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Burning Man 2007: A Greenhorn Meets the Green Man

Mary Ladd interviews her co-editor Julie Wiskirchen about Julie's virgin trip to Burning Man.

By Mary Ladd and Julie Wiskirchen

What's it all about, Alfie? What is the real Burning Man ethos? What is the point of it really? How does this compare to the new "Burnier Than Thou" movement?

Well, this was my first year, and I'm not going to pretend to have a full understanding, but I'll share my perspective and photos. Before I went, I read all the FAQs and many message board postings on burningman.com. I talked to experienced burners and I was traveling with an experienced burner, so I had some sense of what to expect. But you really can't begin to describe the place or the movement until you're actually experiencing it – and even then, words often failed me and continue to fail me.

I think the basic hippie dictum of “Do your own thing in your own time” applies pretty well to Burning Man. It's a place where you can be yourself and pursue your wildest desires in a mostly judgment-free environment. It's an experiment in creating a temporary community which is pretty great but far from utopian or anarchic. It's one big party. It's a gift economy. Participation really is key – you get out if what you put into it. It's a spiritual experience. It's creative and liberating. It's a city and you'll find what you do in any city – all kinds of different people – some you'll like and some you won't – crime (my bike got stolen), excess, rules, excitement, beauty, and traffic.

“Burnier than thou” was a phrase we heard from someone we met on the playa one night who was talking about the cliquishness of Burning Man, which was definitely something I noticed and didn't care for. Some theme camps are pretty unapproachable. People want to be with their friends and they mistrust newcomers. They think people are coming for the wrong reasons – like “show me your tits” mardi gras mentality – and they think there are just too many people – period. This elitism is certainly not unique to Burning Man. It's no different than the record store worker who tells you he only listened to the Chili Peppers when they were truly punk rock and didn't have songs on the radio. People like to feel like they discovered something and it only belongs to a precious few – when the masses catch on, they then have to cast it aside or try to assert their superiority as original settlers.


Just Trying to Live: You hate camping; you are a city gal. How did you overcome the physical challenges of a week in the desert without plumbing? What anticipated hardships turned out to be better than anticipated? Which were worse? Can you think of any really bad examples of hygiene?

Not being able to shower was a big concern for me, but fortunately we were able to use the camp shower of a neighboring camp with our own solar shower bag, so that was cool. Showering on the playa feels great for about 15 minutes and then you're sweaty and dusty again, but it's still worth the effort.

I found the port-a-potties were better maintained than I expected. There was almost always toilet paper, and burners by and large clean up after themselves. One camp even gave out pee funnels to make the experience more sanitary for us gals. I didn't, however, crap for 6 days. I think my body just resists spending more time on the port-a-potty than necessary, plus I wasn't eating that much.

I worried about the heat, but it wasn't too bad. The worst part about it is, you tend to stay up very late and then want to sleep during the day, but the heat makes that impossible unless you have an air-conditioned RV, which we didn't. So I spent the week pretty much sleep-deprived.

The dust storms were worse this year than ever, at least in the three previous years that my campmate had attended. We had two really bad dust storms that lasted about three hours. They were complete white outs, where you couldn't see more than a foot in front of you. Our tents were totally blown over during the first one and all our stuff was covered in dust. So this is a picture of me after that storm that I call “learning to accept the dust.” You're gonna be dirty out there, so you might as well like it. Goggles and dust masks were a necessity.

As aggravating as the dust storms were, there was something beautiful about it too. During the first one, we had to navigate our way from the opposite side of the playa to our campsite with very little visibility. There were moments when I couldn't see my friend, and I felt scared and totally alone in the universe. Despite the disorientation, it was actually quite a powerful moment and really kind of beautiful. Later I read an essay on architecture by Rudolf Arnheim that kind of explained the duality of my feelings in the dust storm:

"Extreme emptiness...can cause ultimate terror. This lack of external definition destroys the internal sense of identity, because a person defines the nature of his own being largely by his place in a network of personal relations. To be sure, a strong personality may cope with aloneness by establishing himself or herself as the center and irradiating the surroundings with a sunburst of forces that animate emptiness. Under such conditions the absence of counteracting obstacles may even create an exhilarating sense of freedom. It is the experience of 'covering' the world from a mountain top."

I can't think of a bad hygiene example but I can mention a bad hygienic practice. There are many warnings about not putting foreign objects in the toilet but some people still don't heed them. We heard a report on the burning man radio that a toilet worker had been blasted by raw sewage due to a bottle that got stuck in the toilet pipe. Disgustin'.


