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The Faces of Burning Man – Black Rock City
To judge Burning Man solely through a filtered lens — as a sprawling, raucous Mad Max-esque rave with elaborately-costumed (or totally naked people) — is a reductive view of an intricately faceted event. There is more to be discovered beneath the cosmetic surface of the festival-goers.
By Prashant Ashoka
Entertainment & Culture
/3 October 2017
As I cycle through billowing dust clouds, across the barren expanse of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert — an arid playa flanked by red-tinged mountain ridges in the distance — I am trying to reconcile my feelings about returning to the annual Burning Man festival. Does the event, in its 31st year, and which drew over 70,000 people into the inhospitable post-apocalyptic ecology of the playa, still remain humanity’s greatest counterculture movement of self-expression and libertarianism? Or have its founding utopian pillars crumbled with the advent of digitised voyeurism?
Even if the Burning Man festivals of the ’90s are really over, one thing still holds true: It is a cultural convergence like no other. An ephemeral sprawling sci-fi metropolis rises from the dust — existing for only a week of each year before disappearing without a trace — where an intentional community of its citizens gather to partake in an alternative society principled around decommodification, self-reliance, creativity, openness, love and radical expression. And like in any living, breathing and evolving city, Burning Man is wrought with jarring contradictions and hypocrisies that coexist alongside acts of unconditional giving, community building, and evolved ideologies around human connection, the environment and technology.
With that in mind, I set off to create an exhuastive catalogue of the festival's participants, and their respective stories.
I struggled with anxiety and depression for a large part of my life which manifested over time through substance and alcohol abuse. I used to walk a very dark path in life. As a remedy to my inner turmoil I used a lot of Western medication like sleeping pills and antidepressants which numbed me and exasperated my feelings of emptiness. It came to a breaking point where I had to figure out if this was to be the future I was willing to live.
I discovered plant medicine and alternative forms of healing, and for the past four years I have used these methods to completely turn my life around. It helped me open myself up and heal. I have now opened up my own practice in Toronto where I offer energy healing, which has been one of the most powerful tools that has helped me along my own transformation.
I truly believe that our consumerist culture and disconnection from nature is responsible for turning us away from our natural state of harmony and inner balance. I see a lot of people who live in big cities chasing material goals and conforming to a culture that measures our success by financial and social structures rather than finding inner peace and building loving communities that respect nature. And this is exactly what Burning Man stands for.
To be removed from everything that we consider a “normal” part of our lives and to find yourself in the middle of a harsh desert climate can be a confronting experience. And “confronting” is probably the best way to describe Burning Man. When you no longer are part of the usual routine of your life, you are able to observe your thoughts from the outside looking in. Coming to this place has allowed me to observe my own patterns of behavior and thoughts. It has given me the chance to explore myself, question my beliefs and ideas and to keep those that serve me and do away with the ones that do not. Gifting is one of the principles of Burning Man, and to a first-timer it can seem very strange to view giving and receiving as an act of love instead of a transaction, which we are programmed to see in our normal lives. The biggest thing that I’m taking away is that I have now become a confident gift-giver. Being able to give without expectation and to receive without fear or judgment is such a liberating experience.
I think Burning Man is both the past and the future at the exact same moment. Living in nature, braving the elements, cooking communally for each other, sharing stories in person instead of through technology – it’s a world of the past that doesn’t really exist outside of Burning Man. Yet this gathering is happening at the exact same moment where we have a future world of almost science fiction. We have technologies that have surpassed the realms of what many people previously thought possible. Burning Man is a place where our shared humanity has the power to influence the ideas and technologies of tomorrow.
In 2011, I went to Burning Man for the very first time in my life. After failing to pair up with friends to go together, I made a conscious choice to go solo. Over the week, I kept hearing about the breathtaking playa sunrise. I finally made it to The Temple at the end of the week, just before dawn. There was a large crowd waiting in complete silence. The dust was rising just a few feet above the ground like fog in the early spring. There was an indescribable feeling of interconnection between everyone there even though we were all from different parts of the world, with diverse backgrounds. Quietly the sun came up over the horizon. There were many people moved to tears, and so was I. I looked back to the sun. Tears were coming down my face. At that moment, I met my heart for the very first time in my life.
I have never missed one playa sunrise since then (consecutively 66 so far on my 7th burn). I am drawn to the spiritual and transformative sides of the playa. I was given a playa name "Dayburn" because I sleep at night and focused my time mostly from sunrise to sunset. I am a dayburner. I was born at dawn. Burning Man is my annual spiritual retreat.
In 2014, out of my own need to have emotive and cinematic music to accompany the sunrises, I decided to compose my own personal soundtrack "Dawn of the Burning Sun". This personal need grew into a concert which subsequently evolved into a full scaled annual ceremony, with guided sun salutations while a full plane of skydivers at Burning Man perform a synchronized landing during the theme track.
