Greetings from Burning Man!
It's the New American Holiday.
Bruce Sterling takes the kids to the Temporary Autonomous Zone, where survival is a personal choice.
by Bruce Sterling
Wired Magazine, November 1996
Thursday, August 29
Stopped at the gas station for directions to the Burning Man Festival. Grizzled, portly Nevadan local growls: "If ya have to ask, you don't belong there!"
As if anybody was gonna drive all the way to Gerlach, Nevada (population 340), for some other reason.The gas station was packed with mobile homes and junker slackermobiles. The guy relented and gave us directions. Seems a multiple-pierced and tattooed lovely in a clingy peach taffeta costume had melted his heart.
Drove 16 miles. Then drove another 12 miles across the bottom of a very dead lake. Driving across the playa is like space travel: you point the front of the vehicle into emptiness and launch. Gaseous tails of flying white dust spurt up like jet exhaust. Cars and trucks leave huge wakes on the horizon, like white prairie fires. If the wind kicks up, the world becomes a twilight zone of milky haze. Driving fast in a whiteout dust fog is an excellent way to get killed.
We're in a 22-foot Ford recreational vehicle, in which I've brought the family to Burning Man: Nancy Sterling (wife, mom), Amy Sterling (9 years), and the littlest desert fox, Laura of Arabia, a hardened travel veteran at 4 months. We've never lived in an RV before. It's a mutant cross between an aircraft and a small chunk of suburbia. It's brand-new, but it shudders, moans, vibrates, rattles, squeaks, and emits foul generator exhaust.
Reached the camp, found a place to park, got out to walk around. Maybe 500 vehicles here already. People are setting up tents, parachutes, awnings, tiki torches, tribal flags. The lake bed is a Euclidean plane with zillions of dry fractal cracks. The parched Nevada mountains of the Black Rock Desert rise on three sides. Weary treeless hills full of sullen majesty.
Friday, August 30
A guy got killed last night. He rear-ended a truck while zooming along the darkened playa on a blacked-out motorcycle.
The place feels like the afterlife. When you walk across it, you just drift over endless cracked whiteness, lifting your feet maybe a quarter inch from the surface. It's all mobile; it's all temporary. Twist the ignition key and drift with the wind.
Burning Man is an art gig by tradition. Over the longer term it's evolved into something else; maybe something like a physical version of the Internet. The art here is like fan art. It's very throwaway, very appropriative, very cut-and-paste. The camp is like a giant swap meet where no one sells stuff, but people trade postures, clip art, and attitude. People come here in clumps: performance people, drumming enthusiasts, site-specific sculptors, sailplane people, ravers, journalists, cops. I'm a journalist and a newbie, but even I can tell the pros from my fellow newbies. The veterans have brought their own pennants, bicycles, flashlights, and tiki torches, plus enough water for anything.
The facts: Burning Man, a loosely organized festival, takes place each Labor Day weekend. Located in the middle of Black Rock Desert, an absolutely empty patch of federal land in northern Nevada, about 70 miles north of Reno. This year was the 11th incarnation of the celebration. Approximately 10,000 to 12,000 people hauled their own shelter, food, and water to create an instant city on the 400-square-mile alkaline flat. Temperature during the day was about 107 degrees Fahrenheit. The area is unbroken, finely cracked mud, spotted with encampments - many encampments - of tents, jury-rigged huts, and circles of Winnebagos, The vehicles and structures are organized into affinity tribes: pyromaniac camp, wind-surfer camp, piano-fire camp, rave camp, industrial grunge camp, radio camp, art camp, gun and ammo camp, and so on. Beyond this, nothing is certain. The point of it all? That's up to each participant. There are no spectators.
The alkali dust is like a fine and bitter talcum. It gets into everything, so why fight it? Just throw off your clothes. Keep maybe a straw hat, shades, and boots. Throwing off all your clothes is the cheapest, quickest way that was ever invented to cop an attitude. It's also a cool youth-culture solidarity move. Young people look great without clothes. Young people don't need 'em.
