This is my experience at Burning Man 1997, my first. I am relaying my own observations, and I do not speak for any other individual or organization. The experience is so unique I felt the need to try to submit it to History in my own words.
For the official Burning Man site click here.
I didn't know until nearly
the last day whether or not I was going to make it to the 1997
Burning Man gathering. The previous year I would likely have gone
If I hadn't had an opportunity to exhibit at LACON III, the World
Science Fiction convention. It was the first time since 1974 that
I had a show at such a convention, and was a way to show a good
number of pieces at once.
Other IAAA members attended that WorldCon art show as well.
Joel Hagen and Carter Emmart, however, were not among them. I had gotten laudatory accounts from them about a yearly 'Burning Man' festival which also happened Labor Day weekend. I resolved not to miss the next one, and as my current projects were drawing to a conclusion my hopes were raised that I could actually get away for once. Karen, former neighbor and continuing friend, was in town and seemed to have little constraints on her next few days. She too was intrigued by 'Burning Man' and said she had access to a tent and other necessary items.
After showing her the 'Burning Man' website and figuring out what to buy, she left to see what could be dredged up from local friends. Both of us had to see if it was possible to be ready to get away Monday night like I wanted! I proceeded as if I would, buying up camping supplies and stocking up on video related items, such as a camcorder battery recharger I could plug into to my car's cigarette lighter. Now I could recharge batteries in the field!
I was then in the final throes of a lengthy project to produce some 4 minutes of computer animation of a Solar System tour and an impact on the Earth, both of which were suffering last minute problems. I got a frantic phone call about one bad frame in part of my Solar System animation, I reviewed the file (thank God I had not trashed it thinking I was done!) and quickly worked out a fix and e-mailed the replacement frame to them the night before I was to leave! I was free at last after 9 months of unending rendering and rerendering animations on a crisis schedule, I was finally able to let go for a while! It some time for it to sink in, I was afraid another panicked call would come and I couldn't go!
A tent was found, worn and tattered but complete Tent repair kits (we both bought one) came in very handy later. We drove to Reno, an all day drive from L.A., and spent the night there in order to get a fresh start on the day and arrive as close to the opening of the gate as possible, noon on Wednesday. I hadn't gotten tickets in advance as I was supposed to, so I wanted to make sure I had the best chance to obtain what I feared might be a limited commodity at the gate.
For the longest time there was no trace of anyone else likely to be connected with the event on the roads from Reno, only on the last stretch did we get stuck behind the most elaborately decorated bus I had ever seen, thousands of brilliantly colored plastic toys stuck to every inch of available surface area! We arrived at about 2:30, gave our 75 dollars each to the gate person and got a bit of literature, a window sticker saying "Black Rock City 1997" with a stylized "Burning Man' symbol, and advice on where to park. Once we parked, there was no driving on the Playa, a sensible rule imposed after some tragic events at last year's event. I parked not too far from the main road in, near a long row of portapotties'.
Amid the dust to the North of us construction activity was in evidence.
At that moment we were practically alone on a wide stretch of very flat dried mud with the natural intricate network of mud cracks stretching to the flat horizon ahead. Two months ago this area was under a couple feet of water, now except for a few roped off sections it is dry and solid.
We were on a dry lake bed in the Black Rock Desert, with distant mountains enclosing vast stretches of light tan dry lake bottom. There are no rocks out there, only the very fine dust that gets worn from the mud. Dry grass bordered the edge of the playa behind us, tall poles and scaffoldings were sprouting amid distant tents and piles of hay bales, and beyond it all a tall wooden framework erected in the likeness of a man loomed, it's head an inverted pyramid Judging from the people near it the figure must have been over 40 feet tall.
This all needs investigation, but first task is setting up a tent in windy conditions. About an hour after we start, we have shelter, and busy ourselves at improvising a fix for the broken zipper as well as to repair the tears and holes we found. It was vital to be able to seal off the tent entirely from things that crawl. 2 hours later the job is done, and the first afternoon was spent watching others arrive and the emergence of a tent city around me.
