h Burn / saffron huang / blog

Burn

September 7, 2019

I’ve never previously said or believed that any single experience has changed me. Sure, I can point to things that have changed my life, but none of them have necessarily impacted who I am — they just altered the course of my lived experiences. Reasons for this include: few things actually change a person significantly, it’s often impossible to know whether an experience changes you immediately afterwards, and there’s no alternate reality to let you test whether that’s the case. Despite all this, I am certain that my first Burn changed me.

I’m aware of how absurd and probably obnoxious this sounds. It’s actually pretty hard to publicise this because I don’t want to be That Person Who Went to Burning Man, but I do want to share my thoughts with friends in case I can encourage people to experience it for themselves. Another reason this piece exists is that it’s just difficult to convey and do justice to this experience in conversation, because it’s such a bizarre, ridiculous and hilarious place. I want to write and refine this personal essay in order to process the week, and to ensure that there’s at least one place where I’m articulating my thoughts in an accurate and considered manner.

To provide some structure to this essay, I’ll give an overview of what this crazy social experiment is, and then dive into my key learnings and experiences from Burning Man 2019.

Table of contents

A magical place

Burning Man happens every year in late August, at Black Rock City (BRC), Nevada — a temporary city constructed on an ancient dried-up lakebed that we call the “playa”. It’s full of camps, art (including some of the largest art pieces you’ll ever see and interact with), events, and people that come from all over the world. The 10 principles that reflect the ethos and culture of Burning Man are as follows: radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation and immediacy. You can read about them here.

There are around 70,000 people, 2000 camps, and miles upon miles of dusty playa. There’s two main parts of BRC: the “city”, where people camp, and the “deep playa”, where colossal art installations live. People on bikes and in mutant vehicles (art cars) coast through every part of the playa. Many people stay with theme camps, which provide some kind of gift to BRC, although it’s very much possible to camp by yourself or with a group of friends. Camps sport hilarious names from “Ancient Cult of the Alligator” to “Best Butt” and “Kegel Kommandos”, and put on countless events. Camps will serve food and/or drinks, throw incredible parties, organise activities for everyone, activities for kids or activities that are definitely not for kids, teach workshops, put on talks or performances, or offer support services.

You can do anything in the city. You can enjoy a traditional Vietnamese coffee, dance to Tycho’s sunrise set, get lathered, scrubbed and rubbed all over by 10 people in a human car wash, get your hair braided, grab a margarita (one camp mixes their margs using chainsaws), be served champagne by people in silk robes while listening to house music, fight a friend in the Thunder Dome by being swung towards each other in harnesses and beating the shit out of each other with padded bats, watch a movie at the sunset drive-in theatre, climb a geodesic dome and sit in hammocks at the top, stay up all night and watch the sunrise blossom over the mountains, dance on top of the Slutgarden stage, play mini-golf, attend an “Awkward Songs to Strip To” event where everyone is encouraged to strip to the tune of The Wheels on the Bus, bake your own cake, get spanked for a pickle, eat French pastries made by pastry chefs, sing to a crowd, watch professional roller derbyists and fire dancers perform, and more. There’s so much to learn, through countless workshops on aerial arts, contact improv, authentic relating, improving your body image, acroyoga, spanking, massage, tantric breathing, “pirate yoga”, basics of IP law, bookmaking, naked Greek pottery… the list goes on.

You can walk around nude. You can pop into a random camp and strike up a conversation. You can hitch a lift on an art car (perhaps the one that looks like a pirate ship, or the one that’s essentially just papier-mâché boobs, or the fire-breathing octopus), and ride around people-watching, listening to music, dancing or talking. You can bike through the streets letting serendipity find you, or out into the deep playa to look at and maybe climb some art. You’d head back to your camp to do a volunteer shift, baby-wipe some grime off yourself (although you really just have to resign yourself to a week of being coated in a mixture of dust, sweat and sunscreen), or grab your LED lights to go out at night-time.

And all of this is brought to life as gifts from fellow burners to fellow burners. No money exists on the playa, and gifts are not meant to entail reciprocation. They are simply to be enjoyed and appreciated.