Vehicles have scattered all over the playa. It's as if a giant bowl of mixed nuts had dropped off a kitchen counter onto white linoleum. The parachute-covered Central Camp does duty as the broken bowl. All around it are cashews, peanuts, and sunflower seeds: dinky pup tents, some bigger pop tents, RVs, pickups, trailers. There's even an honest-to-goodness geodome erected by some ambitious guys who have brought a crane. Their towering construction crane arouses much envy, and they get to boast of having "the biggest tech on the playa."
The streets are vaporous formalities. They're premarked with tiny colored plastic flags: the flags get bent, they get stepped on, they even get run over. But once the* idea* of a street is established, the community standard holds.
You're not supposed to throw anything away on the playa. You're supposed to leave nothing at all. The idea of leaving no visible trace is a central part of the Burning Man zeitgeist, a performance-art process move. The organizers are very specifically eco-correct - maybe because they're so lighthearted about tolerating most anything else.
We're new here, and as a married couple with kids we are very adult and polite. So we dutifully follow orders, and we don't dump anything. It's a quick and brutal lesson in the gross inconvenience of modern convenience. Everything we own or want to get rid of becomes a burden: toilet paper, snack bags, beer cartons, dirty diapers, our unwashed clothes. Nancy and I take to wolfing down Amy's food so that we won't have to store it in malodorous twist-tie bags.
There's some good art here. When you see the good art - even though it is very temporary - it's like finding a pearl in a bag of salted peanuts. The Burning Man is good art. Flat on his back, he looks like a giant abandoned packing crate, but when he's catapulted into standing position, he becomes a striking neon symbol of pretty much everything that matters. You can sit on a hay bale at the foot of the Burning Man and the whole world passes by. It's like hanging out on the Venetian Rialto.
Had a long chat with a guy about Moscow. I'd never met this guy except through email, but he recognized me, and we immediately struck up a conversation. We talked about Russians and their literature for an hour, as we sat in a desert - bathing blue neon glow from the 40-foot Burning Man. We ruminated thoughtfully on the fate of Eastern Europe as people drove past on motorcycles that looked like aardvarks and bananas. Witchy pagan chicks stalked by in coats of body paint. Crypto-Arab hippies sauntered by arm in arm with bearded punks wearing devil horns. It felt very soothing and cosmopolitan.
The Stupa is also real art. It's constructed of books, mud, water, and wood. It's about 15 feet high. It's very majestic and spiritual. To the east there's a Forest of Meditation that is also real art. It's made of black rocks and twisted pieces of plumbing pipe, and it's about a mile across. People keep trying to camp inside that art. It's beautiful.
Had a few words with the justly legendary Larry Harvey today. Ten years ago, Larry went out and set fire to a big wooden statue on a beach. Kind of a private act of purgation and cleansing, by all accounts, but his idea caught on big time. Larry is a heavy hipster dude. He's beyond mere trendiness. Guys of his ilk can create social trends at will, out of straw, hot air, and attitude. Larry is an artist, but under these circumstances he looks just like you would expect the mayor of an impromptu city of 10,000 people to look. Larry looks real busy. He's wearing his trademark fedora, and he hasn't shaved, and his eyes are red-rimmed with dust. He's biting his lips a lot. Larry's puttering around on his battered motorcycle, putting out impromptu social fires: diverting ego trips and freak-outs, coordinating the uncoordinatable.
Larry appears to have a couple dozen city councillor running buddies who he can trust to mortar over the cracks. They all have this certain look, these tribal elder hippie-guru characters. Time has given them the faces they deserve. They all end up with this spacey Crowleyan smirk ... not seamy exactly, but some kind of terrible wisdom, like a cross between Gandalf and Nietzsche. It's truly a very interesting way to live, but you get to where you can smell it after a while. You don't want to clutch your wallet when you're around these guys, it's not like they're as degraded as, say, car salesmen or members of Congress. But when you're in their company you feel a distinct witch-doctor vibe. I kinda suspect that Larry Harvey could do interesting and terrible things to the soul of '90s America, if he really put his mind to it. And if '90s America had more soul for Larry and his friends to work with.
