Saturday, July 11, 2009
I wrote this a while ago, but because it discusses illegal activities, I decided to post it after some time passed so it can't be linked to any specific regional burn.
This weekend, I attended a regional Burning Man. I first learned about Burning Man in high school when my public speaking teacher decided to give a slideshow the first day of class so we understood that he was Very Hip and Cool. My cheek stayed glued to my palm as I watched picture after picture of this dude in cargo shorts flashing the thumbs up beside parodies of automobiles and perpetual motion machines in settings that sucked the moisture out of my mouth just looking at them. I was fourteen, and he was a teacher. Worse than that, he was a minister that sometimes functioned as a teacher. And he was boring me with a slide show. There could not possibly be anything cool about this event, so I blew the whole concept off.
A few years later, though, the concept was reintroduced to me in a much more palatable way. I was dating a guy that had purchased tickets and was already planning his pilgrimage in January of that year.
"Burning Man...?" I said as he researched camping supplies and strange spectacles executed at previous Burns. "I think I had a weird teacher that was into that. He was dumb."
"Oh, but Burning Man's not!" he beamed. He explained that there are ten principles underlying Burning Man: radical inclusion; gifting; decommodification; radical self-reliance; radical self-expression; communal effort; civic responsibility; leaving no trace; participation; and living in the moment. If you explain the event in these terms, it seems pretty sweet. I mean, going to fraternize with folks that value people over money? That don't want to trash the planet? That want to challenge themselves to live in the moment? It seems loaded with the potential to be a totally zen experience, and so he imparted me with curiosity, a curiosity that has outlived our relationship.
Of course, I've also been imparted with some apprehensions. Since then, I've met a number of "Burners," and I'm going to admit: most of them have left a varying degree of sour in my mouth. In fact, sometimes I think "Burning Man" = "Burn Out," so I've always been torn as to whether the thing would - could, even - be a zen experience, or if it was doomed to being a marginalized hippie event that reveled in debauchery. Certainly, this was not a question I was interested in dropping two hundred dollars and some travel on, to answer, but when a friend of mine called to invite me to the regional Burn, I thought, "Ahh, this will settle things for me."
The debate was very much settled: while Burning Man is a mixed bag, it is most certainly Not My Thing. In fact, I learned that about five minutes after arriving. The first locations pointed out to me were the three "bars," and people were offering me drugs before I even pitched my tent. There was a lot of unwelcome touching and hugging, and more than once, I had to sit down and tell people that the way they were talking to/about me was inappropriate. My first night there, I was sitting in a chair at one of the bars nursing a sparkling water when a "wheel of debauchery" materialized. Somehow, people outside of what I perceived as "the circle of people interested in the wheel of debauchery" were getting suckered into the debaucherous antics, and while the atmosphere was very, "Oh, it's fun, it's funny, it's okay!", I quickly made an escape lest a drunken stranger cram their tongue in my mouth. Just because people want to "gift" their kisses to me doesn't mean I want to receive them, ya dig? But at times, I felt like being there was taken as some sign of consent that invited all sorts of things I wasn't interested in, and that absence of consent culture was easily the scariest part of my weekend. In general, I find it hard to swallow the way substances blur boundaries, and I think that's a dramatic oversight at events like these.
The event definitely contradicted how it was advertised on its website:
"The organization does not condone the sale, use, or promotion of illegal drugs. [The regional burn] will be so much more enjoyable if you are sober and in control, be yourself and be responsible and you will find that you will have the best experience."
"It is imperative to know and express your own sexual boundaries and to ask about and respect your partners' boundaries. As the Bureau of Erotic Discourse (B.E.D.) reminds us: Silence is not consent. Communication is the best lubricant!"