It’s my joy and thrill to gift and share my favorite time with the community. Burning Man truly opened my mind to new visions and amplified and revealed my true self. Without Burning Man, I would never have become a composer. Without Burning Man, I would have never met my heart and lived a heart-led life.
Renaissance artist Michelangelo once said about his masterpiece of the statue David, "I did not create David. I just chipped away what does not belong to him." My first burn planted the idea that we all have a magnificent sculpture inside of us. Now, I came back year after year to remove all the clutter, and to reveal it.
When you get to Burning Man you choose a “Playa name”. The week is a transformational time for a lot of people and by leaving behind your own name when you enter the playa, you also leave behind all the conditionings that your name carries. I’ve always maintained a Peter Pan mentality of ‘never growing up’. My Playa name is 'Flamingo', and my mantra I live by is 'to be a flamingo in a flock of pigeons'. The day my father moved out of my family home, following the separation of my parents I felt the pressure to step in as the man of the house. To become an adult all of a sudden, to finally grow up, was a transformation I found challenging. They always say that your family is the most important unit in your life, but they don’t tell you that it is also the hardest journey you will experience.
When I initially arrived at Burning Man I was feeling really heartbroken. I was supposed to come here with my boyfriend, but we ended up breaking up a week before the event. While I was bearing witness to so many amazing things, and having deep and rewarding conversations incredible new people, I was sad that I was not able to share that with the person that I cared about.
But shortly after I arrived on the playa, I got the news that a magazine side-project that I’m a part of, called ‘A Woman’s Thing – which is focused on telling educational, emotional and empowering stories for women – got picked up by one of the largest US book retailers. And the news that our project was going to reach out to support so many women across the country, helped catalyze some realizations about how I was feeling about my personal life.
The most important thing we possess is time. And giving someone your attention is giving them your most precious gift. So I chose to turn my attention away from my sadness, and spread as much love as I can towards other people, while still focusing on being present with myself and with the beautiful passing moments that I was experiencing. We all fall sometimes, but beautiful lessons come out of it. And I’m so happy that I came to Burning Man alone because it’s the best date that I could have possibly asked for.
We are married have been together for over a decade. Burning Man has become a ritual in our relationship, and this is our fourth year on the playa. This digital-free journey to the desert of Black Rock City has challenged us in many ways and brought us closer together. The years we have had here have forced us to look at ourselves, both individually and as a unit, from different angles. We have become more independent, but also more connected and a cohesive whole.
The first time we participated, we thought Burning Man was just going to be a one-time event, but instead we've continued to journey back for what has become an annual catalyst for growth and change for us. We basically approach our week at Burning Man each year the way many other people approach New Year's Eve: we reflect on the past year, we set intentions and goals, and we try to push ourselves to improve and grow. Only in high pressure environments can a diamond form; and we really see Burning Man in this way. This intense week in the desert forces renewal and growth.
Many relationships do not survive at Burning Man: the weather is harsh, there's so much beauty and temptation, volatile emotions, having to negotiate and balance boundaries, schedules and individual interests. To flourish together on the Playa, we've focused on communication and expectation setting, as well as practicing extra patience (and taking an extra breath), to avoid the heat manifesting into heated emotions. We've learned so much about ourselves and each other from this pop-up village in Nevada and the Burner community that it's impossible to imagine what our lives would be like if we never set that first foot on the dusty Playa.
My first experience in Black Rock City was over a decade ago and while I feel the ethos of Burning Man still remains relatively true to its origins, the city has somewhat changed with the technologically driven rise of visual culture. Ten years ago you would never find smart phones on the playa and people took very few photographs. We cycled around discovering the art organically, and being present in the moment both with ourselves and with the interactions we made with others. But today there seems to be a glamorous factor associated with attending the event, owing to a deluge of images pouring into social networks and the internet, which seem somewhat alienating from the relationships and moments that created it. Commodification advances through image and spectacle and in many ways the vast visual culture of Burning Man’s new “Instagram generation” has contributed to its gentrification.
Still there are many aspects of the event that echo its original ideals. For instance, part of what is so arresting and compelling about Burning Man is the enforced space of de- commodification- it feels extraordinary to be in a place with no money and surrounded by such abundant and creative generosity. I think this is what affects people so powerfully when they first experience Black Rock City. The absence of money completely alters human interaction. With the idea of gifting instead of purchasing, people are forcibly taken out of the context of their otherwise highly transactional, individualized and atomized lives and are able to experience a true generosity and community spirit.
I came here with expectations even though I was told by friends who had come before, that I should arrive with none. My personal experience over the past week has been inspirational and transformational. I have never before met such an incredibly loving, giving and conscious community of people anywhere in the world and concentrated in a space like Black Rock City.
