Burning Man 2008: The American Dream

So it has taken me days to filter through all the different things going through my head about Burning Man. For those who have never heard, Burning Man is an annual party that attracts almost 50,000 people around the concept of art, life as art, self-sustainability, self-reliance, hedonism and music and to experience all of this in the desert for 1-2 weeks. Living in San Francisco for the last seven years, I certainly crossed paths with many that were life-long burners and had my own preconceived notions of what to expect. Some of what I had heard resonated, but nothing I had ever experienced matched up to going to Burning Man. What does a feminist woman of color see at Burning Man?
Well first and foremost, the art at Burning Man is as incredible as everyone claims it to be. I always hated those people that said, “sorry man, you don’t understand, you have to see it to believe it,” and I will spare you such proclamations. However, there is something about the huge scale of the art set in the dustiness of the desert that creates surreal visuals that can’t be compared to much else I have seen before. The art made my trip to Burning Man worthwhile.
But, you are in the desert with almost 50,000 people in city built in weeks with streets, neighborhoods, themes and entire communities. Obviously you see much more than art. I will attempt to express what I felt, saw and experienced in the most coherent way possible.
The theme of this year’s Burning Man was the “American Dream.” Sounds corny, but my assumption was that in a space like BM we would see multiple moments of disrupting what we understand to be true of the American Dream. Perhaps new ways of envisioning borders, critical perspectives on the legal status of human beings or anti-war statements. Well, clearly I got a little too post-colonial fantasy making on myself, because every attempt at playing on the theme that I saw at Burning Man, failed. If I saw another American flag/peace symbol juxtaposition I thought I might keel over. When driving in they had quotes posted from key framers of American democracy, Alexis de Toqueville, Milton Friedman, even MLK. But they didn’t have a quote from a single woman. Apparently, woman have never had anything to do with the framing, design or development of democracy.

So what was the role, place, and experience of women at Burning Man? Obviously, I can’t generalize, there were so many different kinds of people there I can only elaborate on what I saw and what I felt. The first day I was there, a middle aged doctor, wearing a skin tight leather skirt started a friendly conversation with me. He asked what I do and of course this got into a conversation about feminism, which he was very supportive of, claiming his North Berkeley roots. He stated, “well Burning Man is really a feminist space, if you think about it….” So I did, I took myself to task to think about the idea that Burning Man was a feminist space. As I looked around at all the naked bodies slinking around everywhere. Noting that there weren’t many people of color or really many different kinds of bodies. What i saw was thin, white bodies. Most of them weren’t totally naked. Usually they were wearing something, like hot pants, or a cowboy hat, showing the rest of their body. I immediately realized that I wouldn’t feel comfortable naked. I would stick out, because I was curvy and brown. That didn’t feel very feminist.
Playa barbie on the other hand doesn’t have this same problem.

Taking my top off to feel free on the playa, didn’t feel free to me. It appeared that one of the keys ways for women to participate in the freedom of the playa was to show off what they got. But according to the video above and much of what I saw, I was alone in my criticisms.
So what do they mean when they say Burning Man is a place of freedom? You don’t need money once you get there sure. However, you DO need money to get there. A lot of it. Tickets go for 2-300 dollars not to mention the thousands of dollars spent on gas money and equipment to survive in a climate that is not inhabitable. They might as well have said, “we are having a party on the moon, hope to see you there!” The free, liberatory space the BM claims to be, can only be so, if you have the resources you need to get there. When I wake up dreaming of freedom, I am not thinking there is a massive door charge.
So after assessing in my head the bogus hypocrisy of all the rhetoric and politics of BM, I also had no choice but to take to task the dramatic underrepresentation of people of color in music, attendees and art. There isn’t much to be said because so few people of color in attendance kind of says it all. Beyond the expense of the trip, they don’ do much to make it appealing to people of color. It is not the kind of space where we are made to feel welcome, it is not our space and it was not meant to be. Given that Burning Man must make at least 10 million dollars on the door fee alone, you would think some of that money would go to outreach or funding artists and musicians of color, but it didn’t appear to be that way.
This lack of a POC presence also had a strong impact on the music. The majority of the music was trance (mostly psy-trance) house and breaks. Almost all of these forms of music originate in either world of American black music, but there was a total lack of recognition of this fact. More working class, people of color oriented forms of electronic music (dub-step, drum and bass, techno, electro-breaks, hip-hop or reggae) was not to be found, except in a few key places, my people and I were very happy to find. This total lack of inclusion to world music and the music of working class people and people of color felt strategic, even if it was simply an oversight. As much as BM wants to exist in a bubble, let’s be real, nothing that happens in the US is in a bubble. If you are having a party and everyone is white, something is not right. Right?
Now this total lack of people of color wouldn’t be as startling if there wasn’t an over representation of all things people of color. White people on the playa felt very comfortable donning “ethnic” cultural artifacts, styles of dress, architectural and artistic styles. The influences were profound. I saw at least 5 white men wearing full Native American headresses and tribal face paint. This is made worse because Nevada is home to some of the poorest reservations in the country, so not only was this insensitive but it is blatantly offensive (even if it is done in the guise of their version of the “American Dream”). Similarly, I saw many folks wearing traditional Arab dress and wrapping kafiyah’s around their heads. In one instance a young man actually took his off when sitting next to us. I will never know if he did it because it was hot or because he couldn’t figure out if we were of Arab descent or not, but it occurred to me that he wouldn’t have even thought he might run into some folks that might be offended. We caught him in his free space.
It were these key moments that colored the ways that I experience Burning Man, even though I did come back with kaleidescope eyes planning my next years return. For the people of color that were there, it was nice to see them and I can only hope this gets into the eyes of someone that cares enough to take up the task of making BM a more equitable space. I understand that is not the purpose of BM, (frankly, it is not green friendly AT ALL, but we can only cover so much here) but if you are going to unapologetically appropriate different cultures, I think it is important to recognize the broader social, cultural and race implications of such a move. In order to stay true to the supposed progressive roots of BM there must be some recognition to the race, class, culture and gender dynamics at play.
The search for making a culture of their own, the majority white constituency of BM have created a culture of dramatic appropriation, elitism, consumption and lack of inclusion all within the guise of freedom. It is another American holiday like any other and honestly, it is fun. I suppose it doesn’t get more American Dream than that, now does it.
Other people have experiences they want to share?

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