Burning Man’s Dotcom Hangover

Notes From a Festival at the Crossroads

BLACK ROCK DESERT, NEVADA, SEPTEMBER 1—The starched red pigtails of her wig flying at crooked angles behind her, a volunteer called Evil Pippi speeds across the bleached and dusty desert on her golf cart. To her eyes—sealed beneath opaque black pilot goggles—the very future of Burning Man may be at stake.

Is it police, come to the playa to arrest the naked and the stoned? Anarchists blowing up the 250 people of Gerlach, the closest town, some 10 miles away? No, it's only New York's own DJ Spooky, and really just the thought of him, at that.

Celebrity is a slippery subject at Burning Man, and it seems That Subliminal Kid may have been a little too overt. Spooky was heard to announce himself as a headliner for an event that prides itself on a distinct lack of promotion, thus skewering the yearly festival's guiding principle—that passive entertainment is a horrible waste of a mind.

You won't find superstar DJ lineups or poster-sized, four-color flyers at Burning Man. The faithful, known as Burners, use scrap metal, mechanical know-how, and a flair for the absurd to organize elaborate theme camps and create jaw-dropping artwork, equal parts Mad Max and Dan Flavin. They wear outlandish costumes, ranging from ninjas to Santa Clauses. In the real world, folks pay to be entertained, but here in the mythical Black Rock City, the approximately 25,000 people who attend are the entertainment. Book and promote celebrities, the founders say, and soon people will come solely to be entertained. By getting Spooky to play right after the Saturday night burning of the Man and spreading the word, the people of Camp Xara have flirted with a serious breach of ethics.

The golf cart whizzes down Black Rock City's inner circle, a street called the Esplanade. Nothing more than a stretch of dusty desert marked with paper street signs, Esplanade forms a horseshoe that mirrors the curve of the surrounding Black Rock mountains. Inside, randomly placed art installations dot an expanse so wide and flat, some Burners insist they can see the curve of the earth. A pair of room-sized red dice double as a lounge. A billboard proclaims Jesus' love for sodomy. And of course, the Man, a humanoid figure of wood trimmed with green and lavender neon, towers 70 feet above the ancient river basin.

On the other side of the Esplanade are the theme camps, RVs, and tents that house the 25,000 or so participants. While most camps—gems offering the opportunity to "register your aliens," "mud-wrestle Satan for your soul," or group-masturbate—are hidden within the labyrinth of dusty paths, the biggest, most impressive camps line the Esplanade. In the Thunderdome, war-painted combatants in bungee harnesses hang from the triangulated steel rafters; they club each other with foam rubber staffs as gothic techno blares and the masses roar approval. At the camp of Dr. Megavolt, three men alternate wearing a grounded metal suit and dance in the shadows of a tesla coil, playing with its current. You can smell the burn as lightning-like crackles of electricity encircle the armadillo-man.

Pippi weaves around a menagerie of spectacle. One naked man has pierced and arranged his scrotum with pins so as to create a mangina. Pippi's cart narrowly avoids a station wagon with its hood ripped off and a raised platform seat in the back. As it passes, a man with a flowing fake white beard waves. She darts by Spectator camp, a group of 15 or 20 stoned souls who idle on metallic bleachers and demand a show from all who pass.

At last, Pippi reaches Xara and finds the man responsible for booking talent. He has red hair with a thin, beaded braid on either side of his face, and he pulls at one as he listens to her. When she finishes, his face is pinched with anger. "As far as I'm concerned, you're fucking everything up," he says. "If you don't want Spooky to spin, go find him and tell him yourself." Evil Pippi sets off again.

In its 16th year, Burning Man remains perhaps the most artistic and challenging way to spend a week in the U.S. The event has managed to grow annually, despite its expense ($250 at the door this year, though tickets are half that if purchased well in advance) and the need to pack all your food and supplies in and out. To enjoy Burning Man, one must be ready for everything nature can hurl, from storms to temperature extremes. Perhaps more importantly, one must appreciate the extremes of people: hippies, ravers, frat boys, perverts, idealist zealots, anarchists, nihilists, quasisexuals, and pudgy men without trousers.

This year, early numbers indicate the population grew in spite of a dotconomy collapse that some speculated would impact the event's attendance. The loss of dotcom funds did lead to some recycled theme camps and the disappearance of some grandiosities, but there was plenty of art and spectacle left. The sentiment from most was that the downturn kept away those who were less than dedicated. "A lot of people suddenly had a real choice to make," says James Home, a software interface designer from San Francisco, with evident disdain. "People either decided they'd find another way to live the kind of life they wanted to live or decided they needed real jobs and to make a lot of money and be responsible. Last year at this time I was a millionaire, and this year I'm in debt. But it was never a question whether or not I'd come."

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