dry blue somersaults

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The question is: what is Burning Man now? What's it for? There are now 40,000 people coming out to the desert for the week leading up to Labor Day--about double the number there were when I started coming in 1999, I believe, despite the efforts of the organization to slow the rate of growth--and incredible amounts of money and energy being put into the stuff that happens in the course of that week. The event has gone from small to large to so big it's impossible to do everything to so big it's impossible to see everything to so big it's impossible to even get a sense of the scope of everything even if you're on your bike most of the time.

What's the idea behind it? Is it a massive festival of installation-based and interactive art? (That's how I usually describe it to people, & the way I tend to approach it.) Is it a creative D.I.Y. survival experiment, a sort of cognitive toolkit whose problem-solving techniques might be applied to the rest of the world? (That's something I tend to like a lot about it--not just getting by under ferocious desert conditions, but doing so with as much style as possible.) Is it a weeklong chemical-crazed sex party? (I know some people who look for that, and find it.) Is it a hacky-sack-and-drum-circle-riddled hippie convention? (Not so much any more, although I know some people who look for & find that, too.) Is it a tough but fun camping trip with amazing entertainment for the whole family? (It can be that, as well--Sterling didn't come this year, since five-month-olds aren't well suited for the desert, but I saw a bunch of preschool-age kids who looked like they were having the time of their lives.) What?

The occasional conversation within our camp centered on the question of whether Burning Man is meant to be an alternative to the world outside the trash fence ("default reality," they used to call it) or a corollary to that world. I pretty much see it as a testing lab--a place where all kinds of societal experiments can be tried under harsh conditions, to see what works, with the understanding that most of it won't. So you get occasional lovely elements of its culture that bleed into the world outside it (the D.I.Y. cultures of New York and San Francisco, especially--I can't imagine, say, the Madagascar Institute being nearly as sound without Burning Man), and a lot of stuff the world can do without, but the good parts are worth it.

I camped this year with Comfort Food, a division of Foodlab, within the Irrational Geographic Society village. (My fourth village in seven years, preceded by Illumination Village, eVille/Comfort, and Asylum.) Our mission was to make delicious food for about 110 people--a hot meal once a day, plus a pantry available to the group. A friend of mine who'd been responsible for the Costco run to stock the pantry noted that he'd never bought $2000 worth of snack food at once before.

But I also like to do a couple of projects of my own. Last year, I'd put together the Sound Sun Pleasure installation, which was a hassle and a half; this year, I'd sworn that whatever I did would require no equipment too large to carry in the pocket of my Podbelt. (Which I endorse heartily.) So my most persistent project was Change Your Mind, which I didn't identify by that name to anybody else who participated in it; its equipment consisted of a small roll of Smarties in a side pocket of my belt's flask holder.

I'd roll up to someone on his or her own (it totally failed with anybody accompanied by a friend, I quickly found), and say "Excuse me, [sir/ma'am]--I'm giving people temporary new personalities. Would you like one?" [The answer was almost always "absolutely" when I was wearing my Lou Reed Live reflective sunglasses and brightly colored wigs; I was batting more like 60% with my own eyes and hair, oddly.] "Great! So are there any personality traits or characteristics that you've always thought were admirable or interesting or cool, but they're... just not really you?" [Usually they'd come up with one right away. If not, I'd say "It doesn't have to be something you aspire to, just something you admire in other people but don't see so much in yourself. Something you might like to try on for a little while. Like a wig."]

So they'd come up with something. [If it was something really abstract, I'd make them clarify it: "How would that manifest itself out here?"] Then I'd say "Okay: your assignment is that for the next three hours, you are that. Everyone you interact with, everything you do, that's what's driving you. Can you do that?" (Sure.) "Great. And I'm going to give you something to make it easier. Close your eyes; open your mouth; stick out your tongue." [Here I'd put a Smarties on their tongue. People accepted it without a second thought if I had the mirrorshades and wig; when I was myself, they were sometimes a little reticent, and I'd have to explain that it was just a Smarties.] "So if you run into anybody you know in the next couple of hours, and they say 'wow, what's going on with you? you're really not acting like yourself!,' you can just tell them: 'I met this guy... he gave me something... I thought it was candy...'"

