A few weeks ago I ran into Nikita Nelin, a former student who has had success as a fiction writer and recently as a professor. He told me he was off on an adventure to attend the Burning Man Festival in the Nevada desert. His intention was to write about the experience and see what he thought of it. We decided he would send back reports of his immediate reflections upon the experience that we would publish here on the Hannah Arendt Center blog. Below is his first report. His effort is to report on what is happening in a thoughtful way rather than to offer judgments about the events he is describing. This may disappoint those who would seek to find praise or disdain, but spectatorial distance offers an opportunity for thinking outside the confines of liberal and conservative political discourse.
Ten hours after arriving I woke up in the middle of the night completely disoriented, in a lightless box, trying to tear my way out. I brought down a curtain rod and my fingers tore at a thin wooden wall. Everything was rocking in my movements.
There was a slight strip of illumination, not from anything natural but from one of the forty feet tall construction lights outside, which seeped into my trailer as I began, slowly, to orient myself.
That’s how I arrive. Whether it is a New York apartment, a Bayou shotgun house, a tent in upstate New York, or a dusty trailer in the Nevada desert, I first, half unconscious, have to try to tear my way out before I can understand the new geography of home. You may find this odd but in a sense we all do this. We grapple, be it by will, intellect, or some approximation with the divine, to define the dimensions of here, of home.
Right now I live in the Nevada desert, a little over three hours drive east of Reno. The land is a dry sponge, unyielding. I am sunburned — five applications of sunscreen a day is not enough when there is no cover — and everything I own is caked in “playa dust.” It’s like bathing in a milk substance but without any moisture to it. It gets into everything. Even my insides feel compromised by it. There is construction outside. Someone is barking out orders.
Why am I here? Why would someone put themselves through this? I’ve been now asking this for five days.
I came out here to learn about Burning Man, an annual event/festival/artistic orgy/creative epicenter (call it what you will, though believe me when I say that there is no way to define it except through immersion into it). It began in 1986 on Baker Beach in California. The first year 20 people attended and a stick figure of a man was burned at its finale. Today it takes place in the desert and by August 27th, over 60,000 people will descend on this previously empty desert city.
It is a city. For one week it becomes the 6th largest city in Nevada. I am here for the building of it. It grows out of the sponge, from nothing, and then is burned, its remains scrubbed. There will be no sign of its presence. Just the over 60,000 stories.
Like any community it functions under a set of principles: “Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-reliance, Radical Self-expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation, Immediacy.” Before you judge this as naive, I ask that you try one exercise. Consider each of those principles individually. Weighed for the multiplicity of their meanings. For a moment lets leave the pressures of immediacy and criticisms behind and deal strictly with definitions. What is the potential of each of these words? Of each of these principles? In definition alone, not yet masked by dissolution and skepticism, how wide can each word, each principle, resonate?
In part due to the commitment of its designers, and participants, and in part arising from the challenge of the inhospitable environment of the desert, these principles are followed as if commandments by almost everyone here.
It is truly a community, entirely dependent on the effort and strength of one another for its construction, survival, and burn.
This is a creative center. First come the walls, the gate, the streets, the gigantic arts projects (a forty foot man with his sixty foot base, a temple, and this year a mock replica of Wall Street—then the smaller projects, more people, performers, fire breathers, Mad Max cars, cast-iron unicorns and dragons, and twisted designs from the mind of Dante). If it can be invented, someone will find a way to make it here. Fire is the central element of creativity; it mends, fuses, inspires and destroys. “Every act of creation is preceded by an act of destruction” is the famous statement by Picasso; it is a cycle that, depending on your perspective, can go from destruction to creation.
This a place of metaphor, of community, of story, of extreme physical effort. It is a place of definition.
When I first told people what I wanted to do the response was supportive, but tempered. Many consider Burning Man to be a hedonistic party, a drug-fest, an indulgence, a carnival of freaks. And, this too is here. But that is only a small part of what one finds and it is the act of “Participation” that can allow one to find what they need here. Granted, there is such a thing as seeking without a purpose, a way to become lost in the act of fantasy, a dark abyss. There is a quote by Francisco de Goya that I keep turning around in my mind: “Fantasy, abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters.” But, the act of creation begins with fantasy. Purpose (reason) drives it. It manifests an idea into the tangible. Gives form to the elusive. That’s what writing does. That’s what society does — we manifest — be it true though, that so often, today, we no longer know the reason.
