This was my first year at Burning Man as a San Franciscan. I had great visions of how much better my art project would be due to my not having to haul crap across the country. I also had developed a larger set of friends here and was excited to spend some time out on the playa with them. In no particular order, here are the things I saw that struck me about this year’s trip. Note that I am not rendering judgement about whether it was "good" or "bad". I had some wonderful experiences, and some that sucked, but that’s about par for the course.
I’m not making plans to return next year, mostly because it’s way too early to have such a discussion.
"You’re doing it wrong!"
This Squircle-inspired catch-phrase really summed up my experience. So many things went wrong throughout the trip:
- Our camp’s gear got sold off by the disreputable storage company;
- My art project looked "jinky" at it’s best, and was dust-storm susceptible and had to be taken down in high winds;
- Several hundred dollars worth of Heiniken minikegs spit nothing but foam because I couldn’t chill them cold enough in the middle of the fucking desert;
- Our group kitchen’s cook (who is an amazing chef) collapsed from the quantity of work that it takes to cook two meals a day for even a small set of people. After I realized how much of his time this sucked out of him, and because I love his cooking, I made a point of going up and hugging him every meal.
- Oh, and some jackass burning the man early one morning while I slept.
It’s still a big fucking camping trip and it kind of works regardless of what else happens
Steve often refers to Burning Man in this way, and at the end of the day, you trek out to the desert to hang around a whole lot of your friends. This was a lot of fun. With a little in-camp drama as a distraction, it was basically like we all lived in three blocks from each other and got to hang out for 5 days straight. "Shut up you fucking whore" goes from a phrase said in anger to a running joke inside of 12 hours with that kind of proximity.
These experiences are mostly now why I would go again (and why I went this year). I now am physically close to a circle of friends that mean a great deal to me, and I enjoy spending time with them. This element of the week was divine.
The Environmental message was mostly ineffective at it’s goal (at least for me)
There was a big todo this year about the green tech on display on the playa, whether companies paid to show their stuff, and whether it would commercialize the experience, etc. Frankly, the whole event is a commercial endeavor anyway, so it’s too late for that. Just dig into the finances to see this. I walked through the green pavillion twice and had several distinct reactions. It wasn’t pervasive either, so unless you went to the tent, you generally didn’t notice it.
- Commercial? Are you kidding?: Besides the Burning Man LLC itself being a giant business, the commercial presence of U-Haul and RV Rents at Burning Man is way more pervasive than the green tech stuff could ever hope to be.
- Too preachy: All the copy in the thing came off as way too preachy. It put me into a full on snark that I managed not to vent at my cycling companions until I saw…
- The idiotic green carnival games: I actually saw a woman barking at passerby to grab three beanbags and ‘take your frustrations out on the oil companies’. The hypocrisy of this, given that we’d all driven out to the playa with ungodly quantities of gear and were probably all heavily dependent on our oil-consuming cars, was not lost on me. We bear responsibility for the environmental mess we’re in, and railing at the oil companies is neither an accurate assessment of the problem, nor is it going to make it any better. I was tempted to throw the beanbags at her, but I’m occasionally a competent pacifist.
- The urban turbine: The coolest thing I saw was in fact a product sponsored by a green company. It was a small electricity generating wind turbine, designed to mount on the side of your house in an urban area. It only needs a wind of 7mph to get going, and can put a sizable dent in your electric bill. I want one.
"Their people came to setup their RVs"
Uncle Kevin, who camped with us, helped direct some Hollywood people’s assistants on where to find someone to help them place their RVs in our village. They apparently came out to "setup the RV" for their bosses. Kevin’s initial reaction, "You have to ‘set up an RV?’ made me laugh hard on the drive home. But this was serious. Apparently such people live in such a bubble that they can’t be bothered to drive out their own luxury vehicle and toss it into park themselves. These people had no impact whatsoever on my playa experience, except to remind me what a soulless void the entertainment industry is, and how it has the potential to ruin anything remotely spiritual or meaningful if you let it. I’m glad I didn’t run into these people in camp. But then, they weren’t going to spend any time with us during a dust storm anyway, were they? They were just going to hide in their RVs.
After I posted this, Billfrog pointed out this blog post from a woman in Cyclecide who was the "Burning Man Planner" for a bunch of Hollywood types. I don’t know if this is the same people or an entirely different set.
I don’t begrudge Hollywood coming to the playa. And I don’t begrudge them the need for some privacy, they’re a little exposed out here to the creep factor and I don’t really know what it’s like to have paparazzi chasing you, so who am I to judge? I think the story about them flashing their faces at people for the fun of it is vain, but then we are talking about the entertainment industry. Vain is what makes them money.
Did I mention that RVs suck (at least for what I want to get out of the playa experience?)
