This is the unedited version of a feature commissioned by News Corp Australia, published in the Sunday Herald Sun on October 12, 2014.
What is Burning Man? Well, if you haven’t been, I can almost guarantee it’s not what you think.
It’s as individual as the 65,922 people who this year became citizens of Black Rock City, a temporary community which gradually builds in the Nevada desert, before disappearing in September without a trace.
There are tickets, costing US$380 a pop, but this entitles you to almost nothing. In fact, the fine print states you voluntarily assume the risk of property loss, serious injury or death.
The event is staged in one of the most inhospitable places on Earth. The playa (pronounced plyer), or desert floor, is almost completely devoid of plant or animal life due to extreme alkalinity, frequently experiences temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius and high winds stir up dust into ‘white outs’, which can last for days.
On average, each participant spends around US$1,000 on food, water and shelter to survive the week and, oh, you must bring gifts. Enough for as many people as possible.
Sounds like a ball, huh? Want to go next year?
Well, you should.
What started on San Francisco’s Baker Beach in 1986 has now become one of the modern wonders of the world – well – the Western world at least.
Almost 30 years ago founder Larry Harvey gathered a few pals on the sand and burned an effigy of a man as a symbolic cleansing gesture after a bad breakup.
Burning Man was born, and gradually grew up. The first 1,000-plus crowd was in 1993, 23,000 came in 1999 and last year a record 69,613 thronged to the playa.
You may think the logistical task of ordering that amount of people into a temporary city impossible and, it probably would be, were this not Burning Man.
This is where the event’s 10 principles kick in, drawn up by Harvey in 2004 as; ‘a reflection of the community’s ethos and culture as it has organically developed since inception’. Or; ‘to make sense of the shitshow’, as one veteran volunteer told me.
Among the guidelines are radical self expression, gifting, radical self reliance, communal effort, civic responsibility and participation.
But the most remarkable is to leave no trace. A month or so after the last dust-covered RV rolls out on to Country Road 447 in search of hot showers and the closest In-N-Out Burger, there is nothing left but a few confused rattlesnakes wondering if they dreamed the whole thing.
And it is like a dream. There are jaw-dropping moments, and then there’s the first night you walk out on to the playa.
It’s a 360-degree assault on all the senses, a beautiful fusion of childlike wonder and adult ingenuity, a psychedelic playground for grown ups.
You can easily spot the ‘virgins’. They’re the ones staring in wonder at the bicycle perfectly customised to look like a wooly mammoth, jumping clear as a cupcake-shaped mutant vehicle whizzes past or expressing surprise as a passer by offers them a free mojito.
But there is order in all this chaos. While almost everything that happens at Burning Man is a creation of the participants, it is generally pre-approved.
Theme camps, hundreds of which form the interactive core of the event, submit proposals on the communal space or structures they will create, how they will withstand the extreme environment and what they intend to ‘gift’ to the playa.
Activities range from female ejaculation workshops, to beekeeping summits, a celebration of Pineapple Upside-Down Cake Thursday or the regular offerings at the orgy dome, where, well – I’ll let you work that one out for yourselves.
Those wishing to bring a mutant vehicle or art car must apply months in advance and only about half are approved.
A high level of mutation is encouraged and Tall Neil (his playa name), a Vancouver-based Burner and creative director of The Bleachers art car, said there are around 40 base principles to be met.
“It has to take 15,000 pounds of people jumping up and down and also drive comfortably at 5mph for extended periods, through the desert, in 40 degrees Celsius or zero,” he said.
“I also think one of the specifications is; ‘if 20 monkeys on acid attacked it, it has to be somewhat acid-attack-by-monkey proof’.”
All must pass a stringent DMV (Department of Mutant Vehicle) inspection on the first day of the event to secure separate day and night licenses.
The law enforcement doesn’t stop there. The landscape is protected from spoilage by the Bureau of Land Management, rules are enforced by Burning Man Rangers and the police work in undercover teams to try and expose participants who are doing or selling drugs.
Business Insider reported that at the 2012 event a female agent dressed up as catwoman and ‘undercover cop spotting’ is an ongoing pastime across the playa.
There’s no denying drug use can be an integral part of the Burning Man experience, but just being there is a considerable high, and many are too involved in creating art, building things or running activities to pull frequent all-nighters.
Sydney-based broadcast engineer Jeremy Funke said his interest in the event was piqued when he saw an image online of an art car that was an actual reproduction of a cartoon cat bus.
“I needed to be at the place where someone can make a cat bus,” he said.
“I wanted to go to the place where that kind of creativity is, and I eventually figured out it was Burning Man, I’d never heard of it before that.”
Funke attended his first Burn in 2012, spending about US$3,000 on flights and supplies to get through the week.
