|Black Rock, Nevada: Journey
to a Lost City
The Burning Man Experience
by Mark D. Green
Click The Thumbnails for a Bigger Psychedelic Pictorial Experience!
With a loose collective of friends and family connected via e-mail from places like Seattle, Vancouver, London and Edinburgh, I'd planned to build our contribution to the temporary city of Black Rock, Nevada: a thirty foot tunnel of Christmas-lights designed to be viewed through trippy, light-defracting glasses-- 2000 pairs of which we planned to give away as part of what we half-jokingly referred to as our "art installation." With video camera in hand, I made my first attempt at making a record of my third visit to Burning Man before we'd even left for the desert. I spent the Sunday afternoons before our trip with a post-clubbing hangover at colossal suburban "Do It Yourself" centers buying the raw materials we'd need to construct our camp and documenting our project. There at Home Depot, I'd run into unlikely looking do-it-yourselfers: pink-haired raver kids posing incongruously against the aisles of picket fencing, lighting fixtures and air conditioning ducts. Stating the obvious, we'd grin, "Burning Man?" at each other, then share knowing laughs and swap theoretical addresses for an as-yet non-existent city.
As the day of departure grew closer I filmed, trying to capture on tape all the little things that helped erase the dull predictability of my day job from my mind. I finally stopped describing myself as "working in PR" and started referring to myself as "being from Magic Glasses Camp." Like who-knows-how-many people across San Francisco, Burning Man had taken over my spare time, and had found plenty of uses for my disposable income, my ingenuity and whatever I might call creativity. First, I videoed our initial clumsy attempt to build a test tunnel out of PVC tubing and camouflage netting in Golden Gate Park, which drew baffled stares from clean cut volley-ball players and Sunday afternoon barbecuers. I taped us cleaning out our local Safeways of five-gallon water containers, filmed us renting a U-Haul truck (San Francisco to Nevada? The guy behind the counter knew exactly what we wanted it for). I recorded us packing the truck, as we struggled late into the night squeeze in bikes, camping equipment, boxes marked "dressing-up things", yard-sale furniture and finally the PVC tubing that had to be bent in half before we could close the truck door.
There's footage of the sun coming up, as we set off over the Bay Bridge on two hours sleep, the advance party for our camp, but no footage of me trying to stifle some tears, moments before I opened the door to my arriving friends, when I realized that after several months of planning we were really, finally on our way.
Several hours into our drive, I got stoned as we hit the rolling Sierra Nevada Mountains, and filmed their magnificent peaks for way, way too long, as any stoner-cameraman blasted by their natural beauty would. After the mountains came desert scrubland and Pyramid Lake, which shimmers on the horizon like a mirage. By that point, we were part of a wagon-train of trucks, Winnebagos and over-stuffed trailers, passing through the sleepy towns of Empire and Gerlach like a circus that was not merely coming to town, but going to be building its own town. Finally, eight or nine hours after our departure, we turned off the road and crawled down a bumpy track into the Black Rock Desert. The sign at the greeter's station read "Welcome Home."
We'd arrived in the aftermath of a five-hour dust storm. The city, a cold, windy, skeletal shanty-town where ski-goggles to keep out airborne grit were considerably more in evidence than the body-painted nudity that short hands Burning Man for the media. We were advised to put up a tent or simply hunker down in the truck and prepare for a rough night. We'd been waiting months for this. We started building our tunnel instead.
Tuesday morning, I turned the camera on myself to bitch about the cold, then got on with building. Quickly, our tunnel took shape, along with a shelter complete with carpet, recliner chairs and a sofa. A degree of comfort in the midday heat was important, but so to was the sheer absurdity of kicking back in a La-Z-Boy armchair after a hot afternoon of construction. Running out of materials of our own, we walked along the promenade curving around the front of our City, until we spotted a shelter design we admired. We admired it long enough for the flattered creators to share their construction leftovers.
As we built our camp, more friends arrived and I taped friends from the UK I had not seen in years meeting the friends I'd made in the last few years, then noted how quickly people became infused with the atmosphere that is infectiously, simply Burning Man. I watched my friends mingle with our new neighbors, observing how quickly all but the most narrow-minded stopped boggling at the nudity, the rituals, the giant mechanical contraptions, the elegant, organic structures made of bone and colorful wind-sculptures flapping in the wind and how everyone started accepting that, even here in the most barrenly beautiful of environments, with no headlining bands to watch, no t-shirts to buy, no food to eat other than that which you'd brought yourself or your neighbor had offered to share, the most audacious acts of creativity were, quite obviously, the best use of your time.
