I Watched A Brave New World Get Built And Destroyed In A Week: Tales From Burning Man
The world’s most epic festival finished last weekend with the burning of a giant effigy straddling an alien spaceship. Here's a first-hand account.
I’m inside the stomach of a sheep. The guts are pink and warm and fluffy. To get here, I had to climb a ladder into the sheep’s rear, and slide down a red slippery dip. The instant my feet touch the stomach floor, I’m greeted by rapturous applause and almost knock over the sheep’s clear heart, which is filled with hundreds of mirror balls all beating in time with music. As far as my week goes, it’s one of the more normal things I’ve experienced.
Welcome to Burning Man.
I first visited the week-long arts and music festival two years ago, intrigued to discover why it had built such a religious following. What I found was so much more than a simple sentence could describe. The temporary city rises from the dust of the Nevada Desert in America for one week, to create a playground like nothing else on Earth; the festival climaxes with the ritual burning of the man and temple on the white plain known as “the playa’ — ironically the Spanish word for beach — and then disappears without leaving a trace.
The desire to attend Burning Man doesn’t just leave after one visit; it attaches itself to you like the desert dust, and refuses to let go. So I went a second time.
Instead of living on the quiet city fringes like we did in 2010, this year I’m part of a theme camp: a collective of like-minded individuals who group together to create areas for other Burners to enjoy. Our crew are the GlamCocks, a fun-loving group of 80 guys from all over the world, whose mission is to put on the best damn parties we know how to.
We spend a few days erecting a two-storey-high wooden structure, complete a with reflective dome for projections, a DJ booth, lasers, a lookout (with binoculars), a suspended bridge, hammocks, a rope hang-out, a Moroccan-themed communal tent and even dancer poles for our daily sunset parties, with performances and open bars.
The most infamous principle of Burning Man is that there’s no currency at all: everyone gives something back in their own way. Our sunset parties are our camp’s gift. It takes days to construct and tear down, but the sense of pride in our achievement makes all the sweat worthwhile.
VIRGIN NO MORE
First time burners are known as virgins, and made up 36% of the population last year. The second time you go to Burning Man, everything is different — and I’m happy to have a little bit of knowledge that goes a long way. The shock and awe of the senses that overwhelms your first experience is still there – you wouldn’t be human if the mental and physical stimulation around you didn’t affect you in some way – but the brightness is dialled down a tiny bit. In its place is a deeper sense of curiosity for what’s actually behind the lights.
The most common questions asked of Burners are, ‘What the hell happens out there? What exactly do you do?’ (They’re normally followed immediately by, ‘Why?’). The simplest answer I have is this: by day you get on your bike and explore. And by night, you get on your bike and explore with a drink in your hand.
There are parties in every direction you look. At any given hour, there’s probably a hundred or so events happening at the same time, ranging from a cart on the side of the road serving picklebacks to thirsty Burners (a shot of whiskey chased by a shot of pickle brine), to massive outdoor fields ringed by fireballs and fireworks featuring some of the world’s biggest DJs, like Diplo and Paul Oakenfold. But that’s just one part of it. It’s the simple, unexpected moments that really make up your Burn, and every one of the 68,000 people surviving for a week in the desert has a completely different story.
Burning Man is equal parts fucking amazing, and fucking difficult. The latter memories will be conveniently forgotten, but it won’t take long for them to come crashing back. Dry, sunburnt and cracked skin. Sore joints and muscles. Dozens of cuts. Riding bruises. Walking blisters. Sore heads. Burning Man is physically demanding almost all of the time. It’s the entry price to the greatest show on earth; you have to pay with your body so that your mind can experience what happens when creativity has all the room it needs to reach its full potential.
Burning Man is, above all else, an arts festival that just happens to be held in the middle of nowhere. The interactive public art is temporary, mind-blowing, and thought-provoking, found in the most unexpected places and on a scale like no other gallery. And almost all of it is burnt to a crisp at the end of the week.
One afternoon, a few of us head off around the playa on a guided audio art tour that we’d downloaded onto our phones back when the internet was more than just a memory. We play it from a portable speaker and ride from art piece to art piece, letting each artist explain the thinking that went into each sculpture.
United by this year’s theme, Cargo Cult, hundreds of large-scale projects glisten in the sun. One of the most striking is the Church Trap: a life-size decaying church tipped on its axis like a box trap, complete with a rope you can try and pull to “trap” people inside. “Not only does it push participants to ask the question ‘Why?’, but it also invites the daring to take control of the many interactive features,” says the audio tour. We stand awe-struck inside the structure. “A tricked-out church organ, part central LED nervous system, part beautifully wicked installation art. It is your God. Or, are you its? Whatever the answer, play at your own risk.”
The afternoon that we’re inside the Trap, a random musician plays Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah on the pipe organ as a dozen people listen intently on pews. A member of the congregation stands up and ad libs new lyrics in an unexpectedly stunning voice. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful moment, one of thousands happening at that very moment all over the playa.
At night, we set out to see just how far we can go into the desert. Like early explorers, we strap on a backpack of supplies – goggles, water, protein bars, dust masks, toilet paper, jackets – and head out North. Or is it South?
On bikes, lit by the single glare of a headlamp, we weave through art cars, past giant glowing fish, around metallic neon signs and into the darkness. We cycle for kilometres, the minutes adding up, trying to reach what’s known as the “trash fence”, which rings the circumference, trapping any rubbish that gets caught in the wind.
A single light comes towards us, and we ask the fellow Burner how much farther it is. He’s trying to find Robot Heart, a roving stage that covertly changes location every night,with DJs like Jamie Jones, Art Department and Seth Troxler. I tell the lone rider to just look up. Each night a string of a hundred helium balloons with flashing lights are strung into the air off back of Robot Heart. Follow the lights and you’ll eventually find the Heart.
