Utopia & Literature

…with a pinch of journalism!

The Burning Man March 14, 2010

The Burning Man

Utopia, art and survival in the desert

text: Carolina Souza photos: Caton Raintree-Hegwer  


Community, participation, self-expression and self-reliance are the laws that set of the guidelines for this unique annual experiment capable of gathering over forty-eight thousand people – numbers from the October 2007 edition – prepared to live in a surrealistic alternative society in the middle of the desert for nine whole days. Besides getting the most distinct and elaborate modern artistic manifests together in the same place, the biggest temporary city in the world: Black Rock City (Nevada, USA) also aspires to encourage the integration of all people by creating an unconventional world culture.

It all began in 1986, when a little more than half a dozen youthful locals turned a wooden man into a celebration fire in a small west coast beach, on the bay of San Francisco, California. Ever since then, the group of people who give life to this modern utopia only gets bigger and bigger.

Idealized and projected by the young American artist Larry Harvey, the Burning Man is today a multimillionaire organization. It is also an eclectic worldwide community that belongs to the cultural expression of all those present to the event.

Willing to unify all artistic demonstrations, every new edition has a guiding theme. Having in mind the ecological conscience as an alert to the effects of the misuse and waste of earth’s natural resources, the topic suggested in 2007 was The Green Man, below follows its story.

The biggest temporary city in the world doesn’t last long for the public, but the production crew’s work extends to several months before and after the event. All due to the fact that the desert must stay as clean as it was before everyone got there, without any trace of human pollution, since it’s a protected environmental area. If any kind of trash is found around Black Rock City, the festival’s license may be revoked by the government. Every year the BM traditionally ends on Labor Day.

The 2008 edition was themed The American Dream, the 2009 was Evolution and the upcoming one will be Metropolis. Every year the main art projects respond to one specific theme. That makes every new event unique in its own special way. It’s another world, it’s another life, but how long will it last?



Filed under: The Burning Man — Carolina Souza Raintree-Hegwer @ 02:58
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After a stressful afternoon gathering the necessary, paying special attention to the unnecessary, we left Garden Valley – a quiet, but charming little California town up in the mountains – on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Our destination: Black Rock City, to be built by us in the middle of Nevada’s desert lands – close to the Sin City; and also not to far away from it.

What an isolated place! Maybe just as remote as the farm where Pink Floyd’s guitarist hid during his secluded years. Literally in the middle of nowhere, not ever cactus grow on this desert, 47,366 people build up and take down an entire city in just nine days. In the meantime they make it their homes, managing to live in complete harmony with one another with no need for the most basic modern resources, like plumbing, electricity, mobile phones and of course, the Internet. And, above all, they are totally absent from the capitalistic world we live in (or free from it).

A few decades old but holding on like a Rolling Stone, our blue bus – which was once a typical yellow school bus full of little kids, and now transformed into a hanging out room over wheels – transports seven burners into the parallel world of wonders, also known as the art festival for all kinds of imaginations: The Burning Man.

Our driver is almost a warrior, sober as a lizard after hours toasting in the boiling sun. He worried about the road conditions, fuel and the jammed traffic on the front gates while the rest of us drank atomic watermelons (Vodka+Sugar in a Watermelon) and sang Sublime songs in between the tales of some old Burning Man memories. We were all ready for a long drive, since our blue bus can’t go over 40m/h, not even downhill.

Ten hours later – in a regular vehicle, it wouldn’t be more than four – we can start to see the BRC lights sparkling in the distance. In half an hour we got through the front gates, only because we’re early on, arriving on the first opening night, tomorrow the same trajectory may take up to five fun hours.

Hundreds of signs with funny commentaries entertain everyone who waits on line to get to the city’s welcoming doors. The arriving ceremony is the first step to make you dive into the mood of this strange society. First visit to BRC? You’re a virgin! And will get an enthusiastic invitation to come down from your vehicle and perform two tasks: Ring a loud iron church bell and then roll on the ground to get to know the dear PLAYA – loving nickname given to the thin desert’s sandy dust.

