It's a meta-esoteric ecstatic lollapalooza.
It's a semi-archaic ritualistic extravaganza.
It's a retro-weirdo underground revolution.
No more time to tell how,
This is the season of what
-- Grateful Dead
And maybe Marlon Brando will be there by the fire
We'll sit and talk of Hollywood
And the good things there for hire
And the Astrodome, and the first tepee.
Marlon Brando, Pocahontas, and me.
-- Neil Young
By Eric Francis
For all practical purposes, we are in the last months and weeks of the second millennium. Isn't it thrilling? Geeks will remind you that since there was no Year Zero the millennium does not end until midnight of the last day of 2000, a year which is actually the capstone, the final gleaming jewel gracing our glorious Twentieth Century of social reforms, great literature, UFO encounters and the invention of something called "ecocide."
Yet time is arbitrary. It's been many decades since Einstein proved you could stretch or squish space and time like a bugger, and about a stadium full of physicists have upheld his eloquent Theories of Relativity, which we ignore.
To further complicate matters of time measurement, Jesus was probably born in the year 3 BC (Before Christ, go figure), meaning that we all missed the real turn of the millennium, which was on New Year's Eve of 1996. Do you remember what you were doing that evening? I don't have a clue.
Plus, there are only about skatey-eight other calendrical systems in existence. In Japan, for instance, it's currently the Year 11, since that's how long ago the Emperor was seated. Meanwhile, in the Islamic calendar, Jan. 1, 2000 falls in 1420. In the Hebrew calendar, it falls in 5760. In the Persian calendar, it's 1378. And in the Discordian calendar, it's the Year of Our Lady of Discord 3166.
But here in America, we're always looking for a thrill, and all those numbers turning over like an odometer is really exciting to watch. Combined with the Y2K computer situation threatening loss of electrical power, food distribution and AOL Instant Messages, plus a rather interesting astrological setup in the very last moments of 1999, it appears as though we're boldly marching into the future right now, like it or not, at this very moment, even as you read these words.
Since this is supposed to be an astrology column, I better take a moment and go over that little chart, the Y2K chart, since it's pretty amazing, since it's coming soon, and since the eclipse on Wednesday is just the epicenter of a series of astrological thresholds that mark the millennium. Comet Hale-Bopp was one; Y2K's astrology is another; the big line-up next May in Taurus is yet another. The world just keeps ending and ending.
First a few points of background on one of my favorite subjects, planetary discoveries. Just before the dawn of the 19th century, a chap named Sir William Herschel discovered a planet that they were going to call Herschel, but thankfully called Uranus, after the Greek sky-god. This was the first planet ever discovered (if you don't count things like the Moon, or the possibility of prior "advanced" civilizations on Earth), and it shook astrology and astronomy in their brass-buckled boots. Uranus was beyond Saturn, and Saturn was thought to be the edge of reality, the paragon of virtue and the bottom line. Saturn is a serious dude and at the time, nobody thought to cross him. Suddenly, we were confronted with the idea of a universe beyond.
Uranus represents innovation, rebellion, and brilliance in general, which does, at times revolt against stupidity.
Not much later, in 1801, a planet within the known solar system was discovered by one of my countrymen, an Italian astronomer named Giuseppe Piazzi, who also discovered pizza. This planet, nearly 1000 kilometers across and orbiting the Sun between Mars and Jupiter, was named Ceres, who was one of the 12 great Olympian deities. Have you ever heard of Ceres? Only if you're an astrologer or a geek (same difference). That's because she is a woman, and there has been a long cover-up by some men of the existence of the Breasted Race (though they have consistently tried to expose the actual breasts). Ceres, named after the Greek goddess of the Earth and overseer of such small matters as the food we all eat, was relegated to the level of astronomical driveway shale, an "asteroid," and everybody promptly forgot about her. (She comprises 25% of the total mass of the inner astreroid belt, by the way.)
A few planetary discoveries later, in 1930, Pluto showed up. This was the elusive Planet X, the new edge of reality, and Pluto represents what some people have seen is a kind of brink of sanity, and the borderline of reason. Issues of control, death, sexuality, jealousy, rage, and, as it turns out, human evolution or transformation are all included. Pluto is the namesake of "plutonium," which is very, very toxic. Hence, it is a symbol not just of death and transformation, but also of the collective crisis of environmental poisons, which we largely ignore, and additionally, the global/individual healing process we will need to go through to purify our relationship with the Earth.
