The theme, Hope and Fear, adds a layer of introspection to the 2006 Burning Man Festival
Bright green hair and a Kool-Aid-red beard. A naked man on a pyramid. A cupcake car. A pink cowboy hat and a kilt. A solar-powered flower. A Man. A temple. Dust. Fire. Embers. Smoke. Ashes.
Burning Man isn’t just a festival; it’s one huge art project with a canvas a playa wide. It’s my first year, and as such, my campmates and the non-neophytes call me a “virgin"—and you know what happens to virgins at pagan affairs.
Everyone who attends becomes part of the creation. Everyone who steps into a tutu or straps on some fairy wings, who climbs aboard an art installation, who creates something of their own, or even who just sits in a chair and drinks a beer with a stranger or friend, is part of it.
Larry Harvey began the festival in 1986 on Baker Beach in San Francisco with a handful of people and a Man about 8 feet tall. The Man and the festival have both grown since moving to the Black Rock desert in 1990—the 40-foot tall effigy burned before nearly 40,000 people this year.
Just like any work of art, there’s no definitive explanation of Burning Man. Everyone’s interpretation and experience is different, with much depending upon with whom you share it and the state of your own mind. But when people talk about Burning Man, their descriptions are almost always a variation on the theme of freedom.
Like a rare desert plant, this festival blooms into outrageous shapes and colors once a year, culminating its cycle on Labor Day weekend. The cracked, white playa mixed with the art, commotion and glow stick-clad bicyclers looks at once like the landscape of the planet Tatooine from Star Wars, the rough-edged style of the modern Romeo and Juliet film and the carnival confusion of Moulin Rouge. As one friend remarked, it’s summer camp, spiritual retreat and rave rolled into one.
“What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen today?” I’m asked. Tough one. Every sight would be considered weird in the “default world.” But here, breasts and penises are just body parts. Men and women in leotards and lingerie, people skipping on stilts shaped like a deer’s legs—it all seems normal after a couple of days. The actual weird things are the innovative, almost magical stuff, like a full-course Thanksgiving dinner held on the playa or a couple kissing in the middle of a white-out dust storm while everyone else takes cover.
Black Rock City is shaped in a circle, with miles of playa in the middle holding the bigger art installations, including the Man in its center. The Esplanade, inner road and home to some of the main theme camps, encircles the Man. Avenues were listed as times (ex: 5:00, 2:30, etc.), and alphabetically ordered street names—Anxious, Brave, Chance, Destiny, Eager, Fate, Guess and Hope—coincided with the year’s theme of “Hope & Fear.”
The theme brought about things like rant podiums, chalkboards upon which to write hopes and fears, and dueling Hope and Fear platforms on either side of my camp’s entrance. The latter consisted of positive outcries through a megaphone from one side—"I love your stripes! You look fabulous!"—and nonstop hecklers on the other side—"You look like menopause hit you with a baseball bat!” There is something liberating about saying what could get you beaten to a pulp in normal life, while it also feels good to compliment and be positive. But there always seemed to be more hecklers than praisers. It was, after all, a camp whose motto was “Fuck Your Day.” But none of these were fightin’ words—everyone took it with a laugh.
Even while highly hedonistic—sex, drugs and all forms of expression are relatively easy to find if desired—there was an undeniable sense of community at Burning Man. Strangers offered me dinner, misted me with water to cool me down, helped me pack up my tent—heck, one loaned me an entire tent.
While some are wary to limit Burning Man to a theme, even when placed upon it by its own institution, it seemed organizers were spot-on in choosing “Hope & Fear” to represent this year’s burn. They identified what appears to be an unavoidable sense of despondency in the world as we’re bogged down with the effects of Sept. 11, assaults to civil liberties, multiple wars, global warming fears, government secrecy, the impacts of Hurricane Katrina and general anxiety of what’s to come. It’s a time when financial analysts and English majors are joining “nuts” and conspiracy theorists in talking openly about buying guns or land in foreign countries so that they’re prepared “when the shit goes down.” And yet we dare ourselves to be hopeful as we place our chips on new technologies, science, the wisdom and mistakes of the past and the idea that something will come about to intersect the path we’re on. We try to believe, almost with embarrassment, that things will work out.
This year at Burning Man, the art and the people seemed a reaction against present and timeless fears and an opportunity to add a little hope to a weary world.