From the first moment I arrived, I took seriously the survival guidelines posted on the website concerning water and sun. Drinking lots of water was already a habit with me but the virtues of sunblock were repeatedly rejoiced in.
People I knew were supposed to be there, but as time went on the likelihood of picking out anyone in particular diminished. Many tents and other small ramshackle structures were sprouting next to or from cars and trucks, bicycle and foot paths were defining themselves amid the rough rows of what was to turn into the main part of Black Rock city.
A large central open circle was lined with some booths, bulletin boards, and an open structure bearing a sign with the message "No Spectators".
Pounding and sawing were heard everywhere, people unloading parts of things from produce trucks, generators roaring, and big odd things steadily taking shape. A droning heralds the approach of a pair of ultralight craft, people suspended from inflated paragliders with propeller bearing motors strapped to their backs. Farther overhead a newer white acrobatic plane with forward swept wings does loops, and finally the sheriff's helicopter appears to survey the scene, again and again.
I see a one person copter being unloaded from a trailer as I walk along, then the sun is about to set below the nearby mountain ridge to our west and I watch the shadow sweep across the scene. A sudden dimming in the entire sunlit playa quickly sees the colors of daylight crowded into a line below the distant eastern mountains, violet light of the shadows filling every shadow of the distant orange-pink illuminated rock faces. Not a cloud to be seen, only the deepening blue of a pristine sky. Venus hangs bright above the silhouetted ridge as darkness arrives, Jupiter is the second bright 'star' to be noticed, high to the east.
All afternoon and the next day, Karen
patiently builds a low circular wall around our site, a kind of
benign territory marker. She calls it a 'sleeping circle', and
alludes to native American practices of this type. Eventually
a nice little rampart is built, with every bit of waste water
used to wet down it's structure to harden it further. This one
night, before the bulk of the crowd was to arrive, was the best
look I got of the heavens.
As night fell, I walked a good ways into the darkness, until only a few lights and muffled noises betrayed the presence of others. Scorpius was still just above the mountainous horizon at nightfall, with the brightest portion of the Milky Way looming above the mountains. It's intricate pathway divided the sky in two, with major dark zones entering and even dividing it's radiance here and there.
On the way back, I saw a disturbing sight, the Sheriff's copter noisily flying low with all it's lights off! It was silhouetted against the sky, which was beginning to glow from the lights. I thought the FAA rules applied to everybody.
Not much to do that night, Sleep was welcome and peaceful.
On Thursday, more was happening, people started arriving in a never ending stream. A column of dust extended to the pass in the mountains we crossed yesterday, at night car lights shone through the dust into the distance. Many new tents and trailers appeared nearby, and a kind of system of rows evolved as a series of cul-de-sacs became defined by where people ended up parking, radiating from larger predefined rows we were initially guided into. Steadily we reached saturation, and a fairly crowded tent city grew further around and far beyond us.
A vast crescent shaped zone soon extended from the central open 'main camp' to a mile or so on either side. A roped off line defined the limits of expansion into the desert beyond which only isolated art objects were set up. Beyond that was a vast flat stretch bounded only by the faraway signs marking the edge of the allotted territory perhaps a mile into the Playa. Lots of hammering, sawing, wiring, and stacking were going on as many 'theme camps' were sprouting like unpredictable mutant mushrooms. The percentage of altered landscape increased around us, with slim remnants of tan flatness visible between the campsites, the original textures erased by wheels and feet. Some tall scaffolding structures had been erected nearby, adorned with colorful sheets and strings of lights.
Trucks would pass slowly by, spraying water on the established roads to keep dust down.It was hot, and people would deliberately ride bicycles inside the stream or run up to wash their hands after visiting the toilets once the water pumps nest to the portapotties ran dry, which happened the second day.
In the desert, several wonders were already in place. Among them was a large intricate metal sculpture of a kneeling man looking up. A simulation of an excavated temple was made by ribboning off a rectangular parcel of desert and digging a few places where paving stones were 'excavated'.
