Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Burning Man Part 2: Things to do

It's amazing the things you see as you walk aimlessly around the Playa. Icthyosaur skeletons lie abandoned in the desert, a short walk away from a dance area ringed by the word LOVE, playing Sinatra tunes at all hours of the night. A naked man doing a performance piece with an array of blue and white umbrellas, the Hug Deli, where for the price of a compliment you can get your choice of an array of hugs (I got the Beverly Hills Air Kiss; L got the Gangsta Hug), an enormous, interactive Rubik's Cube.

An enormous, steampunk house on wheels. Rolling around the desert, occasionally stopping to disgorge an army of Victorian-era passengers, the Neverwas Haul was one of the more impressive Art Cars that drifted slowly across the cityscape. As the only motorized vehicles allowed in Black Rock City, the cars frequently serve as mobile dance parties, drifting around the cityscape festooned with glowing lights and attractive dancers. The Neverwas Haul was certainly one of the more impressive, but hardly the only car of interest. A giant, glowing rubber duck nearly ran us over one night, and an enormous reticulated bus done up as a sailing ship offered tours of the major art installations. A glowing mustache floated around, offering people rides (teehee) and an enormous birthday cake was there for your special birthday rides.

A minigolf course with toy dinosaurs and a motley assortment of obstacles because what better way to spend a week in the desert than by hitting Tom Cruise in the nuts with a golf ball?


And the rocket. The Rocket! Three stories tall, resting majestic on its launchpad, a fabulous relic of a grand, Buck-Rogersesque space age, laden with alien specimens, exotic launch controls and artists discussing in all earnestness how they intended to launch the vessel Friday night. They were working with "students from a New Zealand university", and were expecting to get a good one to three feet of altitude with their new, plasma-baffle rocket technology. I suppose it's not too surprising the number of people who believed them (including a particularly credulous Australian who warned us to keep our credit cards safely stowed away on the day of the launch).

No launch, of course, but a magnificent fireworks and pyrotechnics display to impress even the most jaded pyromaniac. (Tuesday evening, by the way, we were graced by an enormous display of fireworks at midnight, unannounced, and for no apparent reason).

... and there, in the background, nestled behind the elaborate, wire-frame artwork. A slide. An enormous slide. Three stories tall, twenty feet wide, and covered in astroturf. Grab a sheet of plastic, run to the top, jostle your way to the front, and barrel down in to a pile of large, foam blocks. No rules, no guidelines, so be careful not to collide with the slow-going guy ahead of you, who refused to get out of the way even as L yelled out warning. Stick around at the bottom for a few minutes to throw blocks back in to the pile for the benefit of the daring souls coming down behind you and marvel at the structure before moving on.

Admire the giant bunny and the giant birds' nest. Climb up inside it if you want to, relax on a couch, and look down over the expanse of desert.

Wander over to Thunderdome. Thunderdome, one of the more famous, longer-running institutions at Black Rock City. An excuse to break out of the happy, friendly, giving vibe of the institution. A chance to dangle from the ceiling on an elastic cable and beat the crap out of an opponent with a foam bat as bloodthirsty spectators crawl on the top of your geodesic cage and cheer you on. Two cheerleaders with a grudge to settle, a man dressed as the Green Lantern challenging yours truly, dressed as the Tick, to a duel, anyone. Climb in, let out your inner, violent psycopath and fight.

Not really my thing, I'll admit -- I've never found violent spectator sports particularly engaging and I walked away after two bouts. But climbing up on that dome, feeling the raging energy of the crowd around me. That was cool.

Too many other things to list. Just too many. I never got a picture of Root Society or Opulent Temple, the two major dance clubs that ship massive soundsystems, stages, and infrastructure to the middle of the desert and provide a huge, throbbing, week-long dance party.

I can't describe the genuine, moving, powerful experience I had in the Temple. Walking through the lotus-shaped building, looking at the memorials and testimonies that people had written to friends and family passed or passing, I was caught up and my normal, cheerful, cynical facade just dropped. I wish I had been there to watch it burn.

Too much else to list. Too much.

