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COMMENT: BURNING MAN 2006

 

By Peter Kupfer

SAN FRANCISCO, 22 December 2006The festival might be over, but the flame continues to burn at reunions scattered across the United States and Canada. Burning Man and burner regional events include Xara Dulzura, Fuego de los Muertos in San Diego, Toast! the Arizona Regional Burn,  HullabalU in Missouri, Nutopia in Toronto, Recompression near Vancouver, BC,  Firefly in Vermont, and Transformus in North Carolina. Virgin "burner" Peter Kupfer recounts his trial by fire at the annual Burning Man Festival in Black Rock City, Nevada .

Ever since moving to the Bay Area 15 years ago, I have been hearing extravagant tales about Burning Man, the weeklong festival of art, culture and mischief held each summer in the Nevada desert.  Having come of age in the ’60s and long since outgrown my hippie phase, the notion of hanging out with thousands of strangers under a withering sun in the middle of nowhere didn’t hold much appeal.  But when a friend invited me to join a group of Burners, as Burning Man devotees like to call themselves, at this year’s event, curiosity finally got the better of me. 

The theme of the festival this year was Hope and Fear, which might be an apt description of my initial response to the event.  Despite all the stories I had heard about Burning Man, nothing quite prepared me for the jarring experience of entering Black Rock City, the temporary site where the festival is held.  Rising out of a vast dry lakebed ringed by barren hills is a sprawling city of thousands of motor homes, RVs, trailers, tents and other makeshift shelters.  The city is laid out in a huge semicircle, framing a vast desert plain punctuated by dozens of fantastical art installations (a fire-breathing metallic serpent and a 40-foot-high Venus flytrap were two of my favorites).  This desertropolis is inhabited by more than 30,000 people of all ages, races and sexual persuasions (although the largest demographic seemed to be straight white twenty-somethings) dressed in all manner of outlandish outfits (picture a young man dressed in a yellow bra and panties, black tails and combat boots and a woman wearing diaphanous blue wings and gold crepe panties)—or no outfits at all.  Burners roam the dusty streets of Black Rock City on foot or on battered mountain bicycles outfitted with blinking lights to avoid nighttime collisions.  The more fortunate scuttle around the desert on a fleet of whimsical "art cars" (a Victorian house on wheels, a pair of motorized cupcakes, and "Martini-a-Go-Go" —a mobile bar complete with go-go dancers and loud lounge music—were among my favorites).  The overseer of this bizarre kingdom is a 75-foot-tall neon-lit sculpture of a man, arms outstretched as if to embrace its subjects, which is visible from nearly every vantage point in Black Rock City


Burning Man 2006
Photo: Peter Kupfer 

Black Rock City, in short, is a very strange place.  I felt like I had entered an alternative universe, a post-Apocalyptic world that was a cross between BladeRunner and Disneyland.  It is dirty, congested and chaotic.  A din of techno music can be heard at all hours of the day and night.  Everyone and everything is covered in a film of white playa dust, the alkaline silt that covers the lakebed.  The physical conditions are harsh: During the day temperatures often exceed 100 degrees, but after the set sets the temperature can plummet 50 degrees in the space of a few hours.  Everyone seems to be moving in slow-motion on account of the intense heat and equally intense partying that is a central element of the event. 


Burning Man 2006
Photo: Peter Kupfer 

One of the cardinal principles of Burning Man is that attendees are expected to participate, not merely observe, and there is no shortage of activities to occupy one’s time. At any hour of the day or night dozens of activities are taking place around the city, ranging from art, music and dance to massage and meditation. While some of these activities have a serious political or social theme, most are simply about having fun.  A small sampling from the official Burning Man program:  Get Married by a Whore ("You know you want to, and you know you can’t wait to tell your parents"), a Pee Funnel Camp ("Where ladies stand and pee just like the gentlemen!"), Snuggletown ("Enjoy the depth and pleasure of true intimacy without the pressure of sexual interaction or come-ons"), Morning Coffee Enemas ("Bring your favorite enema equipment, first-timers receive a special gift"), Vinegar Foot Wash ("Reverse the effects of the alkaline playa"), Madame Defarge Knitting Circle ("Hang out, knit, chat, plot revolution"), Sex After 60 Demonstration, Nakid Misted Twister ("Get misted while you play Twister naked"), Gnome Adoption Agency ("Come adopt your very own garden gnome. Our mission is to pair these adorable and personable creatures with parents who will show them a good time on the playa"), Human Carcass Wash ("Be part of an interactive washing experience"), floggings at sunset, ("Daddy Don will be assisting in the freeing of endorphins. They will continue into morale improves or catharsis is experienced. Masochistic supplicants welcome!"), G-Spot Happy Hour, and Erotic Tickling Workshop.


