Burning Time: Begoggled in the Mega-Vibe @ Burning Man by Graham St John

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photo by Kyle Hailey

Photo: Kyle Hailey

1 > Metaraving: Bright Lights and Sweet Spots

Burning Man, the annual festival held on the vast canvas of an ancient lake bed (called the "playa") in the Black Rock Desert, northwestern Nevada. As an unparalleled universe of radical self-expression and non-dogmatic ritual initiated on San Francisco’s Baker Beach by Larry Harvey and Jerry James in 1986, Burning Man would become, following its transition to the Black Rock Desert in 1990, an outlandish pilgrimage center for alternative art and performance communities in the Bay Area, the West Coast, across the US, and around the world. The event is backed by decades of Californian freaklore. In his discussion of the “cults of Burning Man”, Erik Davis (2005: 17) outlines “cultural patterns” manifesting in this “promiscuous carnival of souls, a metaphysical fleamarket, a demolition derby of reality constructs colliding in a parched void”. Refractions of Californian spiritual counterculture more generally, these milieus of participant gravitation—the Cult of Experience, the Cult of Intoxicants, the Cult of Flicker, the Cult of Juxtapose, and the Cult of Meaningless Chaos—are cultures of performance and praxis overlapping with on-site vibe tribes, and their variant styles.

With a diverse array of musics ranging from neo-tribal rhythms to breakbeat, hip hop to lofty intelligent soundscapes alongside jazz and punk rock etc, as Robert Kozinets and John Sherry (2004: 289) point out, “multiple musics demarcate, blend and merge on geographic boundaries, spilling into one another … pooling into pure concentrations near encamped banks of speakers”. In this staged city such may coincide with the concentrations of responsibility constituted in Dionysian, outlaw, exile, avant-garde, spiritual and other vectors emerging within electronic dance music culture and gaining admission to this outland. As an ocean of vibes orchestrated and nurtured by “tribes” trained in these “cultic” practices and amplifying variant audiotronics, this vast counter-matrix appears as a miscegeny of bright lights and sweet spots, a sonic hyper-liminal zone like that which I experienced on my initial visit to Black Rock City in 2003 when I camped with the crew at Low Expectations right by the House of Lotus dance camp.

 




Burning Man was and never will be a “rave”. Yet its status as “the ultimate metarave” (the phrase comes from tireless media producer and impressario Michael Gosney who initiated San Francisco's Digital Be-Ins) seems to have solidified in recent years. In 2006, the year of my most recent Burn, the evidence was manifest in the wake of the torching of the 40 foot figure—the city’s limit experience which sees most of its inhabitants and hundreds of “art cars” encircle the blazing Man, with the scene approximating the Drive-in At the End of Time. Packed with fireworks and mortar-rockets, the towering icon cascades with sparks and bursts apart in a spectacular series of detonations, its demise willed by the bold and the sumptuous who've arrived in their tens of thousands. Kozinets and Sherry (2004: 293) suggest that “like many elements of post-rave, the burning of the Man opens up opportunities to embody a popular dance orgiasm facilitated by modern technologies”. Following the burn in 2006 I realized what they meant, for I found myself amidst mobile dance camps who’d unloaded their systems equipment, in one case go go cages, and were pumping bass and breaks across the alkaline desert night, attracting thousands of Burners wired-up and el-wired.

 

photo by Scott London

This post-burn tradition goes back to 1997 to the unassumingly named “Community Dance” event. Operated by Gosney’s Radio-V, San Francisco’s Anon Salon along with the pioneer Howard St warehouse party collective the Consortium of Collective Consciousness (CCC), Dimension 7 and LA’s Tonka sound system (not to be confused with the original UK outfit by that name), that event featured trance progenitor Goa Gil (who played for 7 hours).

