By David Watts Barton, The Sacramento Bee, August 20, 2004
The Black Rock Desert in northwest Nevada is one of the most desolate spots in the continental United States. Nearly 400 square miles of alkaline flats, it supports little life. One can travel for miles on its surface and see nothing – not even a rock.
The distances are so great and the horizon so unbroken on the vast playa (the Bureau of Land Management’s term for a dry lake bed), one thinks one sees the curvature of the Earth. Black Rock has been called “an absolute desert.”
Its emptiness makes for a vast, blank canvas. And starting next week, tens of thousands of artists will be heading to Black Rock to paint on that canvas an unimaginable group self-portrait: Burning Man.
Now in its 18th year, the Burning Man arts festival opens Aug. 30, drawing more than 30,000 free spirits to a weeklong event. It promises art, celebration, nudity, ritual, music and a physical challenge in a desert environment where dust storms can be part of the fun – for the prepared.
It attempts to be an Alice-in-Wonderland urban environment, where money is banned and even bartering is frowned upon, and where conscious attempts are made to redefine human interactions. At the same time, urban problems – close proximity, stress, theft, relations between the sexes, drugs, Nevada law vs. radical freedom – offer other challenges.
More than anything, though, it offers a healthy dose of the unexpected.
Sacramentan Hugh Howard, goes for exactly that reason. Howard, 41, a geography professor at American River College, will attend Burning Man for his third time.
“I love the sense of the unexpected, ” he says. “I love riding across the playa, seeing something in the distance, not knowing what it is, riding out toward it, getting closer, then seeing what it is, usually something really cool.”
Where else in the world are you likely to be riding a bike in pitch darkness, dust swirling around you, and suddenly come upon a 100-foot-long, fire-breathing dragon on wheels? Or a man being rolled around inside a tank of water, completely submerged, in scuba gear? Or another, naked but for a coat of mud, moving around on all fours like a wild animal? Or hundreds of dancers twirling fire? Or an 11-ton boulder spinning quietly in the breeze?
Nowhere but Burning Man.
In Sacramento, where seeing the horizon requires an effort, where water flows freely and any need can be satisfied with a credit card, Burning Man answers a call for a more stripped-down, and simultaneously more extravagant, environment.
It also answers a deeper call for a community that exists in what “Burners” call “the real world.” Outside of Burning Man, the faithful get together, communicate online and meet at occasional art events, but they spend much of the year pining for the city that is their spiritual home: Black Rock City, the temporary site of the Burning Man community.
Here in Sacramento, especially in midtown, Black Rock City’s citizens-in-exile are spending every spare minute preparing themselves, in the lingo of Burning Man, “to go home.”
“Home” will be a three-mile-wide circle of concentric streets on which residents will build their exotic shelters and theme camps.
The community’s center is the 80-foot-high Man, which will be burned down on the Saturday night before Labor Day, as he has been burned every year since 1986. The ritual was launched by artist Larry Harvey on Baker Beach in San Francisco in front of a crowd of 20 people.
Sacramentan Michelle Pariset, 28, has called Burning Man home for eight years now. A year-round Burner, she has undertaken enormous art projects, including last year’s attempt to mount 10 “pulse jets” and 10 “fire cannons” on the back of a large truck, a project for which she and her husband, Chris, “literally took out a second mortgage on our house.”
Much more than just a rave, a party or Halloween on steroids, Burning Man inspires such devotion, such effort and such enormous outlays of time and money – at least a quarter of Burners spend more than a $1,000 to attend Burning Man, not counting the $200-plus ticket – because it offers so many experiences.
In fact, it offers nearly any experience.
You can party, yes, but many people find that the harsh environment makes excessive partying physically (and psychologically) costly. Besides, when you’re in a community where you are likely to see virtually anything at any given moment, drugs become somehow … superfluous. And alcohol is downright dangerous in the heat.
“I go for the art, ” says Howard, “And for the feeling of freedom … personal freedom. You can do anything you want, be anything you want. But it’s also a physical freedom, there’s nothing even close to a wall out there, and you can sense it, even at night. It just goes on and on.”
Lee Gilmore, a doctoral candidate at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, is writing her dissertation on the spiritual aspects of Burning Man. She will be attending the event for the eighth time. This year’s event has an art theme which, she notes, is “Vault of Heaven.”
For her research, Gilmore has interviewed hundreds of Burners, and she has found a common thread in their reasons for coming – which have nothing to do with partying.
“People are looking for meaning, for connection to community, to something bigger than themselves, ” she says. “And I’m finding that Burning Man can provide that for people. It certainly doesn’t bill itself as a religious event, but it does serve some of the same purposes as religion.
“One way is that it’s a highly ritualized event.”
Indeed, rituals are a key element of Burning Man, and one of the highlights of last year – the art theme of which was “Beyond Belief” – was the through-the-roof performance by Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir. The performance, in front of The Man, turned what may sound like a joke into a cutting critique of consumer culture and a celebration of the non-commercial human spirit.
