07 September 2008

Try to set the night on fire

Just got back to Dublin, tired and jet-lagged and glad to be home. Spent an enjoyable few days in San Francisco with Tadhg and a few ex-colleagues, but the main thing that happened since we left Belize was, of course, Burning Man.

The event was a positive experience, shared with good friends in a unique environment, but it was not the life-changing event that so many proclaimed that it would be. I spent some time both there and shortly afterwards in the tranquility of a California State Park decompressing for two days, trying to understand if it was my own innate cynicism or something wider that left me with a feeling of spiritual meh after a week in the Nevada desert. I'm posting my notes, though overall I think I'm feeling a bit more positive now with more distance between me and the burn.

Thoughts on Burning Man - Donner State Park, 2 days post-Burn

I think I came to Burning Man at the worst possible time, coming at the end of seven weeks on the road in search of wider truths.

I came to Ethiopia, one of the poorest nations on earth, to understand true poverty and see hope behind headlines. I visited autonomous collectives of sex workers living with HIV/AIDs, consulted with a witch in a compound populated with zombie workers, drank honey wine with aspiring Internet entrepreneurs and toured the bathroom of Haile Selassie, the living god to millions of rastafari. I came to be humbled.

I came to Mexico City to see how the academy deals with a global catastrophe, away from the speeches and politicians. I came to see how the world responds when faced with a crises that has the potential to devastate whole continents and wipe out generations. I came to see how the media sets the worlds priorities. I came to be humbled.

I came to Chiapas to learn first hand how a revolution starts, how the voices of the disenfranchised grow loud enough to be heard around the world and why one man's freedom fighter is not another man's terrorist. I came to see how a community comes together and is more powerful than the sum of its parts, yet remains collective and consensual. I came to be humbled.

I came to Palenque to stand Ozymandias-like in the rubble of all our ancestors and be reminded of all that has come before, and that all that we do will one day too be so much dust. I came to be humbled.

I do not know why I came to Burning Man.

I have dual citizenship by birth, Irish and American. I have lived in America and amongst Americans as an adult and a child for almost 15 years, and yet consider myself to be 100% Irish. I have a similarly schizophrenic relationship with American culture, with much of the media that I consume written by or about Americans and i have a passionate interest in US politics, yet I consider the American socio-political and economic agenda to be one of the gravest plagues afflicting global society. I have not so much a love/hate relationship with the US as a hope/fear one.

I think I came to Burning Man to try and see a different America, to understand and embrace the American counterculture and if not to be humbled, then at least to be inspired.

But what is Burning Man? An American friend that shared this experience with us (and her French husband) and I tried to summarise in a way her more conservative academic colleagues would understand, and the best we could do was 'spring break and Mardi Gras for San Francisco geeks'. It is seven days of radical self-reliance in the Nevada desert with a message of social freedom and anti-consumerism. No commerce occurs, everything you need (food, shelter, water) you must bring yourself or be 'gifted' by others, and at the end the desert must be returned to its pristine state. A community emerges in 100F heat of artists, engineers and free thinkers that run bars and workshops free from the constraints of society.

Or so the theory goes.

Everyone focuses on leaving no trace behind in the desert, but no one thinks twice about driving 350 miles to get here in SUVs and RVs that get 5/MPG, except those who fly here in the private planes. Once here they travel around on 'mutant vehicles', giant modified cars, buses and trucks that burn excess gas into the air in giant plumes of fire that illuminate the sky.

Women are encouraged to feel empowered and escape the restraints of society, mostly by walking around in burlesque clothing, topless or nude, play on 'topless trampolines' and 'topless teeter-totters' (a see-saw), celebrate their inner slut and whore, or go on the world's largest topless bicycle ride through hordes of male photographers who heckle any woman who chooses not to disrobe.

Collective groups emerge to run all-day bars, serving up free booze to all and sundry and 40-year old 'cockshirters' (guys walking about wearing only a shirt, much to the dismay of all and sundry around them) offer free hugs to all, but mostly to young college girls. Drink, drugs and (sometimes) unwanted sexual advances are certainly the order of the day in an enforced celebration of hedonism.

Everyone talks about how wonderful the feeling of collective community is, without the selfishness of consumerist society, and yet my locked bicycle was stolen on Friday despite hundreds of free Community bicycles being provided by the organisers for folks to use as they journeyed around the Playa.

The closest thing to a solemn occasion was the burning of the Temple, a massive wooden structure that took 100 people a year to construct, on Sunday night, a day after the burning of the Man itself. 20,000 people gathered to watch the event, seated on the desert sand in complete silence once the burn itself had started, and for me it was the single most moving event of the whole week. But this too was marred by the unchecked aggression of latecomers shouting at the people in the front rows to sit down so they could see the burn (the temple itself was over a hundred feet high, you could see it burn from miles away).

When time came for people to leave, thousands of drunk and/or hung-over folks climbed into their giant SUVs and raced to the exit, where two-hour lines caused tempers to flare and drivers to cut each-other off in the race to be back to normal life. Apparently community spirit begins and ends on the Playa.

It was if the myth of Burning Man was more powerful than the reality, everyone repeating it over and over again convincing themselves that by saying it often enough it would become true, that words were more powerful than actions or deeds. More than once I was struck by the parallels between this and the actions of many in the conservative evangelical movement who call themselves Christian yet rabidly support guns, the death penalty, the destruction of the environment, oversees adventuring and profiteering and rampant ultra-capitalism. America is a culture of the word, where what is said defines, not describes, reality.

Despite all this Burning Man was still an amazing experience, showcasing the ingenuity and creativity of thousands of people, and one that I really enjoyed. For someone who had never seen beyond the confines of their suburban mall-strip life I could see how it could have a deep and positive effect. For me though, and especially coming at the end of a seven week trip into the truths and realities of the global world beyond my western comfort zone, I came to see Burning Man more as a celebration of Oil, Masculinity, Narcissism, and Self-indulgence.

Rather than being a counter-culture it is in fact a pure distillation of American culture, the American Dream writ large on the shifting sands of the Nevada desert without a hint or trace of irony blowing in the wind.

Some photos of the dust and burn


At 11:26 am, Blogger Farran said...

I'm glad you experienced Burning Man for me...

At 8:17 pm, Blogger Unkie Dave said...

Actually I think you would really like it, despite the lack of snow - in fact given the frequent dust storms most of your boarding gear (hats, goggles, pants tied on to your coat) would be quite appropriate.

Basically you get back from Burning Man whatever you are prepared to put in. If I was to go again I would definitely want to be part of a camp/bar/art installation so that I would be participating rather than mostly observing.

You are far more gregarious than me and have no problem talking to and being talked to by random strangers, whereas I have a serious group-hug-ophobia and prefer to adopt the MC Non-ParticapatorEE route at most events.


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