Spending your summer vacation in a dry, dusty and hot place without internet access, electricity, running water and sanitation is certainly not everyone’s dream. For me, it was one of the most amazing places I have ever been.
I spent a little more than a week in Black Rock City in Nevada (USA) where the annual Burning Man event took place, and it was my first time. I was lucky to have friends in California who took me with them and who knew all about what you needed to survive the harsh conditions of the desert.
I did not really know what to expect before I actually went and I still find it hard to explain to others what I did there and why I found it so fascinating. Here’s my personal and subjective review of Burning Man 2014.
“So what is Burning Man?”
This is probably the question that I had to answer most frequently to friends who haven’t been there, and while it sounds like a simple question it is actually quite hard to answer.
I tried to describe Burning Man as a festival in the middle of the desert of Nevada. However, describing it as a “festival” is also somewhat misleading: Yes, you will find DJs playing loud electronic music. Yes, there is a large number of people camping there. Still, the differences between Burning Man and a music festival are huge: There is no big central spot where everything is happening, but many scattered activities from small to big happening across a vast area. I heard some really great music here though – more on that later.
Music is not even the biggest part of the event. A lot of space is dedicated to art: Sculptures, multimedia installations, paintings and even entire buildings were created for this event of which a large number was burned at the end of the week. I have rarely seen such an enormous amount of creativity in one place, and since a lot of the art was created specifically for Burning Man you won’t see this anywhere else. I spent a lot of time looking at art over the week and I found this hugely inspiring. See below to find some of my favorite pieces.
The community of people there is probably what makes Burning Man most unique. I had read the famous 10 principles before and it was fascinating to see that they were actually lived by many of the people there. It was not just a huge crowd of people waiting to be entertained. I had the impression that many of the participants see Burning Man as something that they are a part of, that they help create and that can be shaped by them. For example, most people were actually serious about avoiding trash (or MOOP in Burning Man language) and taking everything that they brought also back home with them instead of dumping it somewhere.
In contrast to most other big events, only a small part of what is happening at Burning Man is directly created by the people who organize it. I couldn’t look too much behind the scenes, but it was clear to me that this vast amount of creativity could not come from a single mind. I had the impression that the desert is used a bit like a big, empty canvas that is prepared by a central organization, but then mostly filled by the ideas of the people who participate. This leads to a vast amount of stationary art, art cars (or “mutant vehicles”), workshops (anything from yoga lessons to craft workshops), music and also a lot of rather improvised and sometimes hilarious activity (like a group of “unicorns” dancing through the desert and then dry humping the leg of the big wooden man figure).
A simple and accurate, but probably not very useful description of Burning Man would be: It is what you make of it. There is simply so much to do and discover that it’s impossible to experience every bit of it. You have to make choices about what you want to do and experience there. For me, art and music were probably the most dominant topics so that’s what I will focus on.
Even if you just focus on the art, it’s hard to describe what kind of art is actually shown at Burning Man. I can’t give a complete list but I would like to show some impressions.
The huge wooden man figure is certainly the most well-known piece of art that you can see there. It served not only as a piece of art to admire, but also as the central point of Black Rock City which made it something like a landmark in this land of indistinguishable dust.
On Saturday night, they burnt the man which was accompanied by fire dancers, fireworks and probably every single individual in Black Rock City. This is a night of celebration and joy even though everyone knows that this means they will have to leave again soon.
Another quite spectacular art piece is the so-called “temple” which they also build and burn every year in a slightly different shape. This is what it looked like this year:
For many people, the temple is a quite emotional place. It is not a religious place in the classical sense at it is not dedicated to any particular deity, but many people use it as a place to remember friends or family members that have passed away.
One of my personal favorites among all the art pieces was this one called “Shogyo Mujo”. It is essentially a giant skull made of wood and cloth that had four projectors positioned around it. Those projectors were used to give the skull different textures. It seemed to be changing all the time while its shape remained the same.
Not all the art there was stationary though. There were also many art cars (sometimes also called “mutant vehicles”) driving around. Some had huge soundsystems, some looked awesome at daytime and some only came out at night.
This one for example probably has his engine power measured not in horse power but more likely in rabbit power:
Even though Burning Man is not really a music festival, there was plenty of really good music there. Several dozen of sound camps of many art cars delivered everything from electronic music to jazz and even metal. I mostly focused on finding good electronic music and even there the range was huge. House, Techno, Trap, Dubstep, Drum&Bass, Electro Swing…pretty much any style you could think of could be found somewhere at Burning Man.
What really became apparent to me there was that big names don’t really matter in many cases. In many cases, I had absolutely no clue about who was playing but the music was still very good in many cases. It’s more about the atmosphere, the music and the surroundings than about big names and even where famous DJs are playing the names often are not announced before.
This might sound strange as most festivals use a lineup of well-known DJs to sell tickets, but Burning Man does not need this. In many cases, you just drive around, hear something that you like and simply stay there. I didn’t plan very much and it didn’t feel necessary.
Nevertheless, there were some quite big names present. I actually went out to see Skrillex playing a DJ set together with Major Lazer on one night. This was completely different from what I had expected as the set was mostly focused on UK-style bass house rather than Skrillex’s signature dubstep sound but I still enjoyed it very much.
Major Lazer was also a bit of a musical discovery for me. I was somewhat aware of them before, but didn’t really know where to put them. When I heard their DJ set at Burning Man, this really felt very fresh and interesting to me. They were mixing oldschool electro beats and trap sounds with chopped-up vocal samples of different styles including reggae, hiphop, latino and african music. Their mixing style was very rough and it felt refreshingly different to the polished DJ sets that I hear from most electronic music DJs.
Even though big DJ names didn’t matter that much, I must say I really enjoyed those sound camps that were making a big effort to create something special. For example, this one is called “Celtic Chaos” and it really surprised me as a castle is probably the last thing you’d expect in the middle of the desert – but on the other hand, you could probably say that about many things at Burning Man.
Returning from the desert to the normal world felt strange. I didn’t need money for an entire week, now I had to pay for stuff again. People felt much more friendly and open in the desert and I missed the crazy amount of inspiration and creativity. And what should I do with my time if I can’t go explore? On the positive side, I do have to admit that the first shower after a week without this privilege really felt heavenly.
The second most frequently asked question that I got asked about Burning Man was: “Will you go again?”
Yes. Yes, if I can make it possible somehow I will absolutely go again. It is a long trip from Germany to Black Rock City, but it was worth every mile, every minute and every cent.
There is only one thing that I would like to do differently next time: I would like to give back something to this community, do at least a small active part and maybe do something that creates a nice memory for others. After all, creating beautiful memories for yourself and others and maybe changing the way you think about life in general a little bit is what I felt to be part of the essence of Burning Man – or maybe it is just one of the millions of possible ways to explain what Burning Man actually is.
Images by Birgit Schiffer (pfirsichfarben.de) / used with permission