Burning Man: one foot in the rave

The Burning Man festival is billed as seven days of ultimate countercultural madness in the Nevada desert — think Glastonbury meets Mad Max. How could that not be any fun? Josh Glancy, a first-timer this year, counts the ways.

A dusty piano sits in the middle of a baking-hot, dry lake in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. It is attached to a giant catapult. Hundreds of people stand in a circle, watching. The men wear silver leggings and fur gilets, the women leopard-print catsuits and stickers on their nipples. A man douses the piano in kerosene, lights a match, and a stone drops, launching the flaming piano into the desert, where it comes to earth with a dull crash. The crowd cheers and howls, before mounting their bikes and cycling off.

Welcome to Burning Man, the ultimate festival blow-out deep in the American desert, where contrived hedonism reigns, naked hippies paint their penises silver, and blazing musical instruments are launched into the air for no good reason. Seventy thousand people now travel to this arts-and-music event each year. They come from all over the planet, leaving the “default world” in beat-up caravans and private jets to create a temporary city covering some seven square miles, about five times the size of Glastonbury.

Some of my friends have been going to Burning Man for years. Each time they return with misty-eyed stories about life on the “playa”. This time, I thought I’d go with them and find out what it’s really like. Error.

No one ever tells you they had a bad time at Burning Man. They can’t. They are far too invested in it. They have spent thousands, travelled to the dustiest arse-crack of America and gruellingly constructed a camp in the lethal sunshine. Everyone else has told them it will be the best week of their lives, so they keep telling themselves the same thing. But all they are wearing in their post-festival Facebook profile picture is the emperor’s new clothes.

Burning Man may have been special once. Some veterans may still be able to recapture that unique experience — there are still corners of the city that are genuinely weird and surprising (I heard rumours of the Camp Beaverton lesbian-orgy tent). But if you were ever tempted to go, just to try it, just once, don’t. It is dusty and obnoxious and the music is terrible.

After days of preparation, stocking up on canned goods, buying camping gear and traipsing across two states, I was knackered before I’d arrived. By the time a goateed man at the gate, in a pirate tricorn and a yellow keffiyeh, had made me roll in the dust and strike a bell, shouting, “I am not a virgin any more,” I realised I’d made a mistake.

Personally, it may have been disastrous — a small but valued part of my soul was swept away in a storm of dust and minimal techno — but journalistically it was the right time to visit Burning Man. This is a festival going through a severe identity crisis.

Burning Man started in 1986, when a small gang of friends decided to burn a wooden man for the summer solstice on Baker Beach, San Francisco. By 1991 it had moved to the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, and by the end of that decade attendance had reached 25,000. It gained rules, infrastructure, street signs and regular DJs. Tickets more than quadrupled in price to over $200. It became famous as an adult playground in the desert, where hallucinations, nudism and group sex were common currency and the rules of the default world no longer applied.

In 2004, the festival’s co-founder Larry Harvey introduced 10 principles to sum up Burning Man, including an emphasis on leaving no trace, radical self-expression and radical inclusion (aka being friendly). Any litter of any kind is known as “moop” (matter out of place). Mooping is strongly discouraged, on pain of being told off by a stroppy hipster in a tutu.

But since then, attendance and ticket prices have mushroomed. This has produced a rapid change in the festival’s personality. Now there are “turnkey camps”, where tech moguls and financiers have wi-fi, sushi chefs and clean linen. These camps restrict access to paying VIPs only, a concept that utterly undermines the festival’s original open ethos. The Sergey Brins and Elon Musks of this world are all for Burning Man’s principle of radical inclusion, except when they fancy some tuna sashimi and a quick check of their stock portfolio. Now P Diddy goes, along with mainstream “EDM” DJs such as Diplo and Skrillex.

Crowning glory: love is in the air — and so is an ever-present tsunami of Black Rock Desert dust (Eric Bouvet)

Now Oxford’s Bullingdon boys are there too. A few years ago, some friends shared a camp with a princess from Liechtenstein, who mostly refused to leave her trailer. There are oleaginous hedge funders and coked-up venture capitalists. Groups fly in from Goldman Sachs and Google. It is all totally mainstream. And so very white.

