Bonfire of the Insanities
SOMEWHERE OFF A DESERT HIGHWAY By the time the bustling Interstate 80 greets sleepy Route 447 in a remote pocket of Northern Nevada, the memory of Reno has faded fast. In the battle between the devil and the desert at this crossroads, the desert clearly has won. The town of Gerlach, population 460, may not be the best of the booty, but as 447's source of civilization before the Black Rock Desert takes charge, its meager offerings are much appreciated, and much in demand. Somewhere off this desert highway, thousands of urban primitives are flocking through this town on their way to attend the 10th Anniversary of the Burning Man, a cyber-fed festival of arts and culture that would take a team of sociologists to figure out; though by now the townsfolk of Gerlach have a pretty good idea what to expect. Ã’I see a lot of people expressing themselves," says Deputy Sheriff Bennett. "Being very individual and having a good time -- having a really good time.Ã“ Gerlach is the physical, if not necessarily spiritual anchor of the Black Rock Desert, an expansive alkaline plain often called the "playa." Each Labor Day, it becomes a pit stop for many of modern society's most unusual creations, the 4,000 or so people who join a human barbecue known as the Burning Man. It's an annual outing that was invented to be described. A mesmerizing mish-mash of hippies, moshers, mothers, anarchists, motorheads, pagans, and partiers, they have come to breathe deeply, dance naked, paint bodies, make pasta, celebrate summer, build community, and erect a 40-foot man. They build chaos out of nothing, and community out of that. And by the weekend's close, they will burn the Man to a soul-satisfying crisp. What binds this group? Not much, save for a sense of adventure, at least some level of dissatisfaction with what the rest of society has to offer this weekend, and a huge man born 10 years earlier and bred of wood and neon. "ItÃ•s really nice to go to a place where no one cares what car you drive,Ã“ says one woman from Los Angeles. Ã’I came for the community aspects," offers Jeff Hansen, editor of the 'zine X and employed by Chrysler in Detroit. Ã’ItÃ•s like Yom Kippur, a day of atonement, only you donÃ•t have to fast,Ã“ says Lila from Florida, a grandmother on vacation and visiting her family who decided to come en masse. Or, as Michael Gerbus, a builder from Reno, explains: "The Burning Man symbolizes all the old crap of this last past year. You just take that energy and watch the Man burn up with it.Ã“ For five days, this four-story figure sits silently over an ephemeral experiment in 20th-century survival. During the Black Rock Arts Festival, aka, the Burning Man, a city will organically grow, sprouting a daily newspaper, numerous micro radio stations, dozens of small businesses, nightly entertainment, and no lack of Web sites. Some describe the Burning Man as a mirage. But this guerrilla culture that grows out of nothing is no soothing vision in the desert Ã‘ it is a dizzying Fellini-esque spectacle. And it will evaporate as quickly as it bloomed.DOROTHY PARKER, FIRE BREATHERS & YOU It should come as no surprise that many who hear about the Burning Man assume that it is either a neo-hippie gathering or a Satanic ritual. There's some of that, but those are only parts of what founder Larry Harvey calls "a vast petri dish in which you are growing a culture." From this culture, which has brought with it plenty of topsoil from the respective motherships (fresh-ground coffee beans don't grow from this desert floor), springs mini-themes and mini-festivals. One group recreates the Algonquin Room -- roundtable, formal attire, dry martinis and all; Crux productions out of Brooklyn recreates NYC with a scaffolding, beggars, and a wall to spray graffiti on; the Tiki Camp doles out tropical drinks at competitive prices; the "Flaming Man" and "Burning Woman" provide alternatives to the Man proper; And yes, Shakedown Camp transports you to a Grateful Dead concert, if that should be your cup of tie-dye. Cruising around the playa feels much like surfing the Internet (itself an integral part of the planning and reality of the event; see sidebar). You bounce, jab, and fly aimlessly through the great unknown. You may not always like it, and may be lost, but if you just keep moving you're bound to find something else. Don't like the all-night rave or mid-day rugby game? Try the hot springs a few miles to the west. Unhappy with the beer bash you stumbled upon? Head toward McSatan's and the desert's only fry cook will serve you beef on a bun. Bored with sloshing in the mud with naked people? Go read by the light of the neon lit man -- wherever you go, there you are. The desert truly has a lot to give. BEEN THERE, BURNED THAT That the Burning Man has its roots in San Francisco is no surprise to anyone who's spent some time in the Bay Area. Seeds that grow as wildly as this just couldn't have blown in from Montana. The story of why the Burning Man was brought to the desert Ã‘ and why 4,000 people felt