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Monday, August 27, 2012

A Writer Goes to Burning Man

This article has been revamped and revised. The new article can be found here.

This will be my eleventh year at Burning Man.

Sex, drugs, rock and roll.

Oh and lots and lots of dust.

Except for me there isn't very much sex or drugs or rock and roll.

Whenever I get back from the playa, people try to find out about how many orgies I had or how many illicit pharmaceuticals I abused or how often I danced all night at a camp with a speaker the size of my house, and I always end up disappointing them a little when I let them know that I don't really go for those things.

Then there's usually a long pause and they say, "Well...why the hell DO you go?" (It's hard not to hear the implication of "Cause....you know....what else is there?" in the question.)

Still it's a fair question.  And I think "for the art" is a cop out.  It's like saying you read Playboy for the articles. Even when it's accurate it's not like you can't get good articles (or really neat art installations) some place else.

Why I go has changed over the years.

Anyone's relationship to an annual event is going to evolve over the course of a decade if for no other reason than they were a younger person all those years ago and they have evolved. My relationship to fast food, literature, memory foam, music, homeless people, and cheese has also evolved.

My relationship to threesomes has grown no less fond, but has become cynically realistic, however.

When I started going to the Black Rock Art Festival, I was in my twenties.  I was still married.  I hadn't started college yet.  I was still almost two years away from the fateful encounter with a trio of criticism torpedos that would make me look in the mirror and think really hard about how much I wanted to write and what I was willing to do for it.  I was not quite the same Chris I am today.  I even had crazy long hair and Tony Jaclyn golf clubs.

The event has changed.

Burning Man has also changed over the years.  My first year the tickets were about $150.  There were a little over 25,000 people.  At that time, the event itself was not that far removed from its Ocean Beach roots. People were still impressed that the man was built on a solid structure instead of hay bales. There were more drum circles and less slick art. You heard about fewer ridiculous things found in porta potties and you might actually find someone else out there doing their two hours of MOOP (matter out of place) clean up while you did yours. There was more fire-dancing and fewer fireworks. More drum circles and fewer slick LED light displays. More nudists and fewer gawkers. More considered art and fewer pieces that are clearly meant to be enjoyed while rolling. More hippies and fewer techies. Sunset brought fire and flashlights and looked less like Disney After Dark. Every other person wasn't dressed to overload some E-tard's brain with flashy and fake fur coats. Giant behemoth art cars in the shape of dragons, submarines, full scale Spanish galleons crawled across the landscape spitting fire and music as impressive as the sound camps. You saw the occasional RV, but most people were still pitching tents. Theme camps with proprietary names hadn't gotten Cease and Desist orders yet for naming themselves after businesses, so the Jiffy Lube camp and the Costco Soulmate Trading Post were still going strong. And I hadn't completely given up on the chance of a blistering, if dusty, threesome.

This year tickets were $420. (~snerk~)  There is every expectation that the population will be near the cap of 60,900.  Last year the event sold out for the first time ever.  This year they had a number of complications involving ticket sales.  The lottery they had to try and fairly distribute what they knew would be a finite number of tickets turned into a disaster.  There are almost ten times as many law enforcement officers as the first year I was there.  The regulations for cars and camps are stricter.  They won't even let people have sex out in the open anymore--I mean what's up with THAT?

Beyond the changes you would expect for an event doubling in size and tripling in price, the timber has changed as well.  Sure, some of it's me getting older and wanting whippersnappers to get off my lawn.  I just don't have an interest in the drug culture or in drinking like the teens and newly-twenties do.  But it's more than that.  There are more tourists every year.  One entire camp consists of people who have paid nearly $10k for a "vacation package" to Burning Man (that includes mega swanky RV's, all meals prepared for them, and even an "LSD night" as part of the package).  They change the feel from participation to "here we are now; entertain us."  BM has become less and less the hippie utopia I first fell in love with, and more and more a super happening, exclusive and expensive week-long party--in which, for some reason, people are okay with corrosive dust that gets EVERYWHERE and no plumbing.

Apparently people will put up with a lot to find a socially permissive environment, kindred spirits, and a week-long party.

One of the things I noticed over the decade is that, as the years went on, I felt like I left the playa with less and less infectious creative energy each year, but feeling more and more centered, conversely.  In a way, as a writer, the later is even better.  I don't feel like I'm running on a battery recharge so much as that my performance-deficient rechargeable batteries have been replaced by fresh ones.  (I guess I'm not an iProduct. ~rimshot~)

Burning Man has become, for me, a period of intense mental and emotional isolation.  So much so that I have to get back in touch with myself and return to all the fountainheads of who I am and what is important to me.  It is so (for lack of a better word) "lonely" out there that I have no one to talk to but me.

