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Jewish World Review Sept. 24, 1999 /14 Tishrei, 5760

David Skinner

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What I Saw at Burning Man --
Black Rock Desert, Nevada Meet the new counterculture. Andrew Heintz, 25, and his girlfriend Amy Joe Alstead, 26, have, as the police might put it, no fixed address. But for a homeless couple, they're very middle class. After a couple of years of hard work and saving, Andrew closed a lucrative carpentry business and Amy quit her job as a preschool teacher. They have sold their house in Minneapolis, Minn., paid all their bills and their credit cards, and bought a year's worth of health insurance. Now, towing a pickup truck and canoe behind their RV, they've hit the road. Their first stop is the annual spectacle known as the Burning Man project, held in Nevada's Black Rock desert in the week leading up to Labor Day.

In Andrew's words, Burning Man is "an art festival for pyromaniacs." That's because the week culminates in the ritualistic torching of the large wooden dummy that gives the event its name. But Burning Man is both more and less than that. It has a reputation for being popular among Silicon Valley types, but attendees represent a somewhat wider swath of young urban professionals, most of them from the San Francisco Bay area. They pay $100 apiece for the privilege of camping on a playa 120 miles north of Reno. This year's Burning Man attracted some 24,000 people, most of them from the San Francisco Bay area.

There is a lot of conceptual talk at the event-of Burning Man as an analogue to the Internet, with lots of ad hoc "communities" springing up; of the joys of non-commercialism (no money is supposed to change hands after arrival). It is a slice of the sort of Americana beloved of NPR's All Things Considered–well-educated people with a penchant for self-dramatization doing strange things in an out of the way place. There are night clubs, musical performances, theme villages, fashion shows, and talent contests.

One fight-like spectacle, named Thunderdome after the Mad Max movie, uses elastic pulleys to swing people holding foam-wrapped weapons into each other to do battle. Most sites are less ambitious, like Wimminbago camp, which as far as I could tell consisted of a Winnebago, a sign that read "Got ovaries?" and a half-dozen or so topless, overweight, and rather butch lesbians. Walking around Burning Man, you might wonder if you've stumbled into a mass audition for NEA grants. Artists erect various postmodern structures all over the four-square-mile area of the camp; flame-throwers belch forth; people paint their nude bodies and dance. Despite the festival's oft-repeated slogan–"No Spectators"–a sort of equilibrium has been achieved: About half the people are either naked or costumed, and the other half are watching them.

But for all the highfalutin talk, it's hard to avoid the obvious: The counterculture remains, as it has always been, a sort of shell game. It's considered bad manners to say so, but the art is often just decoration for a lot of sex and drugs. In an informal survey taken by Burning Man's "Ministry of Statistics," 60 percent of female respondents and 20 percent of male respondents said they had taken drugs in the last 24 hours. Sculptor Ray Cirino, whose "water woman" was on display, is in this sense emblematic of Burning Man, since he is perhaps more famous for multi-colored feather sex toys, which grace a 13-page spread in the October issue of Penthouse magazine.

Burning Man was started in 1986 on Baker Beach in San Francisco by Larry Harvey, at the time a depressed 37-year-old landscape gardener. He and some friends were burning stuff, including an 8-foot-tall wooden figurine, with, it seems, no particular mission in mind. According to the lore that has grown moss-like around this moment, people on the beach came running over to watch, leaving Harvey convinced that there was a need out there for some kind of ceremony like this. It became a "project." The organizers refer to it as an "experiment" and describe its aim as "radical self-expression."

The more fanatical participants call it a temporary utopia. They write down wishes on pieces of paper and burn them with the man. They talk about discovering themselves. It's radicalism circa high school: They want to "break down the barriers" that separate people in the "normal" world; they express themselves and celebrate what the "normal" world would prefer they repress; they want to show each other kindness and generosity, bringing to life an ideal community. They want, in short, to do a lot of drugs, preferably someone else's. The utopia is what pop psychology calls a "positive environment," promoting and affirming the members' bad habits.

Still, there is something charming about a guy like Andrew Heintz, who is neither a social misfit graduating from the identity-warping games of the Internet nor a completely respectable professional atoning for an otherwise conventional and bourgeois existence. His light, bluish eyes give him the look of a wild man as they peer out from his sunburned face. Balding prematurely around a widow's peak, he has yellow blond hair that hangs long in the back and, except for the rounds of firecrackers he has taped along the brim of his brown leather hat, he looks like he could have just stepped out of a daguerreotype of cattle ranchers.