In the astrological chart, Pluto (the Roman lord of the Underworld) represents a hidden process, and usually operates subconsciously. Though Pluto, along with Uranus and Chiron, was THE major player in the events of the 1960s, one of the world's leading ephemerides, Raphael's, neglected to list the position of Pluto from its discovery in 1930 clear through the 1960s and well into the 1970s -- for almost 40 years after its discovery! To me, this is more than a typo; it is demonstration that Pluto often acts, or acted, behind the scenes, beneath the mind and away from awareness. And, as we know, it affirms that people just don't want to deal with the collective shadow Pluto represents, or for that matter, the human potential.
A few holocausts, a couple of world wars, a cold war, several dozen covert special interest wars and one long notable global environmental catastrophe after the discovery and subsequent banishment of Pluto from our minds, a cool thing happened. An astronomer named Charlie, in 1977, observed something else, something different, an object dancing around the Sun in an eccentric orbit between Saturn and Uranus. This revelation was announced as a new planet (rather than just another asteroid), which some astrologers, who were gradually becoming something besides fatalistic lunatics, took very seriously and went to work on understanding.
A few of them did amazing early research on Chiron, casting it into charts of their clients and interviewing hundreds people about their experiences when this planet was active in their lives. They discovered that Chiron represents building bridges. It often is very strong in the charts of people who are just plain different. And it expresses the fact of healing (including hands-on healing and psychic healing), high-powered awareness, holistic consciousness, out-of-body consciousness and the wounds we suffer that we turn into power.
Given these themes, it turns out that Chiron has some pretty powerful messages as an environmental harbinger.
When Chiron is in the picture, radical awareness is inevitable. Something happens that gets our attention. There can be a huge crisis, but it's usually one that was brewing for a long time and suddenly surfaces in awareness. The result can appear messy, but it's always the beginning of real healing.
In the final days of 1999, as the "millennium" turns, Chiron and Pluto form their extremely rare conjunction, conjoining their forces, precisely on Dec. 30 and 31. This happens in the sign Sagittarius, the astrological realm of higher vision, international culture, true justice and the sign of the Centaur himself. In Esoteric astrology, the planet that rules Sagittarius is the Earth. The deep, hidden underverse of Pluto, representing all things shadow, all things strange and taboo and especially sexual -- remember this, because, collectively, sexuality is presently a realm of potent contamination -- combines with the Chirotic experience of blazing awareness, healing and revelation.
In the language of the stars, these two crucial stars discovered in the 20th Century, which we are just learning to accept and understand and validate as processes in our lives, we are likely to become aware of something undeniable, to wake up to something that we don't want to see, but that we must see, and we will have to deal with it, as Pluto suggests, as a life-or-death matter.
What is the nature of this conscious (Chiron) evolutionary process (Pluto)?
This week is a great time to start looking, because whatever that something is, it's here. In the next sections of Burning Man I will leave astrology behind and take you on a selective tour of modern reality, in search of something, I'm not sure what, surveying life in these astonishing times of our culture to which we're now bearing witness.
Three seemingly unrelated segments follow. They are full-length feature articles; this is all presented in one scroll of 7,100 words (including this introduction). You may print them using the printer-friendly version. The settings are upstate New York, Berkeley, California, and the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, and the time is right around now. >>
When Rome Burned
"It was pretty clear to me intuitively that something was going to happen," said Marty Klein, a counselor who volunteered on the crisis intervention team at Woodstock '99, held in mid-July in Rome, New York. Marty said he could tell something was up because of "the deteriorating conditions, the heat, the prices, the garbage. The Port-a-Potties were disgusting and the kind of music they were going to have Sunday night" -- Megadeath, for instance, closed the show -- "was just a setup for something to happen."
What happened, as you've probably read or seen on television, was that after paying $150 for admission and spending three days drinking alcohol, harassing women, and baking in the Sun on the tarmac of a former Air Force base, several thousand people trashed, burned and looted the place the final night.
In the words of Planet Waves correspondent Mikio Kennedy, it was, "A riot of the privileged, young, white middle-class."
"We're talking about a group of kids who were weaned on Nintendo and Sony Play Stations. 'Wow, cool, just like in the game'," said Mikio, who was vending his psychedelic tie-died tee-shirts at Woodstock '99, as he has at nearly 1,000 other concerts and events since the 1970s. Someone who faithfully looks to youth culture for new ideas and fresh energy, Mikio described Woodstock '99 as "a crushing disappointment."
"It was hoards of these people endlessly confronting us, but they were insubstantial," Mik explained, describing himself and his friends as "skinny, passive hippies" in the face of buff, hunky young men threatening he and his friends. "Guys twice my size, physically and in weight, would come over, and they would just look at me, and I would have that look in my eyes that says, 'You can't come past me. I can't afford for you to come past me. I've got my life hocked to finance all the stuff in that booth back there, and I've got a lot of people in the booth whose safety I'm concerned about, and there is no way you're coming inside and looting me'. And to my surprise, staring these people down was all it took in 95% of the incidents. They just couldn't look at you in the eyes. They would fold and walk off. This wasn't the LA riots. There was no hunger for social justice here. These were bored mall kids."