A giant balloon of a crouching figure had a face of a woman oddly glancing backwards pasted on it, in a manner which made you look at it again. A tent perhaps a third the size of a circus tent painted it's stripes of rainbow colors against the desert monochrome.
One amazing structure was known as the 'Lingam', built by an artist and composer named Pepe whose operas on the playa are legendary. For the picture here I took day and night photos of the 30 foot tower, then combined them later in Photoshop.
The Art Cars, among the few vehicles
bearing playa driving permits, made you look twice! Cars were
built from other cars and lots of other random stuff, with everything
from circuit boards to elaborate sculpture used as decoration.
Most were intricate small additions to the main body, but a few
completely redid the contours of what enclosed the passenger compartment,
such as the 'Finmobile' bearing two shark like fins 12 feet tall!
In the central part of the city, people bustled about, bicycles and other pedaled vehicles ran along the roads. Facades of colorful sheets and ramshackle structures formed the structures of this city, with large vehicles forming the nucleus of many of these. Music blared from speakers, megaphones blared zany madness and banners twirled from long poles.
A small building housed a radio station, Radio Free Burning Man which played incredible music and gave information on where volunteers are needed, events planned, and such. At one time 3 stations were operating, one of them mounted on a huge tricycle giving running accounts of what was seen. A festive mood was maintained, color and shapes were brought together which revealed at every turn the many interesting and benevolent lives brought together for this occasion.
I have never beheld a greater concentration of creativity in one place, including all the art shows I have ever seen. The need for such intensive 'tribal gatherings', where freedom and unleashed exuberance rule, is another of the sociological enrichments introduced in the sixties.
This is apparently an event which would never have come into being without the discovery of Psychedelic drugs. The influence of this other sixties innovations were by no means universal but clearly woven through out the collective fabric of the occasion. If you read 'The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test' by Tom Wolfe some hints of the initial inner sparkle behind it all might be gleaned...but magnify the size and variety a thousandfold and add the maturity of the tools available now to enhance the mass experience and the stage is set for a wacky carnival where unpredictable beauty, zaniness, and irreverence meet you at every turn.
As I wander along the dirt streets, I realize
at last that I am free, I am really able to let go of my outer
life for awhile. A shape defined itself from the darkness, it's
a large sphere of ice with clocks embedded in it, to be slowly
exposed as the ice melts!
The 40 foot tall 'Burning Man' itself towered over everything, neon lights in alternating light green and violet outlining it's form at night. Thousands of generators fed lights, music systems, even a few video projectors! FM radio stations played music and very local news. Recordings of live Grateful Dead shows were prominent in the selections, with This Mortal Coil and Loreena McKennett also heard along with much obscure and exotic sounds. Incessant drumming came from everywhere, and marching bands snaked along the foot and bicycle traveled streets.
By Friday, the third day, I am in the midst of a sprawling tent city of about 12 thousand people. No cars were allowed in the village. No selling of items except for a few Black Rock City run provision centers. Many people parade about with fantastic costumes, some wearing little or nothing. Many of them are engineers and artists who build creatively elaborate contributions to the mass experience.
Meeting with those I knew there we share company and refreshments and proceed to be enveloped in the gathering joyous madness. Dust devils occasionally plow their way through the area, an earlier one snaked across the sky defined by a translucent tube of dust perhaps 200 feet high, now another more aggressive one approaches, dust sweeps by, carrying papers, plastic bags, and cloth with it. It gets more dusty, suddenly we are inside the funnel, completely hidden from the outside world by an opaque tan wall for a few moments! I hide my face after stealing a look, then look up as the wind dies away to see a dome tent spiraling crazily dozens of yards overhead. 'Wizard of Oz' references are gleefully made!
