Burning Man Live: 13 Years of Piss Clear, Black Rock City’s Alternative Newspaper

Burning Man Live

Piss Clear is the alternative newspaper of Burning Man that ran from 1996 to 2007. Fortunately for me, I went in 2007, so it covered my experience there. Unsanctioned by the Burning Man organizers, the paper is a more realistic albeit negative representation of Burning Man including its drug guide which I found particularly helpful. Much of it is repetitive, obviously, because it’s constantly giving advice for newbie’s. The fact that the event grows so much each year, and you have to imagine there’s rotation and attrition, means that perhaps half of everyone there is a virgin. In the very beginning, it does a very good job of describing Burning Man. It’s a forum not an event. It’s what it is for whomever. If you want it to be an art festival, it’s an art festival. If you want it to be a spiritual experience, it’s a spiritual experience. If you want it to be a boring camping trip in the merciless desert, it’s that. For me Burning Man was somewhat of a letdown, much like Vegas will be a letdown to most newbie’s. The Hollywood narrative goes something like this. You will arrive in Vegas and gamble and somehow turn $100 into a $100K roll. They will let you stay in a two-story suite for free and get you a table at their nightclub. Hot women will pounce on you and they won’t leave once all the booze is gone. They will hang around. You will be escorted everywhere by showgirls. You will have sex and get so drunk, you’ll black out, but nothing bad will happen. You won’t empty your bank account and max-out your credit cards and walk away with a gambling addiction. You won’t lose your wallet and cell phone. You won’t get ripped off by a shady drug dealer who hooks you up with aspirin and baking soda and some toxic ingredient that will give you a raging 2-day hangover. You won’t get roofied. Likewise, the Burning Man narrative is that you’ll find a kindly camp that takes you in like a stray dog. They will supply you with quality drugs, and you will have a life-changing spiritual trip on mushrooms or LSD or Ayahuasca. A zany, quirky but incredibly hot hippie chick will have mind-blowing sex with you. You will run around the playa much like Hunter S. Thompson ran around Vegas, high as a satellite. You won’t get dehydrated. You won’t be constantly self-conscious and bored. You won’t wind up making out with a tranny. You won’t find yourself crowded in some asinine EDM tent that feels like any club in any city in the world. You won’t find yourself wandering aimlessly through the desert in search of some existential experience that never comes.

Just like any vacation, after a few years, you look back and just remember the wonderful highlights, so your memory of a place actually is better than when you were actually there. When I was at Burning Man, my mind was motoring away just like everywhere I travel. I was self-conscious. I kept on planning things out like getting water, checking certain things out, trying to jump on those moving art cars, etc. My best story I’ve told is going around and getting free stuff like a cookie. I’d ask, “Is it a magic cookie?” And they’d be all, “Nope, just an oatmeal cookie.” I’d get a Starburst. “Is it a magic Starburst?” I seriously got a Centrum Sports Vitamin pill. “Is it a magic pill?” I actually did wind up getting a few smokes from a joint. I meandered a lot and drank my own beer and then sometimes I found a bar where I exchanged either those airplane bottles of liquor or I made these tiny babies and painted them green, because it was Green Man year. I went by myself and set up a tent that was unbearably hot after 8 AM. Right after the sun went down, I’d nap and then try to stay out as late as I could, but unfortunately, all the heat and walking and prior drinking had all worn me out by midnight. The thing about Burning Man is that the harsh environment wears you down. The purpose is to finally push you into that deep survival mode where you are less self-conscious and you think less and react more. Hopefully, as people reach out to you and help you, you discover the wonderful thing called kindness and sharing, unadulterated by the exchange of money. For me, that was the point of Burning Man. Complete strangers were nice to me, and it wasn’t because they were expecting a tip or anything else or even my silly little green baby trinkets. They were nice and sharing, because that’s what you’re supposed to do, not just at Burning Man, but as a human social being. When I did return to the “real world” I was in a haze, probably from all the fatigue, dehydration, and drinking, but I also sensed that something had changed, me. I noticed how little we interact with strangers or even friends and family, how we seem to live in a commercial world where more money is exchanged than human kindness, where everything is commoditized, advertised, promoted, and there’s this lacquer of materialist, consumerist image on reality that suffocates and kills it while making it look shiny. Burning Man is more like humanity before the Agrarian Era, before money, when we had to rely on our social charms and skills to get by, and we also relied on the rewards of social interaction that we have taken for granted and all but forgotten in exchange for our materialist, consumerist, money-exchanging universe.

