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Burning Man, meet Drowning Man

Silicon Valley's freak-out meets Katrina, with a bump

By Andrew Orlowski, 7 Sep 2005

The writer had found an elusive internet connection, and reaching beyond exhaustion was finding words to record the madness around him:

"We are operating on something beyond tired, beyond care, beyond recognition," he wrote. "You just keep going, because you have no choice."

New Orleans? No, Burning Man.

The writer was describing America's greatest party, although word only seeped through about the disaster unfolding in America's greatest party city, 2,000 miles away.

The Burning Man festival is a survival experience by design, not force majeure. Each year around 30,000 throng to a Nevada salt desert for a week, bringing their own food and water with them to create "Black Rock City", and endeavoring to leave no trace behind them. It's a celebration of creativity, community and endurance that for many in Silicon Valley is the highlight of the year - around two thirds of Burners are from the San Francisco Bay Area. By no means the largest festival in the world, Burning Man is still a truly astonishing visual spectacle, and the intensity of the experience leads Burners to host "decompression parties" on touchdown.

This year, however, the decompression shock has been particularly severe.

Burning Man Art

Cell phones don't work out on the Nevada playa, and only a handful of attendees use the Wi-Fi hotspot that's set up for the media. The nearest hamlet is 11 miles away. So the news that the US had been hit by a catastrophe which may dwarf 9/11 trickled through the temporary city fitfully.

By Thursday, Disaster Relief buckets were collecting money in Center Camp - BRC's nominal hub and the one area where money can be exchanged (for coffee, cold drinks, or ice). But canny Burners shun Center Camp, with its commercial frenzy, and its hippie-tinged, NPR-style events program, so most of those who do drop by use it as no more than a meeting point. As the catastrophe unfolded, many attendees were barely aware of the scale crisis and many more - your reporter included - were to be unaware of the extent of human suffering - which prompted the poorest countries in the world such as Afghanistan and Bangladesh to pledge aid to the USA - it until leaving the camp this week.

Back to the SF Chronicle's John Curley, who had been pressed into blogging duty:

"Just when you think you just won't be able to make it through the afternoon, that this one is just too long and hot and tiring and you don't want to see another installation and you're sick of being on this damn bike and you just want to sit some place cool and green, you find salvation in the form of a snow cone. A blessed soul has set up a cart in the middle of the playa, in the far reaches out near the perimeter fence, and he's shaving a block of ice and putting a mound of the blessed coolness in a small plastic cone, and he's pouring fresh concoction of raspberry/lemon syrup on it. Ohhhh, and now he's putting a little vodka on as a finish."

Ohhhh, Burning Man. The New Orleans disaster relief buckets dotted around the Festival remained depressingly ignored. Meanwhile, a collection of the wealthiest people in the world couldn't do enough ... for each other.

Radical Self Obsession

Burning Man is a minor miracle, and is the best and worst of the United States in a microcosm, with the best eclipsing the worst can do. But no attendee can have returned to reality without feeling some sense of unease.

The event's co-founder Larry Harvey, who has steered this marvelous gathering over twenty years occasionally sounds like he's steering a global movement, too. Supporters say it's based on the principles of "Radical Self-Reliance" and "Radical Self-Expression". People who like to speak on behalf of the festival take these principles very seriously indeed. What do we make of these principles now?

Burning Man Art

Harvey likes to talk about the "spirit" of Burning Man spreading across the globe, but without the folk art, and removed from the rigors of life on the harsh desert playa, Burning Man might look a lot like Spring Break. (Veterans complain that it already does look like Spring Break, but these complaints are vastly overstated, and there's nothing that a more rigorous policy of refusing entrance after Monday couldn't fix).

In fact almost every cynical cliche about the event is true. It seems to bring out every New Age fraud, groper and leerer from Northern California and beyond - many of whom seem to volunteer for the Black Rock City Postal Service, it seems. Women found it particularly hard to post a letter without having to show their tits, or kiss the "counter clerk".

You could take refuge and primp your ego with class hosted by Winking Lotus, called I'm Perfect - Self Discovery Through Art, or brush up on Male Tantric Masturbation, which is "a nude solo activity open to all men" ... as if we didn't already know.