But Mikio said that Woodstock '99 was one of the most hateful environments toward women he's ever encountered, citing, in particular, a rape that occurred in the mosh pit during the performance of the band Korn, among other rapes and a generally groping, leering, stalking, threatening vibe among the young men toward the young women. Many rapes have now been reported.
"I find it easy to believe that the mosh-pit rape happened, but what I find unbelievable is that hundreds of people knew this was happening. What the fuck? My view of the world easily encompasses assholes that would force themselves on women, and we encounter them in the course of life. But it petrifies me and it freezes my guts to think about the hundreds of people who passively watched this, or for whom this was merely part of their experience along with burning towers and looting cash machines."
In Mikio's view, the rapes and riots were an expression of people who were trained in their relationships both to people and to violence by virtual reality. "I got to see the price of virtual experience over experience. This is the result. I know I sound like a Republican, but this is how I see it."
It's widely agreed that the spirit of the event was profoundly misogynist, that is, anti-woman, including messages coming from the musicians and emcees. One of the event's DJ's was fired after suggesting, over the main PA system, that performer Sheryl Crow should expose her breasts. Song lyrics of thrash bands were hateful of women, and, said Klein, the crisis intervention counselor, "there were lot of people who were hostile toward anybody who was expressing their liberation with nudity."
You might say it's impossible to compare the one and only Woodstock festival, a spontaneous, effectively free event that occurred on a farm in 1969, and the current "Woodstock," a synthetic, lawyer-laden, megamericlized event that took place on a former military base thirty years later. But the events provide important social artifacts of two highly-charged, deeply transitional periods in history. One thing you can say for sure was that in the 1960s, sexuality symbolized nature, peace and freedom. In the 1990s, sexuality largely symbolizes glamour, power and disease.
No one made the original Woodstock, it just happened. The promoters didn't know what to expect, and didn't even have a fence around the place in time to collect tickets. They suddenly they found themselves converged upon by half-a-million people in what was effectively a spontaneous anti-war protest with a great soundtrack. Woodstock happened during the peak of Vietnam, set within a whole different attitude about life fueled by passions against the war, and a sense of collective survival. Most of the men who attended were those who had refused to be in the military.
None of the three Woodstock concerts ever took place in the town of Woodstock, a small upstate hamlet known for its concentration of artists and rock musicians. (The first occurred in Bethel in1969, the second in Saugerties in 1994, and the third this summer in Rome.) But the Woodstock, NY community has taken an active interest in events that were based, falsely or poetically, on its name. Klein was one of 750 volunteers provided by Family of Woodstock, a private community services organization that cares for the homeless, and operates thrift stores, soup kitchens and other support services year-round.
"There were many times during the weekend, when I was not working, that I could feel the Woodstock spirit of peace and good music and fun and avant garde expression, and it was very sad to me to watch how the media just took the negative," Klein said. "There were a lot of wonderful, synchronistic things that were happening where people were struggling under difficult situations. And as a result, they were becoming community, being there as human beings would be there for each other in most difficult situations. There was a lot of that good stuff that wasn't reported." Of course, without the rapes and violence, it was barely news by current standards.
Is it possible to look at our culture's attitudes about sex, women and violence separately?
"Anger, sexuality and power, they're all hooked up together, and people don't quite know what to do with that energy," Klein explained. "One of my crisis intervention partners said the other day that throughout history, we're still struggling with this aggressive, angry energy that people don't know what to do with. They either hurt themselves, or they hurt other people."
Klein continued, "From a counselor's point of view, from my personal point of view, there's a lot of oppression in the world, and people who are oppressed usually comply with it as a victim until they can't take it any more, and then they break out and do things in defiance of the authority that's been oppressing them, and it was just a very similar thing that happened here. The authority -- the people who organized and ran the weekend -- were not responsible. They were negligent and not compassionate."
Because the promoters didn't own up to their end of the bargain, what is termed legally in loco parentis, many concertgoers "didn't take responsibility because they're outraged about the oppression and the way they've been treated. And you have two groups that are at odds that are not taking responsibility for anything, and that's really what happened."
