Temporary Palaces

A week at Burning Man

Story: Niina Pollari • Photos: Christina Tran

It’s 10:30pm in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. We’re at the end of a sweltering August, but the landscape is too bare to hold on to any heat; night cools quickly, and the temperature has dropped 30 degrees in the three hours since sunset. The desert air vibrates with sound, and the edge of the transient city on the horizon is a dizzy display of multicolored light — thousands of people on bikes and on foot, lit up with LEDs, bright and abstract. It’s moonless, and the nearest large structure is an intricate balsa wood temple.

Out here on the margins of Black Rock City, the surface you tread is softer and less trampled down, and each footstep sends clouds of dust into the air so it looks like smoke trails are following you. And if you walk too close to a certain inviting, bright blue, dock-shaped structure, a shadowy figure in a raincoat and bucket hat will hum softly at you: here, fishy, fishy.

This is when I start to feel a little uneasy.

I walk in a wide arc away from the fisherman. Suddenly, rising like an oasis in front of me, there’s a familiar sight: a well-lit bar counter, a row of bar stools, and a couple leather-flanked booths. Two bartenders are slinging whiskey and beer at the patrons, making small talk as if they weren’t dressed in Road Warrior-casual, as if they weren’t standing in the middle of a wide stretch of uninhabited desert, as if the old push-button telephone sitting on the counter had anything to plug into. Nobody’s paying attention to the madness around them. There are no walls, but everyone acts like they’re inside. Everyone acts as though it’s no big deal that a massive, skull-shaped, top-hatted car is circling menacingly close by.

When I order a whiskey sour, the bartender checks my ID. When I ask about the phone, he tells me it doesn’t call anywhere, then shares a story about his grandmother: through some clerical oversight, she’s been renting her hallway phone for 25 cents a month since the 1960s.

I begin to relax.

At Burning Man, you might see a giant mechanical octopus light up the night with its fire-spitting tentacles. You might be invited to climb up a ladder into a hammock above a dance floor. You might come across a meadow made of bright green plastic grass, lay down in it, and hear the chirping of crickets and songbirds. You might come across a car wash for humans (a “carcass wash”), or exchange your clothes for someone else’s at the free shop. These are the experiences that draw people to the Black Rock Desert, year after year. Everything here invites you to interact with it, to understand it by climbing on it or listening closely to it or feeling the warmth of the fire that it spouts — or even by feeling normal at it for a while. Everything here has been fabricated with care by craftspeople and visionaries who want to make you feel things.

And everything here — this is the part you’re supposed to forget — has taken a tremendous amount of resources, planning, and logistics to get to this point: the point where you experience it for a fleeting moment, and then leave it behind.

In the world outside of Black Rock, what Burners call the “default” world, experiences like this seem harder to come by. Part of that might have to do with money. As Larry Harvey, one of Burning Man’s founders, put it in a 2000 lecture, “All that’s required of you when you buy something in a marketplace is a sum of money, and your inner resources are beside the point, have nothing to do with it. It’s non-connective.” Here in the desert, only two things are bought and sold: ice and coffee. Everything else must be given or traded — must be “connective.”

It’s not that money is nonexistent at Burning Man. Money is everywhere, when you think about it. The desert is blank before the event begins, and it’s blank again soon after it’s over; a cleanup crew trawls the area for weeks, restoring the pristine surface of the playa. It takes resources to transport, set up, and break down the hundreds and hundreds of sculptures, mutant vehicles, makeshift kitchens, gigantic sound systems, and pop-up tea houses that populate Black Rock City in between. But because the gift economy is the norm, and no “default” value is assigned to anything, you’re never asked to think about money; it can remain invisible. You can run around with your pockets empty, with nothing but a titanium drinking cup strapped to your belt, trading in light-up rings or physical labor or strawberry lemonade, reveling with everyone else in the weird economy of giving one another no-strings-attached presents. Removing the monetary values from things makes every transaction a human endeavor: when something has no defined value, you can’t get away with ignoring the person giving it to you. Over the course of the week, I find myself looking people in the eye, asking questions and having conversations in place of making simple transactions.

When you are in the desert, you are in a hostile environment. You have to take care of certain physical needs in order to be safe and comfortable. Water is the obvious one — a gallon per person, per day. Sunscreen. A headlamp is extremely useful for midnight bathroom jaunts. Then there are the luxuries that make you a lot less cranky: baby wipes (to de-dust yourself before you get into your sleeping bag), multiple tubes of chapstick, and a change of clothes (kept separately, in a plastic bag, for the Exodus, when everyone attempts to vacate a 70,000-person city via a two-lane road). And something (a tarp, or even a sheet) to keep your bed covered during the day and protect it from the dust that will invariably blow through your tent’s many, many security breaches. The dust — that peculiar, fine, alkaline powder from the dry lake beds of the Southwest — gets in everything. There are occasional funnel clouds, soft beige tornadoes that rise up from the earth and then dissipate again minutes later. Sometimes there are white-outs where you can’t see more than two feet in front of you. There’s the dearth of moisture and the constant, adamant wind. For the whole week, your mouth is dry.