Hippy Livin': Did you ever consider going nude at any point? Describe the level of nudity at Burning Man. Was it aesthetically pleasing? Did it feel authentic for both men and women? How about the amount of drug use going on? Did it feel dangerous to see doped up people walking around all over the place? Or did they seem harmless?

No, I never considered going nude. I just am not that comfortable with my body, plus who wants to risk sunburn on their most sensitive bits? I did go braless a couple times, which was kinda liberating. When you're hot, the last thing you want to deal with is a sweaty bra. I wore more dresses than usual too because of the heat – it was just more comfortable.

Nudism isn't really that big there. I'd say maybe 2% of the population is nude, maybe 5% if you include the topless. Like David Sedaris pointed out in Naked, most nudists are not the people you'd like to see naked, so it's not titillating. It's not particularly annoying either, unless it seems forced, as it did to me with some of the topless gals and particularly the “shirtcocks” – guys who would wear t-shirts but no pants.

There's a lot of drinking and drugging. One person we met described Burning Man as “summer camp for substance abusers.” It's an experimental atmosphere where anything goes. It's the biggest party I ever attended, and I got in the spirit. I didn't see anyone being a danger to themselves or others.


Baby Burner: Since this was your first time at Burning Man, were you treated differently? Were you given an initiation of any sort? Were you snubbed? How did you prepare for your first Burning Man? What are the top 5 things a new burner needs to know?

First time burners are known as virgins, because everything is sexualized at Burning Man. When you arrive, you're met by the greeters and they ask if you're a virgin. I admitted I was and had to get out of the car and bang a gong. They cheered for me, gave me a hug and said “welcome home.” Yes, it's kind of corny, but relatively painless. They used to spank the virgins until there was a lawsuit over it. As a virgin, I did find it hard to approach the Burnier Than Thous. Some were friendly, but many were uninterested. I could certainly have made more of an effort to be outgoing, but I was content to hang out mostly with my campmates and have my own personal experience. Taking it all in took a lot of energy and left me with less social energy.

My tips for first timers:

  1. Read everything on burningman.com and adhere to the packing tips.
  2. Spend some time before you go picking out fun costumes and decorating your bike – you'll find it easier to get in the spirit.
  3. Don't just go for a weekend – make it at least 4 days. It takes 2 days just to feel sort of acclimated.
  4. Don't forget your goggles, sunblock, dust masks, and chapstick.
  5. Stretch yourself and try things you wouldn't normally do – for me that was fighting in the thunderdome.


Burning Day Planner: What is a day in the life of a Burner?

There really is no typical day out there. If you take a look at the playa calendar, you'll find a zillion activities going on, and you can choose to do a lot of them or nothing at all. I tended not to do much during the day. The heat made me lethargic, and I was typically recovering from too much fun the night before. A lot of the time I just hung around our shade structure and tried to sleep. A couple times I went on bike rides and checked out art or the scene at center camp. I visited the temple a few times and saw people meditating there, doing yoga, etc. Things start to come more alive around sunset, and people will make dinner with their camps. Then they hit the playa – checking out the art, bars, dance clubs, you name it. The nights go on and on, and staying up for sunrise is pretty neat, too.


Art Buggy: Art seems to be a major component of the event. What is so exceptional about the art at Burning Man? What kind of materials and themes did you see over and over again? Who are the sort of people who feel compelled to create Burning Man art?

There's a theme to each Burning Man and this year it was “The Green Man”, so a lot of the art fits that theme. There's a huge variety – I can't really find too much that's in common other than maybe fire, light and wood. There are huge-scale pieces like The Temple and Crude Awakening that receive funding from the org. Even with funding, something like Crude Awakening requires a ton of dedicated volunteers. I spoke to several crew members who said they worked on the project all year, one or two days a week, and much more steadily toward the end. It took a semi-truck to bring each of the 8 figures to the playa. That's what I call a large-scale installation.


Another spectacular piece was Homouroboros or, more commonly, Flying Monkeys. This was a mesmerizing bit of strobe lights and movement. We got close to it on the last night and discovered that spectators actually power the movement by exercise bikes linked to the battery. So we had a chance to make art.

Big Rig Jig was also impressive - and interactive - you could climb into it.

Making art is a great way to participate in the experience, and some of the small-scale pieces are really cool, too. One example would be our neighbors who had rigged a relaxation chair with harps you could play and music that was piped in. It was comfy, and you did feel transported when you sat in it. Another example would be the small plot of century plants made of PVC tube that my campmate designed and we installed at our camp. It was going to be part of a larger piece called “Plant Century” that didn't quite get finished (until the LA Decompression Party), but it was impervious to dust storms and made a great way to find our camp at night (see photo above with rainbow). On the last day, a stranger told us “thanks for the beacon.”


