“Playing with Fire” at Burningman Festival, BRC – by Marci Javril, Vitality Expert


MJavrilBurnArticle2002WholeLifeTimes(Written for “WHOLE LIFE TIMES, Los Angeles, CA” – Published in OCTOBER 2002 issue as an edited version) 

Imagine yourself on a flat dry moonscape in complete darkness, with flickering light and percussive sounds of music in the far distance. You are on survival adventure in a place of radical self-reliance, and your tent is a 20 minute bike ride away.

You are dressed in a fanciful costume with a glow stick for a necklace, and the air is barely cooling down from a scorching day in the desert. Next to you is a looming figure of a wooden man on a platform, and dozens of other bicycles waft past you as you turn and head toward the village on the horizon. You are in the Black Rock desert of Nevada, and you are about to have all your thoughts of reality shifted dramatically.


Burningman is an experience in attitude adjustment.

Burningman is an event that is an evolving organism, multicultural, diversely artistic and fairly free of any future planning that restricts it from its own unique transformation. Within its outward ritualistic look, there is a sincere desire to merge with the collective as a creative outlet. There is a conscious effort to gather simply for celebration – unnamed, without a goal, merely enthusiasm for an experiment in individual expression.

“The neo-tribal family is strongly present here, more so than any other festival I attend. I am encouraged by the young people who are drawn to it”, says Fantuzzi, World Troubadour. For him, it is a personal catharsis in a space of total freedom with no specific tradition nor religion nor thought of how it’s supposed to be. He says further, “we open ourselves to the possibility of a ‘share’emony for a profound let-go – each person decides what that is.” 

The week-long Burningman Festival, now held regularly near Gerlach, Nevada, has evolved out of a simple ceremony. Larry Harvey and a friend seeded the idea when they got together in 1986 to burn the effigy of a man on a beach in San Francisco. Their spontaneous impulse was a sight that immediately drew people in, and set a precedent in radical self-expression. So inspired, Larry continued to gather friends to yearly Burns. Eventually, because of fire hazards and police pressures, they transplanted the Man from the beach to the desert. The figure and the purpose of the Burn have mutated along with the shifting population of Burners, and become larger and more complex over the years.

Burningman Wood Structure

In 2002, the Man is 37 feet high, standing on top of a five story stair-cased tower. It glows with neon and will emit, during the final Burn, other pyrotechnic marvels, including a spectacular fountain of scintillating luminant points of colored fireworks, imprinting indelibly upon the eyes of all. On the culmination, everything, including the wooden support, the neon and all the trappings, will be burned in an extravagant ceremony with a cast of thousands, discarding the negative and making room for the positive.

The community of Black Rock City is sprawled out on a dried up lakebed which had once been a rocket testing field. It has grown from a few hundred (1988) to 5,000 (1992) to 15,000 (1998). (*Author’s note: in 2005, attendance was 45,00o, and in 2012 estimated at 62,000).

The current site is between two mountain ranges with the Burningman figure set in the middle of a “clock” ie: doughnut shaped, 320 degree encirclement, nearly two miles in diameter. Now planned out well in advance, with street names, camp locations, lamps, and centralized medical stations, this year it consists of 30,000 people and their own ideas of free style camping: shared shade and homes configured from RV’s, moving vans, lean-to’s, huts, yurts, geodesic domes, Morrocan and nomad-style contraptions, parachutes and tents of all shapes, perforations, colorings and styles. There are strange, unique structures – some are two or three stories high, with upper level platforms or towers of blinking, rotating, multi-varied lights.

At its essence, burning the Man is a metaphor for the willingness to sacrifice objects that hold you back from your own freedom. It is freeing to watch something that symbolizes negativity being consumed by the power of fire. You see it with your own eyes and somehow in your heart it becomes so. Each person filters into the experience their own idea of what they are watching – are they merely playing with fire? Or creating contemporary alchemy – disintegrating the old history of life and invoking a path more true-to-the-heart. Caught up in the moment, our inner child comes to light and life. 

