elliptical billion halls

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So I made it back from Burning Man around 36 hours ago. Not exactly tanned and rested--more like caked with dust and all tensed up--but that's a good state, really. It was incredibly physically taxing, even more this year than most years (major sandstorms, punishing sun during the days, etc.), but phenomenal. And the biggest ever, with 35,000 people there at its peak. And during the day, you could look anywhere around you and see magnificent mountains, if there was't a dust storm whiting out everything more than three feet in front of your nose; at night, you could look up and see the stars, the stars, the stars, all of them: the Vault of Heaven of this year's theme.

A little geographical/cartographical note for those of you just tuning in: Burning Man is an annual, weeklong art festival, held on a totally flat prehistoric lakebed in the middle of the Nevada desert. The city is in a horseshoe shape, describing 2/3 of a circle, at the center of which is the Man, who this year stood on top of a geodesic dome, itself on top of an "Observatory." The city runs from the 2:00 to the 10:00 position on the circle, with curved streets that begin at a radius of roughly a mile (?) from the Man and follow at 1/10-mile intervals: first the Esplanade, then Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, etc., all the way out to Sedna (not enough proper planets). There are also radial streets at 2:00, 2:30, 3:00, etc.; at the point where 12:00 and Esplanade would be if the Esplanade extended that far, there's a "keyhole" installation, and then a mile past that is the center of the Temple, and then "deep space" for another mile or so, scattered with occasional small installations.

I did my first-ever installation piece, "Sound Sun Pleasure!!," whose final form was not exactly what I'd originally conceived, but I was okay with it--a tiny little crawlspace (made from a child's instant-assemble tent), just big enough for one medium-sized person who liked himself or herself very much, with stuff scribbled all over it inspired by Sun Ra's cosmology, plus a little lighting setup (that didn't last very long, see below), plus a sound system that played Ra around the clock, plus a Polaroid attached to the wall for people to take self-portraits and leave them there (from which I scored a couple hundred nice pictures). It was located at roughly where 10:45 and Jupiter would've been. Things I liked about it: it was small, homely-not-homey, and clearly hand-altered from available materials, as opposed to the cool lines and designery perfection of a lot of other artworks there; it formally echoed Ra's imperfect handmade science fiction alien-utopianism in a couple of fun ways (and, I realized after the fact, Tracey Emin's tent); it was a sound installation so quiet you literally had to crawl into it to realize that it was there, but once you locked ears onto it that was all you heard and the thumpy-thumpy of the west deep playa went away. Things I disliked about it: it was kinda too small, prefab and misshapen to be worthy of notice; thanks to my technological ineptitude, I had to go out and recharge the battery for an hour three times a day, which got to be a serious hassle; it seemed somehow conceptually incomplete and a little amateurish compared to its big-budget brethren. I mean, it was like 600 feet away from "White Noise," which.. I'll get to.

Also: I installed "Sound Sun Pleasure!!" on Monday evening. Tuesday night I biked out to its site to recharge the battery, and discovered that somebody had stolen everything that wasn't nailed down (or locked inside the heavy chest that held a lot of gear at one end), including most of the lighting setup, and ripped the Polaroid camera off the wall. Despairing and fuming, I mentioned this to the next group of people that came by to look. "Oh, really!" one of them said. "You know what? I actually brought my Polaroid camera out here, and I didn't bring any film--I had no idea what to do with it. Come by my camp and you can have it." So I did, and chained it to the chest. It worked fine... until Friday, when I went out to discover that it had expired from the dust and heat. Oh the hell with this, I decided, and started to take the whole installation down. Just then, a man drove by with a shaved-ice cart that was playing hot '20s jazz, and gave me a cherry ice. I muttered something about "goddamn busted good-for-nothing Polaroid," and he said "actually, you know what, I just happen to have a spare Polaroid camera right in this here ice cart, here you go..." Black Rock City providence!

Way up this year: bling of all kinds--just an astounding array of stuff that glows, shimmers, flickers and illuminates. Also, more music everywhere than ever before, some of it quite good. Two roller discos. Multiple hip-hop clubs; you'd be amazed at how perfect Nas' "Made You Look" sounds at 10 AM at desert-shaking volume. Radiohead freaking everywhere--even a deep-playa installation that was basically just four poles and speakers outlining a slow-dancing area (with iinstructions) was playing "Karma Police." Several giganto clubs playing the very blandest kind of techno, the kind that makes me sing "Badger Badger Badger" to myself, ad infinitum, helplessly. One chill-space, the Hookahdome, that was often playing some awesome rai outside.

