September 3, 2008

Burning Man

Torching the American Dream

By Ron Garmon
LA City Beat

Welcome to Hell. Population, You:
Among the many and varied effects of Burning Man upon national culture is that it vindicates a long-cherished, if little-expressed, American desire to drive to another planet.

Admirers of Godard’s classic SF film Alphaville will get it at once, but the weeklong countercultural festival’s working mise en scene is more Fellini as underbid by Roger Corman. Turning off Highway 447 in northeastern Nevada onto the chalk-dusty board-flat Black Rock Desert, one’s first impression is a monstrous blankness. The playa presents an ego-flattening sight of infinity, with a poison bite of gypsum dust doing little for one’s sense of security.

The wind, which abruptly changes speed and direction, routinely kicks up whorls, even tornadoes, of the stuff, but most of the time everything visible is lent a grainy texture, like stepping into a battered print of a 1975 movie, all scratches and faded Eastmancolor. Daytime temperatures can reach well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, a hideous wake-n-bake rendering sleep heavier than a light soppy doze impossible. Occasionally a weary voice crackles from a bullhorn, reminding you to drink water or die. Long intervals of sweat-sodden effort alternate with lizardly inactivity; both are bearable by thought of sundown, a few minutes after which the mercury begins a drop of up to 60 degrees. The wind stills – usually – and the annual temporary municipality of Black Rock City, Nevada, gets its party on.

Go Ask Alice, When She’s 10 Feet Tall:
The streets, lit by processions of costumed volunteers, surge with stoned pedestrians, drink-addled bicyclists, and dozens of gaudy art cars, ranging from golf carts tricked out as teacups to double-decker buses got up like the Empress of Ireland. All tour the sights and most participate in the show, if only to the extent of making a public jackass of oneself, like the thick-eared oafs pounding each other with padded sticks at Thunderdome, or the brave fools competing in Dance-Dance Immolation, a contest of twinkletoed skill garnished with flamethrowers.

If one has drugs, this is the hour to consume them, along with great floods of booze given away at dozens of ramshackle taprooms like the Lost Penguin and Spike’s Vampire Bar. Wandering your drunk ass into a private camp is as likely to get you forcibly bum-rushed as welcomed as brother-of-some-other-mother, so this is seldom done without an invite. An ex-soak myself, I wince at the amount of high-end booze and cheap beer I see gurgled down in that hot, dry environment, so hangover-unfriendly.

Nor is this the only fellow-feeling on tap at Burning Man. The only things for sale at the entire festival are ice at three locations and coffee at Center Camp, so any mainstream Gob-fearing Americano wandering in would be shocked to his Bass Weejuns at how much antisocial bullshit is eliminated thereby. Loud noise, weird clothing, pimp’d rides, absurdist architecture, and murderous art are all things Angelenos may take in stride, but the dominant vibe of loving kindliness can trigger a psychic meltdown. The shedding of urban teeth and claws is often a wrench for the more cynical newbie. You see their occasional public freakouts, as bourgeois individualism abruptly collides with the real thing for perhaps the first time in the subject’s life and (s)he scrambles to lift the psychic curtain on what must be a trick. Finding there’s isn’t one will determine what dear ole Hollywood calls the “takeaway” for any participant.

The Awful Majesty of the Law:
Burning Man’s co-existence with authorities evolved over time after the event’s origins at San Francisco’s Baker Beach in 1986, when friends and bystanders burnt Larry Harvey’s first Man. An amateur sculptor and untutored social theorist certain he was onto something, Harvey eventually dragged one out to the northern Nevada playa for a 1990 Cacophony Society one-off called Zone Trip #4. The idea caught on, the ad-hoc group got a Bureau of Land Management permit the next year, and the event grew steadily since, breeding devotees, dissidents, pop-cult references, rumors, scandal, bootleg Burner Chix Gone Wild vid, and a deliciously queasy possibility of returning from the event in a zip-lock bag. Your ticket on the back waives liability by Burning Man Organization (BMORG) in case of “death or serious injury,” but not even a note from Cthulhu can save you from the prying eyes of cops.

Ostensibly, the closest thing Burners have to a community police force is the Black Rock Rangers; rakish, bushmaster-hatted folk trained in the arts of nonviolent problem solution. If you expect to publicly toke in the manner of L.A. b-boyz and hipsters, then you have a problem with any one of dozens of BLM feds, state, and local police, along with a curious Nevada statute making giving the shit away (even passing the burn-barrel dutchie ’pon the left-hand side) “distribution of narcotics.” This not only plays ordinary courtesy false, but directly affronts the gift economy of Burning Man, along with other generous impulses it inevitably loosens. As a rule, when a gorgeous young thing sporting a Nevada-hick accent walks up out of the mob with a compost-eating grin and a “Hey, man, um, ya got any drugs?” you may feel yourself free to laugh at the cop academy from which she matriculated.