I walk in the dusty streets past a group of men wearing nothing but broad stripes of body paint, with tents and geodesic domes of all sizes housing people in many novel ways. Mutant mannequins and intricate metal and wooden creations adorn the habitats and exhibits. Bare breasts are so common you no longer consider it exceptional. Climbable towers and tall wooden light and flag poles loom above the city, with elaborately tied rope mandalas and tie-dye tapestries stretched across their structures.
A couch on wheels smoothly rolls by, it's driver using a joystick to steer while passing a bus covered with thousands of brilliant toys, 'OMYGAWD' is painted in reverse on it's front, for the benefit of those in front of him on the road. A right turn brings me face to face with a small remote controlled wheeled robot vehicle with a camcorder (mounted in a clear dome capable of swiveling about) and a big television monitor mounted at the base to show the spectators what the camera sees as it picks it's way through the crowd. I laughed until it hurt then laughed some more. A loud drone draws my attention upwards, to see 2 ultralight aircraft flying in close formation, and a one person helicopter putters across the flats beyond, gaining speed in the uncrowded regions to take off. A very loud engine sound in the distance proves to be a 'pulse jet' like that which powered the V-1 buzzbombs powering a small wheeled vehicle. Another tricycle cart speeds up as a 10 foot jet of flame erupts from it's rear!
The shimmering light of a million random dabs of color building up the heat stirred scene around me forms an image of sail cycles in the distance riding atop a fluttering blue mirage looking for the world like sailboats on a lake! Purple shadows nearly fill our side of the mountains, the remaining sunlit portions sharply displaying every texture. The Sun is still harsh, so glad I have my hat, and lots of water!
I wander towards a writhing mass of color suspended above the tan flatness, the giant tent I have admired since my arrival draws me in as the brilliance of it's hot air balloon fabric fill more of my vision. Inside, the shade is wonderful, and the radiance of the sunlight passing through the rainbow colored stripes dances in vivid contrasts as afterimages of one end of the spectrum plays with the colors seen next. The wind picks up wide stretches of the fabric, rolling it in graceful waves over and around me.
Twirling banners outside furiously corkscrew themselves into the wind, beyond lies the playa and finally the intricately irregular skyline of Black Rock city backed by the purple western mountains.
The temperature delightfully drops as the high clouds form tapered and feathery shapes...near the sun, stripes of iridescent colors give me a taste of the most beautiful hues nature can provide...I shoot Kodachromes as I revel in the beauty above and around me! Kites twirl in the breeze, their long tails form cirlique patterns in the deepening sky. A tremendous arch made of 50 tethered kites is held by two people a hundred yards apart. I wonder if the conditions are ripe for a good sunset and soon enough I get the first good sign: the Eastern clouds are being lit along their bottoms like the western ones soon will be.
I have a fresh roll ready and moving to the emptier stretches I watch the natural spectacle begin. As I shoot frame after frame, varying the exposure, I become aware of a new sound emerging all around me - the cheering of thousands who stopped what they were doing and poured their appreciation out in waves of joyous roaring filling the fiery heavens with exclamations of excitement! There they cheered behind the Burning man, it's silhouette outlined in flashing neon as crimson pink cloud textures tinted the entire scene around me with rosy light. As I took a picture a distant huge fireball rolled skywards!
I wept with joy at the spectacle,
dear God it's so beautiful and I'll never forget this! I know
for once this is shared by thousands around me.
A band played "The Star Spangled Banner" into the gathering night.
The deep red afterglow in the clouds persisted for a long time as the sea of lights came alive below. A bat is briefly silhouetted against the twilight. While still on the flat less crowded playa I see someone preparing a mortar like device and I notice people giving the general direction it's pointed a wide berth...suddenly a yell "Fire in the hole!" and an eruption of fire spews out in an instant to form a towering 50 foot fireball, startling in it's size and heat, rising and twisting and darkening into an undulating black smoke ring directly above us. All I can do to try to keep from being overwhelmed by it all was to keep moving, and be treated to something else unexpected and deal with yet another experience on it's own terms.
Back at a friends camp it's party time. Beers emerge from ice chests, etc.
