Don’t Hate the Playa Hate the Game

We tried to knock Burning Man. We failed.

It sucked. In my ongoing quest to find Canada’s best vegan burrito I recently landed on a park bench in Kensington Market — a Toronto ’hood championed for its fierce resistance to gentrification and its offbeat ahem “funkiness” — working my way through a faux-Mexi log of awesome. But attention was soon diverted from the burrito: Enveloped 360 degrees by fire-breathers LCD-lit hula-hoop contortionists and the incessant pitter-patter of devil sticks two thoughts dawned on me.

First: “This is exactly where immobile carnies go to escape the heteronormative conventions of work fashion and social conduct.”

Then: “Fuck this sucks.”

There’s a point to the anecdote. See that sentiment is how I’ve traditionally felt about Burning Man the Nevada desert basin’s celebrated annual arts-music-everything festival. Not that the aforementioned definition wouldn’t raise the ire of attendees: In their words it’s not a fest; it’s a “temporary community” — which completely disappears without a trace at its completion — built on a gift-based economy chaotically organized in a grid (like a real city!). It’s not just art or music; it’s “radical self-expression.” And it ain’t called a basin bro; it’s called The Playa playa.

Sigh. It all sounds like being ushered into the 79th ring of hell riding a unicycle — a good several notches below the Gathering of the Juggalos. (Where at least Charlie Sheen makes an appearance.)

But then again there’s a reason why last year more than 50000 people — ahem “burners”— travelled to carve a fly-by-night-city-cum-art project in the Black Rock Desert over Labour Day week. There’s a reason too that $300-plus tickets sell out well before summer ends while roughly 2000 people volunteer annually. And now past its quarter-century mark in operation there has to be more to Black Rock City the commune satelliting the 40-foot man-shaped structure. (Which is burned in effigy for the fest’s namesake.)

So hold your cynicism — as will I — just for a second. Because rep be damned here are five reasons why Burning Man doesn’t fucking suck.

Alberta’s getting in on it. Spattered throughout the province — though they admit most activity is centred around Calgary and Edmonton— Alberta’s burners live Burning Man-style year-round. In fact we have our own pre-Nevada gathering Freezer Burn which took place in June on a ranch near Ponoka. Alta. Recreating Burning Man’s grid-city and core values including the “leave no trace mantra” Alberta has its own twist: Meeting places have names like The Church of Respect and Decentralized Edmontopia and among other activities there’s a slip ‘n’ slide shooter bar. Just in case you were wondering where folk fest’s dreadlock soldiers went to decompress….

It has its own Calgary Tower only wooden and temporary. Nearly 50000 feet worth of lumber. Close to 2000 sheets of plywood. A cost of $27000. That’s what it’ll take to build the gothic-arched Temple of Transition Black Rock City’s eminent skyscraper — it’s a 40-metre hexagonal tiered free-standing tower built the International Arts Megacrew. Constructed in Reno and shipped to the grounds it’s a symbolic spot where fest-goers can bring bad memories — and eventually burn the shit out of them. Presumably it’s meant to be cathartic but like whatevsies. We just hope that 40-metre fires come with 40-metre smores.

Burning Man is getting over itself. Each year the artwork focuses on a theme and this year it’s Rites of Passage. (See the above point.) Sixteen new streets have been added to Black Rock City’s grid and each represents themes of transition named amongst others Birthday Coming Out Divorce and Funeral. By my observations interstitial art — created during times of change and uncertainty — can be positively electro-charged meaning that the stuff on display should be if nothing else fascinating. Plus it’s about time you came to terms with that acne scarring — seriously it’s kind of hot.

The robot heart beats. There’s nothing Dan Mangan-esque about Robot Heart one of the festival’s most beloved spectacles. A slow-moving bus carting a DJ screen and a giant metallic heart it’ll rotate through more than 30 performers who’ll move amongst Burning Man’s many districts. And if there was ever a context to get down with music that sounds like Infected Mushroom it’s here. (Though the band isn’t playing. Thankfully.)

The Playa is entering the game. As reported by Fast Company several weeks ago Burning Man is actually going to make an impact outside its insular desert digs. According to the magazine the Burning Man Project is channelling funding into the revitalization of San Francisco’s Tenderloin District turning into a so-called “art and innovation district” which will convert a ghost town into an arts hub. No word on if Tenderloin is the new Inglewood but hey it’s proof that Burning Man profits aren’t solely being spent on rug-sized sheets of LSD. Kudos!