While Burning Man is often billed as "radical self expression", the truth is often a lot simpler. It's an environment free of commerce but rich in spectacle, packed with spontaneous events that may involve no more than you and one other person. Each one leaving your head reeling at how much else must be going on in a thousand different locations, every minute of every day in this city of endless possibilities. Here, it becomes clear that Burning Man is, as founder Larry Harvey has noted, "about giving." Whether it's trading silly trinkets with your neighbors, or putting together a theme camp to entertain random strangers, displaying honest gratitude for the efforts of others, or giving yourself a moment of quiet contemplation in the desert, the notion that it's better to give than to receive is, for once, undeniable. It's about not being a consumer, but about becoming, as one friend put it, a provider.
The sheer volume of stimulus available, the uniqueness and scale of some of the art and performances was incredible. Some examples: on the quiet side of the two-mile-wide semi circle of Black Rock City, a giant submarine hull surfaced from the desert floor, at the other noisy end, the Seemen (think punk rock performance art with welding-torches instead of guitars) constructed junkyard machines designed with flammable destruction in mind. Dotted around the playa (the dry, cracked desert lake bed) at various points on an imaginary clock were artworks and sculptures ranging from the magnificent to the mediocre, all benefitted from a desert location that made it an art gallery without equal. It's hard to be too critical of any work which had been transported all this way, or in many cases been constructed on the spot.
Just as time begins to develop a distinct elasticity, the playa itself begins to plays tricks with your perception. The dimension of things is hard to judge. As the week went on and the city came to life, the wide open space became dotted with bizarre moving contraptions: motorized sofas, radically customized art-cars, and literally mobile bars. At night, the thump of various sound systems blended with the deep silence of the desert to produce patchwork pockets of sound which faded remarkably quickly as you moved to less populated spots on the playa. Shadowy figures suddenly emerged from the desert only to disappear just as quickly. The playa hosted a tribal opera where the sets were burned at the climax and also played host to many more private dramas. Turning back towards the city, you re-entered a carnival of creativity. The shanty town had become a never resting metropolis of culture-clashes that ranged from the serenity of yoga classes to the electricity of this year's must see: Doctor Megavolt, a human lightning conductor who traveled around camp on the back of a truck with a Tesla coil mounted on it, his performances a sort of throwback to some 50s B movie, crackling with raw electricity.
During daylight, I filmed a friend having his head shaved, another cycling around camp naked but for a feather boa and an all-over coating of green food dye, a look I'm proud to have pioneered. I filmed our own camp at night, as bug-eyed raver-kids made trips through our light tunnel and grizzled "Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now" look-a-likes declared it to be the most psychedelic experience they'd had since the 60s-- not bad for something planned on our coffee table at home, we laughed. Our contribution to Burning Man had turned out better than any of us could have imagined. Maybe we'd created art after all. We'd enjoyed a moment of common purpose as friends drawn together by giving to strangers, for no better reward than the warmth of their smiles. I doubt I'll ever be able to put that into words, or capture it on film.
I cycled out to video The Man himself, silently looking out over Black Rock City. To me at least, he sees all, absorbing the good intent behind everything which occurs within his eyeless gaze. It's a pilgrimage I made several times a day, just to silently say my own private prayers.
Although I videoed the Man, I carried the camera with me less and less with each passing day. Each day it seems less and less inconceivable that my neighbor could go to incredible lengths just to add to the ambiance of camp, to add one more "good deed" to the mountain already accumulated. As an experiment, I tried to imagine my coworkers at their desks, mid-afternoon, while I cycled from one camp to the next, dipping into a dozen different versions of a good time. It was impossible; my mind remained blank.
Recording the event, like washing, or even getting dressed in the morning, became less of a priority. Trying to frame something through a camera lens became less important than reaching out and touching it. You can't really video when you're dancing to alien sounding trance DJs in the middle of the night, or when you've stopped wearing a watch, or when you've no idea where your wallet is. When you're literally naked, it seems ridiculous to be lugging around several hundred bucks worth of Japanese electronics. The camera becomes one more obstacle to shed. The camera itself becomes a metaphor.
There's no film of the Burn, the solemn, euphoric, cathartic climax of our week. No record of the lasers that slashed across the sky or the billowing clouds of fire that god-knows-what sent blasting into the air. There's no footage of the aftermath of the Burn, when we returned to the still blazing pyre as the dissipating crowd began to spread out across the playa, no footage of me shedding my clothes one last time to dance and feel the raw heat of the fire on a cold desert night, no way to record the look in the eyes of the other dancers, naked or clothed, as we smiled and laughed and screamed like it was the end of the world and the only sane thing to do was party, no way to construct a neat, coherent story out of a week that started bundled in blankets in the back of an ice-cold truck and ended in flames in a place I never wanted to leave: a place built only to be burned, torn down, dismantled, set ablaze, a city that, instead of keeping records, offered the mantra "leave no trace".
See more pictures of Magic Glasses Camp at Burning Man, 1999.
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2000 Mark D. Green. All rights reserved.