But standing tall beyond this was the most outlandish scene of all: “Uchronia” an installation 200 feet long, 100 feet wide and 50 feet tall, funded by Belgian artists and built using rejected timber from a Canadian lumber mill by dozens of volunteers. Used in the title of Charles Renouvier’s 1876 novel Uchronie (L’Utopie dans l’histoire) and replacing topos (place) from ‘utopia’ (which literally means ‘no place’) with chronos (time) to generate a word that literally means no time, “uchronic” refers to an “alternate history” that enables its observers to question their reality. For its creators, Uchronia was a “portal, showing us what the world could be like if creativity ruled supreme” and time is hung differently. What one observer in the San Francisco Chronicle described as a “giant’s haystack twisted into a computer model of a wave with curved entrances on three sides”, was thus an intentional parallel-world posing the question to its occupants (“Uchronians”) in the fashion alternate histories pose for their readers: “what if?” And the principal activity within this time-machine, this spatio-temporal question mark in which most were undoubtedly oblivious to its meaning intellectually yet might have understood viscerally? With the desert night a welcome reprieve from the frying sun and white-outs, its occupants bathed in neon-green light, what would become more widely known as “the Belgian Waffle” was a dance club. And of course, on the final night, it burned.


uchronia

With its image seared into my retinas for almost a week, Uchronia became a cavernous conflagration, an allegory of impermanence, the flaming whispers of which engulfed all who bore witness. In the wake of its desolation, on the celebratory margins of its dissolution, sensual acts of beauty transpired in blinking conclaves upon the playa. In its remarkably short life, surely one of the most spectacular clubs ever created.


One of the other huge structures on the playa in 2006 was the Connexus Cathedral, which was a dance club over the main nights.
Photos by Scott London and Steve Fritz.

2 > The Techno Ghetto

But it wasn’t always like this. What was then known as “rave” music was first amplified at Burning Man in 1992 when a small “rave camp” appeared a mile from the main encampment, “glomming parasitically”, according to Brian Doherty’s account in This is Burning Man: The Rise of a New American Underground (2004: 66), “onto the Porta-Johns.” The camp was organized by Craig Ellenwood of the early Oakland acid party crew Mr Floppy’s Flophouse. The headline act was Goa Gil, who played from Aphex Twin’s “Digeridoo” on digital audio tape to no more than 25 people. Also playing to hardly anybody were Brad Tumbleweed, Dave Synthesis (aka “Dsyn”), Craig and Terbo Ted. Terbo Ted has the mantle of being the first person to DJ at Burning Man. Ted informed me that in 1992 he “played on Friday afternoon to literally no one, with only ten miles of dust in front of me. It was awesome”. While he can’t recall it with precision, the first track played was some “spacey stuff” from a Jean Michel Jarre 12 inch from Craig Ellenwood’s record pile, “a record he was willing to sacrifice to the elements … it was literally a sound check” (ibid). Here is a link to a short excerpt from Terbo Ted’s live acid techno set in 1995, which was the first electronic music recorded at Burning Man to be released on CD (“Turbine time” on Shag).

Burning Man, 1995 CCC.

These years were sparse to say the least. As Charles A. Gadeken reported in 1993: "I remember going out to the rave camp, it was five guys, a van, a couple of big speakers, a card board box covered in tin foil, colored lights and a strobe light. It was all cool". But the reception was generally less than enthusiastic. Ted recalls how the punk (add your own prefix: anarcho, cyber, steam, shotgun, etc) sensibilities predominating held DJ culture complicit with “consumer society and a stain on an otherwise anarchistic, art-oriented event”. On one morning near sunrise in 1993,

a hippy dude came up to me while I was playing music on the sound system and he holds up a knife towards me and yells “are you crazy?” And I say “no, you’re the one with a knife”. And then he says he’s going to cut me or the speakers. So I turn it down, ditched the decks and circled far and wide off into the desert. He tried to cut the speaker cones with his knife but they had metal grills on the fronts, he looked like a fool and gave up and wandered off. I put on a cassette of Squeeze’s Black Coffee in Bed as he was walking away.


