Pilgrimage to the Center: Burning Man 2018

Of all the cultural and tribal identities that have accreted to me like barnacles, the one I am most comfortable with, the one that fits best is that of Burner.’ I’ve written before about being a burner and the burner scene’ before, but several weeks ago I attended the Burning Man Festival and participated as a citizen of Black Rock City.

It was a profound experience, being in the largest gathering of those who share (or at least claim to share) my values, taking part in the organizing ritual of the largest kinship network that feels like kinship (despite how that term is pulled, fraught at the tension of encompassing 80,000 Black Rock City Denizens)… it was one of the most profound experiences of my life. And I want to contextualize, to bind the experience in word.

If I had to give a one sentence summary- I would say simply that (for me) the gestalt experience of attending Burning Man is the most beautiful thing I’ve known human beings to create.

You’re on your bike in deep playa, it’s 3am, and you’re having your first white out. You sync up your thrift store goggles and your dust mask, and watch as all your landmarks wink in and out of existence depending on the vagaries of the wind whipped dust. Fantastic creatures lit by LEDs appear from the nothingness at odd times, and you think this must be something like what it feels to be a deep sea creature who only knows light from the bio-luminescent creatures that sometimes swim by.

1. Community as Sand Mandala

Black Rock City is the community equivalent of a sand mandala. Thousands of people labor pour millions of man-hours of exacting work to create intricate, beautiful patterns in fantastic details; this craft ranges from city planning to the individual logistics of a person’s pack. And then, when this process reaches its zenith, it is swept away to (hopefully) leave no trace—a child shoving aside months, years of monk work or literally setting a _ piece temple alight to burn it to ash and stillness. Memories, and skills, and relationships remain (perhaps weirdly now that they are refracted through a radically different context and comparison) but so much of what is labored into existence is simply blown away.

I think much of the human preoccupation with the design and creation of artifacts is the obsession with banking gains: winning & building the thing now which means you’ll win’ the future as well. Even what isn’t burned is broken down: the playa, the winds eat at everything we bring out there so that it may never make it back without substantial new labor or rebuild to the point of remaking entirely.

As you leave the temple burn, the bell of silence still ringing in your ears you look out and saw thousands of bikes. Most of them had been decorated with beautiful patterns of light, but all had been marked by the sweat, the (mis)adventures of their rider(s): the tires popped by atmospheric pressure differentials, the led lights torn by tire spokes and the laughter and tears and the being. And you thought, if it had just been the bikes, it would have been beautiful & wondrous. But of course it wasn’t just the bikes, it was the bikes and the art cars and the music and the fires and the and the and the….

2. Training for the Future

Burning Man felt like it was, or perhaps could be, training for the future. Hotter (though we were spoiled this year with highs that only reached 88), dusty-dry, and populated by human beings with totally new capabilities. It felt like a chance to try on for size a different manner of status competition (though winning’ Neo-liberal currency games certainly gave you a leg up) where people try to out-art and out-gift one another as opposed to out earn-spend each other.

One of the things about Burner Culture (which I think it has in common with Afro-futurism and my own limited understanding of queer culture when it isn’t stymied by trying to redress societal wrongs) is the creation of a compelling vision of the non-apocalyptic future, a potentiality necessarily shot through with hope and possibility. This vision emerges by looking forward to the promise of a future reinvigorated by more radical inclusion, richer & more meaningful participation. A building and shaping and a creating that comes most essentially by those marginalized & denigrated people but also by those who won privilege bingo, because so much of what all of us are told is that participation begins with what you can sell and ends with what you choose to buy; a world that is completed’ by us only by how we swipe our credit cards. In order to get there, we have a nigh infinite well of historic and ongoing injustice to address even as we refuse to be yoked to the sins and dead-end stories of the past.