We parked our bus on Boreal St. at 7:00 and started to build up our camp site. Aiming for the easy navigation, the city was projected in a shape similar to an old-fashioned clock, in a way that the hours cut the internal roads that go from A to L, like rings inside this circle. The first internal street is called Esplanade, and that’s where most of the theme camps are concentrated. With the will to preserve the beautiful view of the desert’s immensity, four hours of that clock are open into the mountains, nothing big is usually in the way, and that gives BRC a final silhouette similar to the letter C.

The Esplanade goes around the playa, which is the internal free circle with something like 8km from side to side. Fifty colossal and interactive art projects are spread all over it. Exactly in the middle, on top of a 15m structure is the man of the festival.

Everything here goes from art to ashes. Traditionally, right after the man burns on Friday, all other big art projects transform into enormous fires in a frenetic festival of astonishing colorful flames.




Filed under: The Burning Man — Carolina Souza Raintree-Hegwer @ 02:57
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If your world is black and white here you’ll find some color. They are, undoubtedly, what’s the most impressive in this desert. The days are unexplainably vibrating and sunny, while the sky becomes more infinitely blue with every new passing hour. Framed by the soaring light brown mountains the bluest skies I’ve ever seen are painted with shiny white clouds that draw abstractions just as Picasso would in a constantly mutating canvas, the most unpredictable piece of art on the playa.

The nights are magical, lightened by lamps and neon lights in the most bizarre shapes, colors and sizes. At BM darkness has no chance, thanks to the gigantic blazing moon that lights everybody up with its blue moonlight. An eclipse of the moon and the aurora boreal surprise all eyes, bound to be hypnotized by the blows and glows of BRC.




Filed under: The Burning Man — Carolina Souza Raintree-Hegwer @ 02:56
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When the boiling sun blesses us with the grace of its appearance, at the latest at seven in the morning, it kicks everyone out of their beds, tents, trailers and camps. Those who decide to keep on sleeping are doomed to drown n their own sweat. The light outside is so bright it’s almost blinding. Of course you can also find some that turn night into day and are still on the same last night’s party.

From multicolor circus tents to huge globes, animal outlines to Homeric-sized human silhouettes, Barbie’s death camp with more than 5 thousand disfigured dolls to Peter Pan’s Gay Neverland, from a place where everyone dresses as bunnies to play on a Bunny Band to the nudist transsexual community, from all the crazy camps to the family ones, and even a Samba camp with dancing lessons every other hour – the welcoming Brazilian culture was strongly portrayed in the event, the Samba circles (Rodas de Samba) and Capoeira had a special spot on Center Camp, the place with the most flow of people in BM.

The best moment to try and understand the guide When & Where (which is given to everyone at the front gates, and can also be downloaded ahead of time from the website http://www.burningman.com) is right after having a very filling breakfast, on that high rush of energy, because if you take too long to decide how to fill up your day, the exhaustion of not moving in the desert heat will quickly consume your sunlight hours. You got to keep on moving to feel the wind!

Almost a hundred pages filled up with events, there’s always something going on anytime of the day and night. Everyone is inviting anyone who wants to join their elaborate and intriguing happenings, intended for all imaginable tastes. It’s a warming and remarkable adventure, totally different and impartially insolent.

In between many others, the events described on the guide When & Where go from body painting to come learn how to do a perfect blowjob, from the annual fairy circle to a workshop called “discover the monkey in you”, from free breakfast with bacon to elaborate drinks, to meditation lessons to help recording a short-movie, from dance lessons to tarot readings, from poetry encounters to tattoo studios, from erotic massage to yoga, from the rehearsal for the eclipse ceremony to the collective breathing exercises, from lingerie happy hour to the fifteen minutes of daily recycling, from Christian events to Hare Krishna walks, and even a phone booth where God himself is supposedly on the other side of the line answering your questions – or just trying to confuse you!



Filed under: The Burning Man — Carolina Souza Raintree-Hegwer @ 02:55
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It’s all about illumination. Whoever walks along the playa during the nights carries some kind of glow stick or small light around their wrists, necks, waist, hanging from their clothes and, of course, some other different colorful lamps attached to theirs bicycles. All those are self-required measures to prevent collisions and traffic accidents.

