Friday, September 09, 2011

Personal Burning Man Messages

So my uncle posted this beautiful essay about his Burning Man experience and I wanted to try and follow up with something from my own perspective. As he tries to describe, even his many eloquent words don't scratch the surface, so there is room for more explanation. And whenever our non-Burner friends and family ask us about it, we continually search for new ways to communicate this indescribable thing.

However, as I started typing out my futile sentences, I began to feel more and more that my words didn't really add much to a general description of Burning Man as a whole. So instead, I decided to speak directly about my personal Burning Man trip this year.

Better than describing what happened, I want to talk about how I felt by delivering some messages to my camp-mates. First an apology -- as I have gotten older, I have become a little more uptight and worrisome about things (yes, some would say obsessive). This unnecessary stress leaks out from time to time making me an unpleasant person to be around. At Burning Man, I consider myself primarily responsible for all the food at our camp, including finding, packaging, transporting, storing, preparing, cleaning, etc. Although in my heart I really enjoy cooking for other people and I consider it my Burning Man gift to my camp to take on this responsibility, I still let the little things get me stressed out sometimes. So I want to apologize to everyone in my camp for my craziness. I hope my stress didn't dampen your Burn in any way.

Next, a super-big thank you to RGB for all the planning and preparation and just overall awesomeness that he brings to Burning Man every year. Yes, we occasionally tease and laugh at his detailed maps and spreadsheets, but without all that order, our group would have to deal with chaos that could detract from our fun. And who else could plan in such detail that hardly anything gets forgotten? Who else would take so much time and care to make sure everyone had an environment suitable to their own tastes? Well, no one else but my RGB, that's who. All the effort was worth it. I can't begin to thank you enough.

Also I would like to thank Hurley for the best shower on the playa to date. It was a little tricky arranging for the transport of a such a large item, but again the effort was worth it in the end. I bet that our camp was probably among a countable few with heated water and a private tent. Yet Hurley also goes through a lot of trouble to take amazing photos and time-lapse movies for us all to enjoy. I am very grateful that he is willing to lug around a tripod and weighty camera to accomplish such beauty.

Butterfly, your smile and warm spirit were a welcome addition to our group. I especially am thankful that you were eager to make ice runs and cart our junk around in your bike's baby-carriage. Oh, and the fire pit! It was really nice to warm up next to that while still enjoying everyone's company. Thank you for lugging that big thing and all that firewood out for our benefit. And finally, I am not sure I can ever repay you for taking out all our trash. That was one of the many 'little' things that often caused me some worry, and you just lifted it completely off my shoulders!

I probably should have started this list by thanking Camplet, because most of this trip is all his doing. I know that at least four of us who wouldn't have gone to Burning Man this year, except we changed our plans when we heard Camplet would finally make it to the playa. Your excitement and energy was truly infectious and for me personally, you were an inspiration that helped spur me to go out more often, see more things and interact with more people. I believe I still have room for improvement, but this was my best Burn yet in part because of you.

Odie, you just made me lose the game. Despite that I'm glad because you also helped make the scaffold successful this year. Without your expertise and positive attitude, I don't know when or if that thing would have been constructed. It was a relief to know that you were available to help out with any camp infrastructure issues. And watching you dance makes me smile.

Thank you to both Snad Nasty and T-Con for being my kitchen helpers. You two probably saw the worst of my stress levels when I was trying to handle all of the food issues, and your genuine support guided me through the week. T-Con, you remain a role model for me as I try to be better at 'mothering', without actually 'mothering'. And Snad, I hope I can learn to laugh as much as you do some day.

I am also grateful that Crash came and I got a chance to get to know him a little. Although he'll always be Crash to us, I hope that next time he can have some fun without the actual crashing.

Finally, Eric -- how did we make it without giving you a playa name? A few ideas come to mind now: Cideriffic, Commander Commerce, Mr. Smiles, or even The Man with the Little Man (because I loved both your hat and your bike basket). I guess you're just going to have to come back so we can give you something official. It won't be Camp Con Sarde without you!