The amount of actual crime seems limited to pilferage and the wages of addled stupidity, like the accidents that brought on BRC’s five-mile-an-hour speed limit. The rest is just the kind of random destruction to be expected in a festival devoted to fire, explosions, and wreckage. The ultimate caper in that line thus far is prankster Paul Addis’s 2007 premature burning of the Man. The upright crisp was dubbed Char Man, but didn’t last, as the pro-environment Green Man theme was hastily ditched in an effort to run up a replacement.

The rest of the week was marred by persistent dust storms and the Wednesday suicide-by-hanging of a despondent festivalgoer. Many had already sworn never to return, but I knew I would, even as wind lashed well past dark on Labor Day and blasts of impenetrable dirt delayed our departure many hours. It was 12:40 Tuesday morning when the wind stopped, the sky abruptly clearing over a town that had shrunk by 95%. There was a giant fire going out in the open desert, with drummers pounding mournfully around it. An invincible oontz-oontz pumped from the Root Society dome a half-mile away and a plaintive Roy Acuff tune wailed in the middle distance – another weary hillbilly itching to go home.

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere:
The theme this year is The American Dream, which itself was enough to keep many veteran Burners away, since “America” itself is what most American Burners run out to the desert to escape. Internet rumor was coalescing around the idea that Larry Harvey was going to stage some kind of Disneyoid flag-fuck starring a cast of fascist hippies, naked cheerleaders, and a 20-foot-tall animatronic Chuck Norris roundhouse-kicking random frat boys into a better tomorrow.

Prospect of Ground Zero at that pretty hallucination caused me to lash my gear together, lay in chemical augmentation, secure an early-entry pass, and hitch a ride to Nevada two Thursdays before Labor Day. Camping for the first time with the Black Rock Yearbook, I met Boz and Kiki in Pasadena, helped load their RV, and fell promptly asleep, waking in Nevada 12 hours later. Kiki is a pretty young camp-mama with a cute ass, and her man is one of those steely-eyed professionals with drive, organizational ability, and astounding talent for dissipation who made of America what it so evidently is.

The “Welcome to Nowhere” sign at the gas station in Nixon, Nevada, looming in front of my sleep-blurred eyes was a nice reminder I’d left L.A. One of three flyspeck towns on the way to the Black Rock Desert, Nixon is followed by Empire and Gerlach, the last-named a mining town whose three bars serve its 500 inhabitants. We arrived on-playa in the afternoon, when a few thousand freaks were working on installation between bouts of drinking and squawking through bullhorns. Friday night, I collapsed on a couch at an open-air cinema running 1906 Georges Melies trick movies. Saturday night at Opulent Temple rocked hard, with big gouts blasting from flamethrowers outside a titty bar whose entrance blazed like the tollbooth to Gehenna. “Gimme Back My Bullets” was detonating over the PA, and inside a stageful of undulating amateur strippers was just beginning to get out-of-control. I felt like I’d landed in Hillbilly Heaven, and sight of my first cop car on Sunday morning confirmed it.

Thanks to (spotty) wi-fi at Center Camp, I had a good long laugh at Obama’s naming of Joe Biden as his running mate. Burnerdom is as full of Obama-helium as anywhere, but few had kind words for Biden, sponsor of the RAVE act, which sought to outlaw desert dance parties to keep American youth safe from the temptations of breakbeats and bottled water. Since Burning Man is the King Kong daddy of all raves, Biden’s elevation is accepted here as part of Democrats’ long mutation into the No-Fun Charlies of national politics.

There’s also the general sense that conventional politics has nothing to do with them and they’re partially right. Certainly most participants have long since dropped out of what’s left of middle-American consensus reality due to precarious careers, nontraditional personal lives, or simple distaste. Still, it’s hard to imagine Burning Man in anywhere near its present form absent the eight hyper-materialistic, war-ridden, culturally sterile years of George Dubya Bush. Since the values, mores, and social expectations of Black Rock City are the point-for-point opposite of what obtains at home in the Last Superpower, it takes considerable effort of will to avoid concluding that the festival represents anything other than a sledgehammer critique of things as they are.

