They come, they get naked, they run around the dessert for eight days just for the hell of it, and then they burn a 40 foot effigy of a man. No, it’s not a David Lynch movie. And no, they aren’t insane. This is Burning Man, the annual art festival that most people can neither explain what it is nor why they choose to go. It just happens, and everyone goes, and everyone loves it so much that they keep going back. Last year, nearly 40,000 people attended Burning Man in the Black Rock Desert, Nevada. It’s come a long way since 20 people watched Larry Harvey and Jerry James burn a wooden man in 1986 in San Francisco.
The first and second level tickets for this year’s event are already sold out, with only the third and fourth level still available. These tickets will set you back $250 and $280 respectively. Looks pretty expensive, right? So what do you get for your money? Well, there are no scheduled acts or performances; there are no bands and no stages; there are no food and drink stalls; there are no merchandise outlets selling keyrings or programs; and there is no definitive list of events. Oh, did I mention that there is no audience? The entire festival is focused on art, and the general feeling is that art can’t be restrained. As a result, the thrust behind Burning Man is on communal participation. Everyone is involved; everyone is the show.
You pack all the things you’ll need for the duration into the back of a car, and then you drive to the desert and experience this unique occasion. You’ll have to fend for yourself, make your own shelter, feed yourself, and bring enough water to stop you passing out through dehydration (it’s 110 degree in the desert!). Forget getting loaded up on beer and narcotics, the Burning Man festival is a drug itself. Just being there will alter your mind uncontrollably.
There are no guidelines about what you should do at the event, and there are no restrictions about how you should act (within reason). It’s about total freedom (although it is restricted to an area inside a 7-mile long pentagonal fence, as has been imposed by the local authorities). People come together to form a community of art-lovers. There are surprises around every corner. People get dressed up in all manner of inconceivable costumers, they drive cars that look like turtles or dinosaurs, and they speak in languages with familiar words but in a manner that is totally new, completely devoid of all regularity.
Burning Man is where people go to find themselves, they go to find God, they go to find that flamboyant sidekick they’ve been dreaming about, or that quirky ballerina soulmate who dances around without a care in the world.
For the period of the festival, the outside world is left firmly behind. Everything comes to a climax on Saturday night when the enormous wooden man is set alight. The temporary city in the desert forms a circle around the man, as he becomes engulfed in flames. The ten principles of Burning Man are: Radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation, and immediacy, and these all come to a head as the Man lights up the desert sky.
In accordance with the principles of the festival, no cash transactions are permitted for anything other than ice, café products, or the use of the shuttle bus into nearby Nevada communities (although to use the bus you must be fully clothed and sober).
No amount of newspaper stories, internet articles, or photographs can prepare you for Burning Man. You won’t know what it is or what it means or how it will make you feel until you get there. You decide what you want to bring to the table, and then you decide how you want to destroy the table and start all over. The theme for this year’s event is “The Green Man”, which seeks to explore how we interact with nature and what effect it has no our lives.
Just as the people come to an area of nothingness, so they leave it in the same state. Everything that is created and brought to the community is removed and no trace is left of the city that was. A team of individuals will then spend several months restoring the land to its original form. This is a key concept behind the festival.
So it’s all hippies, anarchists, and drug-crazed, painted naked people, right? Wrong! OK, so there are heaps of painted naked people walking around in all their resplendent glory, but common media misconceptions have given Burning Man a bit of a confused reputation. Here are top five myth-busters, inspired from the official Burning Man website.
- Burning Man is full of hippies
This one falls flat because most real hippies are more than 50-years-old now, with mortgages and families to take care of. The hippie movement was a youth movement that reacted to trends in society. It’s been and gone, and the term “hippy” is mistakenly used to describe anyone in a floral dress or with braided hair. The people at Burning Man are just people.
- Burning Man is an excuse for 40,000 people to go to the desert and take drugs
Not so. There are far less cases of drug casualties at Burning Man than many popular rock festival. Furthermore, just because the festival focuses on art doesn’t mean everyone is running around hallucinating off acid. For a start, it’s boiling hot in the desert, and so just drinking a glass of beer is likely to seriously alter your frame of mind. The majority of people at Burning Man do not take drugs, even if they might look like they are from another planet.
- Burning Man is based on The Wicker Man.
Ah yes, The Wicker Man. Remember that 1970s horror movie with a crazy-aired Christopher Lee? There was a large effigy burnt in that. This has caused many people to speculate that Burning Man is the real life version. Luckily, there are no chickens, goats, or Methodists killed during Burning Man. The similarities are merely coincidence.
- Burning Man is all about anarchy
While it is true that Burning Man promotes radical self-expression, this doesn’t extend to anti-social behavior. So you won’t find gangs of madmen running around raping and pillaging. There are hundreds of security workers on-site to make sure nothing gets out of hand. Burning Man is definitely not about mindless chaos and destruction.
- Burning Man is a modern-day Woodstock
Woodstock was a commercial festival that broke out of its boundaries and became the stuff of legend. Burning Man is not a youth event, but it does encourage spontaneous celebration. The similarities with Woodstock are few and far between. There aren’t even any stages, unless participants choose to build them.
Burning Man is open to all, and it is increasingly popular every year. For a list of frequently asked questions, head to the official homepage, and to purchase a ticket, go here. Tickets are on sale until August 24, and the event itself takes place between August 27 and September 3.
Now get that day-glo body paint out and start building your shark fin-shaped car to drive to the festival in. Who's coming with me?