Letting go and sacrifice

I arrived on Monday by myself; my best friend Amanda had driven up on Saturday. That evening, our camp (Dead Hand Path, which had events focused on rationality, spirituality, the occult and science) held an opening ceremony in our “Gospel Tent”. After each introducing ourselves, we set intentions for the week. I thought for about a minute and then declared that my intention was to let go. More specifically, to let go of expectations, judgments and preconceived notions, and just experience things as close to the surface of reality as possible. I also wanted to let go of my own protectiveness over myself, allowing myself to be vulnerable and trust in other people. This letting-go thing ended up being much more important than I initially realised.

Once I started letting go and going with the flow, everything felt serendipitous and magical. (Granted, burners are really good at making little things feel like magic, as Amanda put it). Just when my lights ran out of battery, I came across a box of LEDs. Just when Amanda and I needed to drag our suitcases across the dust to load into a friend’s car, someone pulled up on a golf cart and started chatting to us, and ended up giving us a ride over.

Not only is letting go crucial to enjoying all the other elements of Burning Man that I’m writing way too much about in this post, it also really helped me deal with negative emotions and situations that arose. During a walk with Amanda after a particularly emotionally taxing event, we stumbled upon a booth sporting a sign reading “Got anything you need to let go of?” Well, actually yes we did. A guy was chilling on the cushions next to the sign. We sat down next to him and explained our predicament, after which he gave us each a necklace with a “Let it Go” pendant. “The necklace is just passing through you,” he explained. “When the moment feels right, give it to the next person who needs to let something go.” (Woah, a Let it Go necklace that’s made to be let go of! *mind explodes*) Such symbolic tokens became important reminders of the mindset I wanted to carry throughout the week, and honestly I initially didn’t want to give it away. But when I eventually passed the necklace along to someone else in a difficult situation, I realised that doing so felt just right.

Letting things go is also about sacrifice. The intent of the necklace is a small example of a community that is incredibly willing to sacrifice things that they love for others. At the Shots for Shocks bar, Amanda and I got our buttcheeks shocked by a cattle prod in exchange for some deliciously infused liqueur. (It felt like a bee punching me, if you were wondering.) After downing our shots, we started chatting to the bartender about the history of the land and burner culture. She told us about some of her longtime burner friends who come year after year, and eventually end up spending almost all of their time volunteering, such that virgin burners like me can safely have the time of their lives. She herself had decided to split her entire week between this bar and the Temple, where she worked shifts as a Temple Guardian. It’s hard for me to imagine spending so much time and money coming to Burning Man, the ultimate candy-shop wonderland of humanity, and prioritising other people’s wellbeing and time above my own. But as I witnessed countless people exemplifying this over the course of the week, I began to understand how much joy is created from interacting with others in this way.

It seems that all of Burning Man is building shit for others and destroying it thoughtfully, out of love. The entire metropolis is built from scratch by participants every year, coming alive for a week before being disassembled. We carefully comb the playa to remove matter-out-of-place (MOOP) i.e. anything that’s not dust, and crews are employed for months afterwards to restore the earth. The big art installations are often made of wood, and near the end of the week many get set on fire one by one, and literally burned to the ground. Flying blazing debris, dust vortexes and all.



It’s hard to imagine how much time, energy, love and engineering chops were put into something like The Folly — the massive building made of reclaimed lumber ablaze in the video, sporting a clock tower and windmill. Three days before I’d watched a full-scale orchestra perform a two-hour concert in its shade, and now everything was falling into the dust. The artists and builders do really represent the soul of Black Rock City. I can only imagine the strength of will and resilience that is requisite for letting go of the structure that they’d poured a year of work into. Or maybe, it’s a cathartic feeling.