If you've ever really talked to yourself--I mean really talked to yourself--you know that you slide through the chit-chat phase pretty quickly.

Obviously I'm never that far from physical bodies. The deepest art safari is only about half a mile from the nearest throng of people, and we camp with wonderful folks who include me in everything they do. My isolation is spiritual and emotional and exists only in a weird metaphorical artsy bullshit kind of way, but I feel it profoundly as soon as I inhale the first lungful of dust.

Welcome home.  You are now alone.  Cope.

-No connection.  Yep, I'm one of those people who gets a little twitchy when I'm offline. I check my e-mail several times an hour.  I use Facebook to self-promote so it's pretty much always on. I may be an introvert, but I care intensely about the people in my life and what is going on in their world. When I'm at Burning Man that connection is gone. I think they have cell phone signal at center camp these days, but I don't have a smart phone, so it doesn't really matter. I wouldn't check it if I did. It's good to unplug for at least a few days and remind me that I am basically refreshing obsessively to see what our friends had for lunch and be reminded of everyone's politics.

-There's no sign of civilization.  The closest thing to a McDonalds you're going to find is probably a bar giving away free shots. There is no running water. (Actually there's no water at all except what you bring.) There's no electricity except what is hooked up to generators or battery powered. I have to spend five minutes winding up my hand-crank flashlight to make a midnight bathroom run....to a porta potty...which are probably worth their own whole section given how neurotic I can be about my preference for familiar toilets. That sense that you can just go get anything you want or need fades very quickly.

-Life does not naturally exist on the playa.  There are some mountains on each side of the lake bed that have some high desert scrub, a few bugs, jack-rabbits who like to dive in front of cars with a cry of "tellmotherIloveher!", and probably the occasional push-up-crazed lizard, but the playa itself is alkali. Nothing grows in it. Nothing lives in it. It is harsh, unforgiving, barren, and beautiful only in a stark and dangerous way like an apex predator's teeth or talons. You, human, have no business being there, and you will be reminded of that continuously. Okay technically there's a thirty minute period at dawn and dusk that you won't be reminded of that, but mostly you won't forget how far you are from where you belong.

-I'm at an unusual age for a burner.  Most people out there are considerably older or younger than me. You get huge chunks of over fifty and under thirty and I'm smack in the middle of those two demographics. Most people my age are punching out hellions or are taking them to see a giant mouse. When you find most of the conversations are about retirement vacations or "dude we were HELLA tripping last night!" you tend to feel a little like your particular struggles with buying a house or trying to kick off a "real" career aren't the most relatable issues.

-I'm not the physical specimen that most people out there are. 90% of people at Burning Man are ridiculously hot. (You have to say that aloud and put an insane amount of accent on the DIC part of "ridiculous" to get the real effect.) That's not my opinion. It has been verified by the US Hotness Society (USHS) and the Global Fineness Consortium (GFC).

Men. Women. It makes no difference. They all look like they stepped out of an advertisement for a gym membership. There is so much hawtness, you actually get desensitized to it.  ("Ho hum, garters and stockings.") These people (and it's almost all of them) have awesome bodies with smoking muscle definition, and it makes me all too aware that I do not. At a gaming convention, I can feel mildly in shape, and even appreciate the muscle definition in my upper body.  If I'm standing on a BART platform or walking down the street, I feel sort of average, if a little dumpy. When I walk around on college campuses, I'm keenly aware that I'm overweight. When I'm at Burning Man, I feel like Jabba the Hutt, only ambulatory through some strange mutation of nature. ("Hoo hoo hoo hoo. Eta choota Solo?") It's not that I'm looking for the hook up–though it's always a little worse when I'm feeling kind of lonely–but just that I viscerally feel like I don't fit in.

-I'm sober.  Once upon a time, Burning Man probably involved at least one interesting but legally questionable experience in the course of the week, but it hasn't in several years. I don't really drink, so I'm pretty much sober. (I don't eschew these experiences; I just don't spend effort pursuing them.) The fact that a lot of people ONLY experience periods of sobriety because they are aware that they need them to rejuvenate neurotransmitters for their next indulgence means that I am usually surrounded by people in various states of chemically induced idiocy...or really bad hangovers. I don't begrudge them their fun–don't get me wrong–but if you've ever been the designated driver or just been around drunk or high people when you are neither, it can feel a little lonely to not share their altered state of consciousness.

-I'm shy.  I'm always shy–even out in the real world. Painfully so. I burn with the conflict between wanting to talk to you and not wanting to disturb you, and secretly hope you will just say something and end my suffering. But at Burning Man a sizable majority of the people there aren't shy...not even a little, so by comparison I seem to be even shier.

