Once a year, Californians head for the desert for four days of art, sex, guns and primal ritual. Richardd; Grant goes feral at the Burning Man Festival, while a 40ft effigy (and much else) goes up in smoke
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The Independent Culture
There must be 10,000 people on the lake bed now, howling and drumming, drinking and dancing, setting off fireworks, shooting guns in the air. People screaming - "Fuck shit up", "Burn shit down!" A dune buggy rumbles past, welded together from rusty saw blades. A naked woman in a cowboy hat swills from a petrol can and spews out flames, incinerating a cardboard statue of comedian Jim Carrey and ululating as it burns. To the south, the pyrotechnicians are setting off explosions, rolling, red fireballs which billow and flare against the darkening sky. For the first time, a genuinely wild, anarchic energy surges through the festival, a feeling that anything could happen, a riot or an orgy, or some new and unimagined form of mayhem.

We are 30 miles from the remote hamlet of Gerlach, Nevada, on a 400-square- mile dry lake bed in the Black Rock Desert. There are a few dozen cops around but they are outnumbered and outgunned and, consequently, polite, tolerant and well behaved. Most of the festival-goers are unarmed, but there are at least 150 hard-drinking gun freaks here - rednecks, bikers, anarchists, punks, Vietnam vets - armed with assault rifles, shotguns, semi-automatic pistols, and revolvers. Firearms are supposed to be kept unloaded on the lake bed, but I've seen and heard people shooting live ammunition all weekend.

A reveller in a jeep with a .50 calibre machine-gun on the roof is raising hell with the Portaloos, lassooing them with a rope and dragging them around with the hapless occupants still inside. Two sheriff's deputies watch and do nothing, just lean against their truck with their arms folded, resigned to having lost control. At the north end of the lake bed, the "playa" as they call it, an artist named Steve Heck has built an open- roofed structure out of 88 pianos, which he trucked out here from Oakland, California, 300 miles away. It took him two days to bolt them together and instal a bar, where people have been drinking and pounding on the piano wires with pieces of scrap metal. Now he douses his creation with petrol and flicks a match. As it burns, the wires warp and snap, making a strange, anguished music.

The people are white San Franciscans for the most part. Men and women are represented in about equal proportions, and, if so inclined, you could subdivide them into various urban tribes: slackers, hackers, hipsters, ravers, Deadheads, artists, drag queens, techno-hippies, neo-pagans, plus the aforementioned gun freaks, and some slumming professionals. Or you could lump them all together as alienated from mainstream American culture; resentful of authority and jaded with mass consumerism. Over the last four days, they have created a city on this treeless, waterless, perfectly flat lake bed, a surreal shanty town of tents, shacks, art installations, Portaloos and electricity generators. It has eight pirate radio stations, a daily newspaper and cellular modem links to the World Wide Web. They call it Black Rock City and at its centre is a 40ft-high sculpture of a man, made out of wood and blue neon, soaked with petrol and stuffed with fireworks. In an hour or two, the organisers will set it on fire and the 11th Burning Man Festival will reach its climax.

Furrowed brows outside the press trailer: my colleagues in the media and I are finding it hard to fix a label on all this. Is it guerrilla performance art or a pyromaniacs' ball? Mad Max or Priscilla, Queen of the Desert? Is it, as previous journalists have suggested, "an atavistic, avant-garde, neo-pagan flame-back", "a post-modern carnival of the absurd", or a "post-hippie proto-apocalyptic art ritual"?

The founder of the Burning Man, an elegantly ravaged San Francisco artist and landscape gardener named Larry Harvey, can discourse for hours on the meaning of the festival. Sitting on a deckchair in a dark suit and black hat, smoking cigarette after cigarette, he spins and weaves his theories, explaining the Burning Man in terms of post-Freudian identity crises, the demise of primitive mythocentric religions, and the sterility of the corporate-controlled consumerism which passes for culture in America these days. "These are post-modern times," he says at one point. "Everything that's ever happened before is happening now, in one form or another, but none of it really compels us, and transforms us. We can access unimaginable quantities of information and images through the Internet, we can communicate with everyone in the world, but so what? The Burning Man Festival celebrates technology as a potential tool for freedom, but it also reverts back to something primordial, prehistoric, proverbial. Throughout our evolution, in all corners of the planet, human beings have come together and gathered around fire, and this ritual still invokes a very basic, primal response."