Perhaps so. But I offer another viewpoint, and leave you in the capable hands of my editor at Woodstock Times, Parry Teasdale, who had this to say in his Aug. 5 editorial, "Ugly Woodstock":
"The 1969 Woodstock festival sprang up by default in a Sullivan County cow pasture. Fences never went up. As neutral ground, the site was made special by what happened there. Likewise, the Winston Farm five years ago was a gorgeous, bucolic setting. And it didn't take long for the flimsy chain link barrier to yield, admitting anyone who cared to step over it. An optimist might conclude that such chaotic circumstances bring out the best in young people, who sense the necessity for cooperation in the absence of authority and structure. They made the land their land.
"The former Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome is anything but a neutral plot of ground. Physically, its perimeter is impenetrable. Unlike the sites of the previous two festivals, it is a manmade facility adapted inorganically to the commercial ends of the promoters. The place both excluded and confined unlike the previous concerts. Yet these superficial differences needn't have contributed to trouble any more than the mud of '69 and '94, except for a darker, more troubling aspect of Griffis that was all but ignored by promoters, attendees and the media alike.
"Until a few years ago, Griffis was home to B-52 bombers of the Strategic Air Command. The planes were equipped with thermonuclear weapons, which, had this country believed it was under attack, would have been dropped in a counter offensive resulting in the end life on this planet. Even acknowledging the tortured logic of the Cold War, the planes and the base that supported them were tools of a profoundly immoral proposition. Inescapably, then, a shadow of enormous proportion hangs over the place where this festival took place.
"All the more curious, then, that unlike a polluted industrial site resurrected for some new and useful purpose, none of the parties involved in this event made any serious attempt to cleanse Griffis of its monstrous past. We all have selective memories, but have we so distorted history that neither the promoters nor their children's generation recall how the Woodstock festival achieved its saintly reputation? It came to symbolize the antithesis of our violent intervention in a war of national liberation half a world away -- a war in which this country relied on B-52s to terrorize a civilian population.
"More than the looting and arson, this historical amnesia, or worse, this accommodation with symbols of the immorality of global destruction, exposes the true ugliness of Woodstock 99. But imagine instead that the bonfire was not fueled by vendors' merchandise but by a full-sized model of a nuclear bomber. What if some of the youthful anger and frustration and energy and lust had focused for just a brief moment on never again allowing humanity to be placed at such risk with so little to gain? If that had happened, what would people remember about the last Woodstock of this century? What do they think of it now?" >>
Dennis Bernstein of KPFA-FM finished his nightly program Flashpoints the evening of Tuesday, July 13, walked out of his studio, and was confronted by private security police hired by the station's top-management to stand guard over the station's offices in recent weeks. The guards were ordered to take action against him because of something Bernstein had just broadcast on his program.
For a station dedicated to pacifism and free speech, for which the Berkeley community had scrimped and saved its pennies to put on the air fifty years ago, then supported with volunteer labor and donations for half a century, it was a pretty weird scene, and nobody could have predicted what would happen next.
Pacifica Foundation, the station's Washington, DC-based and allegedly not-for-profit owner, had a little problem with Bernstein's investigative program that evening. The subject night involved Pacifica Foundation's plans to sell KPFA, and WBAI, a sister station in Manhattan, to commercial buyers for around $75 million apiece, probably substantially more for the Manhattan station. What Pacifica really wanted was a more milquetoast version of public radio on its two flagship stations, which are both well-known for their firebrand journalism and relentless exposés on both Republican and Democratic administrations. Middle-of-the-road programming, more like that of National Public Radio, attracts corporate sponsors and more listeners. But if a programming adjustment wasn't possible, and KPFA's staff was of course resisting such changes vigorously, then a huge pile of cash would suffice.
Radio stations are bought and sold every day, but KPFA, the first listener-sponsored station ever, and one of the very first FM broadcasters on the air in the United States, is a very different story. Created in the late 1940s by former inmates of a California prison where pacifists were sent during World War II, the station was built on "an idealism almost incomprehensible in our time," in the words of KPFA historian Matt Lasar. And its blazing spirit and gutsy programming content are something equally incomprehensible to most consumers of today's commercial media, who can, but rarely do, safely assume any part of the truth that slips in is merely to give the lies more credibility.
Pacifica Foundation grew into the nation's first independent, listener-supported alternative network, consisting of five stations: WPFW in Washington, DC, WBAI in Manhattan, KPFT in Houston, and KPFK in Los Angeles. Yet always, Berkeley's KPFA set the standard of righteous and honest reporting and authentic radical politics, and listeners loved it. Through some of the most tumultuous events in American history -- through America's vicious wars in Korea, Vietnam, Central America, Iraq and Kosovo, through the Kennedy assassination and murders of many civil rights leaders, through Watergate and the Iran-Contra scandal -- KPFA was the moral conscience, central information point and common political wavelength of Berkeley, a city synonymous with free speech.