Burning Man is a standard hippie tribal thing, except for the highly nonstandard fact that it is not kitschy '60s nostalgia. This event is very '90s, very big, and very much alive. It's a Tim Leary, Wavy Gravy, Deadhead caravan, grab-the-mike-at-Woodstock kind of event. Feels lovely and enormously persuasive. Nonbureaucratic, participative, solidarity-driven, noncommercial, arty. With all those manifest virtues, you have to wonder why a setup like this can't seem to last any longer than a Labor Day weekend.
Maybe it's because* real* tribes aren't tattooed postmodern termite artists like the Burning Man people are. Actual, no-kidding tribes were tattooed hunter-gatherers, who lived in a world where nothing ever, ever changed. A world where witch doctors made all the important decisions.
There's another thing really different and novel about Burning Man. It's a hippie gig, but it's swarming with cops. The Nevada cops have been in from the get-go. There are plenty of concert-security type Danger Rangers, too. Security people are all over the place, and they could give two pins that people are running around naked, setting fires, and blowing things up. I think this proves that Temporary Autonomous Zones really can work in real life - as long as the cops help create them.
Saturday, the last day of August
Fiends in human guise greeted the dawn by wailing for half an hour on didgeridoos. This should be a capital offense.
Woke up, had breakfast. Looked out my RV window and saw a guy sitting on a toilet. He was skidding by at about 45 mph in a massive trail of dust. He had his toilet mounted on a wooden sled, and he was being towed by a pickup. His pants were around his ankles, and he was reading a magazine as he skidded along. It was the magazine reading that made this truly a memorable gesture.
Left "town" for a while to fetch more water. Can't take risks. We've got a baby on board. Came across a spectacular highway casualty. Bunch of Nevada sheriffs and paramedics were pounding on the rib cage of a guy sprawled right in the middle of the highway. He was lying there in a sea of shattered glass amid his violently scattered possessions: a mattress, assorted camping gear. The cab of his little Toyota truck was crushed like a bug. I can't say for certain that this dead or dying kid was headed out to Burning Man, but a hell of a lot of the traffic stacked up behind him certainly was.
People think it's good that Burning Man is difficult and rather dangerous to reach. This keeps the gawking frat boys and the sodden alcoholics at bay. To get this far Out Here you've got to pay some dues and take some risks. Gotta live on the edge, at least a little. "Survival is a matter of personal choice," as the Burning Man official tabloid puts it. But when there are 10,000 people making risky choices, cold statistics dictate that some will surely croak.
Ran into Danny Hillis, the supercomputer designer, today. Hillis was standing in the coffee line. He's here with his wife and their three little kids. His two twin toddler sons are real chips off the block. They have a real engineer's mind-set. With absolute desolation around and nothing much to play with, they ingeniously began pelting each other with dust.
Not a lot of little kids in this burg. Scarcely any old people. With a babe in arms, you're an instant public attraction. Got two shots of tequila from a crew of friendly Australians merely for allowing a young woman to dandle my infant. My baby's wearing a red tie-dyed onesie for the sake of local color, and she's coming across like The Littlest Deadhead. I'm wearing a nuclear-power-plant worker's jumpsuit, shades, sandals, and a cowboy hat with a bandanna. Nancy and Amy have flowing tie-dyed seraglio robes with veils and canteens. We're passing for normal.