compelled to join him Ã‘ begins on a beach in San Francisco. In 1986, artist and landscape designer Larry Harvey built an eight-foot wooden man. His plan? To burn this neo-pagan offering, with a little help from his friends, in celebration of the Summer Solstice. The fire attracted a few onlookers. The following year, the Man grew to 20 feet, the crowd to 80 people. By 1989, more than 300 people had come to burn the Man, and a number of television stations appeared to film it. Motivated by the police, who by 1990 would no longer allow the Man to burn on the beach, Harvey moved the ceremony to the desert. By this time, urban anomalies such as the San Francisco Cacophony Society and Survival Research Lab had gladly joined the mix -- chaotic arts and culture groups who would come to serve as both instigators and overseers of the party on the playa. "Essentially the formula was there in the germ," explains Harvey, whose thoughts always seem one step ahead of his words. "It was a small group. We invested our labor and energy in making this figure and we lit it on fire and were spellbound by the force of the flame. That still essentially is at the heart of this event." That may be true, but as the "event" grew, the Man has become more of an excuse than a reason for most to journey to the desert. With so much going on, even the Big Guy is bound to get lost in the shuffle, which irks some of the purists. There's talk that Harvey is not happy with the Man's dwindling significance and will up the ante and build him even bigger in 1996. Others mutter that frat boys and other spectators are spoiling what was once a sacred immolation. While the place isn't exactly being overrun by jocks sporting "Absolut Burning Man" t-shirts, the critics have a point. And yet, the Man, in a very real sense, provides a point of reference for the whole weekend -- a combustible constant among a dizzying array of variables. He might be the light by which you find your way back to your tent; or the place where you meet friends to share nitrous oxide or a good story; the Man stands there -- stoic and calm by day, illuminated in blue and red like a grand prize on a boardwalk by night. He is, at least to some extent, the reason you dragged your sorry ass out to the desert. And yet the meaning of the Man remains intensely personal. "When people come to me and ask 'what does it mean?,' I turn it back to them,Ã“ says Larry Harvey. Ã’It means entirely what you put into it and what you take out." Ritualistic burning, or sacrifice (depending on your mood), has roots in the collective history of civilization and fuels memory in the mind of everyone who has ever discovered how much fun it is to set stuff on fire. While some dance naked through one of the weekendÃ•s many spontaneous fire rings for the simple reason that they can, others deconstruct the meaning of the Man and the festival. Ã’The march to burn the Man is modeled on a Roman jubilee,Ã“ offers Steven, who acquisitions books for a special collections library in Berkeley and is a Burning Man veteran. Ã’No it's not,Ã“ counters his friend. Ã’ItÃ•s clearly Celtic.Ã“ Ã’Pseudo-Celtic,Ã“ says another, without a hint of irony. A fifth in the party rolls his eyes, lighting a cigarette with the nearest available flame. He too has his reasons for being here, not the least of which is a desire to see lots of bare-chested crunchysomethings. But by now he's tired and has no use for such Burning Man masturbation and slips away to his tent to sleep. At times too intense for words, at times as slow as the heat is thick, another day on the playa has ended.MARCHING TO SEE THE MAN On the last night, the Man summons all the pilgrims across the desert to do the thing that they came for: they are going to burn the Man. Night has fallen and the Dionysian energy that permeates the weekend starts to turn into something else. "Burn down the Man, burn down the Man, burn down the Man" is the hypnotic chant of the masses as they march like an angry mob on the way to a stoning. Celebration, turned ever so slightly, becomes bloodthirst. But you march. The pull of the crowd takes you with it as you descend upon the Man. The posturing about "creating one's own experience" is now meaningless as primal sounds of percussion and the skyward call of air raid sirens stir the crowd into a fantastic frenzy with only one thing on its collective mind. And with a final howl and one last dance, the Burning Man is set on fire. For a brief and strangely invigorating moment, it seemed like it either had to be him, or us. Some 12 hours later, the last ash will have blown into the wind and the continuous drumbeat that has been the pulsating heart of this makeshift town will finally stop. The Black Rock Desert seems big again. No longer bound by a mysterious likeness of themselves which they dressed in neon and then smoldered to nothing, the creatures of the Black Rock will leave the desert. They return to the lives they abandoned briefly. Some will ask themselves if they are better off today than they were five