Well. I’m not sure that I yet have the words to describe this experience full of self-discovery and reckless abandon, highs and lows, challenges and excitement, adventure and lethargy. This is what it looks like when 60,000 misfits, freaks, adventurers, friends, overprofessionals, extreme amateurs, artists, musicians, scoundrels, heroes, and everything in between come together to build an epically alive desertart city that will disappear in just one week. The dust storm white-outs, the depth of earnest human connection, the dizzying energy and utter freedom… I am still reeling. Ready?
Warning Reminder: It’s Burning Man. There are varying levels of naked people up in here. If that is not something that you want to see, do not pass go, and do not collect two-hundred dollars. Also, this post features more vulgarity of the written variety (such as signs and fake tattoos), so, people with delicate sensibilities, escape while you can!
Burning Man may be the name of the event, but there are many other names to be made aware of. The entire event takes place at the temporary urban installment that is Black Rock City. This city is laid out in a series of concentric circles around a large central open area that we refer to as The Playa. This is where you will find the most dense congregations of art installations. If you head north beyond the concentric circles, you are entering the Deep Playa. The means of getting around in Black Rock City? Your feet, your bike, or hitching a ride on an art car (there are two- or three-hundred registered art cars). Beyond them, vehicles are prohibited from the Playa. So, you will see many photos of folks on bikes, and you will see a variety of art cars, from tricked out little golf carts to multi-level converted city buses.
I found wonder and intrigue everywhere I went during Burning Man, but I have to say, I think my favourite way to spend my time was adventuring on the Playa, or especially, on the Deep Playa. There, the art density dwindles, and you just stumble upon unusual installations that seem to come up at you out of nowhere, like what seemed to be a very traditional movie theatre—every night at about two a.m., they showed a classic film that felt slightly, uncomfortably skewed. They installed just about as Deep Playa as one could be. Despite its nightly snorers, it was such an enthralling installation because it was so uncomfortably normal—so distinctly out of place.
My other favourite recurring experience would have to be the dust storms. They would close in on you at any time, swallowing you up,and despite being surrounded by art and thousands of people, everything would disappear and become quiet. You would find yourself to be quite quickly alone… if the dust tornados didn’t come for you. Nighttime dust storms were particularly wild, with the obvious additional level of diminished visibility and the strange and distant haze of glowing lights from art cars and well-lit burners. But then again, clear nights out stargazing on the Deep Playa? That was where the magic was at. One particular all-nighter with special friends, discovering an awesome spinning sparking dude, followed by laying out in the dusty sands of the Deep Playa, soaking in the magic of the cosmos, followed by a breathtaking dawn all alone at the temple—yeah, that was something else.
Oh, Burning Man, I am still falling for you and your wild ways. The allure of the city itself was this whole other element of wildness. When 50,000 come together, you can bet it is a real and true city that pops up. There was city art and random intrigue, tricked-out art cars, buzzing sunsets, the roller disco, fire spinners, a sunken pirate ship, medical spanking professionals, relief in the misting tent, a variety of wild performances at centercamp, and my personal favourite: my friends, the stiltwalkers. They were like a waking dream—feeling myself disappearing as a diminutive Lilliputian, following around these slender giants as the light slipped out from under us.
The city is a funny thing. As a reckless youth, I was eager to escape the place I came from to get to the most urban place I possibly could. I thirsted for the speed and wild aliveness of The City. More recently, I’ve found crowds to be a bit overwhelming and the buzz of neon everywhere to be dauntingly loud. So, setting out for this intense city certainly frightened me a little. I wondered if it would all be too much for me. Sometimes it is indeed a place that feels like a very short version of Vegas. At night, it is not just encouraged, but earnestly necessary for people to trick themselves out with whatever kind of dazzling lighting they can find—otherwise they risk the considerable danger of getting run over by an art car or hit by another cyclist while painting the sandy town red. There is music layered over music layered over music sometimes, as several art cars congregate, blasting a random assortment of old-school rock and roll from one direction and modern dub-step from another. But these things seem in constant motion, and it is the difference between thrashing your arms wildly, fighting the waves, or submitting to the current, finding a rhythm of flow that ceases to feel like you are being overpowered, and begins to feel like you are part of something.
