Adventures in Dust: A Journal of the 2001 Burning Man Festival
What follows is less a review than a personal narrative. Maybe a journalistic recap of Burning Man is possible, but to me it misses the point. It's a participatory event, and everyone's experience of it is extremely different.
Mother Nature adds her own flourish to the burning of the Man
Photo credit: Adam Latham
On Saturday, we pull off our last stretch of paved road and on to the barren wastes of the Black Rock Desert, nerves ajangle with anticipation despite the fact that none of us have had much sleep. The desert surface, known as "playa", is more powdery than in past years, and we roll up our windows to avoid eating dust. In the distance, Black Rock City looks like a smoldering ruin, all gray smokelike clouds of dust and scraggly half-built structures. There was a three-day white-out just prior to our arrival, and many of the structures usually complete by now, including the Burning Man himself, are still slapdash works in progress. As we approach the city, we can't see the Man at all; then we realize that he's there, just hard to recognize because he's still missing his head.
This is my fourth consecutive year at Burning Man, and it promises to be a good one. I'm camping for the first time with the Sindicate, a large and well-seasoned party camp, and I have more friends attending, including more first-timers, than ever before. Nothing will compare to 1998, when I first set foot on the playa as a wide-eyed poet/activist from Boston, knowing hardly any other attendees and having little idea what to expect. That first year blew the doors off my reality, introducing me for the first time to desert camping, psychedelics, and the concept of "radical self-expression", something I'm still learning about three years later, even now that I live in Los Angeles and to some extent experience Burning Man year round, spending most of my time in the company of fellow "Burners" and attending their parties and shows and performance art pranks. My friends back east think I've joined a cult, and maybe I have.
What follows is less a review than a personal narrative. Maybe a journalistic recap of Burning Man is possible, but to me it misses the point. It's a participatory event, and everyone's experience of it is extremely different. I had a ball in 2000, for example, but I know many people who did not, because the weather was shitty or they were fighting with their girlfriend or their camp got partially destroyed in a windstorm. Asking people to describe any given year at Burning Man becomes a Rashomon-like experience -- it's too dense, too multilayered, too hyperkinetic to be boiled down to a few trend-spotting observations. Better just to stick to what I experienced firsthand -- or at least to what I heard through rumor and gossip, the most popular methods of disseminating information on the playa.
Our first few days are spent busting ass to set up our camp. There are tents to be pitched, shade structures and a stage to be built, a giant and extremely heavy device called a tesla coil to be unloaded and installed where it can safely pump out its thousands of volts of manmade lightning. All this in some of the hottest, driest weather imaginable, even by playa standards -- temperatures top 110 degrees, and on Saturday and Sunday pretty much everyone craps out at least once and has to go collapse in a shady spot for an hour or two, guzzling water and Gatorade and mumbling incoherently when asked if they're okay. Still, by Monday night we have pretty much everything up, and it feels like we're the biggest thing going on the playa.
An evening cruise around the rest of Black Rock City quickly proves otherwise. Already Burning Man is buzzing with activity, even after dark, when hundreds of gas-powered generators fire up to power the city's endless parade of sound systems and party lights. Even as a veteran Burner I wander around agape at the sheer balls-out scale of everything. Many of the most spectacular camps and art installations of previous years have returned -- there's an illuminated, Taj Mahal-like structure made entirely out of recycled plastic toys and baby bottles, a "Heart Hearth" made of iron that glows red-hot when stoked with vast quantities of wood, and a dance camp called Xara, a solid-structure oasis of blacklights, tropical foliage and pounding trance music. Xara was crushed flat in 2000 by a massive wind storm, and this year its plywood walls are held in place with high-tension cables that look as if they could hold up the Golden Gate Bridge.
Black Rock City is laid out as a giant semicircle; if it were part of a wheel, the Man would be its hub. There are streets and addresses, just as in a real city, and prime real estate is generally considered to be the "Esplanade", the street which faces out to the Man. Streets radiating out from the Man are named after the hours, and streets running parallel to the Esplanade are named after Burning Man's annual theme -- in '99, for example, they were named after planets, so your address might be something like Five O'Clock and Jupiter; last year they were named after parts of the human anatomy, so you might live on 2:30 and Heart. This year they're named after the "seven ages of man", as taken from a speech in Shakespeare's As You Like It. Everyone seems to agree this is a pretty bad idea, because no one can keep track of the names, which include such easily confused terms as "Infant" and "Child" and obscure, hard-to-remember words like "Pantaloon" (a Shakespearean term, apparently, for old age). Even the outermost street is saddled with the cumbersome name "Oblivion". "Who wants to live on Oblivion?" my friend Helen grouses. "Why don't they just call it Death? That would be much cooler."