This was the year I realized that not only did I not have to do, see & experience everything, but that there was no hope at all of getting to even a tenth of what was there, and that I'd be much happier if I simply spent a bunch of time wandering, doing stuff that struck my fancy, and passing by whatever didn't. It made me pretty laissez-faire about some things I should have been more attentive to (note to all my friends who told me where you were camped and then I never showed up there--I probably came around at least once to see you, but didn't make the point I should've made of coming by repeatedly), but generally more relaxed.

Best art piece, as is rapidly becoming traditional, was the Temple: David Best's "Temple of Stars," which was a quarter-mile long and MINDBLOWING. (I may link to a better photo once pictures start going up.) Also really good: Emily Trutt's "White Noise," a tiny little white house with a white picket fence and a white door and a white tree out front and a white bed and cabinet and shelf and totally white books inside, and when you closed the door there was eerie white light and quiet white noise... but unfortunately you generally had to go there during the day, since at night people figured out very quickly that it had a functional bed and a closeable door. And not nearly enough figured out that it had a LOCKABLE door. Oops.

As much as I adore everybody in my camp, our communal shade structure collapsed on Wednesday, and I think we all understood it as a metaphor. I was in Camp EverythingMustGo!, a wholly owned subsidiary of Beaucoup Bucks Camp, in Asylum Village, which is another way of saying that we were a sub-sub-group of a community that was mostly New Yorkers, and that our subgroup was devoted to playing with the idea of money and commerce on the playa (since one of the things Burning Man is justly proud of is that there is no commerce permitted at the event, basically), and that what we specifically did was make price tags that we tied to almost every piece of art we could find, and eventually to people when we ran out of art... anyway, of the initial six of us, only Patti and I were still really attached to the camp full-time by burn night. (Meaning the night they burn the Man--Saturday. That's the bacchanal night. Sunday is the Temple burn, which is much more somber and peaceful.) So we wandered out to halfway between the Man and the Temple, where my friend Kira had set up "Bed of Stars": a big comfortable mattress beneath a screen on which she projected a few hundred of her favorite NASA slides, w/ ambient-electronic soundtrack. We watched the burn from there (with Kira narrating what all the slides were), then walked out to the Temple and across its length, then back to Asylum, where we hung out in the Smoochdome (the big red-covered chill-space) with a couple of friends.

New culinary discovery, suggested by a nearby camp that was making Belgian waffles for everyone in sight one days: waffles with Balsamic vinegar instead of syrup. No, really. Seriously. It's good.

Note that there is a bunch of slightly-to-wildly juicy stuff (about our neighbors, various phenomena on site, etc.) that I probably should not repeat in a public forum, and anyway most of it is funnier out loud. Those who know me already are welcome to give me a call.

Things I'd like to see:

1) The eradication of the last vestiges of on-site commerce. It's almost all gone as it is; would it be that inconvenient to dedicate, say, $10 from each person's ticket to an ice fund and $10 or $15 to a coffee fund, and just make people stand in line for coffee, or brew it themselves and give it away?

2) The elimination of cameras altogether, at least for a year. The Saturday weekend-warrior point-and-shoot looky-loo factor, I imagine, would be cut WAY down, and radical self-expression can't help but be encouraged if you know some asshole with a Hasselblad isn't going to be documenting it for keeps. And I really like the idea that if you wanted to preserve what something ephemeral or temporary is like there, you'd have to draw it.

Some kind of highlight of the week: sitting on a battered couch in Center Café with Jess, eating Craisins from the bag, and watching a cornrowed soprano wearing a transparent nightie sing "Casta Diva" accompanied by a boombox playing the orchestra's part.

More little notes will probably follow, but this should hold you for a bit. It's good to be back. How's everyone else doing?

2 Comments

rebecca said:

we heard you were going to come by from your tent neighbor, but if you did, we missed you. all the way home we were planning for next year.

it was lovely to see you out there. strange to come back. i kept wanting to give people little trinkets in exchange for things like, oh, gas on the way home.

and after a generally clean crowd it pissed me off so much to see trash on the side of the road, etc. in the big world.

i have to say, overall it was a truly magical week. i'm so glad to have finally made it to a burn. and not the man, the temple. that was fuckin' awesome.

xoxoxoxoxox

dori said:

ahhh douglas, you make burning man seem like something i want to return to. maybe next year it will be a lot closer. that was half the problem.

i love portland so far! you and lisa will have to take me out to something you love here. i've only been here for 3 days at this point.

also - 2001, my last year, was the year of 'laissez-faire' for me. it just becomes impossible otherwise...

i'm really bummed to hear about destruction/theft tho - inevitable, i guess, but still sucks. still - you always were one for the ridiculously serendipitous out there. the chain of polaroid camera donations is amazing.

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This page contains a single entry by Douglas published on September 9, 2004 2:23 AM.

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