The Boston Phoenix
September 24 - October 1, 1998


It's your party

You can burn if you want to

by Danial Glass

Burning boot camp: 1996

My first Burning Man was hell. At least, that was its theme. It was a blast; it was beautiful; it was dangerous. The second-to-last night of the event saw the height of the insanity, with an arena full of giant robotic steel predator sculptures clashing and spitting fire, 40-foot-high mock skyscrapers and storefronts being burned to the ground by flamethrower-wielding anarchists, and motorcycles roaring in the background as people screamed Burn, motherfucker! in a frenzy of reckless destruction. Speeding cars and trucks crisscrossed the black flatness of the desert, a nasty demolition-derby asteroid belt. Throughout the night, helicopters bobbed up and down like giant wasps, evacuating broken people out to Reno. The day before, I had been in Vegas; now I was dodging recreational hazards at Satan's beach party.

Over the course of two and a half days, I saw fires the size of apartment buildings. I watched countless acts of both kindness and destruction. I burned my underwear on a flaming taxidermal duck. I knew I'd be back.

The match is lit

Burning Man began 12 years ago as an intimate gathering on San Francisco's Baker Beach, when a landscape gardener named Larry Harvey invited a few friends to watch him burn a wooden effigy as a spiritual-cleansing exercise after a failed relationship. When people came running from across the beach in response to the spectacle, a small community formed, drawn by the symbol and the ritual. Harvey felt he was on to something, and the next year he held another burn. Others brought their own symbols -- photos, divorce papers -- to add to the fire. The date was eventually changed to coincide with Labor Day and the location moved to Nevada's Black Rock Desert to accommodate the growth. By the time I got there, in 1996, it had metamorphosed into undoubtedly the most elaborate and creative homegrown event in the country -- an experimental community project that drew more than 10,000 people to the middle of a dry, alkaline lakebed three hours northeast of Reno.

Larry Harvey still runs the event. He and his staff build the effigy (known as the Man), get the required permits, provide a basic infrastructure, and disseminate information in the form of newsletters and a Web site. They don't hire performers or plan a list of activities. Everything that happens in the desert is a product of the people who attend -- the teenagers and twenty-, thirty-, and fortysomethings, naked or in costume, holistic and nihilistic, who drive there ready to act out their fantasies. Burning Man's main directive is repeated like a mantra on every piece of its literature, including the back of the admission ticket: PARTICIPANTS ONLY. NO SPECTATORS. You don't "attend" Burning Man, in other words. You are Burning Man. Pluck out a piece of your imagination, turn it into a tangible thing, and share it with those around you. It's like Dr. Seuss on acid.

As the event begins, theme camps, high- and low-concept and often not related to anything at all, sprout by the hour. The living, animated product of thousands of minds expands like a lost city, an alien civilization with one idol -- a 50-foot-high wooden man with a Japanese-lantern head and a skeleton outlined in multicolored neon. After five days of performance, mud-wallowing, art, and music, the Man is burned on Sunday night in a spectacular pyrotechnic display amid a parade of costumed freaks dancing and leaping with tribal abandon.

Until that moment, the camps provide activities. This year, for instance, although I missed out on a game of fireball -- a game not unlike rugby except that the ball is on fire (leather gloves and boots highly recommended) -- I did get sold at a slave auction, watch a girl get tickle-tortured at Tie-Me-Up-Tickle-Me Camp, and go running out onto the playa (dodging the crucified man on a motorized cross) to see an 18-foot-high Tesla coil erupt into a ball of purple lightning, with giant twitching bolts that made every hair on my body stiffen in its goosebumped follicle. Cruising the spaces between these activities, between solar-powered sex-toy shacks and mock alien crash sites, were fleets of improvised vehicles ranging from parasails and motorized couches to fire-spitting cannons and rocket bikes.

The participation-driven ethic also means that everyone at Burning Man is responsible for his or her own survival in the desert. There's no "they" to take care of water, food, trash, or safety. There isn't even any vending, aside from a small central café and meeting place. In "Black Rock City," as the temporary town becomes known, you won't find advertising or sponsorship or any kind; you won't find a smoothie stand, Budweiser tent, or Sprint PCS kiosk. Any camps that serve food or drinks do so either for free or for barter.

Everyone here has invested time, money, and effort to create his or her vision, whatever it is, in a harsh and barren environment. It's like the opera house in the Amazon in Werner Herzog's film Fitzcarraldo, without the tragedy. It could be seen as a metaphor for one of life's lessons: the best fun often requires a good deal of work. Which would make Black Rock City seem like a lesson in success if it weren't also so utterly goofy.

