Burning Man - Nevada, 1998
I had been warned that Burning Man was likely to be spoiled by "spectators and hangers-on," resulting from all the published photos and footage of crazed and naked people who attend it. But this is not a spectator type of event - if you get there it is because you are meant to be a part (and most leave their clothes on). Burning Man is like a festival of the American spirit, freely expressed by 17,000 of that continent's maddest inhabitants, each one with something to say, show, or do to the rest of the diverse community.
We arrived from all over the North American continent in a variety of bizarre vehicles, vans, and rented wheels - travelling the final few hundred miles through virtually empty desert landscape from which few have ever managed to scratch a living. The destination is a strangely powerful, elemental flatland that forces us to recognize our humility, whilst letting us witness the grandeur and competence of the universe that we partake in. As organizer Larry Harvey told me, when delighting in the destructive sandstorm that had earlier ripped through the playa camp, "I don't want people to think they are coming out to some god-damned air-conditioned shopping mall in the desert."
The tickets affirm that "by attending, YOU VOLUNTARILY RISK SERIOUS INJURY AND DEATH" and the location is a yearly changing site within hundreds of square miles of a smooth, flat, baked-dry lake bed. In Oct 1997 a British team set the world land-speed record of 763 mph at this location. There aren't many places you can drive for long at that speed. Each year now, the Burning Man festival sets new heights in consciousness out on that vast playa. There aren't many places where you can get this far out.
There is just about nothing for sale at Burning Man, other than ice and coffee, and all the events, offerings, and performances are free. Instructions are to bring everything needed to survive, especially water and food - and leave no trace when you go. There is nothing to carry money for - making it easer for those who feel no need for clothes. There is a minimal presence of those in the uniforms of the state - perhaps you see a pair every few hours or so, wandering about, dazed by the strangeness and peacefulness off it all. We are off the beaten track, well off any known track in America. Though I have been to no festival similar to Burning Man in Europe or Asia, the vibe of self-sufficient self-organized freedom reminded me a little of Britain's still-obstructed Stonehenge Festival. This free celebration of the British spirit was a true example of "synarchy" in action - a tapping of the natural organizing powers of our chaotic culture in a situation devoid of central control and regulation. It, too, celebrated our link with the greater universe.
For a friend of mine, who made her way to join us there, this was not only the fabled Burning Man festival, but her first outdoor festival of the alternative, free-form kind. An M.D., now practicing homeopathy, the experience led to a deeper understanding of one of the most difficult things she confronted in her clinic...but I'll quote from her own email: "If I were to identify the one malady I see more often than any other in my dealings with people it is the profound and increasing sense of isolation. It is easy to see why, yet I think much of what passes for culture is the result of that deep feeling and not the cause - as is so easy to assume. The more people feel isolated - in all levels - from each other, from society, from life, from joy etc., the more they make efforts to be less isolated. Yet so often those very efforts just make the isolation more. Joining the fads, being politically correct, forced multiculturalism, having the right possessions, etc. theoretically should be connecting people together by "common" bonds, but it all just seems to highlight the desperate nature of the isolation. What I saw in Burning Man was a confirmation of what I have understood from Homeopathy - that the more we are each ourselves, glorified in our unique individuality, the more connected we are. It is a paradox - yet the more we express our singularity in an honest and full way, the more we escape that plague of isolation. That is the real community building that went on at Burning Man - a community of self expressing individuals who were all part of a whole."
It is hard for most Europeans to appreciate the degree to which culture and social behaviour is subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, regulated in the U.S.A. - enforced by the power of law and social codes. Many cities' cops give pedestrians tickets for jaywalking (crossing when the little green man isn't flashing) and have curfews banning teenagers from the streets after dark, amongst a multitude of other enforced regulations that mandate behaviour - having nothing to do with crimes involving victims. In Clearwater, Texas the cops will tell a teenager to turn his rebellious baseball cap back to the front. And though we laugh at it here, political correctness (why is it called "political" ?) is a social tyranny that many Americans must adapt to in their daily lives - sometimes reminiscent of the surreal behaviour control required to survive in Stalinist Russia. Yet somehow the freeness and individuality of the American spirit survives in many of that often confused and oppressed race. If you ever had any doubt of it - then get to Burning Man.
Burning Man brings together a concentration of those pushing the boundaries at the edge of America's changing culture - meeting in one of the few remote spaces where it is possible to explore total freedom of expression. It is a bringing together of diversity, a cross-cultural pollination - and it all fits together exceedingly well. We moored our R.V. at the northwest end of camp, where west coast trance techno pioneers 'ccc' and Blue Room had settled, putting up several brilliant domes with dj's through the night. They also put together the final night's 'Community Dance' party - out on the playa and after THE BURN, together with Verbum and Radio-V, whose mission it is to spread the new music through North America.
The final night - a full moon lights up the scattered clouds, slipping between them as it rises above the mountains ringing the horizon. The 60 foot-tall Man is torched soon after 10, fireworks ripping from his heart to light up the sky and lift our spirits high. After the flaming spectacle peaks and wanes, an asbestos-clad man wrestles the burning remains to the ground, at which the wide ring of thousands of revellers rushes toward the hub of the remaining blaze - drumming, whooping, and dancing wildly around it, in all states of pagan dress and undress. Like all good parties when they kick in, the action is participation - with spectators and cameramen few and far between.
Towards midnight, we follow the flashing green laser road to the superb Tonka sound system pointing out into the emptiness of the playa, with lasers and projections.The music started around midnight, with Lucas (Metal Spark) leading in with the first set, followed by Goa Gil building us up to a glorious sunrise at six, handing over to Space Tribe's Ollie Wisdom to play out until the generator was unceremoniously switched off before ten. Stopped before the ambitious line-up could bring us Tsuyoshi, Nick Taylor or the special mix of new Shpongle stuff prepared by Simon Posford for the final hour. Still, this was the closedown day. Each of the DJ's picked well from their best sounds, showing respect for the grandeur of the setting - and the Yanks danced through the night and into the morning, along with assorted Japanese, British, Germans, Australians and others from the global party community. Despite the abrupt ending, the party, set in this cosmic event, must rate as a milestone in the cultural history of North America, helping to waken that country from its deep sleep before a third decade of its evolution is mindlessly distorted.
Praise the Lord and Bom Shanka!
Gregory Sams, words and photos
(Published in jan/feb1999 Dream Creation Magazine - UK)
BURNING MAN Official Site