Reason, can be seen in two aspects. It is the reason for, and the reasoning of. It can be the answer to why, and to the how. To understand where we are, we have to understand both definitions of reason. Otherwise we lose track of our path, our history (personal, cultural, political, economic, spiritual). To be divorced from reason is a type of vertigo. It is waking up in the dark, trying to dig your way out, not knowing where you are, how you got here, why you came — it is an endless digging, a struggle without reason — just an endless, exhausting, flailing effort, seemingly without end. A nightmare without light. Lucid, but without consciousness. Dehumanizing.
Our society has moved further and further away from the ability to converse, to exchange stories, to trust, to know where we have come from; from what principles, out of what needs were we constructed: why and how did we come together, and why are we so apart? How do we define community today? How do we define its dimensions? Its values and principles? Its needs?
I have come here to experience the entirety of this event, from its building, to the celebration, to the breakdown—and to report on it. I believe that our society is at a crucial point where we find ourselves divorced from the reasons. Not sure of how we got here — broke, isolated, struggling to keep pace but uncertain with what, and why.
Hannah Arendt foresaw, perhaps sooner and with greater clarity than any other, the break with tradition that the 20th century brought. This need to live without traditions, without the pillars of the past, she called “living without banisters.” And she knew that the only answer to such an abandoned condition was action and the stories that action generates. It is in stories, Arendt tells us, that we create the common world in which we live together.
Community, story telling, creativity, intellectual rigor, these are all present here if one seeks them. Though many consider this to be a ‘hippy event,’ Burning Man attracts a wide cut of society. Intellectuals, Silicon Valley executives, accomplished artists and performers. All are represented here, and all seek to participate, to give without asking in return. All want to be part of a community—each a single piece of the definition.
This is my first time here. And, this is my first blog post on the event. Here is simply an introduction to two conversations, between Burning Man and myself, and you and I.
I am a writer and teacher. The few skills I bring to this are the ability to observe, and report—and thus participate. In the Gonzo tradition of reporting I do not believe in an entirely ‘objective’ format. And so, I am here. I have given you my reasons.
I go outside and here is what I see: desert and dust, and yet each day new clusters of camps and lights and zones appear. The two mile wide city is designed like a clock. At it’s center is the figure of the Man—the idea. At twelve o’clock is the Temple—it’s spiritual center. And I am at ten o’clock, with the Burn Wall Street Project. It is one of the most ambitious Burning Man projects to date. In the span of ten days, seventy volunteers will build five buildings that represent some of the key players from Wall Street, a replica of a bull included and all. During the event the pieces will be open to everyone. Climb on it, hit it, staple your foreclosure notice onto the walls. Scream at it! And then it will all burn. Otto Von Danger (his Burning Man name), a gulf war veteran and a veteran of “Burning Man Builds,” is the artist behind this project. He believes our community has been slowly tearing apart, and this tearing has been helped along by a Machiavellian, dividing, create-the-enemy-among-the-disenfranchised style of politics and economics. He believes people are angry, and has created a small yet ambitious outlet for this anger.
I do not yet know what I feel about this project. There are moments when I feel it oversimplifies the issues of political division and our financial woes. And yet I strongly agree with the fact that the various outraged communities in our society can in fact share a dialogue. Everyone, be it the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street, is reacting to the sense of being compressed in the dark. Ultimately they all care about one simple principle—community. And this is the principle that today we find most ill defined. So fractured, its reigns so stolen away from us, that we are almost, almost ready to protest—only waiting for a common reason. I do not yet know how I feel about Burn Wall Street. It has the potential of imposing a reason simply through the forceful creation of a common enemy. The real issue, the fracturing of our society, is far more complicated. And yet this project, as does so much else that goes on this two-mile strip of the Nevada desert, has the potential to create dialogue. And, ultimately, is this not a central tenet of art? To give us new entry points, new perspectives to discuss, understand, engage, and receive our world.
I am looking for a definition to my world, as we all are. Right now I am looking here. I’ll tell what I find.
Oh yeah, before I forget. That quote, the one about reason, or fantasy, or monsters — whatever be your current inclination—here is the rest of it; “Fantasy, abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters. United with it, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of marvels.”
Originally born in the Soviet Union, Nikita Nelin immigrated into the U.S in 1990. He holds an MFA from Brooklyn College, and has been published in Tabled Magazine, Southword Journal, Electric Literature blog, and Defunct Magazine. Along with having been shortlisted in the Faulkner-Wisdom competition and the Sozopol fiction contest, he is the winner of the 2010 Sean O’Faolain prize for short fiction, and the 2011 Summer Literary Seminars prize for non-fiction. Currently he is in the Nevada desert writing about Burning Man.