In Our Own World – at Black Rock City, Burning Man

  • By Prashant Ashoka

  • Travel /25 October 2017

  • By Prashant Ashoka

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.

 

It’s easy to understand the harsh criticisms Burning Man has earned over the past decade. Many of these are intrinsically linked with San Francisco’s technological revolution — the same city in which the festival was birthed from unpretentious origins at a grassroots gathering at Baker Beach on the summer solstice of 1986. Today, a certain portion of Burning Man has become a hedonistic amusement park that coalesces a notable brain trust of wealthy Silicon Valley elites who operate large themed camps with exclusive entry rights and hefty participatory fees. The very technocrats who profit from entangling society in a vapid digital web of “likes” and Snapchat stories are now clad in furs and steampunk goggles while revelling in a week-long celebration of the freedom to exist outside the digital world, all the while breaking one of Burning Man’s primary principle of self-reliance by hiring paid workers to build luxurious air-conditioned camps replete with models and international chefs. For the veteran Burners — the futurist anarchic cyberpunks of San Francisco’s yesteryears — this is the antithesis of the community they have worked to build.

Just like everything else in the last decade, Burning Man has not escaped the age of digitisation.

 
 

Just look around you, Prash! How could it ever possibly have?” laughs my friend Louise as we traverse the playa in admittedly preposterous circumstances — atop a massive “art car” (a sculptural vehicle) envisioned as a giant flame-spitting salamander pumping airy psychedelic synths into the night. And she’s right. It is one of the greatest visual spectacles of our modern times, and in this unique moment in our history where photographs and videos serve as the primary language in contemporary culture, a certain notion of glamour has become the focal point of the event. At least to the outside world, which views Burning Man through the optical universe of an Instagram gallery.

But to judge Burning Man solely through that filtered lens — as a sprawling, raucous Mad Max-esque rave with elaborately costumed (or totally naked) people exploring surrealist sculptures and dancing to music all while being chemically enhanced — is an accurate, but simultaneously reductive, view of an intricately faceted event. There is more to be discovered beneath the cosmetic surface of Burning Man.

 

The author Daniel Pinchbeck analogises the event perfectly as a living manifestation of the internet — “an endlessly dispersive and distracting series of flesh-filled chat rooms with a trip-hop backbeat”. The adventure of cycling through the concentric streets of the city and visiting different themed camps is in the discovery of both the enlightened and the playful. Workshops range from awakening your inner identity, to TEDx speaker series delving into the future of cryptocurrencies, to BDSM dungeons and orgy domes, or the downright hilarious such as ‘Dr. Scrote’s Circumcision Wagon and Calamari Hut’ (Read the intro: ‘We put the fun in circumcisfun’!).

But to see past all its eccentricities is to find the heart of what this temporary neon mirage of a city truly stands for. It is a cultural realignment that is a rejection of modern society’s insatiable hunger for material gain, the loss of community bonds and the ecological degradation of our planet.

It challenges our ability as a species to build a resilient and regenerative society principled around compassion, inclusion, individual freedom, communal effort and civic responsibility.

 

Commercial sponsorships, money and advertising are banned, and the city operates on a “gifting economy”. The act of giving is unconditional — without expectation of any return or an exchange of equal value — and gifting introduces a spirit of love and generosity that builds bonds within the community. Of course this utopian idea of gifting can only exist when in tandem with radical self-reliance, another tenet of Burning Man, where all participants are expected to bring with them all the essential components necessary to live on the playa.

What makes Burning Man so hard to explain, and what distinguishes it from any other festival, is that there is no main event. The attraction is you, and the other inhabitants of the city. It encourages moments of introspection, and allows participants the freedom to experiment and express themselves through interactions with others as well as with the art. There are no mere “attendees” — everyone is performing and participating in the living social sculpture that is Black Rock City.

 
 

Cycling across the playa at night is one of the most surreal experiences you could have. An entire neon world is moving past you, and you chance upon the most unexpected things; a gigantic metallic octopus on wheels breathing fire, a converted Boeing 747 airplane with a reimagined fur-lined and LED-lit fuselage, a tesseract of gleaming mirrors playing a soaring soundtrack into the night. The purpose of art at Burning Man is one beyond mere aesthetic appreciation — it is a tool for experience. Its purpose is to evoke wonder, to captivate and to inspire interactions between strangers. In the culmination of the week, many of the art projects, including the giant wooden effigy of The Man, are burned under Nevada’s star-studded night sky.

 

There is something primal and raw about the playa — its extreme isolation, its disorienting openness, the unrelenting heat of day and near freezing winds of night. There is a magic in the fine dust that swirls in ferocious storms obscuring all vision. It is a nature that turns you inwards. It forces those audacious enough to venture into its midst to embrace transformation and inner confrontation. And while Burning Man deserves most of its critiques, for those who release judgment and allow space for true surrender to the elements and to themselves, there still is something truly special to be found.

 
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Words and Photographs by Prashant Ashoka