Before dropping out, Andrew bought an RV. A few years back, he says, he wasn't sure if he could live on the road, in a world without mortgages, income tax returns, and two-bedroom homes. Burning Man, however, convinced him he "didn't need a permanent address." Bravo, David Mayers would say. Mayers, a radio host on the NPR affiliate in the Silicon Valley area, is hanging out at a camp called the Laughing Sex Institute, pet project of his friend, 48-year-old Steve Penny, who works as a hiring consultant to high-tech firms in Silicon Valley. According to Mayers, forgetting where you live is exactly what you should do. Mayers is upset that there is so much techno music at Burning Man. There should be "African music," he says, "that makes everyone forget their name and address." And where, he wants to know, is the Islamic music? The people at Burning Man are "desert nomads. . . . Why don't we hear the chanting of the Koran? . . . Where are the ouds?" Ouds, he explains, are the "lutes of the Islamic world."

Mayers would have been happy to learn that, even without African music, Robert Cardinelli, a 32-year-old bartender from Dallas, Texas, found a way to get lost immediately upon arrival. He "made a beeline for the port-o-potties, forgot to make any markers" to help him identify where he had parked, "and got lost, 24-hour lost," without food or water. He started out drunk, and then came across a hit of acid. It was, however, a sad trip: All the while, his "favorite teddy bear was locked in the car." This is Cardinelli's second trip to Burning Man. The first was "somewhat interesting, somewhat spiritual," he says. "I put to rest my ex-wife." She's dead? "No, put her memory to rest." This year, he came in order to overcome a drinking problem. It was only his second day there, but already he was speaking of it as a failure. "Did I accomplish that?" he asks. "Not really." At this point, a friend hands him binoculars, saying "Look out on the playa, there's a girl out there. She looks about 16, but she's hot." The next afternoon, with the desert heat bearing down, I see Robert stumble by, drinking a fifth of scotch straight from the bottle.

The idea that you can reinvent yourself at will is a modern notion; in its postmodernism, Burning Man proceeds from the idea that you were invented to begin with. Any personal characteristic–sexual bent, character trait, religious belief–is only a choice away from being something totally different. Many attendees assume "playa names" for the duration, like "Evil Pippie" and "Maid Marion," to name just two. Of course, the pressure to find a new self in just days can take a serious psychic toll. At one theme camp, where the point was to tell jokes, a young man walked up and fell apart when the crowd asked him to tell one, too. "Wait!" he screamed. The two girls he was with giggled as if this was the joke. "It's got to stop." Staring at his companions with a look of violent disbelief, he continued, "No, stop–you must stop!" His voice full of self-pity and, it seemed, real anguish, he went on, "People tell me who I am and . . . I can't take it. It's got to stop. I have no ego. I have no id . . . " Two volunteer rangers came over and, smiling sweetly the whole time, asked him to come with them.

The identity problem of the counterculture is not exactly a small one, nor is it even a problem according to some. Last year, in Time magazine, R.U. Sirius, a writer who has made a career as a high-tech impresario, drew a straight line from the false identities of the old multi-user-dungeon games on the Internet and the identity-changing experience at Burning Man. The new counterculture, he argued, is made up of "bright young pagans," "the computer-programming, anthropologically aware polymaths who have popularized the imaginative role-playing bulletin boards of cyberspace." The new counterculture's philosophy, Sirius explained, opens up "temporary autonomous zones" in which completely original identities are formed.

But only a bright young pagan could mistake a group of people running away from themselves for seekers of self-knowledge. The identity problem of these young rebels is the narcissism of small cosmetic differences. What the oh-so-hip Sirius calls "postpolitical tribalization" is actually the superficial vanity of tiny social cliques who fear that, without visible markers, strangers might mistake them for another equally self-absorbed clique.

The culture of Burning Man is rather a direct descendant of the '70s awareness movements that sought a "new consciousness." In The Culture of Narcissism, his study of the post-liberation left, Christopher Lasch attacked awareness movements for projecting patients' insecurities and shortcomings onto society at large. Lasch would have found the scene at Burning Man familiar, despite the fact that it is the product of a more opulent time. "I didn't go through adolescence until my twenties," I overheard one young woman say. The awareness movement, according to Lasch, reflected a common failure among otherwise educated and self-sufficient adults to overcome the adolescent's inclination to see the outside world as a reflection of his own needs and wants.

The narcissist . . . cannot live without an admiring audience. His apparent freedom from family ties and institutional constraints does not free him to stand alone or to glory in his individuality. On the contrary, it contributes to his insecurity, which he can overcome only by seeing his "grandiose self" reflected in the attentions of others.

Thus the deep problem when a culture of narcissism endures. Eventually, everyone becomes an attention hog and nobody pays attention to anybody but himself.