Burningman Festival BRC 2002MJavril

It stirs up a deep longing to address unfinished conflicts within our souls.

It inspires people to make resolutions as they throw in their own chips of wood with unspoken messages for themselves to disintegrate unwanted and non-useful parts of their past. Meaningful sacred communion is a missing link in many people’s lives, and here, we recreate our own version of what we long for – bonding and acceptance, recognition of self in Other, and desire for continuity. Sculptures and camps give opportunities to participate in significant smaller burns, and other self-made rites-of-passage.

We manufacture a friendly terrain on top of the harsh ecology. Here, creative ideas flourish and imagination seeds one camp to another. At each gathering the diversities of the playa environment become more complex, evolving as though it were its own planet. This year one large tent was transformed into a tropical paradise with a waterfall and sod floor. Groups form in Theme Camps to inspire and involve each other for a new vision each year.

Twilight is the best time to be flying across the open playa on a bicycle. Like a space ship in the void, you catapult on a deliriously flat surface, unable to calculate your exact speed, but incrementally approaching the lights that enlarge and reveal the circular rim of the Esplanade – the inner promenade of Theme camps and fun activities. You can see many types of moving creatures and vehicles, people on interestingly shaped bikes, art cars made of golf carts, a bookmobile, a seahorse carriage, motorized platforms with couches, a dragon train, and even some very large ships! In the dark everything magically transforms into science fiction as inventive minds make fantastic beings come to life. Black Rock City is built from devoted playfulness.

At sunset you can feel the pulse of the village as more people come out of their shade where they’ve been hiding from the 105 degree sun of the daytime desert. They come out dressed up in creature-like garbs, luminant, bizzare, and bodypainted, in platform shoes, stilts, wigs and wings -extensions of their own imagination- a parade of whimsical, sometimes wild, always unique, and often scantily clad people who walk and bike to view and be viewed- each a manifestation of subconscious images, emerging to be applauded and encouraged.

Burningman FIRE 2002MJavrilCelebrate the demise!! – the gasp at the awesome powerfulness of the fire – as people throng toward the heart of the fire, you’re swept up in a counter-clockwise circle that draws you closer to the heat*, feeling the beat and hearing the samba – the impulse to more your hips and feet along with the rest of the crowd – you know not why – but it feels so good – you laugh at the absurd, centaurs, silted billowing angel women. You took a chance that you would be adventurous enough to participate, and so you do, enchanted.

(*Being allowed to get close to the actual burnt wood of The MAN ended in 2004, and the area has been roped off ever since, open only to screened Performers, BRC Rangers & staff).

Merge with the collective juice,

people walking in droves, smaller burns inside of drum circles, and live stages entice you to come dance away the night until dawn. Smells, laughter, fire dancing, music, magic and poetry, compel you forward to cheer, sing, and pound your feet with the beat. Gyrating crowds are colorful in flashing and glowstick lights, fanciful beings that evoke archetypal images of Jungian dreams. This year’s Opera is being performed on a human-pulled ship with a trapeze act and worldbeat percussion accompanying a Balinese monkey chant. Particpiants have rehearsed for a few days and create on the spot theatrics for all passers-by.

Spontaneity will creep upon you as you pedal around town and make many stops – curious about walk-through theme camps, games, and lounges. You’re invited in by a woman dressed in a nurse costume, carrying a tray of strawberries. She tells you she’s a part of the church of bliss and to come enjoy the bliss in your taste buds. Will you participate?

There are no observers in this festival of inner wonder and outer delights. Many of the special effects world and hi-tech nerds collaborate here, on a grand scale. They play with the toys of their trade, inventing and constructing their wildest imagination’s possibilities, devoting uncounted hours in preparation and giving endless opportunities for others to enjoy the fruits of their mind games. What a gift – to inspire and be inspired!

Burningman Desert Ship 2002MJavrilYears before, the Man and the Burn and the village was smaller, the people camped every which way, there were no street names nor Ranger Patrols. But with the critical mass of crowds encroaching on its ability to stay amorphous, Burningman succumbed to porta-potties and generators dug into the ground, masked by plywood, supporting the many hidden technologies in the desert. Have the essential elements of the Burn been overshadowed by its growth?

