Friday, October 3, 2008

Welcome to the counterculture: Burning Man 2008

This is from an amazing friend of mine, Phoebe Fletcher, she is from the Auckland Uni Film, Television and Media Department, she is a commentator on the Sunday News Roast on Alt Tv 7pm Sundays.....

This is the first in a series that examines America, stemming from my recent research trip there.

Since my neighbour returned a decade ago raving about a festival he went to in the middle of the Nevada Desert, I have wanted to go to Burning Man. His footage of the festival was like peering through the looking glass, a spectacular vision of the most outrageous costumes, artwork and cars I had ever seen in my entire life. Founded in 1986 by a group of philanthropists seeking a dose of anticapitalism, the festival began as a small party on Bakers Beach in San Francisco and has spiralled into an event with 50,000 attendees, making it the second largest city in the state of Nevada behind Las Vegas. The premise is paganistic: an entire city is built around a gigantic wooden man and temple that will be razed to the ground in a fire at the week's end. Infamous for its free-love principles, the festival is legendary for its debauchery, but also internationally known for its art, scattered in installations across the three-mile diameter of the party's periphery. The sheer size of the festival means that a bicycle or art car is the preferred mode of travel. People camp in theme camps; a ban on the exchange of money means that many of these are free bars, impromptu clubs, activities and workshops. Burning Man is a saccharine vision of the old frontier meeting the lavish contemporary tradition of Halloween: costumes are serious business here, spawning its own unique cultural tribe of fashion, a sort-of Striptease meets Raquel Welch in One Million Years BC. The life and blood of the festival is volunteers, with the majority of the entertainment being run by attendees putting on mini-parties, often requiring a full year of planning to organise the trucks and materials necessary, forming communities across America. The subject of countless documentaries and attracting the world's media for its reputation as the most extreme dance party in the world, Burning Man has its own radio station for the week, newspapers, a post office and this year held an academic conference on site where scholars debated the impact of its heritage on the US psyche. As everyone kept reminding me, the counterculture starts here - only the most radical Americans attend Burning Man they say, my view of the US will forever be warped.

The festival is anticapitalist; no money is allowed to be exchanged at Burning Man, bar an ice and coffee tent. Attendees are expected to obey the principle of radical self-reliance in order to survive the extreme conditions of the desert and bring in everything that they will need for camping up to a week. Temperatures range from a stifling 40 degrees Celsius during the day (hot enough to cork the wine bottles I had in the tent) to a freezing 4 degrees at night. The weather is unpredictable: sandstorms hit with little warning causing whiteouts where it is impossible to see more than half a metre, necessitating goggles and a face mask to be constantly kept on hand. During these periods, which can last a long time, as in the ten hour sandstorm on the Monday I thankfully missed, it is impossible to move around. Some years it has been known to rain or snow, trapping participants in the desert until the mud dries. The sand itself is so alkaline that it eats away at the skin and sticky, building up on the fingertips like sandpaper until one returns to civilization and dowses themself in an acidic substance like vinegar to balance the pH levels. There is little life on the site: aside from a few desert fleas it is simply too alkaline for anything to grow. The one lane road in and out stalls the traffic to a halt, making it difficult for the less committed to make jaunts for supplies to the nearby towns. 3,848 feet above ground on a plateau of the Black Rock Desert, attending Burning Man is a little like being on the moon.

Serendipitously, the theme for this year was "the American Dream", with participants dressing, camping and living through the lens of how they perceived their concepts of nationalism and I am here to absorb like a sponge. The result is America but not as we know it, creating a bizarre utopia of what would have happened had the lawlessness of the Western frontier been embedded with the hangover of a Sixties revolutionary moment that hadn't failed in its attempt at reforming US society. Speakers blared trance fused with country as attendees represented America in all of its polymorphous perversities: cowboys, bar wenches, dresses made from credit cards, aliens and renditions of Hollywood characters. A tale of signs dotted a metre apart for a few miles informed people as they entered that the Republican vision of the American Dream had created an American nightmare and, that during the week, people were encouraged to create their own alternative construction of what nationalism meant to them in order to challenge the status quo and push for progressive change. The playa (the Spanish word for desert and the term used to refer to the area where the festival takes place) is littered with art installations examining this concept, giving George Bush and Dick Cheney an irrepressible representation at the festival. One installation, featuring a model of the Guantanamo prisoner accused of carjacking and forced to stand on a box holding wires, informs Americans that their tax dollars have paid for the torture of innocent Iraqi citizens, urging them to pedal a bike to give the prisoner an electric shock in an attempt to highlight the often hidden, darker aspects of US nationalism. Clubs range from Roswell-inspired visions, churches and saloons to capitalist commentary, as in the aptly-named Mal-Mart installation. Festival programmes remind participants of America's unequal consumption of resources and urge attendees to leave no trace, an instruction that is taken extremely seriously by every single person I encounter. People are encouraged to get involved in community initiatives that extend beyond the festival itself, such as a project that aims to collect wood from installations and camps at the end of the festival to build houses in New Orleans for victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Despite this element of politicisation, the overwhelming aspect of Burning Man is certainly its sexualisation. (My initial culture shock is attributed by a Kiwi friend that has lived in Los Angeles for a decade as stemming from me being raised in the sexually repressive culture of New Zealand where the women wear skirts over pants - unfortunately having worn skirts over pants myself at various points in history I can only conclude that while the sex is confined in Kiwi culture, the politics run free). While Americans situate this sexualisation as an extension of the gender liberation founded in the free love movements of the 1960s, it is immediately opaque that the idealised American body at Burning Man is still drawing largely from the advertising they are bombarded with, although pockets of a more inclusive form of naturalism exist within the older Burners. As a random stranger stamps my arm with the word "validated" in a scene that immediately brings to mind the early 90s blind dating show set on Venice Beach, I ponder whether the festival ultimately endorses traditional hierarchies of gender and if escapism and hedonism can truly motivate a deeper movement of challenging these hegemonies. Consumed by this question, I set out to meet as many people as I can across as many states (a challenge given that the majority of Burners reside in California) and cut against the grain by talking about both politics and the gendered politics of sex at the festival (yes, I am a bundle of fun).

