Saturday, September 12, 2015

Burning Man 2015

I just got back from Burning Man. It was awesome. But what IS Burning Man? Some kind of week-long drug-fueled hippy rave in the desert? Well, if you want it to be. 


Burning Man is a choose-your-own-adventure in a brave, bold, experimental space. 70,000 people build a temporary city in the Nevada desert. For one week, at the end of August, Black Rock City is the third biggest city in Nevada. Burning Man has evolved a culture which is reflected by the 10 principles: Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-reliance, Radical Self-expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation, Immediacy. The rest of this blog is devoted to trying to evoke my experience in this environment.

In 2014 I went to Burning Man. To prove this wasn't a mistake, in 2015 I went again. While it's true you only get one shot to do something for the first time, this time I resolved to try/do different things and, as much as possible, avoid retreading the previous year's experiences.

Burning Man 2015 was themed "Carnival of Mirrors," with appropriately named streets and art. I went to my usual costuming effort with a strong emphasis on keeping out the sun - long pants and a labcoat.

Rather than deliver a blow-by-blow account of all the stuff I've already forgotten, I thought I'd break this up thematically, deliver a series of anecdotes, and then eventually peter out like moisture in the desert.

Flying to Burning Man is fast, convenient, and trendy. So I drove with a bunch of undergrad friends in a heavily loaded truck and trailer, cruising up the 395 through heat, smoke, and geology to camp at Mono Lake, before continuing the next day through Bridgeport, Carson City, Reno, etc and, turning off at Fernleigh, joining the 100 mile line. By the time we had cleared the gate (no catastrophic rain this time) and offloaded, it was early on Monday morning. I took my beautiful bike and rode all over the playa looking at early art installations and trying to catch up with people I didn't yet know.

In 2014 I had camped at the airport and associated with Phage within The Institute Village, helping out with the Tesla coil and the Dr Brainlove art car/mutant vehicle. In 2015 I answered an advertisement in the "Jackrabbit Speaks" Burning Man newsletter, and was, after a long, arcane ritual, inducted into Accaplaya, the Burning Man a cappella group (with mysteriously transposed letter doublings). Having arrived on Monday, we rehearsed on Tuesday, performed a gig at Center Camp (Wednesday), Crossroads (Thursday) and Jazz Cafe (Friday) as well as numerous 'walk and sing' engagements. On Saturday we struck the camp, watched the Man burn, Sunday ate the remaining bacon (well, about 10% of it), and on Monday I left. 

It is difficult to describe just how awesome it was to sing with Accaplaya. We'd wander into a camp and ask if we could sing them a song. Usually they'd respond with 'oh, okay' and sit back with bemused and skeptical looks on their faces. We'd play the note, count the time, and immediately enter into one of our five rehearsed songs, pitch perfect 6 part close harmony. We got to see their faces transition from surprise to shock to disbelief to wonder to joy to tears, finish the song, and then be showered with whatever they had available. Bacon, snacks, or tequila were always welcome. More than one guy said through tears he'd been coming to the burn for 17 years and it was the most amazing thing he'd seen. Another camp was having a Prom Night and perhaps a dozen women of all ages in incongruous fairy princess dresses insisted we stay and sing the whole set. Another camp spontaneously jumped up and started an instant dance party half way through a song, which none-the-less we managed. Do Nothing Camp gifted us a ride on their giant swing, to which you are attached by the ankles before being whirled upside down 50 feet high.

I rode wonderbike out to the airport a few times to catch up with old friends and, on Thursday, give a happy hour talk (at the Acme Bomb Company Bar) on 'the complete history of life, condensed'. On Monday, I found my 2014 friend D at the airport, where she'd been promoted from ride wrangler to head logistics manager - and had effectively built everything. She was a bit stressed out so I hung out for a few hours, built her dome (with a bit of help), and judiciously distributed a few back massages. On Wednesday I took someone I found looking lost out at a pipe organ installation to the airport for the virgin burner ritual, in which you make a dust angel, ring a bell, and scream "I'm not a virgin anymore". I had never done the ritual myself, so I jumped in too, though by this point I had already reached dust equilibrium.