Burning Man forced the techno reservationists to maintain their isolation a mile from Main Camp between 1992 and 1996, during which time the camp evolved into a kind of outlaw satellite of Black Rock City. Over the following two years, San Francisco’s DiY music and culture collective SPaZ (itself co-founded by Ted and D syn, along with Aaron, No.E Sunflowrfish and various others) orchestrated the sounds exclusively. It was extreme, eclectic and haphazard. Ted recalls that at one point in 1993 “we put on a cassette of the Eagles’ Hotel California by request of these two cowboys who rode in from the desert on horseback. They were thrilled.” According to Aaron, that same year “a wind storm blew down our speaker stacks, but they were still plugged in and we never stopped playing”. Listed as the official “rave” in the Burning Man brochure for 1994, SPaZ would effect a great influence on sound system culture at the festival.


techno ghette


In these years, SPaZ, members of which later initiated the Autonomous Mutant Festival, were effectively encouraging Burning Man to be “more like the UK festival vibe where anybody could bring their sound, big or small”. So, in 1995, while SPaZ set up their small system at four points amplifying everything from minimal techno and drum-n-bass to psytrance under a four story three-cornered scaffolding with lights and “variously garish and random streamers, banners and tarps, from punk to dayglo-indian-balinese-cybertrance-batiks to outright monstrosities” visible from Main Camp, Wicked (the famed UK derived outfit who held full moon and other parties on beaches and in parks around the Bay area between 1991-1996) arrived with their turbo rig and scaffolding supporting their black and white banner. SPaZ hosted artists including Minor Minor (Gateway), Theta Blip, Chizaru and Subtropic. Featuring himself, among with DJs Markie and Bay area guest’s Spun, Felix the Dog, Rob Doten and Alvaro, Wicked co-founder (and now running Grayhound Records) Garth stated to me that they “played for 4 days and nights through hail, wind, rain and electrical storms”. North America's first free party tekno sound system, Pirate Audio, also made an appearance that year. On the windblown frontiers of techno, in this nascent vibrant ghetto accommodating the eclectic, experimental and inclusive sounds of SPaZ, the house sounds of Wicked, and other sounds besides, Burning Man had begun to attract a variety of socio-sonic aesthetics, paving the way for the mega-vibe it would later become.

In this period, besides differences between the habitués and proponents of varying dance aesthetics (from the inclusive to the more proprietary) there was considerable conflict between those who regarded themselves true Burners and those they held as little more than raving interlopers. As Ted remembers, “ravers were always pariahs at Burning Man …. it’s like we were the poor people on the wrong side of the tracks and the wrong side of the man”. At one event, a bag of human excrement was dropped on the dance camp from a low flying aircraft. According to Garth, Burning Man had the porta-potties removed from the rave camp before the festival ended. “When people started crapping on the desert for lack of options, someone carried over a bag to main camp .... Burning Man was so enraged by this they flew over and apparently dropped it on one camp."

1996 was the year of the “techno ghetto”, the brainchild of Terbo Ted and an attempt to make the ghettoized rave camp a legitimate outer suburb of Black Rock City (BRC). According to Ted, who had the support of Burning Man organizers, as a “mega-theme camp” the “techno ghetto” idea was a “fractalized imprint” of BRC’s Main Camp at the time. “We were into pre-planned zoning, using surveying flags to plot out an orbital city with sound systems on the outer ring and encampments in the center”. “Ghetto” sound systems included SPaZ, the CCC, Gateway and Wicked. Together with a live PA from local electronic producers E.T.I. and Astral Matrix, Wicked DJs played along with DJ Dimitri of Dee-Lite all performing under a projection pyramid constructed by VJ and laser outfit Dimension 7.

But, things didn’t go according to plan in the ghetto. According to Garth, “the honeymoon ended that year. The theme was “Hellco” and that was what they conjured up… by this point there were too many [sound systems], all bleeding into each other…. it felt more like a super club on the playa”. As Terbo Ted recalls, the “ghetto” was an “abysmal failure … DiY gone mad… Music snobbery and cliquishness and DiY anarchist tendencies prevented an orderly camp from forming and the resulting spread-too-thin sprawl proved to be dangerous in an era when cars were still driving at every vector on the playa at high speeds in dust storm white outs”. Both Garth and Ted are in part referring to a tragic incident in 1996 when three people were seriously injured sleeping in their tent near the Gateway sound system, one in a coma for months, after being collected by a stoned driver. Together with an apparent perception that the “rave” was giving Burning Man a bad name within official circles, and the likelihood that techno was perceived as disturbing electronic chatter for many participants (including Doherty, who recounts hostilities in This is Burning Man, 2004: 171-173), this incident generated an unofficial “anti-rave policy”, which was effectively countered through the compromise entailed in Gosney’s innocuously named “Community Dance” in 1997.