Looking around at art and theme camps these querulous and party-hardy folk are running up – bizarre caricatures of Uncle Sam; ironic tributes to bankruptcy, debt, consumerism; Orwellian placards and pyramid-eye paranoia – is to behold a dusty and temporary repetition-as-farce of individualism and the Affluent Society. Children playing amid industrial and ideological rubble, Burners grope to build a new world out of the post-Cold War, post-prosperity junk bequeathed by the practical joker of History.

Of Coif, Commute and Another Day at the Office:
At midnight Sunday, horns and sirens went off all over the skeletal city, as the first official arrivals started rolling through the gate. Building and revelry grew frenzied, stopping not at all for the afternoon-long dust storm that whited-out most of the town. Waves of sexy new arrivals hit camp, each on a trail of hoopla and toasts. Gamey and unkempt, I went out in the middle of this alkali clusterfuck for a spot of personal maintenance; having my bleached-blond hair chopped into a Mohawk by a girl named Madeleine, my pubes trimmed by a boy named Cupcake, and letting strangers bathe me at the Human Carcass Wash, a camp specializing in assembly-line cleanliness, restored me to humanity, even civilization.

As the days passed, our camp gradually became a microcosm of the entire festival, a ceaseless round of indulgence and good cheer that no force of wind or weather could interrupt. My first two burns were the exact same, with last year’s blissfully gilded with near-constant cosmic sex with a treasured lover. Shorn of Chick, I instead had Story, but not even Gilles de Rais could write in the National Lampoon blur of boobs, bootie, and poppers ever before my eyes at Center Camp. So, on Tuesday, I lugged my computer over to the Black Rock Beacon, the playa newspaper, some distance away. Walking to work through a clownshow is nothing startling for an Angeleno, but a morning commute though cheerful clowns, along with dancing girls, hopping bunny-people, spooning couples, winged fairies, and gay cowboys limping home from some rectal rodeo affords a spectacle not oft-afoot even on Santa Monica Boulevard. I’m greeted by my playa name of “Rockstar” everywhere I go and my awesomeness is commented upon, as I respond with “Bellissima!” “Rock on!” and “Nice thong, d00t.” Friends demand to know what deviltry I’m up to and when they can read it. In the country of the Weird, even gonzo journalists are de facto members of an invisible and esoteric Establishment.

A heavier cat by far in this Freak Kingdom’s counsels is Mitchell Martin, editor-in-chief and resident Charlie Kane of the Beacon. His “default-world” job as editor at the online Forbes and a talent for forensic accounting leads him to the conviction that organizers aren’t getting rich off the festival. “It’s not the best organizational structure in that it has a paid hierarchy and beneath that, a layer of unpaid volunteers,” drawled Mitch, his eyes bright with cynical amusement. “It’s a very good model for reintroduction of feudalism, but it leaves a certain amount of democracy to be desired.

“Larry Harvey is reputed to make six figures – just six figures – which for an executive living in San Francisco isn’t much,” Mitch said, framing his points with the assurance of a man who loses few arguments. “The problem with Burning Man is you have a for-profit corporation staffed overwhelmingly by volunteers. Insofar as they’re volunteers who love Burning Man, no problem; they can always walk. We report on them, which is adversarial, but not unfriendly. One of the things we’re pushing for is increased economic data on Burning Man to tell us more about the city. Their financial statement is not particularly transparent, but you do know most of their income is ticket sales. They’re not trying to hide anything, it’s just not anyone’s job to know this stuff.”

Such data would give observers a good idea of the long-term viability of semi-utopian projects like Burning Man. To Mitch, the idea that the event lost its special character with increasing size is rubbish. “This desert, at this population density, can hold literally millions. The only size limitation is the tiny little road out of here to Gerlach. The fun thing about Burning Man is theme camps like ours who spend their time and money and food and drink to make it a big party as well as an experiment. If a million people a year showed up, that would be fine with me.”

Also hanging around the Beacon’s tent-office is Caleb Schaber, playa-name “Shooter.” This rangy, heavily inked fellow is, next to Paul Addis (now residing in a state prison elsewhere in Nevada), BMORG’s pet pain-in-the-ass. He started at the festival in 2000, as a Department of Public Works (DPW) volunteer who eventually made foreman with a ducal salary of $100 a day from the festival, plus all the volunteers he could recruit. “I used to give out a few $50 positions too,” added Shooter, a sometime-war correspondent with a nice sense of political leverage. “I had a $500 slush fund that I’d use to buy you whatever you want to work for free – socks, booze, rent money. A carton of cigarettes goes a long way out here.”

