Burning Man is a unique and annual festival that I first went to in 2009. I immediately fell in love with it. It was like opening your sock drawer and finding a fist-sized diamond. What so fascinated me was the near impossibility of it being there, as well as its natural beauty and craftsmanship. It became a truly life-changing event.
I will break up this post in two parts. This first part deals with what you can see and do at Burning Man. The next focuses on the ten principles of Burning Man. Alone, neither makes much sense; together they provide only reflection of the true splendour of this gem. No matter the effort, Burning Man is beyond the power of any pen or camera to capture. It has to be experienced. Nevertheless, I can try.
Humble Origins at Baker Beach
Burning Man started 1986 when Larry Harvey (eternal godfather of Burning Man) gathered twenty friends on Baker Beach in San Francisco, built a wooden statue of a man and burnt it as the culmination of a small one-day fire festival. The original motivation for this seems lost in a mist of misinformation, but the official stand is that it was a summer solstice celebration. (Wicked tongues say Larry burnt an effigy of his ex-girlfriend in a fit of jealous rage, but let us not propel such unfounded speculations.)
The burning of the Man became an annual event and rapidly grew in size until 1990 when the police prevented the burn due to the obvious fire risk. The crowd’s natural reaction to this was to take the Man, drive hours into the most inhospitable part of the Black Rock desert and burn it there. In doing this, they founded Black Rock City.
Black Rock City
Black Rock City is a unique city in that it only exists one week out of each year, during which it hosts Burning Man. For the majority of the year, the location is an indistinguishable part of the inhospitable Black Rock Desert with not a trace of life. However, during Burning Man, the city rises out of the dust like the phoenix out of the ashes and boasts a population reaching up to fifty-five thousand citizens! (Yes, it is officially a city with its very own postcode.)
Due to its temporary nature, Black Rock City is not built out of bricks and mortar. Instead, the citizens primarily live in tents and motorhomes. Many also group together to create themed camps and those often have larger structures like domes or Bedouin tents.
Black Rock City has a unique clock-like layout. The Man stands in the centre and from him run roads like spokes on a wheel. These are named after whole and half hours of the clock, running from 2 o’clock to 10 o’clock. There are also concentric roads named alphabetically from A to L. Addresses in Black Rock City are thus written as, for example, 2:30&B. The innermost concentric road is the Esplanade, and it encircles a large open area, the Playa, which is an enormous art gallery and playground.
Black Rock City is huge. The Playa has a diameter of 1.6km, the outermost liveable road, L, has a diameter of 3.1km and the deep Playa stretches out to a diameter of 5km!
The Man, the Camp and the Temple
There are three main structures at Burning Man that return each year, in varying guises. The most obvious is the Man. He stands as a beacon at the centre of Black Rock City, and you are welcome to fill him with whatever significance your eager little heart can muster. However, don’t grow too attached because on the Saturday of the event, the Man must burn! This he does to the cheering and partying of almost everyone at the festival.
The second is Center Camp, located at 6:00&Esplanade. Center Camp is a large circus tent that serves many purposes, for example as an art gallery, open stage, café and a place to hang out. Center Camp stands out as one of the few large structures at Burning Man that the fire-loving population does not burn.
Then there is the Temple, located at 12:00&Esplanade. This is a nondenominational temple for quiet contemplation, prayer or meditation. Many write heartfelt messages on the walls of the Temple, usually expressing something that they wish to honour or release. Many of the messages deal with the loss of a loved one. Some people bring photographs or even the ashes of their dearly departed and leave them at the Temple.
The Temple burns on the last day of Burning Man. The Temple burn is very different from the burning of the Man. There is no music or cheering. Instead, thousands of people sit and watch in silence. The only thing you can hear is the crackling of the fire and perhaps somebody’s quiet sobs. It is deeply moving and my personal highlight each year.
The Burning Man organization creates the basic infrastructure of Black Rock City, e.g. roads and toilets. The organization also builds the Man and Center Camp as well as gives grants to artists to build the Temple and other large art installations. The majority of the city, however, is built by the Black Rock citizens. Thanks to their unrivalled creativity and imagination, there is more to see and do at Burning Man than you could ever fit into one week. Theme camps range from the useful (At Solar Station, you can recharge your cameras using their solar panels.) to the bizarre (The Barbie Death Camp is dedicated to the mass torture and eradication of Barbie dolls). Some theme camps mix the two. (The Pony Girl Express has volunteering women dress up as ponies and deliver intra-city mail.) Some camps are for pure enjoyment, such as the many varied bars that give out alcohol and huge parties like the Opulent Temple. My personal favourite is the Mad Max inspired Thunderdome. If you have a score to settle with someone, go there with your adversary, get strapped up in bungee jump ropes within the dome and beat each other with padded sticks to the cheering and jeering of a mad crowd hanging off the sides of the dome.
Art is everywhere at Burning Man. However, the art looks and feels very different from the art you’re likely to find in a normal gallery. The art at Burning Man is often large, interactive, climbable and somehow involves a flamethrower. Like everything else at Burning Man, you are encouraged to participate, not just spectate.
Nothing is duller than listening to someone talk about the art they’ve seen, but I’ve got two favourite examples that give a good sense of the kind of art that is created there.
The first is from 2009, where a giant metal butterfly balanced on top of a tall metal cone. With a bit of skill, you could climb up the cone and out onto the butterfly wings, earning yourself a fantastic view of the city. The butterfly also spun around with the cone as the axis, giving the people hanging off the butterfly wings a thrilling ride. Large, climbable, interactive.
An awesome piece this year was Charon, a giant upturned wheel with equidistantly spaced skeletons in varied positions of rowing lining the inside of the wheel. On either side of the wheel, giant pulleys and ropes invited the public to heave-and-ho, making the wheel go faster and faster. When enough speed and energy had been collected, a stroboscope engages, lighting up one skeleton at a time. The wheel seems stationary while the skeletons look animated and rowing down the river Styx. Large, interactive, awesome.
Exploring Burning Man on foot is great, but Black Rock City is huge, so you’ll want to bring a bicycle. (Light it and yourself so you don’t get run over at night!)
There is a public transport system at Burning Man, but it is as unreliable as it is fun. Although normal vehicles like cars and motorcycles are prohibited, certain vehicles, ‘art cars’, are given special permission. An art car is any vehicle that has been mutated in some artistic way. They range from the small one-person sized Dalek to huge pirate ships sailing the sand dunes. The large art cars are usually open for anyone to jump on and off as they please, but there is no telling where it might go. Who cares? You are at Burning Man and the immediate experience of dancing on top of the roof of a moving steam-punk house is what counts!
Some art cars are also moving dance clubs, pumping out beats through their huge speakers.
Sex, drugs and flower-powered hippies?
The most common misconception I get from people who have heard about Burning Man but never visited is that Burning Man is a hippie festival where weirdoes go to get high on a witches brew of drugs and granola before chanting their way through an orgy.
The sex, the drugs and the hippies are all there, so if that is what you are looking for, then welcome and enjoy. However, Burning Man also features a child-friendly area called Kidsville, a seldom-mentioned fact in the news. As always, take what you hear in today’s sensation-oriented media with a pinch of salt.
The point is that Burning Man offers something to everyone, from sluts to saints. This makes it an excellent place for self-discovery. So which is it: slut or saint? Come find out!
This part of my Burning Man guide focused on what you might see and do at Black Rock City. However, the heart of Burning Man is the community, and to understand it we must look at the ten guiding principles of Burning Man, which is the topic of part two.