“It was small scale, we did it on the cheap, the first year was just surviving.”
This year he was part of a larger theme camp that staged an Australia Day event, serving roo bangas, Tim Tams and exposing participants to a hills hoist adorned with goon bags.
“The first year I felt a bit guilty for being a bit of a tourist so we wanted to do more gifting this time,” he said.
“The expense was probably more like US$5,000 this year, buying all the stuff and getting it all here.
“What I really enjoy is the project nature of it (Burning Man), I’m a builder, a doer, and this is maker heaven.”
In 2013 Funke attended the Australian satellite event Burning Seed, which was staged this year in Matong State Forest during the first week of October.
“I met some wonderful people there, and quickly became part of a theme camp,” he said.
“It (the ethos) has spilled over in to my life, I’m just now a more generous person, the gifting economy has affected me.”
In fact, events like Burning Seed and Afrikaburn, which attracted 7,000 participants to a location 300km north of Cape Town this year, is where Burning Man itself is devoting most of its resources.
“Expansion is the future,” said spokesman Jim Graham, better known on the playa as RonJon.
“Burning Man has reorganised itself as a non-profit entity to be able to better support the growth around the world.
“We’ve got 220 representatives in 40 countries and they conduct at least 65 Burn type events every year.”
At least 18 per cent of Burning Man participants come from outside the USA, and Graham notices more Australians every year.
“It always impresses me how committed they (Australians) are to bringing art. To come half way around the world to share what they’ve created is just amazing,” he said.
Graham believes it’s people like the Aussies making the pilgrimage to Nevada who will help the original Burning Man message endure.
“The founders now are getting older and they’re looking at what the legacy is they’ll leave behind,” Graham said.
“What they’re really focussing on now is this international growth. Can people take those 10 principles of building community, gifting, art and spread it?”
A week may seem an eternity to spend camped in a dust storm but, in truth, it’s nowhere near enough time to experience all Burning Man has to offer.
No sooner have you removed your outfit from the Panda Bear Cider Party than it’s Squirt Gun Fight Happy Hour at The Treehouse camp across the playa.
There’s also a huge variety of art scattered around to explore. The most popular piece this year was probably Embrace, a seven-storey high wooden cathedral-like sculpture of two human figures which tens of thousands of participants watched burn on Friday morning.
Music also plays an integral part in Burning Man, and in recent years the sound stage camps have become better funded, the DJ names bigger and the shows more elaborate.
Jack U (aka: Diplo and Skrillex) performed this year at Robot Heart, renowned for its dawn parties, and created something of a music media frenzy when the former was allegedly booed off stage.
Some gigs are scheduled, but the beauty of Burning Man is that you are just as likely to stumble across a well-known DJ playing a random set on an art car in the ‘deep playa’, an area a few miles out into the desert away from the city itself.
Undoubtedly electronic music is the main genre on offer – good earplugs are a must of you intend getting any sleep – but other options include a wonderful little Jazz Bar and thrash metal at the Mad Max-inspired Thunderdome.
Of course, Daft Punk might turn up one year and actually play the Trash Fence – a seven-mile long structure which surrounds the event to catch flying moop (matter out of place).
This is a long-standing joke at Burning Man and it was given further mileage this year by a sign on The Bleachers which stated; ‘Daft Punk, playing tonight, deep playa’.
Rumours fly around the desert more freely than an unsecured tent in a dust storm – nothing can really be proven or disproven – even after the alleged event has taken place.
Video emerged post Burn of Will Smith supposedly choreographing a dance routine on that strangest of transportation devices, the segway. The media jumped all over it but, at Burning Man, it probably pales into insignificance compared to the ride you just had on a lizard car and the kooky stuff you saw last night after drinking a little too much absinthe.
The rumour mill just adds to what can be an extremely baffling experience for first timers, especially late in the week, when all of the signs begin to disappear.
“Word on the street is that there were around 40 per cent new Burners this year so, when you think about that, no wonder the Daft Punk sign is so confusing,” Tall Neil said.
“Which just makes it way funnier, really.”
In recent years veteran Burners have complained the ethos of a year-round culture is being dissolved by too many first timers and plug-‘n’-play camps which treat it as just another party.
Venturing away from the Esplanade (the main drag) is where you’ll find an increasing amount of exclusive air-conditioned RV communities with full catering.
The buy-in here, where you can enjoy plates of trucked-in sushi, premium alcohol and porcelain toilets, can be as much as US$25,000.
These Burners mainly fly in via Black Rock City’s pop-up municipal airport to avoid the lengthy commute and queues, which were unprecedented this year after electrical storms and rain closed down the city for a record 12 hours on Monday.
