There are 24,400 people hanging out in the Nevada desert for Burning Man, but you can’t see them. Winds strong enough to tip a yacht are whipping up alkali dust from the cracked desert floor, and visibility in the 40-degree night air has dwindled to around two feet. Most everyone except for a few naked men who are yelling heartfelt prayers to the Wind God has sought shelter in an RV, or, at the very least, in one of the hundreds of waist-high pup tents that crowd this high desert plateau.
Still, two figures veer into the foreground as I cross through a particularly windy patch. It’s Judy and Tom from Phoenix, Arizona. They’re clad only in white bathrobes, each with a gold-embroidered monogram, the robes they wore on the first night they were married. “We met back home two years ago,” says Judy, a plain, long-haired brunette who’s got one hand over her mouth to block the swirling dust. “I took him to Burning Man so he could see what kind of girl I am.”
“I’d never met anyone like her,” gushes Tom, an older man with graying hair and an inviting smile.
“The next year we came as boyfriend-girlfriend,” continues Judy. “And this year as husband and wife.” Without bragging about the frequency of their newlywed couplings, Judy and Tom let it be known that they’re not spending all their time battling the wind. “So far this year,” says Judy, with a coy smile, “we’ve just been enjoying the inaugural, we’re-at-Burning-Man-so-we-don’t-have-to-close-the-windows stuff.”
They’re not the only ones so inclined at the fifteenth year of this week-long festival of post-apocalyptic art and good old-fashioned exhibitionism. Trucks pulling gigantic fire-breathing dragons or flatbeds made into a living room zoom around the Mad Max landscape, passing by an endless swirl of ponytailed pretty girls, man-angels in mascara, neon-wrapped club kids and freeballin’ cowboys. It’s a testament to the creativity of mankind, and it’s infectious. Played out every year in days before Labor Day, Burning Man is Mardi Gras for the geek programmers of San Francisco, the middle-aged lefties of the West Coast, the ravers of Chicago, the teen hippies of Vermont a time and a place where
being outside the mainstream is where everyone wants to be.
Sometimes this means dressing up like a giant penis.
And that’s what Max Guberman, a thirty-nine-year-old software consultant (and digeridoo musician) from Santa Cruz has done. Swathed in tan stocking, he moves tentatively as he tries to balance the contraption he’s got perched on his head: a different kind of head, fashioned from two feet of packing foam he found in his mother’s basement. Around the base of this whole contraption is a cock ring made of tinsel. It shines blindingly in the desert sun.
“You know,” confides Max, pointing downwards, “I’ve got another one of those to match.”
The innuendos come fast upon entering what’s known as Black Rock City, the five square miles of open space where Burning Man takes place annually. A man with devil nubbins in his forehead directs incoming traffic with a red sequined staff. He tells everyone where to camp, while also slipping in that if anyone is going to have public sex, “make sure you come over to my tent ’cause I want to watch.” Within moments of pitching my tent, I hear the sounds of a woman orgasming loudly, clearly and for a very long time. It spreads out over the sounds of people drumming on pots and pans and techno blasting from supersize sound systems, and it sounds nice.
Shortly thereafter, I have my first visitors; Burning Man attendees take special pride in just dropping in, especially those who seem to be in the mood for making new friends. In this case, my guests bring a sign stating their intentions in plain English: “Voyeuristic Couple Seeks Graphic Visuals.” The sign, which hangs off a dusty mountain bike, was made by a middle-aged sculptor from L.A. whose smock is covered in blue polka dots, and whose back is covered by his sunglassed wife. “We haven’t seen tons of outrageous stuff,” says the guy. “I guess you just get inured to it after a while.”
As if anyone needed a call to randiness, at Burning Man, 2000 has been declared the year of the body, and all of Black Rock City has been designed with this in mind. All of the massive installation art projects in the center of the city (which is called the “playa”) take some part of the body as their theme: most notably, there’s a two-story high ceramic and wire vagina which everyone refers to as a yoni next to a similarly huge lingam (read: penis) the head of which wobbles at top. It is not uncommon to see people bow down in front of these icons, although these prayers seem more like ironic performance than spiritual entreaty (unlike the ones about the wind).
In keeping with the body theme, campsites are set up on a grid of avenues that have names like Feet Street, Knee Lane, Anal Avenue and Sex Drive. Many groups of friends name their camps with silly/sexy monikers like Bestial Hump Camp, Camp Handjob, and No Tan Line Camp the last of which, given the weather, seems to be defunct. Only a few of the sex-related camps make good on their themes. At the Full Exposure Camp, genital portraits are the flavor of the week, and a steady stream of visitors have come by to get their privates photographed. Not just photographed that would be too easy but photographed while poking out of the appropriate parts of cardboard cutouts like Mini Me and Princess Lea, Hillary and Bill. (Hillary has a plaid suit on, and seeing her with a random woman’s vagina in place of hers is disconcerting).
“We just thought this would be a fun thing to do,” says one of the camp members, a pretty blond twenty-nine-year-old interior designer, as she scrubs the sink in her RV. She smirks. “It’s funny what you see, though. One man dropped his drawers, and all the guys in this camp were put to shame for days.”
The city’s most popular piece of artwork is a gigantic anus, a neon-lit piece of playground-cum-porno which sits perched on bales of hay some twenty feet in the sky and flanked by a pair of giant wooden legs. Unfortunately, it’s closed for the weekend, due to the inclement weather. A group of people in fake fur coats and jester hats look up longlingly at the ornate orifice. Normally, they’d be able to scamper up the shaky steps to the sacred sphincter, get squished a little as they climb through, try to avoid the spurts of fire (representing the God of Farts), and slip happily down a metal slide to the desert floor. Now its rubbery magenta gates are drawn tight.
