some thoughts on Burning Man
I’m back from Burning Man! This was my first time and it was completely awesome. Maybe by the end of this post I’ll figure out whether it was my last or not.
Burning Man, in my opinion, has several components–surviving the desert, the art, and the community. These are the factors that must be analyzed in determining whether to return or not.
This is not hard and a non-issue. I actually lied when I said it was a significant factor, but it was daunting to me at first when I was thinking about whether I’d go. One factor that had raised my respect for burners before I went is that I thought it would require a lot of outdoorsiness, but it doesn’t. All it really requires is a tolerance for heat, dust mask and goggles, and a willingness to put up with filthy Porta Potties. Since you drive into your camp and you stay in one place for the week, you don’t have to pick and choose what you’d bring with you like you would on a real backpacking trip. Are you too delicate for a sleeping bag? Get a U-Haul and bring a mattress. Would you like to eat something better than tortillas and peanut butter for a week? You can be like my friend, a dedicated foodie, who came in with a cooler with fried chicken and green beans. The BM organizers even have tents that will sell you ice, so you could eat nothing but delicious fried chicken and ice cream all week long if you so desired.
I had also been concerned about the heat, but it’s quite survivable. It’s a dry heat, and the temperature only got bad enough that I had to hide in some shade for a couple hours in the afternoon. Even if you were too stupid to set up a shade structure, like my camp, plenty of other burners will set up public chill spaces for you to scuttle into. Some of them even have misting systems set up, and other burners will generously spray you with water as you walk by. One especially organized camp even handed out free soft-serve ice cream every day!
The BM organizers spew a lot of annoying bullshit rhetoric about how Burning Man requires “radical self-reliance,” but if you can manage to follow a shopping list and rent a car without the assistance of your parents, you are more than self-reliant enough.
Here, I have mixed feelings. I saw a lot of really beautiful things, like a 40 foot tall sculpture of a woman dancing that was dusty white by day, but constantly glowing different colors at night. I saw some very clever things, like a hammock with a hole in it, through which burners could wriggle through as a metaphor for rebirth. And it is profoundly wonderful to stand on the central playa at night, to marvel at the disjointed ring of light surrounding you…I can’t begin to describe how lovely it is, and I’ll save that attempt for some other time. Tell me there’s another event like this, and I know you’ll be wrong.
Even so. I know that most people couldn’t weld together a flaming four-leaf clover and display it without some wrathful yuppie citing a zoning regulation and making them take it down. I respect how Burning Man is a safe place for people to express themselves. The way this self-expression manifests itself is something that I cannot quite respect, though. I do admire the effort that the artist behind the four-leaf clover put in, and it’s undeniably beautiful. It just doesn’t move me. Art has two components in my mind–firstly, it must be either beautiful or interesting, and secondly, it must say something–it has to be moving, to be thoughtfully provocative. Everything at Burning Man falls into the first category, but I can’t think of a single thing that fell into the second. I walked around the playa day and night being entertained out of my mind by the playful creation I saw, but that’s all I was–entertained.
So what if I only felt entertained? It’s a damn good vacation. But I expected to feel more than just entertained when confronted with the result of “radical self-expression,” and this world is full of many other entertaining things that don’t require using some radically nasty Porta Potties.
Burners are wonderful people! I found it really easy to start conversations, and people were always extremely pleasant and willing to talk. I did meet a couple assholes (burner salsa dancers appear to be gigantic snobs of the worst kind), but that’s to be expected of any event. I just wore a normal shirt and shorts and therefore made myself the most out-of-place I’ve ever been in sartorial terms, but nobody ever pointed it out or was ever less than unfailingly friendly. People smiled, people gave me trinkets, hair washes, food, pleasant conversation, and the most sincere gratitude for whatever I could give back.
Short of an improv class, I don’t think I’ve ever had so many playful spontaneous interactions. I was waiting in line with a friend for a tarot reading, and to pass the time, I started humming to myself. A girl next to us started singing along with me until we ran out of lyrics. It’s hard for me to imagine this happening anywhere else–usually, people have gotten mad at me for being out of key. Another time, I was lying in a tent, closing my eyes, and a girl sat down beside me and said, “I’m going to play you a lullaby!” We ended up having a good conversation about college life and her dream of some day going to law school. Burning Man gave me plenty of little moments I’ll always treasure.
I don’t think I would come back just for the community, though. It’s easy to give gifts and be nice when that’s the cultural norm, and somehow, I don’t think any burner off the playa would be willing to invite me into a conversation with their friends whilst at a coffee shop. I think that much of burner culture can only exist because it’s a vacation from reality. Burning Man is one week where for once, everyone has more than what they need in food, water, companionship, entertainment, and just about everything else. I like seeing what might be possible in creating a culture of trust and generosity, but the Burning Man experiment is sufficiently removed from real life that it just feels like pure escapism to me.
*In the final analysis*
Would I go back? I’m not entirely sure. For now, I’ll say, “yes, but not next year, or maybe even for a few years.” I like novelty. I have other places I want to go, other people to see, other things to try, and finite vacation days. If I did go back, I would rather participate a lot more and really change my experience. If someone needs extra labor for an art car, or has a cool idea for a theme camp, then I might come–but now I’m really raising the barrier to returning in terms of time, money, and sheer energy. You get what you put into Burning Man, but that’s true for most things. The question is–do I really want to put in more for this particular thing? I’m not sure yet.
But what’s certain is that I can’t come back again the way I came this time, as a relatively casual observer. I think I participated as much as I could. I interacted with a lot of the art, I walked around and saw a lot of things, and I talked to a lot of people. But my time at Burning Man still felt like I was just watching a really good movie.
And I never watch those things twice.