Absolutely, every participant of Burning Man has to navigate their way through a market economy to get there, to secure the supplies (or even just time spent not working) represents a high degree of financial privilege. But even though the even could be described as a bubble of incandescent soap, to be able to spend time in a different economic model (not currency-credit based of fictionalized barter that money supposedly solved but gifting), to spend time not buying or selling brings perspective and a chance to lay down burdens you didn’t even know you were carrying.

Perception is a matter of contrast and so much about the experience of Burning Man grants the chance to become aware of things that were invisible to you as water is invisible to fish.

You chat with Colonel Sanders, his face paint done up like a droog from Clockwork Orange on his way to the milk bar, take your first bite of fried bologna, pairing with the linger of the shot of bourbon on your tongue. Delicious and odd and unexpected; something you didn’t even know you wanted until it happened.

3. Breakdowns

For reasons both profound and pragmatic, the experience -in the pits of Burning Man as horrendous ordeal and the heights of Burning Man as largest playground ever built… a place that seems to claim it can offer you anything you desire- calls forth the unexamined in yourself and in your relations to others.

Common wisdom (to which I’m inclined to agree) is that everyone has a Burning Man breakdown.

Without going into specifics, a bunch of stuff shook loose in me in the lead up and movement through Burning Man, and I’m only now rebuilding a life that is different.

I made time and space to bring my up my feelings, to deliberately ‘surface’ all the sub-dermal stuff that wasn’t working for me in the weeks leading up to the burn. This shifted my breakdowns’ into prep and the journey there and reintegration rather than happening within Black Rock City proper. Which is the way to go if you have the choice, but you (or perhaps I should say I’) don’t always get to choose.

You watch, laughing-whooping-cheering for the routine of the burlesque dancer dressed like a pickle, her act routine culminating in a flash dace style dousing of herself in the largest jar’s worth of brine, a mess quickly cleaned by scantily clad male bunnies’ who turned the mopping up into a eroticized gyration in its own right.

4. Removing the Guard-Rails of Experience

There is no downward limit to how terrible a time you can have at Burning Man, and there is no upward limit to how great a time you can have. These two things are linked. And this is always true, your day can always be the best or worst one of your life but in the day to day goings on we often know what to expect and either explicitly or subconsciously we’re all busy arranging guard rails around our experience. Our system of law, habits, best practice, and just ‘politeness’ creates limits on how bad’ things are likely to get but also how good they can possibly be.

At Burning Man, the experience limiters are in many ways removed. Into despairing, filthy, inhospitable conditions… as we all choke on dust people gift millions of dollars, their time and creativity and most essentially themselves to help give strangers art or beauty or pleasure or a moment’s bit of humor. And as hunger is the best seasoning, you’ve never truly tasted an otter pop like the one handed to you as after you’ve been sweating for hours without respite.

The playa has its own beauty, but it is a sparse and lunar beauty; clean and clear and empty as we normally understand things. This high desert visual and auditory silence serves as a nigh perfect foil to the anarchic hyper-abundance of man-made forms. Beyond the art’ I saw more craft and wonder that I’d never seen that I could have seen but hadn’t, like the surgical precision of countless rivets across the belly of a 747 that had been dragged into the desert, that I had never seen (or at least appreciated) before because the context of day to day life nudges me to stop marveling, stop being curious and thereby limit how much wonder (which can change you, mind) can seep into the everyday.

Your night is warmed by the Rabid Transit art car: a clockwork menagerie of brown skinned Muppet demons, Burtonesque gargoyles out on a bender. Every piece winking, nodding along and breathing fire. They’re all grinning grins with too many teeth, so you grin back with every one of yours.

5. Just Us

There is life on the playa (I spotted a trio of ravens hopping along the outskirts of ingress and a butterfly I suspect has become catastrophically lost) but most of it operates at scales (either in time or in size) that make it invisible to the human eye. It felt to me like it was just us out there– us as in human beings, and us as specifically burners save for those we consider other tribes: law enforcement, the non-participatory rich supposedly trying to buy their way out of the shared condition with turn-key camps, the Instagram models and basic bros looking for Coachella on acid’ or at least a compelling backdrop to their social media content for the next week. I personally wasn’t bothered by feelings of not our tribe’ save for two times: being coyote stalking by dozens of BLM officers one night as part of the crowd gathered at the Mayan Warrior’s dance altar, and during egress seeing the abandoned bikes in their dozens (hundreds?).

