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BURNING MAN 2000 ::: Got Fire?

Going to Burning Man won’t leave anybody cold. I went there to kick off the Millennium, and the experience has changed my way of seeing, well, about everything. Here is my report from Black Rock City.

 

We are somewhere around Bakersfield, in the Cradle of Country, when the gas pedal begins to glow. I ask Gee to take off his second shoe and put it between the pedal and his foot. For a while, this seems to work and we have a laugh about it. Until the stench of burned rubber fills the car once again. The car is a turd brown 1977 Toyota Corolla with an ‘I Love Hawaii’-sticker on the window.

 

It used to belong to an elderly lady, who had recently passed on. A crafty Mexican mechanic in Long Beach had taken us into his yard a few days ago to show us a vehicle we could afford. I remember approaching a dark Batmobile-like SUV, thinking that this was the car he was going to sell us. The one we would be blazing to Burning Man with…

…then he made a turn around it and pulled a dusty felt rag from the Toyota. Our hearts sank in unison. But we just needed some car, so we took it. We even gave it a name: Sissy, after Sissy Hankshaw with the hitchhiker’s thumb from the Tom Robbins novel. Sissy truly is a shit car. You know one when you see one. Its trunk is full of groceries (The Wall Mart bill was about 120 cm long), water canisters and a blue tarpaulin that is going to be our roof for the next ten days in one of the strangest places on Earth.

 

After three soles of sneaker have melted through in the highway heat, we spend the cooling evening dancing under stars near Pyramid Lake. Nevermind that we have lost our way, that we’re strung out of our minds, that we will reach our destiny only on the next day.
In the morning we glide into the bathroom of a casino in Reno where destitute ghosts spend their last money on one-armed bandits.

Cruising through a Native American reservation, we reach a flat, five miles wide and seven miles long playa where the wind picks up milk powder dust in swirling veils and the atmosphere is already post-apocalyptic in a Mad Max kind of way. We have reached our destination, Black Rock Desert.
Gee, a photographer, head and true friend (at least to me!) and I find our designated parking spot for Sissy and our workspace for the next days: The Black Rock Gazette, the Festival’s daily newspaper. A gorgeous woman in a pink rubber wig makes eye contact with me. She is sorting through some equipment in a corner, the window behind her showing a vista of the white desert outside. She will remain unforgettable.

 

We are two days ahead of the Burning Man 2000 Festival’s first day. It’s all about carrying boxes of copy machines, building roofs between containers and other hands-on work since we have taken the obligation to help set up the semi-mobile editing station that is the ‘Gazette’. With other publications such as The Provider and Piss Clear, the Gazette covers the event most professionally.

During the day we run around, reporting about events on the party playa, then we write and edit photos and send off the digital data to be printed overnight in Reno. The papers will be delivered the next morning by a truck. During the next days, I also sit in at the City Desk, taking on inquiries and strange tales from outlandish folk that will either make it into the next edition or not.

No Risk, no Fun: Admission ticket for Burning Man 2000.

The 25 to 30 journalists and copy crew are forthcoming, fun and infectiously in tune with the vibe of the City. My main contacts are an enlightened Hong-Kong-Chinese woman of spicy temper called Shibumi, and an ultra laidback Californian named Tiger who considers J.J. Cale god. I also get to meet one of the founding fathers of Burning Man and the San Francisco Cacophony Society. Not enough with that, he is also the chief of the Black Rock Rangers. His name is Michael Mikel or M2, better known as Danger Ranger. Burner’s lore has it that he can appear at several places simultaneously.

His team, the Rangers do for the community of Black Rock City, what police should be doing for neighbourhoods around the globe: They are a reliable and friendly resource of information, they respond appropriately to emergencies, help lost participants and children back to their camps and families, they listen with psychological skill and good will to burners who are having a rough day, they educate with an “If I were you”-attitude, but without condescendingly wagging a finger. If you want to join their ranks, so the Rangers’ homepage announces, you should have a 1) sense of empathy, 2) great humour, 3) an easy-going mindset, 4) unerring geographical orientation within Black Rock City, and, 5): “patience, patience, and more patience.”