Where he stops, nobody knows

It's hard to attend Burning Man without feeling that it's not just wacky but important: where else can 10,000 people get together without being corralled, marketed to, and told what to do? And because I'd come to believe that America somehow needs Burning Man, I was concerned before heading out to Burning Man '98. How could an event so spontaneous and so unregulated survive on this scale? Attendance was swelling every year, and most people thought it had just gotten too big.

Signs of change were in the air. The '97 event, for instance, had been tamer than the previous year's. In 1996 the total lack of restriction gave rise to an aura of potential danger and a bracing rush of responsibility; no one was trying to save you from yourself. If you felt like riding on top of an RV on a moonless night without headlights at 80 miles per hour, fine. But you wouldn't be the only one playing dangerous games. If the explosives at Tinseltown, a display of detonating Hollywood icons, seemed a little too explosive -- hey, there was always a trampoline or a drum circle.

But people died in '96, and liability reared its head. Michael Fury, a friend of Larry Harvey and a creative influence at Burning Man, was killed in a collision while riding his motorcycle at night, playing chicken with a blacked-out van. Others died near a rave camp when a truck ran over their tent while they were sleeping inside. In frenzies of pyromania, people burned everything they could hold a lighter to, including public structures and installations that others had built. The reins had to be pulled.

In 1997, driving was banned on the playa, and fire art was prohibited in areas where people were camped. The admission ticket, which used to admonish participants to "Please keep weapons unloaded in camp," now warned that firearms were banned within its borders. The county imposed its own restrictions as well. As Burning Man staff toned down the potentially destructive elements of the event, the rough-edged freedom waned considerably.

Many veterans saw this as a dilution of the festival's philosophy and pined for the anarchy of the past. But for the organizers, to whom total creative (and destructive) freedom was beginning to look like legal suicide, tinkering with the formula was essential to the event's survival. For Larry Harvey, Burning Man has always been more about experimental community than pyromania -- a chance to create an environment where the absence of consumerism and passivity, combined with a feeling of connection among participants, can foster the development of a sincere and original culture.

The bicycle-oriented environment last year did feel more intimate, and from it grew a gentler, more conceptual kind of creativity. Whereas 1996 had the spectacular burning of the satirical conglomerate Helco, a fake skyscraper and set of storefronts, 1997 saw "Temporal Decomposition," a 12-foot-high sphere of ice with clocks and watches frozen inside that also became a scrape-your-own snow-cone parlor. Building Burning Man, the journal of the project, reported a quadrupling of theme camps at last year's event, which it interpreted as the "surest index of creative effort."

Still, I missed the rush and unpredictability of '96. The risk had felt like an initiation rite -- something to overcome in order to feel a sense of power. Danger is drama, and the emotions associated with it give a heightened sense of being alive. I sympathized with the organizers' need to steer the thing away from the destructive, but how far would it go?

Beyond regulation, a common topic of conversation all over Burning Man was how big the community could get before it outgrew itself -- before people started to feel more like attendees and less like an integral part of the event. One of the most moving aspects of being there is the feeling of accessibility to those around you. (Go ahead and ask what someone is doing with that shovel and truckful of plastic baby heads. You'll most likely end up with a can of beer and a new friend.) In previous years, the homemade feel had emphasized the elements of risk and collective survival and fostered a responsibility for your environment and your neighbors. If that feeling disappeared, so would the soul of Burning Man.

1998: All dressed up?

Three weeks ago, I arrived in Nevada on a Friday morning in an RV full of people I'd serendipitously hooked up with in '97. Black Rock City acquired a road system this year, with numbered tracks radiating outward from the Man. We set up our shade structures, and while most of the group took a siesta in the dusty, baking heat of midday, a few of us took a stroll. Camps were gearing up, and it looked promising. My pick of the day was the Sick and Wrong Camp, a simple but effective bulletin board with a collage of offensive photographs, including gunshot-shattered skulls, a woman shitting in some guy's mouth, elephantiasis of the testicles, and Dan Quayle. "Can't stop looking, can ya?" said the Sick and Wrongers, who sat in lawn chairs and laughed at everyone's fascinated disgust.

That night I took a ride out to the Man. He blazed coolly in red, blue, and purple neon, more beautiful than any of the lights in Vegas. I went back to camp for my camera, but when I returned his blue lights were out. I didn't take this as an omen at the time.

Saturday night my campmates were tripping and I opted out, instead wandering about in my crippled-secretary-with-Ebola costume (Edith Bunker dress, fake skin sloughing off and blood running from eyes and ears), talking to people and exploring the town. The mood seemed subdued, maybe because a two-hour drizzle had turned the ground into brownie-like mud and made walking from camp to camp a chore.