So, as you might have surmised by now, a lot of the Burning Man experience for me has to do with the people. I consider this year my best Burn so far primarily because of everyone involved and all that they did. But it was also everyone I was able to interact with while I was there. Our neighbors, the Not Sure Girls were a lot of fun. And of course, I can't leave out Domitron's group and their amazing technicolor coats!

And thus I will end with my simple plea: if you haven't been to Burning Man, you really should go at least once. And if you're going to go, then you might as well join us, because our group has the most fun!

Into the Dust

This is a copy/paste of a note from my uncle as he tries to describe his first Burning Man trip. He has given me permission to post this here to grant easy access for those without Facebook. I am not this eloquent, but I hope to write my own response within a few days.

Describing Burning Man is just one thin layer of dust shy of impossible. When I have too little time or I'm answering the question of a person I know won't really care about the answer, I just say it's an art festival in the desert. But that's like saying the Pacific Ocean is like your bathtub, only bigger. It's both accurate and tragically wrong at the same time.

There is art, yes. Plenty of art. Staggeringly beautiful, clever, ever original, mind blowing and sometimes gut-wrenchingly emotional art, the kind that can only come from the place deep in your soul that gets touched by a truly unique inspiration such as Burning Man. And it's in the desert, yes. Not the desert that surrounds Oak Creek Canyon in Arizona, or the desert surrounding Las Vegas or even nearby Reno, or any desert in North America, really, because all of those deserts are experienced within reach of a comfort zone, a tether to the default world, a safety net, a television and running water. And they have life in them, even if only in little tiny bits like a salamander or a cactus or a sage brush way over there somewhere.

The Black Rock Desert is a dried up, ancient lake bed, flat as a pancake and utterly devoid of anything that lives or ever did live, whether it had eyes or branches or leaves or any other characteristic of things that move, grow, breathe or dig roots. And it's big - about 400 miles of white, hot, dusty nothingness ringed by mountains in all directions way, way, waaay over there. The nearest town has a population of 206 and looks like towns must have looked over a hundred years ago. The nearest commercial anything that you've seen before - drugstore chain, fast food chain, whatever - is a few hours away. There's just flat out nothing out there, and lots of it.

What is also in volume out there is heat and dust. Blistering heat, drier than any dry you've ever felt before, so dry it sucks away your sweat before it even has a chance to escape your pores. The heat bounces off the hard packed ground back up at you like a mirror. It's a bit like standing in the middle of a big parking lot at noon on the hottest day you've ever felt, with zero point zero zero zero humidity, and no grocery store or mall or light post or curb or stick, twig, pebble or anything anywhere around you for 400 miles. It's kinda like that, and kinda not like that at all.

The pavement under you is nothing like pavement, or dirt, or desert sand, or anything else you've walked on before. It's a highly alkaline dust as fine and flitting as powdered sugar, so light that it jumps up into the air if you touch it with a finger and then hovers there until the wind moves it or gravity eventually coaxes it back down. Cream colored, the dust forms sometimes small and sometimes large dunes when it has enough time to do so, and transforms into a hard as wood, cracked, alien landscape when it really settles. It creates a flooring you can't quite understand while looking at the few inches surrounding your feet, and boldly insults the logic and reasoning of your brain when you take in the vastness of it disappearing out in all directions around you.

That dust combines with the dry air to suck away your last drop of moisture like a Dyson vacuum cleaner and crack the skin around your fingers, toes and nose within a few hours of exposure. It's as pervasive as water - if you drop anything into a pool of water everything gets wet from the top to the bottom and the little undersides of those littlest bits. It's like that, but the opposite of water. Every nook and cranny of every single thing you bring with you gets coated with playa dust in short order and doesn't get uncoated until you leave the playa and scrub it down, and sometimes not even then. Bring a black canvas bag and three hours later it's a gray canvas bag from then on until the end of time, maybe longer.

You eat that dust, breathe that dust, learn to love and become one with that dust, or you leave. When it's dark and you're walking around with one of those headlamps strapped to your forehead you see the dust exactly as you see a snowstorm in the headlights of your car, except there's no windshield and that dust is coming for your face, eyes, nose, tongue, belly, fingernails and elbows like you signed a contract to merge your life form with it. Because, basically, you did.