From many parties of all sizes came joyous noises, music, and the exclamations of people wandering by and marveling at the hundreds of toys arranged on pedestals around the dome.
Hours later, I head back to the tent and settle in. You don't really feel worried about leaving things unattended but one likes to check on things now and again while wandering through it all. I've had enough this evening, the last one this community would pass through intact.
-FAST FORWARD- This is the day of the burning. At strategic locations fire trucks and paramedics sit and wait, a sight I find both ominous and reassuring.
It is Saturday night and the population is gathering towards Burning Man, it is nearly time. Another fine sunset nearly as colorful as last night's has left a slowly dispersing cloud ceiling dripping with bulbous 'mammatus' shapes. This one marks the start of the climatic ceremony I and my companions arrived early, I have three fully charged batteries and a full Hi8 tape, and lots of water. I have the best view and the wind is at my back. Columns of drumming costumed people with long spear like staffs bearing green glow sticks and torches arrive, assume places, and dance around the wood and neon giant in the center. A fire show begins, men stride while whirling giant flaming batons...men walking on burning stilts, naked women caressing themselves with torches, a few litter borne dignitaries with huge adorned masks look like priests of forgotten cultures...the drumming builds in intensity and overlapping variety and the neon on the Man looks like slits through which the light of another world shines as the chemical peak washes over me, with purple auras swimming around the neon man.
The audience yells "Buurrrn it!!!" and talkative individuals who don't know what they're saying pour it all out to their neighbors. Again and again one fellow urgently repeats "Jesus Christ the Lord is dead, Jesus Christ the Lord is dead...on and on. Eventually another man pipes up "whoaa, buddy, that's enough acid for you!" with a general nearby laughter emerging in response. Suddenly amid the drumming and screaming someone climbs the tall steps at the base of the Man while blazing from head to foot! This stunt man in protective gear stands between the legs, reaches out and activates the fuses, climbs down the other side, and collapses as a crew cover him with foam and blankets. The Man is on fire, red flares spewing from the extended arms and yellow flames climbing the wooden structure...A sputtering roar announces the first of many levels of pyrotechnics buried within, and the torso noisily erupts in a white sparkling mass. The neon tubes die quietly, falling here and there amid showers of glowing sparks. A swirling column of flame races through the intricate structure of the legs and torso as more caches of fireworks spray out from the roaring mass of flame. Well placed Roman candles provide fiery ejaculations from the proper spot on the figure! As the paper head is engulfed by the fire, it's hoard of skyrockets roar upward from the conflagration, smoke surges sideways, and for a time the man itself is dwarfed by an enormous plume of dense smoke alternately lit from without and within by the dazzling bursts and surges of fireworks feeding the growing conflagration Finally the Man collapses in a fiery mass and a dance around the heap of fire begins, some costumed, some naked, many carrying torches, all looking very pagan. Fireworks rise from the crowd to explode overhead. Red flares drop among us. Music and drums are everywhere. It is time for the community to begin to die.
While I head back to continue my
own revelry with friends I see a huge tractor-like wagon, bearing
a flame thrower with a long tube which spins loudly and menacingly
as it prepares to fire... a wild crowd moves alongside it, yelling
out advice on what to burn. At a selected sculpture a stream of
burning gasoline erupts from the tube, tracing out feathery patterns
at it's bottom, billowy above, as another bonfire is added to
those around me. Some of them look as big as burning houses! A
side mounted model rocket atop a truck loudly spews out a 20 foot
jet of flame nearby while people wearing phosphorescent glow sticks
along their bodies look like simple computer graphic skeletons.
A large black dog thusly adorned is misleadingly outlined and
looks particularly surreal in the darkness! An elaborate arrangement
of moving lights in a wheeled vehicle looks like someone reined
to a giant dragonfly with flapping wings.
I will never forget this, This event is proof that a lot that means so much to me lives and thrives. I have ideas for the next one, things to build and add to the collective experience. It is important to be a participant rather than a spectator as much as possible. I dream about being out there often.