Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Burning Man 2010: Metropolis

Burn Date: 09.04.10
Black Rock City, NV

Not everyone comes to see the Man burn. Some people leave early, the better to gain swift passage through the two lane highway out of the desert. Some remain, but at their camps or elsewhere nearby; they are spent perhaps, or simply desire something else from their evening. All of those who miss it are likely regular denizens of Black Rock City. They have seen the Man burn before. They will see him burn another year.

For the rest of us, and it feels to be all 50,000 converging upon the playa, witnessing the burn has suddenly become the very reason for being here. Seems strange to say ‘suddenly’ since this is the ritual after which the festival is named, but the week has already been replete with reasons to be here, even without tonight’s climactic event. I could have left this afternoon with that handful of others and brought back enough insight and inspiration to fuel me into winter. But now, I and thousands of celebrants are bedecked in apocalyptic finery and walking up the long radial streets of this circular city toward the Man – a glowing, summoning, blue beacon – and I cannot deny the atmosphere of pilgrimage. We were here for myriad reasons before tonight. Tonight we are here for him.

The Man stands one hundred feet high this year, a forty foot neon-lined body standing atop a sixty foot wooden base. From where we began walking, at our camp in the outer suburbs, he is a mile distant and difficult to distinguish. Now however, we are crossing the Esplanade, the innermost ring on the city grid, and the Man looms large though he is still two thousand feet away. He seems to hold us each with an invisible string, a piece of each person’s attention is so clearly fixed to him. Yet as we cross onto the playa, the wide expanse of open desert at the center of the city, the Man’s presence is nearly eclipsed by the swirling, blinking, cacophony of humans and mutant vehicles growing around him. Perhaps this is why I have not noticed until now that the Man’s arms, extended down by his sides all week, are raised above his head – the iconic gesture of Burning Man. I get chills. It is time, his arms say. It is about to happen.

Burn night 2010.  Photo by David Silverstein

This is my third burn, but my first in nearly a decade and I’ve forgotten what it’s like. The throbbing energy of tens of thousands of people, gathered for a single purpose, united in our anticipation, our excitement coursing through one another like an electric current leaping from heart to heart. We are a swarming mass of calling voices and wheeled pirate ships, thumping sound systems and fire-breathing dragons. We pulse together. We amplify each other. It’s overwhelming. It’s delirious. It’s mad. At my side are three beloved companions who have never been here before, and watching them experience this for the first time makes me glimpse what motherhood must be. I am seeing the world through fresh eyes. I’m a born again virgin.

The ceremony is beginning but I’m too far back to see. It doesn’t matter. I remember what it is – a circle demarcated around the Man, torch bearers, fire dancers – and there is something perfect about witnessing it all from this distance. More perspective and more mystery. Soon fireworks begin to sail up from the Man and the tension of the crowd elevates to a near audible hum. The display lasts a long time and is as satisfying as any Fourth of July.  But it only pulls the tautness tighter.  Now parts of the wooden base are on fire. The intensity of the moment is swelling in my chest. It is so full it is almost unbearable. I am thrumming.  I feel the happiest I have ever been. In an instant, my senses fill with the sound, the brightness, and the wall of heat from an enormous fireball exploding at the center of the Man. For the briefest second, fifty thousand people are snapped to attention and held suspended together in fiery shock. We are daredevils shot from the canon, weightless at the tops of our arcs. And then gravity comes. And we erupt. My arms fly into the air and I scream. We are jumping up and down. We are dancing. We are releasing. He is on fire. He is burning. And we are losing our minds.

Burning Man 2010.  Photo by David Silverstein

If you can’t see this as theater, I don’t know what I can say to connect the dots. I feel this must be how theater originated way back before we had words and concepts for such a thing. Fire, community, an event, catharsis. What separates this night from theater, however - at least the theater I have known - is story. There is no single narrative of Burning Man. No single meaning or significance for why this Man burns or why we celebrate it as we do. There are rumors of genesis – that the founder Larry Harvey burned an effigy on a beach twenty five years ago to mourn a passing love affair – but this is mythology, no basis in fact. The effigy was burned, this is true, but Harvey insists it was a spontaneous act of artistic self-expression. The record leaves it at that. And so the meaning of Harvey’s act, the significance of its yearly replication, and the story told by its ritualization are left open. They are left for the participant to decide. For us to invent. The narrative is ours to dream up and then make true by bringing expressions of that narrative to the next year’s burn, and the next. This is Burning Man. A community organized around artistic self-expression and built upon the evolving mythologies of all of its participants. Burning Man is literally what you bring to it. It doesn’t exist without you.

As for me, my Burning Man narrative brews as we speak. I am moved by the size and scope of its art. Look at Bliss Dance:

Bliss Dance by Marco Cochrane.  Photo by David Silverstein.

I am moved by the inspiration, invention, craftsmanship, engineering, planning, and reliance on community it takes to bring this forty-foot statue to the middle of the desert and make it stand safely for all to admire and fall in love with it. Funny, that sentence could refer just as well to the Man himself. Replace “forty foot statue” with “temporary city” and it refers to Black Rock City a as whole, to the phenomenon of Burning Man itself. This is a place of impossibility made real, which means nothing in the “real” world is impossible. Nothing I can dream up need remain undone. I want to produce a play? I will do it. I want to become great at improv? I will do it. I want to exercise more? I will do it. These things are nothing when Bliss Dance is in the world. Life is easier than I think it is. I will remember that as long as I can. And when I forget, there will be next year’s burn.


  1. "I get chills. It is time, his arms say."

    Beautiful writing. Cuts to the core of the community and this ritual we repeat year after year. Thank you for sharing your narrative... and with such skill.

    I tell people that there is a city in a desert that appears only one week out of each year... and that this city is where I'm going. Glad you came back and brought new spirits to join you... and frakking love that you didn't leave before the burn. That would've cut such a beautiful narrative short.

    Mad love!

  2. So glad you like the post, and I am so happy to be back in the fold. Even better, some of the new folks I brought with me can't stop talking about next year. :)

  3. Oooh, got my own chills now. I deeply sympathize with the feeling of "IT'S TIME." I'm glad you went into the history of the burn and the artists' original intentions. I think we can all agree that, as you said, those are left open to us now. Personally, I've piled on much more ritual and solemnity to the burn than others tend to stand for, but everyone gets to burn for their own reasons, right?

    Thanks for sharing, Anna. Yer makin' me homesick.


  4. beautifully put Anna, dusty hugs! :)