Burning Man!

I’m bumping this article from last year, since Burning Man starts next weekend. Tammy’s screener/AP Nikki is a regular “Burner”, so she’ll be there. (Hey, Nikki, will you be able to call in and report from the scene?)

As a public service, and to save Nikki the trouble of endless repetition, let’s get these top three questions out of the way:

  1. Q: Do people get naked at Burning Man?
    A: Yes, some do.
  2. Q: Does Nikki get naked?
    A: Not in public.
  3. Q: Will you post naked pictures?
    A: No!

There are countless videos and pictures from previous Burning Man festivals to be found online. Here is a good sample of a YouTube video with various Burning Man clips.

* * * *

Maynard points out a fascinating and insanely escapist event

Every year, the week leading up to Labor Day is the occasion of the oddball Burning Man festival in the remote Black Rock Desert of northern Nevada. Here, for the week, something like 35,000 people will set up shop for total immersion into in an experiment in controlled anarchy. It’s a temporary community of participatory art and/or psychodrama on a grand scale.

Burning Man started as a personal cathartic exercise in 1986, when a few friends built and burned an 8-foot tall wooden statue at Baker Beach in San Francisco. They liked it so much that they came back to do it again the following year, and it became an annual event. The size of both the crowd and the statue grew, resulting in relocation to rural Nevada in 1990.

The construction and incineration of the Man is the central theme of the week, but it’s really not about him at all. The event is an exercise in imagination run wild, with the expectation that every attendee is a participant rather than an observer. There are almost no commercial transactions, and even bartering is discouraged; it’s more like a huge pot luck picnic in which everyone brings something to the table. There is enough law enforcement to assure that a few basic rules are followed, but beyond that, pretty much anything goes. There are sights, sounds, food, drink, and just about any experience that can be made available. Then the week ends, the Man burns, and everyone cleans up and goes home.

No, I’ve never been there myself. I find the notion intimidating, going to a place where there is nowhere to hide. But it sounds completely fascinating as a brief, experimental escape from the framework that dominates our lives. Broadly speaking, I believe we require that our social structures be somewhat rigid, lest we descend into savagery (as in Lord of the Flies). But those who understand the necessity of rules in a civilized society can probably survive a week of this madness. Do we have any burners (as the attendees are called) in the audience? Anyone planning on going next week?

Burning Man has been the subject of a number of documentaries, such as Burning Man: The Burning Sensation and Burning Man: Beyond Black Rock and others. Visit their official web site or check out the Wikipedia entry for more information.

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14 Comments | Leave a comment
  1. Vicki says:

    Heard of this from a few friends who have good things to say. Would love to do this sometime. I could bring jewelry trinkets to share and I would need to go with friends experienced with surviving the elements as I’ve only camped once in my life.

    Maynard, you would need to make a place to “hide.”

  2. Bamagal says:

    I saw this on TV a few years back and doubt very much that I would be inclined to attend. The idea of spending a week with aging hippies and wannabees in a communal setting quite frankly doesn’t quite appeal to me as I fear that somehow b/o might be involved. To me, camping is no room service. Nature is fine in it’s context, outside, not crawling all over my bed *L*

  3. goesh says:

    I missed Woodstock by being in Viet Nam – I have no excuse for missing this.

  4. Proto says:

    Almost like the fire festival in that great samari flick Yojimbo [The Bodyguard].

  5. Clackablog says:

    Haven’t been, and am unlikely to (as when I have time away, I am likely to go out on volunteer disaster recovery jobs instead) but it’s worthy to consider Burning Man as a demonstration of how well the social contract works with minimal enforcement.

    Burning Man is many things, and one is a demonstration that tolerance works. If you allow your neighbor to run their own life and they allow you to run yours, that seems to work.

    They do have emergency services (fire/EMT/mental health) and unarmed security, too; but the latter are non-confrontational in their approach, another key. Like the classic London bobbie, they’re not there to use force, and that works.

    On top of that, there’s external law enforcement, but the first layer of social control is simply observing the social contract; the second, the unarmed ‘Black Rock Rangers’, and both work amazingly well.

    All they (attendees) want is to be left alone, and that works well.



  6. My husband is a software engineer and one of the other programmers told him the following about Burning Man:

    Burning Man started in California a number of years ago when a gentleman got a divorce. He then became despondent and went to the beach evidently. He then built an effigy in wood of himself and burned it to symbolically get rid of his past and start over. It was meant to signify a new beginning.

    Each year attendance got larger and the message got murkier. Finally it was moved to Northern Nevada and today, more than anything else, seems to be some sort of anarchistic statement against all the rules and laws set by society. I’ve never been, but as I understand it, you are not supposed to be offended by anything happening there – live and let live so to speak.

    I have no desire to go or thoroughly understand an event that looks to be an excuse to party but which seems to be very important to a lot of people. Just thought I would send in what I’ve heard it is since we live near Reno in Carson City, NV.

    Terresa Monroe-Hamilton

  7. LasVegasLimo says:

    Been there. Done that. 2002. It is very different from ordinary everyday civilian life in America. Perhaps Tammy doesn’t attend because she is afraid of losing all the predictable comforts of our fantastically organized society. Guess she just doesn’t trust her fellow humans that much. It’s not really anarchy, it is people celebrating the end of Summer going into Winter once again with a flair toward personal party expression. Everyone and I mean everyone at Burning Man was friendly, interactive and fun.

