Wednesday, August 29, 2007
I'd Rather Be At Burning Man
Monday was day one at Burning Man 2007 in Black Rock, Nevada. My son Oliver’s out there for his third year, this time with a group of San Francisco hippie-hop musicians. Maybe next year I’ll pack up Jonah and some survival supplies . . . we’ll have to determine what we’re contributing to the scene, though. It’s not a spectator sport.
If you don’t know about Burning Man, it’s hard to sum up in a single sentence. Call it a temporary community of tens of thousands (40,000+ this year) stranding themselves in the desert for a week to interact on the basis of artistic and ritual self-expression rather than economic and ritual self-interest. Art created for the festival focuses on a particular theme every year. And every year, at the end of the week, an enormous sculpture of a human figure goes up in flames.
This just in: In the wee hours of Tuesday morning, somebody apparently set premature fire to the Man. A guy was arrested, and a big crew set about the two-day task of rebuilding the effigy and its support structure.
Further update: A young man apparently committed suicide on the last day of the festival. Stories vary, and given the circumstances, I'm not even sure how they determined that it wasn't an accident, but the guy (20-25 years old, thin build, light brown hair--yikes--I know it's not Ollie, but if it were, that's probably how they'd describe him) was found hanging from the poles supporting the top of a two-story tent.
Life and death on the playa. It's not the first casualty ever at Burning Man--given what goes on there, it's surprising how seldom anything goes seriously wrong. Still, it gives one pause. But pause, too, has always been part of the deal.
Over the past few years, a post-burn ceremony has developed in which about a quarter of the population sits and meditates as the theme temple is destroyed. Oliver says this is the most moving event of all. I don't have any photos of that, but the idea of 10,000 people kneeling and crying in the desert is fairly clear and awfully compelling to my pagan mind.
It’s just a big, wild party for some.
For others, it's a place to perform.
Put your genius on display.
And your bod. (I'd post more bods, but you can go to the Burning Man site and ogle for yourself.)
Push for change, advance the social contract.
For many, it’s a religious retreat, a profound spiritual experience, charging the batteries of hope in a world that generally feels hopeless. A chance to turn the fear trap into the hope flower.
The lengths to which people go in order to create this countercultural aesthetic are extraordinary. The stuff they haul there, the stuff they build, the stuff they wear, how much energy and time they give to it.
You can’t just drive a car around this vast yet teeming desert space. If you’re driving, you're in an art car registered with the Burning Man DMV.
Otherwise, you’re on a bicycle...
or on foot.
If you were making this stuff up for a movie, how would you pitch it? It's The Wicker Man meets Dr. Seuss. No, it's the Old Testament translated by William Gibson. No, it's Julie Taymor's Tibetan Book of the Dead, a musical starring Timothy Leary and one of those egg-pod things from Aliens, except when it opens, it spits flames.
One thing it isn't...
Not yet, anyway.
They've recently developed a carbon offsets program. This year’s theme, The Green Man, is the first environmental theme I’m aware of in the 20-or-so-year history of Burming Man. Many themes have touched on ecological concerns indirectly, though, and there’s certainly a contingent of green thinkers on the playa every year. Someone apparently has figured out how to run engines on fuel made from port-a-potty sludge, and then to trap the exhaust from that engine and use it to grow blue-green algae. Nice loop if you can get it.
Participants commit to leave behind no trace of the week’s worth of creation and destruction, not even a cigarette butt--which is more than you can say about hippie circuses like the Rainbow Gathering. But it was never just a hippie circus, never just one countercultural flavor. It’s got a big gearhead constituency, a lot of pyromania, and enough mechanical ingenuity to make Buckminster Fuller sit up from his grave and take notice.
A ship of magnificent fools.
Can't wait to hear from Oliver. He’ll have some tales to tell.