Burning Man is at its foundations challenged by the very same paradoxes that faced the left in America during the tumultuous decade of the Sixties: the desire for individual indulgence and its subsequent atomisation versus the broader community; the desire to create a new vision of sexuality and gender politics when all we have to reshape is the stereotypes we had before; and the class structures that inevitably underpin any event of its kind, prompting the ironic tension of whether a collection of those who can afford to indulge in such carthartic hedonism will actually translate into a form of progressive societal change. The warnings for those in relationships on the website are proven relevant for some, as dehydration and jealousy combine in what would happen if Survivor was fused with the couples on an island full of singles in Temptation Island. Not surprisingly, for some, the pressure of such a sexualised event means successful attendence is measured on whether one gets laid or not. The shadow of the American college experience is also present here - while the more striated elements of American culture which embed societal status in one's occupation, address and commodities are overthrown by the disguise of costumes and the displacement of the desert, it is clear that hierarchies are still measured in terms of popularity, fuelling the event's gift economy as groups compete to have the best place to hang out. Although I suspect that this privileges the wealthy and influential, of whom a number roam incognito under the privacy of Burning Man's guidelines on public photography, I soon discover that many of the theme camps have up to 60 people contributing, meaning that the cost is shared across a large group of people. These tensions are played out against the backdrop of the state legislation of Nevada, where the governing bodies welcome the revenue that the event brings in and thus have no problem with naked hippies running around in the desert, but where the local laws impose harsh penalties for having sex in public or consuming drugs. The event is patrolled by several law enforcement agencies, including the Feds, who patrol the playa with heat-detecting goggles like The Predator looking for stoners sparking up to arrest. 

What, then, are the radical elements to Americans that secure the festival's canonisation in the countercultural cache? According to the results of my impromptu survey, it is the sense of community, openness and reciprocity that drives the festival. The harshness of the desert environment means that people can only survive through having a sense of community - despite months of planning, if one has forgotten something, the car breaks down on the badly maintained roads or something breaks, you are ultimately dependent on other strangers, creating a sense of trust amongst fellow Burners that many attempt to maintain throughout the year through utilising social networking sites that have sprung up around the event and the many smaller festivals that occur throughout America during the year to gather those privy to this unique experience, which despite being well-known in California, maintains a fringe status across most of the other states. It is easy to forget in a country like New Zealand where most people wouldn't think twice about leaving their gear in an unlocked tent that the economic inequalities and ghettoisation in the US has created an environment of fear and suspicion. The idea of an event where people feel safe in their communities, where status is judged primarily on creativity not commerce, eccentricity encouraged, the pressures of consumption, media and work stop for a week (there is no cellphone reception here) and the reciprocity of strangers is utopia. For one week, citizens are able to build their own society that is free from the confines of big business and cathartic to the individual before returning to a culture that supports high achievers but abandons the underdog. While the suppression of political dissent in the US means that this liberation is channelled through the sexualisation that pits the elusive satisfaction of commodifying oneself encouraged by business against the morality of America's traditional religious base, the "American Dream" of Burning Man ultimately positions this as a point of departure where collectivities can be formed and the frontiers of personal and global geopolitics can be redefined. Where else would you be invited to a wedding of three women by a pantless priest? 

N.B. As photography is restricted at the event, I encourage you to check out the images in the Burning Man gallery here. 

1 comment:

David said...


Well written words about Burning Man. This was my 7th consecutive year, and it was awesome! I make a video each year, and if you'd like a copy, please let me know and I'd be happy to send you one. Here are some photos:


Psilly Psymon
Dallas, TX