The Black Rock Rangers will keep a friendly eye on you.

At our first reporter conference under the freshly improvised tents, we receive a visit from Larry Harvey, who created the event.  He arrives in a golf cart, a Camel 100 dangling from the shadow underneath his black Stetson. The eyes behind his reflector shades must have seen everything in all dimensions possible. Asked how it all began, he indicates that Burning Man initially was a way to set ablaze a love story gone wrong.

Harvey is a hyper-knowledgeable man of the arts and speaks with that Acid infused 60ies drawl he shares with the likes of Hunter Thompson or Bill Graham: „Well, it all began spontaneously, playfully on Summer Solstice in 1985. A friend, Jerry James, and I went down to Baker Beach at sundown and cobbled together a stick man, made from beach lumber. Not tall but at ten feet still commanding respect: A man of that size against the flat horizon seems larger than life. We soaked him in gasoline because we didn’t know any better. And when he was lit, he simply incandesced. For a moment he turned night into day… and ever since then, we have tried to reproduce this initial experience year after year, with larger crowds and a larger man at every successive incarnation.”

Larry Harvey (*1948), a man of many hats, and creator of the Burning Man movement.                            ©Reuters

Once the crowd was too large for the shore of Baker Beach, the event was moved out onto the rugged playa of Black Rock Desert. Harvey: “It turned out that in this vast desert space there is a peculiar magic that takes hold. Suddenly we encountered something, that was like the ocean which had backed the Man before – this great sweep of nature, that was always part of it. But this was an ocean you could walk on! The desert is a great piece of nothing in which anything that is, is more intensely so.”

By 2000, the main forces behind the massive arts/philosophy/lifestyle festival are a lady with organisational skills named Crimson Rose and her boyfriend Will Roger Peterson, city planner Harley Dubois, city designer Rod Garrett, and Marian Goodell, who proves that at an annual budget of approximately $15 million, even a freak operation like Burning Man needs a CEO.

 

Aerial view of Black Rock City, 2000.                                                                                                                             ©tjid.be

 


B
lack Rock City is a temporary space station for that special breed of alien-humanoid hybrids, a hoof-shaped city in the north-west corner of Nevada, built for a week in a desert of white sand. Its mathematical centre is occupied by one 54 ft. tall figure of wood. Every year around 25.000 humans (numbers growing fast!), gather around it at Labour Day weekend – mostly white, young Americans from the Bay Area, but also ageing hippies, tech geeks and party people from around the world. They gather here to celebrate being alive on this planet. Burning Man is the world’s largest and most legendary counter-culture carnival. Every edition is dedicated to a theme, this year it is The Body.

 

“The desert is a great piece of nothing in which anything that is, is more intensely so.”

Larry Harvey

 

At Burning Man everybody is either dressed up in bizarre costumes or naked. You can pick a new name for yourself. You can shed as much of your past as you like. And: you have got to participate – onlookers, gazers and even photographers are not liked around here. For five days, an alternative world to our cerebral, fat gutted, and rather heartless Consumerist world is created. It’s not a fantasy, it’s a real environment, a possible way: You have to experience it to know that this temporary autonomous zone would work on a large scale. Still, there are basic rules: Keep the speed limit of five mph. And: no fireworks, dogs and arms are allowed in town.

 

Tribe of a different feather.
©Anton Izyumtsev

 

 

„Black Rock City: Strangers welcome! The stranger, the better!“                       ©Adam Haberlach

On the playa, you see the strangest sights, and you are surely bound to get confused. You are – most likely, but not at all necessarily – on drugs. You see art, sculptures, and cars; sometimes all three in combination: Cadillacs turned into Gothic castles; a driving hammock with a guy steering in his cozy, horizontal position; S&M couples leading each other across the sandy plane on chains; a sitting version of the man reading inside a gigantic library; a huge metal dome with cage fighters, hitting each other with plastic sabres while swinging on rubber bands; a 15 ft. mask of cast iron with flaming teardrops of wax dripping down its cheeks; girls wearing flowers only, singing on a swing; a Viking ship with oars and rigged sails, rolling through the sand on wheels.