The new burners spend their spare thousands on industrial quantities of uppers and uniquely homogeneous fancy dress. In the few days prior to the festival, Haight-Ashbury, once the centre of San Francisco’s counterculture, is thronged with first-timers shelling out hundreds of dollars on velvet robes and vintage gowns. These people have brought their music and their DJs with them. Deep house has taken over at Burning Man — pounding, unvarying and utterly lacking in musical value. Gurning hordes in viking helmets dance a simple two-step to its relentless beat.

Something genuinely alternative and radical is being cannibalised by the rich and moronic. It’s a story we’ve heard before. In many ways, Burning Man seems to have followed the life cycle of Steve Jobs: from louche hippie to voracious tech capitalist. Much like Google, it still has the office bean bags, but underneath it is all steely avarice and world domination.

Take Steve, an Apple Genius Bar worker whom I met in a theme camp. He said he’d been up for 26 hours. I believed him, because there was at least a day’s worth of party residue caked around his nostrils. A friendly nerd in a tie-dye T-shirt, he embodies the unholy union of hippie counterculture and tech capitalism. Steve was handing out drugs to make friends like a child with Rolos in the playground. In his left capsule he had “Molly”, American for MDMA, and in the right, lots of downers with long chemical-sounding names. He started confusing the two and so, for his own sake, we persuaded him to go to bed. Eventually he did, noting everyone’s email down for a post-festival LinkedIn add on his way out.

Feel the force: Burning Man revellers evoke a sort of topless version of the Star Wars cantina scene (Eric Bouvet)

Dancing in the sunrise on the Robot Heart art car is the apotheosis of modern Burning Man. Cara Delevingne was there, looking strangely bruised. “Big” DJs briefly raise the musical tone and everyone checks off their mental bucket list. But as the Nevada sun illuminates the playa and you see the crusty-lipped children of privilege revelling in their own hedonistic triumph, the gaping hole at the heart of this festival emerges over the horizon. The Wizard of Oz is revealed. Burning Man is now an empty shell, the worst of western culture distilled into pure nothingness.

Many of the old burners don’t like what has happened to their festival. I attended a heartfelt debate about how to mitigate the effect of the turnkey camps. People analysed the festival’s annual census and discussed how it has changed. Their passion was touching, but they are fighting a losing battle. As a virgin burner, you encounter a fair amount of chippiness among some veterans. Take “All Good” (this is his playa name), a tall, desiccated longtime burner in a black-and-yellow fur jacket. All Good is a resident of the Ganesh camp, which is less a beacon of Hindu enlightenment and more of a bar with gap-year-tragedy elephant tapestries on the wall. Everyone is welcome at Ganesh, but All Good knows a virgin burner when he sees one, and pointedly refuses to engage in conversation except about tennis. He finally gets rid of us by recommending a performance of fire poi balls to visit nearby.

I really did try to have fun. As a rule, I like festivals. I’ve enjoyed Glastonbury, Bestival and Worldwide in southern France. I even like the Notting Hill carnival and those mini-festivals that posh people have in their gardens. But in the end, I found that the two most valuable things I brought with me were earplugs and a good book. Earplugs are essential, less for the music than to block out the relentless hum of private jets landing and taking off every morning. Books for escape.

My days at the festival changed as my disillusionment with Burning Man grew. A typical day there involves getting up at 4pm, devouring a sandwich and some much-needed hydration, then going for a cycle around the vast, almost-circular desert city. After that it’s time for a sunset dance, a quick dinner and then on into the night, when cars decorated as white forests, giant jawbones and pirate ships cruise the “deep” playa, blasting out a cacophony of techno.

