My friend Matt Wallace is always doing something out-of-the-mainstream, something experimental or adventurous, on the fringes of so-called polite society, which is probably why I like him so much. Each year he goes to the way-out festival known as Burning Man in the Nevada desert, which is - by his report - the perfect expression of an intentional (if temporary) society complete with a cashless economy, a strict environmental ethic, an emphasis on self-expression, and most importantly, an ethic of joy and humour.
I asked Matt (picture just below) to write about his experience:
"Imagine a place where there is no war; where you can lay down a bicycle outside of a free, all-ages dance club and collect it, oh, sometime the next day. A place where hydration and consumption of water is so important that the underground newspaper is called "Piss Clear"; where "there are no spectators, only participants." Imagine a "gifting economy" that overrides barter and capitalism, where a hand-made trinket, good deeds, smiles and kind words, laughter and hugs are the currency of the day. Imagine art installations that defy your ordinary ability to describe what you see. Or DJ dance areas and sound systems so big that they look like they've been constructed by Hollywood set designers. Imagine fire-breathing cars and ordinary everyday things given a slight twist of the bizarre that can only make one laugh or stare in wide-eyed wonder.
Imagine Burning Man.
Burning Man takes place on a dry alkali lakebed so inhospitable that you can literally get chemical burns if you abuse your feet and their relationship with the ground. Luckily, you can go to "Vinegar Foot Wash Camp," and somebody will pour the alkali-neutralizing fluid on your feet along with a bit of lotion, soothing the day's pains.
Every year, thousands of people gather in one of the most deserted areas in America, a huge flat, dusty plain that becomes about the 10th largest city in the state for a week. In fact, a pilot friend of mine tells me that the Black Rock Desert is an alternate landing site for the Space Shuttle. The 45-mile long "playa," as it is known, is the hot, dusty, windy locale of Burning Man, which according to the organizer's website is about "community, participation, self-expression and self-reliance."
But it is more than that. This is a place where the impossible is possible. And just in case you haven't thought of it, somebody else almost assuredly has, and is presenting it to your slack-jawed disbelief.
"Black Rock City," complete with a Department of Public Works, Post Office (staffed by volunteer "Disgruntled Postal Workers") and a "Department of Mutant Vehicles" (which regulates "art cars") consists of a mile and a half wide semi-circular grid with planet names and hours as street names. For example, "Did you go on the roller coaster at Mercury and 7:30?" It is filled with people camping in tents, recreational vehicles (RV's), teepees and geodesic domes usually in groups with some sort of theme or none at all. That is the beauty of it. You are left to your own devices. You are asked to be a participant; not be a spectator. For some, just showing up and surviving the elements is participation enough.
This year my roommate, the fabulous Alan Brown (a Brit by birth) and I decided to make a go of it. We set up "Bad British Accent Camp." Naturally, we hosted "Bad French Accent Camp" as well! On 20-foot bamboo poles that I scavenged from a friend's garden, we hoisted the Tricolor and the Union Jack flags as well as a couple of nice handmade signs. We met all sorts of friendly folks (usually laughing) as they walked by out encampment. We spoke to most of them in the worst accents of both countries that we could muster. Some Brits even got into it by throwing real bad 'merican accents our way!
I have been a "Burner" for the past 5 out of 6 years. What I tell people is that it renews my faith in humankind. People bring huge elaborate installations out into the desert for all to enjoy. Few know who, how or why things appear. Artists' egos are non-existent to the average "Burner." You are lucky to see it all. Frequently you will stumble upon something once, never to see it again. It is always amazing to me that people from all over the world show up with the most wonderful interactive art. Frequently your sense and tastes will be challenged and, hopefully, expanded.
Burning Man is a commerce-free society, a city that rises out of the ground only to disappear after a week. It is what you make of it, that is the beautiful thing. There is a generator-free area called "Hushville," a more family friendly are called "Kidsville," Gay theme camps (the infamous "Jiffy Lube" being one of them), alternative power areas (mostly solar and wind there is plenty of both to go around), and just plain ol' folks camping.
