Vote Charlie!

Radical self expression takes hold

Posted at age 25.
Created . Edited .

The most eye opening experiences were those that occurred in darkness, under the stars. Darkness is relative, of course, when tens of thousands of people wander the night illuminated by glow sticks and electronics.

I climbed Big Girtha tower one night to try capturing some of the beauty, but no photograph can conjure the joy and awe I felt up on that rusty structure with the cool desert breeze caressing my exposed self while gazing at all those colors. True beauty, and you don’t need drugs to know it.


The city at night

Off in the distance, you can usually always see him.


The Man at night

I needed to get one closer photo at night before his time came.


The Man at night

The nightlife at Burning Man is life entirely different than anything I knew before. If the day time is for wearing nothing, the night time is for wearing everything. The art pieces that are so strange, so epically large or so remote under the scorching sun come alive in the dark. It almost seems most of the people also come alive in the dark. Colored lights are everywhere, on everything.

Organizing how Burning Man provoked my mind is tough, and much of it doesn’t correspond with photos, as is usually the case with my life documenting. I’ll take a stab at providing a glimpse while narrating some photos that roughly fall into the categories of art structures, sound structures, art cars and art structure burns. Those are the things I was most able to record while immersed in my mental and physical explorations. As with most things at Burning Man, those categories aren’t even well defined. All the lines blur, sometimes disappear entirely, and you grow to appreciate fluidity.

The intersection of structure and light

You could spend all day every day wandering the desert, enjoying the hundreds of art installations that help make Burning Man so amazing. And then you could visit those same pieces after dark and have a very different but equally spectacular experience. Wilderness photographer Ansel Adams used to return to the same place repeatedly, as he knew the changing light made every experience as different as night and day. Needless to say, the same is true of art in daylight and art at night. The periodic realization you are in a desert and cut off from the world but among thousands of friends who are all as crazy as you are only makes the experience that much better.

Most of the artists make their pieces equally impressive at night, often using technology to beautifully light the structures inside and out. Some pieces are pretty to look at and walk around…


Most of the art was beautifully lit for night time enjoyment





And some pieces invite you in to explore and enjoy a new perspective. I especially loved climbing structures so I could gaze into the distance.


A two story cube that you can climb and sit on the roof of


More art

Wandering around with friends or alone is equally fascinating. It’s nice to share your joy with familiar souls, but simply being an observer, and especially engaging strangers, is a huge part of the experience. I spent many hours traveling from structure to structure to see what kind of people were present and see what they were doing. Many people were just having a good time with friends, of course. But I also witnessed new bonds form through spontaneous encounters. I saw people lost in thought, lost in dance, and some lost in tears. Sadly, I did not engage enough to initiate conversation much this year, but next year… I hope I am ready.

Burning Man provides the best forum for human interaction, with the lowest social barriers I’ve ever seen. It is a great opportunity to learn about yourself, and grow, through interacting with new people of all types. It is a place where you can in public break down and cry and know you are not judged, and have a reasonable chance of someone coming to mend your injured wings. It is about understanding and embracing your neighbors and your world with open arms and an open heart.

Camps with art, music, and something higher

It’s hard, as I said, to draw lines at Burning Man. Art is often intangible in the regular world, and it is even harder to pinpoint in Black Rock City. Much of the art is in standalone installation form, but much of it also comes in the form of potentials for new experiences. A small example is the black light sea at the Comfort and Joy camp. I always made a point of passing through this camp when I was nearby at night. Here is a small sample of it.


Comfort and Joy, the largest gay camp, sets up fluorescent colored thingies

Scattered throughout the city are artistic performers, as well. Fire is a very popular medium for experimentation and expression.


Fire eating dragon

Many camps create elaborate structures for public enjoyment, and often music accompanies, especially at night. The camp Trifucta had a cool jungle gym hangout with interestingly relaxing music. Brad and I hung out up in the rope net for some time with a bunch of other people gazing at the stars. Gazing up at us were a bunch of people dancing and trancing.