Speaking of dust, most days were WINDY, gusting up to 60mph, and visibility sometimes dropped to three or four feet. Needless to say cycling in these conditions occasionally lapsed to Type Two fun. I found a few sheltered places, met interesting co-shelterees, and then (literally) scattered to the winds. I set up my tent on Monday, by Tuesday things in it were dusty. By Wednesday it was no longer apparent that my tent contained things at all, but they could be located by memory. Yes, I paid hundreds of dollars for the privilege!

Changing environments rapidly is something I always find disorienting and isolating. I do it anyway when I go on long trips, but Burning Man was no exception. The first few days had their ups and downs. By Friday I was getting into the swing of things, which was lucky because it was my 28th birthday! The rest of the weekend was extraordinary, and not just because the wind and dust died down. Nevertheless, when exploring the Temple, a mausoleum in honour of friends and family who have died during the previous year, it struck me as worthy of further thought that so many people, perhaps 200,000 in the US, total, had the means and inclination to identify more strongly with a highly temporary, artificial, unsustainable week in the Nevada desert, than with the rest of their lives. I'm not suggesting this is a bad thing, just interesting. I hope our society in the 'default world' continues to evolve towards greater acceptance and free expression.

One of the highlights of Burning Man is "Big Art". Big Art is art that is big. Sometimes REALLY big. There are hundreds of mutant vehicles, which are essentially rolling sculptures for transportation, music, and prestige. Static installations dot the playa, most of them trying to combine elements of both day and night. My personal favourites include large buildings or structures that require non-standard interaction, such as climbing. Phage brought another bigger, badder Tesla coil this year to produce fabulously noisy music. Flaming Lotus Girls brought their Serpent Mother installation, a popular gigantic burning snake skeleton that kept me warm for hours at a time. At intervals, its central egg would open and shoot out 50 foot long jets of coloured flames. At the far end of the city is a place called the pinhole, a shaded area where you can quietly relax on dusty carpet and chill during the heat of the day. Also in deep playa was a gigantic metal mesh sculpture of a woman who moved with breathing and posture - somewhat disconcerting when first noticed!

Many art pieces contain elements of interactivity. The Phage Tesla coil had its tempo controlled by a mechanism inside a lightning-protected cage. Another camp within The Institute, False Profit, brought their Battle Blimps to the playa. A large dome with radio controlled Hydrogen filled blimps that fought to the death with hot tapers on their noses. Phage's Dr Brainlove, a giant climbable brain with 20,000 computer/brain controlled LEDs all over it, returned, bigger and badder than ever.

Accaplaya camp, it turns out, is infested with Australians. No fewer than five of us were running around. This is a bit of a worry, as I have been chronically Australian deprived for years, going so far as to watch Jim Jeffries on YouTube for a dose of the vernacular. W, M, A, and C indulged my rapid slide back to mystifying Australian slang, and I thoroughly enjoyed telling stories of the old country with them all.

One of the nicest things about the burn this year was serendipity. 

One of my favourite things to do is to go to the post office (BRC3PO) and volunteer to deliver mail. And also drop off my addressed post cards, which hopefully will arrive at their destinations soonish! The person inside (who is also a volunteer) will give you a stack of perhaps half a dozen letters, divorce notices, blackmail messages, packages, whatever, and you get to deliver them. Perhaps 2/3 of them are pretty straight forward. Ride your bike to the address, locate the camp, locate the person, deliver the message. Watch the surprise and joy and this meaningful human interaction. It also helps you get into the more remote parts of the city and explore - you never know what you'll find.