So you can imagine that its staff and listeners didn't take lightly the notion of being sold out to classic rock or golden oldies. Dennis Bernstein, after discussing on Flashpoints an intercepted e-mail documenting the proposed sale of the two stations, plus broadcasting segments of a press conference held earlier that day dealing with the issue, ended his show and walked out of the studio, finding himself standing there looking at these X-Files guys that Pacifica had been keeping around for just such an occasion. The boys informed him that he had been put on "administrative leave," which is polite for "your twenty-year career with this station has just ended," and, in all seriousness, they expected him to stroll out the door and maybe go down the block for a beer.
Instead, Dennis turned around and walked back into the broadcast studio, where the 6 o'clock news was going out, and the Men in Black, apparently stunned that anyone could possibly doubt their authority, shoved him into the equipment, interrupting a pre-recorded segment of the news. Anchors immediately went to live coverage, narrating the scene and turning around microphones to capture the scuffle, in which Bernstein was heard pleading with the rent-a-thugs not to hurt him. For an astonishing four minutes, this high-drama was broadcast live at 59,000 watts to the entire San Francisco Bay community. Then, without explanation, the signal was suddenly switched to pre-recorded programming from another studio down the hall, where archive tapes and entire CDs were played around-the-clock, mingled with self-parodying propaganda messages from Pacifica Foundation officials, for the next three weeks, coincidentally, just as Mercury moved retrograde.
Pacifica Foundation's chairwoman, Mary Frances Berry, who is, speaking of coincidences, a political appointee of Bill Clinton, later admitted that she and her cohorts had "miscalculated" reaction to what she termed "management changes" at the station. Indeed so. Many listeners who'd heard the mêlée broadcast on the evening-drive sped to the studios, and, along with the staff, staged an occupation of the building. The takeover ended five hours later with 53 arrests and an explosion of community concern, outrage, and support, not to mention extensive front-page coverage from the twenty or so newspapers in the region, all of which, incredibly, got the story more or less right.
In the six days that followed, supporters were faced with doing public organizing without the benefit of their station (the legendary San Jose Mercury News headlined it, "A Protest KPFA Isn't Covering"). Garnering information from e-mail trees, a variety of Internet pages and good old leaflets, listeners demonstrated outside the seized building every night at five o'clock, and a bunch moved into tents at "Camp KPFA" on the sidewalk outside the chained-shut doors. Martin Luther King Blvd., where the station is located, was closed for several days as protests the first week peaked at 2,000 people, with speakers including The Color Purple novelist Alice Walker.
On the sixth night, Joan Baez headlined a benefit concert for which 3,500 tickets were sold in three hours, and performers played to a standing-room-only crowd. To make sure nobody was excluded, tickets were given away free or at reduced cost, no questions asked, to people who couldn't swing the $20 donation.
For both Pacifica officials and KPFA supporters, the next weeks resembled a trip on Coney Island's infamous Cyclone roller coaster, which is full of surprises and provides your stomach with a variety of sensations otherwise known only to astronauts. City officials and state legislators spoke up in outrage against Pacifica's actions, mediators were called in, and a committee of KPFA listeners, staffers and volunteers went to the table and thumped down a list of demands and did not budge on them. At one point in the midst of it all, it looked like Pacifica was about to suddenly dump the station, grab its $75 million and run, but instead, the resolve of its board members slowly started to cave in. They were figuring out that to hold out much longer would have been pure public relations suicide. Protests continued relentlessly, including a mass rally with a cop-estimated 15,000 people pouring through the streets of Berkeley. A demonstration and march were held in Oakland to stress the point that the neighboring city, with a more moderate, white-collar reputation, was paying attention, too.
At about the three-week point, it was clear the station would be returned to the community. There were two final tumultuous days, during which Pacifica battled with station officials and supporters over access to the transmission equipment and tower. When staff finally returned to the building, they discovered $30,000 damage to equipment and fixtures. But the morning of August 5, with Mercury slow and powerful in the sky, about to end its three-week retrograde, listeners heard Morning Show host Phillip Muldari, his voice tentative, give a station identification and launch into a two-hour open discussion of what happened, followed by a day of programming dedicated to covering the events on the air for the first time.
"We've always said that KPFA was something very special that existed in a very special community," said Russ Jennings, a long-time KPFA staffer and promoter of the Joan Baez benefit concert. "It's been a long time since that was expressed in the real world." Jennings said that a long-overdue reinvention of the station was in currently progress, which he described as a "paradigm shift" to bring the station into a more current frame-of-reference.