3 > The Veg-O-Matic of the Apocalypse vs Goa Gil


That known DJs were being targeted by Burning Man organisers was a circumstance endured by Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky), who was apparently pursued on the playa by “Pipi Longstocking” in the mid 1990s. But the tension between ravers and Burners seems to have been appropriately dramatized in a performance which saw a standoff between Goa Gil and a giant peddle-powered flamethrowing drill and Margerita maker called the Veg-O-Matic of the Apocalypse—or, more to the point, anti-rave crusader Jim Mason who was peddling the beast. Mason’s Veg-O-Matic is described by Robert Gelman in his article Trial by Fire: “It’s straight out of hell, suggesting engineering from the industrial revolution transported to Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Part vehicle, part flame-thrower, part earth drilling device, I envision this machine being used to battle creatures in a 1950s monster movie, or to torture souls of the damned in the realm of satan”. With a pressurized gas-charger spurting flames as far as seventy feet from its barrel, and a gathering mob inciting it to greater acts of destruction, the Veg-O-Matic was known to burn installations in its path following the demise of the Man. On its post-Burn rampage, when the Veg-O-Matic rolled into the first Community Dance camp in 1997, Mason found Goa Gil directly in his path:

The crew of the machine is tilting the flamethrower’s barrel up at the console. Gil is staring down the 12-foot barrel of this jet powered char-broiler. I had to remind myself that this is theatre, or is it? I’m still not sure. “Burn it!” the mob chants, “Burn THEM!” Like an opposing pacifist army, the ravers are standing their ground, some shouting in defiance of the threat, some in disbelief that this could really be happening. Chicken John, like the demented circus ringmaster that he is, issues his now-familiar warning over the bullhorn [“Stand Aside”]. We seem to have travelled back centuries in time. I don’t remember ever feeling farther from home than this.


The mob were even demanding Led Zeppelin. It was perhaps in this moment so far from Kansas—when Gil stood his ground, even turned the volume up, in the face of obliteration—that EDMC gained credibility at Burning Man.

Yet, such gains are not synonymous with legitimacy. To this day, disputes rage over the validity of arrant “loudsters”, “monotonous computer loop music,” and the presence of some of the highest paid DJ brand names like Paul Oakenfold and Tiesto. See, for example, this discussion on tribe.net. When the biggest names in commercial dance music perform “45-minute showcase sets to massive crowds at MTV-Beach-Party-style setups”, it is recognized to be the “EDM equivalent of putting a Starbucks or H&M on the Esplanade”. In a typically avant response, which notably does not reject electronic music, the author of this comment, ST Frequency, states in a post on Reality Sandwich that he would rather “something a little more eclectic and unexpected, like funky industrial bluegrass, or ambient dub-zydeco” than “a cacophony of 22 different epic trance records ‘blowing up’ from every imaginable direction”.

4 > A Rhythm Remorseless Blue Room fire truck, 1998, CCC.



While concerns are held about the presence of what Mark Van Proyen refers to as the “Ibiza set” and other “tourists” swamping the festival (in Gilmore 2006: 151), after several Community Dance events, which were promoted by producer Gosney’s Radio-V as a “techno tribal ritual celebration” (involving the likes of Gil, Shpongle, Ollie Wisdom, AB Didge, Medicine Drum, Kode IV, Tsuyoshi, X-Dream, Nick Taylor and Tristan, and with contributions from techno-tribes such as the CCC, Anon Salon, Koinonea, Sacred Dance Society and Dimension 7), the audiotronics and culture of post-rave would become integral to the event.






photo: Landon Elmore.

In 1998, a community sound system featuring New York's Blackkat collective, The Army of Love, SPaZ and Arcane was unpacked on the playa. Holding their own desert dance gatherings over the previous five years in the Mojave, Moontribe also set up that year, with artists performing for three consecutive nights next to The Temple of Rudra, with the final party drawing 2000 people following Pepe Ozan’s opera. Symptomatic of the ongoing tensions, as Ozan apparently neglected to inform the Burning Man organization about his deal with Moontribe (they were providing the soundcheck for his opera), the event’s unique peace keepers, the Black Rock Rangers, unplugged the generator at dawn on the first night. With the all-too-familiar experience of having “Rangers” shut them down, Moontribe’s Treavor successfully pushed for an agreement for an all-night party after the opera on the Friday night, which also happened to be a full moon. According to Treavor, with himself, Petey and Matthew Magic performing: “we kicked in with some full on Psy Trance/Techno madness and tons of people came over and stayed in front of our system until around noon when it was about 110 degrees and time to end”. Given their commitment to throwing free Full Moon Gatherings in the Mojave desert since 1993 in the face of considerable adversity (remote conditions, the law and internal conflicts included), a Moontribe association would draw considerable kudos in an environment which would continue to contest the presence of “commercial muzack”.