As the night comes on, the visions become less dreamlike, more intense and sometimes nightmarish: You encounter glowstick jugglers, fire breathers, dragons, aliens and strippers, and the high-voltage man strung between the flaring ropes of electricity of two huge Tesla coils. If you want to, you can join a dancing crowd following a flatbed truck with a six-piece funk band on it. You run into members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jane’s Addiction. You run into a person, that you find especially attractive, again and again.

 

Dream big. Installation on the playa.                                                                                  ©Melissa Montoya

You see responsible city slickers shedding their layers of civilisation, grown-ups turning into the wild things that they truly are, you see children of the universe in a trance, in front of those obfusc horizons of dusk, which only deserts can create. There is no violence there, no harassment, no political agenda and no commerce: Nothing to sell or buy, except for admission tickets ($95 for early birds, $250 at arrival during the week, no tickets sold at the gate after Friday, to discourage last-minute visitors) and hot drinks at the Center Camp Café, in the middle of Black Rock City. “Burning Man touches my tribal side, my sense of community that has been soaked up by this sense of society forced upon us through the economy,” says Blue Collar Bob from San Francisco, who works as an IT developer in Silicon Valley. Bob is, like many burners, educated and employed.

Some come in luxurious air stream trailers, others are here with lame little vehicles (like us). All of them are exposed to the elements out here on the perimetry; the umbilical cord to the Western World is cut. Out here we are all in a public, but deeply private hyperspace, a kind of worldwide wilderness. “While you’re camping out in arduous conditions, you’re going through, what you could call an experience of homelessness as you’re exposed to the elements, I suppose,” says Stewart Brand, creator of the Whole Earth Catalog, who studied Native American lifestyles and rode on the bus with Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters in the 60ies, “but it’s the opposite of homelessness in another way: If you want or need something, you can go and ask somebody out here, and you’ll get it.”

 

This attitude of sharing, and “We’re all in this together”, actually describes the original American frontier spirit, before settling down and putting up picket fences destroyed the readiness for sharing and the sense of communality. The result of this semi-nomadic attitude can be felt in the unhinged spirit of Black Rock City. Acutely it manifests in one big Smile that goes around town all week long. It is infectious and your period of incubation may be as short as a couple of hours after arriving. Even thinking back to it after years of abstinence from the Burning Man experience can make your eyes well up.

In this sense, Burning Man is a time capsule to the late 1960s, and perhaps that’s a reason why pioneers of the acid age like Brand come here each year: “It’s the best community I know. I was around at the time of the communes. I started my magazine, so I wouldn’t actually have to live in one,” he laughs, “but this is one I want to live in.”

 

“I keep hoping that one day I will arise reborn from my Phoenix dreams instead of feeling like day-after barbecue,” says burner Alan Russell.                                                                                                                      ©burn.life/reno gazette

 

In the weightless sky over the desert, a black, yellow and red kite is confidently leaning into the heat mising wind. The sun is rising higher and higher and Black Rock City is getting ready to seethe through another day on Planet Playa. The sun is also an overwhelmingly dominant force and heat is written with a vignetted capital letter out here. There is not much sweating: any moisture evaporates before it shows on the skin. Spit on the ground heartily; smoke the second half of your cigarette, and all that remains are some sad dark bubbles. Put on another layer of 32 sunscreen and feel your skin turn to tan glazed parchment within twenty minutes.

 

There is no way for your breath to find a hold on the lenses of your shades if you want them clean again from the white sand. The sand… it is everywhere: omnipresent on your cracked sore lips, in your underwear, on the rim of your coffee cup (one earnest dollar per cup of choice Peruvian blend at the Center Camp Café with Dwarf Orchestra Music playing in the background).