And the sun. By 9:30 in the morning, the sun is so high and unobstructed that it’s impossible to sleep if you’re in its path. Each morning, after your tent turns boiling, you clamber out with sweat beads mapping your face. Drink some water and have a moment to yourself before you head out into the awake city, because all day long, the sun will continue to exhaust you and steal your moisture. Nighttime at Burning Man feels surreal, detached, like a fantasy world, but daytime at Burning Man is strenuous: your shoulder blades slowly cook on your rides across the playa, and you remember your status as a visitor to an inhospitable climate. It’s almost impossible to be a citizen of both day and night.

Two people who have made it their mission to be a solace in the bright heat of day are Ceylan Sonmez and Alper Nakri. As their service to the Burning Man community, they operate the Cucumber Stand, a cart that distributes cold, salted, Turkish-style cucumbers to Burners during the hottest afternoon hours. Though they live in Los Angeles, both are of Turkish origin; their cart is modeled on the famous street-vendor carts of Istanbul. It’s small and covered with a green umbrella, easily spottable from several hundred feet away.

When I catch up with the two, at 1:30pm on Thursday, they’ve been on the playa for two hours, and are already nearly out of the day’s supply of cucumbers. They’re friendly and kind, with easy smiles; we hug like old friends. (Everyone on the playa hugs. I have never hugged so many people in my life.) Alper hands me half a Persian cucumber and a soaked, peeled almond as we walk. The small pleasure of receiving a cold, fresh cucumber on the playa is twofold: they are both refreshing and replenishing.

The cart is the first project these two have done together; it’s her seventh burn, and his second. “We were exiting last year during Exodus, and we were talking about how to contribute,” says Ceylan, describing the moment they had the idea. The collaboration came naturally as they departed, together at Burning Man for the first time. First-timers get a sort of free pass at Burning Man — as long as you immerse yourself in the culture and participate, you are a Burner. But people return with a desire to help turn the wheel, to create experiences for other people.

There’s both a specialization and a temporariness to the cucumber cart. Ceylan and Alper went to Turkey to retrieve the right knives and tools, but the wood was picked up from a Home Depot in Nevada, and the cart was put together right before the Burn. (When I ask what they’ll do with it at the end of the week, they tell me they’ll burn it.) On the cart’s bottom, the two have written the names of all the backers who supported the project — mostly strangers, they tell me, random Burners. In fact, while we’re talking, a man ambles up, excited to come across the cart: “I saw you guys on Kickstarter!”

“This is my first time giving something to someone else I don’t know,” Alper tells me. “In regular life, you don’t give anyone anything that you don’t know.”

It’s spectacular to bicycle along the Esplanade, Black Rock City’s innermost ring — a kind of walkway at the edge of the city where its most striking aspects are on display. You aren’t allowed to park your bike on Esplanade, so it remains clutter-free, weird, and inviting: a bike lane in a dream world. The juxtapositions along it are great, too: riding along the northern side, on the right there’s a big dance club, and on the left, a glass-walled phone booth that calls nowhere. Phones that call nowhere, and other tongue-in-cheek modes of communication, are a recurring theme here: there’s also a central post office that lets you send mail to anyone within Burning Man, and postal workers visit camps, delivering notes.

I’m at the Esplanade to talk with Yelena Filipchuk, one half (along with Serge Beaulieu) of the sculptor duo who created an installation called Hybycozo: Hyperspace Bypass Construction Zone. I park my bike, then follow her to the camp’s communal area, where about a dozen people lounge around under a large shade structure that serves as a living room and kitchen. Yelena is blonde and bohemian, and in her voice you can hear the slightest hint of a Ukrainian accent. Nearby, a lanky, shirtless Serge sleeps in a chair. It’s the time of day where you don’t have any extra energy to spend.

I first met Yelena a couple of days before, just as she and Serge were finishing putting the sculpture together. Hybycozo consists of a trio of polyhedrons, cut from gold-toned steel and lit up from the inside by a gradient of wi-fi-controlled light. Each section is about six feet tall and made from flat panels that bolt together. Both Serge and Yelena have a long fascination with the intersections of art, nature, and math, and this collaboration came together as a result of that. It’s truly a collaboration: Yelena designed one of the three sections, Serge another, and the last was done together. Hybycozo seems to have two personalities, in the same way as the rest of Burning Man: in the daytime, it looks almost solid, because its reflectiveness gives it weight and the perforations in it aren’t as obvious. At night, though, when it’s illuminated from the inside, it appears delicate and airy, like it’s made of cake doilies.

Part of what's compelling about the sculpture is that, precise and man-made as it looks, nothing about it evokes process. It looks like it belongs, like it wasn't laborious — even more so lit up in the evening light. But when I’m talking to Yelena, I learn that the piece is, in fact, 2,500 pounds of steel. After the piece found its funding (it ended up with twice the amount the two asked for), she and Serge brought it in flat-packed from San Francisco in a Budget truck, expecting to have to haul it out to the playa piece by piece. Instead, they found themselves camped next to some folks who were assembling an entire Ferris wheel, and were happy to lend out their forklift. (On another night, I’ll end up riding that Ferris wheel; it’ll be faster than any other Ferris wheel I’ve ever encountered, and the views will be much more spectacular.)

