I've been feeling pretty ready for my big trip to Burning Man. We're driving thorough the Nevada desert (perfect soundtrack discovered: the Chromatics album), and I'm wowing my recently introduced campmates with some piece of Burning Man knowledge I've previously picked up. 'I'll be honest with you guys, I've already been doing a lot of reading up about this music festival', I say, allowing a smug smile to briefly dart across my face.
'Well, don't call it a music festival, for a start', snaps back the reply.
As is often quoted, 'Trying to explain what Burning Man is to someone who has never been to the event is a bit like trying to explain what a particular color looks like to someone who is blind', but allow me to attempt the basics: Burning Man is a truly vast arts and community festival, a seven day experiment in radical self-reliance held on a swelteringly hot ancient lake bed in the Nevada desert.
Burning Man, or 'home', as regulars warmly refer to it, sits far apart from the rest of the US's festival scene, so amongst many attendees there's a reluctance to even call the event a festival. Europeans, however, are much more likely to find familiarity is the diverse range of art, entertainment, talks and quirky side attractions that make up Burning Man, so let's call the event what it is: a festival.
There is much to separate it from its major festival stablemates, however. Firstly, I'm not an attendee at this festival, I'm a participant. Our 13-strong group has put together the theme camp Barechested Baristas, and every afternoon we are barechested - men and women, alas - serving our delicious iced coffees to the Burning Man masses.
Significantly, all this delightful caffeine is offered free of charge. No money is permitted at Burning Man, the festival instead employing what it calls a gifting economy. It takes me a while to not get this confused with an exchange economy. In an exchange economy, I give you a delicious iced coffee (you gain something), but you give me an item or money in exchange (you lose something). It's a win-lose scenario. In a gift economy, I give you iced coffee (you gain something), and I feel a really warm glow in my heart for doing so (I gain something). It's a win-win scenario. Replicating this across seven days, and 70,000 people means you've got an awful lot of winning going on, and across the festival site people tend to exist within a permanent bubble of happiness. Certainly, long time 'Burners' I talk to throughout the week say they started enjoying the festival exponentially more once they became participants. An incomprehensible thing about Burning Man is the people who will spend all year, and significant portions of their income, on, say, the art car they're bringing to Burning Man. Or the people that design and build one of the 250+ officially recognised artworks dotted across the site. Or simply the people that will just drop a shit ton of money on running a free bar all week.
Not that a week in the desert is all love and hugs, mind. Setting up our camp (kitchen, dome lounge, giant shade structure to house all our tents) and ensuring it can withstand the harshest of desert sandstorms takes a full day of hard graft, during which I massively endear myself to my new campmates by crashing out asleep three hours before everything is finished. Throughout the day, the amount of people screaming with excitement because they've spotted friends from previous years is astounding.
The following day, I cycle out (protip: bring a bike. Light it and lock it. Two of our seven bikes get stolen over the course of the week) to the entrance gates for some further participation: I am volunteering for a four hour greeter shift in the midday heat, welcoming everybody 'home', initiating first time attendees in a way that I won't detail here (but suffice to say that we were pleasingly encouraged to make it up as we went along), and generally being the kind of cheerful irritant that would wind people up so much in London.
Ahh yes, that place. We socialise people hard in London. No talking to strangers, looking at people on public transport, being friendly in shops, or acting in any way cheerful or upbeat about the day ahead. Stepping from this into Burning Man's focus on radical inclusion and immediacy, where you welcome all strangers with a hug and your immediate trust, is a jarring gear change, and one that that I do not successfully make in just one day. It's the image people that haven't been to Glastonbury imagine for that event. Out here, it's real.
The bewildering number of side attractions across the site only adds to the overwhelming feel of the event. Amongst all the art installations, theme camps, talks, sound camps, workshops, and various unannounced oddities ('Armpit Smelling Booth', anyone?) waiting to be discovered, there's a lot of spiritual workshops, yoga classes, and quirky installations to choose from. Plenty of sex, too. BDSM in particular seems to be having a popular year, and we are camped next to the 200-person 'Poly Paradise' camp. They run the 'Human Carcass Wash', where you cup your soapy hand, and wash a load of naked bodies, before in turn getting to be the person to have a load of cupped hands wash your naked body.
I presume the 'Skyping With Grandma' event will be just as fun as any of that. Run by a "human powered internet cafe", I get condescending advice, bunion complaints, and technological incompetence from a real life grandma (20-something male in a wig, holding a cardboard cut-out of a screen). The folk running 'Write Your Future Self A Letter', meanwhile, allow you to do just that, and they promise to mail it to you 1, 2, 5 or 10 years later.
Always fancying myself as the next Example, I also give Haiku Rap Battles a go. As the only person going to the effort to write down their haikus before taking to the stage, I'm confident the crowd with respond with hearty cheers and lols. What I get instead is silence, with the odd pocket of confused laughter.