And then there are the winds. Almost constant and forever threatening to gust like a tornado, the winds pick up the dust and throw it at you like the insignificant spec of nothingness you are when you're on the playa, creating dust devils ranging from a cute few feet in diameter to a humbling beast as wide as the entire playa, 50+ mph strong and unconscionably virile, sometimes lasting minutes, hours or even days without waning, blinding your vision beyond your own hand and relocating anything that isn't tied, tethered or planted into the ground in the most secure fashion.

So what does this crazy, inhabitable environment have to do with that art festival I mentioned? Everything. Because Burning Man has a core tenet that supports its very existence and feeds absolutely everything about the ongoing project that it is, and that is the spirit of inclusion. This is a "no spectator" event, where you can't exist solely as an observer of the experience but rather must participate in it, which you do fundamentally by sharing in the act of surviving and thriving in beautifully harsh and sometimes dangerous conditions together with 50,000 of your fellow citizens of this temporary city.

This shared experience is the heart that feeds the uniqueness of this weeklong event. In the default world we drive on roads together, stand in lines together, sleep in adjacent rooms, ride in elevators, eat in restaurants, etc etc etc, but we move past each other most of the time without connection. When we challenge ourselves together in this way something fundamental changes. We suddenly feel the common experience as a collective rather than an individual, as a compassionate equal to the person next to us and to the collective body made up by all the persons around us, and we see them, ourselves, and everything in front of our eyes as being connected, vibrant, approachable and profoundly energetic. We become one, pulsing and flowing together, and we nurture the tiniest pieces and the immense whole of it all by just being there.

You don't just drive up to Burning Man and consume it like everything else you do in the default world, it's not a drive-in movie or an art show at a gallery or a festival of any kind or anything else that is presented "for" you. You create Burning Man with everyone else who steps out onto that playa, and it then begins to re-create you. The important thing to remember is that this collective life form is created on and in that vast, empty and silent landscape for one glorious week of the year, vanishing away into nothingness again after the last citizen leaves. It is a massive experiment in a temporary community based on self-reliance and the mutual nurturing of life and common values. And it's working.

The second core tenet that makes Burning Man so unique is radical self expression. That is, you can be anyone and anything you choose to be when on the playa, whether that takes its form in your clothing (or lack thereof) or your art, or your camp, or your bike or art car or the lights you put on yourself so you can be seen at night, or even just your state of mind. Burning Man is about creating and nurturing anything that serves to express your contribution to the shared experience. Some apply that philosophy to the construction of massive art installations several stories high, spewing fire or spinning, twisting and reshaping themselves on hinges, pulleys and cables into ever changing shapes created by the wind or the hands of the citizens who walk by and experience them through touch. These majestic and perplexing works of art are created by groups of passionate burners who donate their time and energies just to put something unique on the playa. There are no placards giving credit, no instruction manuals, no price tags, nothing. The art simply is there, just like you.

The third core tenet of Burning Man is that it is a consumer-free event. No money changes hands in Black Rock City. Nothing is sold, except for ice and coffee, throughout the entire event. You can't buy a tissue, a bandaid, a pancake, a trinket, a battery, a hat or a bottle of water anywhere, and yet you can get any of those and much more if you simply ask for it. Burning Man is a community of gifting, of providing for one another and for the whole, and its citizens take that responsibility to heart. As you walk through the dust someone will offer you a handful of nuts, a spritz from their water bottle, a tube of chapstick, a slice of bacon, a lollipop, a patch for your bike tire, a drink of booze, or merely a hug. Entire camps are set up to provide whatever you may need, whether it's a massage or spiritual counseling or a handcrafted trinket. Gifting feeds the love and respect that permeates the massive city, and protects and inspires its citizens.

Because Burning Man is created by its citizens, it has never called itself a festival, but rather a project, equal parts fun and labour. That project had its humble beginnings in June of 1986, when two people created the first wooden structure in the rough shape of a man and erected it on a beach in San Francisco in honor of the summer solstice and a handful of personal resolutions. When they ignited the man in a gesture of the temporary nature of existence, the spectacle drew a handful of curious bystanders. They all felt something that couldn't be put into words, and when the decision was made to repeat the event the next year, history was made.

