Matter Out Of Place
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For a week in the month of August, the desert in Nevada suddenly gets very busy. An influx of 70,000 people set up Black Rock City, temporarily making a seven square mile section of alkaline dust – the ‘playa’ – the third largest metropolis in the state. Burning Man is a festival which celebrates the principles of radical inclusion, radical self-expression and radical self-reliance. That’s Californian shorthand. Anyone is welcome. People can do what they like. They must have enough food, water and camping equipment to survive the week.

Pay $300 or so, and you’re invited to a weeklong party with free booze and no boundaries: an excuse for plenty of sex and lots of drugs. I booked my ticket in the cold of February. At that point I was single, as were the three friends with whom I booked: a millennial version of Club 18-30 seemed to be an expedient, if expensive, way to take advantage of this freedom.

The festival sees itself as more than package holiday hedonism. The institution of ten core principles acts to keep the original spirit alive as the attendees, or Burners as we’re called, come in ever-larger hordes. These principles enshrine the traditions – and jargon – of decommodification, gifting, participation, communal effort, immediacy, civic responsibility and the principle of ‘Leaving No Trace’.

That is why I am on duty.

Head down, gaze on the ground. For the past 50 minutes, I have been looking for dirt in the dirt of the desert floor. Any sliver of food, tangle of hair, shimmer of sequin goes straight into a Ziploc bag. The sun beats down on my neck. Like a sniffer dog, I manoeuvre between the tent pegs and guide ropes, peering under trucks, nudging containers aside. The camp perimeter checked, I move on to the grey sand beyond.

In spite of the hedonism, we’re tidy.

When we leave, we leave the desert as deserted as it was before. Those who scan the playa after our departure typically pick up only half a skip’s worth of detritus. The prehistoric lakebed goes back to sleep, a few flies buzzing over its surface, till the next annual wake up call. ‘Leaving No Trace’ means collecting MOOP, an acronym for ‘matter out of place’. I’d heard it before, in a course on ancient cult and ritual I’d once taken at university. The term was made famous by the anthropologist Mary Douglas, although she claimed Lord Chesterfield – also responsible for commissioning the first Chesterfield sofa – originally coined it. The phrase, from her book Purity and Danger, published in 1966 (just before the Summer of Love), is associated with the importance of cleanliness and ritual in primitive religion. Douglas used it to show that dirt does not intrinsically have dirty properties: ‘There is no such thing as absolute dirt; it exists in the eye of the beholder.’ Dirt shocks us – a stain on a shirt or blood on the kitchen counter – because it is matter out of place. Its surroundings make it unfamiliar. Douglas saw this focus on purity and hygiene in primitive religion as central to the structure of the society in which they operated. God made order from chaos. There is an intrinsic human desire to categorise. Dirt muddies order; it challenges the system.

MOOP embodies the contradictions of the festival: rules and freedom, stringency and waste. There are no bins at Burning Man, none of the overflowing sacks of rubbish you see at other festivals. The climate is so harsh and animals so few, that food waste does not disintegrate on the playa. It fossilises. Cans rust and carbuncle. Tissues float on the breeze.

Keeping matter in place needs boundaries – literally. The camps are arranged in rows, which follow the outline of a clock. The Burning Man, a 70-foot wooden scarecrow, towers at the centre. There are no camps between 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock and the clock face stretches out into the desert. Walk about 40 minutes into this ‘Deep Playa’, till the glittering lights recede and the music dims, and you feel as if you could be on the moon. Late at night, you can feel quite alone, till a ramen cart or mobile drinks bar trundles across the sand. Walk further into the quiet darkness till a five-foot-tall plastic orange fence stops you. It stretches around the perimeter catching drifting Burners and flyaway trash.

The second day, after a talk on veganism had somehow inexplicably, inevitably, morphed into a rant on porcine reincarnation, I bicycled hard across the festival to arrive on time for duty. Lucky dip on Google and a friend’s executive decision meant I found myself in the salsa and blues camp. I can’t dance. So, instead, for at least three days out of the seven, and about an hour at a time, I was on MOOP patrol. Spotting me, Lucas, a member of our camp, asked me to help pitch a tent. I found myself spending most of the morning shaking out and brushing down a dirty ten-person tepee in a removal van.