Bunny business: “radical self-expression” is one of the festival’s golden rules (Eric Bouvet)It sounds fun, but once the visual fascination fades, you realise that the nights are desperately cold, no matter what combination of sweaters and booze you try; you’re spending much of your time on long, dusty cycles, and finding people you want to see amid the chaos is nigh-on impossible. As the novelty wore off, I found myself going to bed earlier and leaving our baking tent before dawn to read self-help literature: the neurologist Oliver Sacks on life among the mentally ill, and the letters of the cult author Charles Bukowski, whose furious invectives against the phoniness of the Beat writers were aptly soothing. In some ways, Burning Man is the logical end point of what Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac started: a paper-thin counterculture that has been consistently and badly appropriated ever since.

There are organised activities at Burning Man, too: demonstrations of correct fisting techniques and vinyasa yoga positions. I briefly visited one at the Asian Fetish Camp, but quickly bottled it when I heard about the participatory element. This year was also particularly dusty, which makes life even more tiring and murky, but has one advantage: when the air is dry, the loos are a little less wet and sloppy. Also, it makes showers fairly pointless, as you would get coated in dust as soon as you finished, which is lucky because there aren’t any.

Apart from dust, one of the festival’s other traditional key tenets is gifting: people will give you free drinks from their bar or help put up your tent if you are struggling. I brought gifts with me (well, my girlfriend did) to make friends — extremely elegant LED necklaces and bracelets. This got me a lot of very inebriated hugs.

Burning Man is totally decommodified. No brands, no shops, no famous musicians. The only thing they sell is ice; other than that, you’re on your own. They call this radical self-reliance. It’s quite refreshing, really — except, of course, the real victors here are the supermarkets. Stop off pre-burn at any store between San Francisco and Black Rock and you’re sure to spot a group of excitable festival-goers dropping hundreds of dollars on Budweiser, Doritos, Oreos, Diet Coke, Absolut vodka and so on. Unlike, say, Glastonbury, where you eat your pulled-pork wrap with sweet-potato fries and then get on with your day, much of this ends up being thrown away. Because how on earth are you supposed to know how many Doritos you need to survive a week-long binge in the desert?

Plastic people: an art installation of raving Barbies — celebration or cultural critique? (Eric Bouvet)In a way, what is happening to Burning Man is quite sad. There was and is something admirable about it. A revival of hippie culture, nudism, free love (practised mainly by wobbly fiftysomethings), environmental care, a response to the sometimes harsh realities of life in our late-stage capitalist world. A place where strangelings can weird out for a week, to build Barbie death camps (think Malibu in Auschwitz) and dress as steampunk crocodiles. It’s not for everyone, but the creativity on display remains breathtaking. What you can’t take away from Burning Man is its aesthetic: the white desert floor, the constant flicker of lasers against the deep purple sky, the mutant octopus vehicle spraying fire out of its tentacles. At its best, it is Woodstock meets Mad Max — wild, reckless and visually unmatched.

Unfortunately, though, this aesthetic has contributed to Burning Man’s downfall. In the superficial age of social media, where image trumps reality, the festival’s unique beauty makes it incomparably Instagrammable. Among the world’s partygoing elites, the message has spread fast: get your kicks here.

Eventually, they burn the festival’s giant eponymous effigy, everyone takes a photo and I’m allowed to leave. Except, of course, it isn’t over. As my phone regains reception on the long road back to California, the social-media orgy begins. Prevented from announcing their triumph to the world by the absence of signal in the desert, many burners build up an overwhelming desire to scream to the world “I was there!”, and have it liked by 23 acquaintances.

I went with the best of intentions, but I left empty, realising that I was just another ephemeral leech on this strange and troubled phenomenon. Perhaps that’s my fault and I was unable to overcome my own cynicism. But if this year’s new burners look deep inside themselves, I wonder what they see and feel. How changed they really are.

At one point on my penultimate night, a bunch of fellow Brits and I got into a pioneer-style wagon that reeked of skunk. An overdressed, under-fun American faux-hippie immediately got up and left. “The atmosphere has really changed in here,” she said sniffily. You bet it has.

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