“I'm getting paid to go to Burning Man? You've got to be joking!”
I'd been at Sunday Night for less than an hour and I was already the envy of the office.
All l I knew about this desert festival was that it was notorious. And controversial. So I figured it was going to be awesome! I also knew it was based on the deep philosophy that parts of modern society are not working, making Burning Man the biggest social experiment in alternative living.
Covering it, however, was a different story.
We began our 'burn' by burning lots of fuel. Thousands of vehicles crawled down a two-lane highway to reach a relatively insignificant patch of the Nevada desert. But for one week a year, that patch transforms into Black Rock City - often referred to as the “playa”. After 14 hours in the RV we finally arrived.
Day one of filming and our director Mick - aka ‘Goliath’, cinematographer Matt - aka ‘Stuntman’ and sound engineer Dan - aka ‘Zipperhead’ and I got down to work.
What’s with the names, you ask? At Burning Man, everyone chooses or is given a playa name. I thought I was going to escape this wacky tradition until I was ‘gifted’ the name ‘Mesmerize’ (don’t ask, it’s just too embarrassing).
Our first hurdle was the heat. Not even my upbringing in Mackay, North Queensland, could prepare me for temperatures- above 40 degrees every day. Water was not only cooling, it was life-saving. Then, there were dust storms. Fierce ‘white-outs’ would repeatedly hit us in the middle of filming, ruining our equipment, turning our hair white, making our eyes water and leaving a funny taste in our mouths. By day three, I was nursing a bloody nose and sneezing through sentences. But we carried on. Up at 4am and home around 11pm, flopping into bed. Silence ... until “doof, doof, doof, doof”. Parties stopped for no one. We all had headaches from time to time. And don’t get me started on what the playa did to our digestive systems.
This was the reality of surviving in a desert.
But none of that could take away our impression of what we were filming. The people, the costumes, the themed camps - beyond anyone’s imagination. Some burners went to extraordinary lengths to dress up in this desert, while others came baring all. In fact, we found ourselves staring at those with clothes on, just as much as those without (if you’re yet to see the story, here’s a spoiler alert: there’s tons of nudity).
Across the playa, we found Egyptian figurines, giant insects, enormous human body parts, shipwrecks in the sand and geometric sculptures.
Arguably the most significant piece of art on the playa is the Man. When it burns, it comes to symbolise everything in modern world that burners believe cripples individual prerogative: the boss, the government, the job, the family unit, the church, and the institutions.
Or so we thought. A chat with event’s founder Larry Harvey surprised all of us…
PJ: So what does it all mean now?
Larry: What does it mean, well I don’t know?
PJ: Well you’re the founder, I’m asking you.
Larry: Well this is what I say to everybody; what does it mean to you, because that’s the only way you’ll get meaning from it is if you give meaning to it.
Black Rock City is a place with no rules. Yet, every burner is given a booklet of 10 principles governing the city. Sounds confusing?
It appears to be anti-capitalism, anti-commercialism, anti-consumerism and anti-consumption, yet people spend extraordinary amounts to travel here, live here, create art and dress in clothes they wouldn’t normally be caught dead in.
It’s a place that celebrates individuality, but after days of watching all the nudity and crazy costumes, I started to think that all burners looked the same.
And then there’s the criminal element. Last year there were at least nine cases of sexual assault. Truckloads of drugs are seized and theft is common.
Suddenly I was getting a tad confused. Isn’t this supposed to be the closest thing to utopia? Perhaps not. Black Rock is like any other international city and isn’t immune to criminals or ideological contradictions.
My Burning Man bubble was starting to burst. Maybe I was just too hot, tired and desperate for a shower?
Thank goodness for Madeline Snow, Thomas Curtain and his gorgeous mother, Cricket. They were the most beautiful people you could ever meet. By day, Thomas works for Apple as a computer geek and Maddie is studying. On the playa, they’re “Peaches and Pretty Boy” and should be a poster couple for Burning Man. These true believers got engaged at last year’s event and were back to seal the deal.
After spending a week with them in the desert, I realised there were just like everyone else back in the ‘default’ world except for one difference: They were willing to shun their noses at convention as they made the biggest commitment of their lives.
Peaches and Pretty Boy represented everything wonderful about Burning Man. They walked the talk of love, tolerance, acceptance and the importance of having hope for a brighter and more positive future.
They were married at the Temple, the spiritual heart of the playa. Most people come here to pour out their hearts and write messages to lost loved ones.
Many Burners go to the temple to cry. Peaches and Pretty Boy went to celebrate love.
With that gesture, I was convinced.
At the start of the week, a Burner told me that your best burn is always your first.
I’m not sure if 2012 was also my last, but I’ll be forever grateful to this lovely couple for showing me what it was all about.
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