Yes Burning Man Has Changed -- But It Still Fucking Rules

Yes Burning Man Has Changed — But It Still Fucking Rules

It doesn’t seem like the beautiful chaos that is Burning Man – blooming annually in a desert metropolis entrapped by shifting sandy hills and black rock mountains – could ever diminish into the dust. After becoming Nevada’s third largest city for one week, the city disappears without a single trace, just as immediately as it erects out of thin air.

For me, this year’s Burning Man was arguably the most magical week of my life. Some primary burners, however – those who have been going since the festival’s inception in 1986 – have vowed to never return.

One such person is London-born burner Alexa Bauer. Now in her 50s, she fundamentally disagrees with the direction the festival has taken, namely the influx of wealthy people who don’t care about the ethos of the burn, the plethora of staged photoshoots and the ego flaunting from many of the punters.

“I won’t go back to Burning Man ever again,” she says.

For people like Alexa, the diamond has become too smoothed and slippery to trust in the dust and settle their feet atop its surface again. It makes perfect sense that transformations within a community of 300 people that has grown to a city of 80,000 urbanites in the last 30 years might be off-putting to some of the earlier attendees.

According to Alexa, back in the day, bullets were sent soaring into the dead of night at drive-by shooting ranges, regardless of who or what might be standing behind the targets. People fucking under the moonlight without LED lights illuminating their bodies were run over by art cars galloping through the deep playa – or empty desert. Nearing the new millennium, a staged explosion went haywire, sending a shock wave across the desert – making the entire crowd hump the air while almost incinerating the city.

Black Rock City still manages to swallow, chew and shit people out from its rear end though, all the while making them fall head-over-heels in love with it. The inhospitable landscape transforms into a sea of scattered structures, with innumerable materials, lights and sounds penetrating the air like cryptic skyscrapers.

This year, more than ever, manifestations of people’s entire careers and life passions fused with up-to-date technologies. Beauty exploded from every direction for miles into the buzzing horizon as minds were blown out of human skulls. Thousands of drones swarmed through the night sky like a swirling galaxy evolving over millions of years.

The hang-ups early burners like Alexa have about the festival’s modernisations are understandable. But despite their cynicism, I, as a relatively newer burner, remain unaffected by the Paris Hiltons (who attended this year), Instagram photoshoots or any bullshit that may have infiltrated the festival.

Nevertheless, just 15 years ago, the culture of not living through a phone or camera was much stronger, and any ego-flaunting or self-glorification would have been recognised as an eyesore. There were no camps being paid to make beds or wipe arses for rich clientele arriving on private jets and departing with little more than a hangover – onto the next glass of champagne and bag of cocaine – without earning their keep or properly appreciating the experience.

I can’t deny that my ability to attend the festival was also the result of extreme privilege – despite being AU$12,000 in debt as a struggling writer based in Sydney and full-time university student on Centrelink. I wish everyone was as lucky as me to experience Burning Man because, thanks to the ten principles it embodies, the festival could actually be transformative at a global scale.

In fact, I saw these principles Man being acted out by almost everybody I encountered. Colour, class, race, sexuality, gender, age, walk of life – none of that existed and everyone was friends. We all ran around together like kids in a candy store, forming integral parts of the candy through radical self-expression. Zero judgement was passed to attendees who relished in orgy tents, nudism, drug-taking or simply dancing like chimpanzees on roller-skates.

The gift economy made dollar notes worthless as self-reliance was universally practiced. Technology ceased to exist – partly because I left my phone in WalMart before departing for the festival.

I attended workshops ranging from sound healing to fire twirling to erotic wrestling. Top psychiatrists and psychologists belonging to the glorious Glamcocks educated us about human sexuality and self-compassion.

I had one of the most riveting experiences of my life with three friends when we biked for kilometres to the Mayan Warrior art car and listened to a DJ create a magnificent soundtrack for the rising sun. We entered an inexplicable place as a single entity, shedding our deepest truths into our cuddle puddle (admittedly three-quarters of us were on hallucinogens at the time). We held each other in our vulnerabilities, explored them unilaterally and perhaps freed ourselves of them to varying degrees.

On the ride home, we felt connected to everything and pledged to stay present in that place forever, because we comprehended it was enlightenment.

I also remember finding a ketamine pole with friends on a dance floor and feeling pretty certain it was the centre of the universe. Most likely we were just super high and needed something to stabilise ourselves from toppling over one another.

The man burnt on the second last night and everybody screamed and cheered. The temple burnt on the last night, a memorial for loved ones lost – or a sanctuary for parts of myself I hoped would either die or arise from the grave – and everybody cried.

Burning Man is an active demonstration of the decency and duties required for the longevity and happiness of humanity – bliss even – at a societal scale. More experienced burners have a responsibility to tolerate and politely educate newcomers about the festival’s core values, to perpetuate an enriched reality from the remaining 51 weeks of the year shared by all. I know I am not alone in saying I hope the return to the festival, as they are needed to ensure the Utopian city is not tarnished by users and abusers. Exclusivity is damaging. Inclusivity and mutual respect is key.

It is these early settlers who founded the spirit of radical participation that is still so wholly present today. After a weeklong rollercoaster of relentless energy expenditure, the memory will never fade of my camp and I spending 48 hours in the blistering sun, deconstructing our village before crawling in a giant line to remove every speck of MOOP (Matter Out Of Place, aka litter or liquid runoff) from the earth beneath us. And it is a principle that I hope to carry beyond the festival, and with me forever.

I’m not saying my life has changed after a weeklong party in the desert. But I feel fucking great, and hope this state won’t fade into the past anytime soon. I don’t want to get aggravated with people behind desks or steering wheels for wasting “my time”. I don’t want to throw my cigarette butts in the gutter because I can’t muster the willpower to walk 20 metres from my stubby to the bin. I just want to integrate Burning Man’s ten principles into my daily life, and expect nothing in return for stepping it up. I mean, what the fuck have I been doing?

If the beautiful chaos of Burning Man ever diminishes, I will feel as if the world has lost something sacred. Something so unique and outrageous, yet somehow perfect in every way, that people leave the festival feeling empowered to spread a taste or scent of a better world. I hope the original burners who have abandoned the festival remain inspired to do the same even though they no longer attend. Above all else, I hope they come back and keep the spirit alive, because there’s nothing like it anywhere on the planet.

Photos by Danny Lewis

In school, Zeke used to get by selling stolen porn magazines from the local newsagent. These days, he’s a writer – and gets paid far less than he did at age 14.

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