“Burn! Quema! Burn!”
It was the Monday night of the long carnaval weekend, and I was standing in a crowded soy field on the final night of Aurora, the first Burning Man-style event in South America.
Two hundred people, most from Buenos Aires, had made the 220km trek to a secret lakeside location for a long weekend of art, music, and participation.
Over four days, people made kites, practised yoga, drummed, cooked, feasted, swam, and made new friends. There were jujitsu demonstrations, two lavishly-costumed weddings and live music from all sides of the map: psychedelic rock to thrash metal to lush acoustic harmony. More than anything, there was buena onda, all weekend long. Like the North American counterpart, words can suggest the totality, but not fully describe it.
So how did three guys who have never been to Burning Man bring the gospel of the Ten Principles to Argentina? And how did they convince a random mob of strangers to spend their holiday weekend in a field in the middle of nowhere?
‘Someone Had To Do It’
Fernando Regalado, 33, heard about Burning Man years ago, working on a video shoot at Iguazú Falls. One night, over beers, an American in the crew opened his laptop and showed Regalado photos from Black Rock City. He was transfixed.
“Someone had to do it,” says Regalado, humbly dodging the critical fact: nobody did it, until they did.
Years later, he showed the photos to Mauricio Matheus, 35, at a party. If Regalado is Aurora’s brain, Matheus is the festival’s heart.
“In the city, everything is consumption and capitalism. People do not look into each others’ eyes,” he says, his deep brown ones locked on mine. “Everything is bad. Everyone thinking all the time about money. Outside of the city, in nature, people can be free. This is the moment. Transformation.”
To what? “Evolution of feelings, meaning. Here in Argentina, we complain all the time. We criticise, but we do not do. It is time to become a society of action. Everyone involved, everyone an artist.”
“Community,” adds Emiliano Gonzales Portino, the third and final member of the organising team. Two years ago, he left his well-paid advertising job to write and direct plays. He passed Regalado and Matheus, whom he had known years before, on a bike ride. He waved, they waved. A week later, he was in the countryside, scouting possible locations for the festival. “Bonding and joining in a real way. We cannot change the world, but we can help to change people.”
Numerous people wrote to ask what the lineup was, or what would happen there. Only what you bring, they were told. You will see whatever you build, create, dream up, without the usual tools and no sponsors. Everyone participating, no spectators. Everyone an artist, at any level, in any way.
It may have been just a camping trip, but… You talk to them and you believe. The world can change. Argentina can change. Everything is possible.
The Spark Begins
A bit of Burning Man background: from its chaotic start as performance artists on a camping trip, the North American event has evolved into a global, year-round organisation, henceforth referred to as BMOrg.
BMOrg is now an established institution, with more than 50 paid staff, offices, accountants and even lawyers. They also maintain a global network of regional contacts to spread the word, organise events, and keep in touch with Burners everywhere.
As their planning progressed, the Aurorans reached out to the local BMOrg contact, Martin Marquez. At two meetings in November, the trio described their dream, asked for connection to headquarters in the north, and invited him to participate.
Marquez, who also dreams of bringing ‘Burner’ culture to Argentina, did not think it was possible with a group that had never been to the main event, and were not schooled in the principles. “Leave no trace, gifting, these are not established concepts here. People may not be as open to strangers or offbeat art experiences,” he says. Also, in those early days, there were still plenty of organisational issues to figure out.
Marquez declined. The Aurorans forged ahead, regardless. It was a classic case of being told that you cannot do something, not believing it, and doing it anyway.
They surveyed various sites, always coming back to the lakeside near Bragado. There were problems: one visit the shoreline was dry, but the next, it was under water. A stand of trees was ideal for a shady gathering area, except that it was covered with thick, waist-high grass. They planned a late-night dance area far enough away from the main camp so that people could sleep, which meant that they needed a path between them.
Plus, they did not yet have a Man to burn – the ceremonial highlight of the event.
One by one, problems were solved. A month before the event, two people who read about it on Facebook, Ezekiel Harsanyi and Jato Cheko, appeared out of nowhere and offered to build a Wickerman. Bands asked how much they would be paid to play. They were told that they would not be paid, they would have to bring all of their own gear, and unfortunately, that the organisers were too cash-strapped to offer free tickets to musicians. The bands came anyway.
The core team arrived five days early, and worked morning until night, preparing the grounds for the event. Fabric was stretched between trees to create an outdoor cathedral effect. The grass was cut. Lights were strung, tents raised, and painted mannequins strewn across the landscape. A truckload of porta-loos arrived. Seven Red Cross volunteers set up a tent for on-site medical service. (The most serious injury was a finger cut while opening a can.)
Outside of camp, in the soy field, a circular clearing was cut. The Man rose.
Finally, cars began to bump down the rutted road and unload: portable parillas, vanloads of musical gear, projection equipment, martial arts mats. The first night, a psychedelic band played by the man. The Brits in the camp put on their raver gear. Drummers painted their faces. There were more musical instruments, it seemed, than people.
Aurora was on.