The sand is also a severe threat to your skin condition. It consists of smoothly ground alkali which, once on your foot soles, will bite deeper into the structure of your skin than glass fibres, causing acidous burns in the cracks. So hardly anyone walks barefoot although it is the most tempting thing to do, given that the vicious powder lies softly on the warm clay ground like dry milk. It muffles every step and adds indoors acoustics to the surreal outdoors atmosphere.

 

The Man is the spirit of the place that we all came to meet; it is he who is us – our most essential personification, our redux.

 

 

The sand comes with surprising and forceful gusts of wind and leaves with small sheets of paper, yahoos and whoops, bits and pieces of various music sources from camps and installations. Then it washes it all over the plateau that is so very vast, it disappears in the dusty chiaroscuro at the rim of the horizon.
Between here and there lies a grand plain of fissured moon floor. Eerie, rust coloured mountain ranges frame the eye-soothing ochre of the desert. A bone-dry, blue sky stretches itself from one edge of the land to the other. Not a cloud casts a shadow.

 

In the afternoon a sandstorm brews up under grey clouds that have formed unnoticed. How strange the moments when the apparition of a chicken man on stilts, his behind bared, appears from an explosion of milk powder, stirred up by another violent gust. Late at night, I come back, caked in sand, from an expedition around the City. Lifting one of our almost empty canisters of water, I realise too late that it has been abused by Gee. He is sleeping off a mushroom trip under the blue tarp, and was, as he will confide laughingly on the following morning, too lazy and out of it to search for the Porta Potties: For it is not water at all, that fills my mouth with stinging bitterness.

 

The heat of the day is a matter of concern to every resident of Black Rock City: It is a matter of reduction, a big time consumer with no mercy. It is an edict. It says: Let There Be Glow! Get bold and naked! Toss away allures! Etch away everything unnecessary! Be bland in behaviour and sharp in thought! And that’s what you will do, without pondering twice, as naked as your shame allows you to.
Heat – you came expecting it because you are a heat seeker and you are definitely going to find it. There is no backing off anyway. Bring hockey bags full of stomped ice; bring sombreros and cold packs, air-conditioned air stream trailers and chilled mini pools. Gaze into arctic blue lava lamps until you appear to be floating two inches above the ground or meditate over you coolest Steve McQueen portrait – it’s not going to bring you relief for very long.

 

In the cool of the evening: Crowd at the Center Camp Café.

 

Lined out in blue and pink neon lights, the Man could naturally be a girl as well.

 

Walk out into the playa where only an occasional biker with an urge for a secret pee passes by in the darkness. Make sure you’ve got enough water with you. Then something special will happen to you: Black Rock City fades to a line of lights, with no more sound overkill from hundreds of sources. No more rambling and whooping. It gets peaceful out here.

Darkness is cushioning the scenery and wraps up the dove-blue Calico Hills in a velvet coat. The horizon is a strip of brimstone yellow, lining the Earth’s curve. Far away a lonely tribal drum is pounding, like the heartbeat of humanity. The further you go, the lighter you feel. The playa ground feels good under your feet. It welcomes you and guides you towards the distance, melting into dusk. Far away is the sound of the Freak Kingdom; above you, the stars are gathering, welcoming each other. The big dipper has risen directly overhead. Then there is a fence and you’re not really sure what to do. It’s the limitation of the area, but a luring distance continues behind it. Sit down, drink some water, chill. Slowly make your way back to civilisation, whatever that means.

The friendly wind cools your skin and speaks in a warm voice older than the festival, older than the County Constitution, older than the first nations of the Paiute, Shoshone and Washoe riding through, older than any memory. Then head back.
You approach the jewel string of lights that is Black Rock City. In its geometrical middle resides the Man, lined out in blue and pink neon lights, for He could naturally be a She as well. The figure is sexless. You start to wonder what it must feel like to be hoisted up there day and night in the middle of nowhere. So much attention is directed towards it. It must be the feeling of being at the right spot at the right time. Complete purpose. You try to communicate with it wordlessly and you close your eyes. You take a deep breath that wanders with a tickle up your spine and meets your very self in that homey and motionless spot of relaxed inertia just under the crane of your skull.

