Archive for January, 2011

The difference between Americans and Brits. Burning Man versus Reading Festival

January 5, 2011

I’ve been lucky enough to live and work in the US, having  been born and raised in London, and i occassionally find myself in barroom conversations about the differences between English people and Americans. The longer i live here, the more they evaporate. Americans have toasters these days, lots of them drink tea (“what kind of tea would you like sir?”, “err..just tea“) and you can now buy ranch dressing in Tescos (paul newman RIP). Clothes are no longer so much cheaper in the US that you can pay for your flight with savings on a christmas shopping trip, and British people only think the weather is better in america because they only visit Florida, Vegas and California. in fact a good proportion of america has winters bleaker than scotland.

But there remain subtle differences in outlook, and by way of a comparison I’m gonna compare Burning Man versus Reading Festival; both of which, i love. At first glance there’s a lot on common. Each is a festival with about 50,000 people, paying about £180 a ticket for a four day bender. Things that separate the British and American approach run much deeper.

What’s the point of these festivals? Well, Burning Man is ostensibly about art and radical self expression. Translated, it’s a festival without bands. So what do you do all day? Most of the time you do what you’d be doing at Reading when you’re not watching the bands – getting pissed, having transient interactions with strangers and completing missions (e.g., get water from the car, find a place to skin up, break into the main arena). At burning man the equivalent of the main arena is ‘The Playa’, a 2 mile diameter circle of desert on which regulars have built giant art works and drive around on ‘mutant vehicles’.

The desert is, strangely, an attraction in itself, with the savage environment becoming a core part of the Burning Man experience. It’s in the middle of nowhere, a six hour drive to San Francisco, where it seems like a lot of the Burners are from (this is burning man jargon for a visitor. MOOP is ‘matter out of place’. Even a festival built on anti-commercialism can’t help branding). Once you’ve made it there, the alkaline sand starts attacking your skin, and dust relentlessly works its way into your clothes, your skin, your eyeballs, your car. From the minute you arrive you’re locked in a day and night battle against petrification; constantly looking for shade and water to fight the desert. People that have been there a week normally look like they’re dead.

Reading, on the other hand, is in a field near the station. And even though the Burning Man environment is antagonistic, everyone loves to take care of it. ‘Pack in, pack out’. ‘Leave no trace’. They have no bins, so you have to carry your empty beer cans back to the car, and take it home. People are amazingly good about it – a city of people 4 miles wide and no trash in sight. Reading has bins all over the place, and yet the ground is carpeted in cups and cans, like the discarded fuel tanks of a rocket ship on it’s way to space.

People aren’t just nice to the planet in BM, they’re nice to each other. Burning man goes as far as having a gift economy in which nothing is bought or sold. ‘Take what you need, and more to give away’. Now let me tell you a story from Reading. Someone stole my shoes from outside my tent one night, literally inches from my head. They were my only pair. No worries says Chud, ‘what size are you?’ and a few minutes later I had a new pair of shoes. That night my stolen shoes got stolen, and I ended up going home wearing the feet cut off an inflatable plastic alien, with duck tape for soles. Burning man has a gift economy; Reading has a theft economy.

One unique thing about Burning Man is that you somehow feel invested in the festival itself. Burners build camps which more often than not have a bar to which everyone’s welcome. Sit in our hammock and drink our beer! Reading has a free bar to some degree, but it does require the rigmorole of pretending to order a second round of drinks and then darting into the crowd without spilling the first lot. Both organisations must take in well over £8m in revenue, but Reading seems to have inadvertently established itself as a corporation ready for war, where Burning Man has you feeling like a patron for their charity. The fact they tried to name Reading “the carling weekend” (or something), the systematic abandonment of the toilets, the security twats looking down from their patrol towers. Like in Das Experiment; if you get cast as the prisoner, you start acting like it. Except now you’re breaking in not breaking out. Soundcheck goes on too long? bottle the band! Toilets are rotten? Burn them! Reading has a longstanding friction between organisers and guests. Breaking in is a sport (walking backwards through the exit is a favourite), and bottling acts offstage has been going on since (according to wikipedia) Bonnie Tyler got pegged in the head by a baying mob.

