by Danielle Mario

The still and dark lecture room played against the subjects of burning effigies, throbbing rave music, and a makeshift city in a barren desert.

“Picture a city materializing in the Black Rock Desert – 120 miles from Reno, Nevada.   Appearing for a week, which it has done since 1990.  Then, after a week, starting to disappear again back into the desert,” said St. John, a postdoctoral fellow and cultural anthropologist in the Fine Arts Faculty at the University of Regina.

The mirage is known as Black Rock City, heart of the annual Burning Man Festival.

St. John was delivering the second lecture of this year’s U of R Fine Arts, titled, “Dancing at the ‘Meta-Rave’: Burning Man”.

The festival centers around artistic projects, music, counter-culture reminiscent of the 60s, and the centerpiece ? a giant wooden figure that is set ablaze on the last Saturday evening.

Before the lecture began, a few attendees and St. John himself excitedly hovered around an aerial photo of the massive radial campsite, pointing out where their tents were during the 2008 weeklong festivities, which ended on Sept. 1.

St. John attended Burning Man in 2003, 2006, and most recently this year.

“My first Burning Man moment was the first night we got there (in 2003),” he said. “I found myself on roller skates on a full-sized roller rink in the middle of the desert, and they were playing some late 70s disco hits.”

The thrice veteran of the festival says the event has been called an experiment in community, an exercise in radical self-reliance and radical expression, and a canvas for artists of cross-disciplines.

But with radical community comes tension, he said.

St. John indicated that there are conflicts between the “ravers” and those that are there for the artistic and cultural experience – or “burners.”

Despite the presence of those who are there for the dancing and drug culture, St. John says that there are significant differences between Burning Man and your typical dance party.

“It has never been and will never be a rave,” he said. “It’s been called a ‘meta-rave’ - a hyper rave.

“It’s a city that has been designed to be a party city.”

He adds that despite this, the heart of the party city is a musical blend that lasts the entire week.  Neo-tribal house rhythms, trance, break beats, hip-hop, experimental soundscapes, and every other imaginable dance genre vibrate the desert. 

St. John pointed out the colourful periphery of coloured lights on vehicles that surround the inner circle of the campground.  He said that the lights are a tradition, along with go-go cages and mutant cars, such as the Purple Palace and Space Cowboys.

One of the most famous vehicles is the laser-eyed Disco Duck.

“Constructed upon an armoured amphibious assault vehicle, an instrument of warfare was proclaimed and transformed into a pleasure machine,” said St. John. “That’s part of the fascinating thing of its design.”

Maria Olinik, who works at the MacKenzie Art Gallery and attended the lecture, participated in Burning Man this summer.

“I mainly went for the art and music,” she said. “I saw the big duck, but I didn’t know much about the conflict between ravers and burners. It’s just not a very focused event.”

Both Olinik and St. John both say it’s hard to explain something that is no longer there.

It all just becomes a part of history when Black Rock City disappears back into the desert at the festival’s end, which is one of the key principles of the festival. Organizers sweep the site of MOOP – materials out of place – to make sure there is no trace left behind.