I did this with something like 250 people. A handful treated it as a total joke. Most of them looked like they thought it could be fun to give it a try for a little while. About 10% of them got a look on their face like they'd just had a revelation: they really could be something they desperately wanted to be, and all they'd needed was permission to do it. It was amazing when that happened.

I also did a couple of other little projects, each of which had one hugely gratifying moment. The first couple of days, I biked around asking people if they'd like to join a secret society. ("What kind?" "Well, it's a secret secret society!") When they said yes, I tied a bright pink string around the mouthpiece of their water bottle or Camelbak, and told them that they were now a member of the Secret Secret Society, and if they saw somebody else with a piece of pink string, they could go up to them and demand to be told a secret. One woman said "hey, I remember you--you did something about secrets last year too. [This was true--one afternoon I went up to people and told them I was with the official Black Rock City Consortion on Secrets and they had to tell me a secret.] I told you something that I'd been keeping a secret even from myself--it really changed things for me." I have no idea what it was, and was too flabbergasted to ask, but I was impressed.

Then, on Friday and Saturday, I realized that I had to do something to use up the expired Polaroid film I'd brought along, so when I saw a cute couple I'd bike up to them and announce that they were busted--that I was from the BRCCCPA (the Black Rock City Cute Couple Polaroid Alliance), and that I was afraid I was going to have to give them a Polaroid of the two of them smooching, sorry, man, I don't make the rules, I just enforce 'em. This generally made people very happy--and one couple that there'd been obvious sparks between kept kissing for a couple of minutes after I took the picture. "Congratulations," they told me. "You just took a picture of our first kiss."

Maybe the most fun thing I got to do all week, though, wasn't my own project at all. I'd been curious about kecak (Balinese monkey-chant) for a few years, and this year I actually learned how to do it from a workshop offered by One People Voice. Monkey chant sounds like it's "traditional," and totally isn't: it was invented in the '30s by a German artist and the Balinese tourist bureau. But it is very VERY easy to pick up the rudiments of--I got the hang of it in an hour-and-a-quarter-long class--and I ended up participating in the big performance they did at Center Camp on Friday afternoon. Hundreds of people, an hourlong performance, a joy.

This year's art: there were a few stunning pieces, especially a beautiful wooden clock-tower that burned on Sunday night (after the Temple, which was not designed by David Best this year and, a few people opined to me, didn't seem "sacred" in the way Best's stuff does, somehow) and The Machine, a wild assemblage of wooden gears. I also really loved the gigantic vertical ladder, extending into the heavens and held upright with a whole lot of guy-wires, that somebody had set up, although it looked way, way too dangerous. Matthew Blackwell's "Dance Dance Immolation" was a hilarious idea (Dance Dance Revolution, played in flameproof armor, with jets that shot fire at the players if they missed a step), but too plagued with technical problems.

What I missed, though, was the kind of homemade "what do we have a lot of? let's make some art out of it!" pieces that there used to be more of--there was nothing as brilliantly low-budget as the shrine from a few years ago that was constructed out of Plexiglas and Chinese-restaurant condiment packets. And, for the first time, there seemed to be a lot of meta-Burning-Man-art pieces: versions of the Man sinking into the deep playa and lying drunk against a lamppost, the "Thumperdome" (100 yards away from Thunderdome, a miniature replica with stuffed bunnies climbing all over it--and how funny is it that Thunderdome has the same music every year? in 40 years, will it just be "traditional" to play "Stigmata" and "Punk Rock Girl" and "Baby Got Back" there?), and my favorite, outside a set of portapotties: a big rectangular translucent box that blinked occasionally, atop a wooden pole, atop a wooden crate labeled "Generic Art Project."

