Burn the Man!

Playing with fire at the 1997 Burning Man festival

"Basically, we took a bunch of televisions, microwave ovens and alarm clocks and soldered them into a statue," said Moon affiliate Ian Winn, 27. "Then we just took it out on the Playa, set it down, and leaned a couple baseballs bats against it."

All that remained of the sculpture when I arrived was a scorched heap of indistinguishable wreckage. Ian said it took an eight-wheeled army troop carrier to finish off the last microwave.

Ian was wearing a purple corduroy jumpsuit. The pants had glow-in-the-dark polka dots, and the shirt was adorned with several plastic, glow-in-the-dark toy octopuses. His fluffy Viking's hat with horns, and multiple red, blue and chartreuse glow sticks completed his black-light nightmare. Ian had arrived the day before, and invited me on a tour. I thought at least he would be easy to spot in the dark.

Piss Clear, the superior of two daily newspapers produced on site at the festival this year, included a glossary called "Playa Lingo" in its August 28 edition. Defined terms included:

Disco Napping--The restless, vaguely psychedelic way one sleeps during the day after being up all night on hallucinogens.

Spacewalking--Walking way out into the desert at night, away from camp, with no flashlight.

"Strafing run"--Trying to witness, no matter how briefly, as many art installations, performances and events in one day or night as possible.

My first night this year was pure strafing run. Highlights: a giant trampoline, assorted weirdness at the headquarters of the Bavarian Illuminati Motorcycle Cabal, and the "Boogie Forest," a camp with a sound system pumping house and trance music, vertical, glowing sculptures, and (to Ian's great delight) tall, black-light tubes.

There was also a 20-foot-tall bone arch built on site by San Francisco artist Michael Christian using cattle remains gathered from local ranches.

The House of Doors, an open-air labyrinth made of several hundred vintage doors from San Francisco, contained a pirate radio station, several highly interpretative art installations involving dolls and pop-culture flotsam, and a circular performance theater. It was open-mike time when we arrived. Ian got on stage and told a story about trying to take opium resin as a suppository in Thailand.

When he was done, we walked outside and found ourselves amid a pack of seven cops--state police, county sheriffs and a plainclothes officer, armed and apparently on patrol.

But for what? The exact mission of the police at Burning Man this year was a popular topic of debate and concern. The cops were frequently heckled. Some of it was good-natured, like the German army oompah band that segued to the Dragnet theme whenever it crossed paths with Johnny Law. Some of it was angry. When a black police copter cut an elaborate paper kite to ribbons, resentment ran high.

Last week, the Washoe County Sheriff's Department's Lieutenant Larry McGee told me 15 to 20 police officers were on the festival site, 24 hours a day. However, he reported only two "Burning Man-related" arrests this year, both on Sunday night. One guy was busted for a DUI about eight miles from the festival, and another was taken into custody after he waved a pistol at several people. There were no deaths, but 71 injuries required emergency treatment.

"The biggest problems were heat stroke and dehydration," said McGee. After that? "Homemade incendiary devices gone awry, followed by burns on the soles of the feet, mostly from firewalking."

There were no illegal-substance busts, which clearly means the police weren't out to make any. Like last year, pot, LSD, Ecstasy and especially psilocybin mushrooms were discreetly sold and consumed in copious quantities. African hashish was also abundant, thanks to the many Europeans who discovered Burning Man this year. A fourth term in Piss Clear's "Playa Lingo" section reads "Chemist: Those roving, early morning drug dealers who stop by for a visit." Getting stoned and/or tripping was hardly the focus of the event for most people, however. The drugs were merely an accouterment, like hors d'oeuvres at a cocktail party.

Before crashing Friday night, I clambered up the scaffolding to an observation platform near the Moon camp. The long line of headlights on the highway resembled the last scene in Field of Dreams.

I got up the next morning, walked to Barter Town and traded two mangoes for an alien glow pop. Ian traded 11 jokes for a skirt.

Here's one:
Q: How many Deadheads does it take to change a light bulb? A: They don't. They just wait until it burns out and then follow it around the country.

A barter economy is a fundamental tenet of Burning Man's temporary community. Ian traded a roll of sushi he'd packed in a cooler for two pancake breakfasts and coffee. Fueled up, we took off on a theme camp strafing run--Art Car camp, Alien Abduction Camp, and the Fern Grotto, a miniature rain forest replete with misters, a fountain, small pool, and thick, hanging foliage. A sanctuary from the broiling midday heat.

Burning Man is the only art festival I know of with a program that includes a desert survival guide. Daytime highs on the Hualapai Playa bust 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Late at night, temperatures plummet to the mid-40s. The smart play, when the sun's full, is to go on a walkabout until you feel woozy, maybe play a couple leisurely games of Alice in Wonderland croquet at Lawn Games Campe, then find a place in the shade to suckle a water bottle and laze around like a lizard until it cools down.

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