Carol Keiter | Burning the Man: A Utopian Requiem | article after 1st Burningman experience
October 22, 2014 2 Comments
I just discovered that my article that had been hosted at a friend’s website, has been offline, and I’m not sure for how long. I had to dig it up on a portable HD, where fortunately I had the text together with a folder of the original photographs I had incorporated into the article. I wrote this after attending my first Burningman back in 1999, while living in San Francisco, California.
Burning the Man
A Utopian Requiem
written by Carol Keiter 1999
I held the scepter of a skeptic as passenger in a car bounding linearly along the divided highway on the way to this event, shouldering a relentless sun. I had forgotten how quickly the desert encroached as we left the breezy coastal town of San Francisco behind us. The heat towered, reducing my acumen to a dull wistfulness, tainting my anticipation of what to expect among such a large number of people thronged together. Surely there would be vigorous anonymity, as is the metropolitan method. But we were greeted warmly and ushered very efficiently to our destination once we entered the gate, and then swept into a never ending court of colorful, elaborately costumed people, ready to playfully transcend anything that may have been weighing them down on the other side. I spotted a trampoline at a neighboring campsite in the first minutes of setting up ours’, and it sparked my enthusiasm about the possibilities of play envisioned.
Juxtaposed to the shrill decadence and tackiness of Las Vegas, also nascent to this desert state, whose pursuit of profit is at the lowest common denominator of the quick-fix of cash, this ‘Burning Man’ municipality was a playground of a completely different nature. The layout of the conglomeration of camps had been surveyed ahead of time, with the different ‘theme’ camps, whose particular motifs were elaborately staged and developed for the fellow campers to participate in, were given pre-assigned locations in the Black Rock community. The rest of the campers set up their living quarters on a first-come first-serve basis in the available spaces. It was all so thoroughly planned, now in its’ 7th year in this location, that there was an array of print information mapping out scheduled activities and their locations for the duration of the week, along with a tremendous effort that was made to assuage any problematic situations affecting the general health and well-being of the inhabitants of this pop-up town. Sewage disposal, electronic resources and first aid access were all arranged, along with the various means of circulating information. A few independent camps offered special amenities such as ice and showers, for those willing to pay cash for the extra conveniences.
What I hadn’t known beforehand became delightfully apparent as I perused the network of camps within the first hours, that the motive here was to barter or offer as gifts one’s creations, rather than to make a profit. Cash was for the most part an entity out-of-order. Merit came through what one could offer through ones’ own means. A story, joke, sketch, massage, article of any sort, food or drink, virtually anything fathomed that could be offered as an exchange, considered to have worth by the person or camp offering their commodity or service, was fair play. Many camps who hosted beverages or services asked for nothing in exchange, offering what they presented just for the satisfaction of contributing their nuance to the whole experience. Wow! This quickly became an encounter of a very surreal nature. Then there were those who randomly offered their own tidbits of information or personal propaganda to anyone interested, just to make their own statement. I liked the bumper stickers one guy was handing out from the basket of his bicycle that said in bold letters “Advertising Is A Lie”. I appreciated the message because I have for years harbored a pretty dark-sided view of what I think Capitalism has come to misrepresent, kind of like the Christian religion gone awry. Like a dis-ease, this mass consumeritis has promoted and perpetuated through suggestions from various media that the ego is laden with flaws and is to be mistrusted, suggesting that people grab for something outside of themselves to bring them closer to that more perfect state, or more productive one. Naturally, in our Material World, that perfect state is alluded to as being attainable through acquiring material accessories. It’s promised! It’s a peer pressure hypnosis in which individuality is squelched. Achievements, are not simply states of mind tapped into from one’s own sense of what is right, but in the form of a possessions, material things that once attained, adorn one with esteem and glory to pump up the ego. I’ve rambled off on this tangent only because the essence of this collective event was so far removed from any religion born of the values precipitated by the pursuit of paper money. Contrasted to popular culture’s mechanisms, this entire camping crusade came to embody the heroism of the individual, celebrating each person’s creative instincts and efforts, so that the appraisal of wealth was in what was unique, not what one acquired as an appendage and token of someone else’s fashion dictates. This world of mirrors cast a very different light on what is real and of value.