The midpoint on Black Rock City's clocklike arc is called Center Camp, and it serves in essence as Burning Man's town square, with medical and public safety services, an information center, even a café and a post office that will deliver postcards to the outside world or to other parts of Black Rock City. There is no commercial vending at Burning Man -- the only things for sale are tea, chai and coffee drinks in the café, and ice, which becomes a precious commodity as the Black Rock Desert's blazing hot climate makes short work of coolers. The Center Camp café is a great daytime lounging and people-watching spot, and probably has the greatest concentration of hippie vibes in all of Black Rock City. Dusty participants lounge on dustier carpets and pillows, sipping chai and listening to drum circles, flamenco guitarists and throat singers, sometimes all at once. There are sketch artists busily rendering the scene, body painters adorning half-naked volunteers with primtive swirls of color, jugglers tossing clubs and beanbags, gypsies giving tarot card readings, a didjeridoo player roaming the crowd and strafing unsuspecting dozers with his instrument like a giant buzzing fly. Because this year is so intensely hot, most of my daytime hours are spent lounging around Sindicate under our own shade structure, or under the sprawling canopies of Center Camp, where I run into old friends and compare notes on our various adventures.
Most of those adventures take place at night, when the temperature drops to more comfortable levels and much of Black Rock City dons its party gear for a night on the town. Roaming amongst the dance camps, bonfires and amped-up participants decked out in blinking strands of electroluminescent wire -- flexible neon-like tubing that's become a de rigeur evening accessory, it seems -- the sexual energy is palpable, a primal counterpoint to the more cerebral creative energy that gives the city its daytime buzz (yes, despite all the daytime nudity, Burning Man is far sexier at night). Drugs are omnipresent, and anywhere it's bright enough to actually see people's faces, they're often lit up with an ecstacy grin or a wide-eyed psychedelic stare. Loud sound systems aren't allowed in the middle of Black Rock City, so we spend most evenings either cruising the Esplanade or cutting across open playa between 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock, the city's outermost streets, where the biggest dance camps cluster. The Man, decked in neon, serves as road sign and rest stop.
There's plenty of live music at Burning Man, like LA's electronica jam collective Brain Garden and the punky carnival rock of Insecto, who perform at our camp on Thursday and Saturday nights with an entourage of fire performers, guys in gorilla suits and slutty go-go dancers (I "sit in" with the band Thursday night with glow-in-the-dark juggling balls, but my shtick is pretty much lost in the general mayhem). Rumor has it that even Todd Rundgren is on hand to deliver a Sunday night set at an Esplanade party camp called the Tiki Lounge.
But most of the sounds at Burning Man come courtesy of DJs, spinning lively and sometimes amateurish mixes of house, techno, hip-hop, funk and lots and lots of trance, the aggressive, futuristic dance music that has become the unofficial soundtrack to Black Rock City. Shoddy equipment, dust and inexperienced, sleep-deprived DJs make for some rough mixing -- during most sets I hear at least a few "train wrecks" of mismatched beats, and in nearly every dance camp sporting turntables (as opposed to CD mixers, which are finally, thank God, starting to catch on) the records reliably skip. Blown circuits and touchy generators add to the sketchiness of the dance parties, but when the music goes out hardly anyone misses a beat -- the crowd just bounces eagerly along to the next camp. Most of the DJs are no-names, but a few west coast veterans, notably southern California's famous Moontribe collective, are in attendance, and there's at least one bona fide superstar -- Paul Oakenfold, who graces Burning Man with one of his workmanlike trance sets late Thursday night at Camp Illuminaughty. Unlike Rundgren, who's actually camped at Burning Man, Oakie doesn't stick around -- he's booked the next night in San Francisco.
The remainder of my week is mostly taken up by late-night partying -- it's the first decent nighttime weather Burning Man's had in three years, and like a lot of participants I'm eager to take full advantage of it, even if it means spending most of my days in a stupified comedown. It's fun, but most of my best moments at Burning Man 2001 have less to do with the partying than with time spent with friends, awe-inspiring works of art, and the amazing community vibe that, more than anything else, makes Burning Man such an utterly unique event. Here, as best as my drug-addled and sleep-deprived consciousness can put them together, are just a few of the highlights:
Wednesday night, and every night thereafter (I keep coming back, it's that good): a dance camp called Flight to Mars offers a Disneyesque experience of walking and crawling through a maze of gleaming lights and tactile surfaces before birthing you through a foam rubber vagina into their dance space (well, okay, maybe the vagina isn't that Disneyesque, but you know what I mean). It's the most well-designed portal into someone else's reality I see at Burning Man this year. Once inside, there are platforms you can ascend for a panoramic view of Black Rock City and the open playa. One night my friend Marcy bellydances on one of them, with a gold wrap that the wind billows out behind her like a sail, and for awhile I just hang out on the street and groove on watching passersby stop to gape up at her.