For an event that claims it is "more enjoyable" when you're sober and in control, it sure did leave a lot of people pissing pure THC! One of the ten principles is to live in the moment, but drugs are completely antithetical to being present. Regardless of one's opinion on their pitfalls and merits, altering one's state of consciousness is actively altering one's sense of the present and more or less choosing to be elsewhere. Period. However, no one was interested in exploring this or evaluating how substances mediated their interactions with one another. And the whole structure of BM fails to incorporate how effective substances are at blurring boundaries. That's why I think it's imperative to talk about consent, not just as some tagline like, "Well, as long as it's consensual..!", but as an integral part of the BM experience. When people are intoxicated, a lot of their filters get thrown out, and they say and do things that make people uncomfortable. It's easy to misinterpret the absence of "no" as a "yes" when you're fucked up. And does "yes" really mean "yes" when someone's on something? When is there time to discuss abuse histories? The way the event is conducted leaves little room to talk about these things, as well as little room to mention/address non-consensual behavior. It's like you're supposed to write everything off because if you don't, you're being a downer. And that's completely unacceptable in my book.
That said, I do think there was some level of restraint - although really, what does that even mean? People seemed generally good at policing themselves and looking out for their friends, but personally, I'm always thinking about that what if. My impression is that people go in with certain expectations, making certain concessions, and mumming it about what's going on behind their tent flaps. And I'm sure most people don't go in with my sort of naivete. How safe is that really? I have no idea. There was definitely a forehead-slapping moment when one of the medics drunkenly advertised the medic tent while shackling people up for bar-hopping. Group safety is always compromised in resolutely non-sober spaces, and I'm a little rattled by how it would be handled if something bad really did happen. Much of my experience at the regional Burn contradicted the ten principles, but I think the most glaring contradiction was the fact that non-sober spaces are incredibly exclusionary because of how inhospitable they are to people presently struggling with or recovering from substance abuse problems. I spent a lot of time thinking about when and how individual freedoms were more important than community freedoms and what different answers to that question meant for these kinds of events. While the event was organized and orchestrated with these things in mind (I know because I discussed it a little with a friend of mine that was also an organizer), I'm not sure if I agree with the particular lines in the sand that got drawn. Then again, as far as I know, such lines have been working for Burns so far, so maybe I'm just a worry wart. Who am I to shake a finger because it's not my idea of a good, safe time? Then again, how many raucous parties go alright before one winds up as a 20/20 expose...
Another thing I found difficult to take seriously was being charged for an event that emphasized gifting and decommodification. I understand that the money went to stuff like port-a-potties, but the port-a-potties in themselves are a contradiction. How can you talk about "leave no trace" when you're housing fifteen or so plastic cubicles full of mystery blue liquid? Skip the toxic phone booths and provide food for participants! If folks stopped bringing their own food and were instead fed onsite, this would cut down on a lot of waste - which may not be "leaving a trace" on the campsite but is leaving a trace elsewhere on the planet. As for the bathroom situation, there's an an easy solution to that: biodegradable toilets. It definitely takes a lot more planning and foresight, but if the event's priorities are what they say they are, I think it's worth the effort. This probably couldn't extend to the big and "official" Burning Man, but maybe the official Burning Man should re-evaluate its priorities, even challenge the obstacles to realizing something like that. I've heard of trash mountain ranges growing just outside of the boundaries of the Burning Man at the Black Rock Desert, which makes me think that maybe regional is the way to go to really keep the spirit of its expressed intent alive. Regardless, there are some serious disconnects between thought and action.
Now, I didn't spend my ENTIRE weekend shaking my finger and tallying things I found questionable/distasteful. I did get to spend some quality time with some friends, and camping is really amazing when you have weather as nice as we had. I ate way too well because my friends had a little propane stove and coolers overflowing with fresh goodies. Meals were things like coconut-curried vegetables, veggie stir-fry over cous cous, and roasted vegetable marinara, and we had all kinds of delicious snacks like nuts, fruits, peanut butter pows, sesame sticks, peanut brittle... Plus, people were always willing to share their food. In fact, the spirit of sharing was very much alive, as there was always someone willing to help pitch a tent, find this, haul that... if you needed it, someone got it to you, and I'm always touched when that happens.