And where was all the fire? Saturday used to be the big night for fire art. By two in the morning (not even close to late), the weather was clear and dry. The one big burn of the night was the Temple of Rudra, an operatic production directed by Pepe Ozan, who builds a 20- to 30-foot-high fantasy mud castle every year. It's packed with wood and other flammables and set alight, resulting in one or more fire-spouting towers set against a theatrical background of chanting pagan fire dancers. A miniature Man was also burned, but I'd expected much more.

Not that I didn't have fun this year. The Bar Car, a rolling thatch-roofed bar with leather-tough bartenders who made you sing for your beer, was simple in concept but inspirational. When the beer ran out, our calls for donations as we rolled throughout the encampment resulted in freely given six-packs, bottles of booze, and a film canister of marijuana. And who wouldn't enjoy the Great Wizard of Ass, an oracle of sorts set up near Central Camp? Anyone stepping up to ask the wizard a philosophical question would get an eloquent and wiseass answer from a van-sized papier-mâché rectum on scaffolding 20 feet high, followed by a booming voice from a hidden sound system: "The Great Wizard of Ass has spoken!" as a jet of flame shot from its anus.

And the art was certainly impressive. The Nebulous Entity, for example, the official icon of this year's festival, looked like a giant redwood tree stump with sea-monster parts for roots, topped with a Medusa-like tower of silver tentacles. It rolled around the playa at night, bathed in swirling light and emanating a cacophony of discordant sounds and samples like a radio station for the schizophrenic. The One Tree, a copper tree that rained light trickles of water for people to shower under, was a professional piece of work as well as a public service.

Astounding as the visuals were, the festival this year never quite gave me a larger sense of connection. Was it the size -- three to five thousand more people than the year before? Perhaps. Was it the makeup of the crowd? It's not hard to imagine that a festival with a growing mass-media profile would draw a larger, less cohesive group than it did when people heard about the event primarily through word of mouth. Could it be that as restrictions reduce the risk, they also dilute the drama of collective survival that creates that sense of community buzz, that distinct energy that is more than the sum of its parts?

I was confident that the burning of the Man on Sunday night would pry things open, heating the inner circle around the fire to a point where we couldn't help but explode out of our skins and finally feel an intense moment of power and connection. Almost everyone goes to the burn. The combined energy of that many people celebrating one single event is usually enough to turn the playa into a field of fire, drums, and ecstatic dancing and laughing. I was jittery inside with expectation. In years past, there had been a tension, a buildup of desire through drums, music, and ceremonial procession to burn that fucking Man that became so strong we could have set him alight with our focused energy alone. After it collapsed we would rush in, screaming and leaping, to be closer, to soak in the intense heat, to dance like wild-eyed cannibals possessing the spirits of those we had just eaten. It was there that I saw people transform. I could see those who were struggling with self-consciousness suddenly commit to the moment, dancing madly. People hugged spontaneously, fueled by an unnamed joy. It felt semi-mystical, like early Christmas morning when you still believed in Santa Claus.

This year, though, they just kind of blew him up. In a blinding white cloud of phosphorous smoke, the Man went up like a single giant flare before orange and red flame engulfed him, rushing up through his body as if he'd stepped over a vent in the earth. I ran in with the rest of the crowd, but I didn't feel wild abandonment, and I didn't see it either. It was more of a slowly rotating clump of beer-and-acid-filled party people, a winning college-football team in the locker room. I did the best I could. I made Jiffy-Pop on the coals of the Man and gave out communion to those around me. It helped, even if I couldn't get myself to pop.

Maybe this year's event was someone else's epiphany. I hope so. Because for all that it has changed, you still can't go to Burning Man and not feel that this place matters, not hope that it survives without turning into just a rave or a tepid arts festival. We've come to a point where most of our experiences and cultural pursuits (entertainment, work, and otherwise) have been "commodified," as Larry Harvey puts it -- appropriated by commercial interests, weakly copied, and sold back to us. The effect is that we keep living but lose belief in our experiences: in the back of our minds we know that someone is, most of the time, just trying to sell us something.

Prepackaged events like Lollapalooza have pretended to be representative of a certain culture, and they provide an off-the-rack aesthetic to make us feel cool, edgy, or artistic. Buy the CD, stop by the body-art booth for your tribal tattoo, and presto: you're alternative.

Burning Man is different. If the pure liberty of the earlier years has been tempered, the important part remains -- the chance for 15,000 people to present themselves in their own light, in an environment free from judgment, and by their own measures instead of by standards they may not believe in. It can draw out of you a capacity to feel that you didn't even know you had.

It's also an experiment. Sometimes it works, sometimes it falls short, but the goal matters. Even for people who don't attend, Burning Man shows that it is possible, if only for one long weekend, to escape the mall, the TV, and this reality that seems to be everybody else's, and make your own. It reminds you that you don't have to fit into any particular category. That, ultimately, you can own your life -- if only you participate.

Danial Glass is a freelance writer living in New York. He can be reached at

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