"The outpouring of support was unlivable. It turns out that KPFA is important to all these people, thousands and thousands and thousands of them, and that's why this happened the way it did. If we were a bunch of outraged staff members who were just mad about losing jobs or losing a format we liked, it wouldn't be like this."
And, I would add, had Berkeley not stood up for KPFA, then Pacifica would surely have gutted or put WBAI-New York on the auction block in a very short time. But for the moment, so far so good. >>
Burning Man Photo above by Maggie Hallahan
On a vast stretch of the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada, a temporary city is now under construction. Streets have been laid out in a huge semi-circle, structures are going into place, as are public plazas, offices and a café. At its center is a five story-high figure of a man, built of wood on a stone pyramid. When the city opens on Aug. 30, some 20,000 participants will gather for one week and create a community dedicated to radical self-expression in the form of art, free speech, theatre, music and sexuality.
The event is called Burning Man because at the end of the event, the figure of the man is burned in a celebration of fire, cleansing and communal rebirth. In the following days, Black Rock City, which grew on the bed of the ancient Lake Lahonton, will be erased, and not a trace of the event will remain.
Burning Man, now in its 14th year, is a fusion of ritual, celebration and social experiment. But it's ethos is shaped by a noncommercial environment -- vending is strictly prohibited -- as well as the extreme conditions created by the summer desert world, an abyss where temperatures routinely peak at well over 100 degrees, demanding that participants practice self-sufficiency, care for one another, and maintain awareness of survival at all times.
Planet Waves correspondent Jesse Welch, who has attended five Burning Mans, describes the environment as a "temporary autonomous zone. It's a place where the normal rules of behavior are basically thrown out the window. It is a place where creativity is the primal source of energy and communication, and the primary goal."
As the days pass in what is largely a sealed environment entered only by direct participants, a unique yet fleeting culture develops. Nudity is natural, and many of the theme-camps evolve around sexual concepts or preferences. But it's always a fusion of conceptual art and sexuality, set within a larger context of social experimentation. The majorityof attenders come from Nevada and California, though all 50 states and many nations are represented.
"It is a place where you can communicate with people on a sub-vocal level by painting your breasts blue and breathing fire, and you will be transmitting a profound message to the people who are watching you and stopping by to ask you to teach them how to do it," Jesse explained. "Every adult should know how to breathe fire. And every adult should teach someone else how to breathe fire."
Breathe fire? I asked, just to make sure I was following him.
"You know, you put the flammable liquid in your mouth, and you have a torch in your hand, and you spit it in a spray, like, "pppppppppp," into the flame, and you get this enormous fireball coming out of your mouth. You have to make sure to stop before it has a chance to back up onto your lips."
He pauses, waiting for my response. "The flame, that is. So, yeah, breathing fire is important. It's primal. It takes place at the base of your pineal gland. There are some potent subconscious forces in effect."
Our correspondents at Burning Man '98
Of course, it's not just a bunch of people standing around the desert belching out flames. Bodies are painted, bizarre costumes donned, new names taken, new attitudes and opinions experimented with in a vast laboratory of intercultural confrontation. Thousands of people meet, merge, collide, cross-pollenate and experiment with one another. Countless art exhibits and in-the-moment performances are created, theme camps emerge in the garb of every imaginable culture, sub-culture, life-preference, religion, lifestyle, sexual concept and personal reality. In modern Western society, where we are unfamiliar with both human diversity collective rituals, Burning Man is quite a place to be yourself, which implies finding out who, on one or five or ten levels, that self is.
"There is art for art's sake in a way that you don't see in New York City," continues Jesse, who has been feeding information and bits of reality to Planet Waves and its predecessor projects for half an aeon. "There are art exhibits that maybe three people will see for the entire week that are placed way, way out in the desert, and they might only be visible at night because of the way the artist played with light, such that you will only see this piece of art if you are walking around way out in the desert, and you stumble across this thing that someone has put all this time and energy into, this thing that he will probably set fire to and no one will ever see again."
One of Burning Man's customs is that, "It's not art if you can't burn it. The whole thing is temporary. The policy is leave no trace. When you leave, everything is gone, and it's back to being this flat nothing."
Set within an actual abyss, the void of an empty desert landscape, the experience highlights the fact of our larger cosmic existence being something in an ocean of nothing. "You have to confront your own survival, is one of the Burning Man tag lines. You have to bring your water and you have to bring your food, and you have to drink water every day, and you could die. It's not a hospitable place. Now, your neighbors probably won't let you die, but if you walked out into the desert, you could die in a matter of hours. This is part of what you are faced with.
