Burning Man festival contrasts artistic ideology at Vassar

Burning Man is a yearly festival held in the temporary Black Rock City in the desert of Northwestern Nevada. It is also the world’s most radical arts exhibition. I arrived with nearly 70,000 other individuals in the last week of August to participate in a “gift economy”—where, in effect, no commerce exists. Teams of individuals form campsites to freely share a cornucopia of services: carnival rides, iced coffee, sushi, massages, gospel choir sessions, shamanic rituals, communal showers, yoga sessions, tea parlors, open bars, Challah French Toast breakfasts, TedX lectures, mindfulness workshops, a movie theater screening “Dark Side of the Rainbow:” these are just a few. “Mutant Vehicles” parade the streets—four-story yachts on wheels, twisted steel metalworkings, chariots, spaceships, a metropolitan bus refitted with 1000 watts of professional speakers, now an all-hours club, gaggles of Burners lolling off the sides, eyes peeled wide with childish disbelief at an oncoming vehicular octopus spewing flames from its tentacles. Everything is so big. Everything comes as a constant surprise. The ticket collecting org, Black Rock City LLC, does not provide food, water, shelter or electricity. They direct ticket sales toward the most essential geographical and logistical features: hiring people to build the 40-foot effigy of “The Man” in the center of the playa, securing land permits and providing basic medical services. Everything else is organized by volunteers. It is only by some kind of miraculous, gung-ho, do-it-yourself kind of spirit combined with radical social fantasies that the streets of its nearly five mile-in-diameter “playa” team with lights, colors and activity all day and all night long.

I arrived in Reno to meet my traveling companion, Mr. Spencer Bowen of Dallas, utterly bewildered and giddy. I had just spent two weeks at a Zen Monastery high in the Catskill Mountains, meditating and spending much time in solitary work. My awareness seemed preposterously outlandish as our adventure commenced. After a depraved failed attempt to consume eight-days worth of food in a Last Supper at a hotel suite, I balanced on Spencer’s bicycle pegs as he peddled to the strip mall. We needed gallons and gallons of water from the Wal-Mart, a place literally overrun with the unlikely combination of European backpackers and Bay Area software engineers. We were genuinely concerned about surviving in the extreme desert conditions. The first few Nevadan nights were spent in a Reno Wal-Mart parking lot purgatory caged in a rented 14-foot UHaul trailer, twisting and turning, hopelessly anxious for the tweet announcing that the weather would allow the city’s gates to open up. Though we chatted with some experienced “Burners” in the parking lot, we had only the slightest, vaguest sense of what to expect. Even still, we mostly heard from those experienced that the week would be so entirely far out that no words could do it justice…

After days of drifting about Reno on our silver spray painted BMX bicycles, we finally set out in the UHaul towards our destination, picking up two hitchhikers along the way. We finally arrived, at what could only be described as a Martian landscape. Fine, particulate dust blows everywhere. Hazy silhouettes of low lying mountains line the horizon. Weirdly, the desert scape is devoid of any flora or fauna whatsoever, except for the occasional bird cluster, planes landing on the compacted earth runway at the Black Rock City airport or the silicon valley moguls with their yellow parachutes skydiving through the faded blue sky. Bicycling people peddle through the dusty, bumpy streets, wearing every possible permutation of outfit or costume: I saw bikers, pixies, hooligans, drag queens, nomads, nudists. A man dressed as a furry brown fox. Cowboy hats, ski goggles and dust masks adorn faces, homogenizing Burners in anonymity and protecting them from sun and dust, the former mercilessly blazing at 100 degrees during the days and the latter whipping up into “whiteout” storms, reducing visibility to less than 10 feet. But, always, the bicycle system carries on. Spencer and I MacGyvered a ventilation system atop the UHaul using some wooden pallets, screws and two heavy-duty nylon tarps.

Our campsite was dominated by the days we tried in vain to locate scheduled campsites’ events in the what-where-when calendar. One typical Wednesday hour, three camp sites offered these events: a Spanish medieval Don Quixote theme dance, a lecture on Emotional Freedom Technique, a meridian tapping exercise for repairing the heart and a Squirt Gun Fight/Happy hour. There were assless chaps get-togethers, stilt walking lessons and talks on narwhalular genetics. As cool as all of these seemed, we didn’t make any of them.

What is art? If you go to the Lehman Loeb Arts Center, you may enjoy a thoroughly subtle experience. But a typical, tightly-organized arts exhibit always lacks the hyperbolic embodiment of interacting with Burning Man’s gargantuan sculptures. During the final nights, these installations are set alight. The 6:00 a.m. cool air is made practically boiling when the 72-foot plywood structure “Embrace” lifts up into flames. Spencer and I climbed up a big steel tree to ascend to its lookout tower. I caught the edge of my pants on the thin metal branches, and for a frenzied moment I teetered twenty feet up, feeling a wild, dangerous aspect of life I had never experienced in the Met, Prado or Loeb. People shouted up to me, “You can do this! You’re fine!” I came down to concerned hugs. Burning Man—even as singularity, even as a fantastical artifice shored up by its unbelievable temporality—embodies real social progress. Nowhere had I ever experienced such a dramatic sense of compassionate community. Typical lines of division were transformed: the young were in the dance pit with the octogenarians, the naked community shower was participated in regardless of gender or age, browns, blacks, whites, yellows, pinks, greens all danced in Dionysian ecstasy. Black Rock City is a magnificent example of life affirmed and creative possibility.

Vassar College is a place obsessed with social struggles and the alleviation of systematic injustices to those of particular genders, socioeconomic classes and ethnicities. However, Burning Man is not a struggle. Nowhere had I ever experienced such a dramatic sense of authentic communitas. Maybe it was the heat, maybe it was the alcohol, or maybe it was actually just the constantly-repeated Burning Man greeting (“Welcome Home”), but this place was post-tolerant. Really. The art of this place, the rule of this place, is absolute self-expression. Free love was in the air. This was the party I always hoped for in heaven: where finally everyone could just be themselves and not feel oppressed. Lines of division transformed into their logical converse: lines of connection. Really. A certain respect permeates this festival, this community, and no matter how flamboyant or how conventional you might be, it doesn’t matter: Burning Man is a venue for the release of these troublesome ego identities that we shoulder all day long.

As I felt the heat of the flames rising up from the Man effigy on our last night at the festival, watching a pyrotechnics show and hearing the crowd cheer in approval, I couldn’t help but imagine what if events at Vassar weren’t so dependent on official organization. I want to say “Welcome Home” to people around here, on any given day of the week, and not feel so self-reflexively cynical. Call me a dreamer, I dare you: but I think we are progressive enough to. And we don’t need administrative hand-holding every step of the way to do it. Come on y’all, let’s make art.

—Karam Anthony ’16

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