To Burning Man's credit, it did create an emotionally safe space for people to explore parts of themselves that they couldn't in everyday life. Cross-dressing, nudism, sexual aggression from people that defied traditional standards of beauty - all of it was okay, even encouraged. As someone that struggles with their body image, it was comforting to be in an environment where so many different body types were celebrated and not just in a sexual way. The lack of inhibitions translated to so many women readily embracing themselves and treating their bodies according to what they needed or desired, not what they felt other people would want them to do (for instance, bigger ladies wore minimal clothing because it was baking hot, and no one cared!). I liked that co-ed naked yoga was treated with total nonchalance - not fetishized or glamorized but taken for granted. Even though the event was heavy with sexual overtones, I did like that sexuality was not taboo and that certain things were very de-sexualized.
I also found my fair share to keep me occupied. In addition to an absurd rotation of beers*, one of the bars offered soda water and very refreshing homemade root beer. I spent most of my time at that bar reading and writing while sipping soda water and observing the shenaniganery. There was also a Burn-a-Bear station (which is build-a-bearing a new stuffed animal from old ones) and a papier mache vagina filled with sexy prizes like vibrators and erotic gum (naturally, this was dubbed the "porñata"). A friend of mine had his own little tea tent set up with large, inviting pillows and a new pot of homemade tea always brewing, and I really enjoyed spending an afternoon swallowed by the pillows, sipping delicately flavored waters, and having light conversations. I discovered that his partner and a mutual friend are both expert hoopers, too, so they taught me my first hoop tricks (!). One guy had a vibrantly painted stall full of comics he'd made, many about his experiences at Burns but also about stuff like cat super heros trying to decipher the world of humans, and we geeked out on making sequential art. True, I spent a lot of time by myself, but I was happy to do it, and I definitely made sure I didn't waste my weekend reveling in how different I was from everyone else.
Because certainly, that is a recurring theme in my life: being vegan-straight edge and navigating relationships with people that, well, aren't. (Actually, it's one of the reasons I created xveganx party and one of the reasons I want to talk more about the ways I spend my time beyond eating and art schooling.) The friend that invited me could definitely sense how quickly I realized Burning Man is Not My Thing. I think he even kicked himself a few times for thinking it was a good idea to bring me along. He definitely felt a pressure as my friend (and the person that trapped me in the woods) to make sure that I was having a good time, and I struggle to communicate with my friends that, that's not their responsibility. Sometimes, I want to be whine-y and helpless and make it their responsibility; sometimes, I am whine-y and helpless and make it their responsibility; but it's not, and I'm working on fully owning that. A few things I've accepted about myself are: some situations will just never be fun for me; I have really high expectations of people and places; and sometimes I just need to let it all go and relax. The real trick, I've found, is balance, and I think I did a pretty good job of maintaining that this weekend.
To that end... Will I go to another Burning Man event? I think it's pretty obvious I won't. Do I regret going to this Burning Man event? Most certainly I do not. Will I continue to think "Burning Man" = "Burn Out"? Ehhh... the jury's still out on that one. What still bothers me is that the whole experience was just some weekend escape. I'm sure everyone is a "good" person in their everyday life - just as kind and generous as they revealed themselves to be at the event - but how many folks go home and try to create lives they don't have to escape from? Lives where they don't need a "safe space" because they're living in a safe world? THAT is what I'd like to see happen following these kinds of events instead of habitual day trippers going back to office jobs anticipating the next weekend get away. From now on, positive connotations of Burning Man are going to set off big flares when regarding future partners.
* ... an absurd rotation of beers at a makeshift bar that was just a little too professional. These guys had, like, gallons upon gallons of seven or eight different homebrews, plus this little bar set up with a fancy sign and stools and everything - and it was all their "gift" to the event. My reaction to this is mixed because on the one hand, I'm really blown by their generosity, openness, and dedication, but on the other, I wish it were a more posi contribution than getting people fucked up. I shouldn't really judge because these guys were INCREDIBLY nice and accommodating. And they never once raised an eyebrow about all the soda water I drank. One of them even made a super special trip to get the soda water off their truck, lug it to the bar, and hook it up. It was kind of an effort, but he was really nonchalant about it, so I gave him a hug. He was the only stranger that I willingly hugged.