All dirt is not equal at Burning Man. After an eight-hour drive from San Francisco, winding from Colorado into Nevada, and a day and night in the queue stretching a few miles across the playa, at the gates, on arrival, we were invited, as ‘virgins’, to roll in the dust. Not to be soiled but initiated. It is meant to mark the crossing of the threshold between the ‘Default World’ and the ‘Real World’. The dirt clings to hair and clogs all orifices making each and every Burner look like a bunged-up shaman. Some collect the alkaline dust and sell Burning Man concoctions and facemasks the rest of the year.

But dirt which is not playa dust, is still dirt. The tepee was caked with dry mud from a camping trip in Oregon. We couldn’t just brush it down outside before setting up; the MOOP had to be contained carefully in a plastic bag. Luckily, Lucas’s girlfriend didn’t find us. She constantly showered him with endearments to mark her territory. Their polyamorous relationship had been tested by the presence of another lover in the camp. According to Jacques, a computer programmer with plaited pigtails, finding a monogamous person in San Francisco is as likely as finding a unicorn. I was mostly relieved that Lucas was wearing shorts. His preferred modus operandi was ‘Shirt Cocking’ which meant he was normally naked from the navel down. He made a point of doing this at breakfast.

The camp’s MOOP rules were particularly rigorous. Even toothpaste was considered alien to the playa. We had to spit onto a square of cardboard; the water evaporated, leaving the froth on the paper, prickly white like pigeon shit on pavement. Any other water left over from washing up or rinsing hands, bodies, plates or fruit, was MOOP too, and more specifically ‘graywater’. It was filtered twice, mixed with bleach, and stored in great cans to take back with us.

MOOP and the spirit of ‘Leave No Trace’ are vital for the survival of Burning Man. If the playa is not left pristine, the local authorities will not give permission for the festival to go ahead the following year. That’s a loss of 70,000 ticket sales for about 300 dollars apiece (the entrance fee is $350 but many are on low income tickets). Last year, salaries cost just over $7 million; fees for using federal land another $4.5 million; and taxes $1 million. It is a huge financial operation. The clean-up is military. This is a practical concern but it is also, at a deeper lever, symbolic.

The horde mentality brooks no infraction. If one person drops a can, everyone will. People are on MOOP lookout, eager to tut. There is nothing more immersive than responsibility. This doesn’t seem to justify consuming less. The amount of Ziploc bags, baby wipes, rusty bikes, cans and tupperware that are carted out and dumped in villages and towns on the way out belies any concern for the environment. Creativity is destructive. Especially if it’s a spray-painted bicycle festooned with fake flowers and cheap lights manufactured in China.

Burning Man replaces the values and rules of the ‘Default World’, the world in which you are reading this now, with those of its own ‘Real World’. People are friendly. People can dress how they want. People pick up litter. People don’t rely on money to do the talking – at least while they’re there. The fact they can afford to go to Burning Man means they are already of a certain socio-economic status: rich and white. But the repression of mid-America is writ large in every cross-dressing man bouncing across the desert. In Britain, men just wait for a fancy dress party.

The festival positions itself as a spiritual experience. Its focus on ritual thresholds, community, figureheads and rules taps into that. In some ways it’s a watered-down version of an ecstatic cult. Bacchic ritual, in its most institutionalised form, took place when followers were more receptive – in harsh conditions, not a desert, but in mid-winter, coinciding with a time when food was scarce. As portrayed on Attic vases and in myth, ecstasy was a manufactured state induced in part by rhythmic chanting, sleep deprivation and, sometimes, alcohol.

At nightfall on the last Saturday, the art cars, in what seems like hundreds, trundle out, bristling with costumed passengers, to form a booming, pulsating, semi-circle around the burning Man. The scene, a mash-up of The Wicker Man and Blade-Runner, marries the authenticity of folk and the familiarity of B-movies and sci-fi. For an experience that prides itself on immediacy, it is somehow one of the most self-conscious. As the Man burned, I could hear: ‘In 1997, it took only 40 seconds for the left arm to drop to the ground.’ ‘I wonder if they’re going to have to go in to stoke the fire like they did in 2003?’ It’s a question of who knows Burning Man best. Who understands it most? There’s a feeling of ‘belonging’, knowing and abiding by the principles, being ‘special’, out of the ordinary, part of a family that is exclusive, that no one else ‘gets’. You cannot understand the mysteries of Dionysus till you have torn the beast apart; you’ll never get Burning Man till you’ve seen the man burn.

