George Harrison used to tell a famous story about the first time he visited the hippie mecca Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. The introspective Beatle, who had been turned on to Eastern philosophy and spiritualism in part through acid trips, expected to find young, like-minded people in search of spiritual enlightenment. Instead, he was disappointed to find that most of the young adults he met were more interested in the "dropping out" part of Timothy Leary's spiel than the "tuning in." After the disappointing visit, he compared the kids he'd met with the drunks he'd grown up with in postwar England and swore off acid for good.
It was difficult to guess which brand of hippie or freak you'd find at the survivalist weekend festival Love Burn, Florida's only official Burning Man event. Was this just another generation of wasted kids like the ones Pete Townshend maligned in the Who's "Baba O Riley"? Or were they truly looking for deeper connections with art, with one another, and with nature?
The group hugs are the first clue there are definitely some genuine connections — whether artificially enhanced by touchy love drugs. Everywhere you turned, groups of people were hugging and lying in stoned cuddle puddles under fire-lit geodesic domes on the sands of Virginia Key Beach Park. Couples made out on the grass next to fire installations. Others raved beneath a jungle gym crafted for an adult dance party. Attendees dressed as those they wish to be in daily life — whether in animal costumes, rave-wear, or partially nude — creating a world where burning art installations takes precedence over the outside world.
And that's the conflict inherent in Love Burn. If you create a world all your own, albeit it for a weekend, and ignore the complicated, burning world outside, are you really helping?
The answer might lie in the zero-waste and environmentally respectful approach. Every participant brings a gift to the Love Burn, whether it's the transformational craft of prosthetics and body painting, vintage clothing, or sustenance for the community of burners. Though some practice these arts in their daily professional lives, all logos are covered up at the festival and there is no personal advertising allowed. Burners pay for their tickets and the food, water, and drinks they'll need at the festival. There are no booths selling overpriced beer or elephant ears. Burners must bring all they need — and as much as they'd like to share with their neighbors. They vow to leave the place better than they found it, forming a human chain to find and pick up every last piece of trash onsite before they leave at the end of the festival.
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The most significant contribution that burners make is their serious commitment to creating fantasy worlds come to life with art installations at various camps throughout the park. Walking to certain places feels like entering a world bridging Salvador Dali, Dr. Seuss, and A Midsummer Night's Dream under black lights. Burners ride around and hang off a giant dinosaur installation on wheels, while others race around in glowing cars straight out of Mario Kart. Subtle art pieces also adorn the park. One patch of sand on the beach burned the entire night like a kind of natural fireplace on an usually windy night.
At first, it all seems like ridiculous excess — the colors, costumes, fire, and dinosaurs — but you walk away thinking about the absurdity of the real world. War is absurd. Trashing the environment is absurd. In creating a space to fly their burning freak flags, burners illuminate the real freaks. They aren't those camping on an oceanfront beach, but those tweeting from the White House.