It's Glastonbury in a desert, and long may it continue.
Under a pitch-black desert sky, two winged mechanical creatures are battling it out, clanging against each other with primordial shrieks and spitting four-metre-long strings of fire. Awed passers-by retreat in terror as a fire-breathing mouth swivels around at random. Welcome to the Burning Man Festival.
Burning Man can affect you in many ways: sunburn, mouthfuls of dust, willingness to wear silly pink wigs. But the best thing about this desert gathering is that it drastically increases the weirdness you expect from the outside world.
After you’ve spent six days hitching rides on motorised canopy beds, grooving in a club full of fire-twirlers and accepting free, delicious platefuls of seared fresh tuna from a conclave of merry Hell’s Angels, ordinary cities seem bland in comparison. This, though, is the point, and it’s what’s drawn more than 25,000 people to this year’s Burning Man, held for a week in Nevada’s barren and beautiful Black Rock Desert.
This isn’t a festival where you watch bands and DJs do their thing on a stage. Its mantra is ‘no spectators’. If you come, you’re expected to do something creative to entertain your neighbours. For some people, that involves building a 30-metre-long dragon with a brass band in its belly, for others it means riding around on a bike with a small icebox and a sign reading, ‘Want a fucking carrot?’. Combine this with Burning Man‘s other tenets – bring survival supplies to last a week, don’t leave a damn scrap of trash, don’t sell anything, dress to baffle – and you’ve got an annual gathering quite unlike anything else in the world.
It’s come a long way from its inception in 1986, but Burning Man now takes the shape of a sprawling metropolis called Black Rock City, complete with street signs, three newspapers and dozens of freeform radio stations. It’s set up like a huge horseshoe – with the omnipresent Man and other large-scale art projects in the centre – and can take two hours to walk from end to end.
A typical evening during Burning Man 2000 might involve cosy tiki lounges, neon sculptures lit by humming generators, a naughty miniature-golf course, and the Beggars’ Bar, where you can plead with a grouchy Muppet-like creature for a small soda. Or you might take a different path and encounter the dance club Xara, complete with damp grass on its floor, or the Thunderdome, where would-be gladiators dangle from bungee cords and whap each other with cushioned bats. Either way, it’s different.
Of course, with its ever increasing crowds and notoriety, even Burning Man‘s Utopian ideals have started to fray a bit. By the festival’s final days, the ‘show us your tits’ boys and pant-less middle-aged men with video cameras turn up to ogle the residents and leave beer cans in their wake.
But this is only a minor inconvenience to the Burning Man faithful – painters, DJs, dotcom executives, performance artists, drag queens, cyberpunks, writers, software programmers, middle-aged nudists, neo-hippy trance kids – who are willing to go through just about anything to get their yearly fix of DIY surrealness. It’s Glastonbury in a desert, and long may it continue.