The million commandments of radical self-expression
By Gretchen Giles
“Please keep in mind that you are responsible for yourself at all times in every regard once you enter Black Rock City. . . . Everyone is requested to help ensure our collective survival by following very simple rules relating to public safety and community well-being. Everyone is expected to abide by these standards. . . . Any violation of these requirements could result in ejection from the community.”
–Burning Man Survival Guide, 2002
Before reading any further, please take a moment to rehydrate yourself. That’s right, get a glass or a bottle of water and chug it. Wipe mouth. Repeat. Good, now you’re ready to contemplate living for a week with 25,000 other people on a high desert playa where temperatures swoop up to the occasional three figures and nary a spigot exists.
Burning Man is an outdoor temple to the concept of radical self-expression, but it is emphatically not an exercise in anarchy. Such radicalism is best attained through rigorous adherence to a rather lengthy set of rules and regulations governing behavior, comportment, and self-sufficiency. The Burning Man organization demands that you read their survival guide regardless of how many times you’ve been, and it truly offers more admonitions and tenets for behavior than any other outdoor festival you might ever attend. Those fogies who think that an announcement to avoid the bad acid that’s going around is too restrictive may wish to rethink this summer jaunt to the Nevada desert.
We hereby offer the Compleat Newbie’s Guide to Burning Man, a quick summation of what you will and won’t be doing during this week-long, art-drenched bacchanalia of free-thinking fun. Please do have another sip.
During your stay Aug. 26-Sept. 2 in the instant nation of Black Rock City, you may be purely nude or covered in body paint or draped solely in an obi you’ve fashioned from the flag of the former Czech Republic. Perhaps you’ll be moved to dress as a fetishist soccer player or pagan nun or New Age ancient mariner. There are seven full days to consider, and it’s your call.
You won’t, however, be sporting such little floaty bits as sequins, glitter, or feather boas. At Burning Man, such finery is filed under “trash, other people’s,” and your exploratory dress-up romp will earn you all-around censure and plenty of extra time grubbing about the playa trying to pick it all up again.
You will be wearing shoes with socks. Not just sandals and not bare feet, unless you’d like to get a rampant case of alkali dust chap more commonly known as “playa foot.” Pack some Dr. Bronner’s peppermint soap to soak those dogs; it’s biodegradable and smells nice too. You should also have at least three pairs of clean, new, extra socks–over and above your ordinary sock needs–to give away or wear as you like.
Your dog will remain at home. So will your guns, your drug habit, and your occasional desire to engage in public sex acts.
Feeling a little cranky? Please pause and take another gulp of water.
If you have a menstrual period scheduled for the end of August, pack extra Zip-lock baggies. If you never intend to menstruate again or otherwise, pack extra Zip-lock baggies. If you know no one who knows no one who’s ever even menstruated once, pack extra Zip-lock baggies.
Perhaps for the first time in your life, you’ll be paying lavish attention to single-ply toilet paper. If you wish to be popular with thousands of new friends, you will often have single-ply toilet paper actually upon your person. Single-ply toilet paper will also be the single thing to accompany your exertions into the many problematic port-a-potties that ring the playa.
You won’t sell anything during your stay at Burning Man, nor will you purchase anything with ordinary U.S. currency beyond ice and espresso, the twin staffs of life. Bring the intangible or the useful–socks!–to utilize in the trade, barter, and gifting society you will be joining. Everything that you need to eat, drink, wear, make art with, listen to, read, and sleep on, in, or with will arrive with you. Every pull tab, bit of plastic, food waste, pork rind wrapper, ciggie butt, employed condom, magazine subscription card, and empty sunscreen bottle will depart with you.
Remember that if you give someone a watermelon, they will have to carry, store, eat, and dispose of the remains of said watermelon. Give them a poem or a massage or a kiss or a drink or a handful of sand and a piece of melon instead. Take their chewed rind and spitted seeds gratefully and put them into the compost pile you intend to bring home with you in a special, lidded, plastic garbage can that you’ve brought exactly for this purpose. Consider the brevity of seedless grapes.
