Freedom, blissful happiness, incredulity – eight days of Burning Man for eternity. The art festival in the Nevada desert has etched itself into the soul of our author. An indescribably fascinating experience.
“And what was it like?” I am asked on my return to Bern from the desert of the US state of Nevada. I make a futile attempt to describe it. The questioner, who is a good friend, has to make do with a dreamy smile and a few bashful tears that I manage to suppress. The Burning Man festival is steeped in myth. But the fact is: you have to have been there yourself.
The first Burning Man festival was held on a San Francisco beach in 1986 – with twenty people in attendance. Today, the mix of art exhibition, self-expressive paradise and huge party attracts over 70,000 revellers who, every year in September, make their way to the Black Rock Desert near Las Vegas. The event spans eight days and traditionally ends on Labor Day. The highlight is on day six, when the giant wooden sculpture of the “Man” is set alight. Other than that, Burning Man is difficult to describe, even if you are in attendance. Eccentrically dressed, the festival-goers revel in the midst of the occasional sand storm, fire-spewing “art cars”, colourful art installations, wild dance parties, yoga, body paint or massage workshops and improvised cocktail bars. But, above all, the “Burners” (as the residents of the temporary “Burning Man City” call themselves) and their creativity are what transform the Black Rock Desert into a week-long surreal paradise for self-expression, freethinking and curiosity.
Doing good with Swiss chocolates
The attendees create a hoof-shaped city in the desert that they build around the festival’s most important sculpture: the “Man”, which will eventually be set ablaze. I have joined a few Swiss friends in a campervan, the “Silly-Camp”, owned by some experienced “Burners” and New York DJs.
The universal tenet of the Burning Man festival is “give and take”. There are few places to spend money in “Black Rock City”, and then only for ice and coffee. The concept is to be self-sufficient, or accept gifts from others. Just like any other “Burner”, I contribute too – in the form of a cool-box full of Swiss chocolates. There is no bartering, however. Rather, the idea is to give joy to strangers. Just as I receive a shell necklace from a “Giant Dragon” driving to electronic music, I hand out chocolates from my cool storage now and then. Oddly enticing offers, such as “Hey you, would you like to have a foot massage” or “Hey man, have my brand new and unreleased CD, enjoy the music” and “Are you hungry? I just made cupcakes – Have some”, are all part and parcel of the festival.
A cornucopia for the senses
Clearly not just a venue for hippies, techno freaks and pyromaniacs, this artful playground à la “Mad Max”, “Woodstock” or “Love Parade” attracts “ordinary” people from all corners of the world. And justifiably so. I marvel at the sheer boundless diversity, the free second-hand shops with open-air runways, the roller-skating rinks, the oriental tent and cushion havens to escape to from the heat, the enormous pirate ship buried in the sand, imaginative playgrounds for children, exhibitions, laser shows, fire installations, flashing party yachts, not to mention the recurring dramatic sunrises. It would take weeks to discover every secret of this parallel universe and to fully immerse in it. But the fact is: relatively few people would be able to endure it for that length of time.
Abundant sand, scarce water, almost no sleep
The Burning Man festival is no place for wimps. Those who cannot forgo their daily shower should steer clear of it. I reach my limits too. The daily bicycle rides through this outlandish world, the never-ending partying and the insidious sandstorms are getting to me. Our campervan is covered in sand dust, and our water tank is almost empty. The sound of the roaring “Art Cars” is constant as they chug around the area incessantly. I want nothing more than a refreshing dip in a lake followed by a quiet nap under a tree with a cool breeze caressing my face. But the unique energy of the festival keeps me going. Right to the end. The second-last evening is when the “Man” is set ablaze on the festival “Playa”, witnessed by thousands of cheering spectators. I watch and hug the people around me, and we say “Welcome home! I hope you had a nice Burn.” to each other.
Despite the sand in my ears, eyes and nose. Despite frankly intolerable body hygiene. Despite total exhaustion: I am still on fire for the “Burn”. Just like tens of thousands of other revellers. I still cannot quite describe the experience in words. But perhaps that is just it. The “Burning Man” is indescribable, intangible, incredible – and thus unforgettable!
EDC – Raving to the Max
Burning Man is not the only annual festival attracting thousands of visitors to Las Vegas. The Electric Daisy Carnival, commonly known as EDC, is another spectator magnet.
Every year on the last weekend of June, Las Vegas plays host to EDC, a top event of the global electronic dance music scene, on the scale of “Tomorrowland” in Belgium. Originally created in Los Angeles, the EDC festival moved to Las Vegas in 2011 and is gaining in popularity every year. Today, “Electric Daisy Carnival” (as the festival is officially called) attracts close to 250,000 spectators as well as big names, and is one of the largest recurring EDM festivals in the world.
The clubs and discotheques in Las Vegas’ large resorts boast the most refined technology, and are where the world’s best DJs and megastars perform on a recurring basis. During the three-day EDC festival, everyone and everything comes together in the “Motor Speedway”, an enormous motorsports racing complex. Drawn to the festival because of big names, I get to see less than half of what I had intended. The shows are spectacular – a flawless symbiosis of light, beats, video and dance. This mix of open air, major rave, techno parade, carnival, Woodstock and a giant sculpture exhibition draws in visitors with alluring attractions on all fronts – and practically round the clock. Boredom and sleep take a back seat to fun and exuberance. Stages with promising names like “Kinetic Field”, “Wasteland” or “Quantum Valley” provide the futuristic LED-, laser-, pyro- und neon-equipped settings for stars and fans. All of the names deliver what they promise. “Carnival Square” and “Rainbow Road” are set between the mega dancefloors, each the size of an entire Swiss festival, and feature stalls and large-scale carnival rides that dwarf any Swiss “Chilbi”. In sum: a gargantuan-scale experience. Big, bigger, EDC!