Over the next three days, there were bands (Vidrio, Van Daniken Experience, Las Casas) and homegrown music of all types. At least two new love affairs started and at least one Surreal Moment occurred per day: a freakily-dressed guy handed me a nut which looked wholly ordinary but, when cracked open, had a paper printed with a zen koan inside. A plane, out of nowhere, appeared over the soy and flew the length of the camp so low that I thought he might clip the tent tops. DJs played. Workshops. Hours with nothing to do but fly kites.
Don’t Call It Burning Argentina
The event was billed as both Aurora, and as ‘Burning Argentina’. The online post that caught my eye promised, “The very first Burning Man experience in South America.” The tag line worked. Had it been called anything else, I would never have sent an immediate email to the contact address with the subject line: ‘Puede Ser?‘
Four days before the event, BMOrg caught wind of what was going on and had a few legal-sounding words for the organisers. This is not as Machiavellian as it may sound: one of BMOrg’s key functions is protecting the brand and reputation of Burning Man, and preventing unscrupulous third parties from cashing in on the name by selling t-shirts, jewellery, and other schwag with the BM name or logo.
When they heard about Burning Argentina, they sent what may be the world’s nicest cease-and-desist letter, requesting that the local organisers stop using the Burning Man name, logos, etc. They complied, and Aurora was born.
Aurora Vs Burning Man
Was Aurora like Burning Man of today? No. Do the organisers mind? Not one bit.
Burning Man draws 60,000 people, many of whom spend large parts of their year preparing for the event. The magnitude and variety of the art defies comprehension. The bigger dance domes dwarf the largest clubs in all of Argentina. Many attendees are bound to each other through years of history and self-invented tradition.
Yet Burning Man, too, was once small. When I first stumbled across the event, in the first of 14 visits, in 1991, there were approximately the same number of people as in Aurora.
The biggest difference was not green fields vs. desert, it was the lower level of ‘edge’. Missing were the guns, nudity, explosions, heroic drug consumption, overt danger, and deliberately amplified freakiness. One afternoon, at Aurora, a group of us went for a swim in the lake. Wearing swimsuits.
“Of course, it will be different,” says Regalado. “We are Argentines, not Americans. We think in limits.”
“We do not need people to be freaky,” adds Portino. “Some of that comes from ego, and we do not need that.”
Matheus, as he often does, sums it up: “We want people to explore, but also to be comfortable and loved. Besides, people need to learn. There are no role models for this here.”
To be fair, many of these activities have been ironed out of Burning Man, also. Genuinely dangerous activities are frowned upon, so guns, bombs, and late-night high-speed drives are banned. People use drugs, but the police presence is so heavy that overt displays, or accepting offers from a stranger, are out.
The Spark Lives On
Where do they see the event heading? On one hand, they do not want to reach too far, too fast. “I like small. I would not want it to grow too quickly. We are still learning lessons,” says Regalado.
Next year, there is talk of a large communal truck, which will make transporting elaborate camps and large scale art much more possible. As always, everything depends upon the people. The US event is a hodgepodge of overlapping groups: artists, builders, hippies, musicians, ravers, kinks, and queers. Will they all find their way to Aurora? If the organisers reach out to them, will they come? Does it even matter, in the early years, who shows up, as long as someone does?
The Nevada desert has a power to strip away pretense and embellishment, and lay bare what would otherwise remain disguised. A dramatic setting of that magnitude is not necessary, but it helps. Argentina is rich in deserts, but how far will porteños travel?
The Aurorans hope that people will take a bit of magic back to their everyday lives. It has already changed theirs. Nearly a month later, they are still smiling. Regalado and his wife have tickets for this year’s event in Nevada. Potino will attend Going Nowhere, one of the best of the regional events, this summer in Spain.
Before Aurora, they hoped that another world, where art replaced greed and people practised compassion instead of capitalism, might exist, even for a few days. Now, they know.
The Man Burns
On the final evening, drums sounded in camp. A slow, laughing procession ambled down the path, through the trees, and ended at the Man. Torches were lit. Firelight shimmering across their faces, the organisers approached their creation. Flames caught, paused, rose.
Gracefully, the Man burned.
Far to the north, this is the cue for wild abandon. Dancers whirl, drummers pound, eyes go starry with visions and, for many, it is the moment when the old year passes and the new year begins.
At Aurora, the crowd was unsure. Some cheered, some laughed. Everyone knew that this was ‘the moment’, that there was meaning, but not exactly what it meant. Finally, the figure fell and folks filtered back to the dance area or their camps. Following the bacchanalia of the two previous nights, the last evening was relatively quiet. Just before dawn, the rain began.
People huddled under tents in the grey light, sipped mate, stared at the rain, and packed. It was a quiet crowd, compared to the last few days, but a happy one.
By then, earlier questions no longer mattered: whether this was or wasn’t Burning Man, who you came with, who you knew before. It was Aurora, now. The first one ever.
I walked out, soggy and satisfied, with two people unknown to me a weekend earlier, but who were now friends.
Lead image by Jato.Cheko Photography.