10 Things I Hate About Burning Man
Every year I read all the rah-rah coverage of the event, but in the back of my mind, I know it’s not all freedom and nudity
First a formality: This was my fifth year at Burning Man. I went three times in the late 1990s, missed it for a few years, and started going again last year. I like the event. I have cherished memories from each of my five trips. It’s unique and creative and something that everyone (especially Northern Nevadans) should attend at least once. Now, that being said, it’s also dirty, pretentious, loud and swarming with creeps and hippies.
But complaining is part of what makes Burning Man fun. The event itself is an open-ended discourse that’s largely defined by the attendees. And what good is an open-ended discourse without constructive feedback? It’s necessary, and what makes Burning Man successful, in spite of its many flaws, is that there’s always room on the playa to express informed dissent. Or, for that matter, petty bickering.
But that’s enough with the niceties. From here on out, I’m not going to pull any punches. There are at least two dozen things about Burning Man that totally suck, and these are the 10 that most chafe my hide:
My brother had his bike stolen this year. Admittedly, this was partly his fault because he left it unlocked. But it was 11 a.m. at a crowded Porta-Potty station, and he had more pressing matters that required a hurried entry into a royal-blue throne room. And, seriously, what kind of vulture would steal from a man whose pants are down and is trapped in a sauna of filth? (OK, maybe a smart vulture.)
The official policy of Black Rock City, LLC—that’s the company that provides the infrastructure and hosts the event—is that a bike is not considered stolen unless the lock has been cut and is not considered missing unless it hasn’t reappeared by Monday. This is a bunch of bullshit and stinks to me like an effort to avoid liability for all the bikes that get stolen. If somebody takes something of yours without your permission, that is called theft. I don’t care what day of the week it is.
What really pissed me off was that when I told a BRC neighbor about this, he replied that maybe somebody had been on acid and taken the bike by accident, as though somehow that made it OK. I don’t care what freaking drugs you’re on, a theft is a theft.
Somebody else told me that they never lock up their bike because at Burning Man, sometimes someone will borrow your bike, but because it’s a society built on trust, they always bring it back. This, obviously, is the dumbest thing ever thought.
Even if someone were to do that, “borrow” my bike and then bring it back later, it would still piss me off. What if I needed to go somewhere while my bike was gone? What then, hippie jerkwad anarchist? Sorry, but when it comes to my bike, my needs are more important than yours.
I also overheard somebody say, “I only ride a bike for a week once a year.” Perhaps this is why so many BRC cyclists ride like unilluminated maniacs and are completely discourteous to other bicyclists, not to mention foot traffic.
On the plus side, I did see a man teaching an adult woman how to ride a bike. She was laughing and starting to get the hang of it, so, you know, that was cute.
This is an obvious one, but no less annoying for that. I can’t decide which is worse: the genuine perverts or the quiet, repressed, unattractive people attempting conspicuous displays of sexuality in a misguided attempt at fitting in as a “Burner.” The former are creepy, the latter are embarrassing.
But there are plenty of genuine prowling cougars (middle-aged women looking to score with young men) and leering shirtcockers (what the BRC alternative newspaper Piss Clear calls men who walk around with shirts but no pants, easily the tackiest fashion statement).
Something that consistently vexes me at Burning Man is the unclear boundaries between public and private space. I’m a little shy about strutting up to some of the more intimate-looking theme camps because I don’t want to be intrusive. And I don’t want to be intrusive because sometimes—especially at Burning Man, I just want to be left alone. For example, it seems like whenever I’m enjoying an extra intimate moment with my friends—you know, when we’re talking about our feelings or something—some jerk will walk into the camp, proudly displaying his shaved scrotum and offering up free tantric massages.
These can actually be fun. A group of friends and I got caught in a whiteout Friday afternoon and decided to just let the winds push us along and see where we’d end up. We drifted into a bar out in deepest playa run by a group of Russians, including an amazing bartender named Felix. He had us drink “The Bravery,” an exhilarating ritual that consisted of eating a pancake dipped in caviar, drinking about six ounces of vodka and then eating a pickle. That might sound like a revolting combination, but it’s wonderful. Every part of the mouth gets stimulated, there’s a surprisingly pleasant aftertaste, and you get majorly hammered.
I didn’t realize how much I hated dust storms until after we got back to camp and discovered that I had left a window flap open on the tent I was sharing with my girlfriend, Sara, and that lovely playa dust had gotten into and on top of and inside of and all around everything.
