You are walking across the cracked plain of the Black Rock Desert. There's not a tree or shrub in sight. It's 110° at midday and the white horizon trembles in the heat. The sky, a molten dome, is too painful to look at. Your water has run out and pretty soon you'll die. Ready to collapse, you hear a faint buzzing sound and see in the distance a cloud of dust coming towards you. As the buzzing gets louder the dust ball transforms into a dayglo convertible with welded shark fins. A troupe of naked green figures are hanging out of the car and the one with the pink antennae beckons you to jump in. 'C'mon,' she shouts over the blaring cyber-techno, 'we've only got ten minutes before the Butt Art Contest begins!'. No you're not hallucinating, you've just found the Burning Man.
It is easier to say what Burning Man isn't, than what it is. It's not a music festival(but there is plenty of music). It's not a hippy gathering(but you're sure to see a few). It's not an anarchist's convention(city slickers mix with fire-breathers and jugglers). If you want a definition, call it a 'post-modern quasi-spiritual neo-bacchanalian pyro-erotic burn-orama'.
The event began in 1986 when founder Larry Harvey and a gathering of friends burnt a ten-foot human figure on a San Franciscan beach. This year's Burning Man is estimated to attract over 20,000 participants, and The Man has grown to over 50 foot. The vast makeshift encampment of tents, vehicles, stages and marquees, known as Black Rock City, will cover three square miles. The area within these boundaries represents a blank canvas, a space that has been likened to the internet for its potential as a forum, far from corporate influence, where individuals can express themselves freely. From luminous body painting to elaborate floats and futuristic sculptures, alternative theatre and impromtu performance art, spontaneous carnivals and late-night sound systems. Art is made by the community, for the community, and is ritually burnt or dismantled at the end of the week so that every year the canvas of Burning Man - and the desert - is returned to its original pristine blankness.
The promoters are keen to impress on us that this is not a 'festival'. It is a 'temporary community dedicated to radical self-expression and radical self-reliance'. As an experience, Burning Man is an explosion of performance art and wacky exhibitionism led under the banner of 'participation only, no spectators'. You just need to glance at the official website with all its anti-consumerist talk of 'gift-giving' and 'sacred communities' to realise that beneath the paint are some pretty solid ethics. Not a hippy event, Forbes magazine noted that some of the US 's leading Internet companies gave their employees time of to go and whoop-it-up at Burning Man. A time and place where the overworked can let it all hang out(having painted it first), where the jaded worker can escape the soul-less alienation of modern living. Burning Man is a thoroughly American reaction to a thoroughly American predicament. Burning Man is therapy.
The event runs a strict no-vending policy, and anyone caught exchanging goods for cash is ejected(one man's currency was a bag of lighters - each one came with a tiny U.S. flag to be symbolically burnt). You are expected to bring everything you need for the week - tents, food, water(lots of it). Cars are banned from the interior unless they have been registered as 'art-cars'. This has encouraged participants to develop their own bizarre and inventive forms of transport - fantastically customised bicycles, rickshaws, pushcarts and manual floats. Motorised sofas and elephants on wheels are the norm here.
Black Rock City is laid out like a flattened amphitheatre, with The Man at the front-centre surrounded by the 'playa' - a large open space where creators play with their lumbering anthropomorphic creations. Avenues lead off from the playa like spokes on a wheel. Every year Burning Man has a theme and this year is 'The Body'(plenty of room for some interesting interpretations there). People go to great lengths in creating an 'environment' on their plot of land. These can range from an imitation suburban garden(complete with astroturf, hammocks and free cocktails) to a futuristic temple with pews, altars and a cyber-priest delivering absurd public sermons.
On the last night the great human effigy, The Man, is burnt(as well as most of the sculptures) and San Francisco 's biggest sound systems rock the City until the sun rises. And then some.
At Burning Man partying is an art... and art is a party.Official Burning Man Website: www.burningman.com