The first Burning Man Festival was held in 1986 and was a lot less meaningful. Larry Harvey and 20 friends burnt down an 8ft wooden man on Baker Beach, California. Why? To exorcise a failed love affair, honour the summer solstice, and for the hell of it. It became an annual event, with taller effigies and bigger crowds each year. In 1990, the San Francisco police clamped down and, at the suggestion of a local anarchist group, the event was relocated to the Black Rock Desert, and shifted in time to the Labor Day weekend at the end of August. A hundred people made the first trek out into the desert, and attendance has more or less doubled every year since.

You pay $40, to defray the costs of staging the festival, and you are expected to bring everything else you might need to survive for four days in this harsh desert environment: food, shelter, enough water to keep you hydrated through the long, 107 degree days, enough alcohol and/or drugs to fuel the nights. There is one coffee shop, one juice stand, one burger shack (McSatan's Beastro), and an ice truck that comes once a day. Apart from that, there is almost nowhere to spend money, none of the concession stands, souvenir vendors, corporate advertising, ringing cash registers and whirring credit-card machines that normally attend any large-scale gathering of Americans. There are plenty of drugs around but no drug-dealers, and the artists create their work in order to destroy it.

The guiding principle of the festival is "no spectators, only participants". Most people respond by decorating their camp sites - plastic palm trees, Astroturf, pink flamingos and white picket fences are especially popular - or by dressing up in weird costumes, or, indeed, by going naked and riding around on a bicycle. Inevitably there is a degree of conformity to the counterculture on display: an inordinate quantity of tattoos, piercings and combat boots; a sameness to a lot of the artistic endeavours (satirical pop art or junk sculpture); a playful, absurdist sensibility that is recognisably of San Francisco - the city that loves to dress up and prance around. Until tonight, I have suffered from periodic bouts of what Larry Clark calls "post-modern anomie", a weary, cynical feeling summed up in the phrase: "not another naked cyclist".

Now, with the fires and explosions, the feel of anarchy and destruction in the air, everything has changed, everyone has gone feral, myself included. I am roaming through the festival with a bottle of tequila in my hand and a cow mask on my head, lost and disoriented, ready for anything. The playa is cloaked in a gauzy mist of fine grey dust (the pulverised, wind- whipped surface of the lake bed), which coats the palate, clogs the eyes, and turns nasal secretions into something like tile grout. The dust cloud is haphazardly lit by fires, explosions, car headlights, and as I walk through it, things loom up suddenly and fade away. A 6ft 5in male skinhead in a pink cocktail dress. A shark car with 15ft fins. The Aesthetic Meat Foundation: young German performance artists making industrial noises and carving up dead animals.

A firework fizzes past my ear. A naked tattooed woman grabs my hand, presses it to her crotch, then scampers off. Brit Camp: beneath the Union Jack, eight Englishmen are upholding the fine tradition of Glastonbury, lying around in a stoned, drunken heap, singing half-remembered songs and drinking and smoking doggedly on. The music comes from all directions - techno, jungle, speed metal, Forties show tunes, polkas, tribal drumming, surf punk, New Age - a random, demented mix.

Victoria: she is wearing cut-offs and a bra, with a half-gallon jug of rum hanging from her belt and a loaded shotgun in her hand. Her boyfriend, who is as drunk as she is, grabs the gun and fires both barrels across an empty stretch of the playa. He reloads and hands it back. Now it's her turn. Victoria pulls the trigger and the recoil knocks the gun out of her hands. "Hey, watch out," calls a cyclist, "you almost hit me!" "Watch where you're fuckin' goin'!" she yells back.