Likewise, the three- or four-story temple that rises in a different form every year has become the spiritual center of Black Rock City for many, says Gilmore.
“(Artist) David Best’s temples have been hugely moving for people to memorialize their own sense of loss or joy, ” Gilmore says. “He invites people to ritualize around their own experiences or needs. You go into that space and you feel the intensity in the air, that people are really working on things that are meaningful to them.”
But Burning Man isn’t all paradise. It arises in an extreme environment and can provoke extreme frames of mind. The word “radical” is not used loosely.
The heat, the sun, the noise, the sensory overload and dust storms that can turn a sunny day into a blinding white-out in a matter of minutes can take their toll.
“There are all sorts of dangers out there, ” says Howard. “Sharp pieces of metal, people riding and walking without lights at night, some people kind of out of their minds, rebar sticking out of the ground, all sorts of vehicles and a bunch of people you don’t know. You really have to watch yourself.”
That’s why every Burning Man ticket holds this disclaimer: “You voluntarily assume the risk of serious injury or death by attending this event.”
Indeed, Black Rock City registered its first fatality last year when a 21-year-old Bay Area woman was run over by an “art car, ” a decorated vehicle. The city’s DMV (Department of Mutant Vehicles) has gone out of its way this year to emphasize the city’s 5-mph speed limit and to minimize traffic.
Theft has also been a problem in recent years. The general chaos and darkness, combined with lowered defenses, have resulted in a number of stolen bikes. Two years ago, even artwork was stolen.
“That’s just beyond wrong, ” says Mary Lou Galgani of Sacramento, better known by her playa name, Babalou. “You have no business stealing someone’s art.”
Ah, the art. Burning Man is an arts festival, after all, and it is like no other place to see, or make, art, says Galgani.
“You don’t have to come in with an master of fine arts to build something beautiful, ” she says. “The artists have no upward vertical limit on what they can build, they’re only limited by their imaginations … and the environment. The art has to be able to withstand high winds and sleep-deprived people climbing all over it.
“Because if they build something that looks fun, and you can bounce on it, people are going to bounce on it, ” she says. “We’ve always embraced interactive art. There’s a debate right now over how much we should or can protect the art.”
Burning Man is supposedly a place of few – or even no – rules. But there are rules there, says Andie Grace, aka ActionGrl, an eight-year Burner and spokeswoman for the small organization that runs Burning Man’s affairs.
“There are 10 rules, they’re posted on the Web site (www.burningman.com), ” she says. “But they all revolve around safety and keeping people from impinging on others’ experience.”
That’s necessary because, as Grace notes, “Burning Man is closer to heaven for some people, but it’s not a utopia. It’s an urban environment. No gathering of that many people is going to be without problems.”
But the problems pale next to life in a community in which, says Galgani, “many people show up wanting to be the best person they can be.” Volunteerism, she notes, is a Burning Man ideal. Virtually all the functions of the city, from greeting people at the gate (The Greeters) to lighting the lamps at dusk (The Lamplighters) to patrolling the city 24/7 (The Black Rock Rangers) to managing the recycling (The Earth Guardians) are done by volunteers.
Of those 30,000 people on the playa, only seven are paid employees of the Burning Man organization.
So, when someone says Burning Man is a great party, or all about the naked women, or a drugfest, Galgani says, tell them this: “Burning Man is everything you’ve ever heard about it.”
But, she adds, “It has a quality that transcends all those rumors. That quality is the unexpected compassion that people have for each other, the kindnesses. In the real world, you can spend a long time standing by the side of the road, waiting for help. At Burning Man, people will appear out of nowhere to give you exactly what you need, whether it’s help welding or just a lollipop.
“And sometimes, ” she adds, “They’ll give you things you didn’t know you were missing.”
Burning Man by the numbers
1986 – The year of the first Burning Man at Baker Beach, San Francisco; 20 participants. The Man’s height: 8 feet.
1990 – The year of the first Burn at Black Rock Desert (“The Playa”), Nevada; 90 participants. The Man’s height: 40 feet.
260 – Approximate distance in miles from Sacramento to Burning Man. Six hours and a world away.
4,000 – Approximate elevation in feet of Black Rock Desert.
35 – Total length in miles of Black Rock City streets.
8,200 – Diameter in feet of Black Rock City.
5 – Speed limit in mph within Black Rock City.
30,586 – Number of participants in 2003. Gender mix: 57 percent men, 42 percent women, 1 percent decline to state.
23 – Percent of participants that self-describe as gay or bisexual.
22 – Percent of people who spent more than $1,000 on camping, art and gifts.
504 – Number of registered theme camps in 2003.
480 – Proposed number of registered theme camps in 2004.
80 – Height in feet of The Man in 2004.
740 – Number of registered Mutant Vehicles in 2004.
Sources: The Official Burning Man 2003 census, burningman.com, the Jack Rabbit Speaks online newsletter.
Burning Man ticket information