An extreme fear is annihilation, something Margaret Clayton hit upon in “Five Minutes After.” A fence contains a sandy yard with a plastic pink flamingo stuck in the ground. A child plays with a toy truck; the family dog walks on one side; an adult enjoys a cocktail in a swinging chair. But the cocktail glass is melted, and the people and family dog are skeletons, frozen in the pose they struck when doomsday arrived. Score one for fear.
Out near the orange fence that marks the festival’s boundaries, more than 2,600 crosses sized about one-by-one foot are stuck in the ground. They represent soldiers killed during the past three-and-a-half years in Iraq. Each carries a small picture and description of a soldier and the circumstances of his or her death. A Vietnam veteran, Skip Edwards of Crawford, Colo., initiated this work, called “What Remains.” Visitors to this place are quiet, respectful and sometimes sniffling. It feels like a true graveyard.
A similar memorial is found with Sheila Flaucher’s “Eyes Wide Open.” Two parallel lines of dusty combat boots line a lane through which, during my visit, a shirtless man in a cowboy hat and pink tutu walks solemnly. At the end of the lane is a book with the names of the dead soldiers who wore those boots while fighting in Iraq.
Then there’s “I.T.” by Michael Christian—a giant spider-like creature with three black pointy pincers and one red blinking eye in the center of its head. Representing a more playful kind of fear, Christian said it was inspired by childhood memories of a War of the Worlds creature, which vaporized those in its path with a ray shooting from its big red eye. “I.T.” senses movement, and the eye gazes menacingly toward those who approach it. “Don’t look at me!” says one burner near the beast. But the creature isn’t as mean as it appears, allowing people to climb into its eye, suspending them safely 30 feet in the air.
In the same eye span as science fiction creatures and war memorials is the Conexus Cathedral—an elegant, arched white beauty standing out regally on the playa. A mandala of light pinks, greens, purples and blues is suspended between two columns at its far end.
This cathedral welcomes all religions and beliefs and hosts morning yoga sessions, a few scheduled weddings and an “All Night MASSive Dance Celebration” with DJs spinning until dawn.
A man in free-flowing white linen, who goes by the name of Jaime Krishna, smiles and gently approaches a group of visitors, one of whom is a girl in a bright blue bikini, elbow-length pink gloves, a flight helmet, goggles and cape. “You must be here for the How to Be a Superhero class!” he says.
Within minutes, the girl and her group of colorful friends are headed to the cathedral’s podium to begin flying lessons. They line up beside the girl, she holds her arms above her head, and they lift her running as she practices beginner flying.
“Superheroes!” yells a woman, running toward them from the playa.
Suddenly the flying lesson turns into a short play about superheroes defending the halls of justice from evildoers. The girl in the blue bikini becomes Blue Bayou. Her shirtless friend in pink latex pants and pink sunglasses becomes Pink Dude, others enter their realm, and they discuss their various powers and attempts to fight crime. They ask if there are any other superheroes who want to come forth from the crowd that has now gathered. A buxom woman in a blue bra and black-and-blue thong steps forward, arms fanning out in a welcoming entrance and with a spine-tingling, soul-filled voice sings out, “I am a goddess, bringing you back to magic.” The crowd is in love.
The next night, the pillars burn.
The wedding party
What stronger display of hope is there than a wedding? There are dozens of them every year at Burning Man. I boarded my camp’s art car to become part of the wedding party of Spike and Erika, a Reno couple who decided that, after 10 years together, they were ready to make it official. Spike told me later that the wedding was less for them than for their friends, who were always asking when they were going to get married.
We drove to the far end of the playa, just past a couple having sex on a portable mattress they likely brought there in a futile attempt for privacy. We cheered (some might say heckled) their affection and booed when they detached themselves from each other. They waved and smiled as they took their mattress and moved on.
Meanwhile, a white, ivy-adorned archway was erected. A man in a monk robe stood beneath it. The wedding party formed two parallel lines, between which the couple walked as we sang, hummed and kazooed “Here Comes the Bride.” The bride wore a suit, the groom wore the dress and held a can of beer. The robed wedding authority figure asked if they’d like to say anything before the deed was done. The groom’s reply to his bride and his friends: “I love you, baby, and you guys rock!” The bride’s reply: “I love you, baby, and you guys rock!”