Brad and I hung out for a while at Trifucta, a jungle gym like place with a rope bed suspended between the towers for people to hang out

Another interesting and related concept was this camp with a music dome that had a people net in the roof.


People chilling in the netting 20 feet above the dance floor in this dome

Then many camps were essentially night clubs with open, free bars.


The first GlamCocks party. I never stayed very long, though.


Bikes by the Duck Pond, a hip hop venue

A higher level of sound

At the extremes of the inner road closest to the open playa, known as the Esplanade, are quite a few camps that take music to another level. These “sound camps” erect massive structures entirely for entertaining the masses with professional DJs and remarkable scenery. Some of them are even larger than the biggest clubs in San Francisco.




Osiris on a night earlier in the week


People bring the coolest props to the dance parties to move to the beat


I loved this sound camp. You can’t see the corner domes in this picture, but there were lots of areas with pillows for sitting and lying down. And the music was sort of tribal and trancy.

This isn’t a very good video, but you can hear the contrast in this music compared to the last sound camp.

One of the sound camps built an Irish style castle and played cool sort of robotic music. You could climb a ladder inside to get up on the wall, which was supported by regular scaffolding. This was one of the rare heights that actually had a railing to prevent people from falling. Not that anyone would, since we are all radically self reliant at Burning Man.


Lots of pretty bikes as seen from the top of the Irish castle, one of the sound camps

Speaking of self reliance, I always got a kick out of seeing people carrying toilet paper around while out dancing for the night, but that is life in the desert.


People carry toilet paper everywhere since these clubs don’t have bathrooms

Shifting environment: the fourth dimension

In the regular world, you wouldn’t need to explain the difference between art and nightclubs. As strange as that sounds, at Burning Man there is no line between them. Any separation totally dissolved when the sun set.

This is all thanks to the other dimension of art: the art car.

The story begins when Brad, Mike, Joey and I were adventuring Sunday night, our first night on the playa. We were drawn in by a beautiful structure (pictured later in this section) I refer to as “The Atom.” It had awesome red light rings spinning in gyroscopic motion, with a large central sphere that emitted hundreds of bright blue laser beams in all directions, constantly shifting. As if that weren’t enough, the rainbow colored building facing it was blasting amazingly edgy electronic house music and shooting two giant fireballs into the air after every deep drop in the baseline. A hundred glowing ravers danced around The Atom and around the spaceship shaped building.

We couldn’t help but stay and dance, and we had a great time for what must have been an hour or more. Until something happened. The spaceship building, apparently belonging to a group called the Dancetronauts, slowly began to pull away from The Atom. It wasn’t long before the music faded off into the distance and we were left hearing the ball bearings of the metal rings and sphere rotating above our heads. In relative silence, the red and blue laser light was still awe inspiring. It spread out across the desert floor as far as I could see. It was beautiful.

With so much to take in, I had a hard time connecting how we got from having a great time dancing at this awesome club to standing alone in the desert in a matter of minutes, all while we stayed in one place. This was not the last such experience, either.

At Burning Man, many of the art cars house all the sound equipment any club would use, allowing them to roam the desert and create new and interesting environments simply by parking next to a beautiful art piece, parking in the middle or nowhere, or even constantly staying in motion, letting bicyclists and people on foot alike follow the music and dance till dawn. Never have I experienced anything like this phenomenon, and experiencing it has definitely left me longing for something more than regular clubs can offer.


I spent a good deal of time chasing the Dancetronauts

Being in a bar or club in the regular world means you are trapped in an enclosed space with music so loud you can barely communicate, making meeting people and enjoying yourself more difficult than it should be. Being remote in the desert solves these problems. Not only do you get the experience of dancing under the stars with the breeze in your hair and occasional dust storms replacing the usual fog machines in a night club, but you have as much space as you want.

