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Burning Man

Kyra Edeker

Experiments in the Primal Dreamscape

The Black Rock playa is a barren valley of dry alkali clay kept in by black-brown mountains rising from the flats. There is not a blade of grass, cactus or bug on it. A ceiling of high desert sky, four walls of granite and sandstone and one seemingly eternal white floor on which to roam form the primal dreamscape for the human mind to paint its weird whims and visions. In moonlight, it becomes an unending blue expanse of physically traversible mind. Here is where Burning Man plants its funky road signs and plops its collective ass to dream for a week.

Burning Man is an attempt to manifest an autonomous, artistic community. Larry Harvey, founder and co-coordinator of Burning Man, has said, "Burning Man is a laboratory, an experiment, not a utopia." Most citizens of Black Rock City, the name of the town that rises for the week, agree with this broad statement of Harvey's. But that is where the common definitions end and the dreamscape begins.

One of the many experiments taking place at Burning Man is the creation of a self-defined community where people are responsible for themselves. This includes bringing all of the food, water, shade and shelter they need to survive in the desert for a week. For the most part, the experiment has proved successful: individuals take responsibility for what they do and what goes on around them. Those that misstep have a community around them that can respond in a healthy manner.

This self-reliance is considered mandatory by the organizers and arrives piece by piece with each person who wishes to sustain the community. The city materializes for a week to welcome the uprooted freaks and artists of the world. Much of the youngest generations of America are a sub-nation of slow transients. Ask around and most Black Rock citizens will report they came from A, live in B and are moving to C... and after that, who knows? They live, for the most part, outside of their blood-family and occasionally outside of the law. This feeling of constant motion and non-committance to the physical community in which they live leads to a sprawling tribe of 'homeless' that must make their home where they feel it‹ even if they can't live there. But on a dreamscape that provides no definitions and few boundaries, 'home' can have very different meanings.

One of the simultaneous strengths and weaknesses of Burning Man is the lack of meaning given to the gathering and to the icon of the Man himself. Harvey has made clear that the wooden statue he created in 1986 and helps rebuild every year means whatever the individual viewer projects onto it. By not stating a specific mission, campers can arrive thinking it is a gathering of neo-pagans set for the sacrifice, a new kind of Rainbow Gathering, or another set of hardcore desert ravers. There are times when these views are not reconciled and the town ends up with situations like the ghetto of goa-ravers on "the loud end of camp" who are "ruining the mood" for others. At its best, the divergent ideas of "what is Burning Man" meld into an unreal society of acceptance and outrageous oddity. Artists, whether self-proclaimed or not, define their little pockets of reality.

The collective dream contains niches of play with giant swings for adults, round critters made of dry palm leaves with tall black and white hats that bounce around and communicate by rattling their costumes, and a pen for "free range pinatas" (where pinatas are allowed to roam free without fear of being bashed in for their secret stash of candy). Dreams of play mix with dreams of sensuality and sex that live nightly at Bianca's Smut Shack and go up in flame at the Temple of Rudra, an opera performed with writhing flesh and fire on Saturday night. These visions intermingle with the ethereal and dark. The Very Large Array knocks playa-travellers into slow motion introspection with its sound garden of looping music and noises in the dark. Then you might wander to a post-apocalyptic boat shipwrecked on the desert floor, made out of burnt out pianos and television sets. Wandering back to your camp, you may witness someone being well-whipped while tied to a crucifix at the Temple of Atonement. All of these micro-realities live down the block from each other and there is no controlling what you may run into unless you hide in your tent. Even then something may come looking for you.

This dreamscape becomes completely detached from everyday reality when you add drugs to the mix. While the Burning Man organizers don't enthusiastically encourage drug use in their public communications (the survival guide recommends instead a "creative response" to the elements of the city), it appears expected that a large number of attendees will be tripping or altered at some point during the festivities. In this year's Black Rock Gazette, one of the daily newspapers, there was a list of drugs, how easily accessible they were deemed to be and how well they melded with the surrounding environment. People travel hundreds, if not thousands, of miles to one of the harshest environments on the continent and then proceed to pile psychedelics and other drugs on top of the intense physical experience. This is both absolutely ridiculous and absolutely rational. The terrain is so familiar, yet so alien, many find it hard to resist tripping within what already feels like a place that only exists in your head. The sensation of being physically immersed in a lengthy lucid dream is alluring. And, while there is the reality of a police presence around Black Rock City, there is still no other place in the country where one can feel so psychologically safe to wander around out of one's mind‹ amid 15,000 people who have birthed a world that entertains, shocks and freaks the pants off you.

The attraction of Black Rock as Home has to do with the landscape that favors no one during the day and envelops everyone at night. There are very few people that are predisposed to live in the harsh conditions of the playa and so it seems equally (un)welcoming to everyone. Friendships are tested and either break or are strengthened. People explode and people sink into semi-consciousness. There is help when it is needed and there is whining about having to move. Then, as the sun sets and the city wakes from its heat-stupor, each denizen changes. They wake up to what appears to be a dream. At night, with the moon rising over the ridge, each person makes the moment to moment choice to explore the weirdness of the city itself or the weirdness of the mind, alone, out on the playa. Catharsis, epiphanies, life-changing decisions, falling in love and falling apart can come moments away from the noise, on the mental tundra. Illusions from the cities left behind dissolve in the starkness of Black Rock and new visions rise.

The moon descends, the eastern sky grows light and the drugs wear off. As the heat returns, the challenge is keeping the things one found in the dark on the playa. The lessons learned can feel so tied to the playa that it is difficult to retrieve them without the alkali beneath to remind. One finds pieces of Self that were unknown before landing on the playa. New selves are felt through the charged interactions with people and by the way self-perception is changed while facing the blank and endless landscape. To leave Black Rock is a struggle to bring back and integrate those new pieces from the dreamscape.

Tags : psychedelic
Rating : Teen - Drugs
Posted on: 2002-02-20 00:00:00