Sunday, September 16, 2012

Burning Man

I'm back from Burning Man, a week-long art festival in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. There is so much to say about it, I hardly know where to start. Overall verdict: Amazing. I was so impressed by the scale and caliber of all the art, and the sheer effort of all participants to make an event like this happen. There are Ten Principles of the event, which gives a good insight into what the event stands for. Not only are the Principles on the website, but every participant sees them in the Survival Guide (required reading) when they get their ticket in the mail.

-Radical Inclusion- any one can be a part of the community
-Gifting- I've had people ask me about what I was planning to trade at Burning Man, but the idea is to give unconditionally with no expectation of a return or exchange
-Decommodification- the community is not mediated by corporate sponsorships or advertising
-Radical Self-Reliance- discover and exercise your inner resources
-Radical Self-Expression
-Communal Effort- creative cooperation and collaboration
-Civic Responsibility
-Leaving No Trace- respect for the environment, cleaning up after yourself, and leaving no physical trace of activities. Burning Man is the LARGEST Leave No Trace event in the WORLD! How cool is that?
-Participation- transformative change, whether in the individual or society, can only occur through personal participation. Every one is invited to work, play, and do. This speaks to the idea that there are no "spectators" at Burning Man.

So what exactly does that all end up looking like? There are clearly 54,000 different experiences for every person there. With that many people for a week, Burning Man is more of an experience living in a city than just going to an event. It's like going to a city you've always wanted to visit, and discovering that you're a citizen, a homeowner, and can start any business you want. For that week, Black Rock City becomes the sixth largest city in Nevada, only to disappear without a trace. Here is an aerial view of the city from the side: (Photo by papertygre)
Here is a map from the Burning Man website of the city layout:
The open space in the middle is the Inner Playa, with the Man in the dead center. You can see four main radial points going out from the man to designate Noon, 3, 6, and 9 o'clock. Going up to 12 o'clock from the Man into Deep Playa is the Temple, and down to 6 is Center Camp. The inner ring street is the Esplanade, and each circular street out is named by letter- A, B, C, D. This year, since the theme was Fertility 2.0, the street names were after flowers- Alyssum, Begonia, Columbine, Dandelion, etc. As the event has grown, so has the number of circular roads out, up to L (Lilac) this year.

The man is visible from pretty much everywhere in the city. He is around 30 feet tall on a 40-foot platform, and gets lit up for the night at dusk. You can always stay fairly oriented as to your location as long as you can see the man.
Matt and I were fortunate enough to get Early Arrival passes, both to help our theme camp set up and to attempt to avoid the crazy long lines of tens of thousands of people arriving on the same day. The camp mates who had arrived earlier had already gotten a ton done, but our whole first day we basically got settled in, setting up our tent area, plus helping with erecting and decorating the camp dome, fence, and art car. Here is the front of our camp, lucky enough to be assigned a spot right on the Esplanade.
Each day was totally different and fairly unpredictable- Who would you meet? What would the weather be like? How would you feel? The things that always remained the same though were that there is always so much to do and see. There is big art, but also just the time and care that goes into costumes and decorating bicycles is incredible. Here is an approximate "day in the life" of what a typical (if a bit full) day was like for me at Burning Man...
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Some mornings I sleep in until 8 or 9, but today I wake up early around 6. Matt is already dressed and leaving, wanting to be outside to take photos in the dawn light and sunrise. I leave camp a bit before 7 to ride my bike to the Man and meet a running group. There is a thick little booklet with a schedule of events, and it said that people met every day at 7am to run the perimeter of the event. Luckily I find them, from a guy who hadn't slept yet to a girl who is here on her honeymoon to another guy who is planning to run a 50K race at Burning Man the next day. We run nine miles around the fence in the cool of the morning, from deep playa to the airport to the entrance around the camps and back. 
This might be the best time of day in Black Rock City. Plenty of people are still up from dancing all night, and art buses are still pumping music. There is a lingering energy but a new freshness as the sun casts a golden light and before it gets too hot.

I ride back to my camp and Matt has also returned from shooting. We sit down to breakfast where other camp mates are already making bacon, pancakes, and coffee. At 10 a bunch of classes are starting, like Pirate Yoga, Hula-Hoop making, and Aerial Silks. I opt for silks because it's the closest and I want to learn more. The class is helpful and I see some beautiful performances by aerialists from all over the west coast. After, I start to ride back to camp, slowly on the dusty bumpy side roads, and some guys call out asking if I want peanut M&M's. So I stop and join them on their inflatable furniture under a shade tarp and we start chatting. They are Germans and New Yorkers, and we proceed to have a great conversation about everything from speed limits for fuel conservation to Gangnam Style. Back at camp Matt and I have lunch- sandwiches and fruit and pickles. I find that I really crave kimchi and pickles on the playa. I think I need the salt from sweating so much, and the acidic vinegar after all the alkaline desert dust. I'm feeling a little tired from the active morning, so we stretch and doze in the almost-too-hot tent. We also do some self-care: baby-wipe bath, lots of lotion on our dry skin, neti pot for sinuses, and hydration drinks.

By this time of day it's in the 90's and though it's a dry heat, feels relentless. I am refreshed though, and make sure my camelback is packed with the essentials- water, sunscreen, desert goggles, handkerchief, my own mug, travel-size baby-wipes, sunscreen lip balm, pocket knife, tissues, event schedule booklet, pen, ID (yes the bars are supposed to card), a tiny bit of cash, and MOOP ziplock bag. (MOOP is Matter Out Of Place, and means any trash on the desert floor or anything that is leaving a trace and shouldn't be there.) I never venture out of camp without these items. 

