Lord of the Fires: 1995 Trip Report (1995)

A trip report from 1995, source unknown.

For those whose imagination runs towards an epic scale, the Burning Man beckons.

Fire, industrial drum circles, massive structures built and destroyed, costumed and naked people, music, dancing and more fire. Burning Man is a three-day festival held since 1990 in the midst of the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. It originated in 1986 when Larry Harvey built an eight-foot effigy of a man with triangle-shaped head to burn to mark the summer solstice at a beach in San Francisco. What began as an event witnessed by twenty is now a Labor Day weekend arts festival/ritual sacrifice/postmodern carnival of the absurd where all the 2000-plus attendees are required to be participants—not spectators.

A vast empty and ancient lake bed is now a community for a few days complete with four FM radio stations, a daily gazette, landmarks and businesses. It is also one apocalypse of a party. I walk through the city at night trying to find my campsite. Before sunset, I hadn’t imagined how difficult it would be to find it. I learn quickly to recognize the temporary landmarks which help me back.

The Burning Man glows brilliantly in red and blue neon to the east, a tall FM antennae has a few large red light on it in the center of the camp near the stage. My address for the weekend is near the brightly lit encampment of the band Polkacide, whose klezmer-playing clarinetist I can sometimes hear. 

There is so much to look at, to do and to see. Sleep is very low on my list of priorities. Bands and performers, mostly from the Bay Area, are scheduled at the stage, but they rarely stick to the listed times. A mile south of the main camp a rave rages continuously for the whole weekend. There are three different dance areas complete with their own music genres and decorations.

I am amazed by the amount of civilization which my fellow campers have brought with them. Theme camps have been organized by different groups for the weekend. At Camp Chaos, a room complete with disco ball hanging from the ceiling, leather sofa, stereo and oriental rug awaits visitors.

A theater group called Crux Productions from NYC has set up twin forty-foot World Trade Center towers out of scaffolding with a swing hanging in-between. Tiki Camp has a fountain and a large cow-shaped hors d’oeuvre table.

Someone has built a huge zoetrope, probably twenty-feet in diameter, with neon figures which animate when it spins. At McSatans, campers can purchase burgers and cigarettes. Inside the pyramid-shaped camera obscura, after one has crawled through it’s spiral labyrinth, the world outside is projected onto a large white table, a little more contained and magical than it is in the windy outdoors. 

Tribalists, clowns, naked people, fire spitters, hackers, metal forgers, aliens, ravers, belly dancers, weirdos, freaks. Mass culture-rejecters all to varying extents. Art camp for pyromaniacs.

Questioning status-quo reality by building the first space station in cyberspace is one of the ways founder Larry Harvey describes Burning Man. For those who come out to the desert from the crowded metropolis, it is an escape and a rebuilding of a new smaller city.

I was surprised by how many technological amenities were transported out to the vast, cracked landscape. Video projectors, neon, laser lights, refrigeration, porta-potties which were never out of toilet paper, radio stations, sound systems—it was like a big three day film shoot in the middle of nowhere—a commercial for immediacy and poetic terrorism. 

There was a Man. A Man burned. So did a huge installation called Toyland built by the Los Angeles Cacophony Society. So did an immense organic sculpture known as the Fire Lingam, built by Pepe Ozan out of the actual dust of the playa.

San Francisco’s Seemen, a machine arts group, presented “Art of the Ephemeral Spectacle” complete with metal jaws mounted on a golf cart spitting flame and a woman with a metal flame-spitting dildo. The spectators watching this performance got a bit tweaky and started demanding different things to be burnt. First the cry, “Burn the windsock!” was quite popular, and then after the windsock was nicely demolished, the even more popular cry, “Burn the audience!” went up.

 For an event that demanded no spectators, there were many: tourists and film crews abounded. It felt almost obscene to see so many people there only to document and not to experience. Many discussed the inevitability of the Lollapaloozation of Burning Man: corporate sponsors running amok, MTV filming Summer Break 1996 there, fast food booths and official Burning Man souvenirs—there already are Burning Man t-shirts, videos and glow-in-the-dark Frisbees for sale. Oh well.