Using the Portable Toilets
A necessary evil, to be sure. I’m glad they’re there. Seriously, if the event seems dirty now, just imagine what it’d be like if there were no Porta-Potties. MOOP, indeed. Whole new flavors of playa mud. So I don’t hate the actual toilets. I’m glad they’re there, and I’m incredibly thankful to the poor guys who have to service them while everybody else is having a big, dumb dress-up party.
The problem is that nobody seems to use them correctly. Opening up those doors is like Russian roulette. And even when I find one clean and supplied enough for an extended stay, I only ever get, at best, 75 percent of a good dump. Maybe 80 percent. My first big trip to a Porta-Potty this year was a total disaster. The exertion of a massive No. 2 combined with the dusty dryness of the air and the inordinate heat of the Porta-Potty caused my nose to start gushing blood. I had to ride back to camp with my face, hands, shirt and bandana drenched in crusty red muck.
But that’s not nearly as bad as what happened last year. We arrived around dusk and my friend Ali and I immediately headed to the toilets. By the time we got there, it was too dark to see inside the Porta-Potties with the unaided eye, so I took my headlamp out of my pocket and shined it at the gaping void at the center of the small chamber. The problem was that the Porta-Potty doors are spring-loaded to close automatically. So if you swing the door open, and then shine your handheld light toward the toilet, the door swings right back to hit you in the elbow, which causes your fingers to extend, which causes the lamp you were holding to fly forward, directly into the bowl, landing on top of a heaving mountain of shit.
“Dude,” I said, turning back to Ali, “you’ll never guess what I just did.”
“I just dropped my headlamp into the toilet. I’m trying to decide if I should try to get it out.”
Some people heard me say this and pretty soon a large crowd had gathered round, half of which was chanting “Get it! Get it!” The other half, “Leave it be! Leave it be!”
I looked back at it. It was still on, therefore easy to see. It was actually on top of a pile of toilet paper, not actual droppings, and not too deep, either, so it’d be easy to reach. And they really harp on the “if it wasn’t in your body, don’t put it in the potty” policy at Burning Man. And the bottom line was that I’d rather have it than not have it.
I announced to the crowd that I was going in. Some people cheered, a girl pleaded with me, saying, “No! It’s only a headlamp, just let it go!”
I took a big wad of toilet paper and reached in. I felt the pile shift and sway as I delicately picked up the headlamp, then rolled it onto the playa, a glowing ball of wet toilet paper.
“Put it on!” somebody yelled.
Somebody from a nearby camp brought me a plastic bag to pick it up with and a bunch of hand sanitizer and cleaning materials. So I cleaned it up and have been wearing it ever since.
I’ll bet you didn’t know the term “yahoos,” was coined by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels and means any member of the dirty, filthy, brutish human race. Yahoos are greatly inferior to their cool, calm, collected equestrian counterparts, the Houyhnhnms. It’s an inherently elitist term that Burners use to describe Burning Man attendees who don’t abide by the official principles. Problem is that many of these same snooty, hardcore Burners are also complete and total yahoos.
Burner yahoos are the ones that are always telling stories that begin “This one time at Burning Man” and end “I guess you had to be there.” They’re the ones with “playa names” like Captain Pajama Pants. The basic rule of playa names is that it has to be something really stupid that you say like it’s really cool. They’re also the ones who say, “Welcome Home,” which is about the most ridiculous greeting ever. They’re also the ones who operate under the insane delusion that Burning Man is anything other than a big party.
There’s nothing wrong with a big party, especially if it’s a big, fun, creative party, which Burning Man often is. But it’s not some sort of deeply meaningful spiritual odyssey. It’s just a great party, and that’s fine.
There are other types of yahoos roaming the streets of BRC. This year, it felt like I was wearing a sign on my face that said, “Are you lost and on drugs? Come talk to me.”
Total strangers kept coming up to me and asking, “I just took a bunch of acid, and I’ve never done it before, and I don’t know where my camp is, and what do you think I should do?”
At which point I had to make the decision: Do I help this person, or do I mess with their heads and ensure that they have a horrific trip?: “Oh no, where did you get it? Haven’t you heard? There’s a lot of bad stuff going around, and the medical tent is packed with people who are freaking out but don’t go there because they’re arresting everybody.” It’s a tough call. Mostly I would just give them directions and, because it’s always a good thing to know, I’d point out the North Star.
This year’s most famous yahoo is that dude who tried to burn down The Man early on Tuesday morning. I don’t know what his intentions were or what the ramifications of his actions were, and I’m not sure what his beef is with BRC, LLC. And I don’t care. The dude’s a yahoo.
If you’ve ever tried sleeping in Black Rock City, you know that the worst thing about Burning Man is the constant, horrible music polluting the atmosphere. Who the hell still listens to this techno crap? It’s the same foul, soulless, inhuman, repetitive nonsense that they were playing when I first went to Burning Man 10 years ago.
