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Not every festival is an anachronism – staged to celebrate a long forgotten event or neglected god. Occasionally new festivals appear spontaneously, and a spectacle created by the people for the people erupts into being like a volcanic island through the surface of an ocean, to stand in accusation against, or in celebration of the culture from which it has emerged.

A striking example of just such a festival has materialised in the middle of a desert in the western portion of the United States. At the end of each August, 30,000 Americans set off for an uninhabitable wilderness with the aim of establishing a temporary city, dedicated to pleasure, where they frolic together for a week. This event, although still only in its ‘teens, is already notorious and its participants have been labelled freaks, nudists, anarchists, fetishists, feminists, sex maniacs, drug addicts, pagans and communists, and their behaviour in their temporary utopia likened to that which flourished in the Biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, shortly before God intervened and wiped them from the face of the earth. However, and despite its equivocal reputation, the event is also acknowledged to celebrate a certain type of idealism, and to embody the freedom of expression that Americans so cherish.

The Burning Man Project, as this event is known, encourages its participants to reject passive consumption, to express their individuality, and to engage with their fellows in any way that their imaginations might suggest to them. Burning Man consists of the creation of a settlement called Black Rock City, a temporary and commerce-free utopia marked out in lines on the surface of the eponymous desert, which is occupied for the duration of the festival, and then effaced at its conclusion. Within these ephemeral bounds, Americans gather from all over the nation. They come by car, truck and aeroplane, singly and in convoys, carrying everything that they will need for survival or pleasure, for with the exceptions of a coffee shop and an ice-cube stall, it is forbidden to sell or buy anything at the event. The result is a giant adult playground – a cross between a funfair, a beach party, and Tomorrow's World – set in a terrain as harsh as a moonscape. Participants attend not only in order to escape the consumer frenzy raging through America, but also to make friends, to find lovers, to entertain, and to be entertained, to construct and admire giant works of art, and to participate in a general round of hedonism. After a week of festivities staged in a brand free environment, Burning Man culminates, as its name suggests, in the incineration of a giant human effigy, the conflagration serving to form a unifying ritual for its disparate participants.

“On paper, Black Rock City is a near perfect counterfeit of a permanent metropolis, and might appear side by side in a gazetteer with other Nevadan settlements of a similar size. It has its own fire service, police force, and media, including Radio Free Burning Man, and the Black Rock Gazette, published daily. It is equipped with public lavatories, an airport, communications facilities and a central administration. A coherent and rigid set of traffic laws is applied within its boundaries. In substance, however, and in contrast, it consists of little more than a pair of concentric rings, marked out like crop circles on the surface of the desert. The section of ground between these circles is divided into blocks by radial avenues, within which the Burners set up camp. A third of the city, facing east down the length of the desert is left clear, as is the ground within the inner circle. The Burning Man, the effigy to be incinerated at the conclusion of the festival stands at its centre on a plinth, and resembles a lighthouse rising from a flat sea. From the air, Black Rock City looks like a giant horseshoe, its arms curling round a pinprick. At ground level, it makes an immediate and powerful impression on account of its size, its complexity, and the ingenuity and extravagance of the structures it contains. Most Burners carry far beyond the bare minimum needed to live in a wilderness for a week. Some bring fairground rides, radio masts, tents large enough to stage a circus, carbon fibre pyramids, geodisic domes built from coloured glass hexagons, dance floors, sound systems, railway carriages, industrial strength lasers and their associated 16-ton cooling trucks, swimming pools and the water to fill them; and American government surplus material ranging from NASA discards and VERTOL apparatus to pup tents. Above all this, a myriad of coloured banners, and the flags of states and nations are suspended from spires and masts that stretch into the sky.”