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September 1st 2011
Published: June 22nd 2012
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Burning manBurning manBurning man

The man of Burning Man, which will burn to the ground near the end of the festival

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Life at Burning Man

Burning Man is a very different place to anything else I have seen so far.

The festival creates its own world with norms that are very different to the default world outside.

For those who embrace it fully, those alternative norms based on the principles are the entire point.

I experienced Black Rock City as a set of flowing feelings and sensations more than specific things.

The Burning Man organizers print up a huge booklet of things going on (WARNING: May be offensive) in the city, far too much to see in a week.

I quickly left it in my tent and just wandered around.

The two dominant feelings for me are closely related, acceptance and creativity.

Burning Man may be the least judgmental place on earth; the only rules are to follow the principles.
Mama NolaMama NolaMama Nola

The New Orleans CORE effigy, a voodoo doll.

Walk down a street in a sparkly hat, body paint, or nothing at all and people treat it as perfectly acceptable.

Destroy the neighbors’ artwork or leave trash behind, and get yelled at or possibly kicked out.

This was a thrilling change.

The festival is an immensely creative place.

People build unbelievable things for Black Rock City.

Vehicles look like pirate ships, floating fruit, or giant fish.

People build sculptures of LEDs, urban detritus, and much else.

Structures to climb, to move parts of, or just to stare at litter the landscape.

Burners play with light up hoops, fiery balls on chains, incredibly elaborate costumes, and anything else the mind can conceive.

The lack of judgment means that participants can push their imagination to the limit; the only requirement is to contribute to the community.

I’ve never felt energy like it, although the City Museum in St. Louis (see The Joys of Childhood) comes close.

People can be who they want to be here, and discover parts of themselves they may not even know they had.

Burning Man is often described as a “gift economy”.
Constellation of OneConstellation of OneConstellation of One

Kirsten Berg's incredible mirror sculpture on the playa

People hand out things, food and alcohol included.

If someone gets in trouble, their neighbors will usually pitch in (last night is a good example).

One of the best and more unusual gifts is to help out a group the participant thinks is cool.

People always need extra hands, whether with art or anything else.

Removing bits of trash from the playa (“de-mooping”) may be the ultimate gift.

Participants refer to this system as “the playa provides”.

Some participants take it a little too far though.

They expect to arrive having done no planning and simply live off gifts for the week.

A significant percentage are young women wearing sparkly outfits and body glitter, who veterans call “sparkle ponies”.

Veteran participants HATE these people, (WARNING: Not Safe For Work) although they are still welcome at the festival.

In reality “the playa provides” for people who have the self reliance to prepare adequately beforehand (see The Meaning of Radical Self Reliance).

Meeting the Neighbors

Some things stick out from the general flow I experienced.

I woke up this morning in a cool and very dark place.

My watch showed it
Disco FishDisco FishDisco Fish

Meet the funkiest fish at Burning Man!
was after 11 AM!

All that effort to put together my shade structure has immediately paid off.

I can sleep basically whenever I want.

I met my neighbors after breakfast.

Remember that I chose this spot mostly on convenience.

We share a number of things in common; a love of art, camping and Burning Man.

People at the festival are incredibly friendly toward people who aren’t obviously looking for a handout.

One participant was cooking some Asian inspired rice dish on a grill.

When it was done, they asked the rest of us to try it.

For something cooked in the middle of a hot desert, it was quite good.

I also discovered that a few of my neighbors like weird beer.

I swapped some of mine for theirs and we had a tasting session.

They liked the fact that my Mexican beer tasted good even when warm.

I deliberately chose it for that reason, so I would need less ice through the festival.

This type of interaction happens regularly in the outer streets of Black Rock City, what many

AURORA by Charles Gadeken, designed to resemble the Tree of Souls from Avatar.
particpants call “the suburbs”.

Many people attend the festival to hang out with cool people, build small scale creative works, and participate in the vibe.

Some turn their campsites into art installations, which I appreciated.

Someone set up a slackline (a tightrope used by rock climbers to practice balance) and invited people to try it.

