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The author, center, with friends Sacha, left and Alicia, right in their desert encampment



At Burning Man in the
Nevada Black Rock desert,
Art is the norm and
the Surreal becomes Real

September 24, 2003


In a culture of convenience, Nevada's Black Rock Desert is the most inconvenient place imaginable, yet 30,000 people don't seem to mind. Every year for 13 years, around Labor Day, Burning Man participants, also called "burners," truck everything, including the kitchen sink, to the middle of this vast white desert made from a prehistoric lake bed. There they live for a week in Black Rock City, a city of five square miles created by its residents on the spot, a city that will vanish at the end of the week when everyone leaves.

Unlike other festivals, Burning Man participants must pack in and pack out everything, including their own garbage (and for the most part, they do). There is no restaurant, no general store, no water, food, electric power or shade and it is hot, and dusty. You must bring all the essentials, and for many, these include elaborate costumes, bicycles, even cars transformed into art—the only cars allowed to drive in Black Rock City.

People quickly discover that collaboration leads to more interesting results and come together in theme camps. For Petaluma's Liquid Diet Lounge, this means collectively bringing a sound system, a dome with bar and barstools, and thousands of drinks to pour the entire week. For Zoner Hill from San Francisco, it means fire dancing, huge tyco drums, and an art car dispensing sno-cones. The two camps came together this year along with others from Colorado to collaborate on a community kitchen and a tower equipped with a flame thrower.

Ideas you didn't even know you had unfold before your eyes on the desert playa. People dye themselves green, create altars, ride bikes through the hot desert in crinolines and fairy wings, issue "karmic credit" cards and run sake bars that also clean your eyeglasses. "Because last time I was here, my glasses just got so dirty," says the Sonoma bartender.

Petaluma photographer Scott Hess says, "It was a huge impact arriving on the scene at sunset, being whisked onto a bicycle without any forethought and flying through this wonderland at night with music and lights everywhere, people dressed in their primitive finest, and the open, powerful energy of a gift economy where someone isn't trying to sell you something every two feet. It was pure joy."

Whether costume, shelter, transportation, meditation spot or play structure, art is everywhere at Burning Man. Perhaps this is the most amazing part of the event—the total integration of art, so lacking in our commercialized, utilitarian culture where we are taught from a young age that art is frivolous, only to be had if there is extra money or time. At Burning Man, art is the norm and the artists are celebrities. But since everyone is an artist, everyone is celebrated, from well-known Petaluma artist David Best who creates elegant temples, to the anonymous artist who constructed a small Stonehenge out of Twinkies in the Center Café.

Art at Burning Man is ultimately for the people. Huge granite slabs hanging from chains —normally a liability to be roped off—are climbed on, camped under and enjoyed. Best's Temple of Honor is written on with ink pens and burned at the end of the week. The Twinkie Stonehenge ends up with a few bites taken out of it.

Burning Man is sublime juxtapositions and universal humor at its best. You might bring prom dresses for your week camping in the desert—even if you are a man—or discover a phone booth where you can talk to God. A Spanish galleon or a large glowing pink pig could glide past suddenly, and while praying at midnight in the Temple of Honor, where departed loved ones are remembered, the "Funk Wagon" might drive by with "Weee've got the Funk!" blasting from huge speakers on a decorated platform of dancing people, placing everything into perspective.

Saturday night, everyone gathers together to watch the burning of the Man, a reference point, sculpture and city icon. His burning means the imminent close of the city. The intense heat of the burn, fueled by 100 gasoline-soaked hay bales inside, reminds of the risks taken here. Burns, dehydration and worse can occur in a place with few laws and regulations. The closeness of death is acknowledged in Black Rock City in many ways, from temples to altars and ritual burning of objects. While much collective celebration takes place, it is also a spiritual, intensely personal atmosphere where death and life, happiness and sadness commingle.

Amid happiness and sadness lies the trickster. In the new moon darkness, bicycling far from the circle of lights and 24-hour music that is Black Rock City, you might see a strange glow in the distance. Hallucination? Aliens? No—as you approach, you find a hot dog stand illuminated with black lights. "What would you like—grilled cheese, hot dog or peanut butter and jelly sandwich?" asks the smiling man behind the glowing stand. The sheer absurdity is striking, and wonderful. And this rugged desert suddenly evolves into a synchronous dreamscape where lip balms, glowsticks, and poems are a medium of exchange, music becomes a heartbeat and even hot dogs turn into art.

(Contact Karen Schell at

All images © 2003 Scott Hess

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