Inspiration, if not hope, was found in the technical construction of some of the art installations. The most intriguing was “Message Out of the Future,” referred to affectionately by burners as “The Waffle House” or ‘The Belgian Waffle.” It was created by a group of Belgians, and its straw-colored, overlapping wood looked vaguely waffle-like. It was a beguiling structure—like hundreds of toothpicks tossed in the air and stitched together with a cavern inside stretching high over the heads of its admirers (and at night, dancers). Intersecting lumber over intersecting lumber, its bewildering design was an experience in organized chaos. Lit up neon green at night, the structure became the coolest dance hall on the playa. It was the darling of Burning Man.
The structure was scheduled to burn Sunday night, but there were rumors that its makers failed to provide a burn mat at its base, which could result in severe scarring of the playa, not to mention trouble with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. This would cancel its burn. The issue—if there ever really was an issue—was apparently resolved, as its timber crisped into embers as planned.
The Man swings both ways. His arms raised in hope or lowered in fear, depending on votes cast by people at his base. His is the ceremonial burn that started it all, even though he’s not the last burn of the festival.
This is the night when the best costumes come out and spirits peak. The entire festival congregates to the center of the playa, where The Man stands, arms raised, above it all in a blue neon glow. Fire spinners whirl elaborate flames around the structure as the crowd gathers round. The man is lit, and up he goes in flames. The crowd yells in elation. The structure is soundly built and takes longer to burn than usual, I’m told. When he finally topples, burners run in a counter-clockwise, tribal frenzy around him, no longer able to stand back.
The night feels special, one worth staying up for—my goal is dawn. But vodka and lemonade get the better of me, and I find myself waking up in my tent at 6 a.m., still in my pink princess dress, fairy wings and glow sticks, the sound of old-school soul music playing. I step outside and curl up on a couch with a stuffed gorilla and a group of people on the “hecklers” side of our camp entrance. Someone passes me the megaphone to try my hand at berating what’s before me. The air is crisp, and I look out onto a sky that’s light, white and soft with whispers of sun coming through. It’s the gentle, refreshing light of a too-early morning after a too-late night. I say the opposite of the first impression that comes to mind: “Look at that pitiful, ugly sunrise! Sunrise, you suck!”
In a landscape temporarily full of high energy craziness, laughter, jokes, confusion and the repetitive thump thump of techno music, peace can be hard to find. But upon entering the Temple of Hope, even the loudest jokers hush up, and an almost physical solemnity takes over.
The temple rises like something mystical yet understated. Its conical towers surround a courtyard of various platforms made of elegant, curving wood designed by Mark Grieve and the Temple Crew. A grand stupa, which is a Buddhist religious monument, sits in its center. Other wooden pieces—trapezoids, rectangles, quadrangles and petal-like slivers—are placed in boxes with markers throughout the temple. These are for visitors to write their hopes, fears, wishes and prayers on. Burners wrote apologies to the children of Iraq; messages to departed parents, children, friends; wishes for love and improved relationships; ideas people would like to see go up in flames, like fear, inhibition, control, anxiety. One read, “Mom, I’ll never be the son you want me to be. Please accept me as I am.” Grown men wail. Friends hug. Others are seated and thoughtful. Yogis softly hum.
Though the Man gets all the glory, the burning of the Temple is the most sacred ritual at the festival. The event is also an exercise in crowd dynamics. Sunday night, the last night of Burning Man, a large gathering collected near the Temple for the burn. Some sit down so others could see and asked others to sit, as well. A few people in front with video cameras refuse to sit.
Contrary to some beliefs, Burning Man is no hippie festival—many of its attendees are aggressive, rowdy and say just what they want, and they won’t hesitate to yell at you until you sit down and stop ruining the view for everyone else. However, all this yelling tends to damper any potential spiritual affects of gearing up for the Temple Burn.
The crowd shifts on the hard ground, cramped together, impatient and wondering when on earth they’re ever going to light this baby.
“Burn it!” someone shouts.
Finally, they do. It crackles as the fire climbs the curving towers, pops with a mind of its own and hisses. Even though there are still some people standing up in front, everyone shuts up. The moon is bright, illuminating the embers and smoke as they carry the physical remnants of the hopes and fears of thousands of burners. We sit in silence until the last tower falls. A couple people get up, and then the crowd rises as a whole. Back to the revelry for one last night.
Did hope or fear win out in the end? It’s hard to say. At Burning Man, it all burns down the same.