‘An orgy of self-expression’ Burning Man 2006 | AspenTimes.com

‘An orgy of self-expression’ Burning Man 2006

Jonathan Kevles

“Would you like some watermelon?” “Want some water?” “Care for some pancakes?” “Want some herb?” “Here, have some tequila.” “Here, have this necklace.” “Would you like a kiss?” “Can I give you a back rub?” “Can someone give me a cigarette?” “Trade you one for a piece of that bacon?”

Thrity-eight thousand people came to the Burning Man festival, also known as “The Burn,” from Aug. 28 through Labor Day this year. And most “Burners” I met fully embraced my favorite element of the Burning Man experience – the freedom to give and the freedom to receive without expectations, obligations, quid pro quos, or other concerns one might encounter in “normal society.”The harshness of Burning Man’s physical environment has a hand in this give-and-receive-freely attitude. The inhabitants of Black Rock City, the name given this temporary human settlement, all seem to realize that surviving on the Playa with both one’s physical and mental faculties intact requires positive communal behavior.The Playa is the name of the portion of the Black Rock Desert that the Bureau of Land Management leases to the Burn’s organizers. Last year, my first as a Burner, I learned that the Black Rock Desert – about 100 miles northeast of Reno – is perhaps the biggest continuously flat place on earth. It is covered in ubiquitous “Playa dust,” which winds often exceeding 40 mph can whip into tiny dust devils or 100-yard-wide funnels. The dust gets into everything – mouths, lungs, eyes (which explains the equally ubiquitous bandanas and motorcycle goggles), tents, RVs, drinks and food.

But the wind is secondary compared to the swings in temperature – from below 40 degrees to more than 100. I spent much of my days hydrating under a shade structure, willing the hours to pass, until the sun would begin its descent. Then I’d exchange my shorts and T-shirt for multiple layers of warmth on long nights of Playa-cruising. Despite these conditions, no Burner attends under duress (though many are underdressed). We immerse ourselves in this unforgiving desert environment voluntarily, and we know when we arrive that we are all in it together, suffering the elements together and communing.I observed many spontaneous communal acts. There was a gal with oversized John Lennon glasses and a big pink wig, shivering; a second gal approached and took off most of her cave-girl costume (leaving the bone in her hair, of course) and gave them to the first gal. Then a guy then gave his trench coat to the second gal while keeping his tutu. All of this happened without a word spoken. On another occasion, a guy had passed out in fetal position in the sun, naked except for hip-length shiny white boots. Another guy left a bottle of water for him and stuck his shade umbrella in the ground to shield the passed-out guy from the glare. And then there was the camp that handed out frozen otter pops and offered water sprays from a fire extinguisher during the hottest part of the day.What inspires this communal behavior? It has to do with one of the Playa’s most influential rules: Nothing may be bought or sold at Burning Man (except the single vendor who sells tea, coffee, hot chocolate and ice). Last year a meat distributor camped next to my camp (Camp Bojon – see http://www.bojon.com) with $3,000 of meat in his van, expecting to sell his pork chops, steaks and mahi-mahi. Upon learning that selling is a no-no (one of the few rules on the Playa), he quickly learned the art of bartering – for beer, food, trinkets, ice, cigarettes and whatever else he could get his hands on.

I love the no-sales rule; there are no velvet ropes or bouncers or cover charges if you want to dance or grab a drink at any of the numerous ravelike parties going on throughout the day and night (the near-universal lack of walls would make entry enforcement a bit ridiculous anyhow). And all the drinks are free as well, though a gift of an orange or a sandwich always elicits a giant smile. Once you make it to the Playa, the no-sales rule eliminates all income divisions.Granted, it’s not cheap to attend Burning Man. A ticket for the week ranges from $185 to $300, depending on how early it’s purchased. And my group at Camp Bojon paid $50 a head for truck and generator rental and other incidentals before our arrival. Some folks show up in rented RVs, ringing up huge gasoline bills, especially when they drive from the East Coast. But it’s cheaper than many a vacation.*****

The heart of Burning Man is the art, and it is everywhere: on the Playa, on people in the form of costumes and body art (temporary and permanent), and on vehicles. The art consists of enormous sculptures that are visible day and night from almost every spot in Black Rock City, such as the neon-lit, 60-foot-tall Man that burns on Saturday night, the Temple that burns on Sunday (after a week of visits from people leaving tributes to friends and loved ones lost), and this year a dance club called Uchronia built by Belgians and funded in part by the Belgian government, which also burned on Sunday night.Some fire- or light-focused sculptures provide their enjoyment at night – such as the 90-foot, coiled, fire-breathing, fang-gnashing “Serpent Mother” built by the Flaming Lotus Girls, a Bay Area women’s art collective. Some, like Ebu, the 6-foot-long, 18-inch-high scorpion, require a sharp eye and a wandering Burner to discover; it was located on the “Outer Playa,” about a mile from the Man and 200 yards from anything else.

