Art in its purest form: Burning Man 2000

On Sunday, September 3, 2000, I watched the sun rise while I was sitting outside our tent in the place that is temporarily Black Rock City, Nevada every year. Hours before, the Man had been burnt, and I had spent the rest of the night exploring the amazing art in the "city". The sun cast its orange rays on the clouds causing them to shimmer and burst with life. In my purely sleep-deprived state, the shimmering clouds seemed to turn into mermaids that turned into fish that turned into swans that turned into dragons that turned into butterflies that I could almost reach out and touch. Behind me, the Black Rock mountains seemed to form a huge tent and slowly billow over the high desert (or "playa") covering all the tents that comprised Black Rock City. That is just a taste of one of the most surreal and psychedelic experiences I've been through in my life.

Our trip started on Thursday, August 31st, after I had finished making a whole bunch of predictions for the fourth meeting on the Critical Assessment of Protein Structure Prediction while averaging two hours of sleep per day for the last two weeks. I, along with my friends Jason (who took a few of the pictures here), Bagus and Crash, headed out to Black Rock City in Nevada in a conversion van loaded with enough food and water, shelter and musical equipment, and a generator to enable us to survive for four days in the desert. The journey was uneventful and we arrived at our camp site around midnight, which we christened as the Where the Hell is Frank Free Music camp (a combination of our musical philosophies and the search for a missing friend). We created a tent-like structure using a parachute dome as canopy and set up all our gear.

This year, the theme at Burning Man was the body which translated into the city being constructed in a unique manner that reflected the human image: the general shape of the village was that of a horse shoe and at the center of the open end was the neon-lit wooden effigy that was to be burnt (the Man). The horse shoe area was divided into parallel streets that traced the curve that (in order) comprised the body parts: Feet Street, Knee Lane, Anal Avenue, Sex Drive, Gut Alley, Avenue of the Heart, Throat Road, Brain Boulevard, and Head Way. The inner most ring was the Esplanade. Running across these streets were half-hour divisions starting from 2:00 to 10:00. We stayed around 9:30 Sex Drive.

After we finished unpacking, we headed out to the Promenade where the Man was situated. The Man was placed in the centre (solar plexus) of a giant horizontal body laid out in green laser beams thirty feet above the playa in the shape of the Burning Man logo. Circling the man were running super bright LED lights which could be controlled by anyone. Laid out along the body were incredible works of art: Body of Knowledge by Dana Albanya depicting a human figure sculpted from books was extremely creative. Faces of Man by Dan Das Mann where three enormous copper, drift wood and grass heads would cry fire, water, and sand to music was one of the coolest pieces, especially along the copper face where gasoline would pour out of the eyes and catch on fire. During the day, the same copper face would have burn stains that gave the impression that it had been crying. An excellent piece of work. Also brilliant was Dr. Megavolt and the Eyes of the Man by Austin Richards where two twin Tesla Coils would emit thousands of volts of electricity and be absorbed by a figure in a suit standing between them. Other interesting art works included the Flaming Metal Dragon by Lisa Nigro which was a mobile fire-breathing dragon; the Anus by David Normal and Max Hunter where you go through the orifice and exit by sliding out; Phallus of the Man and Yoni Gate by Pepe Ozan which featured giant phallic symbols; The Golden Tower by Susan Robb which was collection of urine samples; and Fire in the Belly by Susan Glover which hosted fire performers doing amazing things (this was seen throughout the festival).

After a decent night's sleep, the next morning (Friday, September 1st) we recharged the battery on the generator and started jamming, recording a couple of hours of some very cool music which I hope to edit and make into a coherent tune. We spent a significant amount of time holding down our tent structure battling the rain and the fierce wind which made the event all the more exciting. After the fury of Nature subsided a bit, we headed out again to the promenade and walked around. After a while, I developed a splitting headache and so we headed back and made more music. I rested for the night.

On Saturday, September 2nd, we again headed out to the central area walked through the Maze which was incredibly bizarre, came back and cooked a great dinner. We finished just in time to head out to watch the forty-foot man burn (which was arguably one of the least impressive displays). It first started with some fireworks and then the man was on fire all over and in a few minutes, a crowd was milling around it. As the structure collapsed, people rushed closer and started moving around in a circle around the fire. Bagus and Crash got separated from Jason and I (our walkie-talkies proved to be useless since almost everyone was using them). The two of us moved around in a circle close to the burn, watching people roast marshmallow and amusedly marvelling at the great incongruity.

After a while we headed out again along the body to central camp and walked all the way along the Esplanade over to Bianca's Smut Shack. On the way, we stopped over at the Petting Zoo and the Black Light District where Jason and I painted each other's faces in paint that would glow in black light. (We also watched a very attractive girl dance naked on top of her RV, to a milling crowd.)

We finally ended up in Bianca's where the people serving food had thought of this brilliant idea of giving the tray to random people to carry it around (to people dancing to electronic music or just relaxing on the couches). This was definitely a great way to interact with people and by the time Jason and I had done this, we had gotten to know a few people. We sat down to relax for a bit and met Morgan and Nat, a really sweet couple. I had an intense and extremely fascinating conversation with Morgan.

We then decided to take a walk on the playa and wandered around, checking out the bizarre, ever-changing, and mind-numbing atmosphere created by all the fires, the lights, the lasers, the people moving around in weird costumes, etc. We made a full circle back to Bianca's where we ran into Morgan and Ned again and at this point, tired as we were, we lay on the couches. As dawn approached, we slowly started making our way back to camp. The art from the previous night was being moved out and the scenery had changed, making it hard to discern where we were. We ran into a lady (wearing an Indian sari) who started chatting with us from behind. She kept moving around between my left and right which was definitely trippy. I asked her if she was to my right or my left and she responded with "I'm everywhere and nowhere." Truly a bizarre experience (it was as though my ego and sense of place had died---the concept of self and the physical location I was at seemed capable of attaining any arbitrary value).

