The End Of What is, or the Start of What Could Be?

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North America » United States » Nevada » Black Rock Desert
September 4th 2011
Published: June 28th 2012
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Center CampCenter CampCenter Camp

The main tent of Center Camp. Note the arielist in the upper center

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Today is the last day of Burning Man.

I woke up pretty melancholy, because this amazing festival will soon be over.

Looking down the street and seeing the absence of the man, the anchor point of Black Rock City, makes that plain enough.

Center Camp

For part of my last day, I wandered through the last major part of Black Rock City I haven’t seen, Center Camp.

This camp is home base for as close as the city gets to a government.

Its centerpiece is a huge circular tent with flags waving over it.

The tent has the look and vibe of a huge hippy coffeehouse.

Couches lie all over the place.

Rugs in various patterns sit on the floor.

People congregated everywhere.

Many Burners come here to escape their own camps
Literal Art CarLiteral Art CarLiteral Art Car

I must be in Black Rock City when I saw this
when things become too intense.

The tent has an actual coffeehouse run by volunteers.

The proceeds go to local charities in Gerlach.

This coffee and ice for coolers are the only things sold at Burning Man.

Personally, I found the coffee sales jarring and rather icky (WARNING: May be offensive).

This place is commerce in a non-commercial place.

Hippy commerce to be sure, but commerce none the less.

Center Camp has some great art.

A long wooden wall surrounds the other perimeter of the camp.

People used this wall as a canvas for murals.

The subject matter ranges all over the place, with an emphasis on surrealism and pop art.

It really doesn’t matter, because at Burning Man expressing oneself by painting a mural is the real subject.

I enjoyed a few highly geometric works reminiscent of the hard edged abstraction of the late 1960s.

The tent itself contains a number of sculptures, such as a willow tree made of wire and handing CDs.

This one had a marker for people to write on the CDs.

One area was set aside as a community art
Exsuscitare TrajectusExsuscitare TrajectusExsuscitare Trajectus

Exsuscitare Trajectus outside Center Camp
gallery, where people could hang things they created.

The work varied over all over the place, which at Burning Man is the whole point.

I saw some more great playa art.

One vehicle was a literal art car, with a sculpture on top spelling out ‘Art’.

Marcel Duchamp (see San Francisco Modern) would have loved it.

Next to center camp sits Exsuscitare Traiectus by Orion Fredericks, a huge gateway that looks like a big gear from a distance.

It represents a symbolic passage to something new.

Nearby is Face Forward by Christian Ristow, a sculpture of a huge human face made of metal strips.

The Temple of Transition Burns

As night falls for the final time over Black Rock City this year, residents slowly make their way across the playa to the Temple of Transition.

Tonight marks the festival’s final act, the temple burn.

As it burns, it takes every offering with it, symbolically releasing these burdens to the dust from which we all came.

The temple burn marks a transition, to whatever comes next in life.

It’s as close to a religious ritual as Burning Man gets.
Face ForwardFace ForwardFace Forward

Face Forward on the playa at sunset

A sign along the way puts it aptly: “Burn Your Cares Tonite”.

When we got there, the temple was lit by floodlights.

The safety crew was still preparing for the burn.

The temple now has large cables attached, to ensure it falls down properly instead of burning people.

Finally the lights went out.

People started to get antsy as the wait dragged on and on.

Some played with laser pointers over the temple, a really tacky move.

The burn began slowly and almost anticlimactically.

A member of the fire crew lit a blaze at the base of the central tower.

The fire slowly grew.

This lasted until the inner walls caught on fire, at which point the flames rushed up the tower and exploded over the complex.

The entire central tower was now burning.

Soon afterward, the fire crew lit blazes under the outer towers until flames shot to the heavens over the entire temple.

Unlike the ecstatic party last night, this burn took place in reverent silence.

People just sat and
Road to Temple BurnRoad to Temple BurnRoad to Temple Burn

Sign along the Prominade to the Temple
watched as the flames consumed the towers.

Bit by bit, parts of the walls disappeared revealing the inner beams.

Bit by bit the beams shrank as the fire consumed their essence.

One by one, the beams broke and the layers of the towers fell, the highest parts going first.

Finally, the remains of the central tower collapsed, shooting up a blaze of fire as they hit the earth.

Now, all that remained is a huge bonfire as the pile of collapsed wood continued to burn.

Eventually, only embers will remain of this beautiful building and all the burdens and memories people left within it.

The Burning Man festival is officially over.

Black Rock City was a very mellow place tonight.