Some old timers say,

“It will never be the same as when we were all more chaotic and spontaneous. We began to bond with each other and came to get away from the crowds.” But change here is as inevitable as change for any anthropomorphic society. The needs of the people call to be fulfilled, and more flock to find the promised paradise. The magic that draws the hungry heart to the flame is strong enough to have created an entire movement. And so Burningman will indeed never be the same. But it seems to be already spinning off a variety of Burner events through out the world, especially in San Francisco at the Flambe Lounge.

The festival was spawned as an anarchy and now is a consensus based organization. Without a real promise to happen next year, without a long term budget plan or underwriting from big corporations, this grassroots economic miracle is flying by the seat of its pants. The agreement not to spoil anybody’s good time is in place as long as no one’s toes get stomped on. As the numbers have grown, more and more restrictive guidelines have begun to take the omph out of the simplified approach that began it…

Burningman Inside the Temple 2002MJavrilPast problems in politics, medical emergencies, and senseless acts of insane and altered minds have made the BMOrganization set rules that hadn’t been needed before. Money, dogs and firearms are not welcome here – an open heart, a willingness to help and an abundance of survival skills are assets to bring. Volunteerism is the key, participation is the mantra, and Leave No Trace is the only rule.

The Survival Guide to the desert is published and drummed into potential attendees, so that total preparation is undertaken – it can be a wicked and tricky environment. Each person is admonished to be self-responsible, ultimately allowing the playa to return to desolate alkaline silt, caked and cracking, supporting no life whatsoever.

Toni De Marco, creator of L.A. based Global Dialogue, says “It takes me back to a primal ancestral feeling of dancing around the fire when time was standing still. It is shocking, rewarding, beautiful, dramatic, changeable, exciting and totally out of the realm of your daily life.” You must let go of your expectations and allow it to happen to you.

The dark is not an obstacle -

rather, the sky becomes an embroidered velvet canvas on which jeweled colors dance and prance in a circus atmosphere that is eerie, exciting, weird, and altogether unusually enchanting. There are diverse sculptures made of scavenged material, twisted and combined in ways never before dreamed, and yet seem completely right.

“The organism that has evolved into today’s Burningman is ready to spore and has already created more of its own all over the world “ says Alan Lundell of the Bay area, a visionary videographer. There’s such a need in the culture, such a desire to keep this sense of communal art alive, that people have burning events throughout the year in anticipation of next year’s projects. In this way, ongoing participation has created a growing community.

A highly defined core group of organizers are committed volunteers who enable it to continually morph itself into the larger vision that comes directly from the desires of those who attend. The leadership allows freedom of expression with as little censorship as it takes to maintain personal safety and public health issues. So many old-timers have given a large portion of their lives to creating this vision for others. Some have taken time off since it has no seeable profit, and others stay on with an inner fervor that tells you why they are alive.

Burningman Costumes 2002MJavril

Exotic and erotic beings? Is it dangerous to be here, pressing past the normal social mores, to the edge of the envelope that says – what’s ok for me is ok to do as long as it doesn’t hurt you – ? Everything here is about freedom of choice. Neighbor helps neighbor stay safe. Leave no trace means that garbage and litter is quickly put into places where it cannot blow away into the vast ecosystem.

The agreement to be in harmony with each means that collaboration tends to occur as tent sits go up and common shade areas are designed to welcome visitors to the camp. Anger and accusations are replaced with “are you ok buddy? Do you need some more water? Have you had enough to eat today? “ 

Harmony tries to reign. As you walk from camp to camp, you’re invited to enjoy life together “come in & enjoy our spinning platform. Have some massage and be cooled with our water spray. Dress code? Come be painted and create a new costume for your mood right now.” Being true with yourself. Following your own flow, being spontaneous and letting go are all part of the show. Burningman makes you release your agenda for the moment, and somehow, it impresses the rest of your life.

