To a certain degree, there’s an element of Animal Farm to Burning Man, which is fascinating in its tension with the event's purported goals. As the social order as it exists outside the burn is turned on its head, a new hierarchy emerges in its place, just as strong if not as permanent. To borrow language from the 60s for a minute: certain people lay their trip on you more aggressively on the playa than you’d find in the world of brands and mundane sociability we’re all apparently attempting to transcend. Playa rage? This is the “four legs are better than two” part. For people who are “not doing Burning Man right,” there’s a chance that they will have group-think forced upon them with more brutality than in the outside world.
This is where Burning Man’s dadist center seems to have been displaced. This weird binary was best expressed by a woman running a 'not-normal' activity on the Esplanade to a group that passed on her demands of participation: “You’re either a hater or a participator.”
Maybe people were ignoring her because, well, there were a thousand other folks out there who were also running the same exact not-normal activity, some of them doing it more interestingly than she.
On the flip side, if everyone is doing a similar thing, if everyone is wearing a costume, you could definitely argue for mass leveling of social roles and codes.
As sociologically liminal Burning Man can be, most folks there seem to be giving lip service to difference, like Americans going to France and starting to smoke because "that's what Europeans do."
Aesthetically, the event is pretty safe (albeit visually awesome, full of fire and diy genius). Where you really see this is in the music, your most constant companion on the playa. While Burning Man’s official publication puts bands like Mr. Bungle, Idiot Flesh, My Bloody Valentine and (we hope early) Marilyn Manson in its top-11 list, in reality you’re going to have to search hard if you want to get away from 4/4 electronic pop.
In ’98, Idiot Flesh played the Playa. In 2009 it’s impossible to imagine their current iteration, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, playing there. In theory, with their avant-metal and classic-prog twists, masterfully theatrical live shows, post-human stylings and homemade instruments, they’re “a perfect Burning Man band.”
But, as much as many burners think they’re seeing the world turned on its heard on the playa, it’s fundamentally a pretty small world that’s been turned only a a degree or two . . . and that's not even bringing socioeconomic questions into play. It's not cheap.
The thing about Burning Man is, you can feel the punk ethos everywhere, the ethos from which it sprung (post coming soon – I’m writing this stuff totally out of order). But at the same time it’s so hard to find today.
Burning Man is an indelibly fantastic experience, a piece of sublimity I’ll remember for the rest of my life, one that I hope to return to again and again. I just wish that there were more people by and for whom the dada-in-motion was originally built visible at the event. As a new burner, it’s impossible to know how the event has been diluted as it has grown. As an old culture nerd – and even older cynic – I have a feeIing I pretty much know.
Sometimes you only need action. No need to explain to everyone what you’re doing. Maybe we’ll figure it out on our own. Maybe we never will.
I can be totally wrong about this, and I really hope I am. Burning Man is so vast that it's impossible to find even the tiniest portion of what the city holds. If you disagree with this, or know any great camps it sounds like I missed, please let me know. I'm still parsing this whole thing out.
Playa Nights 1 - Utopia, Primitive and Carnivalesque
(Photos: Aline Biasini)