The thing about Black Rock City? Whoever you are, and whatever you are into (and I do mean whatever), you’re almost certain to find it here. I have so frequently been asked about my experience and then cast dubious glances as I described it. Some people clearly feel this is an event “too crazy” for them. Maybe some feel it is an event too tame. Yes, there is the Thunderdome, where it’s no-rules, out-for-blood fighting, or about a zillion varieties of hypersexed workshops, but there are also lessons in self-realization, or craft-alongs, or jazz lounges. You can become a regular at any bar (and what a myriad of structures and places accepted as “bars,”) or you can try out a dream machine. You can participate in science experiments, or you can learn to dance. You can just spend the afternoon in the shade, reading, or dozing as you listen to amazing live performances. You can go for sno-cones or dance like a maniac while embarrassingly mind-altered. For many, it is an opportunity to escape their world and to truly be themselves. For others, it’s an opportunity to try being someone new. Whatever you dig—it’s there. Black Rock City is like this organic raw crystalline material that you can carve up as you like, crafting a decreasingly nebulous world for yourself.
Sometimes, though, it isn’t about any of those things I just mentioned. Sometimes it’s just simply about releasing. Letting go of whatever it is you were clutching too tightly. Realizing you have an opportunity to open your eyes. Simply opening yourself to the wonder, and letting it lead you wherever the path meanders.
I also wanted to share a bit of insight about what it looks like to partake in a Burning Man theme camp. You already know that it gets dusty and hot. My experience with Reverbia, our all-live-music theme camp, went awfully beyond that.
When my friends Lung and Natasha started in on trying to persuade me to come to this crazy event, the shape Burning Man had in my mind was fairly amorphous. It was based mostly on Lung Liu’s photos, Scott London’s photos, and my wonkily gathered assumptions, which I later found to be a poor reflection of my ultimate experience. So, based on that hazy, haphazard mess of an idea, I went. Lung told me to sign up with his resident theme camp, and so I did. I didn’t even bother to ask what a theme camp was. I just accepted this notion as part of the adventure, and waited to see what would happen. I learned awfully quickly that a theme camp is a community we are all an integral part of. We rallied together from the start to build this camp. Below, you can see us hauling and beating rugs for our public space and primary stage, The Embassy. We would gather in our private communal kitchen/dining area and collectively create damned fine meals under the intense guidance of our tireless Chef Eric. We worked together to continue adding to our spaces, tents, and shade structures. This collaborative community quickly welcomed each member into the fold and made us a part of something tangible, tactile—made us co-owners in this experience. That was the basis of my introduction to the idea of how a communal camp works.
All theme camps are different. Some have you spin a wheel of intrigue to see what happens. Some focus on yoga and meditation. Some have you dress up like animals and run a track. Turns out ours was all about live music, featuring multiple stages and all-day programming of performers and open mics (Song Dust Sing!) and fun. It was wild to suddenly be immersed in this entirely unexpected culture. And it turns out, it changed me. Or, better said, it helped me to emerge.
Pretty much only my closest friends are aware of this, but I’m into making music. Well, I used to be. Somewhere along that long road of lifey-ness, I let that slide an awful lot. I’d pick up my guitar every few months. Nah… probably only about twice a year. But after my experiences in this theme camp, I’ve remembered why making music is so important to me. How it feeds me. After over a decade, I performed in front of a bunch of people I don’t know. Not just performing—I jumped into a jam. A place for ‘real musicians,’ as I tend to think of them. I don’t exactly know what motivated me. I went to the embassy with my camera. I was there to shoot and meet friends, who ultimately slept through the jam. But Burning Man is an event that can take you by surprise. I was technically by myself. Yet, I wasn’t. I wasn’t inebriated. I just felt connected. So I jumped in.
I’ve mentioned all the visually dazzling things that wowed me during my week at Burning Man—the epic scenery, the colossal dust storms, the beguiling art installations. But things that might have gone rather undermentioned previously? All the connections made. The people grokked. The experiences shared. The understanding and support fostered. The self-discovery nurtured. For me, this was so particularly powerful as a result of being a part of this small community within the greater community.
Unbound, unlimited—by the end of my time there, I felt infinite and utterly connected to something bubbling and viscous. Maybe it was really a connection with myself. Coming home, I knew an old priority had moved back up the ladder of important things in my life—making music. Just one small example of my life being impacted in many ways by this transformational temporary city. But for me, this all happened in this core environment of Reverbia camp. So, yeah, you can bet I’m glad that Lung and Tasha persuaded me to come, and that I followed so blindly. It turned out to be best that way. And you can bet I’ll be returning.
All of these are only small windows and collections of insights into an experience that words and photographs can only partially describe. Perhaps especially in these final images. Because, for me, this was by far the very most emotional element of the whole experience, this final night. Here, I let go.
