A cloud of milky white swarmed us in a matter of seconds, gobbling up the stunning landscape we had been marveling at for less than 24 hours. I couldn’t see my outstretched hands, or hear my friend just two feet from my side. I could barely make out the ground beneath my feet, only able to do so hunching and looking hard. Wild winds pelted dust into my skin from every direction. Every breath I took was a bite of ancient dry lakebed. This was a white-out dust storm in Black Rock City, the once-a-year town in Nevada built exclusively for the Burning Man Festival. Bursts of extreme, blinding weather was a fitting backdrop for this intensely unforgettable event. Both demand you lose yourself in the moment, completely.
In his iconoclastic (and serendipitously titled) book, Fargo Rock City, Chuck Klosterman writes: “Art is not intrinsic to the universe; art is a human construction. If you killed off all the world’s people, you would kill off all the art. The only thing important about art is how it affects people. It only needs to affect one person to be interesting, but it has to affect many people to be important.”
Following this methodology, Burning Man is both interesting and important. In the big scheme of things, fifty thousand people is not a lot. But it is many. It is an important enough event to maintain a dedicated following, attract a new crop of attendees each year and receive (however so slight) nods from mainstream culture who, though most often viewing this phenomenon as a “fringe radical hippie drug fest,” acknowledge it nonetheless. In the myopic sense of individuality, people are affected in their own unique way in the desert. Which is exactly what makes the collective art at Burning Man so incredibly interesting. If Radical Self Expression is the festival’s moniker, Radical Self Interpretation is the most treasured party favor.
The transformation is not delicate. It’s impossible to feign familiarity with this harsh mind-blowing event. Even seasoned attendees succumb to the overwhelming sense of the inexplicable. What is too massive for words and too gorgeous for the lens to capture is precisely the magic of this festival. In a sense, what we are dealing with is remarkably well-organized chaos, a friendly frenzy of excessive stimulation. The realms of possibility are no longer a limited dominion of the rational and reasonable; fantastic concepts are explored as entirely plausible. The creative forces uniquely human are marvelously illuminated out in the empty. But to draw a parallel, think about taking “normal,” turning it inside out, covering it with glow sticks, faux fur, lots of dust and body paint and you’re getting closer. Well, sort of.
Literally nothing grows in this brittle alkaline dust swamp outside of the last week in August. It’s fitting that one of the deadest places on Earth is breathed into an expressively vibrant parade of light, color and sound only to be burned away – turned back into dust when all is said and done – which is the single most important point. While this year’s theme (as there is one every year) was “Green Man” (focusing on prudent environmental issues surrounding sustainability), the event has always hummed a Leave No Trace mantra. Though the event on the whole is hardly renewable (at least at this point in its existence), it is more significantly, entirely renewing. There is far too much to list, but building a city for a week uses tons of fossil fuels, and most of the art and explosions simply can’t exist without some of the most caustic and reprehensible materials on Earth. But it’s a small price to pay for the obviously bigger reward of getting acquainted with something much more harmful when mishandled: the human condition.
One only needs to be in this cirque-de-insane for a few hours to identify its imprint on our psyche. The nomadic self-sustaining collective huddles together in a throwback communal embrace of money-less exchange. Love, laughter, acceptance and inspiration are the currencies used to enhance and expand the stunning experience. I could come to only one simple conclusion: this is the stuff futureculture is made of. A discussion with a BM veteran (aka super organic food peddler, Kopali’s Norman Brooks) delivered the sentiment that the point to the voyage is so much larger than the surface experience of the unabashed art-dance-party in the desert. What we take home and apply to community, humanity and respect are the real values. He even went so far as to suggest that every would-be parent sign a letter of intent to bring children to Burning Man. It’s that powerful an experience. Even now, just two days after returning, I can feel the intensity of it diluting inside my Jersey City apartment. But it’s not the intensity I realize that is so important. It’s the subtlety. It’s the little things that really do matter, that sometimes take giant, massive, even disturbingly harsh experiences to rock us into feeling those soft, but wholly undeniable, truths.
Maybe this is why they burn everything.
The spectacle of magnificent pyrotechnics is the most extraordinary man-made visual display I’ve ever witnessed. (As in: Have you ever seen an atom bomb-sized explosion up close?) Keeping with the Green Man theme, the installation “Crude Awakening” included a life-sized oil derrick that succumbed to a blazing end akin to its brutally destructive effects on, well, everyone and everything on Earth. Though all of the art and music and beautiful people were absolutely breathtaking, it was the staggering feel-it-right-in-the-heart overstanding that came with the explosive fiery symbolism that had a most profound impact. The burning ritual is a letting go, rather than a destruction of what is – it is setting free that which merely separates us from being totally immersed in this very moment. Flames singe away the possibility of clinging to patterns that bind us to perpetuating our (deadly) habits. If we seek to proliferate a healthy species tuned into our planet and each other (much like the Green Man implies), perhaps the best way to start is to let everything go up in flames. Just as the past has no future, the future can only be fully expressed if it is not bound to the illusions of history.
Perception is the fingerprint of consciousness; each of us is distinctive in our acuity. Like the notion that art can only exist inside the configuration of the human frame of reference, so is Burning Man defined. During the white-out that embraced me on my first day on the Playa, I thought this must be the real reason people come here. They create and burn their art, display themselves in pronounced garish manners as an act of sacrifice and submission to these divine forces of nature. Like the tiny grains of dust and the prevailing wind, truth is much easier to understand when we surrender to it.