About 1/3 of the letters are badly addressed and thus impossible to deliver. Well, not quite! You can take the letter to the computers at Playa Information and type the camp name, or the addressee's name, into the database and see what pops up. Usually, nothing. So, you check the map, ask around, gather clues, explore in likely looking regions of the city, and, sometimes, you find the destination and success is yours! On one occasion I was able to deliver a postcard with only a single name, but there's a better example I'm going to share here. I had a postcard addressed to someone at a camp called The Pink Hole (because we're all grownups here, except the kids), located (allegedly) at 1pm and Inner Circle. Well, there's a place called The V Spot there, but that's for organizing volunteers - it's not a camp. Someone thought it would be connected with Greeter Camp. After about 6 attempts to deliver this postcard over two days, I was back at Playa Info around midnight, and didn't want to get back on my bike right away, so I decided to walk around. In the back of the Playa Info shed was a room with pinking colouring - could that be it? Out the back was Lost and Found, still nothing. Beyond that, wandering around, I found a small cluster of hexayurts (heat resistant tents made of foam and mylar) and some people sitting around a food and drink-stuffed table watching the moon climb over the mountains. "Good evening, what camp is this?" "The Pink Hole". It had been hiding under my nose the whole time. I ended up discussing the merits of free-solo rock climbing with one of the ladies there for about an hour, and then went to bed. Over the week I was able to successfully deliver ALL the dead letters. 

What, you want more serendipity? My friend D, the airport logistics manager, was camped with Dogpilot, and they both managed to schedule a fight in Death Guild camp's Mad Max-themed Thunderdome on DPW family night to help them blow off steam. After this fight, which was, by all accounts, epic, D was cooling off in a nearby bar when two American Sign Language (ASL) speaking girls showed up. With a book, a pen, and some patience, they became firm friends. I later met the three of them at the airport while waiting to give my talk on the origins of life on Thursday, and we had a good chat. It turned out they had an ulterior motive to be at the airport - they were looking for the pink lady who organizes ride gifts. Well, last year, D wore a pink tutu and was the ride wrangler, and they found each other, after only about 3 hours of Twitter-like conversation.

One of the nicest surprises of the whole event was my friend C showing up on Saturday. Intermittent text message capability led us to meet up around 6, I managed to crash my bike with her on the handlebars shortly after, and she convinced me to stay one more day to drive back to LA on Monday.

In the meantime, Accaplaya struck camp and then departed en masse for the Man Burn. This is the biggest party ever. All the mutant vehicles circle up around the central sculpture, wooden, more than 100 feet high. At 9pm the festivities begin, only adding to the stochastic background of thumping techno. By 9:20 the Man raises his arms, the fireworks begin, several giant fireballs get things going, and then, eventually, the burning structure collapses. Not long after, robots cajole the burning pieces into a pile and the bacon cooking can begin. People sit around the house-sized pile of coals and celebrate the oxidation of a symbol representing (inter alia) parts of the former self best left behind. After the burn, I located the Serpent Mother, keeping warm as the night plunged towards freezing. They eventually put on their multicoloured flame-thrower show (possibly the third most awesome thing that happened that day), after which I hopped between burning art pieces for warmth before retiring for the night.

On Sunday, I enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere as more than half the city departed, MOOPed (picked up trash including stray hairs and splinters), explored the remaining art of the city. At dusk I made dinner from some pasta on my jetboil, finishing just in time to walk to the Temple burn. Unlike the previous night, people sit at the given distance, and shut up. The Temple celebrates the lives of departed friends, and the finiteness of human consciousness. Its burning is a time for relatively somber reflection. Unlike last year, both the Man and the Temple collapsed relatively quickly, the crowd moved in and began a very slow anti-clockwise circling walk around the burning embers. Post burn, I located the EDM (electronic dance music) confinement zone, and like moths to the flame followed the Robot Heart art car. 

Words cannot convey just how awesome (in every sense) this creation is. Perhaps originally a bus, today Robot Heart is a wall of 24 inch sub-woofers with high-fi mid range and tweeter cones on the side, which can produce probably 130dB from 1Hz to 30kHz with no distortion. Arriving early in the night, the music was still relatively light and trancey. At some point the bass kicked in like thunderclouds rolling through the landscape, and I retired to a more boppy location beneath an amazing laser light show. I shed my insulation and danced until the dust was hammered to mirror smoothness. 

Monday was time to depart. Dusty human and gear moved smoothly across the playa as the already-hollow remnants of Black Rock City receded into the distance. In a Reno cafeteria, I marveled at: floor! ceiling! walls! doors! windows! lack of dust! electricity! running water! internet! soap! flushing toilets! food that wasn't bacon!

The dust persists. I will find it in my things for months to come. But even if I never go to Burning Man again, will the dust ever leave my mind?

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