Some believe that the challenge of the four-day camping experience on the lifeless plain will keep those evils away. Two apt quotes from the official daily paper of Burning Man, The Black Rock Gazette: “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion,”—Francis Bacon. “One does not discover new continents without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time,”—Andre Gide. 

The proportion of art cars to cars of the mundane was extremely high. Sharkmobile, bunnycycle, banana bicycle and the Host, a van taken over by a very large beetle, where members of Circus ReKickULess sold frozen plastic bugs in large blocks of ice and told possible consumers that they were: “Not recommended,” were some of my favorite modes of transportation to be seen.

Before Burning Man was lit, Denzo Molnar drove his intensely loud and fast jet-powered Rocker Car around inside the circle of participants. Art Car Camp sponsored a weekend-long workshop and facilities on transforming anyone’s vehicle into an Art Car. Arizona’s own “Love23,” Kathleen Pearson’s pink station wagon from Bisbee, was in attendance. 

What was once a Pleistocene lake is now a lifeless alkaline plain that becomes for a few days a community known as Black Rock, with its own skyscraper: The Burning Man. The organizers of the event are extremely sensitive to leaving the environment in a pristine condition. Two days after the event there is not one trace of the community ever existing.

Gerlach, the nearest town, is invited to profit from the invasion of wacky artists. The girls’ basketball team of Gerlach is given exclusive rights to selling ice, which they drive in and sell twice a day. Gerlach High School sponsors a car wash in the town on the Monday that everyone departs.

The Black Rock Gazette proudly proclaims: “Welcome to the Black Rock Playa, a temporary intentional community liberated autonomous zone perched in the middle of a deceptively plain expanse, located somewhere on the edge of eternity.” The Practical Guide to the Desert offers some comments on community: “Burning Man is an experiment in temporary community. Because many people only know a world shaped by institutions, social service workers and commercial transactions, they may not even recognize the signs of a community.

Here are a few distinctions:

  • Capacity. Communities are built on the recognition of the unique abilities of every member.

  • Commerce and the public service sector define us on the basis of deficiency and need.

  • Collective Effort: Community is cooperative, uniting us as varied members of one body. When by contrast, we consume a service, we’re made passive. 50 million people may view a television program or consume a beverage in complete isolation from one another.

  • Informality: In the community, transactions of value take place without money, or advertising, or hype.

  • Care emerges in place of structured service. Stories: In universities, people know through studies. In businesses and bureaucracies, people know by reports. In communities, people know by stories.

  • Celebration: Community activities incorporate celebration, parties, and other social events. The line between work and play is blurred and the human nature of everyday life becomes part of the way of work. You will know that you are in a community if you often hear laughter and singing.”

The camp of Disgruntled Postal Workers, complete with mailbags and uniforms, were to deliver the Gazette, but the only one I came in contact with crabbily refused to discuss it.

At Saurintology Camp participants were invited to channel dinosaurs and a chance to avenge true dinosaurs by crucifying the evil Barney thing.

Crucifixion With A Celebrity was where you and featured celebrities O.J. Simpson and Richard Nixon share adjacent crosses and you receive a Polaroid souvenir.

At the Algonquin Round Table, every evening all were invited to cocktails and witticisms with Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchly in attendance.

At White Trash Camp, trailers, a broken-down car, a kiddie pool and lots of old rusty car parts sat around chaotically in the dirt.

It was rumored that the Harpo Marx Memorial Croquet Society invited all for games of croquet near Elvis’ Graceland Tea Tent, but I never found either.

I did find a trampoline arched over by two huge billowing lit parachutes. I took some shelter from one of three rainstorms to hit during the weekend with some friendly people at Spiral Camp where I also witnessed a beautiful double rainbow.

All were united in the pursuit of a good time and realizing in practice some of the theory about how life might be lived. Time became a pretty relative concept, events were defined in relation to shared events—before the double rainbow, after the Man burned, during the percussive explosion led by San Francisco ensemble Sharkbait.

Someone built a large sundial in the middle of the camp which I rarely took the time to read.

This was a grand scale Happening to end all Happenings, a surreal carnival which lasted a long weekend, a party of a revolution, the yearly conference for dadaists and guerrilla artists. A place to jump off the hamster wheel of the day-to-day and take a dance of life.