Black Rock City Limits: A Visit to Burning Man

by Dore Ann Mendelsberg

Maybe it was just me, but it seemed like Burning Man was everywhere this year. Throughout September and into October I was receiving countless links to news articles, opinion pieces, documentaries, youtube montages and photos about the festival. Granted, much of the traffic directed my way may have been a function of my status as a “Burner”, but still it seems like awareness and curiosity have grown. As 2011 was the first year in its history that Burning Man has had to cap the number of tickets sold, it’s popularity certainly has.  But there remain a level of mystery about what Burning Man actually is.  So, here we are.

2011 was my second Burn and the experience deepened my commitment to the event to a familial level. For those who don’t know, Burning Man is a week-long event held in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada centered (both literally and symbolically) around the burning of a multi-story effigy of a man on the penultimate night of the event. The first Burning Man held was a gathering of friends on a beach in San Francisco in 1986 (the folk tale I heard had one of the founders burning the man to symbolize a new start after the end of a relationship) but has grown over the past 25 years to its current incarnation; 50,000 people converging in a temporary city in the desert committed to creating an alternative community based on radical self-reliance and radical self-expression. Which is a brief explanation that explains very little: as anyone who has been to Burning Man will tell you, Burning Man is impossible to explain.

Buying your ticket gets you access to the city, which is built and razed into nothingness annually by Black Rock City LLC (although transition has commenced to move responsibility for Burning Man to the new not-for-profit Burningman Project). Built in a circular plan with the Man at the centre and the Temple at 12 o’clock and an annually growing number of art installations throughout the centre and “deep-playa” (the empty area of desert at the top of the circle) within the “city” (the concentric grid of streets that delineate the site) theme camps build stages, bars, spas, theatres and sound systems and offer their events to the whole of BRC. At any point any day of the festival you can find camps serving free ice pops, lemonade, cookies, pancakes or cocktails, offering workshops on yoga, thai massage, meditation, reiki, sexual technique, knitting, massage or arts & crafts, lectures on evolution, economics, spirituality or globalization or just throwing a party with dj line ups stretching all week long. The Burning Man tenet of radical self-reliance means that whatever you will need for your week on the playa (Burners’ affectionate name for both the BRC site and the desert dust that infiltrates absolutely everything), you bring with you into the desert. The tenets of radical-self expression, participation, inclusion, decommodification and gifting mean that everything that happens at Burning Man is free and open to the public. You could use your week at Burning Man as a yoga vacation. You could do nothing but see and participate in art. You could spend the week dancing with your head pressed against a speaker. You could create and share any of the above or anything else you felt like sharing.

And that’s just the daytime. At night Burning Man comes alive with neon lights and flames. Mutant vehicles also known as art cars (cars, busses and flatbeds redesigned as moveable art works, transports or mobile parties) light up and traverse the open playa dropping people at major installations. People deck themselves in glow necklaces and light up accessories and sally forth into the darkness to experience all the wonder and excitement that Burning Man can offer; a 30 foot spinning trapeze-swing that you can propel 20 feet in the air, the Thunderdome where you can strap into a harness and beat your opponent with a padded bat while spectators cheer you on from the the cross bars of the hexametric dome, DJ sets from some of the best acts electronic music has to offer, a roller disco with a complete inventory of roller skates in all sizes, aerialists, circus & burlesque performances, a 40 foot glowing metal statue of a dancing woman, a dome made of white umbrellas and trailing white lights with the soundtrack of a rain storm, a fiber optic tunnel who’s light effects are controlled as you walk through by whoever happens to be working its turntable-like controls, to name just a small few.

Then there’s the Temple.  The temple is a place of reverence and meditation where people are encouraged to leave personal reflections, remembrances and memorials. Stories of pain, tragedy, success, failure, love, inspiration, fear and longing cover its walls by the end of every Burning Man. Like the Man it is built to a new design every year and burnt to the ground at the end of the festival, however the night the Man burns is a celebration of cheering and fireworks. The night the Temple burns is a hushed affair of contemplation and tears.

As previously said, Burning Man is impossible to explain. It can only be experienced and as must be, everyone’s experience is different. You are encouraged to bring all of yourself into BRC and engage fully with everything you find. How can that be explained? But one night during my first Burning Man as I walked across the darkness in the middle of the desert late at night I tried to figure out what I would say when someone asked me what it was like. And this is what I came up with: Imagine we built a city on the moon.  Money is useless there.  Nothing can be bought or sold or marketed or mass-produced. The city exists only to celebrate everything that is beautiful and tragic and ridiculous and heart-breaking and inspiring and strong and broken and sad and wonderful about being human. That’s Burning Man.