Burning Man 2006
Photo: Peter Kupfer 

It would be easy enough for a cynic like myself to dismiss Burning Man as an excuse for a bunch of hedonistic exhibitionists to run wild in the desert, unimpeded by the constraints of the "default world," as real life is called at Black Rock City. And for many participants, particularly those who arrive for the final, frenzied weekend, that’s exactly what it is—a giant rave in the desert.  There is, to be sure, plenty of drugs and sex. I saw one threesome, a man and two women, going at it in the middle of the playa in broad daylight, seemingly oblivious to the hundreds of people who were watching their exertions.  A tent in Jiffy Lube Camp had a sign inviting passers-by to "Get In, Get Off, Get Out." 
 
But underlying all the outlandish costumes, the bizarre behavior and the frivolous activities is a serious social experiment.  The festival prohibits commercial sponsors or commercial endeavors of any kind.  It is a cashless society and the only commodities that can be purchased are ice, coffee and lemonade—evidently the three necessities of modern desert life.  Everything else is free—food, water, clothing, haircuts and massages—all of which is provided by the participants themselves.  Every camp is expected to offer some goods or services.  Pancake Heaven served pancake breakfasts every morning.  Scissor Farm offered haircuts, coloring and manicures.  Other camps offered cocktails and cabaret at sunset, grilled cheese sandwiches, Vietnamese iced coffee and Snow Cones. It is an amazingly egalitarian society, free of the corrupting influences of money, power and class, a society where artistic expression, sexual freedom and mischief-making are the most cherished values.  


Burning Man 2006
Photo: Peter Kupfer 

My first 24 hours at Black Rock City, I  must confess, were pretty miserable.  As I lay in my sleeping bag shivering that first night, wearing every layer of clothing I had brought, including a knit cap and gloves, and ear plugs to muffle the relentless Techno music emanating from the camp across the road, I was convinced that I had made a huge mistake. But as time passed on the desert I began to get caught up in the zany spirit of the event. I have never been one to dress up or wear makeup, but by the end of the week I had dyed my hair green (courtesy of Scissor Farm), applied blue eye shadow and sprinkles to my eyelids and a temporary tattoo on my arm, and was wearing red tights and a shimmering green beaded top (courtesy of one of my campmates who had brought an entire trailer full of costumes). Needless to say, I wouldn’t be caught dead in such an outfit back in San Francisco, but at Black Rock City, I fit right in.


Burning Man 2006
Photo: Peter Kupfer 

I couldn’t help but be impressed with the sheer industry and creativity of the participants.  Within the space of a few weeks, they had built an entire  city of 30,000-plus inhabitants, which, in many respects, functioned more efficiently than many permanent cities, and they did it in an extremely hostile environment where no city ought to exist.  Black Rock City has its own post office (with its own zip code), police force (the Black Rock Rangers) and medical centers. It has its own radio station, a newspaper, a public library and book exchange, and a café (the only place in the city where you can actually spend money).


Burning Man 2006
Photo: Peter Kupfer 

A sense of community and shared purpose pervades the entire enterprise.  People go out of their way to be kind and helpful to each other.  This was driven home to me one evening when I fell off my bicycle while riding down a isolated stretch of road and bumped my head.  As I laid in the road, slightly stunned, a woman in a flowing white gown appeared and asked me if I was OK.  She introduced herself as Venus (many Burners assume Playa names for the festival) and escorted me to a sofa by the side of the road.  She told me to rest as long as I wanted and then she disappeared into her tent.  The whole episode felt like a scene from a Fellini flick.


Burning Man 2006
Photo: Peter Kupfer 

But it wasn’t until the grand finale of the festival, the burning of the Man, when I felt the full impact of the event.  Up until then my experience of Burning Man was of a disparate and chaotic event, with everyone running around doing their own thing.  But on Saturday night the entire city gathered around the Man in the middle of the playa to watch the Big Burn.  The ceremony began with people beating drums, dancing with fire sticks and chanting, while thousands of us spectators stood in almost total silence.  The Man was the one solid, immutable presence in an environment that was constantly shifting, and so it felt a little sad to see him go up in flames—sad but also exhilarating. As the Man burned, people began walking, then running, around him as embers blew into the crowd and the heat from the burn intensified.  It was a mesmerizing, magical, almost religious experience.


Burning Man 2006
Photo: Peter Kupfer 

The morning after the Big Burn, Black Rock City began to dematerialize.  Campsites disappeared, structures were deconstructed, landmarks I had come to rely on to find my way around the city (take a left at the outdoor movie screen and follow the road past the Whiskey and Whores bar to get to the Port-o-Potties,) had vanished, leaving me disoriented.

Would I go back to Burning Man?  Probably Not.  Once was enough. The four days I spent in Black Rock City felt like four weeks.  I was dirty, tired and more than ready to return to civilization.  I was glad that I went—and glad when it was over, too.  But it was an unforgettably intense experience that I will never forget.

The Burning Man Project Web Site

Peter Kupfer is a former editor on the National / Foreign desk at The San Francisco Chronicle. His freelance articles on the arts, travel and technology have appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Asian Art News and other publications. 



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