Unfortunately, their anchoring system fell apart in the playa sands, but people soon had it working.

The big theme camps and artwork get all the publicity, but these small scale interactions are as important to creating Burning Man as those projects.

Installation Art

Heading inward, the entire area now had a yellow dusty glow.

A tall statue sat in the middle, the man.

Seen in daylight, it only vaguely looks human, with a triangular head on a long body.

It sat on an absolutely huge pedestal, which people could climb inside.

A row of tall wooden pillars runs from the city to the man statue, the Promenade, giving it the look of some ancient temple.

Periodically, large towers holding roman numerals appear along the inner circle; these mark the streets.

Black Rock City
Wet DreamWet DreamWet Dream

Warmbaby's artificial rain shower in the middle of the Black Rock Desert
is laid out as a giant clock, with the man in the center.

Surrounding the man is an absolutely incredible amount of installation art.

One artist, Kirsten Berg, created an intricate geometric sculpture of mirrors, Constellation of One.

Walking around it shows incredibly crazy reflections.

Charles Gadeken created AURORA, a sculpture of a weeping willow tree made entirely out of LEDs.

The Warmbaby collective created Wet Dream, a sculpture that from a distance looks like artificial jellyfish.

Getting close, I saw that the jellyfish are actually meant to be umbrellas with LED raindrops falling, providing welcome water in this dry desert.

Matt Schultz designed Pier, a huge wooden dock stretching into the playa for people to walk on.

Why build something like this?

They did it in part because they can, and at Burning Man that is more than enough.

Boston Burner Community

Many people in the Boston Burner community attend as part of theme camps.

Some of these camps are incredibly elaborate with full bars, activities, and tons of artwork; while others are just a collection of decorated tents.

Several Boston camps cluster in a group
CORE burnCORE burnCORE burn

Lobster Bisque-O from Maine goes up in flames
called the Hive.

I ended up here because I know so many people.

A camp called Automatic Subconscious (AutoSub) sets up a geodesic dome every year.

Inside contains lots of cushions, some great murals, a pair of silks for aerialists, and a really good bar.

I gladly accepted some beer from home, and gave them some of mine in return.

One person in the bar was dressed up like a giant box of bad wine.

A tube in the box disbursed actual box wine.

Circle of Regional Effigies

For the first time this year, the Burning Man organizers requested regional groups to make their own wooden sculptures to surround the man statue.

Each one in some way should represent the region.

They called it the Circle of Regional Effigies (CORE).

Their purpose is to symbolize how the Burning Man ideals have spread far beyond just one major event at Black Rock City.

A Las Vegas group made a tall wooden thing with curling branches at the top and back, Lucky Lady Lucy.

See it from the front, and it becomes a showgirl covered in feathers.
Jellyfish carJellyfish carJellyfish car

One of the more memorable art cars in Black Rock City

A group from Maine created a lobster trap large enough to crawl through, Lobster Bisque-O.

One from Manitoba, one of Canada’s Prairie Provinces, created a huge bushel of wheat out of wood, Burning Sheaf.

A group from Vancouver created a large symbolic clock painted blue and green, Playa Time, referencing both Vancouver Harbor (see The Most Scenic Lunch in Vancouver) and the steam clock.

The sculpture from New Orleans, Mama Nola, a voodoo doll, merits a special mention.

Unlike many areas that built sculptures, the city had no organized Burner community beforehand.

A group came together just to build the sculpture, discovering their common goals in the process.

I helped them out for a while, sweeping up sawdust while chatting about my time in the city (see After the Flood When All the Colors Came Out).

The natives approved of my adventure in the French Quarter.

While wandering around, I head strains of 1970s funk music.

They lead me to a large art car shaped like a grouper, the Disco Fish .

It had a disco ball where the light lure should be, and the skin lit up like neon.

People invited me in.

The inside
Safety ThirdSafety ThirdSafety Third

Something like this could only appear at Burning Man
was done up as a felt walled lounge.

The soundtrack switched to disco as the fish moved through the city, trailing dancers behind it.

