For this, the third in a series of eight transmissions meant to cover the near-entirety of my 2001 Burning Man Festival experience in random-yet-thematic memory groups, I will focus on why I consistently refer to Burning Man as an art/life/wackiness festival, and the answer to that would primarily be the Camps.
When I first decided to attend Burning Man I made a conscious decision to find out as little about the festival as possible so I would be surprised (I needn’t have bothered…no amount of research would diminish the shock and surprise of anything and everything at and about Burning Man, but there ya go). I did discover that there would be Camps – though I arrived onsite still somewhat unclear on what that meant – and I knew that every attendee was expected to do something to add to the whole experience. It turns out these two concepts were one-in-the-same. Every attendee – either by themselves or much more often as part of a group – creates some sort of interactive thing to share with every other attendee. So every group would set up their thing and pitch their tents and RV’s around their thing, and that thing along with their tents and RV’s would be their Camp.
A few doors down from us was Asian Princess Camp, which was simply a tiny one-foot high stage with just two chairs set up for viewing. On the stage was a young nearly naked Japanese girl in platform shoes and a Stetson hat with a toy gun in one hand and a tape-deck in the other, dancing along to old disco cassettes for anyone who decided to sit down and watch for a spell. There was Beyond Thunderdome Camp, a group of fifty or so people dressed in shockingly good Mad Max costumes who built a real-life battle cage that was usually quite busy – people would crawl all over the huge metal dome as participants inside would strap into flinging bungee swings and beat each other with foam-covered bats. Or Spock’s Mountain Research Camp, which was simply a geodesic dome filled with people in lab coats giving away free shots of cheap whiskey laced with Tabasco sauce.
You get the idea.
And on August 28th I would have seen any number of these weird, wacky, wonderful Camps and lots of other craziness too. You couldn’t not seen zany, astounding things anywhere and everywhere you looked. A journey to Center Camp for a morning coffee and bag of ice would invariably include a diversion of some proportions. A trip to the porta-potties could end up down a rabbit-hole that takes you into the mouth of a massive three-dimensional mule where you would get lost in it’s innards and finally squeeze yourself out of it’s nether region. Heck, a genuine jaunt looking for fun and adventure could end you up at any number of Camps that were plying people with generous libations and truly trying to give you something to talk about in a temporary city of 28,000 that leaves you scrambling for words to describe unearthly experiences at every corner. Trying to describe the incredible things on offer at Burning Man lands somewhere between climbing Mount Everest and shooting fish in a barrel. Every turn of the head is hyperbolic-sounding keyboard fodder that can only come up short. One could write for days and days and still leave out so much that is worthy of mention.
I can’t even and I won’t try, but:
Someone had built a simple tower out of scaffolding that went up about eighty feet that just had a flat top for hanging out on. I actually made it over halfway up before chickening out. The only cars that are allowed to drive around BM are “mutant” cars, astounding wheeled creations which generally involved a mastery of welding and flames that would shoot out from somewhere. There is nudity and general freedom-of-body everywhere at Burning Man. Once while I was eating lunch a couple laid down on the sandy street a dozen feet away from me and had “relations”. Right there, in the middle of the day with hundreds of people walking around. Nobody said a thing. If you’re not naked you’re in costume, and the costumes would put Mardi Gras to shame. There was a massive and very busy Disgruntled Post Office Camp that lived up to it’s name in hilarious fashion, but I’ll be darned if they wouldn’t actually deliver mail to any camp in Black Rock City. One Camp was a giant recreation of Emerald City from the Wizard of Oz. I stopped by one time and watched a swami do positively mesmerizing and rather unbelievable things with a crystal ball. There was a Martini Bus, a Temple of Scraps, Bayou Camp with stuffed alligators and Hurricanes, and oh, the art installations! I tell you, if Dr. Seuss built a city…
Not to go on too long, but aside from the Camps there were also the official installations that were created by the Burning Man people which were over-the-top amazing and I believe numbered at seven. There was a breathtaking Mausoleum that was made of raw scraps of wood…people would stand inside and cry and cry. There was a massive domed Temple that was so intricate and impressive it was unthinkable to know it would only survive for eight days. There was the Man himself of course, a stylized statue that stood nearly 150’ tall and was packed full of fireworks in anticipation for Saturday night when he would be burned to the ground in a ceremony that was cathartic, primal, and very, very dangerous.
Oh, did I mention that most everything at Burning Man gets lit on fire at the end of the festival? That’s sort of why they call it that.
Art. Life. Wackiness.
I’ll never forget watching my Psychiatric Help 5¢ booth go up in smoke on one of the burn platforms on the final day. It was quite beautiful. Poignant even.
Oh, I forgot to mention: I created Psychiatric Help 5¢ Camp and it was awesome; a qualified hit that has since been much-copied and with good reason. But really, at this point that’s going to have to be another story. I assure you there’s not a chance in Reno that I can or will tell all the stories of Burning Man 2001, but I will tell that one. Just not now.
(I think my favourite of all the camps was Spectator Camp. Taking the only rule of the festival [No Spectators Allowed] and turning it on it’s head, for Spectator Camp a group of thirty or so people set up a big set of bleachers alongside the road where they would sit in their normal street clothes and plead with everyone that walked by to do something that would entertain them. I sat down and joined the Spectators a few times and the things that people passing by would do was quite astounding. It’s truly amazing how talented people are. I swear, everyone’s got a trick up their sleeve.)