I've never been to Burning Man but I have several friends who consider themselves "burners."
They've tried to explain the culture and community to me on several occasions, sometimes at great length, but my takeaway is inevitably: (privileged) white people wear costumes and get high in the desert, attaching a disproportionate amount of significance to the shit they do/build there. (Sorry guys!)
So, when I pitched going to a Burning Man party in Toronto to my editor, no part of me expected to like it, let alone enjoy getting felt up by faceless strangers. But more on that later. First, I'll explain where my prejudice comes from.
Burners have 10 Principles, examples include Radical Inclusion and Decommodification, but before Saturday, I assumed these tenets amounted to pretentious bullshit that I didn't need to concern myself with. The Facebook description for the event, officially called Toronto Burning Man Decompression: Playa North, didn't do much to ease my concerns.
"A decompression party, decom, or decomp is a local reunion for Burning Man participants to help ease themselves back into everyday society after the 'big event,'" it said, adding there would be opportunities to "share feelings, art, performances, and memories."
Really? How many memories could you realistically have from getting stoned and drunk three months ago? And isn't Burning Man itself a massive decompression from life?
Anyway, it was with this mindset that my friend Brian, a photographer, and I headed off toward Playa North. Before long, we were both declaring it the best night of our lives. Here's how we got there:
Wanting to be immersive, Brian and I decided to take one of the shuttle buses transporting people from downtown Toronto to the party, north of the city. Immediately, we noticed that our costumes were worse than everyone else's. I was wearing a tie dye onesie underneath a tutu and Brian was reusing a Spiderman suit from a past Halloween. Other people seemed to really incorporate an LED element to their costumes. (While struggling with the onesie in the bathroom later, I told one guy that he was lucky he was just wearing jeans and a t-shirt. Mildly insulted, he replied, "I worked on this all day" and flicked a switch, causing his entire outfit to light up electric blue.)
The first person we met was Floyd, a dude in his 40s who randomly attended Burning Man a few years ago, not knowing what the hell it was. He had a hard time telling us what to expect, at one point making a comparison to Field of Dreams, the 1989 Kevin Costner movie about baseball and dead dads (after reviewing my tape, I still don't understand what Floyd was getting at).
"It's different. It's hard to describe," he said. "You just gotta experience it. Everybody wants you to have a good time." Floyd is black and I asked him if he felt like the festival was overwhelmingly white.
"I wouldn't say it was super white," he replied. "Probably like 70 percent."
Then he told us we should give him some of our vodka because he'd agreed to be interviewed. We did.
There were people doing pyrotechnics—literally waving flames around—outside the venue, a large industrial space. Once inside, we dropped off our booze at a long table called the "gift bar," which functioned as an alcohol potluck. It was an introduction to the principle of gifting, which is what it sounds like: you give stuff to people and you get stuff. Within an hour, someone had gifted me MDMA and Brian "self-confidence" (a woman told him he was beautiful). "That never happens in the real world," he said, somewhat awestruck. On a practical level, we realized that we wouldn't have to pay for anything at this party, which basically placed it within our top ten right off the bat.
While walking around, we were led through a maze, several dance floors, a smoke pit, "theme camps" with stuffed animals chilling in tents, a fake VIP lounge to mock the concept of VIP, and a room where people were performing bondage, among other things. It was sensory overload, like the set of a recent-era Harmony Korine movie, complete with actual "sets," ideal for taking photos.
"That's the groping station," Lindsay Millard, the event's publicist, told us. I am naturally drawn to boobs, so I immediately walked over and asked a woman standing by the station if I could touch hers. "Why?" she asked, somewhat sourly. "Uh, I thought that's what you do here," I replied. She explained that I had to actually go inside the station to get groped. I was worried she was mad at me, but then she offered to kiss my breast; it was surprisingly intimate. Shit was getting pretty weird and Brian and I decided to go with it, so we stepped into the station, effectively a closet with glory holes poked into the walls. Anonymous hands reached in and felt up Brian and I as we faced each other. "Someone tried to jerk me off while I tried taking your photo," he remarked afterward. A similar thing had happened to me. Normally, this would have freaked both of us out, but in this context, we enjoyed it. We received the physical pleasure of being touched without having to deal with a creepy social interaction.
Later, Brian and I circled back to the bondage room. A girl getting tied up with red rope let us take her photo. A bunch of people were doing a group spoon. I crawled into the middle and we all cuddled for a while.
"There comes a point where most people decide they're not going to do something and every time I [come] to that moment, I decide that's what I have to do," said a musician named Colin, who ended up being one of our favorite people. We chatted a lot about how we could never do the things we were doing at a normal bar. And how we felt "real." "You can just kind of float around the environment... You can be part of the environment," said Colin, dropping another wisdom bomb. In the moment we all emphatically agreed with Colin, although admittedly, it makes less sense now.
Throughout the evening, we encountered several attendees who had come from places as far as Edmonton and Ottawa. At first, we were puzzled as to why people would travel long distances to get to this party, but once we started drinking the Kool-Aid, it wasn't that hard to understand. As long as you were being respectful of people, you could do whatever the fuck you wanted (see principle 5, radical self-expression). There was no judgment, no "social norms." Millard told me there are "rangers" who act as safety nets in case something goes wrong. "No one will tell you not to climb a giant piece of art but they'll help you if you fall off." That's probably why there were so many corporate, government-employee types around, letting their freak flags fly.
As the party wrapped up, Brian and I scanned the various rooms in search of straggling ragers, but by 6 AM, people were mostly passed out, so we called an Uber. The next day I felt like a bag of garbage physically, but I couldn't stop smiling when I told people about the party. I thought I would be more embarrassed about the gushing Brian and I had done throughout the night, but I only cringed a couple times while playing back my recorder and I found myself replying to texts from my new friends with a sincere intention of seeing them again.
This doesn't mean I'm going to become a diehard burner. I'm too lazy and it seems like there's quite a lot of effort involved. But Saturday was certainly the freest I've felt of inhibition, maybe ever. If I have to rock some body paint once in a while to catch that feeling, so be it
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