Also on Wednesday night -- Sindicate's resident extreme solo drummer, Matty the Mutaytor, does a guest performance with our friends over in Azteca, a group in Center Camp. For over an hour Matty whales on his massive drum kit, pumping out impossibly intricate rhythms and spitting jets of flame out the top of his gong stand, while behind him, our friends dance in full Aztec regalia on the steps of a twelve-foot, blacklit pyramid. Only at Burning Man can you get a combination of sounds and images like this.
And still more Wednesday night action -- At Xara, the tropical-blacklight dance camp, I take a break from dancing my ass off and head with some friends for the camp's chill area, a partially enclosed dome tucked away down a long corridor off the main dance area. In the corridor, a ritual has spontaneously broken out -- everyone heading for the chill space stops to hug everyone making their way out again. Over the course of entering and leaving the chill area, I hug well over 50 strangers, and every one of them is sweetly sincere about it.
Thursday -- hmm. I'm not sure what happened to Thursday. I think I spend it lying comatose under our shade structure, recovering from Wednesday night's epic adventures and listening to Booger, Sindicate's de facto MC, exhorting passersby to come back that night for our big show and offering them shots of vodka, which he advertises as "liquid hashbrowns".
Friday morning -- Hanging out with friends from Azteca and new friends the Lustmonkeys outside their lovely shade structure, we are treated to a glorious double sunrise -- the sun bursts up over the mountains, disappears for a few minutes behind a thick cloud, then rises again. A photographer approaches us during this sublime moment and asks if he can take our picture. We're wary at first, but agree to let him shoot. Photographers have a bad rep at Burning Man; too often they intrude on people's personal space, or point their telephoto lenses at naked and bare-breasted participants (a lot of photos of Burning Man, unfortunately, can be found on amateur porn sites). Photography is also widely seen as an inherently passive activity, anathema to Burning Man's "No Spectators" philosophy. But this photographer is somehow different; instead of just shooting pictures, he interacts with us, riffing off our sleepy, blissed-out vibe with a gentle game of "Simon Says", striking poses he wants us to adopt -- embracing each other, grinning ecstatically, swaying to the Beatles song drifting to us softly from the Lustmonkeys' sound system. He shoots an entire roll of film of our smiling sun-warmed faces, then takes the film from his camera and hands it to Andy, one of the head Lustmonkeys. "I think you should have this", he says. It's clear he hadn't originally intended to give us the film, but now sincerely wants to. Something about this moment stands out in my mind as a perfect example of what Burning Man can do to its participants -- shed them of their selfish and possessive impulses, and form instant emotional connections between strangers. It's a quiet highlight of my time on the playa.
Friday night -- Lost at Last, an extraordinary "entho-tribal-trance" band from Hawaii, plays a long set at a big outdoor dance camp called Lush. For hours I dance with the Marcy the bellydancer and a djembe drummer named Kevin, getting smoke from the firepits in my eyes and dust on my shiny silver pants. Later that night, we hitch a ride with our friend Cap'n Giggles and his "pirate ship", the BMS Lovelock, a remarkably boat-like deck set atop the chassis of a '77 Dodge pickup. I'm coming off a mild but very pleasant trip, and it's the perfect way to end the evening -- sitting huddled amongst the many bodies piled on the Lovelock, as the moon sets over the mountains and Giggles drives in circles around his favorite art projects. The Lovelock breaks down somewhere out near 10 o'clock and Esplanade, and we walk back to camp through a minor dust storm in the gray pre-dawn light.
