BEN MATHER (ALIAS DOC. LOVE) TRAVELLED TO BLACK ROCK CITY FOR THE MOST VIBRANT AND ATTENDED EVENT OF THE YEAR: BURNING MAN FESTIVAL
READ HIS FIRST TIME BURNER STORY TALE written by Ben Mather
Ground control to Major Tom: can you hear me, Major Tom? Have you returned to Planet Earth yet? For the better part of a week, the passive inhalation of alkaline dust and all-round sensory fanfare from an uninhabitable terrain based in the North-Eastern region of the Nevada desert, leaves one in a challenging position to tell, to be honest.
The host venue, Black Rock City (BRC), is a temporarily manufactured metropolis with in-excess of seventy-thousand inhabitants hosted for a week’s stay. All arrive, and leave, from a single-lane track close to a near-derelict town, called Gerlach, in the middle of nowhere. Despite the press and hype that surrounds its occurrence, ‘The Playa’ and the now well-speculated and communicated ‘Burning Man’ (BM) Festival, is a phenomenal experience of humanity set in a surreal landscape.
A conscious and open attitude, in this particular case, is strongly adhered to in an attempt to witness and become part of this yearly phenomenon. Encouraged and endorsed by positive connections made over the last two years, from an international home-base of collectively conscious Burners and pilgrims to the cause: this is the time. You feel it. You believe it. You prepare as much as you dare. You go. Attending The Playa for the first time on your own with a handful of loose connections that you know will be there…you hope….somewhere…is a process of shedding fears and overcoming doubts which, in the end, leave a beneficially mesmerising and life-long experience that ultimately keeps giving back. At any rate, coming here draws a metaphorical line under what it may be considered ‘to be human’.
Why is this? Why does this commune continue to grow in popularity annually? What is the draw?
The experience starts in the actual ‘getting there’. Usually an arduous, though exciting, +10 hour drive into the middle of the searing sands, meeting and sharing with fellow beings en route. On first arrival, the scale and organised chaos is overwhelming. The comfort-zone of anything that you knew or had experienced before goes straight-out of the window, as you (for the next few days) try to search and fathom desperately hard to label the post-apocalyptic futuristic social humanitarian interactions that you are visualising and hearing. Of course, you can’t label it. That’s the beauty that lies within BM’s existence. It is unique.
Prior to 1996, radical self-expression (one of BM’s ten principles) took on an anarchic role, whereby locals could carry guns, ‘shoot the crap outta som’it’, consume fast-food (and burn it!), etc. There were also more lenient rules towards driving on the playa, resulting, sadly, in fatal accidents. However the evolution of the Burn is a wholly organic year-by-year process that is usually a reflection of the current state of the world, though in a strange reversal. Almost now it feels like a pressure release from the current ‘Post-Empire State’ and all the U.S.’s tightening and ludicrous policies, including the strict and overwhelming Policing, which is forever encroaching. Whilst this may seem as ‘damaging’ to the ‘true feeling of the Burn’, reminded by long-standing Burners, it’s really just a matter of perspective. Equally, this could be argued for the Deep Playa fencing that borders-off and prevents roaming away from the city to the middle of…well really…nowhere.
Covered in dust, together, embracing life, is where the magic really lies. BM’s evolution post-1996 has really looked deep within the individual and reflected out towards a larger commune: ‘how can we be better humans?’; ‘how can we, as awakened beings, express ourselves?’; ‘how can we do more for each other and our fellow man?’. This, of course, requires celebration – and celebrate the Playa certainly does! Some of the world’s most creative artists, musicians, dj’s, word-smiths, chefs, shamans, healers, poets, sculptors are inspired and stimulated here to perform and produce at their upmost, aided by a loving, attentive and most appreciative audience. Surely, life should be celebrated in this way: as an expression of outward love and gratitude? This conscious collective, amongst the most native of campers, whereby all can live equally (for a week), without fear and embrace each other’s energies is truly a triumphant experience to bare witness to and behold. The environment and living conditions of course enhance these qualities – herein lies the magic of the Playa…you can’t get an Uber at 4am to rescue you from the Deep Playa…you rely on those around you and yourself. When in danger, there is no safer place to be: some good soul will ask you if you’re alright, do you need water or food, do you need the emergency warmth blanket stashed away that they are willing to part with freely that may just save your life? This carries over to connections made outside the infrequent passing of regular camp members, to those you meet in and around the city purely by serendipity. The present and now becomes wholly apparent, as it is most likely that you’ll not see, or experience, that good soul that connected so deeply with you in that short period of time for the remainder of the festival. Seeming infinite at the time, you’re intrinsic nature is to savour and realise the preciousness of this beautiful moment – now wouldn’t this be a great thing to bring into your daily life? The wizardry of the Playa does not finish here by any means: with almost absurd consequential coincidence you will run into that friend that you hadn’t seen for two years, or a bike will become available to save a huge ‘shlep’ across to camp, or a cup will replace your missing cup just at the right moment. Yes, unexplainable. The Playa provides.