Matt and I jump on our bikes ready to go exploring. If we wanted to read the schedule, we could go to salsa class, a banjo performance, a French cafe, a bellydance flash mob, a mojito bar, a water slide, a literary discussion, a critical mass bike ride, an udon noodle stand, or a foot wash day spa. For now I'm thinking about finding some iced coffee and not making too many other plans. 

We go across town to where there is supposed to be Vietnamese iced coffee, but there is no one there. Of course, with never a shortage of things happening at Burning Man, there happens to be a camp right across the street giving away root beer floats. The cold ice cream is such a treat. As we sit there, the Nevada State Health Department is inspecting the food-service operation. Yes, camps serving food still have to abide by state health regulations as we are in an actual city, and I saw camps being inspected more than once. We still want coffee though, so we stop by the cafe at Center Camp, one of the very few places at Burning Man where money is exchanged. I like Center Camp a lot- it's like the community living room. Shaded but with open walls, there are benches and chairs to hang out on, people doing massage, practicing acrobalance, performing on the small stage, filling out the census, napping, and looking at art displays.
After the caffeine fix, we ride down the Esplanade to a huge tower I've been wanting to go up. It's at least 50 feet tall and has great views of the city.
Then we ride out into the open playa to look at art. As the week goes on, more pieces get put up and finished, so there are always new things to see.
There is anything from sculptures to look at... huge, life-size art pieces you can interact with, like this incredibly realistic shipwreck, complete with dock, dinghies, and hammocks...
 ... to tons of art cars driving around. Once you arrive at Burning Man, you are not allowed to drive your car until you leave, so the only motorized vehicle are approved art cars and emergency/service vehicles.

 Just as we getting way out into Deep Playa and feeling really hot, tired, and dusty, we find an oasis.
We rest for a while on the couches in the shade of "trees", drink water, chat with other people. We need to get back to camp to help with a camp Happy Hour, plus the dust is kicking up. Usually in the hottest hours of the day, there would be little dust storms. You definitely need goggles and some kind of mask, but there was only twice when they were more than minor inconveniences.
Just as many other camps offer services, entertainment, food, and/or drinks, our camp also planned on hosting something. Today we are doing a Happy Hour, offering a swamp-cooler-cooled dome space, DJ, open bar, and homemade salsa with chips. I help to bring in passers-by off the Esplanade and dance in the dome.
The party is winding down at dusk, and neither Matt or I can resist the light. We hop on our bikes to take a quick ride to the Temple and the Man in the fading light.

The Man is the focal point of the city, and the temple is a beautiful, sacred space. It's hard to imagine that in a few days the man will be burnt to the ground, and that the temple will have the same fate the night after. But for now, we enjoy their short and sweet existence.

Back at camp it's dark and tonight's meal team has already gotten dinner ready. Most of the dinners were made before Burning Man, vacuum-sealed, frozen, and kept in the cooler so that the meals only need to be reheated. With so much happening during the days and the limited water for dish washing, it's really nice to eat good food but not actually have to cook on the playa. Plus, there are about 65 people in our camp sharing meals, so that would be a lot of cooking even in a non-desert setting!! Tomorrow it will be our turn to feed the clan the gallons of chili we made, but for tonight I'm very grateful for some one else's work- pasta bolognese.

After dinner we help make sure the kitchen is clean, make a cocktail, and straighten up the tent a bit. We change into evening clothes (jackets, pants) because it can definitely get cold out there. We trade out our shade desert goggles for clear night-time goggles. We refill our camelback and make sure we have a MOOP bag. We light ourselves and our bikes with headlamps, blinky lights, and glow sticks. It's very dark at night in the middle of the desert, and with all the art cars and bikes it's important for safety to be well-lit at night.

At night it's like a whole new city. Art cars that weren't that spectacular during the day look amazing with their lighting. Or they are designed to spout fire which is also more interesting in the dark.

There are fire dancers, art cars blasting music, music camps with big DJs, and countless small projects and performances to interact with. There are tons of mobile bars and camp bars giving out drinks. Imagine the best nightlife you've seen on a single street, then multiply that by a whole city.
We dance a little and see a bunch of cool sights, but eventually I get tired. It's been a great day, but a long, active, dusty, hot one, and I want to be rested for whatever I find to do tomorrow. We head back to camp while everything is still in full swing. In a way I feel like I'm missing out, but really I'm still in the thick of it as the music will blare all around me until 6am, and I can listen until I fall asleep on my thermarest.

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This is a great Aerial Video with good visuals of what the different parts of the city look like. This video Oh, the Places You'll Go is from 2011 and its popularity increased the awareness of Burning Man in the mainstream more than ever. For amazing photos, check out Scott London's 2012 Burning Man photos.


ElizaBeth said...

Amazing post! I've heard a lot of people talking about Burning Man over the years but no one has ever so clearly conveyed the experience. I love that you went and I can live vicariously through you!

Ben said...

What a great piece! Nicely illustrated to boot...

GrnAlien said...

Amber, thx for the great post. I am so exicted about going to Burning Man in 2015. Can you please tell me how you found and became part of a camp? thx

AmberAnda said...

Hi GrnAlien- It's smart that you are planning ahead! I would join whatever Burner Facebook groups you can find, and look up Burner events in your area, such as potlucks or parties. Most camps are open to a new person! I went with a camp my boyfriend had been going with for years, and I would say most of my friends go with friends of friends' camps. Just spread the word that you're looking!