I am inspired by the art simply because I can’t imagine the creativity that gave birth to the ideas all around me.I was a fan of Camp Bojon’s installation, the Tikila Sunrise, partly because I helped build it and keep it stocked during normal business hours. Located on the Outer Playa, our hangout consisted of a door frame with swinging bamboo doors, a tiki bar with a bamboo roof and grass skirting, and a few tables and chairs. We’d officially open at 5 a.m. for the sunrise and lone Burners would show up, emerging out of the desert like mirages – on their bikes, on foot or on a rocking artcar (I’ll explain this momentarily). They voiced great appreciation for our tiki bar’s design and for the tequila sunrise drinks that seemed to have no end. When the tequila occasionally ran out, a Burner would show up as if on cue with a bottle to keep the sunrise spirit alive. And what beautiful sunrises we had!At the Bojon bar, a spontaneous rule came into being where customers were yelled at if they approached the bar without first going through the swinging doors. But once they had walked, biked or pogo-sticked through the doorway, they were warmly embraced and served a drink. The next customer to break this sole rule would be yelled at by the previous victim, then warmly embraced just like her predecessor.

Recommended Stories For You

Peg, a friendly woman from Texas, was one of our favorite and most consistent customers. When she showed up on our first morning of “business,” she asked if we were the Sunrise Saloon folks from last year. When we confirmed her guess, she gushed, “of all the places on the Playa last year, you were my FAVORITE!” Two days later, we were having an after-hours party (i.e. at noon or so) as the annual Critical Tits bike ride proceeded around the Playa. (Inspired by the monthly Critical Mass bike rides in San Francisco and other cities, this year’s CT ride around the Playa reportedly drew 11,000 female, topless, often torso-painted participants.) Peggy veered off the CT trail and into our bar (through the doors, of course), asked for a shot and proclaimed that we were witnessing her first-ever public topless experience. We congratulated her with huzzahs, hugs, kisses and a frozen margarita – then saw her off as she pedaled away.Ah yes – what is an artcar? Artcars are everything from double-decker buses dressed up as dragons or buildings (one White House replica had an airplane tail labeled “GOP” sticking out of it), to golf carts converted to mobile chaise lounges or flying carpets steered by joystick. They cruise the Playa at no more than 5 mph, the bigger ones with their own bars, stereos and disc jockeys.And yes, Burning Man attendees are often works of art themselves. I have friends who spent hours hunting Salvation Army racks for costume wear, and many hours in addition trying on, assembling, accessorizing, blinging and otherwise arranging different outfits for each night on the Playa. One night I was loaned a USA tracksuit and given a medal made out of a beer-can bottom. I was congratulated many times over the course of the night and sunrise on winning my “medal.”

Complete strangers became fast friends, sometimes instant Camp Bojon bar legends – like Jamal. One afternoon we found ourselves with only lime, grenadine and duct tape behind the bar. Upon hearing the suggestion that we create a shot using lime in the mouth, duct tape over the mouth and grenadine poured down the nose – followed by a head-shaking – Jamal’s only question was “who’s going to shake my head?” Jamal and others are immortalized in Polaroid shots stapled to the bar’s grass skirt, the only item, aside from our handmade Tikila Sunrise sign, which we didn’t burn at week’s end.I couldn’t help wondering how some of my fellow Burners get along in the real world; mainstream is not a word I could ever use to describe many of them. The Burn is a place to meet people that would rarely, if ever, be a part of my daily life. But being exposed to them is enriching, eye-opening, and assumption-smashing. Burning Man is a weeklong orgy of self-expression, where practically anything goes, where tolerance of everyone and everything is the minimum standard and where participation is the norm (but is not mandatory). Time on the Playa is life-affirming, a testament to the value of diversity. Being different, or wanting to find out what makes each of us unique, helps unite Burners.

Will I go next year? I have no idea. But I did just conjure an idea for my own offering of food and merriment. And I have some ideas for next year’s Camp Bojon bar theme. If I do go, I’ll want to bring a virgin burner or two, to share their first-time wonderment, to have them point out things I’ll overlook, to watch them go from amazement at the grand scale of the Playa, to frustration with the elements, to hearing who they’ll want to bring next year.Jonathan Kevles is a Fellow at Rocky Mountain Institute who can instantaneously place in alphabetical order the letters of words or phrases of up to 16 letters.

Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.