• Mark Mathews

Burning Man 2017: Radical Ritual


I was extremely lucky this year to make it to the Burning Man gathering and get to perform there. Pretty sweet stuff. I've had to take some time to decompress and pick up the pieces from the trip before I have been able to write anything about it. It was beyond a head fuck, so this is a little delayed perhaps, but better late than never as they say!

For those that don't know, Burning Man is an annual gathering that happens deep in the Nevada Desert, where a fully working city is erected (Black Rock City) by the community that visits. Burning Man is a week long event of art, self exploration and LOADS of fun and learning. It is NOT a festival, which the organisers and participants make very clear, but instead is classed as a communal gathering where ideas and experiences are shared amongst like minded individuals. By the end of the week, the city burns to the ground, with maybe the most symbolic piece of art (or at the very least the most well known) that burns being, 'The Man', a huge and massively impressive structure that changes year to year and is built by different camps that attend.

The theme for 2017 was 'Radical Ritual' and was based around a sense that we are born in a time where we do not have to be initiated or indoctrined into any one religion or faith, but instead we can be open to discovery, to finding our own truths and understanding of the world and universe we find ourselves living in. Thus, all art, expression and experience would centre around this idea, encouraging the concept and creation of new rituals, new rites of passage to be created from the absurd and laughable to the deep and meaningful - both of which I found myself involved with!

It would be a long, long post (and possibly very hard to recall a lot of details if I'm totally honest!) to recite everything that happened to me in the 8 days I spent in the dust. However, I will attempt to give you an overview of my experience and an idea of what Burning Man is like. Though it should be noted, nothing can convey the feelings you feel, nor prepare you for what it is actually like to be on the Burning Man Playa!

How people act

Tolerance, love and respect for the world around us is not only encouraged but really is a pre-requisite of entering the dust bowl that is Burning Man. I went there alone and I was welcomed with big open arms (literally, a lot of the time) to what Burners term, the Playa. The heat and the dust make this place very inhospitible and yet this is karmacially challenged by the amount of joyful hospitality that is offered from everyone attending. Money is not a thing here. Honestly! Instead, acts of human kindness are found at every corner: People are cooking food for anyone that is hungry, there are bars a plenty that are pouring drinks night and day, offering cold beers to Champagne Cocktails, there are clothes stores giving away clothes and there are even people offering kisses and hugs for those that need some TLC!

It is not unheard of to be gifted things as you mindlessly walk or ride around the city. I was gifted tons of things including these different necklaces.

This atmosphere was so completely overwhelming at first and it was hard to know how to properly act and to also get out of normal states of thinking. It made me really question myself and the way I choose to see and act around money. Obviously, we couldn't just change society in one swoop to forget about money and let cities be powered by love, but there was a really strong power in living this way in Burning Man, that instead of creating a society of freeloaders actually went the opposite way and inspired and encouraged more acts of generosity that inspired more generous acts and so on and so forth, building this, frankly, wonderful culture and community life.

I know what some of you might be thinking - What a fucking Hippy. Well, you know what? Yeah! It was great and you should sincerely give it a whirl before you judge. Kiss, hug!

But it's not just about being free from the shackles of money and selfishness, Burning Man offers people the chance to be who they want to be and act the way they want to act. This results in obvious 'differences' to the outside world, such as people living life on the Playa completely naked and (consensual) free love taking place in many areas of the dust bowl. But there are smaller, and in some way more poetic, freedoms that get expressed such as how someone might dress, trying out something new that they'd never do in the 'real world', (singing, yoga, chanting etc) or just breaking out of their shell to talk to brand new people and seek adventures on the playa. The feeling of acceptance and tolerance is extremely liberating and a wonderful feeling.

Survival

When you get your Burning Man tickets it is made abundantly clear that you are taking your life into your own hands and that you 'could die'. Burning Man does not take responsibility for your welfare, you do. This is as much survival as it is fun and games.

As it was my first time I wanted to really push myself and experience it regardless of how hard it might be. So instead of any luxuries like an RV or a big tent, I went basic! I took the Burner Bus (the shuttle bus that carries people to the Burning Man site from either San Francisco or Reno) into the site, armed with a 2 man tent, a bike, food (mainly cans of tuna), water for a week and my clothes.

I learnt pretty quickly that if I was to do this again I would aim for a bit more luxury!

I also learnt pretty damn quickly that living in the desert means that EVERYTHING gets dusty and dirty and if you've not got any way of washing you pretty much only need to live in a few items of clothing. Disgusting? Sure. Easy? Without a fucking doubt!

When I stepped off the bus on arrival the Burning Man greeters were there to, well...greet us. Now as a 'Virgin Burner' I was taken away with the rest of these virgins and was required to lie down and roll around in the dust, to 'initiate' me into the Burning Man fraternity. I wasn't too keen on doing this as I wanted to try to stay as dust free as possible and rolling around in it this early on into the week seemed like a silly idea. However, I very quickly learned that what this exercise was doing was to get us all used to the fact that we would CONSTANTLY be covered in fucking dust. Dust that I still find in parts of my watch strap months later! The lesson is: You cannot hide from it for long so you might as well embrace it.

Because of all this dust, most things that go into Burning Man don't make it out in one piece, so it is always a risk to take anything of any value out there with you. There are huge dust storms that occasionally sweep through the city and although these are hugely entertaining and incredible to experience, they cover every thing with deep thick alkaline dust - Phones, cameras and all the rest have no chance of survival! So I kept anything important sealed up in my suitcase, hence the lack of photos! But being cut off from any technology and the cares and concerns that come from having these about your person, simply heightened the sense of freedom that I felt at Burning Man.

