Black Rock or Combust

Afterthoughts on the 1999 Burning Man Festival, from a four-year veteran

This year, the men with badges made three drug arrests. A slight tally, given that many of the people who go to the Burning Man Festival treat it as the Willy Wonka factory of trip toys. Obviously, the cops weren't out to make drug busts. Or to prevent the felonious destruction of U.S. currency.

One band of merry pranksters this year collected and cremated a pile of dead presidents they claimed to be worth more than a grand. Another group distributed 3,000 miniature American flags affixed to disposable lighters labeled "Personal Treason Device."

Not that I accuse Burning Man of being anti-American. To the contrary, I would argue it's fundamentally patriotic. A hard-core celebration of the First Amendment and the freedom of expression it guaran-goddamn-tees.

Because this is America, where if a man has a mind to build a Tesla Coil, mount it atop an RV, cruise around wearing a homemade suit that makes him look like a rag doll made of tin and will, he hopes, protect him from the purple lightning that strikes him repeatedly, until the nearby air is so ionized it buzzes in the teeth of the cheering throngs who follow his roving lightning machine like children around an ice cream truck, well, then, that man has a right, nay, a duty to realize that vision.

Same goes for machine artists who wish to construct armored robots and pit fight them in flame-spewing, metal-rending, spark-showering games of combat, or to build a replica of the geodesic battle arena from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Or to build a catapult and launch volleys of computers and watermelons at a giant cardboard McDonald's. Or to be a fire twirler. Or to weave through a crowd on stilts, juggling a torch, a sword, and a bowling ball, howling, "Oy my God, look out below!"

It's worth noting that Burning Man is probably the most dangerous art festival in the world. The only hard and fast rules are no vending, no commercial advertising (the festival has no corporate sponsors), and no assuming someone else is watching out for your safety.

People like to fire flare guns at Burning Man, and if you find yourself in the red, circular glow of a phosphorous flare overhead, it behooves you to look up and see where it's going to land. If you don't, your head may catch on fire.

Not all the hazards are manmade, and the entrance fee is not the only price you pay to experience Burning Man, as it's held in one of the least hospitable natural environments on the continent (Burning Man is so subversive it leads SUV drivers to actually venture off-road in droves).

There is so little life in the Black Rock Desert that a passing insect is worthy of comment. Hours after arriving this year, my eyes were gritty, my nasal tissue was caked with white dust boogers, and my lips were beginning to crack. Temperatures in early September can hit the high 90s during the day, then drop below freezing after midnight. Rain and wind storms are common. And there's nowhere to buy what you don't have but need. You have to trade for it.

The obvious benefit to a festival with a barter economy is it necessitates interactions with people you don't know. Bartering is the ultimate icebreaker.

I have a theory, which remains to be tested, that one could show up the first day of Burning Man carrying nothing but the tithe for admission and 100 luminescent glow sticks, and survive the festival in high style.

Glow sticks are a basic, hotly traded commodity at Burning Man, like cigarettes in prison. The reason is that unless you're carrying glow sticks, it's hard for anyone to see you at night, in the outer space blackness which must be traveled between art installations and burnings. Groups stay together by memorizing each member of their party's individual glow stick signature -- a red and yellow hanging together from their neck, for example, or a blue stick in each shoe. No glow sticks, no mutual homing beacons.

After one night spent searching for their friends in a strange new world, most ill-equipped Burning Man newbies are willing to trade practically anything for a glow stick.

This year there were more newbies than ever. Burning Man is still mostly a regional event whose core is from San Francisco (after California and Oregon, more people come to Burning Man from Arizona than any other state). Still, I met people this year who had traveled from Tokyo, Melbourne, London and Mexico City for a festival where the only entertainment is each other.

The morning after the Man was ritualistically burned, I climbed a tower to overlook the smoldering ruins. It looked to me as if the desert could hold a million more tents, with room to burn.

More photos of Burning Man '99 are available at www.phoenixnewtimes.com/1999/091699/house.html Contact David Holthouse at his online address: dholthouse@newtimes.com

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