Haikus & Happiness At Burning Man
A week's worth of lifetime-lasting memories.
Words and photos by Jeremy Carson.
Joyful desert art
A rolling sea of neon
In another world
That haiku is my gift to you. It might not be the best, it's certainly not the worst, but it's for you. It's the 31st haiku I've written in the past week. I know this because I set upon Burning Man with a stack of 100 index cards and two felt-tipped silver markers and approached the festival's “gifting principal” with the hope that my daft fondness for haikus would find an appreciative recipient. I only wrote 30 because...I was at Burning Man. It was distracting. I had expected to fall well short of 100. What I hadn't expected was for one of my haikus to find me a girl amongst the harsh terrain and dust storms. In other words, a setting more fit for Mad Max than a whirlwind romance.
Playa names from L to R: The Navigator, The Warrior, The Perfectionist, The Oracle, The Hype Lord and The Magician.
As far as adventures go, Burning Man is up there. Its genesis took place in 1986 on Baker Beach in San Francisco as a bonfire ritual for the summer solstice. The act of burning effigies was felt by the organisers to be an act of “radical self-expression”, an idea that came to define the festival as we know it today. It was also an idea that gradually attracted thousands of people that were quite keen on expressing themselves radically. It has now grown into a sensation with 70,000 people making the annual pilgrimage, forcing the event to be moved to the Black Rock desert of Nevada. Taking part in Burning Man is no easy - or cost effective - feat. Attending from Perth means buying a plane ticket, renting an RV at prohibitive cost, bringing enough food, water and booze to survive for a week, buying or renting a bike in order to get around, bedazzling said bike with LED lights so others can see you in the dead of the night, making costumes that don't look half-arsed, and endless ephemera to support your very existence in a hostile environment. It requires forgoing most creature comforts for a week. Many would find it too onerous to bother. But fuck me dead is it worth that bother and much more.
Essentially, Burning Man is an arts festival. Some may see it as a hippy festival. The mother of all hippy festivals. Paradoxically, it is just about the least environmentally friendly event I've encountered. The level of consumption required to create and celebrate this desert wonderland is insane. It feels incongruous with the leave-no-trace principle, on which the organisers and most of the 'Burners' are stringent. 'MOOP' (Matter Out Of Place) is very much verboten. All trash and other detritus leaves the desert with you. If you are a smoker, bring an ash receptacle or risk being harangued. This is understandable and most likely also a requirement by the Bureau of Land Management for Burning Man to get permission to hold the festival each succeeding year. But when you witness hundreds of vehicles and installations spewing thousands of gallons of flaming propane into the night sky, you start to wonder. There's also the matter of living in a place that doesn't much care for supporting living things. It is after all a flat and windy desert with alkaline dust that ravages the skin, lungs and eyes.
These misgivings are fleeting however. From the opening hours of arrival and venturing out into the playa (the desert space where all the art is, including the Burning Man at its centre) for the first time, I was stunned. Black Rock City is fucking VAST. Fittingly, given its origins, the total area size within the perimeter is comparable to downtown San Francisco. Think about that for a moment. This temporary civilisation, populated for only a week, is about the same size as the downtown area of a major city. A bike is a necessity to get around. There are no cars allowed within Black Rock City aside from the mutant vehicles, wondrous and imaginative creations that ride around throughout the day and night, pumping out all kinds of music. They vary in size but all are large enough to bus from 4 to 40 people. Everyone is allowed to hop on and off any vehicle they like. Where you end up is another matter. Given the scale of the city, this could lead to a lot of lost people. Fortunately, the planning and arrangement is masterful. Addresses are designated by 'time' avenues, as they would be on a clock face, on the radial, and by alphabetical street names on the circumferential. We were at 8:00 and A, which by no design of our own was right in the heart of the action, street A being one street back from party central.
So my mates and I are cycling about the open desert for the first time, taking in what we could in a breathless daze. The bright blue cloudless sky above made for a stark contrast with the white canvas of the desert floor, framed by distant mountain ranges beset on all sides. This canvas hosted hundreds of large scale art installations and interactive structures. It would require a supreme effort to view them all. The Burning Man himself is surrounded by a maze of interactive art installations, including a Hindu-themed shrine directly underneath the Man's towering legs. Then there's the Temple, a beautiful construction of shrinking arrow-shaped frames spiralling in on itself, where thousands would scrawl anonymous messages and confessions and affirmations on the walls in anticipation of its ultimate burning, signifying some kind of catharsis. Some of these messages were really heavy. As you walk through the worm of the temple's innards and spill out at the serene end, punctuated by trees formed from wire, there is an eerie calm amongst the hundreds of visitors. And a fair bit of crying.
On return from the first exploration, we turned our hand to rigging our bikes to be night ready. Getting our party on while being as crafty with EL wires and flashing LEDs as possible was great fun alone… And then we rode them out into the playa at night. Honestly, I don't know how I can convey this scene to you with any accuracy. Despite my best efforts, even photos and videos are a poor proxy for witnessing the hyper beauty. You could take a really striking picture of an individual mutant vehicle or theme camp or installation in the deep desert, all of them resplendent with flashing lights and shooting flames and piercing lasers. You could look at the picture and think of the sensation of seeing such a vibrant display against the dark night of the cold desert. Then try and imagine this sensation multiplied by 70,000 lit up people and bikes, hundreds of lit up mutant vehicles driving around blaring music and brimming with joyful revellers, and thousands of theme camps putting their own unique pyrotechnics displays. From any given point within the 11km-long perimeter fence, you are hit by a 360 degree vista of neon light cacophony. It is like being on another planet.