“Burning Man at its most fundamental is an arts festival,” Yelena tells me. “And mostly a sculpture festival. There’s a lot of lighting design.” This is one way to sum up a place that gets described in myriad different ways: as a party mecca, a dreamscape for nocturnal EDM fans to turn up the bass, a utopian West Coast hippie relic. A fundamental portion of the event is all about light and shape and structure. Although the illuminated mutant vehicles and blinged-out structures meld, from faraway, into a sea of wonderful confusion, each thing is still designed, made, lit up, and brought in by someone, as an expression of a particular vision. “The playa’s pretty white. It’s like a blank canvas,” Yelena says. “To see a city grow out of it and then come down again is inspiring.”

The last thing Yelena tells me about is a large tree sculpture that someone put up near her sculpture. It stood there for one day only, then came down again. A crucial part of Burning Man’s appeal is its temporariness — the flip side of “fear of missing out,” the reason to be present. “No-one’s like ‘I wish this was longer’ or ‘I wish I could stay forever,’” she says. “The elements make it harder to wish that, so people go all the way, and make the most out of a week.”

After I leave Yelena’s camp and bike toward home, I stop by a camp called Arctica to buy one of the only two things you can buy here: ice. (The other, coffee, is also consumable, but less splendidly temporary-feeling). At $3 a bag, ice is both a commodity and a part of the organization’s effect on the area: the proceeds of Arctica go to charities and community efforts in Pershing County and in Gerlach, the nearest town. Arctica is volunteer-run, and was established in 2000 after several years being a subsidiary camp of the center cafe. Each year, its operation has gotten bigger — in 2009, for example, it began operating prior to the opening of the festival, offering ice to the people who come in early to set up. The ice comes from Reno, over a hundred miles away, and the festival goes through dozens of trucks of it each year, each truck 45 feet in length.

Black Rock City is laid out in a near-complete circle, its sections designated like the hours of a clock. Streets from A through L also bisect the hours, and addresses are given by time and letter (5 O’Clock and D, etc). The dome-like Camp Arctica is centrally located at 6, with two Ice Caps on either side — Ice Cubed at three o’clock, and Ice-9, after the substance in Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, at nine. The lines at each consistently snake several layers of people deep, but they move quickly and efficiently. As I approach the front of the queue, a volunteer holding a bag of crushed ice instructs people to know their orders and have their money out when they get up to the counter. He hands me the ice bag to hold for a moment in the noontime swelter, and I clutch it to my torso like a baby. “I named this one Billy,” he says.

Embrace, a sculpture of two human figures, by The Pier Group.

The heat and sun make ice vending both a necessity and a strange historical echo; the ice trade has run across the world’s deserts for centuries. Still, it’s just one cog in the wheel — a great deal of organization goes into making Burning Man happen. There are branches within the organization for everything. Immediate infrastructure is important: in addition to ice, there are medical emergency tents, community resources, and a Department of Public Works to ensure smooth setup and takedown. There are divisions to handle culture, too: the Artery serves as the event’s art arm, and the Black Rock City Census records extensive participant demographics. And there is, as always, management. The event’s success depends on all of these things running smoothly.

In 2001, Larry Harvey announced Burning Man’s shift from a limited-liability corporation to a nonprofit. As that transition began, the event’s management also shifted over to the Burning Man Project, an umbrella organization that encompasses not just the event itself, but the Black Rock Arts Foundation, Black Rock Solar, volunteer groups, regional Burns, and more. And that, in turn, has required even more logistical adjustments — things like recruiting managers to fill new positions. The organization is also starting to take control of its own narrative, in the media and elsewhere. Harvey and other organizers, including CEO Marian Goodell, appear at talks and panels throughout the week, fielding questions and hosting lively discussions about the changing face of Burning Man.

One afternoon I find Harvey in an open-air room called Everywhere, which functions as a central location for communicating all the things that Burning Man, as a nonprofit, is doing — a sort of headquarters for the Burning Man brand. Its walls are covered with images documenting regional burns, volunteering, and art, and today, its wooden benches are lined with journalists who’ve gathered to hear Harvey speak. They’re outfitted like Burners, in varying degrees of appropriate undress, accessorized and suntanned because it’s late in the week — but they’re also holding video cameras, tape recorders, and notebooks. The staff distributes sheets of paper the audience can use to submit questions. It’s like a post-apocalyptic press conference.

One question is about money — the money that pours into the organization, year after year, from ticketing fees. Harvey is Burning Man’s chief philosophical officer, and the longtime core composer of its messaging; he doesn’t even pause before answering. “The history of what you do with money is a moral record,” he says. “I stand by our history.”

Right as he finishes speaking, an art car pulls up just outside. It’s shaped like a huge ship; the speakers are blasting Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk,” and everyone on board — dozens of people — is dancing furiously. Harvey and the rest of the panel, unfazed, collect their things and begin to head off to wherever they might be going next.

Hundreds of Kickstarter projects have landed in the Black Rock Desert. You can see them all here.