From that moment forward, without the imposition of agenda or requirement or rules or needs, people responded to the primal attraction of the collective spontaneous experience and were drawn to the event in throngs. No one needed to know why, just when and where. Word spread and the event began doubling in size and scope every year, until it had to be moved to a bigger, more remote location. Today Burning Man is a city with its own airport and a population of over 50,000, all existing for one brief week in that vast nothingness of the Black Rock Desert. The rest of the year the playa is empty and silent, and shockingly without trace of the city that lived there.

The Bureau of Land Management, which protects and maintains the natural environment of the Black Rock Desert, repeatedly gives Burning Man the highest rating possible for its lack of impact on nature. The BLM has called Burning Man the single greatest "Leave No Trace" event in the world. This happens because the Burning Man community self-enforces the Leave No Trace policy, ensuring that every citizen exits the playa with everything they brought into it, including every piece of paper, plastic, tissue, banana peel or drop of water that came in with them. No trash cans are provided at Burning Man, so if you are walking about and you eat a banana, that peel stays with you until you place it in your garbage back back at your camp. And that garbage bag stays with you until you get back home, or find a suitable receptacle for it along the way, miles from the playa.

The condition of the playa is manically respected by the citizens of Black Rock City. Even water is not poured out onto the playa except in the smallest amounts. If you are smart enough to bring a camp shower - which you will adore more than kids adore cookies after just one day there - the water generated by the shower is collected in flat "evap" pools of plastic that sit in the sun to evaporate. And if it doesn't evaporate, it has to go into a container and travel back out with you. Not even a crumb of food is left on the playa, as the citizens continuously look for "MOOP", or Matter Out Of Place, and pick it up and take it with them when they find it. The inevitably missed MOOP, or the traces left by the few citizens who fail to respect the Leave No Trace philosophy, are meticulously cleaned up by the Burning Man organization for weeks after the event, returning the playa to its pristine condition.

The city is set up by the Burning Man organization for weeks before the event, which places street signs and markers delineating a series of "streets" and "avenues" arranged in concentric circles with the Man at the center. The circle streets are labeled with letters from A to J with the radial avenues labeled as time markers on a clock face. So your camp might be located at 4:20 and E, or 6:00 and H. To find your camp, you ride your dusty, beat up and wildly decorated bike up to an intersection and look for the small street sign, then attempt to orient yourself to which way the numbers and letters are going up or down, and navigate to the next intersection to see if you're going in the right direction and continue from there. Or you abandon this logical approach and merely look around for that huge scaffolding or art installation set up by that camp near you and try to find your way to it, or find yourself at that camp with the glass blower or furry swing set and try to remember which way you went the last time you passed them. Or better yet, you just ask someone where you are, and then hope you remember their answer after you have the few drinks they offer you in exchange for conversation, hugs and community spirit.

That spirit, the hugs, the conversation, the drinks and the furry swing set are everywhere you look in every direction at every moment at Burning Man. The city is a cacophony of stimuli for every one of your senses, and your heart races with the attempt to absorb it all. You calculate your survival and then you dive into the pulsing beast of extreme expression, letting yourself be tossed along the waves of creativity, trusting in the community and your own sense of adventure. You head toward Center Camp, where the organizers provide ice for your dehydrated brain, and hours later you find yourself at 2:something and some letter, conversing with a group of Germans or Aussies or New Yorkers or Okies about that art installation way over there somewhere or the best way to keep your skin from cracking or where you can get some extra baby wipes and a private place to take a quick mini clean up, or how to make the best bloody mary on the playa, or simply who you are and how much you love each other for just being there together and offering hugs for no reason other than, well, it's hot and let's hug for the hotness of it all.

It is a walkabout, a roam, a pilgrimage. It is extreme in every way, and it is a permanent fixture in the lives of those who make their way there. The spirit of Burning Man has inspired hundreds of regional events throughout the year along with community service organizations and disaster response teams. Burners remain burners all year long, even as they impatiently await the chance to return "home" at the end of the next summer.