My preconceptions about the meaning of Burning Man was laced with my own experience of an event annually taking place in Santa Fe, New Mexico, also involving the burning of an effigy of a human figure. This one, called the Zozobra, a tradition introduced by the Spanish immigrants, is woven around a pagan symbol of the harvest, and represents the burning of ‘Old Man Gloom’. It takes place in the Autumn when the day light is shortening with the onset of winter. But Burning Man was not merely a harvest festival, but a reaping charged with regeneration that was fantastically creative. Humorous twists omnipresent in dress, decor and subject matter were kind of like antidotes to the social ills of the ‘real world of illusions’. It was as if the soulful purpose of this ritual of integration, was to allow the dwellers of the camps to manifest pure creativity, from the raw to the sublime. The point, to tap into one’s talents and articulate them, sharing one’s unique expression with others, not locked into firm goals with decisive ends in mind but in full participation with the process.
Harbored in the Nevada Black Rock desert, the Burning Man campsite was in a high plain valley of rarefied starkness and rawness, nestled between jagged bereft mountains. The barrenness of this environment caused every shape, shadow and change of color illuminated by the shifting light rays of the sun to reveal an enormous beauty in their subtlety. By virtue of the harshness of the habitat, a quality of openness and offering to strangers reigned. Having to deal with the harsh elements in which the wind could be daunting, spinning dust into devils taunting ones’ breath, not to mention the scarcity of water, the bleak climate itself engendered a palpably warm and sympathetic human response. It reminded me of tales of nomadic Bedouins of Africa and Arabia who extended acceptance and hospitality to everyone, even enemies, who passed within the vicinity of their tents, knowing that the role as a provider could be assiduously reversed in a matter of moments. If the winds were to suddenly bring in a wall of asphyxiating dust or if the water supply were to dwindle, among any other unforeseen threats, one then had no choice but to rely on the humanness of a stranger to endure. The only answer to combat the elements was to extend an affinity and sympathy to all, recognizing that only through bonding and cooperating would one survive. And these temporary desert dwellers did just that, gracefully and intimately cooperating with one another. It didn’t take long to realize how familiar one could become with the other people in this communal village, when each is layered with dust, confronted with the same extremes of heat and thirst, and when grooming or bathing was not confined to a private area but in full view of tens of others within the immediate radius of one’s tent. One quickly let one’s guard down.
Gone as well was the sense of needing to guard one’s own residence or property. The spirit of the whole camp was very much one of collaboration and genuine community. Remaining isolated in one’s home-entertainment-center by virtue of accumulated possessions was non-non-existent, and diametrically opposed to the spirit of this place. Instead, people came together visiting each others’ home camps to mutually participate in the arena of entertainment and education offered to all. It was the living pulse and breath of an underground of shared consciousness in which ideas, images, spoken word, sculpture, performance art, theater, ceremonies and music participated in influencing and shaping everyone present. Everywhere were painted bodies, personal fashions, crafted bicycles and vehicles that perused through the labyrinth of elaborately constructed tents. Scattered in front of the ring of tents across the vast playa were sculptured works of art, many elegant in their simplicity.
The messages among all of this adornment covered the gamut from ironic to satirical, iconoclastic to absurd. The whole flux, like a Fellini movie, was an embryo of ideas that procreated as they were seeded in the hearts and minds of all. Humor was everywhere, and the palette of spontaneity and serendipity the temperament that washed over every event. This was the ‘unreal world of reality’ which honored complete freedom of expression. This degree of creativity and uniqueness was a utopia I had yet to experience in action. Each person’s responsibility was to tap into the spirit within and reveal what it bore, and each of the different works of art fashioned were a gift, an offering to the imagination, of everyone else present.