She tends bar in San Francisco and designs outfits for strippers. "I got a three-year-old kid in the city and this is my vacation. It's my second Burning Man and I fuckin' love it. You can get fucked up, naked and crazy, shoot your guns, fuck under the stars, and if the cops give you any shit, they've got a war on their hands."

Earl Fisher: he wears jeans, cowboy boots and a feed-store cap. This is not an ironic fashion statement. Earl is about 38 and works on a ranch over in the next county - "Ah'm jes' an ole-fashioned redneck checkin' things out," he says. When the Burning Man first landed in Pershing County, Nevada, the locals were convinced it was a Satan-worshipping festival, but over the years, they have been persuaded otherwise. Now it attracts a good turnout from the locality: miners and ranchers come to gawp at the big city freaks, and challenge them to a shooting contest. Earl tells me all about it while we observe a fashion show and a formal cocktail party. A transsexual accordion player on 8ft stilts walks by. A man in a black leather codpiece and mask starts whipping a dreadlocked teenage girl on the buttocks. She looks Earl straight in the eye and whines, "Oooh, daddy, c'mon! Ride this big horse called love with me." Earl averts his eyes and slurps his beer. "Yup, sure is different around here."

About 9pm, everyone starts to congregate around the Man. The complaint is voiced again: why doesn't he have any genitals? I asked Larry Harvey about this and got a disappointingly PC answer - we don't want the Burning Man to be exclusionary, or to be perceived as sexist. So think of it more as a Burning Person.

I am in the crowd with my camp-site neighbours, Kelli and Nicole, wild women from San Francisco in a band called Underpants. Around us in the milling throng is a man wearing nothing but a glow-in-the-dark cock ring, a fully clothed Irishman with a gallon of whiskey, and a local ranch family: grandma, father and mother, and eight-year-old son. Father takes a belt of the Irishman's whiskey and wipes his mouth. "Here, Gran'maw, take a slug of this here firewater." "Don't mind if I do."

It begins with the burning of hay bales and some neo-pagan dancing and processions. The crowd gets impatient, rowdy, obscene. "Burn, you dickless wonder!" yell Kelli and Nicole. "Burn motherfucker!" yells Cock Ring. "Burn 'at bad boy down!" yell the ranch family. Finally, the Man is torched and blazing, and everyone is screaming, howling, yelping like coyotes. Bullets and fireworks whistle overhead. Bangers explode from the Man's back and he starts to twist and thrash from side to side. People grab his mooring ropes and jerk him further off balance. After a two-minute struggle, the flaming giant is brought to the ground, and we all charge forward, a mad trampling scalded mob. Nicole and Kelli have gone feral. "Fuck shit up!" is their cry, as they tear around the playa, kicking in the side of a shack, ripping a toy rabbit out of someone's hands and throwing it into the fire. Nicole is wearing a lacy slip, combat boots and a cowboy hat, screaming to the crowd, "Burn your fuckin' underwear," cackling and hooting when they comply.

The festival rumbles and rages on until dawn, then the dusty, brain-baked revellers head for home. A week from now, every trace of it will be gone. A team of clean-up volunteers will restore the playa to its pristine emptiness, a state in which it is likely to remain for the foreseeable future. At the urging of Sheriff Ron Skinner, the commissioners of Pershing County, Nevada, have voted to ban the festival next year, citing financial concerns (the cost of law enforcement), two deaths resulting from drunk motorcycle riding, and "incompatible values".

The combination of pyromania, drugs, firearms, nudity, anarchy and absurdist humour seems tailor-made to infuriate any authority figure, in rural America or anywhere else, and it is a testament to tolerance that the Burning Man Festival has lasted six years here. Its future is dicey, but not doomed. The latest word is that the organisers are talking with Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and counterculture icon, about relocating to his property in Oregon. !