Collecting MOOP was therapeutic because it turned out I was MOOP. It can be lonely at a festival. I found myself in the middle of 70,000 people who wore T-shirts with slogans like ‘Stop Bitching, Start a Revolution’ without irony. My companions threw themselves in to it. One spent the week in a romance where the object of her affection liked nothing more than a punch in the balls. The other, though she had no history of it, started experimenting with drugs; the only way, it became clear, to appreciate the public art. The third friend tried to fall in love. I went to seminars.

A class on ‘Fisting’, the act of inserting a fist into an orifice – anal or vaginal – had caught my eye in the ‘Events’ booklet. The talk was held in the ‘Orgasmatron’ tent and given by a woman dressed up as a giant cupcake. She first reminded the audience – over twenty women and a transsexual – about the importance of seeking consent from your partner. Consent is the festival’s version of a health and safety announcement. You always expect them to finish off by telling you where the emergency exit is.

After talking through technique, while putting on purple latex gloves, and answering the inevitable questions from the audience – ‘Can you fist while pregnant?’ – she said, ‘Now you can practise on each other.’ Most women looked relieved when she clarified it was hands only. I turned to my neighbour, a big woman who seemed friendly, luckily. There’s nothing worse than a bad lab partner. I stuck out my hands forming a hole with my fingers and apologised. ‘I’m a beginner and I have small hands.’ My neighbour started massaging the hole, inserting more fingers. Penetration was an anti-climax. I wasn’t sure how to respond to her fist hovering an inch from my face. I kissed it – a big smacker – then looked out to one side and grinned. We laughed.

The class finished with a live demonstration. A woman had been lying on pillows quietly to the side all this time. An assistant handed over sachets, which the cupcake ripped open while inserting the other hand into this woman. Body parts are often out of place at Burning Man. But wherever you are, the sight of a fist in someone’s vagina is unexpected. It didn’t feel dirty though; perhaps because the demonstration was so public. The fistee lay slumped back relaxed, slightly smug. I fled before the audience clapped and the inevitable round of questions.

Distancing yourself is difficult – whether critically or simply by sitting on your own. If you’ve come that far, if you know the festival is about communality, it seems beside the point to opt out. I brought Middlemarch with me. I had decided to read it in tandem with my boyfriend – an unexpected occurrence – and a thirteen- hour flight seemed like a good opportunity to get ahead. A book about yearning for more, and failed aspiration, which I should have already read, seemed appropriate for my state of mind that summer. I only read a page of it. At Burning Man you are meant to immerse yourself in the group, rather than a book: I felt like Casaubon at a dinner party.

It seemed as if fellow revellers banded together because they relied on a sense of MOOP as part of their identity in the ‘Default World’. Jacques was an aficionado of partner dancing, corsets for men and ‘transitional 14th century armour’. He also had a conventional job. In San Francisco, a computer programmer isn’t so much a well-oiled cog in the machine, but part of the hard drive of the economy. And so he used his hobbies to set him apart. As adolescence stretches further into our twenties and thirties, people want to keep the teenage privilege of feeling as if the world doesn’t understand them. Like they don’t belong. Burning Man plays on that. It’s a place where self-styled MOOP collects. It satisfies a sense of adventure safely. The festival temporarily releases people from the deafening drone of everyday life, the terror of a steady routine, and sells them – something like – the authentic one-off.

The festival itself is MOOP. Where would a funfair of neon lights, artificial substances and human beings be more out of place than in the middle of a desert? The principle of Leave No Trace seeks to maintain that sense of transience. Despite running for well over twenty years, the festival relies on the surreality borne of impermanence. For a week, the slaves become revellers. The servants are wearing masks. When the party is over, when all norms have supposedly been upended, the whole spectacle disappears as it had all been a mirage. Like Bakhtin’s carnival, like the Lupercalia of Ancient Rome in February, MOOP remains out of place because it is temporary. It confirms the status quo. This is the commercialisation of carnival, the commodification of cult. I came back that summer, to a boyfriend a little more anxious, to a job ever more the same and a bank account even more depleted: the ‘Default World’ was still firmly in place.

 

 


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