Dust swirls around us, making it difficult to see more than a few metres in front. There’s just two of us, my mate Johnny and I, feeling pretty alone in the desert. We can hear the dull thud of music warping through the cold air, and stop to let the worst of the dust storm pass by.
We continue cycling — to where, we don’t know — until a giant art piece glows above the storm. It’s a hulking five-metre-wide lit-up ball suspended in mid-air. I remember it from the day before; I’ve regained my bearings, and we head off into the inky darkness once again.
In the distance, a light shines brighter than the rest, so we cycle towards it. It begins to take shape the closer we get: a light, some lights, a collection of lights. A large white box at the top, bigger than the others, slowly comes into focus. It’s a marquee, like the type you would see out the front of an old theatre. In fact, the whole thing looks like the front of a movie theatre.
There’s a concrete single-storey structure rising from the ground, a building surrounded by emptiness. It’s the Black Rock Bijou, the most isolated transient cinema in the world. The marquee above the entrance reads, ‘Showtimes 12am, 2am, 4am’ on one side and ‘Tonite, Shangri-La’ on the other.
There’s no need for phones at Burning Man, and most people leave their watches at home, so I have no idea what time it is. We park our bikes and head inside, greeted by a fully stocked foyer with peanut M&Ms, popcorn and Mars Bars handed out to weary travellers. We crawl through a tiny door that comes up to our knees, and end up in a plush art deco cinema, with just five rows of seats. It’s one of the most surreal finds, but we take a seat and watch the 1937 black and white film, blissfully unaware of the dust storm swirling outside.
FOLLOW THE SHEEP
Early one evening, we see a giant, glowing hot pink sheep drive past our camp. Why not, eh? It’s the BAAAHS, or Big-Ass Amazingly Awesome Homosexual Sheep, and my DJ mate from Sydney — Jonny Seymour, one half of Stereogamous with Paul Mac — is part of the theme camp that created it.
We run after the adorably soft animal as it roams the pastures of the playa, complete with lasers shooting from its head and video-projected eyes, and climb the ladder right into its pulsing, um, rear. From the sheep’s guts we head to the rooftop as it makes its way around the city; we dance, drink, laugh, survey.
After some time, the sheep grinds to a halt on a clear patch of the playa, and three burly men drag a heavy stand a few metres to the side, to hoist two large disco balls into the air. They pull out their drills and secure the mirror ball stand into the desert. Just like that, a pop up dance floor materialises next to the sheep. No one even raises an eyebrow.
When the music finally stops, at maybe four or five in the morning, those of us still standing decide to venture as far as we can to watch the sun rise over the mountains in the distance. We cycle for another ten minutes, and stretch out for nature’s show.
A giant Loch Ness Monster art car glides to join us on the trash fence, offloading its passengers and bringing some sunrise tunes. In the distance, like Mars rising over a desolate landscape, a bright orange-streaked sun rises to meet the sky. It’s yet another magical scene that gets permanently etched into my mind.
There are some sayings that you pick up on the playa, which help explain what it’s all about. The Black Rock City Rangers, the volunteer group dedicated to keeping all the revellers out of serious trouble, have a tongue-in-cheek mantra: “Safety third.”
Your safety is your responsibility, and yours alone. I meet two other Australians who have broken their arms, and I come perilously close to doing the same a few times — all my own fault, of course. I jump off a moving art car. At night. In the dark. Drunk. Instead of the soft landing I was expecting, the ground rises up to meet my chin and I nurse a headache for the rest of the night.
Another time, we slide ten metres down a homemade slippery dip on top of a sketchy geodesic dome. Later, we think that rock climbing our way to the top of a building to watch the pretty lasers is a good idea — only to realise that it’s a lot harder to get down. These are the unexpected, sometimes mad, almost always fun moments that make up your Burn.
The other saying is that “the playa will provide”. It’s most often said in jest, but it’s eerily prescient. When we throw a sunset party at our camp and our alcohol begins running low, our neighbours turn up in the queue with bottles of vodka. When my headlamp battery blinks its last beam, my mate Rich hands me a powerful headlight he just found on the ground.
We go for a day trip around the French Quarter one morning, seeking out whatever food we can find. Within an hour, we’re offered (and scoff down) corn dogs, grilled cheese sandwiches, apples, fresh watermelon juice, waffles and iced coffee. Occasionally we have to do something to get the food — like sing, dance, or spin a fancy wheel — but the playa does actually seem to provide whenever we really need it to.
WHAT’S THE POINT?
The whole experience means something different to everyone. Damian Lazarus, a high profile DJ from Crosstown Rebels who plays almost every year, posted this on his Facebook after this year’s Burn: “Burning Man is a place where you make your own dreams come true, where anything is possible, where your imagination is brought to life. It is an alternate dimension where everybody takes care of one another, where people remind you that love is the most powerful drug of all, and it is a place to allow your most personal creative self the freedom to express without fear of having the piss taken out of you.”
For me, it’s a place to get inspired, and see just how creative people can be when all the rules are broken down and a world is built from scratch.
The beauty of the week is not revealed straight away. When you’re there, it’s only too easy to be distracted by the lack of sleep, showers and sober mornings. But the real Burning Man reveals itself to you in the hours, days, weeks and months after you’ve washed the last dust off your body. From the tightening of friendships forged in the desert, to the realisation that creativity has so many more possibilities than you ever imagined, what you get out of Burning Man is different for everyone.
Now where the hell did that giant pink sheep go?
Tim Duggan is the Content Director at the Sound Alliance, the parent company of Junkee, inthemix, FasterLouder, Same Same, Mess+Noise and more. Follow him on Twitter @timduggan