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Burning Man Gave Me Asthma

[whitespace] Burning Man

One man's allergic reaction to the mainstreaming of burning mania

By Richard von Busack

I HATE THIS KIND of article. What easier way to depress reader and writer alike than to critique some once-cool scene that the writer was part of in some insignificant way--"Yeah, that was hip once, but it's too late now. We did it and you didn't, and we had fun and you won't"--especially since it bothers me to hear all of this talk about how that nationally famous oasis has been exposed to the unwashed masses, just because it was featured on ABC Nightline and in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. I mean, how hip can it be? Eisenhower used to golf there in the 1950s--oh wait, "Burning Man"? I thought you said "Burning Tree."

It was the last Friday of July. On the streets of San Francisco, an S&M-clad stilt walker teetered above a couple of jugglers; a small fleet of art cars was parked nearby. I was on the outskirts of a reception for The Art of Burning Man: An Incendiary Exhibition. Inside, about 100 people mingled, drinking wine from plastic cups. A small cambot roved through the crowd on bicycle wheels. Nik Phelps' Sprocket Ensemble accompanied videos of the immolation of the famous Burning Man itself.

In a lot on Grove Street, the Man was already set up and ready for his Joan of Arc act 300 miles away. Next door was an installation of the salient feature of the desert: a flat triangle of playa mud dried and cracked into hundreds of pieces like a broken plate. So evocative, if you'd been there. So perfect to contemplate on psychedelics when you were there: the world's largest fractal under your bare feet.

Seeing it all--the crowds, the art--I was sorely tempted to chuck everything and go back this year. But strong winds were funnelling in from the canyon of skyscrapers on Market Street. Watching a handful of people trying to erect an awning in the severe gusts reassured me that the back yard was a smarter holiday destination.

This year, Burning Man (Aug. 31-Sept. 7) will be harder for dilettantes to attend. The admission price has been raised to $80 ($100 if you don't buy in advance). The Burning Management has stopped issuing in-and-out passes (you leave, you repay when you return) and is making the main camp car-free.

The Main Stage won't be set up this year. All media must check in with the media team on site. "Access is granted depending upon your intended use of Burning Man imagery and ability to contribute to our image archive. We also brief you in ways to integrate into the community." This officialese, from Building Burning Man: The Official Journal of the Burning Man Project, complements the appearance of Burning Man on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle on July 28, right where Willie Brown's picture usually shows up. This would seem to be the end of an era.

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Armchair modern primitives can review Burning Man's glory days of 1995 and 1993 as seen by Metroactive.

This year's upcoming festival is chronicled on the official burningman.com site.

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I'M NOT COOL, but I know some cool people, and that's how I learned about that gathering of loons in the Nevada desert, years before references to it began turning up on TV commercials and on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This was before hordes of Southern Californians were drawn by the promise of drugs and naked chicks.

Although you see some odd sights and meet some interesting people during Burning Man, it's Black Rock Desert that makes a bigger impression than anything else you see during the course of the weekend. The high desert at Black Rock is a lunar dry lake bed that stretches unmarked for many miles until it ends abruptly at some short, steep mountains.

In 1995, on Labor Day weekend, we drove across that dusty lake bed to Tiki Camp and started to help set up the luau bar for that night's festivities. I made some gas-powered blender drinks never heard of before and never heard of again. The next day, I broke several laws at once at the Drive-by Shooting Range, drinking cheap Trader Joe's beer in the passenger seat and emptying my friend Allen's .22 into some stuffed toy-animal targets on sticks. Now I understand why the kids enjoy drive-bys so much!

I could go on with these happy memories. But New Age communion was not necessarily part of the visit. A gentle, Steinbeckian transcendence settles upon me when I've been boozing--does that count as the call from the Eternal? I was there and I spectated. In blatant defiance of the "No Spectators" rule, I gawked, gaped, was an audience. I was entertained by the hard work of others.

Why is being a spectator a negative quality? After all, the whole history of the progress of the human race can be summed up as "monkey see, monkey do." In between bouts of spectating, I sunned myself in a lawn chair and drank lager and read Orwell essays, enjoying the lunar quiet, clarity and stillness of the desert. These reminiscences are more persistent than the camp-counselor-encouraged group activity: the ritual burning of the Man. Anyway, the smoke from the kerosene and the lumber gave me a mighty asthma attack. I had to retreat and watch it blaze from a distance, while squirting Albuterol at my uvula. See, I told you I'm not cool.

The second (and last) time I went to Burning Man, I drove up with my fiancée in a rental car from L.A. Allen had got there earlier, helping to rig a huge generator that looked like the mammoth, energy-absorbing robot villain of the sci-fi film Kronos (1957). Kronos Jr. powered a Woodstock-style scaffold and loudspeaker, making the Black Rock Desert echo with the sound of drum machines from dawn until 3am.

The weather, I'd been warned, could turn extreme. And it did this time--extremely extreme. First there was a monster 1930s-style dust storm. The storm was followed by heavy rain, gale-force winds and even more thunder and lightning. A flat dry lake bed is the last place you want to be in a thunderstorm. We hid in the car. Dust was seeping through the seals on the doors and windows, and the car rocked sideways on its springs as the wind hit it hard. Dying in a tornado did not seem unlikely.

Convinced that Burning Man 1997 would have a body count (it did, but only one), I passed on a third visit. Allen figured it out. He went a week early, helping to set up some of the camps. This way he could hang out with his friends. He and his wife, Patty, enjoyed the pristine emptiness of the Black Rock Desert before it was filled by the network scene reporters in their chartered planes, UCLA frat boys and slumming accountants.

So BM's founder, Dennis Harvey, is trying to thin the herd with a new focus on sparsity. After that noise-polluted Fort Lauderdalean fiasco I saw, I'd say more power to him. Making it more intimate will showcase the artists there, artists like Pepe Orzan, whose beautiful clay-fired lingams--tall, terra-cotta venturi furnaces that blaze and immolate themselves--are a haunting sight at night. But now I'm talking like a spectator again!

Still, I'll miss the old Burning Man's anarchic Do What Thou Wilt Will Be the Whole of the Law aesthetic. "We wanted to get rid of the wilder Western element," Harvey told the Chronicle. Burning Man had reached a point where it had two possible fates. It could end up as Club Burning Med or as an invitation-only party.

By roping it in, Harvey and company are making it maybe less fun for those interested in the cheaper, faster things of life, but he's keeping it pure. Who was it who said, "The problem with hippies is that they tolerated themselves to death"? Whoever it was, Harvey seems to have learned the lesson.

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From the August 13-19, 1998 issue of Metro.

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