In downtown BRC you can see some fires and their small cherries dancing up on smoke, warming all burners that enjoy the wonders of the festival during the refreshing night breeze. It’s impossible to get lost, and easy to memorize your favorites from the enormous sculptures, art projects and camps highly decorated with neon lights that shine in all colors all over the playa.

Walking towards the biggest stage on the playa we can see four gigantic metallic cylinders shooting fire into the sky every other minute or so, that, inevitably gave anyone walking close enough to it goosebumps. It warms you up to the soul!

The mutant vehicles, or cars, can be easily found even from miles away due to their distinctly colored luminous outlines. Some burners seize the days, other the nights, it all depends on your state of mind and on how you plan on enjoying your BM experience.

Frankly, the nights belong to the outrageously crazy ones; and the days, let’s say they are ruled by the passionately crazy ones, since being referred to as normal might just be the most disrespectful thing to say about a burner



Filed under: The Burning Man — Carolina Souza Raintree-Hegwer @ 02:54
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The dust storms can last from fifteen minutes to a couple hours. They make the air heavy and dusty, of course. Walking on the playa during one may be extremely uncomfortable and even kind of dangerous without taking the minimal precautions. A simple paper face mask will do the trick or even an oxygen mask for the more neurotic types. It’s completely impossible to open your eyes with all that wind blowing from all directions, a pair of goggles is like a piece of heaven’s equipment for facing the dust storms, and it’s surely one of the number one items in all burner’s wardrobes.

Your eyes can only see what your arms can reach, that means it’s a little hard to see something that’s further than one feet away from your face. It feels like walking in between a labyrinth of dust clouds. The security advice is not to drive during storms, park your bike and look for shelter.

All that’s not protected will be hit by the 80km/h wind, and impregnated by all the dust it blows along the desert. But in spite of all the cons, walking around BRC during a dust storm for the first time is more exciting than watching Dorothy’s house being taken by a tornado in the Wizard of Oz. Also, the gracious dancing sand spirals, little dust devils, form themselves less than a couple feet away from you, and then disappear like magic after a few seconds.

When the strong wind finally looses its breath, the blue sky begins to show from behind the dark clouds. Traces are left everywhere by this relentless force of nature, all camps are covered by a thick layer of playa, and there’s always someone running after something that was gone with the wind.



Filed under: The Burning Man — Carolina Souza Raintree-Hegwer @ 02:54
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In the whole history of mankind, recreational drugs were never reported to be consumed as much as nowadays, not even during the hippie explosion of the Aquarius Era in the sixties. We blame the illicit substances culture on violence, on the marginalization of the lower social classes and, principally, on international drug traffic. Well, there’s no market for sellers without any buyers, it’s the simplest business concept. Just like there’s no target audience interested in products that aren’t advertised on television shows, movies or magazines. A good example is: turning teenage actor’s heavy drug addictions into trivial daily news also makes the fact something insignificant, or on the worse case scenario, it’s portrayed in such a way that it unfortunately turns into an example to be followed by less educated minds. Nevertheless its interesting to put on the table the fact that the only country in the world in which all drugs are legal is also one of the places with the smallest amount of addicts, they’re mostly tourists visiting The Netherlands – Holland.

We can find in BM mad people from all tribes and peculiarities, legal and illegal: from the surreal world of the mushrooms to the psychedelic strawberry fields of the lysergic acid, from the most diverse paranoid freaks to the Rastafarian peace herb, the great dominating alcohol smoothing shy people’s personalities, pills of all kinds to create and knock down all types of psychoses… You can even accidentally run into a barefoot mad-hatter pouring magic tea from his colorful teapot into willing burners mouths that occasionally cruise by his confusing corner.

The festival encourages and defends all types of freedom, without any moral restrictions. So nothing you do nor any legal or illegal drug you ingest will make you any better or worse in this utopical non-hierarchy. Just to clarify a small detail, carrying illegal substances is still considered a crime, and yes, the American government has jurisdiction over BRC, so be careful, or be clean.

In spite of the presence of many mood altering substances, the festival is not guided by them. The event projects a bigger magnitude of inquiring into the status quo that goes beyond drugs; but is still not evolved enough to be free from them.