Saturday day -- I make pilgrimages to some of the biggest art projects on the playa. My first stop is the "Plastic Chapel", the Taj Mahal-like structure made of fused children's toys. They're doing commitment ceremonies inside, so I make a commitment to myself, vowing to set aside two hours every day to my writing. I also walk out to the Masoleum, a spectacular six-story structure made entirely out of plywood scrap from children's modelling kits -- from a distance it looks like a skeletal Chinese pagoda, but up close you can see the punched-out shapes of dinosaur heads and birds' wings. The Masoleum is slated to burn Sunday night, and it's serving as a receptacle of remembrances to dead loved ones. Inside there are three altars and piles and piles of wood blocks, upon which you can inscribe your message to the afterworld. I leave a piece for my father. The energy inside the Masoleum is remarkable -- grief, meditation and quiet awe make the place feel more hallowed than any church or cathedral I've ever set foot in. I can't wait to see it burn. At Burning Man, the act of burning a sacred object becomes more sacred than the object itself. It's a place to let go of things, and the Masoleum will let go of many things for a lot of people.
Saturday night -- The night they burn the Man. Sometime around 9:00 I head out to the Man with a large group of friends. As inevitably happens on the playa, we become separated, but I manage to stay with my friends Marcy, Jason and Girlie, and together we find a vantage point from which we can spot most of our friends who are performing amongst the hundreds of fire dancers, drummers and stilt walkers around the Man's base. Our friend Tedward nearly immolates himself with a set of giant flaming wings; a few minutes, after half a dozen spotters put him out, we see him stroll by in a procession of fire spinners, a clove cigarette dangling from his mouth. I guess you need a smoke after a near-death experience.
It's Marcy and Jason's first Burn, and I get a nice contact buzz off their excitement. The Burn itself is more polished than in previous years -- the Man burns upright for perhaps twenty minutes, fireworks shoot into the sky at regular intervals, and when his base collapses, the Man falls straight down into a tidy pile of burning timber like a skyscraper being demolished. It's almost too polished -- I get nostalgic for previous years when the Man's exploded like a bomb, or had to be pulled down by his support cables because the flames weren't eating through his legs. Still, the spectacle is beautiful, especially when a series of tightly wound dust devils peel off the flames of the Man and go swirling around him like little tornadoes paying homage to his demise. It's by far my most enjoyable Burn since my first year on the playa.
As soon as the Man falls, we scurry back to Sindicate to watch our camp's big show that evening, a duel between Dr. Megavolt's tesla coil, Matty the Mutaytor's drums, and the Subjugator, a fire-breathing, claw-armed robot that arrived in our camp just a few days before. The Subjugator and its creator, Christian Ristow, steal the show. Under Christian's remote control, the robot destroys the remains of a burned-out car, then lurches on its tank-like treads into a neighboring camp, where it scoops up a ten-foot paper-mache bust of Elvis in its menacing three-fingered claw. To protect the surface of the playa and avoid any nasty accidents, Burning Man no longer allows fires in camp, so the Subjugator dutifully carts the Elvis head out to a designated burn platform while Booger, on a megaphone, works the crowd: "Unless someone does something to stop it, the Subjugator will destroy all of Black Rock City. But who can stop it? Who can stand up to such a malevolent monster?" On cue, the crowd roars back: "Megavolt! Megavolt!" All our hard work pays off on this night -- the Subjugator rampages, Megavolt (a.k.a. Austin Richards, the coil's creator) works the tesla coil in an insulated suit, Matty the Mutaytor (inside a chicken-wire cage that crackles with bolts of electricity from the coil) whales his drums, and thousands of onlookers scream their approval. Our camp delivers the most quintessentially Burning Man spectacle I see all year -- not too slick, but gleefully anarchic and set on a massive scale.
Sunday night -- Just before the Masoleum is scheduled to burn, the biggest dust storm yet rips across the playa. It's an almost total white-out -- as I follow my friend Tim out to where we think the Masoleum must be, his white coat and blue hair drift ghostlike in and out of the glow of my flashlight, obscured behind a swirling wall of dust. Tim has left a memorial inside the Masoleum and wants to be alone for the actual burning, so we part ways in the crowd. The Sunday night vibe is usually much mellower, as nearly half the participants have already left and the others are all exhausted, but where I'm standing the Masoleum crowd is surprisingly rowdy. It doesn't suit my mood at all, and after a few moments I begin to wander back toward camp. I'm stoned, tired, and experiencing a bad case of playa blues, a weird, lonely, unmoored feeling that descends on nearly everyone at least once during their Burning Man experience. As I walk the dust begins to settle and the Masoleum looms up behind me, looking more spectral than ever in the hazy glare of floodlights. Several hundred yards behind the silhouetted crowd, I find an empty patch of playa and sit. I think about my Dad, who died just four months after my first Burning Man, before I could figure out a way to describe this experience to him in a way he might appreciate. Then the lights on the Masoleum change from halogen white to flaming amber, and I realize they've set fire to it. I get up and begin to walk towards it as its thin plywood walls ignite and it becomes a towering wall of flame, the still-steady wind whipping it sideways into fiery ribbons that stretch a hundred feet or more off to my right. I wander through the crowd and right up to the edge of the fire, where a rush of bodies pulls me sideways till I'm dancing around its perimeter with a thousand other celebrants. My friends Candyman Dan and Andrew the Crab emerge from the sea of faces, and for the next twenty minutes or so the three of us hold hands and circle the fire, marvelling at the intensity of its heat.
