Experience of 2003 Burn

The easiest way to describe Burning Man is as a huge week-long party. Fine, you say. Been there, done that. You haven’t really got it, though. What’s the largest party you’ve been to? 300 people? 1000 people? For two days? Three?

For the night of the burn, Black Rock City is the 5th largest town in Nevada, behind Las Vegas, Reno, Carson City, and Elko. Burning Man is likely two orders of magnitude bigger than whatever you’re trying to compare it to. There aren’t one or two or three music stages. There are dozens, with acts of every description. DJ’s of every stripe, live bands, pickup drum circles, arias, and whatever else you might listen to. Millions of watts of amplifiers and lights.

But of course, describing Burning Man as the largest party I’ve ever been to is like describing the Sistine Chapel as “like, TOTALLY the hugest painting EVER, dude!” So bear with me and we’ll see if we can’t do better.

Perhaps the next easiest thing to grasp is the climate. It’s in the desert. It’s 110 degrees in the daytime with 0% humidity. It’s 40 at night, still 0% humidity. There are dust storms. This year we only got one real storm, which lasted a couple hours. But the real whiteout part – where you can’t see or breathe – wasn’t longer than 30 minutes.

Yeah, people live in this stuff. You pitch some tents and hold them down with 12″ rebar stakes. You cover them with foil emergency blankets to block out as much morning sun as possible. You build large geodesic domes out of PVC and parachutes. You live for a week covered in SPF 45. After a couple days, you don’t even blink at the sight of thousands of people walking the streets through the dust, many of them buck naked except for their water supply, goggles, and dust masks.

Again, the desert is easy to describe, but it misses the point. Yeah, so it’s in the desert, but after a day or so, that doesn’t matter. You just live with it and get on with whatever’s next.

An example: We’re sitting in the Lost Penguin, a nice little bar/lounge at about 4:30 and Esplanade. We’re drinking merlot, eating chocolates and smoked salmon with some sort of herb I can’t identify – perhaps dried dill. On the house. This is very nice, but it’s amazingly easy to forget that it shouldn’t be happening. Someone wonders aloud if there’s any cheese – why not? Why shouldn’t there be cheese? Of course, one of the guys serving wine dissembles a moment and disappears to see if he can’t scare up some brie.

The Lost Penguin is a nice place to hang out with total strangers but the Penguin is not the most popular attraction, even as far as the bars and lounges go. The most popular is probably Pinky’s (9:00 and Gospel), which is a full-scale nightclub all done up in pink pleather and boa feathers. At night it’s basically a strip club, complete with pole dancers and body shots. Clive Shwank’s Champagne Ballroom serves champagne and other nice liquor with eclectic live music. There’s a proper Irish pub with Guinness on tap, and a dozen or more mobile bars which will pick you up, offer you a drink and a barstool, and drive you and the other patrons to the other side of the playa while you enjoy your drink, some music, and conversation.

I mentioned that the salmon and wine were on the house. Actually everything is on the house. Commerce is about the only thing expressly not allowed in Black Rock City. This is taken very seriously and people just don’t do it. There’s even a contingent that wants to officially ban barter, since it’s a form of commerce.

Among other things, what this means is that a pretty robust gift economy has developed. If you need or want something, you can generally ask for it, and often enough find what you need. In return, people expect that if you’re asked, you’ll help out if you can. This isn’t just hippie group-grope fantasy. It happens. The whole city works this way, for a week anyway.

Here’s as good a place as any to describe some of the plain-ol’ neat stuff I saw. These are but a tiny fraction of the people and places I experienced, which were but a fraction of the people and places there. The lines between art, performance, participation, and observation are radically and intentionally blurred.

Tuna Camp (Dogma and Literal (7:00)) is a group of professional fishermen who import and store 4000 pounds of fish – tuna and salmon, mostly – which they grill or make sushi with and feed to anyone who drops by.

A large round structure seems to be some sort of museum, with exhibits of old eyewear, lenses, microscopes, and so forth. There’s a short line to some sort of viewing apparatus. I bend down and peer inside. I see an ass, from underneath. After a second, I realize it’s my ass. It’s funny and a bit surreal – you can’t normally see your own ass in that position. I leave and enter a sort of waiting room where there’s a window that looks back on the ass-watchers in the first room. So everyone here is pointing and chuckling at the goofy ass-watchers who are wiggling and craning their neck, oblivious that we’re looking. We leave and find ourselves in another room, set up something like a ’40s living room. There’s an old style television with a wooden case, displaying video of … the previous room. People laugh even harder, and then start looking for the camera in this room. On the way back out onto the playa, a subtle sign indicates the artist’s name and the piece’s title: “The Observatory”.

I went to a rope bondage seminar at Camp Arachnid (8:00 and Authority). It was a group of really friendly bondage fans, young and old, fledgelings and veterans.