The next evening I watched the Man itself burn, complete with a breathtaking fireworks show and troupes of fire dancers. As the top of the structure caved in, it became clear that destruction is okay, and even beautiful. Especially when you’re destroying things for the benefit of others—this particular show is collecting tens of thousands of people, and bringing us all a sense of wonder—and when the sacrifice is painful, beauty emerges.

catharsis

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from space

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The opposite of numbness

At the end of the week, our camp had its closing ceremony — our own mini burn. When it came to my turn, I wrote “numbness” on my piece of wood and threw it into the fire, willing it to go up in flames. The week had been a chance to sit with feelings and sensations that I normally dismiss and/or quickly move on from. This allowed me insights, joy and relief that the usual numbness doesn’t.

I experienced being awakened, affected and stimulated in entirely new ways. I took a contact improv dance class, forging a sense of closeness and intimacy with my fellow dancers — the kind that is possible only through touching and experiencing each other’s bodies (in non-sexual ways). I listened to music so beautiful it brought me to tears, felt the kind of deep empathy with another person that changes your worldview, and experienced art that left my jaw on the floor. Intimate conversations became easy and natural, and strangers quickly felt like close friends. I’m not a touchy-feely person in the default world, but I let myself fully sink into deep, lingering hugs, and got so much better at maintaining eye contact. Hell, even being cattle-prodded counts as a new stimulus that I opened myself and my buttcheeks up to.

Emotionally and physically, I let myself become closer to others. At one workshop, I met Brian, the man with deep-set eyes and warm smile who constantly sought to lift others up with his words, but admitted how hard it was to let himself believe anything kind that others said about him. I met Roxy who wore a poofy yellow dress stitched with butterflies, her blue eyes welling up as she thought back to the last time she felt truly loved. Most burners, including them, were older than me, but that didn’t really seem to matter to friendship and connection on the playa. No one that I personally knew had ever gave me a foot massage before Burning Man - I reserved this intimacy exclusively for paid strangers. The thought of someone I knew kneading my calves would send me into a panic along the lines of “oh god that is so intimate oh god get away.” But when my campmate Michael offered to loosen up the knots in my bike-worn feet, I happily obliged. I wasn’t even avoiding eye contact!

My brain likes to put up resistance to experiences of intimacy, because I’m a really self-sufficient person who is afraid of dependence. Pushing past that fear, I encountered an abundance of non-sexual intimacy that week, which unexpectedly led to (surprise!) understanding and empathy, rather than the emotional reliance on others that I arbitrarily fear. (Of course, there is also sexual intimacy at Burning Man, but in my opinion, non-sexual intimacy is more rare in the default world so it’s more interesting to experience and discuss.) Turns out, feeling things is an asset; it allows you to access insights that rational thought doesn’t lead to (or would at least require many circuitous leaps to arrive at).

Kindness and care

Gifting is one of the core principles of Burning Man. One doesn’t need to do anything to deserve a gift, and this ethos steeps the playa in kindness and joy. At any given minute I’d be offered Thai iced tea, dust goggles or face painting. At the Man burn, someone offered our group fuzzy handmade hats, and two minutes later another person brought over lollipops. I felt very taken care of and connected to others. I also had some of the most empathetic experiences of my life, and I hope to contribute more when I come back next year.

Non-human things are also painstakingly cared for. The Leave No Trace ethos exemplifies this; at the end of the week, lines of people form all over the playa, carefully inspecting the raked dust for any trash. It often feels like the playa is out to kill me, and it left my face disgustingly dry and flaky. Still, we should take care of the earth and leave it as we found it, even when it’s not always good to us.

Hilarity and weirdness

Some of the weirdest shit of my life so far happened at Burning Man. I’m not sure where else I could get spoon-fed a five-course meal, freely climb 25 ft towers, spank (and be spanked by) a stranger, spend too long staring at a giant psychedelic snail mutant vehicle, hang out with a bunch of conspiracy theorists, participate in an ecstatic dance session at a Mexican billionaire’s camp, or stand bafflingly close to a blazing building trying to dodge flaming embers. One quick glance at the camp names, or a list of events, and it’s obvious that weirdness - and the joy that comes with it - is openly embraced in Black Rock City.

I also realised that so many of these things are made to fuck with you. So many things are meant to make you double-take, rethink your initial judgments, crack up laughing. Putting in so much work just to mess with people - that’s incredible and I love it.