Several people note that the burning of the Masoleum feels more special this year than the burning of the Man himself; that it reminds them of the Burning Man of old, when it was a smaller, almost intimate event. Beginning in 1999, the second year I visited the playa, Burning Man organizers moved the Burn from Sunday night to Saturday, in hopes of relieving a Monday afternoon traffic crunch that saw many participants in '98 stranded in their cars for upwards of three hours waiting to get off the playa (exiting Burning Man still takes awhile, but it's nowhere near as bad as the '98 nightmare). One unintended consequence of the switch, however, seems to have been an increase in the number of "yahoos", weekend warriors who arrive Thursday or even Friday night from (mostly) San Francisco and Reno, party for two days, and leave Sunday morning. Their greater presence has given the Burn more of a rock concert vibe -- there are more drunks, more pushing and shoving, more celebration of the pure spectacle of the Burn than of its importance as a symbol of community or spiritual rebirth. It's hard to begrudge the yahoos their Burning Man experience, since this event really is supposed to be for everyone (heck, in 1998 I was a yahoo, wandering around slack-jawed in khaki shorts and Tevas and snapping away with a disposable camera) but it does make the Burn feel less special. I like to think the organizers have realized this, and decided this year to give the hardcore participants their special night back, with a Sunday night burn that was actually bigger and more meaningful than the burning of the Man.
Where does Burning Man go from here? As always, there will be questions about the future of the event, and as always, the event will almost certainly persist, in slightly altered form but with its core ideals intact. The big issue will almost certainly be attendance, which had been climbing steadily almost since the event's inception but levelled off this year at around 25,600, nearly identical to 2000 attendance and well short of anticipated turnout. Reports of the crappy weather in '99 and 2000 probably did the most discouraging, but the dot-com collapse didn't help, either (attending Burning Man is not cheap -- even with no major art projects or high-tech costumes I still dropped over $700 on camping supplies, food, clothes, toys, drugs, Sindicate's general camp fund, and my ticket). While hardcore Burners tend to prefer the keep the scale of the event down, the organizers need those ticket sales to cover their costs. This year's good weather should push attendance back up in 2002, but 2001's lower than expected turnout will probably cause ticket prices to rise again, as well -- which is too bad, since the cost of a ticket alone (minimum $125 this year) is enough to discourage some artists and professional weirdos from attending. (To be fair, Burning Man has now begun offering "scholarships" in the form of discounted tickets to some starving artists, but of course there's never enough to go around.)
Burning Man's status as a "temporary autonomous zone," free from the laws and constraints of mainstream society, was also tested again this year. As in 2000, there were several drug busts, including some of dubious nature -- people arrested for smoking pot in their own camps, for example, after being observed through binoculars (in the real world, spying on people inside their own dwellings constitutes an illegal search). Officials of every kind were present in greater numbers, and more aggressive than I've even seen them. One night a group of federal park rangers shone mag lights in our faces as we walked by, then followed us for awhile asking why our pupils were so dilated. Reports of undercover narcs reached epic proportions.
Of greater concern, however, was the decision by county sheriffs to order the removal of a homoerotic piece of art at Camp Jiffy Lube, the first time any public official had ever moved to censor art at Burning Man. The sheriffs only intervened when a fellow Burning Man participant protested about the art, but it still seemed to set a bad precedent, and after the event was over the outcome of the dispute was still unclear (last I heard, the art had been moved from Jiffy Lube's main entrance to a more discreet location, but the offended neighbor was still asking sheriffs to remove it altogether).
Is all this going to somehow lessen the experience of future Burning Mans? I doubt it. As a veteran Burner it's easy to get jaded (a tongue-in-cheek sign on the approach road put it best: "Burning Man was much better last year"), but this year as always, it was the first-timers I spoke to who had the most sensational experiences. Burning Man continues to evolve, but it still has the ability to blow people's minds, to renew their faith in humanity, to discover untapped depths of inspiration and emotion within themselves. So long as it has that power, Burning Man will persist.