Burning Man vs. Decompression: A Heated Investigation

All photos by Misha Kutuzov

Decompression is a touchy subject, especially in Burning Man’s hometown of San Francisco. This year I was exhausted and cranky as I got ready for the annual 13th Annual Decompression Heat the Street Fair. But tradition is tradition (not to mention I was assigned to write this article) and so I donned my fishnets, lace lingerie and furry kitten gear, downed some tequila, and got ready to hit the streets.

I have a love/hate relationship with Decompression parties. Or maybe hate is too strong a word; let’s say love/dislike relationship. On one hand: any opportunity to dance in the streets dressed like a kitten and celebrate playa magic and connections is always a good idea. On the other hand: the vibe of Decompression seemed to me to always exist amidst a haze of psycho-party-entitlement, stemming from a combination of attendees burnt out from a summer of festivals and raging it, mixed with a sense that this is the last real chance to go all out like champions until festival season starts up again in the Spring.

Maybe some of these negative feelings I had began back in 2007. I remember coming home from my first Burn and feeling lost in a cold and sad world. I counted  down the days until Decompression where I would be with my people again. I rushed there as fast as I could after work, but still only arrived after the sun had set. I was broke and remember being pissed that it was still $10  to get in even though there was only a few hours left of the all-day event and I tried to bargain for half price admission. “It’s for the cause,” said the girl at the gate in a pretentious voice. I felt so disillusioned as I handed her my last ten dollar bill. So you fundraise all year so for one week we don’t have to spend any money? What’s the logic in that? This energy needs to exist all year long, not just on the Playa!

“It’s like a hot apple pie without ice cream,” said my friend, Bhima, of Decompression.

And yes, when you compare the one day street party in the industrial area of San Francisco to the life changing week in the Black Rock Desert, there is a large separation. How can you compare chlorinated pool to the infinite salty ocean, a stray feather to a winged bird, or an electric light bulb to the sun’s rays? Decompression is but a tiny taste of all the energy and intention that goes into Burning Man, and much like the Burn itself, the experience is the responsibility of the participants.

In all my years of attending Decompression parties, I never really took the time to step back and analyze it like I did this year, but I’m glad that I did, because now I see it’s attributes and failures from a fresh perspective. Regardless of its drawbacks, there are magical elements of Burning Man present at Decompression. As soon as I entered the gates this year I was greeted with a giant hug from a lovely woman named Ruth, who was volunteering her time as a hug greeter. Her energy and vibrancy touched me as deeply as that feeling you get when pull off highway 447 and know I am almost home.

“Once I get back from the Burn I can’t wait for Decompression. It helps to be with friends… strangers…. We are all one after all! And through hugs we can share our love and our message to everyone, regardless if we have gone to Burning Man or not.” And with her words I became humbled. All of my jaded this is just a big party and this is really nothing like Burning Man faded away into an examination about what exactly we are trying to accomplish with our community experiments in BRC. Because, after all -as I preach often- what is the point of it all unless we can bring these ideals home to the default world and do something with them? If Burning Man is treated like a giant party then that is all it will turn into. If Decompression is treated like a giant party then that is all that it is. But if we take the time to reach deeper and use what we have learned in the desert, then we can continue what was started and allow the messages to spread exponentially outward, and not only be contained to the elite 50,000+ who can make it out the actual event every year.

For some, the Decompression events are an introduction into Burning Man community and culture. Just before sunset I was dancing with a group of shirtless gay boys around a stripper pole when I saw a man holding a giant smoky quartz crystal above the crowd. I’m a sucker for crystals, and so I decided to introduce myself. I found out his name was Stephan and he told me about his transient life and how he had ended up in California following the band Furthur (which gave me an instant affinity to him because my parents met following the Grateful Dead out to California, but that’s another story). He was on the bus in San Francisco heading out to the Bluegrass Festival when he saw some sexy freaks heading out to the event, started talking to them, said “These are my kind of people,” and accompanied them out to Decompression. Maybe next year you’ll meet him on the playa.

I had a heart changing conversation with my friend Vishnu’s 63-year old mother, Lea, who had come out to support her son and get an idea of what he was involved in. We sat at a round table in Club Cocomo amidst crowds of decked out Burners, and I sobered up as I listened to this wise woman speak of memories of her youth, and seeing the same energy thrive in her son’s life. “I remember how things were in the 1970’s; hitchhiking, exploring the world, and trusting other people. I remember hoping our children would get to experience what we started back then; about loving each other, loving the planet, and experiencing a collective consciousness of love. We were so worried that our kids would never get a chance to experience what we felt, but by being here now I can see that they do understand that energy, and it is still alive and thriving.” She spoke more about having such a respect for a culture that did away with money, if only for one week, and embraced freedom of artistic and individual expression without any judgment.

My eyes and heart were being opened, even as I held back my tears. Maybe I had fresh eyes this year because this was also my first year going to Decompression without having first gone to Burning Man. Maybe I saw the event as its own entity this time rather than endlessly comparing it to the real thing. I met a married couple, Eduardo and Liberad, who had also taken this year off but still attended because they wanted to stay a part of the community. “We feel this community, although a bit wacko, can offer something to modern society. Parties are a modern place to socialize and this is a good event for people. It brings people together and gives them a place to fully express themselves.”

One wonderful thing about the Burning Man community on-playa is the alliance of so many international tribes gathering. The Decompression events, however, are a chance for local tribes to really come together. Wandering near the Space Cowboys and Camp ? stages, I found my old friend and incredible artist, Seth McMahon, taking a break from working on a giant live art piece, and he summed up my thoughts about the subject perfectly: “Burning Man is a collection of many tribes and SF Decompression is a collection of San Francisco tribes. This is our time to represent San Francisco community!”

Throughout the day I was rediscovering the Decompression event, and realizing it is just another platform for us to celebrate what we learn at Burning Man and harness our learnings by spreading them outward. It already has all the groundwork laid out as a perfect place to build community; we have the people, the art, everything, now we need to stop comparing it to Burning Man and embrace it for what it is. Like anything else out there, it’s all about intention. I went to Decompression for years expecting a giant all-day celebration, and that’s what I got out of it. This year I went in wanting to dig a little deeper, and when I did I found something deeper. It made me wonder how many other things in my life I have been taking at surface value.

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