Freedom and exploration

The open embrace of hilarity and weirdness and the lack of judgment led to a feeling of liberation that I’ve scarcely felt before. “Choose your own adventure” became a motto. It’s like when you’re travelling abroad and you don’t know anyone, so there are no consequences for exploring new things - except you can come back year after year to the playa, get to know more people, and they still won’t judge you. It’s not like I became a completely different person; it’s more that I felt comfortable embodying an extremely authentic version of myself.

I didn’t personally walk around naked. But what I realised after one person I found intimidating walked around camp topless one day, was that we’re all fleshy humans with weird bits. Intellectually I know this, but there’s something about standing there talking to someone with not much fabric between us, that makes me appreciate how similar we all are in our materiality, insecurities and vulnerabilities. Casual nudity is honestly just cool. It adds to the open, comfortable, nonjudgmental and safe environment, which removes unnecessary barriers to exploration that exist in the default world. At first I didn’t understand why BDSM and sex camps are so plentiful at Burning Man. Well, how do people actually learn these things in the default world, except through getting messed-up ideas from porn? Turns out, this is a rare opportunity to find experts who are willing to show people the ropes and talk through awkward topics in a safe and easily-accessible environment, free of charge.

In short…

The day after I got back, I felt roused from a dream. As iPhone notifications started pinging, and it became socially inappropriate to wrap people in full-body hugs, I began missing that alternate reality a whole lot.

It was a week of letting down barriers and interacting with people in refreshingly non-standard ways, but it was just a week. I have a lot still to learn about letting go and learning to make sacrifices that are actually difficult, and about becoming the kind of person that brings a touch of joy, laughter and magic to others’ experiences. I have a lot to learn about channeling empathy. And of course, it’s only really useful if I’m doing this in the default world.

I’m convinced that the full range of human emotions and experiences exist at Burning Man, as well as some of the most beautiful creations of man and earth. I do think that you have to be somewhat open-minded to tap into this, because the place is absurdity incarnate. (If you’re still reading this and interested, you probably are.) And of course, it’s also all about who you experience it with – Amanda and I were very comfortable with each other beforehand, yet it’s safe to say we got even closer. Friends who _____ together stay together (fill in the blank with any of our bizarre mishaps).

I developed a heightened appreciation of art. Some of the most difficult-to-describe experiences I’ve ever had occurred that week, and though I’m trying to put pen to paper, it feels like the only things that really reflect those feelings are the art on the playa. Knowing the astounding amounts of love, work and care poured into these pieces makes them even more incredible (I discovered this for myself when I volunteered a day to help take apart pianos for one of them).

It’s funny, because a lot of the media coverage of Burning Man emphasises degeneracy. In that context, my effusiveness might seem strange. Honestly, I think that Black Rock City is simultaneously the most wholesome and the most degenerate place possible. This really is a choose-your-own adventure. At one point in the week, I watched a jazz soloist perform a song about Burning Man, belting “It’s the most fucked up place you’ll ever love!”

More things, goals, etc

An apt description of Burning Man:

“Ancestor” dust storms twist and helix across spanning horizons while soul rapturing sunsets distinguish the apocalyptic lakebed that becomes Black Rock City, the home of the annual Burning Man. The widely celebrated ‘social experiment’ in the desert where spectating is not allowed is called ‘home’ by artists and creators from all over the world. It’s here survivalists, thrill-seekers and a few of Silicon Valley’s elite converge to greet each other in tutus, bandanas and rhinestone emblazoned captains hats, while fire belching mutant vehicles ferry from one camp to the next with a full-fledged dance party in tow. Taken as a whole, the city is equal parts culture, community and art, with plenty of rabbit holes to stumble into. Whether you came for the colossal sculptures, the rich community or the experience of a lifetime there’s something for everyone here.

Next time:

Things I want to bring into my everyday life:

Aerial view of Man burn - unknown source

Aerial view of Man burn - unknown source


categories: musings / tags: burning man art letting go community magic sacrifice freedom exploration intimacy insanity
thoughts welcome here