To protect myself from the constant dust, I had a face mask and goggles to protect my eyes and lungs. These were extremely useful for the dust storms that completely envelop everything in it's past, putting you into complete and utter darkness, before it moves on and you are left caked in sand. It is, however, an awesome and eerie experience, to feel the power of Mother Nature face on in these storms.

The other danger that had to be taken into consideration is night time - It. Gets. Dark.

Lights are essential, and lots of them. You need them on your bike, on your self and even on your tent and around your camp. Some people get really creative with them and make suits that flash and strobe as they stroll across the Playa. Nighttime is made really magical because of the use of lights everywhere. Without lights you are leaving yourself open to being hit by bikes, art cars, or being the target for well meaning abuse from Burners that want you to know how dangerous it is to not be 'lit'.

Music

It is important to state that Burning Man is not a music festival per se, though there is TONS of music going on. In actual fact it doesn't even like being described as a festival, it is a gathering or a community, where there are no line ups or acts released before hand, instead people come and surprise you with their music. The main diet in the desert, music wise, is EDM - some good, some not so good. However, as much as the thud from some of the biggest P.A's you're likely to hear, blare out music suited to being off your tits to, there is also a wealth of other music that you can dig out.

As I explained before, I played at Burning Man 2017, which was awesome and there was a lot more acts like me playing that,Indie-Rock-Folk stuff across various camps. I also saw a fair amount of Jazz shows, some hillbilly rock and some spell binding world music. You are definitely catered for all tastes really, but I will stress again...EDM is KING out in the desert!

Art Works

One of the most incredible things about Burning Man is the art works that are created and built out there in the desert. There are hundreds upon hundreds of pieces of art that can be the size of a large building dotted around the playa, not to mention the art cars that drive around transformed into fire breathing dragons, pac man characters and full sized boats - to name but a few. All of these incredible things are interactive - you can climb on them, be driven around on them, play with them - and this creativity and wonder is astonishing, especially when you take into account that everything you are seeing and witnessing is made for the pure love of it. No one is getting paid for doing this!

Out on the Playa at night is possibly one of the most surreal, beautiful and inspiring places I have ever been. Every piece of art, every art car and every person is lit up with lasers, fairy lights, flood lights and any other type of lighting you can think of! Sure a lot of acid and mushrooms gets dropped at a place like Burning Man, but believe me you can trip out on simply standing out on the Playa and trying to take it all in. It is truly one of the most wonderful things I've ever seen and is the closest I've got to feeling like I am on an altogether different planet.

There is, of course, the huge structures ofThe Man and the Temple, that are erected and there for everyone to interact with. The Man stands tall, dead in the centre of the Playa and works as a way to guide yourself round the huge site as well as being an impressive interactive art piece. There is a sense of calm and reverence with this structure, but nothing like the Temple that sits far out in the deep playa. Here people arrive to sit quietly with thoughts, meditate, and leave messages of hope to themselves, loved ones and more often than not, people that have passed. The amount of photos and messages pinned up all over this vast structure was possibly more breath taking than the huge man made structure itself! However, it was the mood and feeling that hung over the Temple that made it so peculiar. I have never before, nor since, felt such instant and powerful sadness for no reason. From the second I stepped foot into the Temple I felt the melancholy in my chest and just couldn't stop myself from crying, right up until I left the structure and it as quickly stopped. It was utterly bizarre and it happened every single time I went in there.

Learning

Of course throughout every single day of the gathering there are parties and happenings and there are art structures to play on and climb over, but what is possibly lesser known is the classes, seminars and talks that take place on the Playa. These can be anything from an early morning Yoga class or meditation session to a talk about Bitcoins or a lunchtime Jazz recital. I went to a range of different talks, some spiritual some business related and I took part in Yoga, Meditation and sound healing classes. The latter was something I had never involved myself in before and I must say it was really eye opening...no, I guess it was ear opening...whatever, it was something I really related and resonated with, which is the great thing about Burning Man - You can try out things you'd never try before and in a sense (and to use a well worn Cliché!) 'find yourself'.

Finding yourself

Yes, with so many hippies in one place, surely 'finding oneself' is the point? Well, I kind of believed that there would be some self exploration and I did partly want to go because of this. Like I say: I'm an old hippie (not very) deep down. However, although I had amazing revelations and learnt lots about myself and surviving, my personal findings were that I would not necessarily advise someone to go there solely for the reason of 'finding oneself'. I think you are better off going to a specific retreat, (Yoga, Ayahuasca, Mediation to name a few) where you are solely working towards that goal. Now, granted Burning Man does offer tons of spiritual classes, as I discussed, and I would agree to a certain extent that Burning Man is whatever you make of it, but from my point of view it was a lot more party than I imagined. Not a bad thing at all and I got a great balance of things, but I think it's worth noting that if you go there to try to squeegee your third eye, then you will have to do so whilst listening to 60,000 other people who are off their pickles dancing to EDM on top of a fire breathing dragon!

So, that's a few bits and pieces about Burning Man 2017. It was a great experience and I would be open to doing it again, but if I did I would do so in MUCH more comfort and maybe not for the entire 8 days!

Have you ever been to Burning Man? Let me know your stories and tips in the comments below.

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