Community Dance lasers 1998, Michael Gosney.
Full Moon morning, Burning Man 1998, from Fusion Anomaly.

Radio-V's Flying Saucer dance disc, 2000. Michael Gosney.

 

Conflict continued at the turn of the Millennium. Thus, after threatening to douse the mixer and CDJs, the Burning Scouts of Gigsville camp (home to the "Burning Scouts of America", i.e. those who are "too cool, dumb, weak, punk or gay to have made it in the Boy or Girl Scouts") decided to execute their community service at Radio-V’s Flying Saucer in 2000. The CCC’s Brad Olsen remembers the scene on Sunday morning:

[The Burning Scouts] appeared walking around our camp, coming at us banging on pots and pans, no expressions on their faces, as they slowly made their way over to our RV. They must have thought Sunday morning we were all crashed out and they were going to teach us what making racket was all about! We looked on in amazement. When [one assailant] attempted to come into the RV someone threw old bath water at him and we closed the door. After they left we came out and noticed that they pulled down our art and banners and vandalized the camp. We broke our camp and slowly drove over to the CCC system on the other side where DJ Perez (Perry Ferrel from Jane's Addiction) was just coming on (& so were we still).
He added, alluding to the rumour that there was a “quite” and noisy” side to BRC, “that was the last of the ‘Quiet Side’ myth”. Now the sound systems are ubiquitous on both sides -- but it wasn't without heavy resistance!” Ultimately, internal compromises, collaborations and concessions within Burning Man would see what was initially a source of much derision and contempt—and ghettoized one mile from Main Camp—gain greater acceptance within its sprawling inner but mostly outer conclaves (the loudest camps are now placed in the "Large Scale Sound Art Zone" at the periphery of the city, where speakers must be faced away from the city, and where a maximum power amplification of 300 watts is permitted).

Burning Man art project funding reveals the persistence of an uneasy relationship. As author of the forthcoming ethnography on Burning Man (Theater in a Crowded Fire), Lee Gilmore, informed me: “many organizers of dance oriented theme camps complain that the Burning Man Organization never funds their artistic contributions, so they have to foot the bill themselves. For their part, the organization says they simply have limited resources and other priorities. And that the EDMC scene has many other self-funding and/or commercial venues.” In 1998, the “techno ghetto” was no more. By 1999, when the final Community Dance camp was staged in Landon Elmore's recreation of the Barbury Triangle Crop Circle, the sounds of psytrance, breakbeats, tribal house etc had become flush with the soundscape of Burning Man.













Aerial view of Community Dance Camp 1999. Barbury Triangle Crop Circle. Landon Elmore.

Emerald City, 2000. Michael Gosney
In 2000, eccentric inventor Patrick Flanagan funded Emerald City, a one-time dance camp extravaganza with Joegh Bullock and Gosney providing the entertainment. By 2007, with Large-Scale Sound Art Camps like the Opulent Temple of Venus, Lemuria and the Connexus Cathedral, electronic dance music culture had become integral to Burning Man. The audio-visual aesthetics and style of venues are diverse: from performance troupe's like El Circo with their post-apocalyptic "dreamtime imagery" and Bag End sound system to the Deep End groovement; from salacious theme camps like Bianca’s Smut Shack and Illuminaughty, to the Rhythm Society’s Blyss Abyss or the Church of WOW chill camp (which seeded Gosney's Cyberset artist family and label) and the recent Sacred Water Temple;and from fixed sound art installations like the House of Lotus to mobile units such as the Space Cowboys "All-Terrain Audio Visual Assault Vehicle" (a Unimog fitted with video projectors, displays, a bubble for a DJ, and a sound system, which they claim is "the largest off-road sound system in the world"), and the shape and location shifting vehicles of the DI5ORIENT EXPRESS.