Visited the i-STORM trailer where the World Wide Web contingent is putting together the live Burning Man Web site,www.istorm.com/burningman/. I enjoy hanging with these happening GenX Web entrepreneurs. They're nice guys just fizzing with creativity. It's like meeting Walt Disney when he was still drawing on a tabletop in Kansas City, Missouri. Before Walt Disney became the scary, litigious, freeze-dried media titan. OK, maybe I shouldn't give Disney any lip. Danny Hillis works for Disney these days.
Walking around the playa with my family at night. This is the time to tour the site, because Burning Man is truly weird then. "Black Rock City" has no power system, so at night it's all lanterns and chugging generators and tiki torches and lots of chemglow. Colored strings of chemglow out in the desert, woven through the spokes of bicycles and mysteriously revolving. Looming figures in costume. Huge dramatic bowl of desert stars overhead. Fireworks and flying flares casting a lurid trench-warfare glow above the massive camp. Drum-pounding maniacs with guys dancing in the grip of hallucinogens, nerdy guys capering with out-of-it clumsiness, as if they had never danced in their lives. Daughter Amy starts grumbling and complaining. It dawns on us that she's getting scared. Something to do with the evil Helco pavilion with its saw-edged performance machines and the gruesome cutout movie stars from the LA Cacophony Society. Amy is a sensitive and imaginative child. She bursts out suddenly: "This is awful! It's like a LIVING NIGHTMARE!"
It is, too, which is pretty much why we jaded adults are really living it up. But Amy won't be comforted and has to go back to the RV with Mom. It's getting late. I hitch a ride on the Aggravator, a monstrous steam-punk contraption with a flamethrower and four sets of bicycle pedals.
I then sit on the Aggravator's iron tractor seat and watch an astounding presentation, over by the sinister temple towers of the City of Dis. A formal procession begins with honks, rattles, and electronic squeaks. Pagan hierophants in tall headdresses and silver lamé march in slow step, toting flaming standards of arcane device. Swarms of nude dancers, male and female, caper up in bizarre sword-and-sorcery bondage gear. The soundtrack switches to repeated, insane, bestial screaming. An awe-inspiring insect goddess - a hunchbacked bug on red stilts - comes towering and tipping and tottering into the firelight, like a mad Kafkaesque advent. It's like a cross between Vatican ceremony, Cirque du Soleil, and a necro-erotic cannibal mantis mating ritual. The performers seem ready to burst into a flagellant orgy at any instant, in front of a solid milling crowd of at least 3,000.
This sure isn't the sort of thing one sees every day. It's something that a desperately horny sci-fi fan might see on acid and cough syrup. Then the performers set fire to the set. The tall rebar towers, turned to instant chimneys, glow white-hot and vent livid five-story flames. I'm really enjoying this.
OK, so they're not professional exotic dancers. They're eager amateurs. They dance the way '50s B-movie starlets danced in some cheesy lost-race epic. "OK, Jim, Cindy, you guys are pagan babes at the palace orgy, so just go out there and lose it, get really lusty!" They caper and dance very lustily for more than an hour, and then they get pretty tired and out of breath, and they have to sit down. But it's a lot of fun watching these tattooed San Franciscans flinging the dour garments of repentance. It's sweet to watch them lose themselves in the moment.
After the towers buckle and collapse, the screaming and chanting Greek chorus takes a well-deserved rest. The dancers hug each other, all bright-eyed and happy, and the crowd dissipates into the desert.
Then a bunch of drummers wander in and take over by the smoldering bonfire. There are swarms of drummers here. Most can't beat a steady rhythm worth a dang. But we've got a cadre of guys who really can drum, accompanied by some crazy dancers who are not half bad, either. They go at it hot and heavy, booming-banging-boogying. The drummers are really savoring the joy of life. It's worth coming a long way to see this.
Sunday, September 1
Our noses are parched and crusty. Our lips are chapped. Our lungs are lined with a fine layer of alkali dust. We haven't slept much. We decide to go out to the hot springs.