Apparently, even ani don’t like the wind.
Anyone not in costume at Burning Man risks being called a “yahoo.” Even though I’d put some gold glitter on my face in an attempt to get into the spirit of things, several people yelled “yahoo” at me when I was walking around in my blue sweatpants and J.Crew sweater, and I did not appreciate it. A popular look for men at Burning Man is nothing but an oversize plaster cock, as big as one of the horns on a Viking hat. Very in for women is a fake fur beaver with the head attached, fastened with safety pins right where you’d think it would go. There’s blissed-out Spidermen, Batmen and so many Superwomen and Supermen that I lost count. I saw at least three belts with the buckle, “69.”
For all of its counterculture trappings, you see, the gang at Burning Man is oh-so-conscious of how they look, even if they’re wearing nothing at all.
I guess that I’m supposed to be an example of how Burning Man has sold out, how far it’s come from its early days in the mid-1980s, as an impromptu beach party, a time when a close-knit community of San Franciscans got together, got high and then burned a forty-foot effigy of a man and everything else in sight. Even my job as media scum makes me a point of derision, and a man in a “Don’t Suck Corporate Cock” shirt tells me so (though Nerve is hardly Time Warner). I thank him and move along.
Regardless of the fact that there’s no corporate sponsorship or trinket shops or kebab sellers here, Green Tortoise, the venerable Berkeley-based stoner bus, does run a tour to Burning Man. Tickets to Burning Man hit $250 this year, there was a choice of lattes or chai in a makeshift café at $3 a pop and I don’t care if you’ve put masking tape over the “Ti” in “Tioga” to make it read “Yoga” when you’re living in an RV the size of most New York City apartments, it’s tough to call yourself a rebel.
Still, the point that all members of the Burning Man community should be participants, not observers, is one worth taking. I boogied in the tented-in discos and was awestruck at the sheer number of fire-eaters around, but when I visited the Yoga Elvis Camp, I couldn’t quite make the transition to practicing some asanas in front of Mr. Blue Suede Shoes. I did feel a little silly being at Burning Man and not taking part in the goings-on, although I did whoop and holler like the rest of the boisterous crowd on Saturday night when the Man was burned. It’s the climax to the festival, meant perhaps simply as an anarchic gesture, or perhaps a ritualistic sacrifice of man burning himself that’s representative of something more. What that is, I wouldn’t presume to say.
What is clear is the power of this community, knit together for a week by a barter-based economy: a kiss in exchange for a drink is standard. For example, a Mendicino County cop who calls himself Titty Man offers to paint any woman’s breasts in exchange for an imprint of the boobs on a piece of wood that he plans to hang in a local bar after Burning Man.
“First I bathe the titty, then I lotion it, sunblock it up, then I paint it,” he says to a nineteen-year-old University of California student who looks more than a bit wary. “Then I’ll clean it all nice and put oil on it so you’re all fresh.” It’s a bit unclear who gets the good end of this bargain.
More often, people are happy just to give, and I got lots of free Cheetos and cookies, even a temporary tattoo of a dozen interlocking hearts for the “canvas around my nipple” from Joani Blank, the smiley founder of Good Vibrations in San Francisco.
With all this bartering, conventional activities like matchmaking end up a bit more complicated. At Saturday’s slave auction, for example, you only get the slave if you have something that pleases the auction master, who, in this case, was a large man with a sweet tooth. The auction was held in the festival’s twenty-four-hour café, a soaring central tent where most everyone spends their time either looking for their friends, looking for drugs or looking for their friends’ drugs.
The auction master, a massive long-haired guy with a black cape and purple velvet hat who calls himself the “Barker of Bacchanalia,” takes the stage from a hippie band called Cookie Dolphin. He’s followed by a pendulum-buxomed woman with nothing but a cummerbund on, who is dragging a well-built soccer player from Iowa.
“What’s your name, squirm?” asks the Barker.
“Jacob,” says the soccer player.
“Why do you want to be a slave?” our large emcee asks.
“Um, I was captured outside by this lady,” says the soccer guy. “I had no choice.”
Bidding starts with a booger collection, and is raised to a banana.
Suddenly, two women in nurse outfits start waving their hands wildly. “Two toothbrushes from Japan!” they yell.
“What?” says the caped barker.
“Two toothbrushes from Japan!”
The barker laughs.
“All right, sold!” the barker announces with a flair. “For two toothbrushes from Japan.”
At five p.m. on Friday, just as the dark gray clouds are beginning to break open, hundreds of burners have gathered on the playa to be shot by Spencer Tunick, the famous photographer who has crossed the country shooting groups of naked people and who was once arrested for filling Times Square with naked booty.
“I can’t wait to get naked,” squeals a girl in a cow outfit, udders and all. Five minutes later, she’s done it, and is rushing pell-mell to the designated picture point with her pierced and tattooed brethren. Giggling from excitement and squealing from the cold, they all lie down.
“Get that purple thing off that guy’s head!” calls Tunick to his assistant.
“That’s his hair,” the assistant calls back.
A hundred feet out in the distance, four guys pull down their pants to moon the crowd. “Get them out of the shot!” calls Tunick, as the hundreds of naked people start to boo. “Out! Out!” They take their sweet time.
All the while, more naked people are appearing from all the nooks and crannies of Black Rock City. Tunick starts to freak out because so many people keep adding into the edges of his shot, but he eventually calms down. After all, of course people are going to come running when they hear an excuse to get naked. This is Burning Man. He should have known.
Bonnie Gregory and Nerve.com