 

Photos by Kyle Hailey


5 > Decompressions and Recompressions

The spirit of Burning Man is raised throughout the year in San Francisco at events such as the pre-Burn Flambé Lounge, the annual Decompression Street Fair, the How Weird Street Faire, the Sea of Dreams New Year's Eve events and numerous sound art camp fundraising events held between May and August every year. The Decompression events have become hugely popular multi-area dance parties, and attracting many who’ve never been to Burning Man. The San Francisco "Heat the Street Faire" Decompression party is a reprise of the Burn held on 8 city blocks two months after the event.

By 2007, there were Decompression events in various US cities including Los Angeles and New York, and international events such as those in London and Tokyo. There were even “pre-Decompression parties” like the one I attended in October 2007 at a warehouse at 1300 Potrero produced by Want It and Ambient Mafia (watch a video of the party here) and, of course a host of Decompression after-parties.


Kyle Hailey
This seemingly endless series of events provokes inquiries about the boundaries of Burning Man. When does the event terminate? When does it start? And for that matter, where is it? While the annual event transpires for a week from late August into September out beyond the small town of Gerlach-Empire in the Black Rock Desert, Nevada, its spatial and temporal boundaries are getting fuzzier. It might be stated that this was always the case. Historically the event has been a virtual imprint of San Francisco arts, technology and visionary cultures, its mutant-vehicular and theme-camped topos inscribed with emergent aesthetics and prevailing trends (such as the fairly belated Green Man theme of 2007), with remote experiments drifting back into the city proper, morphing the Bay area in often unseen and surprising ways. Indicative of scenes evolving within San Francisco, Burner fashion, body-mods, multimedia, performance arts, alterna-kit and desert punk filter back into what Burners call the “default” world. And so, to stay with my theme, the sounds and styles of Black Rock City are evident in San Francisco clublife at venues like 1015 Folsom, Sublounge and Mighty in SOMISSPRO or in art spaces like SomArts Cultural Center, Nimby and Cellspace along with parties in countless warehouse spaces. As Steven Jones makes clear in his San Francisco Bay Guardian article "Burner Season", Burning Man art and San Francisco club scenes “have merged and morphed, symbiotically feeding off one another to create something entirely new under the sun, a sort of code for the freaks who like to dress outrageously, dance madly, and be embraced for doing so.” As promoter Joegh Bullock explains, the term "Burner" has become “shorthand for a certain style of party”. One of the main sites of Burner sensibility has been Bullock’s Anon Salon. Referred to by Gosney as San Francisco’s “cyberdelic speakeasy”, from the early 1990s Anon Salon had hosted interactive, avant-garde, no–spectator style events reflective of cutting edge trends (such as the “New Edge Salon for Movers and Groovers”, Ambiotica), and buoyed by a camaraderie poorly grokked by non-Burners.

 

 

6 > Residual Burn

New York city resident DJ Spooky recently (see film) referred to Burning Man as a context for "the prolonged present”. Out there, he stated, “the demarcation lines we’ve all been conditioned to accept dissolve… time blurs, you lose all of these strictures of New York, waking up, or going back to sleep, people, parties, events, blur, scenes blur, camps blur…” This is a common experience: playa life is an altered reality in which day and night, camping spaces, pounding rhythms, weird pants, strange laughter and familiar people, merge in the disorienting carnivalesque. Out on the playa, "now" is an extended experience seemingly lasting longer than most other "nows" in the lives of participants, generating a powerful compulsion amongst devoted Burners to relive the liminal experience of the playa over and again, year after year, often modifying and optimising the experience to suit their personal pleasures, dreams and visions. In making the return journey, pilgrims are not only revisiting the same place but are re-accessing the same time. But it is a "time" that is not so much a duration as a "time out of time", an "eternal presence" reminiscent of that explored by Roy Rappaport in those intensive ritual phases in which one experiences “the sheer successionless duration of the absolute changelessness of what recurs, the successionless duration of what is neither preceded nor succeeded, which is ‘neither coming nor passing away,’ but always was and always will be” (1999: 231). Awash with synchronized melodies and off-beat rhythms, under the rule of the sun and the heat of controlled burns, playing chicken with a fleet of motorized tarts, in the gaze of an androgenous BRC denizen with cyberdreads, in this “successionless duration”, “one returns", to revisit Rappaport, "ever again to what never changes”: playa time.