    There was only ONE fight that I saw and it was short and no big deal. The costumes are great, the visuals are great, the ART CARs are great, the weather is HOT, the “pageantry” is unreal. Burning Man spectacles are far too extreme to define in this confined space. When I attended I went in my RV. I encourage anyone who wants creature comforts at Burnng Man to arrive properly equipped …. like with a nice RV. There are NO stores and no amenities available so take EVERYTHING you need to enjoy the week! It’s worth the ridiculous price of the ticket. OH, and the toilets are out-houses so RV’s give you that “special advantage” as does the air conditioner built into the RV! 😉 Just do it.

  8. camperdude says:

    I used to go every year from 1993-2000. It was only about 2500 people the first time I went. Now it’s 35,000+.

    Why don’t I go anymore? One, I stopped doing drugs. And for many people, even most people, Bman is about doing drugs. But I knew many sober folks and families who went, too, and had a great time.

    The “freedom” element has been curbed somewhat and that is a GOOD thing! Because it was totally out of control for a few years, and the organizers had to crack down – not to avoid intervention from the law, but because the whole scene was turning dark and people were getting hurt. It is now a lot safer, but still a wild time.

    If you are at all interested, check out the website and the thousands of sites dedicated to it. It really is a unique, crazy, “only in America” experience… and you will find a LOT of right-wingers there as well as the stereotypical dreadlocked, pierced, tatooed types. My opinion – DO IT!

  9. Mike says:

    Hmm. When those singing the praises of an event find it difficult to explain or define and end up speaking in vague superlatives instead, one might legitimately question the ultimate worth of that event.

    If one lives a fulfilling, balanced life, you know, the kind where you know who (and what) you are, are in touch with your feelings, have a purpose, are comfortable with the social contract, and generally enjoy life–this is often called being a mature, responsible adult–such events seem to have little appeal. I wonder why that might be the case?

  10. Mike says:

    Hmm. When those singing the praises of an event find it difficult to explain or define and end up speaking in vague superlatives instead, one might legitimately question the ultimate worth of that event.

    If one lives a fulfilling, balanced life, you know, the kind where you know who (and what) you are, are in touch with your feelings, have a purpose, are comfortable with the social contract, and generally enjoy life–this is often called being a mature, responsible adult–such events seem to have little appeal. I wonder why that might be the case?

  11. Ann says:

    For those of you not interested in going to “Burning Man”, the U.S. Open Tennis Championships also start tomorrow in New York. Tomorrow evening Althea Gibson, the first African American, male or female, to win that tournament will be honored. This is a nice follow up to last year when the United States Tennis Association renamed the tennis facility after Billie Jean King. It is also the 35th consecutive year that men and women have been awarded equal prize money.

    If you do not care about tennis, Maria Sharapova’s outfits have been inspired by the New York skyline.

  12. camperdude says:

    Oh, Mike… I never thought I’d be placed in the position of defending Burning Man, but your post leaves me no option.

    What, exactly, is so weird about “When those singing the praises of an event find it difficult to explain or define and end up speaking in vague superlatives instead?” Should we stop believing in God because he can’t be described in concrete terms?

    If it’s concreteness you want, then it’s concreteness you shall have.

    Burning Man is an arts festival held every Labor Day weekend about 12 miles into the middle of the Black Rock Desert in Northwestern Nevada. During this time, the area goes from being a flat lakebed with no life (other than some insects) to a working city of 35,000+ people, and then back to a lakebed again. It is much like a big music festival, but with some very important differences:

    1) There is nothing to buy. No T-shirts, no commemorative CDs, no food, no water, no NOTHING.

    2) All participants are completely responsible for themselves (at least, that’s the idea).

    3) It’s in the middle of a desert! With highs over 100 and lows at night near freezing. Don’t tell me that you can get through that without some level of self-sufficiency.

    4) Up until recently, guns were permitted. Bet that doesn’t happen at your state fair!

    5) Originally, there were no cops. This was fine when the event was relatively unknown and small, but as it got bigger, the local authorities have been patrolling the event – and have actually been welcomed.

    And, Mike, I guarantee you that there are plenty of “mature, responsible adults” – who hold all the traits you say make them up – who go to BMan year after year (and now bring their kids with them). Does being a “mature, responsible adult” necessarily preclude the idea of doing ‘out of the ordinary’ things? Do no “mature adults” go on adventures? Do no “mature adults” climb mountains?

    As to what I said in my earlier post about not doing drugs anymore, it is true that, for many, including myself at the time, doing lots of drugs was part of the experience. But, even there, if you can believe it, there was a far greater level of responsibility exercised. I know that sounds crazy but I don’t know how else to put it.

    I had some really great times at Burning Man. And, to be honest, I had some really hellish times there as well, but that wasn’t the fault of the event. You get out of it what you put into it, which is another way in which it differs from just another music festival. You are part of it. Like it or not.

  13. jcrue says:

    thanks for the reminder, gotta get my supply of bottled water and camping food before the burners clean out all of reno. the local stores will cordon off areas of their parking lots and sell supplies ordered just for this event so the in-store inventories are not adversely effected and so the locals don’t have to smell the patchouli and body odor from our “enlightened” brethren.

    this is also the best time to stay off the roads as these “free spirits” drive their vehicular abominations through our city. when you see them you know where they are headed because nothing will remind you of a post-apocalyptic techno circus meets mad max better than some of the contraptions that pass through our neck of the woods on the interstate.

    i do have to say burners are an impressive display of people expressing their individuality by conforming to the nonconformist lifestyle.

  14. Rob says:

    Uh, “controlled anarchy”? I’ve been doing some reading on this little shindig! He’s not real far off of wrong! Nick, what the hell are you doing, let’s please think this thing out a small bit, yes???

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