Weekly Rochester Events #297: Great Scot!
Thursday, September 16, 2004As you all may have noticed, the past three weeks worth of updates has become somewhat sparse, out-of-date, inaccurate, and otherwise worthless. Fortunately, most of you who go out all the time either knew I was gone or seek other sources. For the rest of you, it really didn't matter, now did it?
I set up the website to automatically update starting with August 19 — that night I was on a train headed for Denver. Well, technically it didn't matter that week but I wanted to make sure it would work. By early afternoon the next day I was in Chicago and proceeded to find some food in the four hours I had. That evening it was another overnight to Denver (well, actually Glenwood Springs where my friend lives.) I spent the week with her and her roommate buying stuff, packing, renting a truck, and otherwise getting ready for the desert.
[Let me just pause to say I'm being brief to just give an overview — I'll put up a more detailed description later ... I just want to set things up so I can talk about the experience in general.]
So on Saturday, August 28, we headed out by rental truck to Reno, NV where we stayed at the luxurious downtown Golden Phoenix Hotel and Casino (255 North Sierra St., Reno, NV) ... well, it wasn't all that luxurious, but at least it was inexpensive. After some last-minute shopping around Reno, it was off to The Burning Man Project (The Man, Black Rock City 2004, NV) where I spent the next week getting accustomed to camping in the inhospitable environment of the Black Rock Desert. After that it was a long drive back to Glenwood Springs and a couple trips back-and-forth to Denver for parties and such. I left by train from Denver on the evening of September 11, got to Chicago on the 12th (a Sunday and everything was closed) and got back home on Monday morning.
So that, in very broad strokes, is my summer vacation. The end.
Although I'm saving all the details for the journal I'll publish later, I did want to talk about a couple non-detailed things about the trip. Am I making any sense at all? Good.
First, travel by train is the way to go. Although slower than plane, it's faster than any thing else for long distances. I opted for the coach seating because a sleeper car is about $300 a night — my $292 ticket jumped to $1,400 by adding a sleeper car for the four nights on the train. It ends up being not too bad: the seat spacing is about 50% bigger than on a plane. I found it was wise to find someone you wouldn't mind being close to, then get to know them enough that touching one another was permissible.
The best part, though, is that it's so casual. There's really nothing to worry about — any connections provide ample time to catch the next train, and either the train is on-time or it isn't. Well, scratch that: it's never on time. There's no hurry at all about it, and there's a dining car and a lounge car with snacks if you get hungry. (Alcohol, too.) Since you'll be there for hours on end, walking around is a welcome break, and it's easy to meet new people and really spend some time getting to know them. I had a great time with that, and both times in the second leg of the journey (Chicago-to-Denver on the way out and Chicago-to-Rochester on the way back.)
But more interesting than the whole train thing (and probably what you've been skimming to get to) is The Burning Man Project itself. I'd consider it a giant piece of participatory art, if you will, where the medium is the interaction of people — if one would even try to determine such things. There are several key facets: the inhospitable environment, the gift economy, the lack of any real rules — true anarchy, the invitation to create and to participate, the exploration of and subsequent burn of Larry Harvey's artwork, "The Man," and the exploration of and subsequent burn of David Best's artwork, "The Temple of Stars."
Ok, so first off, the community is entirely unique. The first thing to note is there are no rules (well, there are ten, actually) which you might think this would lead to a high level of theft and violence, but it just isn't the case. As it turned out, being part of an inclusive, accepting community where everyone was required to be self-sufficient led to a very friendly and open environment. It was really refreshing to see the natural side of humanity that wasn't driven to hatred through fear of their neighbor.
What is more interesting, though is the "rules" of society are left somewhere far away. You quickly realize that phrases like, "I can't do that because it's just not acceptable," are nonsensical in this society. If you want to walk around with no pants, nobody is there to stop you. Heck, if you want to yell at people walking around with no pants, there's nobody to stop you either. Nobody will shun you if you have sex on the first date — that's not exactly right: it's more like there is no societal consensus that someone can count on to act self-righteously without looking like a fool.
The character-building side of all this (also known as "the traumatically painful thing you'll probably randomly cry about for weeks afterward") is that anything you do or don't do is your own decision. In the same manner that someone has no societal rules to lean upon to be self-righteous, those rules aren't available to you to provide excuses for any of your own limitations. It took me several days to get remotely comfortable walking into theme camps and talk with people — in "normal" society, you can't just walk into somebody's campsite and sit down, but in this society it's not only accepted, it's virtually expected. And, without getting overly blog-sappy about it, I didn't manage to get very far with my own boundaries of permissible sexual behavior and beyond my own insecure and generally bleak outlook on sexual relationships.
Anyway, the second thing is that it's a gift economy which is a new concept to me — I figure it lies somewhere between the economy of communism and a barter economy. In the former, everyone shares everything which means the most advantageous behavior of an individual is to be as lazy as possible, thereby gaining the most and providing the least. In the latter, goods and services are traded to equalize the value perceived by each owner and each recipient, so it's most advantageous to hoard the valuable goods and services to trade for other high-value items.
From what I could see in the gift economy, there was no advantage to either being lazy or to hoarding — it sort-of follows that "what goes around, comes around" expression. Any time you give away something to an individual, there is potential for it to enhance the economy of the community when that person is then able to give more to the next person. What you receive is some part of the amalgam of that given by everybody, so the more you give, the more you get in return — the most advantageous behavior of the individual is to give goods and services whose value is close to that amount desired in return.
The inhospitable environment contributes to the development of the community. Without any commerce (except for coffee and ice which is a concession to the nearby town — profits go to them to support their school) it's not possible to go and buy anything you forgot to bring or that you suddenly need. We borrowed some cinnamon from our neighbors at one point to make French toast ... apparently nobody bothered to bring pepper, either. People are mostly self-sufficient, but you are only as self-sufficient as what you remembered to bring: beyond that, you are an interdependent part of the community.
The burn of The Man on Saturday night was the pinnacle of the bacchanal. It was the biggest party night — virtually all of the 35,000 residents of "Black Rock City" showed up for it (which, by the way, makes BRC the third largest city in Nevada.) Plus, The Man represented a central landmark: it stood on the center of a clock facing 6 o'clock which is where 6:00 "street" was. When it was burned, there was no such landmark to get perspective, and the chaos was further enhanced by the mischievous deed of modifying, defacing, and removing all the road signs in the city. I was lucky enough to have already started relying on other landmarks to find my way back to camp, but I heard stories of people being lost for hours and who often ended up meeting entirely new groups of people.
The burn of The Temple of Stars on Sunday night was much more spiritual and quiet, in part because it was almost a mile away from the rest of the city. The quarter-mile-long temple was present for the entire week and people were encouraged to walk through it and to write the names of loved ones they lost in their life. The burn represented a release to the stars; a cathartic moment for survivors to set their loved ones free and keep their momentum in the continual grieving process.
In all, I'm still digesting the whole thing. I guess that's the best part: although I had a lot of fun nights and good times while there, the more meaningful side of the whole experience only reveals itself when placed in direct contrast to the society we live in right now. The society built for a week in the desert might be possible to run all the time, but it's too abrupt a switch to try and accomplish for the whole year ... at least for now.
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This page is Jason Olshefsky's list of things to do in Rochester, NY and the surrounding region (including Monroe County and occasionally the Western New York region) from Thursday, September 16, 2004 thru Wednesday, September 22, 2004.
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