If you smoke, carry an ashtray. If you eat, leave extra packaging at home. Recycle in Black Rock City, and have weighted or tied garbage bags–secured so that they can’t blow away–at the ready. Schedule two hours of free time during the lengthy exodus at the event’s conclusion to cheerfully help clean up the desert.
Don’t dump your trash in the nearby towns of Empire and Gerlach, because they can’t handle the influx. Giggle only in the privacy of your car, not in the town grocery store, upon realizing that Gerlach can be correctly pronounced as “Girl Lack.” Consider donating a daughter to that town in the future.
If your garage doesn’t contain an RV or trailer but your desires do, you will cover up the name of the rental company upon arrival. You won’t embarrass yourself and others by sporting a G*P T-shirt that screams its logo across your chest, nor will you wear the ubiquitous N**e check mark on your cap. Such items may be humbly turned inside out or discarded in strict favor of pagan nun gear.
Yet reverse snobbery is to be avoided at all costs. Should some hapless souls stroll misguidedly by clad in such T-shirts or caps, you will not scream obscenities at them or otherwise demean their essential humanity. You will instead offer them from your satchel an extra wimple woven from fresh reeds and sunflowers. Participation is everything, and even those seemingly wandering about in corporate symbols gawking at nekkid people may be subversively attempting an art you don’t know about. Ask.
(The sole exception to the “essential humanity” rule are ravers, who are universally shunned and detested. You, however, will strive to be kind even to them.)
Excuse yourself for a pee. Was it clear? Excellent. Have another sip.
Unless the Department of Mutant Vehicles has designated your vehicle an “art car,” it will remain parked for the entire length of your stay. Gifted people have at least two extra sets of car keys scattered somewhere where they can be easily retrieved. Those most intelligent of all simply keep their keys stored in the ignition, where they belong.
Your funky old cruiser bicycle is the best way to tour the many miles of shimmering Burning Man diaspora. String LED lights on the handlebars or invest in a cheap headlamp. Night biking will be your gig for the next week, and being able to see and be seen is a distinct advantage.
If your shelter is roped, flag those ropes with reflective tape. If your structure is held down with rebar, duct-tape soft Dubya dolls on the steel ends or cover them with liter bottles. Think ugly ankle gashes stinging with alkali dust. Think headlong bikes colliding with night-shrouded tent ropes.
This year’s nautical theme, the “Floating World,” demands that your math mind get a short workout. All directions are laid along the smarty-pants lines of latitude and longitude. Take a minute to figure this out, and save yourself the seasick stomach of someone who can’t find her way home again.
The politics of fire and water–yes, good reminder; please take a drink–are huge. Suffice it to say that neither should touch the playa floor. Fire may only be ignited on the many burn platforms erected for this purpose. And please pick up that fallen match.
Police officers of all denominations are among Burning Man’s bubbling crowd. Some of them will be undercover. They can and will arrest you if so inclined. Your tent, teepee, RV, or yurt, however, is your residence while in BRC, with all the civil rights and liberties–however rapidly devolving–of your residence at home. You do not have to allow entry. The Black Rock Rangers with their distinctive Burning Man symbol are volunteer mediators, not officers. Use them early and often to help diffuse potential problems with other Burners.
When packing, don’t forget your art, a hat, a good camping knife, extra batteries, rope, earplugs, sunscreen, Wet Wipes, warm and cool clothes, something to write with, Vitamin C hard candies, a first-aid kit, scarves, money for ice and coffee, and a well-prepared sense of forgiveness and wonder.
Because after you’ve settled in and adhered to the many, many rules designed to allow almost 30,000 people to be wholly free all at the same time, you’ll find that you can be too. But come on, please–have just one more sip.
Download the Burning Man Survival Guide from www.burningman.com.
From the August 22-28, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.