There's a self-selection bias involved in the kinds of people who want to shlep out into some of the most inhospitable territory on Earth to have a 168 hour party. They are gregarious extroverts, most of them and they're feeding off each other's energy. While most of those 60,000 people are getting their social-fu on, I'm cursing the fact that I'm a social-fu white belt and the idea of saying hi makes me want to burst into shyflame.  Every once in a while I find someone who is a little overwhelmed by all the stimulation, extroverted enough to talk to even the wallflower, or genuinely curious about what I'm writing, and who is willing to have the kind of conversation I can really get into, and we usually have some kind of AMAZING discussion about art or politics or something.

....but that is a very rare event.

-I don't look the part.  You think the one place on Earth people wouldn't judge you for how you look might be an event with thousands of people actively trying to subvert mainstream culture and it's demand for conformity.

You'd be wrong.

There is a culture at Burning Man that is as prevalent as the culture back in the real world.  It's just different. It demands conformity to its unspoken rules just as much as our culture does--it just does so about different things. There are tribes that do not get along (industrial artists, "hardcore" campers, flower power hippies, ravers, and such) and if you don't fit easily into one of these categories, you can make people nervous. And the people there–as expansive and open-minded as they usually are–can be just as intolerant when it comes to the Burning Man cultural conventions.

Expressing yourself radically apparently applies to Utilikilts and nudity but not to Hawaiian shirts. At least a couple of times every year someone takes one look at me and assumes I'm a virgin. They sometimes even get a little snarky especially if they don't realize I'm wearing socks and shoes due largely to my outrageous dry skin issues and with absolutely no premeditation to offend their delicate sensibilities about not being barefoot and free. I don't bother pointing out the irony of being judgmental about the fact that someone looks different at an event largely focused on non-conformity, but I do enjoy it when they discover I've been coming for two or three times longer than they have.

-I'm not the right kind of artist.  I trundle around with my Moleskine journal and a mechanical pencil and spend almost the whole time I'm there taking notes or just writing. But Burning Man is a place of performance art and sculpture. It is a place for fire dancers and people with flamethrowers attached to their cars. For the gregarious folks with wild costumes and LED wire who feed off each other's energy.
In its own words even it fosters "spontaneous acts of artistry" (which 90% of the time bear a striking resemblance to "drunk people being goofy in packs" but label it how you will and appreciate the other 10% for its genuine energy). There are a thousand things at any given moment competing for your attention (including people trying to hook up that have so much fucking game they could be sold on Steam for $59.99).  The quiet guy writing in the corner is, if anything, even more inconspicuous than in the real world seeing as how much other stimulation is readily available and how many people are turned up to 11 out there.  I'm just not the right kind of artist.

Last year I saw a guy painting with acrylics at the temple, and we spent perhaps an hour talking about what it was like to have art styles that were atypical to the playa.  His experiences were largely similar. He loved the creative energy, but had a distinct awareness that he was not the right "type" of artist for the Burning Man culture. No one goes "WOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAHH!  That is so TIGHT!" about a short story draft I'm working on.

On the best of days in the real world, I feel alone in a crowd.  I love people and I love all their quirky little foibles, but I always sort of feel like I'm on the outside looking in. Out there everything is magnified. I feel as if I have been plucked completely out of the world, or at best that I am moving through it like a shade. Everything in that environment seems to serve to sequester me on every meaningful level from those standing right in front of me.

I am cloistered within the crowd.

This might sound awful, and it can be. But it is also wonderful. It's like the pain that lances out an infection or the agonizing explosion of of a shoulder's rotator ball popping back into its socket.  And like everything else out there, the extremeness of the duality brings both into relief. Just as my soul is feasting as my physical body is having the worst time of its life, so too does the isolation serve me.

Which is not as corny as it sounds. At least not when you're standing in it.

All these things are why it becomes such a period of rejuvenation for me.  There is so much stimulation going on all the time with lights and music and energy, but mentally, I'm in a kind of sensory deprivation tank. Out in the middle of nowhere with flat, cracked land stretching out for what feels like forever, all but invisible to everyone else, and looking at some strange piece of art is where the distractions fade away, and the mindless chatter of online debates and "have you checked your e-mail" and banal conversations fade and I discover there's nothing I can distract myself with except those fundamental questions we all usually try our hardest never to have to answer.  "Who are you?" I ask me. "What do you want?" "Why are you here?  What do you actually care about?"

"Why do you create."