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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Burning Man Part 1: Praise

I was more than a little annoyed in the weeks leading up to our departure. I'd been given a good idea of what to expect from my friend F, who'd previously attended. Bring lip balm, sun screen, goggles, and saline nasal spray, she told us. Oh, and ex-lax. "Trust me".
The event is held in the middle of the desert, in the remotest possible part of Nevada. Occasionally the winds will pick up, raising huge clouds of dust to the point of white-out. Dust, by the way, which burns the skin due to its high alkali content.

The event organizers provide almost nothing in the way of services. When you show up, you're presented with a city layout, portapotties, and a place to buy coffee and ice. That's it. Attendees are responsible for their own food, water, supplies, everything.

And then there was the back of the ticket, which warned me in no uncertain terms that by attending, I was risking "serious injury or death".

I was so, so ready to be disappointed, and I mean that sincerely, without purpose of dramatic embellishment. I was pissed.

And this is what we encountered when we entered the gate, while waiting in a four-hour line to get inside.

Great.


But I was there, ticket in hand, supplies bought, and determined to give it a fair shot. After all, the alternative was to hop right back in the car and take that 14-hour car drive right back home.

The yurt provided my first moment of joy. We'd met up with our friends F and K, Voltroning our camps together to form a larger, more awesome super-camp, and K had done research into "hexayurts", a popular shade structure built entirely about of insulative siding and super-sticky tape.

It took us a day of dedicated labor, battling the high winds, dust, and complete lack of knowledge about how the hell the damn thing was supposed to fit together.


But we did it. And then, when we were done, we had a big, roomy, shaded area to rest in for the rest of our time there. And man, did I get attached to that yurt. It was a palatial enclosure, sheltered from the wind, heat, and, most importantly of all, dust. We spent hours upon hours in there, hiding from the windstorms, playing Outburst, and talking about nothing in particular.

I feel more attached to that damn yurt than to most of the apartments I've ever lived in.


Halfway through construction, we heard a cry coming from the nearby street: "Screwdrivers! Screeeeeeeeeeewdrivers!"

Two handsome gentlemen, clad in aprons and nothing else (nudity, you may have heard, being an important component of the event) were walking by, wheeling an ice chest and cooler, providing screwdrivers to anyone who wanted them.

This was my first real exposure to the Gift Economy, and it was weird. Attendees at Burning Man are not supposed to engage in commerce of any sort. No buying. No bartering. No trading. If you show up, you're expected to have something to provide to the community, and you're supposed to provide it willingly to the community, with no expectation of payment or compensation. This was, by far, the thing I was most expected to be disappointed by.

But, by god, it worked, and it was truly unsettling to experience. By and large, most people's gifts were small things -- stickers and medallions were popular. But then person after person would offer you free beer or ice cream and walk away, not even waiting for you to say thank you. Our next door neighbor brought a portable shower on his truck, trucking in 500 gallons of water with him to provide the gift of cleanliness. Other people provided elaborate pancake breakfasts.

And the art, of course, was a form of gifting. Massive structures carted in from hundreds of miles away. Multi-stage dance clubs, pumping out music and light at all hours in the morning. Lessons in tassel twirling, swing sets, mini-golf courses, free hug booths, incredible mobile art cars, flame-thrower shooting galleries, clothing boutiques. All provided by the attendees, without any thought of compensation, purely to contribute to the event.

I didn't expect it to work. I thought it would be a sham, a cute attempt at social bonding that would quickly backfire and fall apart.

But it worked. It really did. I was amazed.

Next post: pictures!
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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Burning Man Preview

I went to Burning Man recently with Joe and L. It was pretty fantastic, and I intend to write about the highlights in more detail when time allows. (Don't worry, readers of Joe's blog: some of my highlights will be totally different from his! And I have different pictures.)

At the moment, though, I'm involved in packing up my cute little studio apartment (how I'll miss you!), looking for apartments in LA (long story, but I don't yet have a place to live for the coming school year and I'm going to be in town in four days), and getting ready for the long drive home (one hour left!).

So, in the meantime, I leave you with this picture of one of the more awesome art exhibits we found on the playa. This spaceship was one of the more prominent features in the playa and served for a useful navigational landmark in our late-night wanderings. This shot was taken in the wee hours of the morning, after we successfully stayed up the entire night just to watch the sunrise. (That bright structure nestled up in the hills to the right, by the way, is the Man himself, standing ready for his imminent burn.)