Tuesday, August 17, 2010

What is this Burning Man thing?

Two weeks from now I will be enjoying my first night at Burning Man 2010.

Over the years, I've been asked by many friends and acquaintances, "What is this Burning Man thing?"
It's a hard question to answer. My usual reply is, "It's hard to explain." Then I tackle any more specific questions they have about it.

Sometimes I give the short answer, "It's an art festival in the Nevada desert."
Which is true. It's a festival, people do come and make, build, perform, and otherwise create art. But that doesn't even begin to cover it.

It transcends attempts to explain. "Is it like Woodstock?" No, people tell you that because they heard there are a bunch of naked hippies there. Which is true - there are naked hippies, but there are also ravers, pyros, bikers, goths, steampunks, yuppies, frat boys, rednecks, nerds, and every other subculture you can think of; all in various states of dress or undress - although, on the whole, the steampunks tend to wear more clothes.

And there is music. But it isn't big-name bands taking a central stage (or stages, like Lolapalooza or Coachella). There is no single organized event to take your attention on any given day. Burners (as those who are wont to go to Burning Man usually call themselves) come, and many organize themselves into "theme camps" that create an interactive experience of some sort for their fellow Burners. I've been in a camp that built a lighthouse and played techno music for people to dance to. Friends organized a camp that served high tea every day. One camp paired you up with a "soul mate" in order to force people to meet strangers and make new friends. The variations are endless, and there are literally thousands of theme camps offering many different experiences.

You have to buy a ticket, but all that does is get you in the gate and pay for the port-o-potties you use. The experience is all designed and provided by you and your fellow Burners. The organization just sets up the infrastructure of the event (no mean feat) and puts on the one central event - the burning of the Man (a 40 ft. tall statue) at the end of the week.

"Is it some kind of survivalist thing?" I hear some people ask. No, you hear this because some people refer to it as "survival camping." The environment is harsh, and you must bring everything you need to survive a week in the desert - shelter, food, water, everything. But it's not a bunch of crazy end-of-the-worlders or anything like that. And guns aren't allowed - but they used to be.

So what is it? It's a life-changing experience. It's a big party. It's camping. It's art. It's music. It's whatever you want it to be.

When I first heard about it, it sounded like some crazed drugged-out thing that I had no interest in. But as my life changed, I decided that a crazed week in the desert was exactly what I needed, and I was right.

What I found there was a community. People who were genuinely nice (for the most part - there are still assholes around, no matter where you go) and just wanted to have a good time, and wanted everyone else to have a good time. It defied all the explanations I had been given. It was everything I had heard, and much more that couldn't be in put into words. That's why it's so hard to define - there are a million aspects to it, and if you go you see so much more than you were ever told about it. Even if you've been around somebody like me who's been many times and talks about it incessantly.

I also found a new family. People I call my brothers and sisters, and whom I love and care about very much. And every new Burn added new members to the family. And every one of those people changed my life in some way.

I've been to Burning Man 9 times now. 1997-2004, and then again in 2008. And I'll be at my 10th in just two weeks. And probably anyone who knows me has heard more about it than they ever would have cared to. Except my fellow dedicated Burners, since they talk about it as much as I do.

Before I went to Burning Man for the first time, my friend Gromit (who had been to Burning Man in 1996) told me, "When Burning Man '96 ended, there were people whose whole lives became about Burning Man '97."
I could not fathom a "festival" that would consume my life like that. I thought it was extreme.

When Burning Man '97 ended, my whole life became about Burning Man '98.