"But in the very freedom of being able to do whatever you want, you feel a certain responsibility to do something great. It's a sort of Libertarian kind of a thing, that if you can do whatever you want, and you have a little freedom, you definitely feel that you have to do the right thing, and that you have to do something good with yourself. I think it's partly just natural when you have that much freedom. It's how most people respond."
But there is a balance, he says, that everyone must maintain in the midst of this temporary autonomy. "There is an element of allowing people to risk themselves. So there is no one preventing you from doing something really, really stupid. Burning man is not about peace and love and hug everybody. Burning Man is more primal than that."
Yet violence, compared to any other city of 20,000 or 25,000, or any other mass gathering for that matter, is statistically non-existent at Burning Man. Guns and motorized vehicles are banned, but most important is the total restriction on vending or commerce of any kind. Everything, whatever it happens to be, must be given away.
What happens in this alchemical crucible of counter-reality is that minds grow and change, and people make big decisions as a result of living without conventional structure for a week.
"You spend a week at a subconscious level. By the time the man actually burns, you're speaking and conversing with other people, but you and the people you are speaking and conversing with are no longer the same people who go to work every day. The part of your brain that has to worry about paying taxes is basically on vacation and has gone away for a week. And you're left with this sort of sub-rational, trans-rational, this part of your brain, or your psyche, that's perfectly capable of talking and conversing and making sure it eats and drinks enough water and eats dinner and things like that, but at the same time it's perfectly capable of discussing the finer points of fire breathing, and if somebody goes by you and is screaming at the top of his lungs, you can appreciate it. "
One way to look at the event is as a celebration of human chaos, a live expression of the "exponentially increasing randomness" that Terrance McKenna says in his Chaos Theory is rapidly taking over the planet's consciousness. Burning Man provides a space for the chaos to exist and be itself, instead of being shoved back into our bodies and minds, where it eats us alive, killing us with misery, anger, grief and disease.
But Burning Man so obviously defies easy explanation that, in a parody of some media's attempts to sum it all up in a few phrases, or perhaps to help them make new, more accurate ones, or maybe just to have fun, Burning Man provides a "random description generator" on the section of its Internet site dedicated to reporters which gives 160,000 possible ways to describe the event -- probably not enough.
Checking in with the oracle, I learned that Burning Man is a "meta-esoteric ecstatic lollapalooza," but that it's also a "semi-archaic ritualistic extravaganza." However, it combines elements of a "tans-esoteric futuristic burn-o-rama" with a "pre-tribal mind-altering confab," adding some qualities of a "post-visionary counter-cultural nightmare" plus a "sub-erotic lifestyle riot." Some people, the oracle said, view it as a "homo-hipster iconoclastic conspiracy," while others insist it's more of a "retro weirdo underground revolution."
"It's a place where you can turn yourself inside out," says Jesse.
Photo by Maggie Hallahan
Larry Harvey, Burning Man's creator, puts the event into context. "Burning Man is very obviously a celebration," he writes in a communiqué to journalists on the event's Internet page, debunking what he calls "media myths."
"It forms an endless spectacle of self-expression. However, this Mardi-Gras-like atmosphere sometimes obscures its underlying order. Such actions are colorful and easy to report, yet, due to their very strangeness, yield little in the way of interpretation. Burning Man is certainly a kind of party, but it is also a carefully crafted social experiment. Talk of community at Burning Man is not merely shorthand for a loosely shared lifestyle. The physical and social infrastructure of Black Rock City are devised with certain goals in mind. We have tried to create an environment that functions as an incubator of the social process that gives rise to human culture and this, by extension, functions as a critique of society at large."
Don't you love the way this guy writes?
"This utopian agenda may appear grandiose," he continues, "but in our actual efforts, sustained over 14 years, we have employed very pragmatic methods. Every year we literally wipe the blank face of the Black Rock Desert clean, and -- unencumbered by historic dispositions of property, power or established social status -- we originate our world anew. Black Rock City does not exist to illustrate some exalted theory of human nature. Instead, we have worked with human nature, year after year, with the sole purpose of producing a model of society that connects people in a dynamic way."
Harvey, born in 1960, explains that Burning Man "is essentially a populist phenomenon. Populist movements tend to be egalitarian and easily accessible. They appeal to a common denominator in human nature and spread at a grassroots level. Very often they are reformist and seek to redress perceived ills in society at large. They also appeal to the need for community among those who feel uprooted and powerless to effect change. They spread very quickly, often by word of mouth.
"Populist movements inspire immense enthusiasm," he adds. "They operate beyond the boundaries of established institutions, and they are synthetic in nature -- often combining groups of people who normally adhere to very different bodies of belief."
