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
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
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
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
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
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
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