You stop your bike, wanting to play with a bell. A big bellied man with a long white beard instructs you that it’s not just for ringing, but that you sit with your head inside while another rings. You go, expecting pain and discomfort but the iron rings and cleans your skull and wakes you to another day; intense pleasantly right to the threshold of pain that it won’t pass beyond.

6. The Blank Canvas

What could we (as moderns) do with a blank canvas, without the built infrastructure of our cities, without the precarious balancing of the needs of other lifeforms and the ecological systems of which we are part and parcel, what could we build if we put down our stories of alienation, of what ought\ought not to do?

Obviously, such a state can never be reached: there is no tabula rasa in which to write the words of our will in virgin wax. But chasing that, the blank slate freedom is part of the impossible promise of Burning Man as the city rises and disappears. There, only the relationships and memories of triumphs and failures; the echoing inspiration of the things you watched others do or did yourself and now have ideas for next year, the scars on our bodies and the gear that we haul back to our other slower cities and back to Black Rock City again (or not).

A nondescript hut on the playa opens up to reveal a series of boxes, each filled with mirrors to arc the light so you can play with and at infinity.

7. Putting Down Baggage, Gathering and Carrying What Serves You

My wife -as a black, multi-racial, queer woman- wasn’t sure is she could leave behind the clutching grasp of racism, of the perpetual otherization she faces; wasn’t sure if she couldn’t reach the freedom to simply be a person. And she was, but that isn’t necessarily true and -upon repetition- probably will be untrue at some point in the future. But, Burning Man is uniquely suited for you to bring only what is most universally useful, absurdly fabulous, or most honestly authentic -the rest is dead-weight and liable to slow you down or break at the most inopportune time.

For me, being at burning Man impressed upon me a desire to shed many of my possessions even as it gave me a compelling reason to pursue wealth. I was never really impressed by the vision of what one could do with wealth in our society: owning property seemed like a wash frankly in terms of the increased hassle from upkeep compared to the tax incentives, the concept of golfing bored me to tears. I can read anything I want for free at the library, I can’t drive more than one car or eat more than one meal at a time; so -as long as my needs are reasonably met- what was the point of busting ass to develop a wad of capital? The answer for me now, is that you get to give better gifts… gifts on a scale & kind of your choosing. You get to more freely build\create not bound by dollar figures but instead by the constraints of your time & imagination.

I want to space to build, space to store & stage my specialized equipment. And even as my core, everyday existence is honed down to immaculately tailored minimalist, much loved excellence, I want a solid kit of festival gear ready to be loaned out simply & enthusiastically. Because that’s one of many gifts that I had been given this year.

Why get rich? So I can afford to give more and better and different gifts, so I can unyoke myself -as far as I can- from meaningless Neo-liberal approved toil and thus pour more of myself into meaningful work and play for the sake of play.

I saw that on the playa.

And I reach for it now.

The prize cock is a British pub that rises from the desert: darts, lager, music, and a perfectly tuned decor full of silly-cleverness and the swirl of conversations. You enjoy visiting often, relaxing with your friends over a pint.

8. Art & Ads

The Burner Scene helped me fall in love with art again, doubly so on the playa. At it’s scale from a pyramid of elephants to the sneeze of an ant, in its hyper-abundance; Burning Man as a community exists in large part because it is a space for art and play freed from galleries and carefully sculpted & manicured city parks (though there’s reasons for this, as I’m glad most cars in San Diego aren’t equipped with flame throwers). Black Rock City might not be the densest, the biggest, or the fastest city I’ve ever been to; but it is by far the most art rich place I’ve ever visited.