With almost seamless affinity, the artistic installations and large-scale sculptures play a hugely stimulative role in the perception of the Burn. Taking on transformative appearances, this is art without boundaries or borders. This is art that, in its temporary situation and existence, takes on an emphatic beauty that is experienced and savoured truly in the moment and to an overall heightened awareness. The ability of the Playa to create the surrounding environment in which these structures literally ‘live’, adds another dimension to the creative process. The word ‘M.A.G.I.C’, crafted in unusual font as separate letters in a spotted aluminum covering (artists: Laura Kimpton & Jeff Schomberg) resides in the mid-playa and now promotes a move away from its original noun or adjective dictionary meaning to a whole new origin of the word, through feeling and inspiration. This translates equally to the source of neon writing installations (artist: Olivia Steele) that emerge from the night, almost suspended in the sky and find their place amongst the stars in perfect space/time harmony. The pioneering architecture and engineering that are involved in the larger structures (David Best’s Temple) are simply miraculous – the burning of which makes them all the more so.
No city and social commune of such a large scale can operate without some loose abiding operations’ manual. At BM this is subtle, yet effective. Of course, you’re completely entitled to disregard all of the above, though only at your own peril. Apart from the guiding principles that shape and govern the modern BM, there are specific occasions: camp duties, working times, the Man-Burn Party and the burning of the emphatic Temple on the Sunday (where all camps respectively refrain from playing music to reflect and watch the burn of these beautifully crafted transient structures in an almost collective religious trance.). These pinnacles of the week take on a whole new energy. How can watching fire in the middle of the desert be so emphatic and what is it’s true symbolic meaning? The importance of the fire at the burn represents all cells and material eventually returning to dust, inclusive of beings. Fire as an organic life-form and a single entity also reflects the multicellular complex organisms that have arisen from, and return to it. Being present to witness this experience and sensing your own feelings awakens a deeper inner vibration.
As BM continues to grow there has been an increase in a minority group of so called ‘Pop-up’ camps, which have come under some scrutiny of late, fair or unfair. With an airport runway next door for private plane charter, Gucci and Chanel travel roller-cases adorn the Friday and/or Saturday night closing music stages. Bespokely-designed and fashioned latest BM attire (keeping new designers in-pocket), is to be seen, then flown-out the following morning – mind the dust! Is this the ‘rich kids play-ground’ that the conscious infrastructure embraces? This seems to be a debate amongst the more ‘traditional’ Burner: at least the flavour and feel of the Playa is imparted and shared for some space and time amongst these fleeting socialites? No doubt, it comes at considerable cost to organise, run and host such venues. Is the costly admission to these camps part of the sharing? Can absolute Freedom exist? Is this wholly a sharing environment or will there be a move towards exclusive resorts with security guards? Again, the discerning Burner, prior to twisting the knife fully-in, may be gleefully unaware of the inter-exchange and sharing that goes on amongst these camps, aiding those other camps in the vicinity to benefit their management, operation and thus, the festival as a whole.
Another issue that seems to be hot on the debating chamber’s list is that of the imparted Eco-footprint trace: the amount of fuel and oil used to produce such a show is surely epic. The ‘all-consumptive’ attitude, at times, smells of Las Vegas or Palm Springs. Fitting of the progressiveness of BM, there are, thankfully, movements to seek alternative and renewable fuel sources using creative technology for the future – groups like BlackRockSolar.org are responsible for the increased solar panels seen amongst camps and new international ‘tech’ groups increasingly use the Playa as a test ground for in-vogue energy-saving inventions. The masterful ‘no trace’ principle and code of ‘moop’ (litter/trash) conduct means even the play-boys need be respectful and consciously be aware of what is left around them and behind.
With all the celebratory talk and positive endorsement, can this be the Mecca humanity has been striving for? Admittedly, seven days of portaloos may leave a little ‘stain’ on the overall experience, though again this is all a matter of perspective and acceptance, and as the week passes, so too do the minor reservations. Indeed, there are lessons to be learnt at every stage and corner of the ‘Playa’, for debutantes and experienced Burners alike. Aren’t we lucky to be allowed to learn, experience and share at this level. BM certainly is a platform from which anything and everything can go and when you feel you’re ready to take the plunge and embrace all it has to offer, you won’t be disappointed, quite the contrary, you’ll return a different being.
This was my first Burn. I camped in a so called ‘Pop-up’ camp. We collectively learnt and shared lessons together, as a camp, for the future.
Co-Founder Alkaline Dust Ent.