We began with a trek toward the center of the playa, where The Man awaited his flames. I set out with a group, and within minutes, we’d lost each other—perhaps to the sands in the air, or perhaps because I was meant to be alone. The city was switched on in full. All the buzzing lights, the frenzied noise, the feverish energy—these were wildly intersecting. And then the fireworks erupted.
The crowds surrounded me on all sides. For someone like me, who is not terribly fond of crowds, you’d think I’d have had a panic attack right then and there. But there was something oddly calming about the hum—the drone of voices and crackling fire and crisp wind and blaring music. We had such focus. We were captivated by these temporary, handmade, beautiful things making their fiery exit.
Burn Wall Street was an installation that had gotten a great deal of mixed support and criticism. It was a looming collection of full-scale edifices with subverted banking signage on each one. No matter how you felt about the project, it was arresting to see it go up in the middle of the night. Where the crowds had roared for The Man’s burn, they cheered for the beginning of the Wall Street burn, and then quieted immediately. We watched the buildings come apart slowly, and only as the last beams fell, did the crowd begin to cheer again, and then rush to gather ’round the heat of the embers, like moths.
As light began to tentatively emerge behind the mountains, Lung (Lung Liu, whose photographs of Burning Man are quite different from mine, but are so worth your time) and I rode through pockets of quiet and noise, to the glow of the temple. We’d spent several hours that night letting honesty and emotion fill the cold darkness, sitting atop a shipping crate, watching flames consume the playa. He told me dark things that meant something. He let me be introspective and flummoxed by life being lifey. We contemplated relationships and connections and solitude and being. Nope, we weren’t inebriated or stoned—I realize this kind of thinking probably gets associated with that sort of thing. Certainly at Burning Man. But, in the end, I’d had my drunken, nutty fun earlier in the week. I was entirely ready to simply experience things as they were—beautiful, imperfect, awkward, powerful, challenging.
We headed to the temple as the sky got pink and hazy. We weren’t the only ones with this idea. Folks were scattered across the playa in small groups, huddled together for warmth, or atop funny little art cars, waiting for the rising sun to dazzle them—to change them.
We’d split up by the time the sun was visible over the mountains. I wandered the surrounding playa and then moved back toward the temple.
The Temple of Juno is the most recent of many temples built on the playa. It first started when artist David Best had intended to create an art installation, but had a close friend die days before Burning Man, quite a few years ago. He decided to convert his installation to a sort of memorial. What he hadn’t planned for was how much meaning it would ultimately have for other burners. People flocked to it. People treated it as a sacred thing. And there, the idea of the temple was born. Every year since, Burners have been given a sacred space to do with as they please. Some will bring their sleeping bags and actually sleep there. Some will pray. Some will meditate. Some will mourn. Some come to forgive and some come to be forgiven. The temple begins as a clean slate, and by the end of the week, it is covered in markered messages, tacked notes, handmade signs, and nostalgic items. And then, on the final night, it burns.
With this in mind, with the sunlight lazily settling on the temple, I crossed into the courtyard and began to closely observe and engage with the burners, messages, and items of the temple much more closely—before they were all dust. Burners were hugging each other, praying, doing yoga, playing music, dancing, sleeping, laughing, crying. Messages of hope and pain and rage and love and loss and possibility surrounded us.
I sat on a bench, and I looked out at the dust, and I wept.
Lung found me, then. He asked me how I liked the sunrise. I told him it was good. He sat down. And we wept.
We put our arms around each other, and we let something free. In this release, something very pure happened, something I don’t have words for. Lung broke away from me, crouched, and took a portrait of me. It was okay, I was okay. It was right. I turned and took a portrait of him. Then we moved away and let the temple continue to alter us.
I don’t know how to end this story. I don’t know how to draw a conclusion to something that felt valuably inconclusive for me. Black Rock revealed much for me, and it certainly all culminated in this one, tangibly replete night. I know there are some people who are either uncomfortable with the idea of photography on the playa, don’t like to be photographed, or feel that I was somehow disengaging from the experience by putting my camera between it and myself. But for me, beyond ‘taking pictures of cool things,’ it was an opportunity for me to grow through understanding. My photographs allowed me to connect to the experience, to engage with it more deeply.
Now, looking back over these images, getting to draw out this story, getting to jump back into these dusty waters still, I am rediscovering pieces of myself in this experience that I may not have even seen at the time. I’m recognizing myself in this. I’m recognizing others in this. I’m recognizing others in me.
I wonder what awaits in the dust of next year. Good things, I think. Good things.