Fabulous place. It's got a geyser. Eerie maroon towers of hot mineral concretion. The water's hot enough to hard-boil eggs, but it flows out into a broad series of weedy muddy pools, so you can pick your temperature. There are about 200 hippies here, naked and covered with mud.
A nude woman covered with mud is an interesting sight, but mostly she looks like she's undergoing a spa treatment. But take some nude muscular young guy and armor him face-to-foot in black and gray sulfurous muck and he looks genuinely impressive, like a New Guinea head-hunting Mud Warrior. Hey, Nancy and I are with this. It works for us. We strip the dusty clothes from our middle-aged, married-couple carcasses and we cover ourselves with mud. The baby skips the mud bath, and my 9-year-old's not real thrilled at this prospect either, but Nancy and I are getting seriously hot, down, and slimy.
The sky is blue, and the water is poaching our desert-parched hides with deeply gratifying effect, and for the first time we really feel like we're on vacation.
A lot of air stuff today. Hot air balloon, paragliders, a skywriter plane. At night somebody constructs a fake constellation. It's a glowing mass like the Little Dipper, and it looks just like stars, except they're moving across the night sky without visible means of support. Faking the stars, cutting-and-pasting the desert sky - now that's a good trick. It's good art. I truly can't believe what I'm seeing.
Then night falls, and it's time to finally burn the Man. I've got Amy up on my shoulders videotaping this, in the midst of an enormous, boisterous, cheering crowd. A procession marches up, solemn, freakish, and deeply hilarious. Then they fire up the guy, and he explodes in sheets of colored fireworks and giant livid gouts of flames. This spectacle seriously lights my fourth-grader's circuits. "BURN HIM!" Amy is screaming, wriggling like an eel. It's without doubt the most exciting thing she's ever witnessed. "Look at him BURN! This is AMAZING! I can't BELIEVE IT! WOW!!!"
When the man's about to collapse from sheer conflagration, some brave and hefty folks grab a pair of dangling steel cables from the Burning Man's shoulders. They tug and yank. The giant wooden man goes into a weird spastic dance, pointy arms upraised and shedding massive showers of fire. A 40-foot-high wooden doll dancing in flames is a sight that really hits the 9-year-old demographic. My kid is in ecstasy, she's loudly swearing that she'll remember this for the rest of her life. I'm sure this is true.
Baby's asleep in mother's arms. It's OK. She can see it when she's older. We've got it all on tape.
Monday, September 2
Back to Reno. There are places in Reno that are seriously weird. There are lessons here. Las Vegas is a major family destination. Nevada casinos have become American family values now. It's considered just fine to go into one of these windowless scary gambling-malls, drink yourself silly, lose your ass at roulette, and then go ogle showgirls with breast implants. Republicans do this now. Working-class folks do it in polyester stretch pants. It's normal.
Meanwhile, if you want to get high and be a naked hippie, you're under suspicion of engaging in the moral equivalent of terrorism. You've got to haul out into the middle of some godforsaken desert and hope that not too many people find out about it.
It's all exactly backward. If you want to have a naked pagan art fair, you ought to have it in the padded comfort of a sealed, air-conditioned casino. It would be perfect for this kind of activity. If you want to divorce somebody or feed the gambling bug or lick your chops over paid nudity, then you ought to have to creep off to do that in some remote boondocks where the rest of us don't have to witness your gross behavior. I wonder how our culture got into this oxymoronic situation. It can't be good for us.
I went to Burning Man. I took my kids. It's not scary, it's not pagan, it's not devilish or satanic. There's no public orgies, nobody gets branded or hit with whips. Hell, it's less pagan than the Shriners. It's just big happy crowds of harmless arty people expressing themselves and breaking a few pointless shibboleths that only serve to ulcerate young people anyway. There ought to be Burning Man festivals held downtown once a year in every major city in America. It would be good for us. We need it. In fact, until we can just relax every once in a while and learn how to do this properly, we're probably never gonna get well.