The interesting quality about this extravaganza in the desert was that, like its’ habitat, it was in essence constantly changing, continuously evolving and metamorphosing as the various participants affected it through time. Just as the desert climate continually transformed itself, taking on different forms with cloudscapes, light reflections on the bordering mountains or the winds redistributing the sand, the thousands of people contributed through the elixir of their own thought patterns to manifest a mutating campsite, through a plethora of decorated vehicles and bodies that flowed into one’s view constantly, along with the arena of stationary as well as floating exhibitions. And as the people poured in to set up their camps, the variety exponentially increased.
The festival, several longtime goers informed me, was instigated as a response by a man named Larry Harvey to a relationship gone brittle, which he chose to burn out of his system. So he made an effigy of a human figure and gathered some friends to join him in his own cleansing ritual, by burning that Man on Baker Beach in San Francisco in 1989. It must have been a successful catharsis for him and his friends, kind of like the Phoenix rising from the flames, because the event has since pulled more and more people into its eclipse. Less than ten years later, there were about 15 thousand people who attended. Perhaps many people have engaged themselves as a means of disengaging from their own personal nagging spirits, in order to crystallize their own hopes and dreams of what they desire to bring into their lives. There’s an inherent value in people joining together, manifesting a mutual support system, to help to make each personal myth happen.
There on fine sand which was once covered by an ocean floor mingled a bunch of people who had come from numerous states and a number of countries, not separated by what they possessed or what territories they emerged from, but joined through a mutual embrace of sharing and giving of themselves. Not a Woodstock, but an evolution of what that festival represented in its’ time. Music played an enormous part, because music is a magic that pulls many people together in its’ many incarnations. One could be guided around by the beacon of sound emanating from an area as profoundly as blaring strobe lights out there in the moonlit desert evenings. The music represented, booming out of different tents, covered as wide of a arc of what is out there in our contemporary Western culture ranging from House, Techno, Trance, Jungle to Industrial, Classical, Country, Brazilian Samba, French Rap, Hard Rock, Experimental to JUST Mental, as the individuals who were present. There wasn’t really one genre of people but an interesting mix and a vast collection of alter egos displayed through the week long parade of costumes. The splendor of this party was that each of the guests heartily participated, the whole arena a dramatic, interactive theatrical explosion of ideas, visions, dreams, incarnations and symbolism from the individual collective. Costumes were requisite, gaiety and laughter abundant. It was a vast arena in which people displayed their wares, their creations, in order to share their particular tilt.
As abundant as this essence of sharing, was the respect and acknowledgment each gave to others’ contributions. One delightful and fresh aspect was the fact that there was such a trust present. There was a tolerance and lack of judgment or ridicule towards other people, the opposite extreme of what we typically learn to express to one another in most communities. The critical eye, assessing other peoples’ dress codes that even the anti-conformist groups are guilty of when it comes to judging whether a persons’ uniform is hip or not, whether it be punk, gothic, grunge… had vanished. There was also a refreshing trust and respect for other peoples’ material possessions. When I realized that I could ride my mountain bike around everywhere within the 2 mile radius of the entire camp and just lay it down, un-locked, to enter into some tents’ happenings without any concern, it was an unprecedented and astounding feeling of liberation. There were thousands of people transporting themselves by bicycle, as driving motorized vehicles, unless they were concocted into a float of some sort, were not allowed nor practical. Along with all of the re-creation on the pure aesthetic level, there were everywhere different avenues of genuine information sharing. Camps offered yoga, meditation, dance or poetry writing workshops, music and drumming participation, mask making or group discussions spawned by a topic a speaker instigated. One of the theme camps, ‘Disturbia’, offered among other features a theatrical musical performance which was an elaborate session, unmasking a very poignant message. The actors created a gothic theater which was a futuristic glimpse of technology unharnessed, resulting in the devolution of culture, in which the individuals had been reduced to mental, emotional and moral decay. Transfixed in their own wrath of how the one-sided reign of technology had rendered them pathetically crippled, they engendered to battle the machines that destroyed them.