I got a few nice memories out of it, some solitary but nice memories of walking all across the playa to the other side but seeing the lights in the distance and having a special moment to myself. I remember the camp where I accidentally set up my tent. They let me stay and it was a guy from Mendocino Brewing who let me borrow his tricycle. I didn’t bring my own bicycle, and borrowing his tricycle let me experience so much more of Burning Man. I’ll remember talking to a big, naked black guy at a bar who turned out to be a San Francisco lawyer. I’ll remember running into a woman on mushrooms. I’ll remember jumping on the floating rug car that left the center and parked in the middle of nowhere and how me and a stranger dude decided to go looking for the driver only to wind up in the middle of a sex camp. Far in hindsight, it wasn’t that bad of an experience, but it was nothing compared to the experience I imagined. I never went back. But I’ve been back to Vegas over a dozen times, and when you just let go of that silly best-possible-outcome fantasy, you finally open yourself to the realistic yet just as enjoyable and wonderful experience.

Piss Clear interviewed the creator of BM, Larry Harvey, and Harvey said something that is profoundly true. When asked why there are so few minorities at BM, Harvey replied, “Burning Man caters to white folks for one primary reason, and that’s because they’re the most privileged and richest members of this society. They’re also the most disconnected from one another, because of their consumer clout – because they can live without any relation to anyone else. Now if you’re poor and a member of what we call an ethnic minority, it also means that you network. It means that you’re connected to family in a way that white folks aren’t, necessarily.” Whether you like it or not, I’m going on a political rant now. We have constructed a society where we have contracted out our charity and sharing and giving to government for half our income (if you include payroll taxes, sales taxes, fees, licenses, property taxes, etc.). For most all our evolution, we personally cared for the young, old, and disabled as proven in fossil records of humans with serious injuries who lived to old age, impossible without someone caring for them. Now, we contract all that dirty, smelly work to government which does the worst job possible just so that they can beg you for more money next budget year. In fact, government makes so many laws to disqualify you from benefits and imprison you so we have become a police state as much as a welfare state. But what humans don’t get is that as social beings, half of social relationships is receiving but the other half is giving. So we have basically destroyed half of our social being. That emptiness we feel when we are constantly receiving and not giving is our fault. When we let some car merge into our lane from a driveway or cross street, when we open a door for a stranger, when we share our meal with someone who looks hungry, we get a small drip of endorphin. Evolution has rewarded us for giving as much as receiving biologically and physiologically. We crave to give and share as much as we crave to promote ourselves and receive attention and accolades. This is partially what Burning Man gives Burners, an opportunity to give and share unconditionally which in turn gives everyone a small bump, a high. Of course, this is contradicted by our receiver mentality that wants to receive accolades and acknowledgment for how much time and energy we put into our theme camp and costumes. That is the strange dichotomy of BM, the odd yin and yang of modern societal values clashing with primitive societal values. Today, people are so brainwashed that they think if government stops taking care of the young, old, and disabled, the world will end. Will it? With less taxes, less regulations, more job opportunities, first of all, there will less demand for welfare and less poverty. Second, people will have both the time and financial security to give more to the needy directly. Whether you like it or not, the super rich don’t pay taxes anyway, because they have the best lawyers and accountants to hide their money. The middle class pays the most taxes, so they feel the most entitled and less responsible for helping the needy. If anything, smaller government will hurt the super wealthy while helping both the middle and lower classes.

I also went when a vandal burned the man prematurely on Tuesday. The guy also later almost burned down a church and then finally threw himself in front of a BART train. Obviously, he had mental issues, but he was arguing that BM had changed. Of course it has. In 1996, there was no barrier, and people in a tent were run over by a car, guns were fired, and yahoos from Reno crashed the event screaming “faggot” at all the guys and “show us your tits” to all the women. Doesn’t exactly sound awesome right? Bureaucracy and rules were established for people’s safety, but I think it’s fortunate that BM hasn’t sold out to corporations. Corporate sponsorship could have made Harvey a multimillionaire and he could have ultimately sold the entire event to a corporation that would have tried to squeeze out every last dime of profit from the event. At the same time, as a writer in Piss Clear noted, BM is like a drug. You will never relive that first great hit, whether you got it in the first, second, or subsequent years. You’ll always be trying to chase that first great hit, and it just won’t happen, so you’ll be constantly bitter and point out everything wrong with the event instead of focusing on the positives. BM should keep growing, because more people should be exposed to it. If they had set a limit at 20K people, I would not have gone in 2007. If they wanted to keep it small, then they should do it two times a year, maybe four times for each season. Since it’s quasi-Pagan related, it would be appropriate to have four BMs for each of the four seasons.

