gazette):
People per Port-O-Potty: 80
Number of radio stations in Reno (pop. 133,850): 43
Number of radio stations in Black Rock City: 21
Black Rock City has nearly all the amenities of home – even an airport. On several occasions parachutists appear suddenly in the sky, executing crazy last-minute loops and dives like a squadron of daredevil paratroopers before swooping gracefully down onto the hard-baked clay to the cheers of the Black Rock citizenry. The DPW (Burning Man’s own Department of Public Works) has installed generators and buried electrical cables for the large public space known as Centre Camp, though there is some confusion over who holds the copyright to the DPW acronym, which is contested for by both the Disgruntled Postal Workers and the Drunk People Welding.
The theme of this year’s Burning Man is “Time”. As part of an inslallation called Y2Knot, 2000 LED’s – small but intense points of red light – have been planted in the ground in a circle around the Burning Man itself. At night, the speed and pattern of their flashing can be controlled by pushing buttons in a tent in Centre Camp. In a larger circle encompassing the LED’s is the Wheel of Time. Artists have been invited to build installations at each hour on this imaginary clock, setting the stage for the procession around it on Friday night. The action will start in the section called “The 20th Century”, proceed into “The Primordium”, and end in “The Future”. Each installation will feature a performance of some sort and then, usually, be burnt.
As I’m sitting by the foot of the Man a woman looking for volunteers approaches and gives me a summary of each of these installations: “At 8:00 Woodpussy Inc. are planning on launching their leader’s ashes into orbit. Over at 9:00 are the Seemen – they’ve built a…” she consults a list, “…shark cage, fire tower, 16-foot robotic arm, golf cart art car with water cannon and barbecue, waterfall and pond with machines, courtship machine number three, bicycle-powered Sisyphus, bicycle-powered flamethrower, the Born-Again Booth, the Fiery Smokestack and the Dissassembly Line – where a trolley conveys your Twentieth Century detrius through a bear trap, compactor, bed of nails and flamethrower. And Christian Ristow’s flame-spitting machines will be battling there tonight too…At 3:00 there’s the Opera. Inspired by Haitian culture, it will feature 200 fire performers and dancers.” She ends on a self-congratulatory note: “We’re the largest outdoor art festival at the end of the millennium.”
Just as truth resists being untangled from fiction at Burning Man, so does art weave through everyday life. Here, art is not a commodity, nor does it polarize people into artist and audience. Nothing is for sale; everything is offered. The smallest act can be a gesture of creativity, and anyone willing to make it is an artist. Imagination is the stuff of life, is what makes us human. If the role of art is to address That Which is Not Allowed in society, then the Burning Man gathering itself is a work of art.
I cast my gaze toward a group of people trailing after a man with a TV for a head. “Stop watching me!” he screams at the onlookers.
Statistics for Saturday morning (from Bernie’s Index):
Pop. at zenith in 1998: 18,000
We have an ugly confrontation with the Disgruntled Postal Workers that afternoon. They come marching en mass by the Costco camp, shouting abuse through their megaphones and waving shotguns around, as usual. Rico Thunder decides he’s had enough and rashly orders his loyal employees into battle. I don’t even have time to load my water pistol. Chaos ensues. I try to come to the aid of my boss, who’s caught in a headlock with three Postal Workers hanging off of him, but Section 51, the security theme camp, moves in and disperses the riot with a battery of Supersoakers.
The tension that gave birth to that skirmish only increases as night falls and the whole city begins to migrate towards the Man. But for me the burning of the Man isn’t nearly as exciting as what follows. Sure, his destruction is impressive – a chain reaction of fireworks exploding from his chest and legs, the crowd and all their attendant vehicles and royal barges pressed in around him, flame-throwers sprouting gigantic pillars of flame into the air, the fine rain of kerosene on our heads after each eruption, the swarm of sparks drifting down from the inferno that is the Man – but what I am after is not fire, but ice. Team Canada, a group from Vancouver, have set up a hockey rink out in the desert, and the finals against another theme camp are scheduled for one hour after the burn.
I arrive just in time to play Oh Canada on my accordion to open the game. Fortunately, the assembled Canadians lend their voices to the effort and my few blundered notes pass unnoticed. I grab a place behind the boards next to the three other Canadians from my camp and watch the game. The DJ spins a mix of hockey announcers, cheering crowds and techno music. There’s no ice but that’s OK – it’s hockey and audience participation is encouraged. Someone leaps over the boards and restrains one of the players; the nets get switched around by others. For many, the burning of the Man is a big release to a year’s worth of angst, but somehow this game is my catharsis. We pound the boards and be the rowdy, heckling hockey fan that everyone has inside them. Team Canada loses in overtime, but, as the goalie shouts, “It doesn’t matter – it’s hockey!” The DJ lays down some more beats, the trophy is burned, and the rink becomes a dance floor. Then the call goes out for volunteers to help take down the boards – they have to be loaded onto the truck and driven to Salt Lake City by tomorrow morning.
Statistics for Sunday morning (from Bernie’s Index):
Two cities in unique flat regions, known for their arts and culture, in which pedestrian travel predominates and auto travel is banned, and which once yearly are filled with masked and costumed revelers: Venice, Italy; Black Rock City, Nevada
The next day feels like a concentrated Sunday, like all the Sundays from the past year come to make sure nobody does anything unSunday-like. The world lays low. At the Costco Soulmate Trading Outlet, the employees rifle through the left-over soulmate applications, jotting down the occasional e-mail address if someone looks interesting. The few customers who wander in are directed toward the “bargain bin”.
As I’m packing I hear a moan from the tent beside me. The Colonel is lying inside. “Could you possibly give me a hand?” he croaks. “My ribs are bruised from a little scooter accident I had yesterday when I zigged instead of zagging.”
As I help him stand I say, “Lucky for you this week’s almost over.”
“If only it were,” he sighs, “I still have six shows a night in Reno.”
Later that night, as Adrian plies us with one fruity concoction after another made with the last of the alcohol, we sprall out on the couches beneath the parachute and receive a long stream of guests baring gifts and thanks for our contribution to the week. Some are old friends of someone, others are strangers. Between visitors, Rico gives us his definition of magic: anything that you get more out of than you put in. “Take a potluck, for example,” he says. “Everyone cooks one dish and before you know it you have more food than anyone can possibly finish. That’s magic.”
And that, I think, is Burning Man.