I love to dance, but I can’t dance to techno. It has nothing to do with the human body. I really don’t understand how people can respond to music that was not made by humans, or even pets. In fact, I would rather listen to an entire album of cats walking on pianos than hear another second of the awful dance music they play in BRC all night long.
Rave culture is for losers and idiots. It combines the worst parts of hippie culture and the worst parts of disco culture into one extremely annoying über-crap culture. I’m surprised it hasn’t completely died out yet. It seems like the rave machines should’ve starved and dehydrated every lovey-dovey, E-laden suckerfish to death by now.
Of course, Center Camp is a whole other scene of horrible music: the caterwauling of some deluded, hairy-pitted, folk-chick wannabe on the open-mic stage, a bunch of drum circle jerks in the middle, and whatever unintelligible nonsense the café volunteers are blasting. Then, in the middle of this total cacophony, there’s a bunch of charlatans showing off their ability to meditate. Isn’t meditation based on introspection and listening to the internal rhythms of the body, the lungs and the heart? Why the heck would you chose to do it in Center Camp?
I broke up with a girl my first year at Burning Man, an experience that’s not uncommon. The event is a notorious relationship killer. The convergence of all sorts of different people with different needs and different ideas about how to have a good time is tricky on a large scale, but it’s also difficult to manage interpersonal relations on the small scale of the people you’re camping with.
Everybody’s got different needs: Some people need to stay out till 2 a.m., some need to stay out till 6. The readjusted social parameters, paired with the intimacy of close quarters, the harshness of the environment and the unbridled hedonism of the event mean that you sometimes see new and often unflattering parts of people’s personalities.
My group did pretty well this year, though I would like to give a message to my (ex-) friend Paul: You’re a mean, belligerent drunk and, no, I haven’t forgiven you, yet.
Not too much to say about this other than it sucks. Nothing caps a great adventure like spending a few hours trapped in a traffic quagmire. I left Sunday midday this year, and it was a lot better than leaving Monday morning last year.
However, last year, the traffic was moving so slow that it worked like this: Drive two car spaces, stop, get out, hang out with your neighbors for 20 minutes, drive two more car spaces. It ended up being fun, and the best community bonding of the trip. This year, it was such a constant stop-and-go that there were no opportunities to get out and meet your Exodus neighbors. Of course, this is probably different depending on which day and at what time you leave. The only guarantee is that it will suck.
Burning Man is, in a way, the largest art exhibition in the world. And most of the art is awful. It’s hard to point to anything specific because a general din of bad art forms the background of Black Rock City, and one quickly becomes accustomed to ignoring it. But I will say that anything involving a bunch of random mannequin limbs and painted Barbie dolls strewn about is worthless.
There was some good stuff: “Big Rig Jig” (made from two semi trucks, way better than the Transformers movie). “Crude Awakening” (the giant oil derrick. I’ll really dig anything with a huge Tesla coil). “Homourboros” (the monkey versus snake zoetrope, which was awesome at night, but hokey during the day). “The Steampunk Treehouse,” “Guardian of Eden,” and maybe about a half dozen other things. Everything else I saw was retarded.
I’ve heard some grumbling, particularly in Piss Clear, about the way BRC, LLC selects and commissions artists, but most of the impressive work is the commissioned stuff.
This was the last year of Piss Clear, which is disheartening. I’m obviously a clear believer in having voices of dissent, especially in a community so prone to sanctimony, so I’m sad to see it go.
I was cruising down the Esplanade, when some dude wearing bunny ears, holding a red plastic bowling pin walks up and asks me, “Would you like your spanking now?”
“OK, fine. go participate somewhere else. Welcome to Burning Man! Don’t come back next year!”
So because I don’t want to participate in your pathetic display of pseudo-sexuality, you think I’m an uptight drag on Burning Man? Well, I’ve got news for you, buddy: Your “participation” contribution adds nothing. There are a thousand places on the playa to get a spanking, why the hell would I want one from you?
Supposedly, Burning Man is all about “No Spectators” and everyone contributing something. And there are these holier-than-thou zealots who assume that if you’re not wearing some stupid getup or volunteering at the damn coffee shop or administering electro-shock therapy, you’re ruining the party. But ultimately, what’s great about Burning Man is that your experience is based on what you put into it, and there’s room for everyone’s creative expression. For example, I enjoy criticizing. This is how I party. This is my participation. Just think of it as a nice, verbal spanking.
For more local coverage of Burning Man 2007, check out D. Brian Burghart’s story in our sister paper, the Chico News & Review.