During one of the dust storms Sarah and I were walking by this RV and a woman stuck her head out and said, "come in!" We did and it really fucked us up. The elements at Burning Man, and the process of surviving them creates a bond with your fellow campers. When a whiteout hits, Steve puts on some hard danceable music, and you dance your ass off in the camp bar despite the fact that you can’t see more than 25 feet in front of you. That’s fun. You and your friends are demonstrating an ungodly optimistic ability to have a good time despite almost everything nature can throw at you. That creates awesome shared experiences.
Our fellow campers who spent the dust storms in their RV will never know those experiences. They just shut their door, cranked their AC, and ate chips and drank waiting for it to be over. Honest to god I had spent the week camping, taking a shower every other day, and wearing mostly the same clothes, but I didn’t feel dirty until I set foot outside that RV and realized I had sucked the soul out of my playa experience.
Burning Man is big, and anonymous
Kevin also pointed out that the thing has gotten so big that people aren’t forced into meeting new people as often anymore, and that in fact it can be downright lonely if you’re not there with a big group. This is perhaps something that happened years ago, but Kevin just put a good descriptor on it. It may or may not have played a role in the two suicide attempts (one successful, one not) that I knew about on the playa this year.
There are three things I go to Burning Man to get: great art, deeper kinship with friends, and well-met strangers. I’ve noticed that for the past few years I really only get the the first two. Ask anyone in fandango if they leave camp much, once they’ve made their Fandango connections and the answer is no, not much. This last element of Burning Man (well-met strangers) is all but gone.
I made a really good friend
I got to spend a lot of time with a very unlikely person who will/has become a very good friend. I really didn’t see that coming.
The party art car is the Jabba the Hutt pleasure barge of the playa
The generic party art car, usually some kind of Mad-Max looking motorized 1 or 2 story platform with a flamethrower on it, doesn’t add much to my playa experience. Hell in India and Pakistan they cram a lot more people on such vehicles than they do at Burning Man. After seeing one too many of them park next to a piece of art and ruin it either with their loud sound system or their flamethrower, I began to see them all as little Jabba the Hutt’s running around the desert with their yachts full of sycophants. Particularly obnoxious were the flamethrowing art busses that parked next to the Monkey Zoetrope, a piece timed carefully with strobe lights that was unwatchable whenever some jackass blew his flamethrower and whited-out any appreciation you might have gotten out of that art piece.
Once I saw these big art cars as modern day yachts, or futuristic Huttese sail barges, I couldn’t see them any differently. I imagined every one full of sycophants attempting to use the car or its owner to further their personal mini-fame. And every owner as someone otherwise socially awkward, attempting to overcome their maladjustment by pouring money into this vehicle in the hopes that some girl would stay on it and sleep with them.
Yes it’s a sweeping inaccurate generalization. No I can’t shake it. It’s been confirmed by the creepy story about the custom-built for Hollywood art car.
The art is cool, but not that cool.
I really enjoyed several of the pieces this year, and in fact I took a few years off to ensure that when I returned it would all be new. And for the most part it was. The playa was full of things I had never seen before. But my tastes have changed and now I am a lot harder to engage. Frankly, I enjoyed the naturally occurring double, complete, end to end rainbow I saw on the playa more than most of the art. I also was entranced by the lunar eclipse, though I fell asleep for the last half of it and the first burning of the man. (The one big exception to this was the Monkey Zoetrope)
But I can’t ignore the fact that there’s some cool art right here in San Francisco that I probably don’t get out enough to see. And I don’t have to pitch a tent in a dust storm to appreciate it.
The bottom line, and since I kept all my Burning Man expenses in quicken I know the low four figures Sarah and I spent on this, is that I think I would have done better with the time and money. I love the people I camped with, save one or two exceptions. But we moved to California to be closer to them, and so I often see them every week or two regardless. I didn’t need to go to the desert to see them. With the money I spent I could have invited 16 of them to a cabin in Mexico, paid for the cabin myself, stocked it with food, and I still would have had money left over to help with flights.
The trick is that I find myself drawn to the setup and infrastructure problems of our little camp. Although I couldn’t help build the bar, Sarah and I helped with and donated to the fundraiser, helped pack the truck, helped with the operation of the bar (except serving drinks, I refuse to do that), and when the truck returns from the desert, I’ll help unpack it. I created over 100 badges for fandango campers that gave them a sense of community, and I have a short list of other infrastructure things that I can see myself doing in a future year.
The secret for me seems to be displeasure with the length of the stay. I really can’t do 5 days in that environment. I get bored. This is true of pretty much every vacation I go on. I need to change towns, or change scenery every 3 or 4 days. The secret may be to go out early, help with the camp setup, and then return and cherry pick a few days at the end of Burning Man (Fri, Sat, Sun, Mon) instead of going out Monday and returning Monday. (This year Sarah, Kevin, and I ended up leaving the morning of the second burn in fact). Or perhaps I should go out, setup on Saturday, and then spend 4 days in Reno playing cards, returning to the desert at the end of the week.
I won’t say I won’t ever go to Burning Man again, or even that I won’t go next year. Who knows, I might. But unlike previous years, I didn’t come back with a long list of things I want to do next year on the trip.