Review: Burning Man Festival 2014

Burning Man: An Autonomous week in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert

Burning Man 2014

On a sultry autumn night, tens of thousands of outlandishly dressed people come together and gather around a 40ft tall effigy in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, waiting for the spectacular moment it’s set alight.

Inside the circle, at the effigy’s base, are hundreds of fire-flow artists, dancing and entertaining the crowd. Fireworks illuminate the sky, lasting seemingly forever. As anticipation builds, the crowd sings and cheers, until suddenly, the effigy, lit in neon, ignites in a tremendous explosion, sending swirling flames into the air.

This is Burning Man, and this the moment the week-long festival has been leading up to; the moment many people wait their entire year for. It’s a fitting climax to an unforgettable week – a week of creativity and personal exploration in one of the world’s harshest and most unforgiving environments.

One of the festivals core principals is it’s “leave no trace” mantra, and the burning of the effigy – the ‘Man’ – is the embodiment of that. Many participants attaching a significant meaning to the burn; a part of themselves or their lives they’re willing to move on from.

On the Saturday leading up to the burn, the base of the man is closed as organisers make their final preparations.

“A big night is ahead” says veteran burner, Lindsey Rae, “so many take it easy during the day”.

By the time the sun goes down, however, the playa is a-buzz with excitement. Everyone begins putting on their favourite outfits – with many working months to express a part of themselves – and making their way towards the man.

As the man burns throughout the night, the celebration intensifies.
“Most stay till the man falls – the Playa is so alive, it’s insane,” says Lindsey.

Burning Man is held annually from the last Monday in August to the first Monday in September, and is described as an experiment in community, art, radical self-expression and radical self-reliance.

The event began humbly in 1986 when Larry Harvey, Jerry James and a few friends met on Baker Beach in San Francisco to burn a 9ft wooden man and a smaller wooden dog.

A friend of Harvey’s girlfriend; Mary Graberger, had been holding solstice bonfire gatherings on Baker Beach in the years prior and when she stopped organising them, Harvey picked up the torch.

Burning Man remained at Baker Beach until 1990; when park police discovered the event and declared that due to its potential fire hazard, the man could not be burnt. It was at this point that Larry realised Baker Beach had its limitations and the man and the celebration would need to re-locate if it were to continue. The Man was lowered, dismantled and put into storage.

After much discussion and the inspection of several sites along the coast of Northern California – none of which were suitable – Larry decided that Black Rock Desert would become the new home for Burning Man. And so, on Labor Day weekend 1990, 80 friends followed the wooden statue into the desert and stayed until it became smoke and ash.

Since 1990, the event has remained at Black Rock, growing in size and meaning each year; to what is now an almost 70,000 strong city of free-thinkers and artists, boasting everything that you would find in a normal city; from clubs and bars to temples and yoga studios.

Perhaps most impressive about Burning Man, is another of its core principles; de-commodification – a shunning of consumerism, advertising and transaction. Rather than rely on money, Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. Participants supply everything except the festivals infrastructure, and with the exception of ice and coffee sold by the organisers, there are no vendors.

While the highlight of the event for most is the burning of the man itself, there’s no doubt that the week leading up to is just as intense, inspiring and cathartic. The experience begins on the highway leading into the playa – as the road slowly fills with cars burners begin waving, dancing, singing and welcoming one another ‘home’.

Most burners arrive late in the day, after a long drive and begin setting up straight away to avoid doing so in the dark.

“The first few hours of the event are dynamic and emotional,” says Lindsey “New camps pop up everywhere, new faces, excitement, possibility … It’s electric”.

When you wake up the next morning you’ll find the city has grown around you; arranging itself as a series of concentric streets in arc, that comes to measure almost 2.5km in diameter. In the centre of the arc, sits the man and his supporting complex.

As you begin to explore, one of the first things you’ll notice are the mutant vehicles traveling through the streets and across the playa; cars and busses masquerading as dragons, pirate ships and giant animals. Many of these vehicles, also known as art cars are so large they contain open bars and multi-level dance floors.

The deeper into the city you travel, the more there is to discover. Scattered across the city are a series of huge art sculptures that protrude from the ground like unruly trees. At every corner there are theme camps; camps dedicated entirely to pancakes or dancing, to sleeping or to painting, to every kind of alcoholic drink and to everything else you can possibly imagine.

Most importantly; amongst all this, are the thousands of fascinating people you’ll find, many dressed in insanely colourful and beautiful costumes.

While you’ll be compelled to explore every inch of Burning Man straight away, you’ll come to find a large portion of your first few days will be spent simply asking questions and sharing stories with the people you meet.

Due to Burning Man’s gift philosophy; your time on the playa will also be spent giving gifts to other burners. Some offer gifts in the form of theme camps or extra supplies, but the accepted rule is that gifts can be anything you like, big or small, as long as they make the playa less lonely.

As Linsdey explains “Gifts aren’t ‘things’, [if] someone’s tent is blowing away during set-up you grab a corner. Or [if] you see someone fall you help them walk to the medic”.

As the week unfolds, the city grows in population and by the weekend of the burn, Burning Man’s incredible atmosphere is at its peak.

When the burn is over, the streets are quieter; as people begin to pack their things and head home. Some will stay to watch the temple burn, which is regarded as more intense and personal experience.
“Many prefer silence; some cheer lightly,” says Lindsey”.

“Emotions are felt deeply, tears are shed, hugs exchanged. Watching the temple burn is a solemn, cathartic experience”.

Admittedly Burning Man may not be for everyone, but everyone is welcome. For those that attend it’s chance to learn about yourself and relationships, your emotions and your capabilities. It’s a chance to test both your body and your mind and to glimpse an alternate design for our world – however unlikely.

And while those who have never attended burning man may feel nervous about the prospect of stepping so far out of their comfort zone and routine, Lindsey explains, that shouldn’t stop anyone from attending.

“Before my first burn, I had put burners on a pedestal. I thought they were all so free, righteous, and uninhibited. I envied them. [However] being there showed me they were normal people like me, figuring this human experience out. Some were shy and scared, others were extroverted and wild, but everyone was there to learn about themselves and open up a bit more … It’s truly an experience I feel anyone interested should pursue at least once in their lives.”

Emily Miles

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