It’s hard reading the entire book, front to back, because it doesn’t read like a book but what it actually is, dozens of newsletters spanning 13 years. But there can be a lot to be said about reading it front to back. You see how the newsletter evolves and becomes more politicized, how in my opinion, it becomes more whiny and disrespectful to just about everyone from outsiders to Burners to organizers to newbie’s to old-timers. It has a very negative slant aside from the “Best of” issue. In other words, after reading it all, you may not even want to go anymore. There is a balance between a Burning Man sponsored or even written sales brochure and this really negative journalism that not only points out factually what is wrong with Burning Man but also subjectively with opinions and satire. The article, “Disgruntled with the DPW (Burning Man Department of Public Works)” is a good example of both the critical journalism of Piss Clear but also how any and all organizations change with size. In Economics 101 you learn about the economies of scale, how a larger organization can save cost by consolidating departments and duties and using hierarchies and such. But they never tell you about the diseconomies of scale, how the greater levels of hierarchy also can lead to greater detachment between the leaders and the front line, how hierarchies themselves lend themselves to poor circulation of information, the mentality of kissing up over talent, and greater immorality when people giving orders are detached from their consequences. The people on top can argue, they had no idea the consequences of their orders while the people on bottom can argue, they had no choice, they were orders. In the Industrial Age, the economies of scale often outweighed the diseconomies since human labor had limited returns. In the Information Age, a single worker can radically change and improve the entire business with a brilliant idea, hence you want to provide each worker with that window of opportunity to spread his or her idea as freely as possible. For that reason, if large companies really wanted to encourage creativity and innovation, they would purposefully decentralize, break up into smaller independent units, and destroy the hierarchy. The article however offers two sides of the issue. It argues that Burning Man has become too large and bureaucratic and hence decisions are made at the top that are often fueled by liability concerns and lack of creativity and they often don’t listen to people below them. On the other hand, the author relays a story of how the head of the DPW sexually harassed underlings and blacked out and while wrestling with a female underling, she fell on a fire barrel and burned her face. One of the shortcomings of small organizations is that there is a lot of paternalism and unprofessionalism that gets overlooked because you’re long-term buddies with them. But there is a balance. It’s not one or the other. This article follows one of the most hateful, negative articles in the entire book, You’re All a Bunch of Losers, an over-generalization condemnation of all Burners, yes all 30K of them in 2002.

The articles in the 2005 edition are a wakeup call to anyone who thinks Burning Man is just fun and games. The articles include a story of a guy who got thrown off his bike, got his elbow broken, and then kicked in the face before having his bike stolen. There are articles about women who get roofied and sexually assaulted and groped by strangers. It sort of reminds me of the San Francisco Exotic Erotic Ball. I went there in the beginning when, much like early Burning Man, it was a wild party with public sex acts and loads of hot women. I went again later, and it was horrible, just filled with Bay Area dudes who would otherwise be found at clubs or strip clubs. Women were being groped everywhere, and I noticed that there weren’t many young hot ones around. They all probably stopped going a few years ago when the groping started. It was pathetic. But I don’t think Burning Man has come to this, simply because of the ticket prices, so in a sense, it has cleansed itself of some of those younger, cheaper yahoos who just came to see tits and grope them. Piss Clear, however, as an alternative paper does its job of not sugar-coating BM and being critical of not only the event by the organizers who are known as BMorg. However, after reading through 13 years of Piss Clear, you can’t help but get jaded and cynical about the event. I guess the answer is getting a balanced view and Piss Clear offers you the sordid downside to BM.

Ten Words of Advice to BM Virgins

  1. Set your expectations high. At Burning Man, your first year, you will having the most incredible, life-changing spiritual zen experience of your life and you’ll have amazing sex with countless half-naked playa bitches.
  2. Forget dressing up. Everyone is a walking Burner cliche anyway. Go in cargo shorts, a t-shirt with a big fashion brand logo on it like “Boss” and a backwards baseball cap. When people ask why you didn’t dress up, tell them you did, you’re being ironic. If that fails, just drop your shorts and walk around bottomless.
  3. Pretend to be one of those pretentious, jaded, bitter Burner vets who pine for the good old times. When they ask you what you liked back in the day, tell them you loved it when cars drove everywhere with no speed limit and drove over people in tents and yahoos from Reno crashed the party and yelled “f*gg*t” at all the guys and “show us your tits” at all the women?
  4. Dress up as a Washoe County Sheriff’s deputy and confiscate people’s drugs and booze.
  5. Go around and ask everyone and anyone for drug hookups. If you get busted by an undercover, tell them you were just doing performance art then run as fast as you can.
  6. Assume all the women there are horny as hell and try to sleep with them all.
  7. Wear boa feathers. Birds leave their feathers everywhere in nature. It’s no big deal.
  8. Spend all your time at Center Camp, because this is the nicest camp where you can buy coffee and hang out with other people in cargo shorts and t-shirts.
  9. Consider all of Black Rock City as a bikeshare. Just take any unattended bike and leave it wherever you feel like it. Better yet, take some of the art stuff off the bike and wear it.
  10. Take paper clips and make mini-Burning Man’s and give these out whenever someone gives you something. Burners love this shit.
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