Thursday, September 07, 2006

Burning Man: A Few Impressions After the Red Pill

I pulled my journaling notes from Burning Man and thought it might be helpful to share my daily impressions. Keep in mind that describing Burning Man is difficult. As Morpheus told Neo in The Matrix, "No one can really tell you what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself." The same can be said about Burning Man.

We arrived at Burning Man in the late afternoon. As we worked our way through a slow procession of vehicles they kicked up playa dust, but eventually the greeters to the community because visible. I knew immediately that the festival would be very different than my previous participation in community as the greeters were dressed (and undressed) very differently than in the default world (a Burning Man term for reality the other 52 weeks a year). Our greeter shared a phrase we were to hear many times during the week: "Welcome home." Each member of our group then took turns striking a bell type object and shouting out "I'm no longer a virgin," referring to our first-time experience participating in the festival. From this moment on I knew we had swallowed the red pill. How far would the rabbit trail go as we followed Alice into an experimental new world?

My initial experience of Burning Man involved ,a combination of cultural, visual, and sensual overload. The festival is a lively expression of various forms of art, sensuality (distinguished from sexuality), and festivity. These are expressed not only through various "cultural artifacts," but also within the citizens of Black Rock City as well. This was demonstrated through the common adoption of playa names, Mardi Gras-like costuming and various forms of nudity expressed by festival participants. These elements all support individual experimentation with identity play as well as self-expression and celebration.

My unscientific impression of the age group representation was that it is mixed, encompassing all groups, from children to senior citizens (the oldest person we encountered was a proud 79!). Two primary age groups appeared to be those in the 20s and 30s, and another in the 30s to 50s or 60s. My feeling is that the younger demographic appears to be primarily involved in the celebration of what Burning Man offers, while the second group continues to exercise the primary creative control and development of the festival while also enjoying its celebration. The festival organizers circulated demographic surveys which stated that the results would be posted on the Internet. I look forward to reviewing this data for its sociological significance.

My final impression of the festival was that there was something significant here. While the popular media (and the church) often focus on the salacious activities of nudity, sex, and drugs, I believe it is a mistake to characterize Burning Man, or dismiss it, through these elements. While these elements are surely there, they do not represent the totality or essence of the Burning Man experience. In my view the event functions as a spiritual pilgrimage, an embodiment of sacred space and the ideals that its participants yearn for but do not find in the default world. The more I reflect on this pilgrimage and my interactions with the pilgrims themselves, the more I recognize the great significance of this festive community in the desert.

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1 comment:

Sally said...

fascinating John, I am struck by the way you distinguish the sensual from the sexual, I think too often we shy away from this distinction and shrink as a result.... I will be interested to read more of your thoughts on this festival