Sunday, September 27, 2009

Burning Man Part 1: Praise

I was more than a little annoyed in the weeks leading up to our departure. I'd been given a good idea of what to expect from my friend F, who'd previously attended. Bring lip balm, sun screen, goggles, and saline nasal spray, she told us. Oh, and ex-lax. "Trust me".
The event is held in the middle of the desert, in the remotest possible part of Nevada. Occasionally the winds will pick up, raising huge clouds of dust to the point of white-out. Dust, by the way, which burns the skin due to its high alkali content.

The event organizers provide almost nothing in the way of services. When you show up, you're presented with a city layout, portapotties, and a place to buy coffee and ice. That's it. Attendees are responsible for their own food, water, supplies, everything.

And then there was the back of the ticket, which warned me in no uncertain terms that by attending, I was risking "serious injury or death".

I was so, so ready to be disappointed, and I mean that sincerely, without purpose of dramatic embellishment. I was pissed.

And this is what we encountered when we entered the gate, while waiting in a four-hour line to get inside.

Great.


But I was there, ticket in hand, supplies bought, and determined to give it a fair shot. After all, the alternative was to hop right back in the car and take that 14-hour car drive right back home.

The yurt provided my first moment of joy. We'd met up with our friends F and K, Voltroning our camps together to form a larger, more awesome super-camp, and K had done research into "hexayurts", a popular shade structure built entirely about of insulative siding and super-sticky tape.

It took us a day of dedicated labor, battling the high winds, dust, and complete lack of knowledge about how the hell the damn thing was supposed to fit together.


But we did it. And then, when we were done, we had a big, roomy, shaded area to rest in for the rest of our time there. And man, did I get attached to that yurt. It was a palatial enclosure, sheltered from the wind, heat, and, most importantly of all, dust. We spent hours upon hours in there, hiding from the windstorms, playing Outburst, and talking about nothing in particular.

I feel more attached to that damn yurt than to most of the apartments I've ever lived in.


Halfway through construction, we heard a cry coming from the nearby street: "Screwdrivers! Screeeeeeeeeeewdrivers!"

Two handsome gentlemen, clad in aprons and nothing else (nudity, you may have heard, being an important component of the event) were walking by, wheeling an ice chest and cooler, providing screwdrivers to anyone who wanted them.

This was my first real exposure to the Gift Economy, and it was weird. Attendees at Burning Man are not supposed to engage in commerce of any sort. No buying. No bartering. No trading. If you show up, you're expected to have something to provide to the community, and you're supposed to provide it willingly to the community, with no expectation of payment or compensation. This was, by far, the thing I was most expected to be disappointed by.

But, by god, it worked, and it was truly unsettling to experience. By and large, most people's gifts were small things -- stickers and medallions were popular. But then person after person would offer you free beer or ice cream and walk away, not even waiting for you to say thank you. Our next door neighbor brought a portable shower on his truck, trucking in 500 gallons of water with him to provide the gift of cleanliness. Other people provided elaborate pancake breakfasts.

And the art, of course, was a form of gifting. Massive structures carted in from hundreds of miles away. Multi-stage dance clubs, pumping out music and light at all hours in the morning. Lessons in tassel twirling, swing sets, mini-golf courses, free hug booths, incredible mobile art cars, flame-thrower shooting galleries, clothing boutiques. All provided by the attendees, without any thought of compensation, purely to contribute to the event.

I didn't expect it to work. I thought it would be a sham, a cute attempt at social bonding that would quickly backfire and fall apart.

But it worked. It really did. I was amazed.

Next post: pictures!
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1 comment:

  1. I, too, miss the yurt. It feels like a former apartment.

    ReplyDelete