Portland Burnout / Decompression 2010

Posted: October 24, 2010 in Burning Man 2010, the burn

Last night I attended my first Burning Man Decompression / Burnout in Portland.

This was on Saturday, October 23rd, one of those mid-fall nights where Portland received approximately 1 inch of rain in a 6-hour period. The event was held, appropriately, on SE Water avenue, in a few empty lots.

This was Burning Man in a swamp. Without the Man, the Temple, the community, or the playa.

I wondered, prior to attending this event, if the spirit of Eternus Metropolis could really be re-created anywhere else. I’ve heard a lot of talk about the spirit of Burning Man living on year-round, wherever Burners may be, without respect to their geography. Would this ideal hold up? Was this actually possible? Could you hold a Burning Man event next to a freeway off-ramp, in freezing drizzle, across the way from a transient camp, under the dim glare of vapor streetlights, and have just as much fun and wonder as you did on the playa? Could you rekindle that spark of community, despite the perennial dampness of the Pacific Northwest?

My answer is no. Or at least, not with the amount of effort that was brought to the party last night. The costumes were there, yes. The blinky lights and electronic music, and the dome tents. There was fire. There were alcohol and drugs. There was dancing. There were goggles and bandannas. And lots of awkward attempts to find pretenses under which to start and continue conversations. But there was very little real joy.

On the playa, I didn’t need any excuse to talk to anyone. Everyone I met was maximally open and maximally comfortable in their own skin.

Not so at Decompression. I arrived at around 8pm and found barely two dozen people there. My friend arrived closer to 9pm. Although we met and talked to many people, our conversation never got into the high territory of genuine connection. Our attempts to connect were stutter-starts. The interactions were thin, barely-there. People would utter a few words, make a few jokes that fell flat, and fall back into their own introspective reverie. Despite the trappings of the event, we weren’t having much fun.

My friend got hit on, and asked to go to a nearby dance club. Oh, right, this is Portland; if you don’t like the scene you’re in, just walk down the street a little ways, pay a cover charge, and enter a different environment. You can enter a different environment, but you won’t necessarily have a different experience. There is a fog of discontent nestled snugly around every “party” taking place in Portland tonight. Individual groups of party-goers may be having a grand time, but on the whole, we’re not really happy.

It’s okay; just change the channel. The illusion of choice leaves us thinking we’re staying entertained, but we’re really just staying unhappy — a fact that is masked by the illusion of our own agency.

The playa makes the event. It is the blank slate upon which everyone can project their dreams. When you arrive at the playa, you know for sure that you are sufficiently far away from the rest of the world that you truly are free to do anything you want (within reason). It does not matter that law enforcement is all around you at BRC; what matters is that you could walk miles in any direction and not encounter a Starbucks, or any other depressing reminder of our consumerist society.

The trappings of our society oppress us. At Decompression, it was impossible to get too heady or out-of-mind, because all you had to do was look up 30 degrees from the horizon, and there was a huge Verizon billboard. I am beginning to believe that it is only in the deep desert, or the great wilderness, that the anchors of mediocrity can be fully uprooted, and the human spirit can be released into its greatness.

This may be why so much hope and optimism is found in accounts from frontier settlers and geographic pioneers. They were the ones who confronted the undiscovered vistas, and ultimately confronted the terror of their own freedom under vast new skies.

The challenge of Burning Man is bringing the spirit of freedom that so liberates us on the playa back into a geography of oppression, when the modern concrete jungle closes in on us from every side. It’s like trying to keep a candle burning in a monsoon.

That is why nobody’s done it; that is why somebody must.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s