Burning Man is not a 'youth event', he explains. "Many people in their 20s and early 30s attend, but so do people from every other part of the age spectrum. The latest tendency is the appearance of family reunions, uniting parents, sons and daughters, grandparents and kids. This is hardly characteristic of a youth counterculture."
Attendance at Burning Man is approximately doubling every year, and at press time, more than 14,000 tickets had been sold, as many as for last year's event. About half are usually sold at the door, organizers say. Admission is about $100 in advance, and includes camping. Revenues pay for the infrastructure, as well as renting the land from the federal government and stand-by protection from local police and rescue agencies, who have their own camp at the edge of Black Rock City. Local emergency response people hold a lottery each year to see who gets to work the event.
The inner community is self-policed by the Black Rock Rangers, a volunteer organization, and services like an internal volunteer fire department are provided by the volunteer Department of Public Works. Bathrooms are provided, but showers are not. Everyone must bring their own food and water to last a week.
But despite these difficult conditions, the event grows and grows, though promoters know it will eventually end. Part of the reason for the explosion in popularity of Burning Man was the advent of the Internet over the past five years, with numerous sites, listservers and newsgroups dedicated to themes and practical affairs surrounding Burning Man.
"The Internet is, in several ways, an inherently populist medium," Harvey informs reporters. "Unlike conventional media, the Internet is radically accessible, interactive, egalitarian and non-hierarchic. It is not easily made subject to central control. Because it is so readily available to vast numbers of people, it has the potential to generate manifold personal connections that transcend normal boundaries within our society.
"Burning Man is an analog of this process. It forms a concrete image of the Internet. Participants in Burning Man are empowered to create unique virtual worlds of their own devising, much as web sites can be generated within cyber-space. They are also enabled to interact with other people on the basis of an absolute equality. People are judged at Burning Man for what they do and immediately manifest Many groups distributed over a large geographic area now meet in real time and real space -- precipitated into social contact by Burning Man and the communication tools provided by modern computer technology."
As Jesse put it, Burning Man "Is a fractal place. When natural processes are allowed to take their natural shape, you end up with fractal shape. When you look at something from farther out it can look incredibly weird. Then when you zoom in on one little portion of it is equally weird in its little way as the larger one was weird in a very large way."
In sum -- it's celebration of healthy human craziness, set just outside of a highly-structured, high-pressure and stressful world. Says Jesse, "Craziness is not a bad thing. We spend billions of dollars to try to cure it, but craziness is not exclusively bad. Certain tribes respect and worship the mad for a good reason, because they are in touch with something else. We can all go to Burning Man and go mad for a week.
Explaining what effect these experiences have had on him, he says, "I have more confidence in my weirdness than I ever have. I have a real confidence in having strange ideas and telling people all my strange ideas, regardless of whatever they might think of them."
This year, the art theme is that of "time," with an astrological flair. The streets that go around the semi-circle are named after the planets, and the cross streets, coming out from the center, are named after the hours of the day.
As part of this theme, thousands of Burning Man celebrants will take part in an art ritual in which they will dismantle the 20th Century on a "disassembly line," where the past hundred years will be deconstructed, bit by bit, chunk by chunk. At least somebody is...
"I have to go to this thing," says Jesse. "I absolutely must go. I think just talking about it to a lot of people, I have opened a lot of peoples' eyes to the possibilities of creativity, of freedom. As far as what they've gotten out of it, I don't know, all I know is that I have to go."++
<> Burning Man Web Page | Planet Waves Home | Burning Man Part One <> Only humans have come to a point where they no longer know why they exist. They don't use their brains, and they have forgotten the secret knowledge of their bodies, their senses, or their dreams. They don't use the knowledge the spirit has put into every one of them; they are not even aware of this, and so they stumble along blindly on the road to nowhere -- a paved highway which they themselves bulldoze and make smooth so that they can get faster to the big empty hole which they'll find at the end, waiting to swallow them up. It's a quick comfortable superhighway, but I know where it leads to. I've seen it. I've been there in my vision, and it makes me shudder to think about it.
-- The Lakota Shaman Lame Deer
Lame Deer Seeker of Visions
Many thanks to all my co-conspirators on this article -- Martin, Jesse for his reporting and the Burning Man fire ritual photo at top, Parry, Evil Pippi, Via, Maggie at Network Images, Mikio, Arthur, Raphael, Keiko, Jenn, Laurie in Nevada City, plus Russ, Julia and Kalli in Berkeley -- and there are others. Thanks to Karen and Michael, family and friends. Thanks to Larry Harvey at Burning Man and everyone at KPFA in Berkeley for helping keep the world safe for reality.