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From the Chair: Burning Man

by Noam Livnat

Last week I attended Burning Man, a unique festival in which, for seven days, “Black Rock City” materializes out of the scorched earth of the Black Rock desert, 110 miles north of Reno.

Fifty thousand people from around the country and the world participated this year (double from the last time I was there in 2001). They set up tents, camps, RVs, and makeshift shade struc-tures in a giant horse-shoe pat-tern, enclosing a vast open area known as the playa. At the heart of the playa stood the Man, 40 feet tall on top of a 90-foot ped-estal, ready to erupt in a blaze of fire and fireworks at the climac-tic closing ceremony that gives the festival its name.

This year’s theme was the American Dream, and the festi-val’s art interpreted and com-mented the theme. Like every-thing at Burning Man, the art can be wacky and profound simulta-neously. The Temple (which is also set on fire at the end of the festival), an intricate structure of wood and ornaments, is a place of remembrance and letting go, where people cover every sur-face with photos of loved ones and messages to those they can no longer talk to. Steven Gold-man, from Mountain View, erected a shrine to the Oven Mitt, an American Icon. Another group created the Bummer, a 38-foot long, 16-foot high replica of a Hummer, painting it in a way demonstrating its duality as both a military and family vehicle. In both contexts, according to the artist, the Hummer is about es-tablishing one’s power and posi-tion. Somebody set up a faux ATM, which didn’t dispense cash, but allowed revelers to meet other people while standing in its line.

Art is only a part of the expe-rience, which emphasizes par-ticipation. The Billion Bunny March, a long-held tradition, in-volved hundreds of participants, dressed in bunny costumes, who hopped, skipped, and jumped across the playa in a show of Le-poridaean power. Next to them, a small group of determined car-rots protested their quiet suffer-ing at the mouths of evil bunnies. A group of self-appointed Playa Animal Control gathered in the meantime, complete with a giant animal control vehicle, red over-alls and enormous butterfly nets in order to capture and tag the bunny rabble while explaining in their megaphone that they are protecting the health and prop-erty of participants from rabid playa animals. The clash of the groups was something to behold as it rapidly devolved into a wild dance party. Across the “street” from my campsite a group orga-nized a pool party (no pool, of course). People gathered around the imaginary pool, were served drinks and danced to music while a lifeguard regularly ad-monished them not to run next to the pool and to not enter it with their beverages.

The best way I can describe a walk around the playa at night, when it really comes to life, is like wandering in a giant medie-val circus camp: bursts of fire erupt from various places; a green-glowing double-decker furry bus serves as a roving party; giant mysterious shapes in strange colors move around. Mu-sic is everywhere.

More than anything, though, Burning Man is about people. And since most people wear very strange clothes, or none, one isn’t prone to pre-judging them by their appearance. It’s simply impossible to know if the person in front of you wearing fur boots, a green bikini and a Mad Hatter hat is a bum or a banker. Hud-dling around an ornately carved fire barrel waiting for sunrise I chatted with Mark from Mary-land, whose camp built a mini-golf attraction. A state official back home, Mark was very con-cerned with the coming elections and the apathy of the younger generation. I met Kyra, a fire dancer, who asked us to send some love to her friend who was somewhere on the east coast, or-ganizing veterans to protest the war in Iraq. “Isn’t it interesting,” she said, “that he and I are in op-posite places. He is fighting for the American dream and here we are, celebrating it. And it’s im-portant that we do both.” I also spent some time with Spooner, a Sioux Indian and somewhat of a Burning Man legend, who hitch-hiked from Kansas to attend. Re-fusing on principle to pay for a
ticket, he hiked over the moun-tains from the nearest town. He was mightily proud that, using his Jedi mind tricks, he was able to buy a three dollar coffee for two (coffee and ice are the only things one can buy in Black Rock City).

And for me, it’s not the art, but the people of Burning Man, that best symbolize the American Dream: fifty thousand people who simply enjoy each other’s company, even if they are meet-ing for the first and last time. Fifty thousand people who ac-cept and support wacky self-expression, indulgence, and ex-perimentation. Fifty thousand people who are delighted to in-vite you to their camp, care for you, spend time with you and expect nothing in return.

For it is the trust that people are good, the openness, and the revelry in diversity that makes America the subject of so many dreams.

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