But none of the bogosity or self indulgence detracts from the uniqueness and sense of wonder of Burning Man itself, thanks to the creativity, hard work and ready spontaneity of so many Burners. The daytime creeps have gone to bed by the time the city really wakes up, at night - the fondlers retiring to brush up on their Tantric Masturbation techniques, perhaps - and it's then that the city comes alive with thousands of bicycling party people, weaving across the dark playa like shoals of exotic, glowing fish. This is a space like no other.

If you're looking for the "soul" of Burning Man, the sassy, bitchy and righteously hedonistic on-site newspaper Piss Clear holds the torch. This year, as before, the paper spent as much time scorning the pompous Burning Man credo and the "gift economy", which many understand as bartering.

"I really want to give you some free booze," writes Malderor. "I don't want your gift. Please don't give me anything. I don't want your stickers, your flyers - or god forbid - your pipe cleaner sculpture of the Burning Man".

A Burning Man Party BusBurning Man's secret is that it really is an incredible party - the reports that coyly refer to "an arts festival", are really a device to kid the authorities. And perhaps to kid the organizers themselves, who as Stephen T Jones of the San Francisco Bay Guardian reports, did their best to keep sound systems out of the event in the late 1990s. Most of the wonders at Burning Man aren't the gigantic artworks, which receive just $400,000 of the $7m the Burning Man Organization grosses from gate receipts, or the staged spectaculars: they're often the very simple, very inventive art cars or costumes, assembled at the participants' own expense.

The question is what Harvey, or anyone else who wishes to speak for our Burning Man experience, can find to turn into a practical philosophy that reaches out beyond the self-selecting few.

Yes, but...

If it's a program of action, some criticisms begin to look justified. Burning Man is, as the San Francisco Chronicle notes, even whiter than the prosperous Bay Area itself.

The rules force attendees to monitor their consumption, and leave their wallets untouched. But what else is "a gift economy", except Trickle Down Economics with a cute name? If you're already struggling to afford a $200 ticket, then the chances are you won't be able to be Lady Bountiful with the consumables.

And most strange of all to this European's ears is the absence of words like unity and collective. The two words, which form either a tacit or an explicit part of almost every other festival in the world, are as unspeakable at Black Rock City as they are in the mainstream American discourse. In place of common purpose, which Europeans have discovered speaks to power like no other force, is the right to do whatever you want and damn the consequences. And it's all about you.

And once armed, you don't even have to be nice about using it. On Saturday night, I heard one haddock-faced party bus MC (her mullet-haired husband standing guard behind her) repelling would-be boarders with the message,

"Some Free Speech for ya - Fuck Off!".

(Regular readers who've seen the internet's early communities atomize into the "blogosphere" - where a Million Nation States of One can enjoy the freedom to shout past each other, to no effect at all - will recognize this at once).

Or another example. On Sunday morning, your reporter heard a self-appointed "preacher" tell a string of jokes involving Jesus, Mary Magdelene and anal sex, before launching into a tirade against organized religion - a force, he insisted, that prevented him enjoying as much alcohol as wanted to. "Can't we do," he asked, "just whatever we want?"

At about the same time Oakland's Gospel Choir, one of the few black "theme camps" on the playa, was launching into its second session, and through its joyful noise was raising as many donations for the New Orleans relief fund as had been gathered throughout the entire festival.

So is Burning Man just a headless freak-out, or as some suggest, a new model for social organization? Is it escapism, or the future? To damn this annual flowering of fun and creativity as a hedonistic indulgence (which it is, of course) merely reinforces the Puritan sensibilities and strictures which Burning Man was reacting against in the first place. Action and reaction: we could be running round this loop for a very long time.

At the end of the day, Burning Man is no worse for being a great party - so perhaps we shouldn't take the Burning Man Organization's own cliches about radical self masturbation all that seriously. My wish is that Harvey, who has a really good grasp on what's missing from the disconnected and spiritually impoverished life of American suburbia, would drop these now their time has passed. After America's response to its own people in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, it's surely about time. ®

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