The first thing you notice about people dancing around art cars is they are spaced out and relatively independent. People are not all grinding on each other like in the regular world. Everyone dances in his own way and at his own distance from the subwoofers and other people. Conversation, if you want it, comes much more naturally and effortlessly, since you can hear. With no fear of rejection or any sort of judgment, you can let go and allow the music to move your body, you can be wild and move freely with all that space, and you can really enjoy yourself. Some people keep to themselves and stay in one spot, others wander around and interact through gestures and smiles, if not through words. Everyone takes it in and participates differently, but it all contributes to something amazing.

Another interesting thing that happens going from “club hopping” in the desert is there is no defined boundary between venues. Venues that are always changing, at that. In the regular world, usually the second you walk out a bar’s door, you stop dancing, if you hadn’t already stopped when you decided to leave, if you were even had room to dance in the first place. In the desert, you sort of dance your way from one place to another. The music that controls the space grabs most of the people in the space, but sometimes when you are arriving from another place, you are still held by the music you left. But people are always enjoying themselves, in motion and free.


Crappy camera, but so much light!


Disco party at the sheep

Not all of the art cars were mobile night clubs, though. But all of them were amazing.


Scorpion art car


Charlie the unicorn?


Another art car


One of the art cars had some wide lasers aimed at the ground, and it reached pretty far from the source, so it was confusing to figure out where it came from.


Robot Heart was a pretty popular dance venue, though I think the actual art car is behind me.


My little camera couldn’t focus with this constantly changing light, but it looked amazing


My little camera couldn’t focus with this constantly changing light, but it looked amazing


My favorite art piece, which I dubbed “The Atom”

When the flames become the art


The temple

The last major category of experience in the night must be the burns.

Many of the elaborate art installations created for Burning Man are not intended to survive the week. Beginning midweek, artists set their projects ablaze. So not only do you encounter beautifully lit structures and mobile dance clubs and dust storms and thousands of people wandering the desert at night, but you also find giant fires and piles of charcoal scattered about. Everything about Burning Man is surreal, but the burns are possibly the thing that speaks most clearly about what we are all doing here.


People are gathering Friday night to see one of the smaller structures burn

The tenth principle of Burning Man is immediacy. Somewhat hard to conceptualize, I take this to mean something like “living in the moment” and striving to get rid of anything preventing you from seeing, feeling and understanding.

In some ways, I think recording my experiences through photos can detract from my ability to appreciate what is in front of me and really take it in. I always rely on being able to look back at things later. It would seem this is a good thing, but sometimes I wonder if I am also subconsciously delaying thinking about and understanding my world in the first place. I hope by taking the time to journal and review my experiences, I can combat this potential. But finding the time to do so is incredibly challenging, and that reality reinforces my fear I am often postponing true thought and reflection, something I think is essential to my growth as a person.

Since life at Burning Man is a completely whacky fantasy land in many ways, and you know it will end within days, you are forced to embrace immediacy. More than ever happens in your daily life back home, you appreciate everything in front of you because you know that, while it is wonderful and incredibly natural, it is temporary and will be gone next week. This whole city will vanish, without a trace. Even many of the connections you make with other people will be left in the desert.


It’s hard to tell in this crappy photo, but midweek some of the art projects started to burn, and random burning piles of wood appeared on the playa. It was nice to be able to sit by a fire for a while in between looking at art and dancing.


I forgot what this structure was called… but it is burning!


And now just the frame is left… somehow.


Joey by the fire

By burning the product of dozens or hundreds of hours of labor and expression, these artists drive home just how important it is to appreciate what we have, right now. And hopefully take enough time to learn and understand and reflect. Right now. If you wait, it will be too late. You can never get these moments back. It takes serious contemplation to embrace this truth, and I know I still require much reflection and study before I can fully rewire how my data driven and preservation oriented mind thinks about my present. I hope I can improve so I can be happier and foster stronger friendships and simply live better.

Entries in this series:

  1. The journey to Burning Man
  2. Lazy days of building mind, body and soul
  3. Radical self expression takes hold
  4. Burning the Man
  5. The ultimate burn