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They Burn Men There, Don’t They? Part 1: Intro

November 18, 2010

The question people ask you the most is, “What was it like?” As if aware that the experience must have been more than the sum of what was done, eaten, performed, seen, worn or taken while there, people instead ask for everything: what it was like¸ as if one could compare it to a type of weather or a universal childhood experience. What was Burning Man like? It was like being a gypsy circus child where your whole 50,000+ circus family dressed in drag and nets and leather and chains and ribbons, glowed in the dark at night, and gave you free ice cream, quesadillas or ‘candy’ wherever you happened to be. Where you live like a nomad in tents next to caravans of water gallons, canned soup, trail mix and camp stoves and rode beautiful fire-spitting metallic monstrosities around a huge expanse of desert in the center of the camp – the Playa, the largest sand playpen ever created, and perhaps the only one ever specifically designed for partying adults.

Burning Man began in 1986, when Larry Harvey, Jerry James, and a small gathering of friends met on Baker Beach in San Francisco and burnt a 9-foot wooden effigy of a man. Harvey and his friends continued this as-yet unnamed ritual for four years while the man grew each year up to its current 40 feet (excluding platforms) in 1989, but the beach gathering was shut down by S.F.P.D. in 1990 for lack of a permit.

The original Man, via’s excellent timeline

Coincidentally, another gathering was being planned at the same time by John Law and Kevin Evans, members of the Cacophonist society, a Situationist-style group dedicated to “experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society” through art, prank performance and “meaningless madness.” The gathering was planned for Black Rock Desert, a stretch of dry lake bed in Nevada, and was originally entitled Zone Trip #4: A Bad Day at Black Rock. In the vein of future Burning Man events, performances and art burns were central to the aesthetic of the event, and, as Law was familiar with Harvey’s ritual, it was agreed that Harvey would bring the man to be burned at Black Rock Desert in lieu of Baker Beach.

The event took off from there. In 1992 the Black Rock Gazette printed its first issue and the Black Rock Rangers were formed by Michael Mikel (A.K.A. Danger Ranger) to ensure the safety of participants at the festival; the first art car (the 504 PM Special), theme camp (“Christmas Camp,” featuring a fruitcake-gifting Santa) and Black Rock Radio broadcast appeared in 1993; major media coverage begins in 1994; and in 1999 the distinctive clock-based Black Rock City design was formed: concentric rings of streets extending back from the Playa and intersected by perpendicular ‘time’ streets from 2:00-10:00, where the remaining space (the “Outer Playa”, 10-2) is devoted to art installations and booming sound stages. Attendance nearly doubled each year until 2000, and the number of art installations and theme camps (participant-created performance, workshop or gift-giving campsites) skyrocketed. And Burning Man has continued to grow since, in size, participation and levels of surreality – this year saw 51,545 ‘burners’, making it, temporarily, the 10th largest city in Nevada.

Aerial view, via the Daily What

I arrived at Black Rock City after the 7 hour ride from San Francisco. The first impression one gets, sitting in the long vehicle line to get into the event, was of being in a refugee procession in a war-torn desert country. Sandstorms lashed against the stand-still cars, piling sand on the windshields, as figures in thick black goggles and bandannas skulked around outside, their makeshift staffs and other props easily misconstrued for weaponry. A woman walked around shirtless, men walked barefoot or soaked in the intermittent rain and drivers sat waiting, creeping carefully along towards what looked, from a distance, very much like a refugee camp. But unlike refugees, we were impatient to get in, not anxious to flee whatever was behind us. Well, that’s not entirely true. We were doing both.

(Upcoming — Part 2: Day and Night)

This post was originally published at Painting the Passports Brown.

(Special thanks to Ida for the pictures)

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