Bagmen peeling off Ben Franklin paper for favors are unremarkable, but what’s Burnerly about this is, along with the ludicrously small sums, the gonzo intensity of doing this shit for art’s sake, man. Still, after a DPW worker was killed in an accident before the festival in 2001, the joke of “radical self-reliance” was beginning to go a bit far for institutional tastes. “After that,” according to Shooter, “BMORG made everyone sign a ‘death waiver’ before they could volunteer.” This submission to sub-Dickensian conditions soured him on the org, but not the festival, a sentimental patriotism that curtains effective rabble-rousing. “People don’t report injuries,” he added. “I’m talking people who are into politics and rights, but they don’t wanna make waves or be responsible for an art piece not getting on the playa because they were hurt.”

This brute clash of material conditions vs. new-minted ideals gets replayed by everyone at the event, and organizers, being human, can abandon the latter as quickly as anyone else. Still, Burners are far keener than most on affairs being arranged for the People, not the Price. Tickets are among the least noteworthy expenses for participants, and any ambitious gearhead with $500 to buy a used San Francisco muni bus will sink tens of thousands and a flood of sweat equity turning it into a rolling bordello or pirate ship. Camps develop around these projects, giving participants an involvement entirely missing from popular culture and community life in the wider world.

Inebriation: The Final Frontier:
By Thursday night, life in BRC was on a rising parabola of activity, even as the early arrivals began to flag and the one road in was clogging with weekenders. Whorls of white powder vanished up already cracked noses, and the ancient injunction against public sex was beginning to go by the boards, at least at night. The erotic atmosphere is about the most mind-altering aspect of life on the playa, as out-front sexuality, self-reliance, and owning your lust combine in a sex culture as courtly, even romantic, as it is skank-randy. This is the part I can least resist, but was scarcely alone.

In order to better balance the stern demands of story and gonads, I resorted to a heavy intake of marijuana and psylocibe cubensis, each toked bud and chewed cap transubstantiated from indictable Nevada offense to ineffably Nirvanic effect. Again, I was following a parade of tosspots, acid freaks, clit-bumpers, weed huffers, psychonauts, and candy-flip babies as one more lodge-brother. The whole scene was like an immense, drug-fueled version of the dance-marathon in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? or if Hunter and Oscar had driven the White Whale into Bastille Day instead of business-as-usual on the Vegas Strip. A closer literary ancestor to this din is the fantasy novels of Thorne Smith, in which pretty young things run amok with faded rakes fevered by booze and quim, committing every witty indecency. Like such jazzbaby ancestors, we practice the ancient, if dangerous, doctrine that in heroic overstimulation is wisdom, if not transcendence.

Burning Man may well turn out to be one last freakish kink in the tail of the Frontier Thesis of American history. Articulated by historian Frederick Jackson Turner at the 1893 Columbia Exposition in Chicago, the idea that American culture rounded a fatal corner with the closing of the frontier has proven a remarkably durable meme, one never quite supplanted by an American Dream of endless consumption. If a sense of individual possibility was closed off, another opened with the myth of the road, of escape from society through constant motion. Alas, the marketplace makes every place like everyplace else and, apart from such GPS-forsaken sites as the Black Rock Desert, there’s no escape from its sway.

Such is the main heresy of Burning Man, more significant than any amount of pity and terror, sex and drugs. That self-willed exit from standardized reality is possible, even fun, is as radical in its way as realization one can’t eat money or discovery that the palaces of the rich are constructed of flammable material too.

Burn Night and Coda:
These are but the idle thoughts of a whited-out Saturday afternoon. The Man burns in a few hours, but the wind is lashing tons of dirt around, stinging all the exposed skin and provoking talk of delaying the event. Which is what did end up happening, with the Man finally igniting a bit before midnight, as the post-Burn parties were already raging hard all over the city. Thousands gathered for the rite, with the 90-foot wooden structure expiring in a flaming heap after shooting off tons of fireworks. Thousands of festivalgoers rushed the fire and began the obligatory three-times-around march. Clothes were discarded, music from nearby art-cars thunderclapped, and the madness was on. At one point, a crew dragged up a large wooden statue with the cry “We’re burning Lady Liberty!” In she went with shouts from dust-blistered throats as loudspeakers blared Lenny Kravitz’s combustible cover of “American Woman.”

Hours later, a new friend and I were cuddled under her blanket at the Uncle Sam zoetrope on the far end of the playa. Out there in that place of blank vastation was “The End,” an unimposing sign denoting the farthermost piece of playa art and the last frame of the movie in which all 50,000+ of us starred. With gorgeous boof, it went up, pushing a black mushroom cloud skyward. Forty minutes later, kids were still peddling up on bicycles to see what the fuck had happened.