 

When you open your eyes, you see the Man again, and something is different about him now: He is standing in his place just for you, happy that you came to see him, all the way from Europe. You continue towards the madding crowds, but now you have a protector.
The Man is there and he is alive. During the day he is just hanging out, smack in the middle of the action, a centre of gravity of the collective consciousness. He does have that certain gentlemanly understatement, which doesn’t allow for any arrogance. He leans back and observes, not pretending to be important – just another freak for a week.

 

And nightfall is the time when he wakes up: A pole of orientation, a lighthouse, a curiosity, if not a celebrity. He is the spirit of the place that we all came to meet; it is he who is us – our most essential personification, our redux. We burn to see him, and we want to see him burn. Which does not upset him that much: he knows he’ll be back next year. Tomorrow he’ll go up in flames with 25.500 people partying around him, to provide the material essentials of an ancient effigy rite, that has been performed for centuries to renew the concept for what it is that we stand for.
But he still stands with pride, arms lose by his side, knowing all that. You may feel a little bit sorry for him, this being his last night and for a short electric instance you think of your last night that is waiting for you somewhere along the tunnel of time, and you admire him because he has this stamina, and he looks so cool facing his fate. In his simple and elegant structure, the Man is here to stand his ground and to observe, erected between earth and sky and he is unique. But foremost he was built to burn.

 

Apocalypse Now: The Man goes up in flames.
© Galen Oakes

At the end of the week, on Saturday just after nightfall and after a long theatrical build-up, experienced pyrotechnicians put spark to the ligneous limber man in the middle of Black Rock City. You hear the crowd of thousands roar like one gigantic intelligent predator. It is a heathen Apocalypse, a hedonistic Armageddon. Defined and consumed by fire, the burning man raises his arms in an act of welcome, as the pagan cheers from thousands of throats rise in unison. Fireworks explode out of his busting intestines; among the crowd around it, chaos breaks lose that is like the chaos of life itself. In the biting breath of the flames, vows are taken, tongues are intertwined, limbs are shaken in tribal extasy and tears are shed. Finally, the man collapses in a house-sized bulge of sparks that dance, dance, dance into the high desert sky. Pandemonium enthrals me. Then memory evades me.

 

The Sound of Silence: Black Rock City is closed and dismantled until August of 2001.

 

The silence of the day after is uncanny and mesmerising. A warm lake of grey ashes, still sweltering, covers the ground where only yesterday the man was standing. Now, the centre of the city, its pole of orientation, its meaning has gone. But its principles are still intact. One of them is: “Leave no trace.” Rangers and responsible burners walk around in organised unities picking up every piece of trash and debris down to last cigarette butts and roach filters with ski poles and garbage bags. In order to get the license for next year’s burn, the land has to be returned to Washoe County in supreme condition. Last meals are being offered to passing strangers, gifts are given, hugs seem never ending.

Moop (Matter out of place) from the playa, collected along the trash fence after the burn.

 

Provisions need to be used up, people are already leaving, the lifeblood of Black Rock City is draining away in pulsating waves of traffic. Back to civilisation. Two days after the burn we too are setting off, having helped to pull down the Gazette’s office rooms and having spent our last evening as guests at Larry Harvey’s family camp, where we shared smokes and Jack Daniels with the prime burner.

 

At a gas station near Reno, we fill up Sissy and have breakfast in an adjoined diner. Molten faced waitresses, grumpy truckers, and men with ties; a general feeling of doom and hopelessness fills the place – like it does every day, except maybe on Fridays. The people in here are not united by one flame, they are no fellow travellers. They are not even guests, they are customers.
And after a week in the middle of Nowhere: dollar bills – soft, stinking wads of all-pervasive, all-powerful money. Soon, the decompression turns into depression, as Gee and I shell out for our eggs and coffee and drive off back to L.A. It would be a heartbreaking experience if our hearts weren’t filled to the brim with the alternative reality of Black Rock City; a much more plausible, more real reality.

For a long time, it remains the only acceptable one.

 

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