All the cycling and finely spread entertainment means you never get the swirling, immovable crowds that your average Glastonbury goer regularly does battle with. It's not the only difference. Glastonbury for a few years now has tried, with little success, to impart a 'Leave No Trace' message. Here, the message gets through, and to a startling extent. Nothing - not so much as a flick of cigarette ash - is dropped on the playa floor.
Music wise, Burning Man shows signs of beginning an upward trajectory, and things have apparently improved after a couple of years of what is described to me as 'Skrillex every five minutes'. The overwhelming music trend seems to be bass music, mind, and it occasionally takes a fair effort to find a music camp that deviates from this norm.
Over the course of the week, the one DJ I make an effort to find out the name of is Stylust Beats, who plays Camp Question Mark on Friday night. Rather than a teeth grinding 60 minute set of pure trap music on offer across so much of Black Rock City, he successfully weaves the more inventive material the genre has to offer around the kind of party playlist that would set any clubnight alight. It's one of the best atmospheres all week.
I spy an afternoon talk called 'Sex, Drugs and Electronic Music', which sounds like an excellent combination. Arriving late, the speaker is asking the audience 'How many people here believe we are birthing a new world?' Oh. Okay. Half the audience raise their hands. Right. Faintly hope I'm at the wrong talk? There's plenty of discussion about consent (which I am all for, incidentally. Just putting that out there), a little about sensible use of drugs, and nothing whatsoever about electronic music.
The speaker begins an exercise: we are to stand, wander around, and when she says stop, we are to immediately connect with the person nearest us. I 'connect' with another man, also as it happens, visiting from South London. We are instructed to share with each other our hope for the world. 'Creativity' he enthusiatically offers up. 'The basic goodness of the human heart', I manage to come up with, whilst successfully keeping a straight face. He seems satisfied and engaged by this answer. We are then told to share our medicine for the world with each other. 'Kindness' he quite reasonably suggests. 'Errr, the basic goodness of the human heart...?' I return with. This is deemed a satisfactory answer, although there's some acknowledgement that we're both essentially saying the same thing. He hugs me, and we're allowed to return to our places. There's some further talk about how 'we need to reclaim the solidarity of our connections', and 'let our emotions flow freely down through our bodies and into the earth', before we are finally free to go.
Not that it's all hippies at Burning Man. There's ravers, California's high fashion set, your nerdy music fan, a few jock types, loads of over 40s, and many of the greats of Silicon Valley are in attendance. You still occasionally come across the type of person you'd never want at a festival though. One member of our camp, Jessy, is walking her bike along the road one afternoon when a guy cycles past her and, with a confidence in his own hilarity sadly not matched by his material, shouts at her 'you're supposed to ride it'. Jessy somewhat understandably dislikes this. He cycles on in front of her, before suddenly losing his balance, falling off his bike, and collapsing in a heap. Jessy calmly walks her bike past him, turns around, and calls back 'you're supposed to ride it'.
Also not fitting the Burning Man stereotype are the brilliant, vicious rockers that put on the Mad Max inspired Thunderdome. Inside, they suspend two contestants in harnesses, pull them back, then fire them at each other armed with pugil sticks, whilst the baying crowd erupts. The weaponry is virtually inconsequential - the rules seem to be anything goes. On one occasion two young female festival-goers are fighting and the bout ends with one manically rallying the crowd whilst treating her opponent as a human surfboard. On several occasions battles end with blood splatted on the sand below. Throughout, the audience watch not just around the Thunderdome, but climb up the structure from all sides, in order to gain the chance of seeing each battle commence.
It's one of the things that is most remarkable about Burning Man: a pleasing disregard for health and safety legislation. Several times throughout the week you may find your group dancing late at night atop some shimmering art work, and you will think 'one wrong move here, and I am a seriously injured festival-goer'. Your safety is your own responsibility, a point somewhat hammered home by the fact that the back of your festival ticket states that ticket holders voluntarily assume all liability in the case of their own death whilst at the event.
Which, in such a harsh environment, means that every attendee must practice what the festival calls radical self-reliance. You take entire responsibility for your own well being. Everybody is more than welcome to climb that 30 foot ladder, then carefully climb up on top of the roof to be able to lie back and stare over Black Rock City, but if you put a foot wrong and fall to the ground, you've only got yourself to blame. Radical self-reliance also means that everybody must bring every single thing they may need to survive for a week in the desert environment along to the festival with them, including for example, 1.5 gallons of water per person, per day.