Many question what these camps are giving back, but then radical inclusion is the first of the 10 principles, and the mega-rich and influential have long had a place in the Burning Man playground.
Anti-tax activist and Washington-insider Grover Norquist was a high profile attendee this year and Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin have been coming on and off for a decade.
Mark Zuckerberg and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos have also done their time on the playa, co-founder of Dropbox Drew Houston attended in 2014, and there has always been a strong link between Black Rock City and Silicon Valley.
Nor is drug-fuelled mind expansion the only kind going on at Burning Man. TED held its own TEDxBRC event this year, with the intention of video and live speakers combining to spark deep discussion and connection.
I’m sure some were torn, however, by the fact the Tuesday TED session clashed with the Armpit Farting Symphony at Bamboozled camp.
This unfortunate piece of scheduling is just one of the myriad of contradictory experiences Burning Man constantly presents.
A member of a neighbouring camp recounted her emotional visit to the Temple of Grace at dawn to devote time to remembering her brother, recently killed in a farm accident.
The temple was a beautifully intricate and completely non-denominational structure for memorials and a space for reflection. Visiting was a powerful experience but, after weeping for her sibling, my neighbour rode five minutes across the playa to dance the morning (or perhaps mourning) away as part of a 5,000-person rave.
There are so many things at Burning Man which we could do with more of in the outside world. The sense of community, open sharing of knowledge, actual communication instead of virtual, the joy of collective achievement and the simple abundance of love, compassion and empathy.
The experience can reawaken people, positively realign them and many admit that this is the only time and place they feel like themselves. Upon entry every participant is greeted with a hug and a ‘welcome home’ by a volunteer.
But in other ways Burning Man is a reflection of many problems we are failing to address as a society.
This is more apparent late in the week when everything seems to be on fire, including the giant man which cost US$400,000 to construct. Critics feel this flagrant display of excess reflects our failure to move away from a disposable economy and is hardly the action of a responsible and sustainable community.
Burning Man can be beautiful, but it’s undoubtedly debaucherous, and some insist it has come to represent what is rotten in our culture.
Tall Neil seemed to nail the juxtaposition with a comparison to another civilisation which went down in a blaze of glory 1,500 years ago.
“I try to never forget that what we’re doing right now is arguably the most gluttonous party in the history of humanity, it’s like right before the fall of Rome,” he said.
“I think when we look back on this in a couple of hundred years, they’re going to say; ‘what the hell? Are you shitting me? Climate change was doing what? There was a billion people every day that didn’t have access to fresh water?’
“And I just shot fresh water out of a water gun on an art car that’s blowing diesel, driving around the desert with half-naked beautiful women, probably on acid.”
But the natural high of making people laugh with his commentary and being able to release the ‘inner clown’ he suppresses for 51 weeks of the year is what brought Tall Neil back for his eighth burn.
“I radiate from it the entire time I’m here,” he said.
“Perhaps there’s a balance between the two and you realise that a lot of the people here are the kind of people that spend 350 days of the year trying to do positive stuff,” he said.
“Inherently what our (art) car does is positive. If I use two jerrycans of diesel to run this car but 5,000 people laugh their arse off in the year, I think that’s pretty good offsetting.
“I think that’s all it is these days, is trying to find an offsetting balance, and we all have to make a decision about that.”
You’ll hear Burners discussing this conflict right across the playa. On the whole these are highly-educated and informed humans, but many seem self conscious about their indulgence, like this is their guilty pleasure.
The excess is easy to gauge, but the tsunami of positive energy this event emanates is more difficult to measure. Burning Man seems to have been a seminal moment in so many people’s lives, the place of epiphany that led to a career change, the resolution of a conflict or a final resting place for grief.
A veteran of 19 burns as a participant, volunteer and now administrator, Graham summed it up nicely by recounting a quote he heard in his first year.
“Burning Man doesn’t teach you how to live outside the box, it just shows you that there is a box,” he said.
But the fact his organisation is channeling its resources toward satellite events around the world seems to indicate an acceptance that Black Rock City is drifting away from Harvey’s 10 commandments.
In fact; ‘Burning Man used to be better’, seems to have unofficially become the 11th. There’s a nostalgia among veterans for the halcyon days when there were less first-timers, smaller parties and a more intimate experience.
A new breed is redefining what it means to be a Burner. It’s getting bigger, louder, traditions are fading.
It feels like Burning Man is reaching some kind of zenith. How long can it continue to defy what is happening in the rest of the world? Is the apocalypse coming?
While attending a fundraiser for a theme camp in 2012 I asked a veteran Aussie Burner what it was all about and he simply said; ‘just go’.
This is probably sound advice because, all too soon, perhaps there really will be no trace.