Is It Grateful Dead Ad Nauseum? How does music tie into it? Is this a component of the art projects or does music stand alone. What genres are most popular?

Dance music (techno, house, trance, all those genres I don't know much about) is definitely the most popular, but you hear everything. Some well-known DJs play the dance tents, which are hoppin' night and day. One of the most fun parts was when we were out in the deep playa and happened on a redneck-themed art car that was blasting Guns N Roses and Motorhead and throwing an impromptu party. We also stumbled into a live hip hop performance in a bar. We subjected our neighbors to two hours of Tom Jones one night. I heard a really funny song parody fella in center camp one afternoon. It's a total sonic assault and never quiet, so bring your ear plugs if you can't sleep through music.


Burning Man Runway: Is everyone self-expressing through fashion?

Totally. There are certain themes that are popular, like fake fur, glow sticks, cornrows, pink hair, toplessness. People go all out in their costuming, and I wished I'd worked harder on my outfits. I think I got the most compliments when I wore my Liza Minnelli butterfly shirt on the night the man burned. Next year I will put more effort into dressing up.


Big Hippy Jumpy-house? What other experience-exhibits or interactive activities were there?

There are tons – if you look in the playa calendar, you'll find all kinds of things to do. Some highlights for me were Death Guild, which is like the Thunderdome from Mad Max world, where you wear a harness and jump around batting your opponent with a foam bat. That was a real rush even if I got totally scraped up and bruised.

There was a giant magic 8-ball. One art piece looked like a crashed space capsule. We went inside and saw an animatronic monkey and video screens and became immersed in a dialogue with the monkey. The space capsule seat reverberated so that you felt like you were taking off.


Heartburn: Where there moving exhibits? What moments touched you emotionally?

The Temple was moving and it is an interactive experience too – people leave mementos of loved ones who have passed on or write notes about things they'd like to change in their lives. I wrote a long letter to my dad who passed away this summer on his Notre Dame cap and left it there. Really, the combination of these reflective moments and the wild partying was what I needed after the year from hell I'd been having. The temple is a great place to chill out and meditate a bit, and when it burns on Sunday night, it's cathartic. The Burning of the Man feels much more tribal and exhilarating, while the burning of the temple is contemplative. Both were mesmerizing, as was the burning of the Crude Awakening oil derrick. I think witnessing both burns is important because the experiences are so different.

The other experience that was moving to me, and it will probably sound silly, was the last night when we decided to gift peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We had a lot of leftover PB&J and went around asking people who were packing to leave if they had extra bread. We then loaded up a wagon and set up on the outskirts of a party near the Celtic Forest art installation. We were like the sausage lady standing in front of the nightclub. While people at first were a bit skeptical of what we were doing there, when they saw we were giving away food, they smiled and came over and talked. We met the artist and learned about the project, and I think we gave away about 30 sandwiches. At that point I felt like I was contributing and connecting with other burners.

Toxic Burner: Is there a personality type that should not go to Burning Man? Or a person who would annoy all the other burners?

It's definitely not for everyone. People who are close-minded and judgmental shouldn't go. People who are looking for a mardi gras experience should stick to New Orleans. People whose idea of roughing it is a Holiday Inn as opposed to the Ritz Carlton will be completely miserable. If you're a prude, stay home, because there's a lot of in-your-face sexuality.

The So-You-Think-You-Can-Escape-LA-Traffic Jam: How long did it take to get out of the Playa? Did you have any experiences with people while waiting to leave?

It took us 3 hours to get from our campsite to the main road, and then it was slow-going on the two-lane road all the way to Reno. We left on Monday afternoon which is one of the worst times to leave, they say. Traffic wasn't moving evenly. We know this because our campmate left 30 minutes before us, and we passed him because we had chosen a different lane. The exodus is definitely a drag, because you're feeling sad that it's over, exhausted from packing, and really filthy and sweaty and just longing for real food and a shower. You can avoid the long lines, probably, by leaving before the Temple burns, but I wouldn't want to miss that. They do give traffic reports on the Black Rock City radio, which help.


Burn-sight is 20/20: If you were running the event, what would you change?

You know, I can't really think of anything. Maybe I'd move it near a lake or provide some large watering hole because I'm a wuss. I think the organizers do an amazing job setting up the temporary city, and I found it ran a lot smoother than I expected, especially given its scale. I'm really glad I went, and I'll be back next year - watch this site for updates on my 2008 plans for Puritanica, getting in the spirit of the 2008 art theme "The American Dream." I'd encourage everyone to give it a go and have their mind (and maybe other body parts) blown.

Visit the official Burning Man website

Been to Burning Man? Are you Burnier than Thou? Discuss.


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