When you arrive at Burning Man there are ‘greeters’ at the gate, who check your ticket and they give you a really long hug and say “Welcome home”. I can see why this community is home for so many people. Coming to Burning Man is not an easy experience. The weather is extreme – blistering days with sandstorms and near freezing temperatures at night. The difficulty of living here for a week really separates those who want to be here, from those who consider coming just to view it as a spectacle. I feel that the playa is a blank canvas of dust on which people come to imprint their imagination and creativity. It is also a community reimagined with the core principles of love and giving, and if we take these principles back to the real world then I truly believe we have a chance to make this world a better place. I see this place as a critical evolution of our human race that is moving towards a higher level of consciousness where we do not exploit our environment and our neighbors. I recommend it to anyone who has the heart and tenacity to experience it.
Patty Lowry, 55
I came here to celebrate my father. As a little girl I was very lucky to be his favorite. He always taught me to express myself and to use my imagination to lift the veil of our normal world, and see into the extraordinary. My father suffered a horrible brain aneurysm that put him in a coma for a year. The doctors said that he would never wake up and I lost my cheerleader, my soulmate, and my partner in crime. During the year that he was in a coma, everyone told us to take him off life support, but my mother and I kept holding on. I read to him and sang to him and one day he woke up. But he woke up at age 72 with the mental capacity of a two-year-old.
It was a reversal in our father-daughter relationship, where I now got to be the parent and give back to him everything that he had given me. So I re-read all the stories and retold the fantasies! I told him about the fairies that live in the chandeliers, and the whales that swim in the clouds, and the different planets we can travel to when we go to sleep at night.
My father lived for another 12 years after he woke up from his coma, and got to the mental capacity of a six year old. It was the most extraordinary experience of my life to be able to give back to the person I loved most in the world, exactly everything that he ever gave me. He passed away three years ago, but the last years of his life where he got a second chance to relive his childhood were probably the most fun he ever had. My father taught me to celebrate the weird and embrace the child in all of us.
In April of last year I was on the beach in Tel Aviv, where I hadn’t lived in 20 years and a friend who I was with repeats a question that my mother had asked me just the night before. He said that he noticed I was having such a good time back home this time around, and asked if I might get a local girlfriend so that maybe my friends and family might see more of me. He persuaded me to go up to a girl on the beach and ask her if she would like to do Acroyoga with me. I never pursue women, but Acroyoga is a daily part of my life and a non-invasive way to meet someone so I gave it a shot.
I went up to a girl on the beach and asked if she would be interested to partner me in Acroyoga, but she responded saying that she’d never tried it before but that her friend who was swimming in the ocean at the moment was really into it, so maybe I could come back later when she came out of the water. I went back to sit down with my friend, not thinking much more of it.
Then suddenly I saw this divine woman with big curly black hair, run out of the water, talk to her friend for a few seconds, and then run over to me! She jumped up on my feet and we balanced ourselves while looking straight into each other’s eyes and I thought “Wow, this is an interesting connection”.
I actually said to her, “You know, I think we’re kind of similar. What’s your name?”. She responded saying her name was ‘Shy’ and I really thought she was messing with me because we have the same name. ‘Shai’ was exclusively a boy’s name when I was born but towards the 90s in Israel it started to be used as a girl’s name too. It means ‘gift’ so it really does work both ways. We ended up spending a lot of time together in the city over the following days and as my scheduled departure back to Europe drew nearer, I asked her if she might like to come along with me. She laughed the idea off and said that it would never work with her job and that her whole life was in Israel.
But a few days later she bought a plane ticket and flew straight to Italy to see me. We spent some beautiful days together, falling in love in Florence. Eventually we came to a mutual decision to quit everything and go traveling together and since then we’ve been circling Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand, sometimes teaching Acroyoga together and just experiencing the world. This is our first year at Burning Man.
This is my second year at Burning Man. I have to say that the initial reason why I was drawn to this place was because of the spectacle of art. It is truly incredible to bear witness to such otherworldly art projects that you could never have imagined would exist out in the desert.
While I was initially drawn by curiosity and awe, I’ve learnt that Burning Man is so much more than just a spectacle. It is hard to define this place, but it really is a community of people who share the values of giving, love, community, respect and gratefulness. I came back to experience what it means to truly share a part of yourself with others, unhindered by judgments and preconceived notions of how society “should” work in the default world. The magic of Burning Man is to see people from all walks of life, gather to work and play together in a space defined by love and freedom. It’s amazing to think that an entire city springs out of the desert for a week, and then dissolves into the dust with nearly no trace of its existence. The sheer improbability of this city allows you to shed your inhibitions and emerge at the end of the week from this crucible of intense heat, as a new person who hopefully knows a little more about yourself and is more conscious of the part we play within the communities that we live in.
I think previous generations want to put people from my generation in boxes. They prefer simple titles and job descriptions with linear careers. My generation is more dynamic than that. We are multidimensional nomads of the heart and mind who know that cross connection is the key to innovation and happiness. I, for one, am an architect, tech developer, humanitarian, entrepreneur, space enthusiast, yoga instructor, singer, daughter, friend, and someday hopefully mother. Job descriptions and titles come and go, but living with intensity, intention, and integrity is key. If everyone would do that, we would have a better world.
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