Then the parties kick off. There are hundreds of stages and venues, most sporting faultless sound systems (a lot of Funktion 1s). Music wise, the quality oscillated wildly but was mostly excellent. I witnessed one of the most inept displays of DJing I've ever encountered, inexplicably at White Ocean, one of the biggest stages with a seriously cool set up. We were waiting for Paul Oakenfold (who didn't bother to turn up so fuck you Oakie) and were left with some random bloke who didn't appear to know what he was doing. It would've been a letdown were it not for Hernan Cattaneo's sunrise set at the same stage hours later. This, along with Lee Burridge's set at Robot Heart, now rates amongst the best sets I've seen. And seeing the sunrise over the desert landscape to sublime melodic progressive house is a sensation that won't be forgotten. There was a great deal variety on offer, like the five-hour Michael Jackson vs Prince showdown which was packed, a lot of live music during the day, drum'n'bass, dubstep (of course, we're in America), a surprising amount of breaks, and next to no trance. I am disappoint. Oh well. The predominant sound was house and techno, the best of which came from Distrikt, a post-apocalyptic day rave that could've taken place on Fury Road. Speaking of which, there was a Thunderdome. An actual beat-the-shit-out-of-each-other Thunderdome. Coolest thing ever.
Over the course of the week our group picked up an irreverent vibe amongst the seasoned Burners. A playful mindfuck kind of vibe, intended to push more reserved newbies out into exploring. Every year there's a rumour that Daft Punk are playing a secret gig out somewhere along the trash fence, ie. the furthest, coldest and darkest place to be futilely cycling around in the early hours of the morning. Every year, a handful of newbies will endeavour to find this gig. Burners also like to mention the desert cinema as a must visit, especially after midnight when it screens films. The cinema exists, but no films are shown. It is surreal to come across a few dozen people milling about the outside of a random old school cinema house, standing starkly alone in the dead of night, waiting to see a film that will never be played. For a Frenchman who arrived at the same time it was too much. “Are you fucking serious?!”, he exclaimed in heavily accented English before riding away, “that's it! I quit!”.
One of the most persistent misconceptions about Burning Man is that the community engages in a bartering system, offering whatever gifts or talents they might possess in order to wrangle something worthwhile out of the recipient. Not so. One of the ten overarching principles that have shaped the festival and its attendees is the gifting principle. That is, whatever you bring to the table, gift it to strangers unconditionally. Although the idea of giving your wares to a fellow Burner in exchange for something that you might actually need is intriguing, in practice it is less feasible. The gulf in value between gifts is considerable yet difficult to define.
Take my offerings for example. I gifted two lighters to those in need and the response was overwhelmingly grateful. However, lighters were not the gift I was focused on giving. I'll admit, an index card with a three line poem of questionable quality scrawled on it has limited utility compared to a stick of gum at a rave. Yet most responses were enthusiastic. The best response though was from a Texan girl at a theme camp called Celtic Chaos. My group of mates and I had ventured there to watch what ended up being one of the best sets of the week spun by a DJ from Perth no less in Dan Zina, and I spotted her taking photos of us with a DSLR. Curious, I approached, dressed like this:
It was Tutu Tuesday. Promise.
That she was open to talking to someone looking this way was already a good sign (I think?). The following half-hour conversation was the best connection I had made with a stranger not just at Burning Man, but anywhere, for some time. This deserves a haiku, I thought. She loved it, and wrote her Black Rock City address on one of my cards. And then…nothing. I couldn’t find her. It’s one thing giving an address, totally another to actually be there rather than exploring the playa. She was on my mind the next few days but fuck it, I thought, I’m at Burning Man! This shit is wild. Ain’t no time to be lovelorn. So I got on with having the time of my life. On the second last morning, back at the RV after some epic partying at Robot Heart, I decided to throw a Hail Mary. I wrote out a long note letting her know her awesomeness and here are my details, throw me a line. I rode out intending to leave it at the camp she was staying at. And, lo and behold, she was there. Read the note. The feeling was mutual. Win. Cue spending the last 12 hours of my time at the festival with the girl from Texas, dancing, performing improv comedy, and watching the Burn. And then…changing my travel plans to spend three days with her at her new home in San Francisco, instead of Washington DC solo. Best decision ever.
Why am I sharing this mildly embarrassing tale of romance with you? Because of the many people I’ve mentioned my attendance at Burning Man to, the overwhelming expectation is one of relentless hedonism. Of drug-fuelled raves and orgies. And…they’re right. These are definitely aspects of Burning Man. But you have to make a concerted effort and they’re a sideshow to the real spectacle. The stunning art, the overload of sensations, the friendly, happy revellers, the infinite possibilities of any description. I didn’t see any orgies. But I met a girl who changed my travel plans.
Simply put, Burning Man was magical. It will forever rank as one of the greatest experiences of my life. It is utterly unique. Across my adult years of traveling and partying and meeting new people and seeing strange and wonderful things, there is nothing comparable. There were sensations and sights that were so new and alien and massive they will stay with me for some time. It offered up pure exploration of limitless possibilities and was richly rewarding. It was also a damned fine knees-up shindig. The friends that I shared this with, old and new, now represent a sliver of time where existence was blissful and the burdens of modern life ceased to matter. I left the default world with these people. That feels special to me. It is, of course, a mirage. A temporary escape from reality. Utopia is, by definition, a good place that cannot be. It is to the credit of the organisers, the thousands of volunteers and the creative input of the participants, that they strive to know what such a place could be.