But still, no amount of description can capture this gloriously and naturally evolving event in the minds of a reader. If you had never ridden a roller coaster and someone explained every detail of what it's like to ride a roller coaster to you, you would still have no idea what it is like to ride a roller coaster until you rode a roller coaster for yourself. This is true for Burning Man. When you approach Burning Man for the first time you are considered a virgin, and when you enter it you have lost that virginity forever. It is an apt label, as the experience you have is unlike anything you thought it was going to be, and it forever transforms you. I lost my Burning Man virginity in 2011, the 25th year of its existence.

During the 2011 event, a 22 ton Trojan Horse sat on the Playa with a system of ladders and platforms for citizens to walk inside, leading to a bar up in the horse's head. The wheels of the platform that held the horse were ten feet tall. It was a staggering work of art, made entirely of wood, and it burned in a orgiastic display of hot, hot, hot flames on Friday night. The crowd was rowdy and amazed, cheering wildly as pieces of the horse dropped to the ground in the inferno. You had to shield your face from the heat, but you couldn't take your eyes off of the fire. It was the first big burn of the week and it sent the city into a two day frenzy.

Saturday night was the burning of the Man. Fifty three thousand citizens surrounded the Man and watched the multiple explosions engulf its base and body, destroying the effigy quickly and dramatically. The burning of the Man is the central moment of the event each year, and it gathers every ounce of communal energy and sends it up with those flames. It is awesome, and it ignites an all night party in the desert. It simply must be experienced to be understood.

Sunday witnesses the exodus of many thousands of citizens, leaving the city with about half of its population. It is a calmer day, as the city prepares for what is considered the most spiritual burn of the week, the culmination of it all, the burning of the Temple of Transition. 2011 saw the tallest Temple ever built on the playa, a 120 foot multitiered beautiful structure with arched walkways allowing access to two levels throughout the four buildings. It was built to invite citizens to leave markings and gifts in honor of lost loved ones, or any expression of pain, longing or desire, which would then vanish in the fiery transition to embers and ash on the final night of the weeklong event.

By 8pm Sunday night, about 25 thousand Black Rock citizens ringed the Temple. It was a subdued mood, a somber preparation for the biggest burn to ever occur at Burning Man, and one that would involve the heartfelt gestures of thousands. When the organizers turned off the spotlights that illuminated the Temple, plunging it into milky darkness, the crowd fell silent.

Then the fire began. No explosions, no fireworks, no sound. Just a small fire at the base of one of the four buildings. Soon, the entire structure was overtaken by immense columns of blistering fire in the center of a ring of silent witnesses, participants all. Every one of us knew what was burning, and we had no words to say. We stood in the deep playa in the middle of nowhere under a cloud of stars in awe of this moment, with the only sound being the crackle and rush of the burn. At one point the wind drew a shower of millions of embers over us and onto the playa around us and in between us, with only a few moving away for safety. There was no cheering, nothing. Just the fire and our breathing, and the ancient playa holding us up on weak knees. It was an endlessly humbling moment, and it sealed the deal for me.

I get it now, the whole burner thing. I'm now a Black Rock citizen, and I await the next chance I get to go home. I've told you two percent of my Burning Man experience, and about zero point zero zero zero two percent of whatever yours may be. And yet, you and I are equals. The burner mentality pits no one above anyone else. It's a modern day hippie mentality, proactively compassionate and in search of peaceful co-existence. All of us who have been out there on the playa were once virgins, we simply threw that virginity away in an ecstatic gesture of participation in an ongoing adventure. And none of us would ever take it back.

I now love Burning Man, like tens upon tens of thousands of others. I love the playa, I love the experiment of temporary self-sustaining community, I love that dust that still falls off my glow-in-the-dark bracelet. And I love life just a little bit more.

Maybe I'll see you next year in the dust, back home.

- Jeff Consiglio, September 8, 2011

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Burning Man 2011

I decided to try and get my pictures up quickly this year. Thus, although all the images are there and ready to view, I'll probably be adding more comments over time. I want to add links to other interesting items and tid-bits that might be worth looking at. But in the meantime, I am pleased with my day-shots and grateful that I took the time to actually use the camera more this year. Enjoy!

Burning Man 2011