Other things I loved: a silk-acrobatics area that had some gorgeous performances on Saturday night, a DJ at the periphery of our village who spun an hour of kickass early punk rock (the Misfits' "I Turned Into a Martian" sounded better to me than it ever had before), a squad of people in tiny motorized cupcakes (with helmets to match the particular frosting/sprinkling on each one's cupcake), OBOP's butterfly/chrysalis/womb decor and hangout spaces, a tent on the east side of the city that had a dream-interpretation project (person A writes down a dream and his or her on-playa address; after they leave, person B reads it and writes down an interpretation, and then somebody else delivers it to the original dreamer), and a ridiculous and wonderful little five-room chill-space deep within the city (on 4:30 between Delirium and Ego) that included a 40-square-foot version of the legendary Black Rock City dance club Xara, complete with its grassy turf. And, of course, making a bunch of friends, especially in my village--that's one of the things that keeps me coming back year after year. (Hi, Robin, Vicka, Maggie, Sha, and all the rest.)

But I also notice that there are some things that are becoming standardized at Burning Man that I hope get un-standardized soon, especially fashion. Can't tell you how many 20-something women were wearing sarongs and pink/red/black braided hair extensions, and I would like to propose a temporary moratorium on Utilikilts. (If you have to propose a Podbelt moratorium right back at me in a few years, I'll understand. Camelbaks are exempt.) Also, if you are going to bring little gifts to give people, that's great, but prefabricated strings of beads do not cut it.

This year, my camping situation was a little strange: Jess, Patti and I arrived Saturday (a day earlier than we'd ever shown up before), and my tent promptly exploded--early on Sunday, there was a severe windstorm, and its fiberglass poles snapped and ripped up the top of the tent. So, after a night spent in another camp's geodesic dome/chill-space, I ended up borrowing a spare tent from a kindly neighbor, but I still felt slightly displaced for most of the week.

It was also strange being cut off from the outside world while a whole lot of stuff was going down. By the end of the week, we knew that New Orleans was mostly under water, but the extent of the disaster was being both over- and underestimated. The two other rumors going around were that William Rehnquist had died and that Michael Jackson had been shot. Nobody knew for sure. Tempers were fraying; I overheard a number of things that made me remember 1) that in tent and yurt societies it's usually a serious taboo to let on that you've heard any conversation coming from inside somebody else's structure, and 2) Eddie Lee Sausage's justification for recording the drunken, abusive fights of his next-door neighbors Raymond and Peter: "You have to wonder what kind of right to privacy someone expects when they're shouting at the top of their lungs."

On the final night, Jess & Patti & I attempted to see the temple burn, but were foiled by misinformation about when it was going up. (As we were sitting around at Spock Mountain Research Labs, somebody glanced up at the playa and said "Welp, I guess there'll be another temple next year.") We did, however, see the clock-tower burn, which was gorgeous--beautifully designed, right down to the colors of the fire. And eventually repaired to Center Café in the no-longer-so-wee hours glowing with final-night-of-a-good-week happiness & accompanied by our friend Yoz, who'd just gotten married earlier that day, to hear a Coldplay wannabe do Portishead & Leonard Cohen covers, followed by a godawful comedy/protest singer, followed by somebody unscheduled who was flipping out on something (throwing chairs and tables and rocks around the café) and eventually commandeered the stage to have a very tense argument with an imaginary being called "Angry Meth." Around then we decided it was time to go home.

There are other stories, too, but they're reserved for people who know me personally & are curious; email me privately.

Oh, one other thing that colored my week a little: on my way to the airport, I grabbed Kelly Link's short story collection Magic for Beginners, having read a story or two by her earlier, not much more. It is wonderful--just the kind of brainflipping fantastical semi-metafictional superfinessed prose I love, somewhere in my personal cosmology a little closer to Borges than to Donald Barthelme, but with zombies. Her story "Catskin" gave me nightmares that I was happy to have. Now I need to read everything by her.


Matt Wright said:

Great post, Douglas, gives me a taste for what I missed. And welcome home.

lex1976 said:

Have you ever read Lin Dinh's "Blood and Soap"? It is good in the semi-metafictional nightmare inducing prose way.

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This page contains a single entry by Douglas published on September 8, 2005 7:10 PM.

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