Critical Tits

Tuesday, November 4, 2003 12.00am
Once a year thousands gather in the desert to create a wild utopian city where bikes rule, surreal art dots the flat landscape and 3000 topless women leg it all jiggle about for bikes.. Words: Nancy Black
For ten days at the end of summer, just over 30,000 unorthodox pilgrims migrate to the Burning Man festival in the inhospitable Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada, to the same place where Briton Andy Green broke the sound barrier back in 1997 aboard the Castrol Thrust SSC. But the pilgrims, or "burners", are not here to break land speed records, but rather to break stereotypes and provoke thinking.

Only a few 'art cars' approved by the Department of Mutant Vehicles are allowed to drive around Black Rock City, the fifth largest city in Nevada for ten days. "We got rid of cars. They are too alienating; it's not appropriate technology here," says Larry Harvey, one of the founders of Burning Man.

That leaves bicycles as king. You will need one to move around the four square mile area. While the speed limit for cars is set at 5 mph, bicycles can go as fast as you can. But you might want to slow down; there's definitely a lot to see. On Friday, around 3,000 topless women participate in the Critical Tits Bike Rally, named after the Critical Mass Bike Rally that invades the streets of San Francisco monthly.

Conditions are extreme for both people and machines, with searing temperatures and thick fine alkali dust, that when combined with wind creates blinding, inescapable dust storms. Perhaps that's the requirement to have the extreme transformation that most people seek here. Mobile phones don't work. Corporate advertising and even commerce are forbidden (what a relief).

Burners bring their own food and supplies and carry everything out, including every scrap of trash. Besides ice brought in daily and coffee and tea available at the caf in Central Camp, no commerce is allowed. Participants make things to give away, from an iced lemonade stand appearing out of the desert like some miraculous mirage (at night transformed into a bar offering cuba libres) to a tent (with a reeeaaally long line) offering 15 minutes of pampering (for men, by women).

Burning Man is about respect, sharing, trying new things and above all, leaving no trace behind. Even the burning art has layers of sand protecting the ground from scars. It's also about freedom, the freedom that Americans crave even more, since the Patriot Act was passed, limiting civilian rights. Big Brother is watching outside, but not at Black Rock City. Or at least, that's what burners would like to think. Conspiracy theorists may want to believe that FBI agents are there, camouflaged as fairies, writing down everyone's license plates/Nancy Black

Pics: Just a loose handful of the weird pics in this month's MBUK

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