To me Burning Man is about laughter more than anything else. There is always a twist on the usual, making it seem absurd as it should. The "Costco Soul Mate Outlet" is a good example. Fill out a form, have a digital picture taken and, viola!, you have a "soul mate" the next day (completely unbinding, as are most "agreements" here).
Or imagine seeing a man wearing a stainless steel mesh suit being struck by lightning. That is what "Dr. Megavolt" does when he stands atop a large rental truck with a Tesla coil mounted to the other end of the roof. At his command, the coil shoots an insane array of electric voltage at him. His suit is grounded, so he receives nothing more than the type of shock that you would get from walking across a carpet! The sound is amazing, something along the lines of Dr. Frankenstein's lab at full throttle! Although Dr. Megavolt was taking this year off, he was not forgotten by his legions of fans. He is a cult hero in the making!
On Thursday afternoon, thousands of women, of all ages, shapes and sizes, gather around The Man (a massive wooden and neon structure in the shape of a human skeleton, burned on Saturday night) ... topless! Breasts painted and adorned in an endless array, it's time for the "Critical Tits" ride! Modeled after the "Critical Mass" bicycle rides that storm major cities around the world once a month, shutting down traffic and raising awareness about alternate means of transportation, "Critical Tits" is Black Rock City's altered-reality version. Women atop bicycles, electric wheelchairs and the occasional unicycle ride a few laps around The Man and then split up into several large groups whooping it up as they ride through Black Rock City. People gather along the route from The Man to the city (about a half mile) cheering them on. "We love our Black Rock women!" a man next to me shouted out as they rode by. It is a celebration of sisterhood, unity and adoration. We do indeed love our Black Rock women, one and all!
Another spectacular sight is the yearly creation of artist David Best and his tireless crew. For the past few years Best has created a temple that is burned on Sunday night. Quite different from the seemingly Pagan ritual of burning The Man, the temple burning is a somber occasion. All week, people will journey to the temple and write the names of (and leave notes to) loved ones who have passed, leave offerings, or perhaps scribble a few words about a problem in their lives that is troubling them. This year the "Temple of the Stars" was offered to all - a magnificent quarter-mile long structure built entirely from wood scraps. Best takes the "industrial waste" from a children's puzzle manufacturer that makes 3-D dinosaur skeletons and creates incredibly detailed structures that truly move people. Indeed, I find it hard to approach the buildings without feeling some of the sorrow and sadness that people are pouring into it. This year I left a note of forgiveness, a few words to my deceased father whom I miss very much and a note to an actor friend of mine, Christopher Vore, who had unexpectedly passed away a few weeks before Burning Man.
On Sunday, the temple is burned down in a mostly silent ceremony with all of the sadness, grief and visions going up in smoke. It is a cleansing event and has become as important to some as the burning of The Man the night before.
Burning Man is a place where you "pack it in, and pack it out!" It is a "leave no trace" event. The community comes together on this tenet. While I might shy away from telling a stranger not to litter or pick up a piece of trash in the "default world," at Burning Man it is understood that all trash is to be picked up (regardless if it is yours). "Don't let it hit the ground." This year was the first time that I ever saw somebody drop something (a cigarette butt) and I called the person on it. She immediately picked it up after I explained that there is no litter here and that if you brought it, you must take it out because somebody else will have to pick it up.
"MOOP," or "Matter Out Of Place" is the phrase coined by the organizers. If you see MOOP, you pick it up. More importantly, "No MOOP in the Poop!" The porta-pottie contractor has the thankless task of servicing Black Rock City's hundreds of portable toilets in (a contract that costs the organizers well over US$300,000). I found it surprising to find out that if there is too much MOOP in the poop, that the contractor would cancel their service, causing the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM (the government agency that oversees the land), to cancel the event immediately. It wasn't the devious Bush/Cheney team threatening our fun, it was glow sticks, tampons, cigarette butts and God knows what in the toilets that could bring it all to a grinding halt. It is always a kind word for the cleaning men and word-of-mouth community education that keeps it going.
I recommend a new book entitled, "This is Burning Man", by Reason magazine editor Brian Doherty. See you on the Playa next year. Look for our British pub near 8:30 and Saturn.
Matthew G. Wallace