Burning Man

Burning Man is most often associated with drugs and naked hippies by the mainstream media. While those things are definitely in abundance at Burning Man, there is an entire community and infrastructure at work here. I am going to Burning Man this year and I've begun preparing with a regional group of people in my area who also go.

With that in mind, some of this is from official sources (www.burningman.com), some is from first hand conversations, and some of it is from various Burning Man videos me and my boyfriend have watched online.

Burning Man started in 1986 in San Francisco and was a group of people burning a wooden man on a beach and getting drunk. It became what it is in 1991, when it was moved to Black Rock City and mixed with the art community. Black Rock City is in the middle of the desert in Nevada and it is a completely man-made city which exists for one week, once a year, some at the end of summer.

There is no money in Black Rock City. You can purchase ice and there is a small cafe with coffee drinks. The money from ice goes to help fund other community groups and money from the cafe goes into the construction of the cafe itself, which is one of the largest tensile structures in the world.

Everything in Burning Man is built from scratch and one of the few rules is "leave no trace" so everything goes when you do. There is no where to put trash. Only one-ply toilet paper is allowed in the porta-potties. There are no showers. You cannot burn a fire on the ground or ash your cigarettes on the ground. You have to bring your own water (about 1.5 gallons per day per person) and take it with you when you go. Our camping group has a kiddie pool they put dirty water into so it evaporates and you just take the dust with you when you go.

The most important things, as I've understood it so far, are community, gifting, and radical-inclusion. This means that you are a community and as such you gift if you can, with no expectation of reciprocation. A gift can be something material, but it can also be helping someone pitch a tent or giving someone food or helping someone back to their camp if they're drunk. Basically it's supposed to be a happy place where everyone helps everyone.

Radical inclusion means that anyone can be a part of Burning Man. That's why there's so many different people and different things. Technically, there are tickets so not anyone can be; you have to have a ticket. But it explains why there are drugs and naked people and orgy tents and nightclubs and fairy grottos and a children's camp and so much fucking art. 50,000 people a year turn out.

There is so much art at Burning Man. There is a theme every year and for 2013 it was "John Frum/Cargo Cult" which is how American G.I.s and explorers and things are commonly remembered to the people they met when they went to other places. They remember them as "John from ______" but they just remember the first bit. It also ties into space and aliens, how they would be "John Frum" to us, just in a very different way, or vice versa. Your "cargo" is the imprint you leave when you've been someplace.

This year the infamous forty-foot-tall wooden man which is burnt on the last night (with the rest of the art) will be on top of a spaceship. It will be rotating and you will be able to go up into the spaceship until Saturday night. Camps all over the Playa, as the area is referred to by the "locals" (attendees) have the option to make an art installation. You can even register for a grant if you need funds. The art installations have to be made from certain materials since they have to be burnt. (Since the ground is very fine sand, things have to be burnt in a very specific way there.) They match the theme and you can go view them up until they are burnt.

Burning Man is in a desert and as the documentary "Spark" (2013) puts it, it's supposed to be the best thing in the world so people are willing to go to the worst place in the world. There are sand storms. You will get sand everywhere and it will get everywhere. Apparently people I know are still finding it six months later. It's up to 110 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and down to 40 or 50 degrees at night. There is salt in the sand and you have to bring certain things to rub your feet with so they don't crack and burn.

One of the foot injuries from stepping on exposed tent stakes (the official site recommends modifying 2-liter bottles to prevent this). The other is dehydration. There is a "Survivor's Guide" or "Playa 101" free for download on the official event site which lists the signs of dehydration and tells you to immediately seek medical attention if a friend shows the signs. There is a medical tent in the functional city, as well as Post Office, community center, recycle camp, nightclubs, and a temple (generally for a 'different' sort of worship).

There are police officers walking around, as well as volunteer Black Rock City Rangers who are generally just peace keepers. They'll kindly remind you of 'leave no trace' if they see you ash your cigarette or tell you to go smoke that bowl in your tent and not be stupid. They are attendees who volunteer. As no money is allowed to be exchanged at Burning Man, people gift their time to be volunteers and light the lamps, work a shift at the cafe, or be a Ranger. You can volunteer virtually anywhere at Burning Man, including the press room.

People do wear nothing, but people often wear costumes. Or jeans and a tee shirt. Whatever you want to wear is whatever the dress code is (minus sequins, feathers, and glitter). Those items are banned because they are so easy to lose in the sand. No one is supposed to judge anyone for what their choices are because their gift of radical self-expression is a gift to the the community.

One of the things that made me happiest while perusing the official website was the sexuality "camp" that takes place within it. They preach a strong "enthusiastic consent" policy where you are aware of your surroundings, the person's intoxication level (if it exists--what it means), and if you were given an explicit "yes". They give out free condoms and offer seminars on how to ask for enthusiastic consent in a "sexy" way, among other things.

Now, back to Saturday night I mentioned before. On that night, the majority of Black Rock City gathers at the Pavillion in the center of the city to witness the burning of the Man. The man is burnt first, in a ritual fashion involving a lot of fire dancing and then other art displays are burnt. It is basically one of the largest parties imaginable. There are people on hand to make sure things are burnt safely, as well as guidelines for burning available on the site.

Sunday the temple is burnt and it is a very spiritual, perhaps somber affair. It depends largely on the person who is viewing it.

Basically, the Burning Man festival is what you want it to be. If you want it to be a week long drug-filled nudie fest it can be and rock on. If you want it to be a family affair with your kids where you volunteer and meet interesting people, it can be that. If you want it to be a mix of everything, it can be that, too. The locals welcome Burners so ask yourself if you think they would welcome 50,000 naked druggies if they weren't polite.

Interfuse is a small, regional burn that I am attending in a few months. I can't wait to get my first taste of this amazing culture of inclusion and being yourself. I hope that this has opened your eyes slightly to the work and other amazing things at Burning Man besides drugs and naked people.

Information on Photograph: Pavilion design by Lewis Zaumeyer, illustration by Andrew Johnstone

Latest articles