All photos by Clint Miller
In terms of American festivals and cultural events, Burning Man has evolved into one the most notorious and intriguing out there. As it has become increasingly more popular since coming into being in the ’80s, it has spurred a growing amount of regional “Burns” as well as an entire subculture. At the beginning of this month, I stepped into this wacky world for the first time at Georgia’s mini-version of Burning Man, called Alchemy. I consider myself a very seasoned veteran when it comes to music festivals, but this would be an entirely different experience altogether. All Burns adhere to what is called Burning Man’s “10 Principles”, a sort of hippie ten commandments. Of these principles, there are two big things that really set this experience apart from others. First, rather than being just a spectator to others’ art, everyone who attends is expected to be an artist and contribute to the event. There are not really bands to see or anything (although plenty of bad techno DJs, but I’ll get to that). The attendees are the entertainment. Secondly, the festival adheres to strict decommodification, meaning that no one is allowed to buy or sell anything at the Burn. Instead, exchanges are only supposed to occur in one direction, in the form of “gifting” someone else. These rules are almost completely adhered to, so there is no vendors of any kind on site.
As hippie as all of this sounds, it is a decidedly different beast than the trustafarian-filled, bro-rific jamband scene. The types of people who were at Alchemy seemed rather diverse and the whole vibe was of its own unique, distinct feel. If anything, the music subculture most represented here was ravers. The rave scene that flourished across the US only a decade ago seemed to be all but annihilated after being heavily targeted by law officials due to its inextricable link to illegal drugs. And let’s face it, it was as much a fad as disco. But it seems the remnants of the electronic music party community have found refuge in these Burns, and are even beginning to flourish in it. I learned that the property where Alchemy was held also hosts monthly ravey camp outs. I knew there had to be some small fraction of that scene that wouldn’t accept the move to uppity clubs or give it up, and it turns out they are burners now.
We left Atlanta early in the afternoon on Thursday and didn’t arrive until dark after dealing with two different flat tires among our caravan. After getting through the gate swiftly, we stopped at Connexus, which was sort of the home base of the whole festival. There is a huge map where each themed camp can identify where they are located and there is a schedule where everyone can list any events they are having. Those of us who were “Burn virgins” had to go through a brief initiation ceremony there, and then we went off around the property to figure out where we wanted to set up our camp. After a lot of indecision and driving around, we settled a place near the base of the hill where the effigy stood. Another difference between this and the many other camping festivals I’ve attended is that a vehicle couldn’t be near your camp unless it was transformed into art, so after setting up, we had to take our cars to a parking lot away from the camping area.
Our camping group decided to go with the theme of “Alchemists Anonymous”. Our contribution to the event would come in the form of lots of games and a ridiculously vast amount of alcohol to freely dispense. The first night was a blur, but I spent almost all of it nearby our campsite. There was a lo-fi rollercoaster built on the large hill near us where someone would sit on a chair on wheels and roll down a wooden track complete with jump ramps. It was called “The Bleeder”, and it had no problem living up to its name as two of our crew ended up getting some serious bruises and scrapes after crashing into and breaking through one of the ramps.
After passing out early, I also woke up early to find that the Burn was still partying strong at dawn. Many people brought entire PA systems and a generator to power them so that they could play techno at every hour, and there was nowhere to escape the loud, pounding sounds of ravers. I spent the morning hanging by the large fire that was burning all weekend long while grabbing beers from the keg. Eventually we hosted a game of Twister on a homemade super-sized board and then I finally explored around the property. There were some open fields, some hills, and some road trails going through the woods. Each camping area had a different theme, and everybody seemed to be going all out.
That night we loaded up a mobile bar and wheeled it around from place to place mixing up drinks for festival attendees. Flurries of activity and craziness abounded around every corner. Costumes, megaphones, dancers, and lots of fire everywhere. After returning to camp and rallying, we headed to “Area 51″, pretty much the coolest chill area, located deep in the woods. They had couches and candles and lasers, and it seemed to definitely be the most popular late night spot. Eventually the nights’ shenanigans faded into darkness and it was Saturday late in the morning. We decided to spend the early afternoon hijacking a friend’s sound system after the constant techno rave out was getting to us. We drank wine while listening to a mix of indie faves like Animal Collective, Of Montreal and Grizzly Bear, and we even attracted a few nudists dancing around with umbrellas.
After spending the late afternoon trading off riding around a borrowed motorcycle, everybody headed up the hill to see the effigy get lit on fire. This was the main event of the Burn, and everyone in the entire place gathers around for it. There was a huge drum circle, and dancers, and music makers, and I discovered that I completely forgot how to play a trumpet. There were volunteers blocking out a large perimeter around the effigy and not letting anyone get very close. The theme of this year’s Burn was “Shock and Awe”, and they did just that when it was time for the fire. Huge explosions and giant mushroom clouds blew up all around the effigy before it went up in a blaze. I don’t think I have ever felt something as intensely hot in my entire life as the explosions against my lightly sunburned face. The Effigy burned while everyone celebrated, and as it was almost completely destroyed, we headed back down the hill to set up our bar. The night before had taken its toll on it, and it was no longer very mobile, so we just set up shop at the base of the effigy hill.
At some point while we were mixing drinks for everyone, someone warned us of not giving alcohol to underage kids. After hours and hours of partying, we brilliantly decided that the only way we could tell if people were of age was to look at their pubes. That quickly morphed into demanding to see people’s genitals in exchange for drinks. Only in an atmosphere like Alchemy could this work out so perfectly. Just about everyone we encountered played along, and there was a whole bunch of nakedness. Eventually we abandoned the bar and headed back to Area 51 and then back to the bonfire, and then at some unknown point, to bed. The festival continued until Monday morning, but we decided to go back to Atlanta Sunday after we woke up.
Overall, the entire experience was pretty damn amazing. I wondered how entertained I would be at a festival without bands to see, but that forced me and everyone I was with to entertain ourselves, and I had an incredible time. Before going, I was skeptical that I would be able to get into the whole spirit of the thing, but by the end I was wearing a mini-skirt and war paint on my face. There was an electricity in the air at this thing, and its power was undeniable. I highly recommend checking out Alchemy or any other Burn, as I’m already scheming up what I’m going to do next year.
- Posted by Davy Minor on October 16, 2009 at 7:01 am