days ago. Others will turn left out of Black Rock City, head north or south on Route 447, and leave it at that. SIDEBAR 1: The Burning Man In Cyberspace Contrary to popular belief, not all of the souls who journey to the Black Rock Desert are cyber-savvy. Still, the Burning Man Festival has an excellent relationship with the Internet, with plenty of net buzz infusing the Man before, during, and after the festival. There's little to no advertising of the event, so cyberspace proves to be one of the most effective frontiers for getting out the word. "This year the Web sites are a much more coordinated effort by the organizers," explains Cynsa Bonorris, a professional Web master and one of the creators of Burning Man 1995 (http://www.well.com/user/burnman/), a Web site organized by the Well, a Bay Area-based conferencing system. "One of the primary points of the site was to get more people interested who might not even have heard of the Burning Man." Besides dispensing the ABCs of the Burning Man, this and other Web sites give the festival an on-going afterlife. "We wanted the site to be inclusive for the whole community of people who are interested in Burning Man, and wanted to leave things open enough so that people had room to be creative," says Bonorris. "We really want people to post their own stories and pictures after they go home.Ã“ Like all good Web sites, the Well's offers lots of links to other related sites, many of which dig deeper and weirder into the cult of the Man than it does. One of the best is the Burning Man Archive (http://www.zpub.com/burn/) which features back issues of the Black Rock Gazette (the daily paper that's only published during the festival), Burning Man 'zines, background information and tips for desert survival, and, of course, first-person accounts and photos of going to see the Man. And yet, as expansive and as freewheeling as the cyber-side of the Burning Man Festival proves to be, even the spontaneous poetics of the Web can't truly prime you for what you will see if you make the journey to the Black Rock desert.SIDEBAR 2: The Media Circus During this 10th year of Burning Man, there's plenty of talk of the "selling out" of the Man as the masses descend upon the Black Rock desert. Many, naturally, blame the media. There's lots of grumbling upon a rumored appearance by MTV (which never materializes), but the reality is getting to the Black Rock Desert is simply too much of a hassle for the casual observer. Still, a well-executed media plan and general interest in something this strange mean that plenty of local television stations, SPIN magazine, Canadian TV, and CNN, among others, cover the event. Even as organizers pose an "aw-shucks" attitude toward coverage of the Burning Man, press relations are mighty slick for a desert operation. A press tent has been set up -- a small motor home with a few beach chairs in front -- which makes life easier for reporters trying to find order out of chaos. Within 10 minutes of arriving, I'm taken to the hut by someone who thinks I'm with SPIN. I tell my host who I am and she gives me a media kit and puts me on the interview schedule. I'm also informed of the rules surrounding the media, basically: 1) Don't obstruct the Burning Man himself with lots of flashes and video equipment; and 2) Generally, don't be a pain in the ass. Hanging out at the press nerve center the morning I arrive is Dan Perkins, the creator of the cartoon "This Modern World by Tom Tomorrow," and Jonathan Lethem, a novelist and host of a weekly real-time chat show on HotWired, the online arm of WIRED magazine. A guy in cut-offs straggles by and says he's from the Discovery Channel's Web site. If there's a "press pool" to be found, this is it. "We're just earnest about communicating with people, we're not shy about that," says Larry Harvey, the founder of the event. "It's easy for us in a way because to cover the story you have to immerse yourself in the environment, so we've always got good press because they have a good time. Even if they are working, they are stirred by what's going on. It's hard to be distant from this experience -- it's essentially about a media experience." True enough, and the credo of this media-savvy bunch, to borrows from Scoop Nisker's famous line, is probably: "If you don't like the media, go out and make some yourself." Self-made media abounds in Black Rock City. There are at least five micro radio stations, the most popular of which is "Radio Free Black Rock," which plays acid jazz, no-bones-about-it country, classic rock, and a host of sounds which cannot be categorized. Meanwhile, the Black Rock Gazette is the official newspaper of Burning Man, though this year brings upstarts challengers like the 'zine Piss Clear. In an introductory note, Piss Clear's androgynous editor Adrian Roberts explains: "With the increasing amount of "fluff-journalism" that the officially-sanctioned, Burning Man approved Black Rock Gazette tries to pass off as "news," it becomes obvious that alternative media are sorely needed."