Just off the Esplanade, there’s a small gazebo, under which is a small swimming pool. You see people swimming in the pool. Just about the time you think “But it’s too small”, you realize it’s a large video screen, set just under the ground. Playing on the screen is a video of people swimming underwater, so it appears they’re swimming under the sand and you’re seeing them through a little window. The piece is titled “No Diving.”

Camp Deathguild has a really impressive “Mad Max” theme. They have a whole fleet of rough desert cars decked out with rusty metal, animal hides, and machine guns. At night, they do battle in the Thunderdome, a huge geodesic aluminum-girder dome. A large chalkboard for “Number of days since last accident” usually reads 0 or 1. When there is a battle, you have to wade through a huge shouting crowd. But if you get close enough, climbing up on the sides of the dome seemed to be the way to see it best. The two combatants are suspended on long harnesses from the top of the dome. They swing around and do battle with a foam bat. A judge in a punk angel outfit eventually declares a victor, based as much on “throw them to the lions” audience feedback as anything else.

Automatic Subconscious does several different innovative audio-visual presentations, somewhere between performances and movies. One is a lengthy piece created by intersplicing just the fight scenes from a vast number of terrible Kung Fu movies. And they teach vodka-making.

The Shambalala Mythical Critter Rodeo and Mental State Fair has a flying pig suspended in midair by large ropes, swung by large men. The goal was to ride as long as you could, while the men try to throw you. Twenty seconds seemed to be a good time.

The Temple of Dog doesn’t draw much attention to itself. I saw it at night, and it looked a bit like a popcorn stand on wheels. Only inside, where the popcorn should be, there is an array of dozens of little plastic dogs with the bobble heads. But here on the playa, they barely move, just sway a little, responding as a group to minute vibrations. The lighting is eerie, almost ominous. It’s as if the dogs are aliens trapped in their teleporter. Then I saw the one staring at me. And of course, no matter where you move, there’s always one staring at you, right in the eyes.

Outside Xara’s large black tent are innumerable bikes, indicating that this is a popular place. The lighting inside is almost entirely black light, and it takes another second to realize you’re in a jungle, with big leafy fronds, neon birds and insects, and a low thrumming sound coming through the trees in front of you. You remember you’re at Burning Man and this was all created, with tons of cardstock and fabric and time and imagination. And it’ll all be destroyed in a week. The place is huge, maybe fifty feet by fifty feet. There’s a dance floor and nooks and crannies where people are mostly sitting and talking. So you sit to talk, and you realize why everyone is sitting or lying on the grass. Because it’s real grass, cool and soft on your dusty body. Pretty soon you quit trying to figure out how they irrigate it and whether it’ll last all week.

You spend the next hour or so sitting in the grass, talking to an old friend (who, by the way, recently began living as a woman full-time) about the nature of human interpersonal relations and a Platonic perception of reality. Yet somehow, you adjust. You leave Xara and step out onto the playa. You catch your bearings by spotting the Man, and walk on. It’s as if where you’ve been is normal, and the surreal is somewhere just ahead.

I’ve been avoiding talking about the Man, since I don’t know what to say. I can take the easy route: The Man is a huge wooden statue lined with blue lights who stands in the center of the playa. But of course, he’s more than that, right? I’m just not sure what. His presence dominates the city – our whole world. Just look for him and your path is obvious. He’s always at the edge of your consciousness, if not your vision. He is the center – the focal point.

On the night of the burn, if you climb on something tall and look out on the city in the evening, you see a subtle migration. People are leaving camps, not entering them. They walk toward the man, not away. By nightfall, the movement is obvious. It’s as if the city itself is gathering its forces, swelling in the center. People clad in costumes and lights form a flowing, whirling mass, filling the playa with music, dancing, fire, and thousands of bodies, shifting in the lights and the dust.

The burn is the culmination of a week of madness. This year, the Man has a heart. The night of the burn, it glows huge and red in his chest, shielded by his massive wooden ribs. As the tension and noise mount, he raises his arms in a triumphal gesture – the Man celebrating with us, sharing our power and our passion.

When the fire starts, it’s subtle – tendrils licking the base of the Man’s platform. An eyeblink later, the platform is ablaze. In a moment, the Man is engulfed. The flames are all around him now, drinking up his glowing heart in one gulp, his blue head and arms emerging high. A hundred foot body of fire breathes hot wind across the playa, and black smoke billows in columns off the Man. Huge tornados of heat and dust spin off the pyre and spiral away from the Man, artifacts of massive chaotic energies.

The cool blue lights blink out violently, and the Man begins to sway. The howling of the crowd is ominous now, like the rage of a thirsty demon. When he falls, his final outstretched arm is pathetic, a doomed giant futilely groping for help. He crashes down and there a plume of sparks bursts into the air. The crowd erupts, the scream of a vast primal orgasm splitting the sky.

Anyway, Burning Man was a singularly amazing experience. I hope I’ve captured some of it. If it sounds like your bag, we’ll see you on the playa next year.

by Will Garner

About the author: Tales From the Playa

Tales From the Playa

Tales From the Playa are dreams and memories of events that took place at Burning Man, as told by participants. Submit your story here.