Ironically, prevalent everywhere during the carnival was a union of opposites. The most prominent one being that between the high tech and primitive, which embraced and complimented one another. State-of-the-art technologies, no doubt spawned by the proximity of Silicon Valley to the birthplace of this event, glittered in their splendor next
to primitive rituals, somber and graceful in their symbolism of nature and transformation. It was a living and breathing union of the Yin and Yang. There was a funny incongruousness of seeing fires everywhere in the night skies together with an array of neon, electronic pulsating lights and lasers. As if in our present day, fire worship has transmutated into that of electricity, not so much as a myth that we live by but an addiction that we can’t live without. In tandem with this is how the slow alpha and theta brain waves generated as people look at their television sets are similar to those activated by people gazing into a camp fire. Or, how people dancing, particularly in the contemporary electronic music scenes common at this festival, respond in unison to a beat, regardless of whether it is generated by a drumming circle of live flesh beating on drums or a dj spinning mutations of noise in rhythmic pulses. Tribal drumming was an integral part of the ‘Burning Man’ week, offered in various sites equipped with either skin covered drums or metal fabrics, yet feeding the entire camp was a generator powerful enough to allow the 15 thousand inhabitants their supply of electricity, to feed the machines…the dj’s turntables, p.a. systems to give life to the many electronic musical instruments, elaborately decorated tents brilliantly lit with custom lighting systems, laser and neon craftworks, and even a giant Tesla Coil, a machine which demonstrated man-made branched lightning bolts in a thundering arc. This fusion was apparent throughout.
The collective camp was laid out in a two mile arc, with the Man embraced in the center in a loyal gesture of kinship. This half moon shape, symbolic of a communion, reminded me of a Native American Peyote ceremony I’d taken part in. That ceremony in New Mexico was steeped in ritual movements, in which the fire keeper methodically fed the fire in the center of the teepee with wood as he raked the coals, shaping the burning embers from a thin crescent moon in the beginning of the rite to a full circle by its’ end 12 hours later. I felt that this half moon shape of the Burning Man camp pulled together and focused the energy of all of the people present with a kind of Feng Shui deliberacy. The whole event reached its’ climax on the night of the big burn, pointedly, when the moon was full.
In the center of the camp stood the tree of life, a copper-tubed sculpted tree which trickled with water to give relief to the desert dwellers that congregated there in day light, and which spouted out graceful 6 foot flames from its’ branches in the nighttime. As emblematic as this tree, the magic was in the awareness of these dualities, one needing the other to make way for the new.
It’s as if the whole electronic revolution, and our 20th century evolution of visual media in the form of photographs, television, video imagery, and film have created the way for this organic leap to take place, in which our forays from the rational terrain of the Western Industrial Revolution have reached, in our Information Age, into the teachings of the Eastern hemispheres of our planet and into the Right hemispheres of our brains.
As though our right brain enhanced minds, reconcile us through neurological practice, to discerning patterns, holistic thinking and musical and aesthetic appreciation all associated with its’ territory, a feminine leaning path, surfacing from our traditional masculine, linear and analytical left brained approach. Perhaps it’s a mutation, breeding a union of the hemispheres and an androgyny of spirit, or just the way our evolution is naturally flowing.
Burning Man exemplified how our technology, which is an extension of our imaginations, lends us to embrace ancient teachings and knowledge coming from all different crevices of our planet and minds. Dualities played on the playa, in night-life and day-life, fire and water, femininity and masculinity, in this renaissance festival of the nineties. Lone pieces of sculpture scattered on the vast stretches of sands waited to be pondered as did the opportunity of collective rapture as hundreds of people drummed or danced in unison. Synchronicity was alive and breathing among the painted bodies in this painted desert.