My four days in the Burning Man Festival : hippy 2.0
Le dôme ou est organisée chaque soir l’une des soirées les plus fréquentées du Burning Man (Damian Ewens)
(Black Rock City, Nevada) Don’t look for Black Rock City on a map. Because this charming township of 50,000 souls in the Nevada desert only exists for one week in the year. It is there, in the beautiful middle of nowhere, that gather each year, at the end of August, artists, world-ravers and crews from Silicon Valley to celebrate Burning Man. But what is Burning Man ? That’s where things get complicated.
« Describing Burning Man to someone who has never been, is a little like trying to describe colors to a blind man, » says one « Burner ». A middle-road between Tatooine and Mad Max, a kaleidoscope of sounds, colors, and sensations brought to a boil by the sun, the dust, the drugs, and the techno. No program, no agenda, a place of total liberty where it’s about being, wandering, exchanging, and here’s what makes the place magical, abandoning all whim of judgment of others. Visit guided by this « post modern carnival of absurdity. »
To see Damian Ewens’s slideshow in full screen. click here.
For a little history, in 1986, Larry Harvey, a jilted lover, decided with his friends to go to a San Francisco beach to burn a wooden mannekin in effigy of the man he wished to cease being. There were twenty of them, and the « Man » was 8 ft. high. In 2008, the « Man » was ~80 ft. high, and we officially numbered 49,599 (source Wikipédia). And that’s where I come in. More precisely around 6pm on August 28th.
Arriving at the doors of Black Rock City, I had no idea what I was going to find here, like most of the other « virgins » (and yes, that’s what they call us). The reception is a little bit Club Med, but you need a portal between the real world and Burning Man. After watching myself be convinced to roll in the desert dust (after which the dust did not go away for the rest of the trip), I had to make love to the Playa (which is, not without irony, the name given to this earth which probably last saw water millions of years ago) to thank her for welcoming me. Before taking a public spanking to celebrate the end of my virginity.
Then they asked me if I was transporting drugs in my vehicle. So, I told myself, even when you’re in the US, one undoubtedly does not play with the law. Surprise : my negative response earned me an invitation to go back home... At least things are clear...
Geographically, Burning Man is an immense circle a few miles in diameter in the shape of a clock of which the center is the effigy of the « Man ». With my comrades-at-play, we set up camp at « 9 o’clock ». The strategy is to be far enough away from the sound systems to have a chance to sleep (one participant vowed to me that he could feel the bass in his chest inside of his RV until the early morning hours). But not so far as to find yourself in the suburbs and to be obliged to use communal transports (as it happens, space-station-like vehicles mounted on the carcasses of busses or riding-lawnmowers).
On site, there is no commerce, aside from a bar which serves coffee, tea, and energy drinks as well as an ice store. Which means that everything must be planned for and brought from the outside. Water, food, alcohol... and costumes for those for whom nudist is not an option. And all of this must be brought away again : people don’t leave a scrap on the Playa. The rules are few, but they are strict.
The preparation work sometimes takes a year and hundreds VOIRE thousands of dollars for the most ambitious projects. As for my « camp », our two days of preparation and our mini-budget will pay for a somewhat basic comfort. The dust stuck to us, our skin most of all which, for lack of a system of recycling used water, we were unable to shower but could only pour buckets of water on ourselves or run after a cistern truck which sprinkled the roadways, making for a public shower. A lack of preparation particularly detrimental during the dust storms, like Saturday’s, which lasted several hours.
But the Burner is never beaten for long. Some minutes later, armed with my scarf moistened to aid breathing and my Goggles (indispensable aviator glasses which protect against the sand) I resurfaced at the Deep End, THE rave at which to celebrate sundown on Burning Man. Dust storm or not. (See video)
Stick around to get to the trickiest part : what does one properly do during the days at Burning Man ? One tries to remain awake first of all. Because it’s hot (probably more than 100 degrees) and the nights, chilly as they are, are short on sleep : the tents transform into saunas at 8 : 30am, but to sleep before one in the morning would be a sin.
Because let’s say it right away : nights at Burning Man are magical, between a circus-fair, Alice in Wonderland, and Woodstock. You dance until the wee hours on wandering pirate boats, in lunar domes or in open air between fire breathers and hat-clad nudist cowboys. There you come across young girls promising « kisses for all » on a little billboard, a Superman or a gang of police in fishnets. You make friends for life there that you will never see again, but with whom you sketch on the sands of the best of worlds. Bodies come together. Minds forget themselves. Until the sun rises over the desert.
Two hours later, some kind of sauna awakens. The day will be long. Perched on lucky bikes bought on the Internet just before leaving (we were ultimately offered others while there), we wander, tired but amazed, through the « camps » of Burning Man.
Because here, and this is one of the peculiarities of the place, the organization organizes nothing. They do nothing but finance (with money from ticket sales), the projects of different participants. And these are varied to say the least. Some decide to set up a seesaw, others offer a stick of incense, alcohol (on the condition that you have your own cup since there is no trash on the Playa), a course in tantric yoga, a massage, an improvised dance floor. The only condition : everything must be free and open to everyone.
Example of original work, on the inside of the portable toilettes this writing : « How will you know if you don’t ask ». Followed by details of different rendezvous spots for finding sex partners... sole condition : everything must be discussed and accepted before moving on the the act. On the other wall of the toilettes, this reminder of the outside world : « Throwing unsuitable matter in the toilettes is a federal crime. »
Some spend months and thousands of dollars working on a project destined to last but a week looking in return only for the gratitude of a public quick to emphasize. The mayfly elevated to the rank of way-of-life, of which the climax is the lighting of the « Man », Saturday night, in the center of the Playa, watched by 50,000 guests.
We take the way back Sunday morning, tired, dusty, aching but haunted by delicious thoughts. We will spend close to four hours to cover the few miles that separate us from the paved road, stuck in the middle of this gigantic mechanical exodus. A hundred miles down the road, we cross paths with other Burners. A complicit moment. Exchange of gifts (beer for cigarettes !) We get back on the road to Vegas, the « City of Sin ». Were we really in paradise ?
Photos : Damian Ewens. Translation from French : Nolan Love.
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