The Playadox – Reflections on Burning Man

Does the road of excess lead to the palace of wisdom?

RORY SPOWERS finally makes it to Burning Man, the notorious week-long festival in the Nevada desert and revered by many as a rite of passage-immersion within a burgeoning sub-culture, based upon the principles of Radical Inclusion, the ‘gift economy’ and unlimited self-expression. Did the event live up to its reputation?

IN LATE AUGUST 2018, after many years of yearning, I finally made it to the hallowed ground of The Playa – the flat expanse of high altitude alkaline desert, aka Black Rock City, Nevada, once the site for world land speed record attempts, but now the location for the world’s most notorious festival – Burning Man. Would the experience prove to be my initiation into the genuine birthing of a new culture, as the multitude of it’s proponents proclaim, or just an orgiastic theme park for narcissism, profligacy and hedonistic self-indulgence? I was intrigued to find out. One thing I did know was that, whatever I did find there, I was fairly confident that I would have a great time.Due to the quite exceptional generosity of our hosts, my girlfriend Saskia and I were spared much of the arduous preparation that The Burn requires. We just had to get ourselves there – no small mission in itself, involving a fairly considerable air mile footprint. Having volunteered to stay on and be part of the decamp crew at the end of the week, it was suggested that we arrive on the Tuesday, two days in from the start, when the camp should be up and running and fully functional.

“Where else but America could you have an overtly psychedelic event, in the middle of a desert, miles from anywhere, in a state which has legalised marijuana, but not be allowed to put it in your pipe and smoke it?”

Thankfully, we avoided the dust storms that had prevailed before our arrival and had hampered construction progress for all camps and the main festival landmarks – the enormous wooden timber spiral temple and iconic Man himself, a vast wooden effigy in the likeness of the late legendary founder Larry Harvey, which dominate the centre of the site. Without too much of a queue, we negotiated our way through the horseshoe-shaped temporary city to find our camp, called DORIS, an acronym for it’s own ‘art-car’, a giant disco ball on the chassis of an old truck – or a Disco Operative Radically Inclusive Shuttle


for those in the know. (More on ‘Radical Inclusion’ later, but the phrase forms the basic tenet for Burning Man politics.)

Our hosts had generously equipped us with a ‘hexayurt’, an ingenious four-metre diameter structure constructed from silver foil-covered thermal insulation panels, complete with a double bed, bedside tables, lamps and even an AC unit. Compared to the rather cramped and non-convivial confines within the RVs, most of which were beleaguered with power, water and sewage issues all week, we felt like we had landed in relative luxury. The games had well and truly long since commenced, so we barely had time to unpack the car and sort out our bicycles before being sucked into a five day marathon of festivities. Bicycles are an absolute necessity, since traversing the main site can involve a journey of several miles. Venturing off into ‘deep playa’ can take one much further, into the outer limits of bare desert, but where many of the art cars with the best music – with names like Mayan Warrior and Robot Heart – have to be tracked down at night, often amidst dust 

2 thoughts on “The Playadox – Reflections on Burning Man

  1. Another coruscating Spowers’ essay from the imaginarium. Playadox revealed beneath the pyrotechnics. Says a lot about contemporary America too.

  2. Really interesting to read a balanced account. I have a friend who loves this event and lives for and by it every year. The eco aspect is rarely highlighted, nor the conformity element, in accounts I hear. All in all it probably shows that any ‘utopia’ is going to end up with similar problems experienced in our very un-utopian capitalist system – so more ‘research’ (= participant observation) is required to work that out!

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