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Burning Man Journal
All the news thats fit to burn.
The Official Journal of the Burning Man Project - Summer 2000 Newsletter

Editor: Larry Harvey
Contributing Writers: Julie Hollar, Maid Marian, Stuart Mangrum, Darryl Van Rhey
Proofreaders: Larry Breed, Margaret Perrow
Art Director: Surferbetty
Production Manager: Marian Goodell
Project Coordinator: The Nurse
Printing: Scott Pratt & Curtiss Printing
Thanks: Bill Carson, Paul Pruneau, Tinky Winky

Real Hallucinations

"This is real life!"

Damian's mom is shouting through a megaphone while jumping on an aerobics trampoline inches from our stage. Under the bright lights two girls voraciously kiss each other, rolling on our futons to the cheers of the gathering crowd.

Shelly, still all dressed up as Child Star Dana Plato, grabs the megaphone from the wide-eyed fifty-something woman with a bob and glasses.

"Damian's mom wants more noise!" she bellows. "Slap that butt, claw that back!" The girls happily comply. Damian paces nervously in the shadows, skirt flowing, shaking his head at his mom.

"Who are those girls?" someone whispers to me. The commotion has drawn our whole camp out from their between-shows break in the green room.

I shrug. They shrug. We turn back to the stage and cheer.

It's the Wednesday before Labor Day and everything I own is covered in dust. Gluey glitter still sticks to my neck and stomach. Pink glow-in-the-dark paint crusts in my hair. I might have to break down and go to a hair-washing camp - it's not far, I hear there's one on Jupiter. And I, believe it or not, am on Earth.

The corner of 7:00 and Earth, that is, the place I called home for my week at Burning Man. (For the uninitiated, "Burning Man" is a free-form arts festival, culminating with the torching of a flaming wooden human figure. The festival began as a small San Francisco event in 1986, and has grown to an annual celebration and conflagration in the Nevada desert, complete with a road system, rangers, newspapers, and radio stations.)

This year [1999], the streets of Burning Man's Black Rock City were laid out by time and space, so that the concentric rings of the city corresponded with the solar system, and were intersected by the hours on a clock. At night, you could walk out in the open desert and look back at the colorful neon city (whose population reached more than 23,000 this year) and almost believe you were seeing the early days of Vegas. And at the intersection of 7:00 and Earth you'd find a red and blue neon beacon marking The Dante Network - where I and a couple dozen Californians brought game-show entertainment to the desert in the form of our nightly performance, Battle of the Burning Man Stars. Damian's a freelance writer. Shelly's a doctoral candidate and an exotic dancer. I'm a writer and drive the Zilker Park miniature train. But we all shed our "real world" identities for a week in the desert, in A Hundred Miles From Anywhere, Nevada, to experience the temporary community/art festival/ pyro-circus that is Burning Man.

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"Can you stand up to the challenge of taking abuse from Child Star Dana Plato?" Damian leers into his microphone in full Bert Worthless game show host mode. "Let's find out if the Space Pirates have the stomach for this one." A man all in silver nervously steps up to the stage as Shelly leaves her judge's seat to dole out the worst verbal abuse this guy has received in years. Ed pours more gasoline in the Applause box and throws in a match. The sign blazes up; the audience cheers. Cameramen stumble past the stage; another judge tries to procure sexual favors from the boom mike operator. In the process the mike hits Damian in the head.

"A little professionalism, please, people!" he shouts. "Just because we're cable access doesn't mean our audience in hell doesn't deserve quality!"

At Burning Man, even the damned get respect. Black Rock City exists only for a few weeks a year. At all other times it is a blank slate between mountains, an expanse of flat alkaline earth where nothing lives, nothing grows. Feeling the night wind rip its way into my skin through six layers of clothing, I can see why. As you enter the city, you feel you might be hallucinating. Cars, trucks, and tents waver on the horizon, blurred by the windblown dust. Thousands of water-laden immigrants arrive daily, the desert disappears and camps and art spring up. You look: there's dry, cracked earth. You blink - and it's become a shaded lounge complete with pool tables and hammocks. I spot what looks like a baseball card lying on a couch at my camp. It's a homemade trading card of one of the other residents of B.R.C., with his vital stats on the back. Included is the following quote from the pictured resident: "I may have been hallucinating, but that doesn't mean I didn't see it." At the end of the week, you have to believe in that wisdom. A lot of what you remember seeing has burned; a lot has been dismantled. Did you really walk by a replica of Disney's "It's A Small World" in the middle of the city? Was that buried ship a reality? Drugs have nothing to do with it. Burning Man itself is a temporary altered reality. But a reality it is.