After sun set, the regional effigies were torched.

Every one went up in flames, some quicker than others.

In general, the bigger boards it had, the longer it took to burn.

People stood around and watched behind safety ropes placed on the desert.

When a structure burned enough to collapse, people cheered.

The lobster trap was made of two by fours, and took a long time to burn.

Burning Man After Dark

At this point, I had my first serious problem of the day.

I need light so people can see me, and I left mine back at the tent.

My only choice is to schlep back there and get it.

Along the way, I saw yet more fantastic art.

One art car looked like a glowing jellyfish, complete with LED tentacles.

Another art car looked like a tropical island with neon palm trees.

Yet another art car looked normal, except that it projected art
Flame Geyser!Flame Geyser!Flame Geyser!

Tympani Lambada by the Flaming Lotus Girls lights up the desert
videos on the ground!

One camp had a glowing lounge designed like a giant clam shell.

Another camp had a Van de graaff Generator, throwing electric plasma into the surrounding air.

The only safety measure around it is a marker on the ground.

People at Burning Man should know the danger full well 😊

Now lit up, I can safely wander.

Black Rock City at night is a glowing wonderland.

The man was lit by neon, same as last night.

A long string of balloons, Balloon Chain by Robert Bose, arced across the sky, lit from below by little LEDs and ambient light from the city.

The LED tree from earlier was now glowing blue, one of the best artworks I have seen so far.

I also saw a large heart shaped metal sculpture, Tympani Lambada by the Flaming Lotus Girls collective.

It looked only moderately impressive, until someone turned it on.

That heart shoots flame, from several vents!

I found the notorious Deathguild Thunderdome.

They may be the most out there theme camp at Burning Man, one based on strange competitions.

During the
Mad Max goes to Burning ManMad Max goes to Burning ManMad Max goes to Burning Man

Fire Idol at the Deathguild Thunderdome.
day, people beat each other up in the dome with foam swords.

Tonight, they had a competition called “Fire Idol”.

Burning Man attracts a staggering number of people who like to perform with fire, spinning flaming balls on chains, twirling flaming hula hoops, and dancing with flaming fans.

In Fire Idol contestants performed routines for a panel of judges, who then delivered all sorts of sarcastic remarks.

Laser light arcs across Black Rock City at night.

On a whim, I decided to see where one of them went.

I walked a long way to the edge of the city, where I discovered a large tent with people playing dubstep music, the Disco Knights camp.

Dubstep, the buzz filled electronic music variant I last heard at Movement in Detroit (see Put Your Hands Up For Detroit) has become the unofficial soundtrack to Burning Man.

For me this is problem, because I find it repetitive very quickly.

I rapidly got bored and headed to the camp next door, Fractal Nation.

This camp is one of Burning Man’s better known camps.

They had a huge open dance floor backed by a huge
BRC after darkBRC after darkBRC after dark

Welcome to a glowing wonderland
video screen.

Sadly, they also played dubstep.

The camp also had a tent.

I ducked in, and found myself in the middle of an art gallery.

The art was all paintings, some in paint and some by computer.

Much of the artwork was derived from fantasy illustration or surrealism.

Since Burning Man is noncommercial, none were for sale.

Next, I got an important lesson on life in Black rock City.

I wandered into a theme camp that consisted of a fiberboard dodecahedron in front of open desert, Bubbles and Bass.

Two DJs were playing on top.

They played house music mixed with videogame bleeps.

I really enjoyed being here.

The music was strange and different, with a great beat.

I have no idea who they were, and it honestly doesn’t matter.

Many participants treat music at Burning Man as a type of quest, needing to hear particular performers.

A group called the Rockstar Librarians puts out a whole music guide.

Much better for me is treating the festival like Movement, just wander around and see what’s interesting.

If the art or music is
Fractal NationFractal NationFractal Nation

The main dance floor at Fractal Nation.
good, it doesn’t matter who made it, famous or not.

(LATE UPDATE) Every year, GeoEye shoots an image of Burning Man from their satellite. They took the picture this morning. Its so detailed I can find my tent!


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