My phone & generalized television, the wallpaper background of just having something on has grown increasingly distasteful/dull to me: a process exacerbated by attending Burning Man. It’s the ads really, most art’ I encounter here is designed to get me to enter into a monetary transaction. I’d developed a pet theory that the quality of my lived experience was negatively correlated to my own exposure to advertising and I can’t tell you what it felt like to range across such an aggressively de-commodified space (that was still man made). So much of the artistry we experience -of which there is plenty- is linked to (and ultimately hobbled by its association with) advertising specifically and commerce generally. The art that exists in and for our public and community is sanitized to the point where it can sustain no one with its thinness. To have that inverted, where publicly accessible, de-commodified art was challenging and inventive and joyously feral meant more than I can say.

Thought for one, it helped me rekindle my love for human creative expression and for two it has left me -here, in October, a month hence- in a place where I need to seek out and enjoy more art everyday which means more than simply turning left (which was a strategy that worked 99% of the time in Black Rock City).

You are hungry, but find yourself on the other side of the city from your camp. You decide with your friends to see what happens if you simply explore, following your nose and seeing what comes of it. Gifts of borscht, fondue, coffee, beer, lime-aid, and more is what happens… all of it perfect.

9. The Sacrifice

I sacrificed in order to go to Burning Man. Time & money certainly; those two essential specters that can haunt every decision with their nattering insistence on the thought of opportunity cost.’ I sacrificed a bunch of comforts, a bunch of assurances of safety. Those sacrifices, I’d do again.

One thing I won’t sacrifice again however is my living room, that was eaten by staging/prep for about two months before the event. As much as Burning Man meant to me, what I can’t do again is sacrifice the livability of my home in order to go. I still don’t have a yard or garage, but I now have access to a side fenced area/dog run, but if that should prove insufficient I would seriously consider renting a storage unit for a few months specifically set aside for all the staging/borrowing/modifying/cleaning around the event.

Riding on the art car, a clown appears, impeding your way. She cavorts and clowns, summoning more of her kind till you honestly can’t move forward at all until your car’s skipper brandishes a plastic sword and talks like a pirate to threaten and cajole them into dispersing so you can ride deeper into the tumult of psychedelic night.

10. Release Renew Return

I believe I’ll attend Burning Man again, and if I go I may skip the Man Burn: in a week wherein I was repeatedly overwhelmed by my senses, in the place where truly nothing succeeds quite like excess… that was absolutely too much. But I will always make time for the temple burn.

Trekking through shifting sands in pilgrimage, and then sitting in the quiet of tens of thousands punctuated only by occasional sobs; watching flames consume this architectural wonder where so many had grieved their dead or let go of some portion of their burden, where I had prayed a prayer of gratitude… that was the most powerful ritual of which I’ve ever taken part, non-denominational spirituality (or perhaps just beingtuality for the materialists & atheists) rite done right.

In that moment, as wood crackled and a whirlwind of flame roared out of the center, in that crying and shaking and sharing the small ritual of passing whiskey moment- I knew that we had built it all (our art, ourselves, our cities, our all) only to tear it all down.

I tend to think that the cycle of death and birth is the endless, the eternal. Maybe you feel the same, maybe you believe that the wheel will eventually break in mystic apocalypse or a solar expansion or wear down to nothing as part of the heat death of the universe; but until then, as far as we can know, the building and the burning , the living and the dying, the growing and the fading… it’s the only game in town.

I had, I will have moments of profundity, of grief, of delirious laughter and the thing that most fundamentally binds them all together is that I can’t hold onto any of them.

They will be scattered like so many grains of intricately placed sand, like so much clinging playa painstakingly scrubbed free of our rental van with apple cider vinegar, like a temple built to hold the weight of a moment is burned to ask. And only echoes will remain, will inspire and shape what rises from the void, from the playa next year.

I am happy to enjoy as many revolutions as I may, watching our work turn to ash and our ash grow to timber to feed more works.

It is _.

The man burned _ days ago.

It is _.

The man burns in _ days.

The man is always burning, burned, and unburnt.

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