It may be a "place" out of time, but the prolonged presence of this place seems as fine and persistent as the white alkaline dust one carries home from the playa. Many Burners relate how the experience of Burning Man impacts their "default" existence, that their "pilgrimage" effects and shapes everyday life on the street, at work, in their homes, how they interact with others, how they raise their families, a theme considered in Lee Gilmore's ethnography, and by contributors to the book she co-edited (with Mark Van Proyen) Afterburn, and worthy of further research.

So what happens when banana time is snuk out at carnival's end? When elements of "the quick and the changeless" steal back to the "default" world? When impermanence gets an encore? Burning Man clearly leaves a compelling impression on its habitués many of whom reboot eternity the year round in a proliferation of Burn-inspired intercalary events. The event appears to be at the center of a burgeoning creative counter-cultural industry whose mission is to make now last longer, to enable one's "freak" to be more often set to "on", to facilitate the distribution of playa time across time and space. As the commitment to extending Burner artistic practices, ethos and identity beyond Burning Man possesses a reverse correspondence to that of "leaving no trace" on the playa, as the dedication to mobilizing Operation Enduring Freak appears to hold a strange equivalence to reducing MOOP ("Matter Out of Place") in the desert, Regional and other residual burns immolate the present across the continent and further afield. As announced at the official Burning Man webportal, "dozens of satellites orbit the Mother ship," with this cultural movement now encompassing "over sixty communities in seven countries, spread out over four continents."

As bike-saddled and begoggled Burners, drunk on playa time, in pink leathered chaps, pith helmets and home-made masks, ride the tall curling white-outs through the streets of San Francisco, as the Bakhtinian "second world" of the people floods the thoroughfares and habitats of the "first", as the remote cosmic life revives local lifestyle, it seems reasonable to assume that one's "social time", to again cite Rappaport, becomes enchanted by the ecstatic theater of "cosmic time". Research on the growing network of Burner tribes, and the accelerating frequency of Burn-inspired events, would shed light on this. The name for Vancouver's regional event, Recompression, might indicate something of the extended liminality desired. New York's Freak Factory, Santa Barbara's Clan Destino, or the network of virtual groups on tribe.net and Facebook et al. might illustrate what post-Burn liminalisation looks, sounds and is encoded like. And the name (along with the activities) of the extra-event disaster relief initiative Burners Without Borders may provide us with some insight on the borderless future.

But, amidst this accelerating and expanding presence, this prolongation of the prolonged present, what becomes of Burning Man, whose "spirit", like that of any "event", is its own ephemerality?


References

  • Doherty, Brian. 2004. This is Burning Man: The Rise of a New American Underground. New York: Little, Brown and Company.
  • Erik Davis. 2005. “Beyond Belief: The Cults of Burning Man”. In Lee Gilmore and Mark Van Proyen (eds). Afterburn: Reflections on Burning Man. Albuquerque: The University of New Mexico Press.
  • Gilmore, Lee. 2006. “Desert Pilgrimage: Liminality, Transformation, and the Other at the Burning Man Festival”. In William H. Swatos, Jr (ed) On the Road to Being There: Studies in Pilgrimage and Tourism in Late Modernity, pp. 125-158. Leiden: Brill.
  • Kozinets, Robert V. and John F. Sherry, Jr. 2004. “Dancing on Common Ground: Exploring the Sacred at Burning Man.” In Graham St John (ed), Rave Culture and Religion, pp. 287-303. New York and London: Routledge.
  • Rappaport, Roy. 1999. Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thanks to Scott London, Kyle Hailey, Landon Elmore, Michael Gosney, Steve Fritz, CCC, Leo Nash, Mickey and Tristan Savatier for the beautiful images reproduced here. More of Kyle Hailey's images at the following: Burning Man 2007, Beautiful People from the Future and West Coast Dance.

 

Alien Bride. Photo: Kyle Hailey

Graham St John's Blog : Edgecentral