Finally we figured out the general direction of the camp and made it back just as the sun was rising (and that is when I experienced what I write in the first paragraph above). Jason decided to go to sleep, but not before exchanging words to the effect "what the hell happened?"

After I watched the sun rise, I hiked out on the playa far from the camps listening to the music from different trance camps at the edge of the city and admiring the beauty of Nature around me. The desert was so vast and flat that I felt as though I was just walking on air. The mountains and the playa seemed to part with each step I took and the music seemed to whirl in and out of my ear. The whole design of Burning Man was to create a surreal and psychedelic experience: from the shape of the body created by green lasers to the various trance/techno camps, all set in the middle of a desert surrounded by mountains, if one just stood for a while and listened and watched, one would sense various images and sounds moving in and out at the edge of their perceptions. Particularly with regards to sounds, you could focus your ear on one trance camp for a while and suddenly move it to another and so on and back and forth (i.e., essentially creating your own mixesi n your ear). This definitely creates a dream-like atmosphere and gave me a new-found understanding of the soaring feeling that trance music imparts (which I've always liked).

I then had an intense conversation with Bagus and Crash (who had then woken up) about the nature of the Universe, the effect of hallucinogenics (I personally feel my mind in its natural state gives me extreme insight and clarity into the workings of the Universe), and the nature of the Burning Man community (which I discuss in greater detail below). I had been up all night and all day and during the evening I walked out again along the playa to check out the Tesla Coil and watch a lot of creative art be burnt. I finally came back to a good night's sleep.

It's hard to describe Burning Man in words. The organisers have their own view which I strongly disagree with. They use words like "an experiment in temporary community" and "an alternative to mass culture and consumer society." The statements imply an Utopian ideal which I can certainly ascribe to, but the Burning Man community is not it. It's fallacious to think that because it's set up in a unrealistic atmosphere. Sure, the people were incredibly kind and friendly (we freely shared food, conversations, musical instruments, and even jumper cables). But why would they not be? Almost all the people bought and brought the water, food, and shelter they needed. The real experiment would be to a have a single tap of water, put the same 25,000 people in the middle of the playa, and then see if they still would be a "community" after a few weeks.

It's possible that when Jerry James and Larry Harvey first burnt their effigy on San Francisco's Baker Beach, and when John Law decided to move it to Black Rock, that the ideal was an anarchistic Utopian one. But as the number of people attending grew, the inevitable human tendency to impose an hierarchical structure came about and what we have now is a fairly strictly-controlled event, which exists because of human nature to be destructive.

The problem with the human condition has to do with scarce resources which the people celebrating in Black Rock City don't really experience at any intense and prolonged level. The festival does however show that if we have resources that don't have to be scarce (like public information which can be arbitrarily copied), then it's foolish and destructive to try to control it (ergo, my views against the notion of intellectual property). Yet the organisers of Burning Man go against this by attempting to strictly censor the flow of information in and out the city. As a free speech absolutist, and as someone who places no restrictions on the use of information I create and publish, I don't think that's true freedom. The privacy argument posited by the organisers has some merit, but in a public setting I lean towards freedom of information than privacy. As far as the comment about it being an alternative to consumer society goes, it's true there's nothing being sold for dollars out there, but even barter is a form of consumerism. Admission to Burning Man is sold and the whole event is possible because of a consumer society which make things like water bottles, portable toilets, RVs that seemingly have every luxury, the latest sound, fire, and light technologies, tents, swimming pools, mass transportation, ... you get the idea.

My comments aren't about the people, who did indeed live up to ideals espoused in the literature. They are about the notions that Burning Man is a semi-Utopian community that is not-consumer oriented, which is simply delusional and ignoring 99% of what really makes it possible (see above list). I make these comments with the hope that it sheds light on what it really is. In its own way, Burning Man is a part of American consumer society as anything else---an incredible experience that needs to be bought, like skydiving or hang gliding or climbing a mountain. Like with the other experiences, money is necessary but it is not sufficient. A festival of this calibre and expense would hardly be possible in a non-affluent non-consumer society.

Burning Man to me is fundamentally about artistic expression. The one thing that clearly stood out is that people really laboured for their loves. I consider some of the works displayed to be some of the finest pieces of art from the current generations. As I describe above, some of the most exquisite pieces included Body of Knowledge, Faces of Man, and the Tesla Coil. These pieces were novel, innovative, and simply mind-blowing. There are few arguments that can be made against the notion that people are displaying their labours of love in a pure and uncorrupted manner when you visit Burning Man. Besides that, it's about pyromania (the number of creative things people did with fire was awesome and I sense the surface has barely been scratched in this realm), communal gathering, and sex. Ultimately, it is a big party for most people.

A question can then be asked: if an anarchist Utopian ideal (as espoused by the likes of St. Thomas More) is achieved by humanity (even though I think the chances of this happening are close to zero), would something like Burning Man still occur? My answer is yes, and it would occur for our need to creatively express, think, and to question. That is when our expression of art, science, and philosophy would be at its purest, free from any trappings of socio-political agendas, and that is when it will be most clear as to what Burning Man is all about.

After a good night's sleep, we packed up headed back early on Labour day, September 4th. We stopped at a cafe in Gerlach and had some great hamburgers and made it back to the Bay Area in good time.

Would I go back? Of course. Even without the pyrotechnics and the lights and the lasers and the other distractions, I am extremely curious to see what some of the most creative minds can come up with the next year.

Pseudointellectual ramblings || Ram Samudrala || || August 31-September 4, 2000