This attitude, of course, bespeaks childishness of a high order. So it's perhaps unsurprising to read in the promotional material on the official Web site that the appeal of Burning Man is, "You're not the weirdest kid in the classroom." And it's unsurprising that the politics of Burning Man, such as they are, are also a bit adolescent. Burning Man founder Larry Harvey has a commercialization rant that could sit nicely beside any beatnik or hippie screed against culture for the masses. "You remember breakdancing?" Harvey asked (with accidental hilarity) in an interview with an online publication. "It was immediately appropriated and turned into a fad and an article of consumption so that within the span of a mere three or four years the younger brothers and sisters of the break-dancers who would've been emulating them and adding to that tradition now perceived it to be a consumer item that was no longer available to them: it had been exploited, commodified and turned into a source of entertainment." Yes, at Burning Man commercialization is much inveighed against; in fact, monetary exchange, with only a couple of exceptions, is a violation of community. Barter is the main form of commerce on the playa, a rather sacred principle it seems, except that I heard more than a couple of people use the phrase "cash barter."

And the self-expression is a bit reminiscent of high-school literary magazines: "I can be free, I can be naked [which she was], I can be fat, I can be gay," says a young lady who asked not to be identified since she was there with a man not her husband. "You can just be whatever it is you need to be, today." The urge to try on new identities isn't as strong, however, among those who come to watch. "Shelter for lost girls"–one sign hanging off the side of an RV reads–"massages for the ladies." Another camp hoists a banner advertising a free drink to female attendees who would show their "panties," and two free drinks if they aren't wearing any. Such old-fashioned lechery seems like a pinnacle of self-knowledge compared with the new-age expressive nudity that Burning Man ostensibly celebrates.

A couple of guys describe for me two entrants in a "talent contest." The performers went on stage and, well, did the nasty. I asked John Dailey, a 29-year-old environment expert working for a mining company in Nevada and a first-time attendee, what he thought about that. He responded with a huge smile, "What do you think I thought of that? It was great." Still, for a guy who knows cheap thrills when he sees them, John is completely taken in by Burning Man. It is, he says, "an evolutionary miracle that we've progressed enough intellectually to put together a society like this, for even just a week, that's made of pure good karma." Everything else, he says, is "f–up." Not that John isn't trying to help: He is organizing, he told me in the vaguest terms, a "meeting next month in Reno" for influential and open-minded citizens to talk about "what society should look like 200 years from now."

Except for people like John, a true believer but also a happy spectator, the people at Burning Man seem divided into two groups: exhibitionists and voyeurs, those looking to express themselves and those looking to watch. Among newcomers, those who came to watch easily outnumber those who came to be cleansed and purified by the flames of the Burning Man. Which makes one wonder if the 60 percent increase in attendance over last year (when only some 15,000 people showed up) isn't, in large part, attributable to increased publicity about the cheap thrills to be had for a mere $100.

The organizers seem to be onto this aspect of Burning Man. A release form I was asked to sign when I arrived said, "Producer agrees not to broadcast any footage featuring individuals engaged in sex acts or drug use," both of which, clearly more than the art, have made Burning Man "a legend," as one first-timer describes it. Such is the counterculture: one excuse-making factory run into the ground only to be replaced by another. Now it's Burning Man's turn to deny that decadence is the reason for the season, when it is plain as day to the guys who took photographs for their private collections. Purely dirty minds always get the better of pretentious dirty minds.

Having spent the better part of a week in the desert among naked people, I have come to several conclusions. One, perhaps the ugliest thing in the world is a naked man riding a bicycle. Two, any nudist who claims not to be an exhibitionist is just a lying exhibitionist. Three, and most important, public nudity strips loveliness of any love. As Othello says of Desdemona, "She has eyes, and chose me." Laying one's beauty down in the public square makes impossible such a choice; it is to prefer the eyes of many and to offer one's beauty to all in common. Thus does the beloved rob the lover of his treasure; once it is theirs, it is his no more.

On the last night of the festival, Andrew Heintz and his girlfriend Amy Joe Alstead are starting a bonfire. Using a design he traced from a children's model, Andrew has built a wooden dinosaur that stands over 15 feet tall. Someone shows up with a video camera to capture the moment on tape. Andrew, a natural stage personality, has an easy awareness of where the camera is.

Using six sheets of plywood, one pound of grade B fireworks, and a quart of kerosene, he explains, "we are going to sacrifice this dinosaur to the gods of wind and dust." By the time the structure is moved into a safe area of the playa, Andrew has amassed an audience of about 90 people. While stuffing the gut of the dinosaur with cardboard strips, he works the crowd, saying things like, "If you have marijuana or any hallucinogenic drugs, you should come find me in ten minutes." When the fire starts, there are about 150 people standing around, some of them writing down wishes and dropping them into the flames.

I got out a notepad and wrote down my wish: to be returned to the "normal world."

David Skinner is an associate editor of the Weekly Standard. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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