Burning Man feels a community rather than a corporation, and you find yourself willing it to succeed. It’s particularly bad form, for example, to sell a ticket to Burning Man at more than face value, and you wouldn’t get high fives for busting over the fence. At the end of burning man everyone crowds round, gets stoned and watches a 50ft effigy burn. The next day you pack up the RV, hug your neighbors (sic) and leave no trace. On the last night of Reading everyone crowds round a burning toilet block and does their part to instigate a riot. The last day is a four-day rollover hangover with no snooze button, so everyone must leave immediately. It’s the opposite of Leave no Trace, and you typically leave everything.  Get the fuck out, Do Not Pass Go, just set your £19.99 Argos tent on fire and speed away to reveal a car shaped footprint of rubbish. The endless sea of destruction and the sound of fire engines failing desperately to stay on top of the flaming carnage is actually my favourite part of Reading. Burning Man is like a Mad Max fancy dress party in good humour, but Bank Holiday Monday at Reading is the fucking apocalypse; a genuine window into what total dystopian meltdown will look like.

 

Burning man is about creating, and Reading is about creating havoc. I stumbled drunk into a tent at BM with a nude model surrounded by rows and rows of people silently sketching on paper and charcoal. how lovely! Here’s another scene; A crowd of mostly strangers are around a guy passed out at Reading, inserting cigarette butts behind his ears and in his mouth (like a living game of Operation) and decorating his face with whiskers and cocks. Eventually someone takes out his actual cock and colours his bellend black with a permanent marker. You know, it’s harder to argue it’s art but there is something ingeniously creative in the squalor.

It boils down to this.  Remember this chart, from school? the idea, i think, is that you start at the bottom needing to sort the basics out like shelter and food, then you can get a family, and eventually get one of those wristbands like madonna.

To the people who go to Burning Man, it’s much more than a festival. It’s not just a chance to bosh mushrooms and dress the trip up as trancendence; to relive your frat house days in your own bar; to play Scrapheap Challenge with some propane canisters. It’s about ascending this pyramid, and bettering yourself. Reading, and i’d go out on a limb and say British weekends in general, are about unashamedly plundering the depths of the pyramid, unraveling into a world of mind-numbing drugs, setting stuff on fire, fucking and passing out.

 

Here’s where we get to the difference between Brits and Americans. In actual fact, we end up at the same place, but we get there in a different way. in both cases, we’re going away for the weekend and getting trashed, but in doing so the Americans are finding themselves and the Brits are losing themselves. Burning Man is about unleashing your inner philosopher creative, and Reading is about unleashing your inner sid vicious. After a British festival you continue to celebrate the depths to which you plummetted (“Heavy weekend… i’m too old for this! ” [translated] “i am still a rockstar”).

Americans are an optimistic bunch, who bond through creation and community and want to better themselves. British people are cynical and bond through communal misery, but it’s laced with a sense of humour so dark that it’s funny. A group of Brits trying to rock a security van over are as bound in that moment as a group of hippies in a sunset drum circle. Ask a stranger at a party in america what they do and they’ll make it sound good, like “I look after an up and coming office supplies store. here’s my card, you should come by if you’re in the neighbourhood”. Equivalent Brit is more likely to say, embarassed, “I work at staples. it’s shit”.

Sometimes I’ve felt like maybe Americans are smug about their profound sense of self-awareness, but they’re really not. We might cynically believe that Burning Man is simply a chance to get fucked up in the desert and play out a mid-life crisis in good company. But the truth is, even if it is, they don’t realise it and do it in good faith. And the sum of that much positivity is warming, even to the most miserable Brit. And for all it’s gnarliness and discomfort, there’s something brilliant about Reading too that brings me back.

It’s like how it’s raining back home in london, and i’m kind of looking forward to it. Yeah i know, it rains in america too, it’s just that here someone will probably say something unbearably cheery like “the yard’s sure lovin’ this!”. ugh.

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