Intermission between the shows of our rock 'em sock 'em doubleheader. Steve and I are moved by the heavy beat of the music blasting from our camp speakers, and jump on stage to waltz. As always, the drifters along the street clump at our corner to see the action on stage. Dancing on futons is hard work; we collapse in a heap. "Girl in the orange vest." I look up. An audience member has commandeered one of our megaphones. "Girl in the orange vest, that vest needs to go." Amused, I comply with a flourish. A girl in a plaid bodysuit snatches the megaphone from her neighbor. "Guy in the tutu, take off your tutu!" she shouts. Steve does a little number with his yellow tutu, teasing the audience and finally tossing it over his shoulder. Suddenly the demands increase. The crowd is growing. Are the spotlights brighter, or is it my imagination? "Take off your pants!" plaid bodysuit girl screams. Steve and I look at each other. I jerk my head toward camp. He nods, and we jump off the stage and run for cover. Later a guy approaches us. "Was that rehearsed?" he asks. "It was really good, a great show, guys."

At Burning Man the distinction blurs between real life and performance; as happened with the two girls on our stage, real life becomes performance, rehearsed or not. The Burning Man organizers emphasize that no spectators are allowed within the gates - only participants. It encourages awareness of your own potential for creativity. We are all performers, on stage or off. On stage you just tend to attract more of an audience.

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But of necessity we are all spectators too. Performance and art make up the heart of Burning Man, and taking it all in can occupy most of your days. On a typical afternoon in Black Rock City I would wake up to the sound of techno beats (some people never seem to sleep) and, after breakfast, hop on my bike to explore the city. Every day is different, with so many new people coming in and new camps going up. One day I applied for a soulmate at the Costco Soulmate Trading Outlet. I rode a giant spinning seesaw. While several costumed people on stilts paraded by, I watched a bald man stick five knitting needles a good five inches into his nose.

In the center of the city lies a vast open circle of desert, scattered with art installations and anchored by the imposing figure of the fifty-foot-tall man himself. No cars, no camps, just art springing up from the desert. It's amazing, seeing these complex structures and beautiful works of art that may have taken a full year's work to achieve - and so many, as the week concludes, burned at the hands of their creators. I can't even throw away ugly crayon drawings I made when I was seven. How do we so easily destroy the beauty we've created? Because we believe in the boundlessness of human creativity? Because fire is fun? Because by destroying it we protect it from the reality we must return to? Some people long to stay at Burning Man year-round. "This really isn't like a vacation," my friend Michael tells me. "It's an alternate life. I'm a different person here, and this is my community, just like Austin is my community in my other life." (Two weeks later, Michael is only grudgingly readjusting to his other life in Austin.) My friend Anisha pointed out to me that Burning Man can never be anything but temporary. "But that's the beauty of it," she said. It's like a flower - or, more appropriately, like a fire. Maybe its impermanence heightens its preciousness. Burning Man is not self-sustainable in the long term. There is no capitalist commerce at the staunchly anti-consumerist festival; every participant brings everything he or she needs for the entire week. Save for the one cafe in the center of the city where jonesing Californians can score their morning cappuccinos, gift-giving and bartering are the laws of the desert. When the ice cream truck floats its sweet tunes past your camp, you reach for the "Freezing Man" coupon you got for giving someone a backrub instead of digging out some bills. But when the fuel runs out - coolers empty, water jugs dry, and nothing left to burn - the city in the desert has to pack up and go back to its other homes, all across the country and the world.

No one really knows what the Man itself stands for. Some people have theories or stories they believe, others don't really care - they just enjoy the power of the image and the thrill of the burn. In that respect, the Man seems to be at least a good symbol for the festival itself. No one can really say what it all means, because it means something different to almost everyone. To some it means escaping the constraints of modern society and being free to walk around in purple body paint; or, on a grander scale, to live free of money, full of art. To others it's just a great party, deep meaning be damned. Like Damian's mom, every participant at Burning Man must feel at times a sense of wonder - this is, in fact, real life. It's just not the usual life; it's a reminder that life is only what we make it. Whether it's a religious experience or just a week of wild abandon, it's your own hallucination. But that doesn't mean it isn't real.

Julie Hollar is a freelance writer living in Austin. She is still trying to figure out what real life is. This article is reprinted from the Texas Observer.