 ”It’s all about loving, caring and sharing” says Paul Ramana Dass Silbey of the Living Ecstacy Institute in Marin County. “It has evolved from being a survivalist act of personal freedom and anger release, into being a very goddess loving, gifting economy. It is the ultimate adult playground to become in touch with and celebrate one’s inner child with other inner children in a vast community.”

Clothing optional is definitely a big part of the freedom of choice, after all, it is EXTREMELY HOT! Nudity happens because people are aware that their bodies can be a fundamental resource of how they Are an ART experience, just by being a human.

Bodypainting is available all over, and there are specialty Theme camps for painting breasts, creating pasties, body hair trimming and accessories that reveal. Larger risks are taken because the atmosphere of judgement towards naked flesh has been suspended in lieu of letting it all hang out, literally. Beauty is in the eyes of the one baring the skin, and so no tells you to cover up.

 The Critical Tits Bike Ride had its largest attendance ever this 7th year, with what I estimate to have been around 1500 women, more or less. Herein lies the intrinsic gift of showing off – as the women paraded by in a continuous stream, in droves, in clumps, in lumps and curves, in every shape and color of tit imaginable, the men’s eyes gasped and gaped and glazed over in utter adoration.

Finally, we got a chance to show how each unique set of knockers was totally wonderfully, marvelous, different, And yet all One… The feminine was unveiled, and then we had a rip roaring cocktail party with great dance music and men serving cold hors d’oeuvres in formal wear!

Marci at Burningman 2004The hottest topic on any chat room, any tv show, any magazine, is sex.

Of course, it is a hotter topic in an adult atmosphere, where the players can push the envelope not only of art, but of artful sex. Sex happens as fantasy, as exploration, as consenting adults willing to negotiate, offer enticements, and otherwise try their art at persuasion. Sex topics are a high percentage, and without the usual constraints, there is plenty of room to try out ideas and situations that perhaps could not happen elsewhere. I personally, as a bodywork educator, gave a free talk on Intimate Touch Dynamics as part of the ongoing educational presentations of the Women’s Temple.

People are more willing to experiment, and know they won’t be hampered by the regular mores of, say, Disneyland. It is indeed adult entertainment, altho there are families that attend, and occasionally teens. But it is made up of people usually OVER 20 all the way to 90, I imagine. Not everyone who goes is obligated nor pressured to indulge in anything particular. Rather, because the whole event is based on freedom of choice, this is a place where any and all choices can be considered, as long as no one gets hurt. True self-responsibility is essential in order to feel good about any experience.

Do people have sex a lot, talk about it, play about it, flaunt it and flirt a lot? Yes. and that’s their private business. Is it a free-for-all? No. Each person has signed up to be a participant, not a victim.

Burningman looks like a moonscape full of innovative toys, unusual devices, laser lights, otherworldly beings, and sci-fi experimental experiences in which you’re invited to participate. It’s as though it is one giant crazy house in an amusement park that one not only walks through, but lives in for the entire festival! The structures, generators, technology and volunteerism that it takes for all of this to come off logistically is staggeringly expensive – they never turn a profit.

Is there room for love here? As Justeen Ward, founder of A Class Act Entertainment in Studio City tells me – “it’s a blend of Love that’s not found many places – Agape unconditional love which sees the divine in each person, and Eros which celebrates sensuality, pleasure and human beingness.”

Instead of have-not-ism and theft*, there is open exchange and trust – bicycles are left unlocked, tents left unzipped, coolers opened by the street so that neighbors can take of their abundance. Here, of all places, exists a gifting society that actually works. (*Unfortunately ,I have to report that today in 2013,  this is no longer true, you must lock everything, and many of the freestyle behaviors are no longer tolerated by the local Police Ordinances).

Burningman The Temple 2002MJavrilBurningman is a legend within your spirit -

you burn the flame in order to return to paradise – playing with the inner fire reminds us to participate, celebrate, and find our freedom of expression. If you’re lucky, Burningman lives all year round.

©2002 Marci Javril, all rights reserved 
(This appeared in “WHOLE LIFE TIMES” OCTOBER 2002 issue as an edited version)