I don't walk away from the playa with "ideas" anymore--not really. I used to bubble over with plans for next year, story ideas, and plans to dress up like a fairy and deliver one-ply to the needy porta-potties (or something), but not so much anymore. Now when I walk away from the playa, I have something different. I have a renewed sense of identity and purpose. Like somewhere between the unforgiving environment and the austere loneliness I have shed my skin like a snake and my soul has emerged looking vibrant an new. I slough off the bullshit and I return to the real world more me than I was when I left.

In the end, I think that sense of purpose serve me better than a few ideas and a dusty ol' threesome ever would.  Not that I would MIND a threesome, you understand...have I mentioned that I have a birthday coming up?


  1. Yeah, some of that "immediate art" stuff really belies art that isn't performance or installation. I'm a painter and I feel a LOT of these feelings when I'm out there.

    1. I've talked to a number of artists who feel this way. It can be lonely out there if you're not a raging extrovert.

  2. Thanks for writing this. I've gone off and on for a few years, but I have almost identical feelings.

  3. Hi, Chris - just stumbled across your writing, and am very much enjoying it. If you're going to the Playa this year, please come visit Camp Conduit at 3:15 and H. We gift free sun hats to the masses, and we're also a no-generators, solar-powered camp.

    1. It looks like we might be going after all, so I'll have to swing by.

  4. Thanks for this! I'm a 23 year old, relatively introverted playwright from Chicago and this will be my third year on playa...if I do indeed use my low-income ticket and go. Most of my friends are in their late 30's and went to Burning Man back before it jumped the shark. (Thanks to you all for constantly reminding me that I missed out on 'the real thing'. Sigh. )
    At least locally, things are fresh - for now at least. In Chicago, most people dont know what Burning Man and our local community is strongly juxtaposed by the midwestern values that surround us. I like it here - I live in an arts collective, sit on the board for our nfp (B.U.R.N.), and run the greeters station at our regional burn. At the same time, our underground events have started go get written up in the Reader and douchecanoe randos clad in "Freakeasy" t-shirts ask me if they can pay by credit card at the bar.

    1. I'm not sure it jumped the shark, but it definitely changed. It still seems to be a pretty fan-damn-tastic party. I've also heard that the regionals are much much more like the old event, so maybe you're not missing out as much as you think.

      Your job at least sounds like it's the nexus of a lot of interesting stories! :)

  5. I am not a writer, and tend to ramble, but I wanted to thank you SO much for this article Chris. My hubby and I are in our mid 30's, and fairly 'normal' when we look at images and read descriptions on camps. This will be our First Burn, and its so refreshing to hear that there are others like us (and not to put us in our own stereotype, but we do not dress up, or ask for a lot of attention, love to be the fly on the wall), that can and have enjoy the Burning Man. We are very excited for the experience from handling the environment, seeing works of art, and meeting people.

    My hubby and I are thinkers, listeners and love learning why people do the things they do. We tend to go in and out of stereotypical groups in everyday lives "tribes" not to be a part of it, but more to observe.

    So again thank you, and I would say see you on the Playa, but the odds are slim, lol.

    1. The odds are quite slim. I hope you enjoy it. Nothing will ever be like that first burn (for better and for worse).

  6. Hey Chris.
    I *am* a writer, but I experience a similar introversion regarding my identification with it. (I have a science vocation and consider myself "in the closet" as a poet).

    I suppose you may have seen that "burning blog" article which speculated on why BM has no literary culture nor (apparent) literary style? Your essay here lends a personal note as to many of the reasons why this may be so.

    And I too, with an age that has a three in front of it, concur regarding the strange and satisfying equanimity which increases in prevalence each year. I view the combustion-aspect of the event as a ritual cleansing (whether intentional, or as like-it-or-not catharsis), and this might be a major driver of that deepening balance which you are describing.

    I arrived at your blog (like many of these July 2013 commentators) because of the viral article about your admirable confrontation with that creepy sexual predator, and I admired your own unique contrast of energetically lexical bling (are you a sparkle-owl?!) with wise and well-intentioned respectfulness. I opine: if there is indeed (already) a "Burner Literary Style", I think your style is exemplary -- I wouldn't say the name "snark", but certainly you lay playful brutalities and irony alongside a deep patience of hope and buried positivity. You know, the fractal-people would call it "The Sacred Trickster" or "The Fool Card" or "Coyote". Bravo.

    You may have heard that a group of writers are getting together this year to try and challenge that skeptical "burning blog" piece about that blackrockian literary Lack... and I do hope you will come share your notebook-enthusiasm with us, we are currently planning a number of events (and I am bringing a bookcase-art project, "Spines", which you might like to put some of your own print in). I hesitate to solicit link-clicks, especially since we have congregated around one of those proper-noun commodity/community websites, but I trust you can use your google skills to find us with the phrase "GetLitatBurningMan".

    Many cheers,