Art cars still wander and some camps had parties, but the wild energy of the week has mostly dissipated.

I spent my time hanging out in the Boston based camps, reminiscing about the week.

It’s slowly sinking in that I won’t see people I know again for over three months.

I’m going to have trouble leaving, although I know I have to.

Temple Burn startTemple Burn startTemple Burn start

The start of hte temple burn. Look for the flame at the base of the central tower

Heading back to my tent tonight, I saw something that veterans warned me about.

I saw a long line of barely moving cars snaking down the main roads of the city and onto the access road.

Many people try to leave Black Rock City after the temple burn, attempting to beat the line out.

Like other events where people try this strategy (see Luminescent Visions), it painfully failed.

Trying to stay awake in that traffic jam must be an absolute nightmare.

Lessons of Burning Man

Since I came here and camped alone specifically to learn about myself, what did I learn?

For starters, I learned I could handle this extreme environment.

My food stayed edible, my water stayed cold enough to drink, I had supplies for the whole week, I could sleep when I wanted, and I never visited medical.

I sensed my physical limits (dehydration and food) and adapted as needed.

I learned I’m very good at solving problems and doing research, like the rest of the trip.

Testing the food I planned to eat at Burning Man during previous hikes worked beautifully.

The interviews I did with
Temple central tower goes upTemple central tower goes upTemple central tower goes up

The flames spread to all of the central temple tower
veterans paid off tremendously, both practically and socially.

Everyone thinking of going to the festival should meet their local Burners before showing up; both they and the local scene will be better for it.

I learned some things specific to Burning Man too.

The wind plays havoc with everything on the playa.

It tore part of my shade structure that I then reinforced with gorilla tape.

I need to plan for it better.

Curved rebar is a pain by myself; I should use the straight version with end covers.

I need to bring razor scissors next time rather than depending on the knife to handle everything.

I learned to carry all the supplies I need for the entire day, to avoid having to go back (a hike of over two miles!) in the middle of the night.

I also need to find a practical way to keep the dust out of my car.

The veterans I talked to on playa recommended keeping the top closed (as I smack my head from the obviousness) and then covering every possible surface with plastic bags or sheets.

Solo camping had both plusses
Full Temple BurnFull Temple BurnFull Temple Burn

The temple fully burning
and minuses.

The absolute self reliance was both thrilling and scary.

I was responsible for everything I needed and wanted.

Every participant’s experience of the festival depends on their efforts to participate, but it was particularly true in my case.

I met dozens of people I would not have seen camping in a group, and participated in all sorts of experiences.

I also had to constantly schlep to my campsite in the outer streets of the city to prepare meals and get water, since this is the only place I could.

In the end, the experience was worth it.

So, what exactly is Burning Man?

The correct but glib answer is that the festival has as many meanings as people who go.

My particular answer is that Burning Man is one of the ultimate zones of human creativity on this planet.

Black Rock City is a world of authentic self-expression, participation, and community.

Every person is capable of creating things, but society and preconceived notions can squash their impulses.

I’ve felt its effects myself.

The festival creates an incredibly supportive environment for people to celebrate how they express themselves, however they choose.
Temple of Transisiton fallsTemple of Transisiton fallsTemple of Transisiton falls

The central tower of the temple shoots flames as it falls

When someone shows up in hipster T-shirts, disco wear (see I Feel Like the Sky is Falling) and a glittering hat (see Enclaves), their neighbors are downright enthusiastic.

The festival is also, to put it mildly, a place to interact with incredible art and an amazing party.

One last unfortunate but necessary comment: a large number of people view Burning Man as nothing but a huge drug bazaar (WARNING: Not Safe For Work).

In reality, mind altering substances aren’t even on many attendees’ agendas.

People in recovery and those who will never use anything attend every year and have a great experience.

Personally, I had the occasional beer and that was it.


This year’s batch of news reports has been posted.

Slate published an excellent reporter diary (WARNING: May be offensive)

Wired magazine has covered the festival since Bruce Sterling’s report.

Here is the one for this year.

Photographer NK Guy, who has gone for years, has a beautiful portfolio from the event.

The videos are also up.

I like this one, which features fantastic footage of the big burns.

Note that the days are out of order. (WARNING: May be offensive)

I’m a little hesitant to mention this next video, because it was posted less than a week before ticket sales opened for the 2012 festival.

It proceeded to go viral across the internet and cause a surge of interest that wrecked the ticket system.

Still, the video got all that publicity because it deserves it as a great piece of art.

Here is Cory Doctorow’s (see Explorations) take on it (WARNING: May be offensive)


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