Feeling all too settled by midweek, I overindulge on Wednesday night, and fail to take responsibility for my own safety. Whilst at a nearby camp to our own, I am unable to work out where I am, unable to make it home, and oddly unwilling to seek help for the matter. I wake up hours later in a separate camp, without memory of how I got there, or my bag. I have failed to practice radical self-reliance. The bag's contents include my UK passport, and five days of notes for this article. I spend 90 minutes searching nearby camps without luck. Each day I queue at Lost & Found to ask if it's been handed in. It never is.
I consider myself to be reasonably knowledgeable about dance music, but scanning the lineup before the festival, there appears to be just three DJs I have heard of: Paul Oakenfold, Seth Troxler, and Elite Force, and I'm not really sure how I've heard of Elite Force. This is perhaps unsurprising - it's down to the non-profit sound camps to try and book big names, and a couple of the major camps don't show up this year. Any veteran will tell you this is not the point of Burning Man, however. And for the kind of music fan that usually spends the whole of, say, Glastonbury darting all over the site like a headless chicken, the opportunity to spend an aimless week in the desert is an appreciated one.
There are unannounced sets, mind, and Diplo shows up as both a solo DJ ('superb', reportedly) and in his Major Lazer guise ('awful', reportedly). Paul Oakenfold is the only appointment we keep all week, though. 45 minutes into the set however, and it's all seeming a little pedestrian. It's at this point that a rumour spreads around our group that he cancelled at the last minute. We have no idea if we're dancing to a perfectly serviceable unknown trance DJ, or a somewhat unimaginative Oakenfold set. Either way, we leave. In the early hours of the morning, friends who stayed announce Oakenfold later showed up, and played a blinding set. I'm fairly gutted. They are in a jubilant mood. Later on that afternoon, I'm told that no, Oakenfold never did show up. Then I'm just confused. I still have no idea what happened.
'The only thing worse than attending a Doctor Who party at Burning Man, is publicly admitting it', a friend tells me. So I opt to only go for an hour. The tasty, strong sonic screwdriver cocktails are freeflowing. Three girls come dressed as sexy TARDISes. A guy asks one 'are you bigger on the inside?' 'Yes, and available for public use!', she cheerfully retorts. We also grab a drink at the Dead Celebrity's Champagne Disco, where you are encouraged to dress as your favourite dead celebrity, and enjoy all the drinks they can't any more. The 'Critical Tits' bikeride, meanwhile, sees a couple of thousand women take a topless cycle on mass around the playa. I think I can say with confidence that it's the most amount of topless women I've ever seen within a five minute period.
I spot a session called 'Speed Counselling', which sounds like good fun. In a speed dating format, you'll have five minutes to co-council with someone before DING!, the bell rings and you're on to the next person. What a nice afternoon activity that will be! What a fun format! I arrive, and settle in. The event is certainly busy. We are encouraged to really go for it and make the most of the opportunity, and to seek a moment of immediate resolution. I council five people, and then are counselled by five. And obviously, it is the exact fucking opposite of fun. I have to talk about emotions! For a full 25 minutes! I'm male and live in England, the most I've ever spoken about emotions is for three seconds in hospital in 2006 when a doctor asked me if my arm was still hurting. Even then three seconds seemed a little indulgent. Here though, everybody is sharing very deeply felt problems and emotions. There's one hell of a lot of people in tears (all except one guy, who spends his five minutes telling me about the psychology book he's about to have published, and is agonising over whether to put a photo of himself on the front cover or not). It's traumatic, but it's also a brilliant hour. I leave a nervous wreck.
All through the week there's a sense of escalation. The festival always feels like it's building to a climax. On Tuesday, paragliders can be seen descending on the festival, before landing amongst passers by on the wide open playa. I witness one land, and the nearest person to him immediately runs up, puts a beer in his hand, and promptly walks off again. On Wednesday and Thursday the same paragliders have grown long colourful ribbon tails as they cascade down from the sky. By Friday night their tails have become fireworks leaving a trail behind in the sky.
All this escalation is building to one thing. With no main stage to speak of, Burning Man feels like it doesn't have a focal point to concentrate your mind - or media attention - on. Instead, the festival offers a thousand different stories happening simultaneously across the site. A thousand moments of awe, pain, laughs being shared, or perhaps lives being changed. The exception to this rule is the final night. The whole festival gathers around the iconic Man that sits at the centre of the site, to watch as he is finally, spectacularly burnt. Much of what overwhelms about this experience is perhaps because, after everybody here has had such an intense, yet disparate week from each other, the whole festival is finally together as one. It certainly provides a more exciting climax to a festival then, say, Mumford & Sons headlining your final night.
Burning Man is one hell of an ordeal. There were certainly lows, but there was also countless highs. Its beauty, its weirdness, its vibrancy, and its constant, unfaltering welcome. It's truly a unique way to spend a week. Name me a better festival.
Photos by Gabrielle Houeix
Mark Muldoon tweets silly, inconsequential things here.