storms and requiring quite detailed knowledge of what lighting and lasers belong to which rig, thereby making them identifiable on the horizon.
Our first foray onto The Playa, just after sunset, was without doubt one of the most spectacular sights of my life and both Saskia and I were scraping our jaws off the sand for much of the first few hours. An almost complete 360-degree panorama – of flouro-neon lighting, belching flames and surreal techno-dayglo artwork, and which only intensified as the week progressed – rendered both of us literally speechless. It was, quite simply, like entering a new and different world, a parallel dimension – even another planet. As the days and nights unfolded, the hackneyed comparisons to dystopian sci-fi films were hard to dismiss, the whole landscape looking like some unlikely collision between Mad Max and Star Wars. The pink-blue light at dawn and sunset only accentuates the surreal beauty of the desert and the conglomeration of weirdness it
contains. It really was jaw-dropping, impossible to compare to anything else that exists on the planet – something that I feel incredibly blessed to have experienced and will absolutely never forget.
However, the deeper I disappeared into the collective chemical exorcism that surrounded us, numerous paradoxes kept coming to the surface and, in a way, made it harder for me to view the whole venture in the entirely positive light that I would have liked. There is no doubt that the philosophy of Radical Inclusion, and notions of the ‘gift economy’, are deeply embedded into Burning Man culture. Apart from one buffoon who decided to rip my favourite T-shirt to shreds upon entering his camp, I encountered nothing in the way of belligerent or obnoxious behaviour and absolutely no sign of the subliminal violence and aggression that might have been endemic to an alcohol-driven rock music festival twenty years ago, or even Glastonbury today. Everybody
was incredibly considerate towards each other and the complete lack of cash and commercial transaction is a truly wonderful dynamic to be a part of.
But what struck me more than anything was that, at this vanguard of progressively anarchic political thinking, there seemed to be almost zero concession to the ecological parameters that we so urgently need to address. In fact, the whole project could be seen as unbridled fossil fuel orgy, with millions of dollars spanked in one Bacchanalian bonanza of belching flames, a fireworks extravaganza that could compete with Sydney Harbour at New Year and mountains of incinerating carbon – not to mention the fleets of diesel generators powering every camp and art car. I hardly saw a solar panel and it has been estimated that the event has an ecological footprint equivalent to a small country. Since the whole shindig has now become a test bed for Silicon Valley tech companies and a
2 thoughts on “The Playadox – Reflections on Burning Man”
Another coruscating Spowers’ essay from the imaginarium. Playadox revealed beneath the pyrotechnics. Says a lot about contemporary America too.
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!