Freaks in the Desert

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A short distance from camp I got sidetracked by a cocktail party at Spiral Oasis, a theme camp organized by Mark Pesce, a hotshot in the Bay Area Web scene (Pesce invented VRML, a Web language that allows users to program elaborate 3-D virtual-reality models onto their Web sites).

The party looked like a cross with The Great Gatsby, Blue Hawaii and Blade Runner. Flappers mingled with tiki lounge lizards and ravers in clear plastic suits and bondage gear. Pesce paraded around in a red feather boa. The centerpiece of the soiree was a high-wattage sodium bulb inside a large, opaque globe. A deejay spun a kaleidoscope of Dixieland, hip-hop, Coltrane, trance techno and dance hall through a phat sound system.

I stayed about 15 minutes, then succumbed to wanderlust and slowly zigzagged toward the Man. Whisking past me on roller skates came a bald freak with a long beard, thick-framed glasses and a light-bulb suit, being pulled by a small machine that looked like the security robot that Chewbacca roared at in Star Wars.

A remote-controlled lamp with wheels whirred toward me, stopped short, a foot away, then skittered off at a 90-degree angle. I looked around but couldn't spot its operator. A billow of flame went up at ten o'clock on the horizon. I and everyone around me made for it at a trot. Soon I could hear the whine and clang of heavy machinery, growing louder. As I got closer, I saw that a miniature city of strip malls and franchise stores was being systematically destroyed by monster robots.

The machines spat fire and battered the plywood buildings into kindling. One robot consisted of a massive hydraulic arm protruding from a metal platform on tank treads. At its end were three hooked claws that would swoop down, snag a plaster model, lift it in the air, swing it back and forth and, finally, rend it to pieces. Sometimes the claw would brood over its fallen prey like a T-rex, jaws dripping viscous fluid.

Obviously patterned after the performances of the infamous San Francisco machine-arts coalition Survival Research Laboratories, the spectacle was the work of the Seemen, a lesser-known Bay Area troupe. For the finale, a man in a red suit and cape scaled one of the last standing structures--a 30-foot-high corporate tower emblazoned with a logo that spelled "Hellco" in the same yellow font Payless Shoe Source uses for mall signs.

When he got to the top, our hero popped a flare, threw it into the belly of the building, then grabbed ahold of a zip wire and flew away 007 style as the skyscraper exploded into flame. Cheering, the crowd hastily backed away from the intense heat. Several drum circles began a frantic, tribal beat.

A man in shorts atop an RV to my left stood up from his lawn chair. "Yes!" he shouted. "Yes! The best place for psychedelics!"

I made for the Man again. Up close, he looked about five stories high. His body and upraised arms were made of lumber scaffolding, and he had what looked like a giant Japanese paper lantern shaped like an upside-down triangle for a head. He was standing on a pedestal of hay bales. A smoke detector was glued to his belly.

"Fire in the hole!"
One of the things you learn quickly after dark at the Burning Man Festival is to pay heed to warnings like "Fire in the hole." That, and to keep a wary eye out for the sparking orange glowworm of a lighted fuse. I twirled to face the direction of the shout and saw a man drop what looked like a mortar shell into what looked like a mortar. Whoom! The cylinder belched blue flame and a white streak made an arc high across the sky, then burst into a shower of purple shooting stars.

To my direct right, I heard the Warner Bros. cartoon theme song speeding up and slowing down like it was being played on a haunted Victrola. I gravitated and came upon a scale model of the HOLLYWOOD sign surrounded by Tinsel Town icons. Posters of James Dean, Tom Cruise, Steven Spielberg, Mickey Mouse and John Wayne were mounted on stakes and stuck in the ground like hasty gravestones. I looked closer at a mannequin dressed and posed like Marilyn Monroe in the subway-vent scene from The Seven Year Itch and noticed she had sticks of dynamite strapped to her inner thighs. An attendant stopped anyone with a cigarette from getting close, and said a group called the Los Angeles Cacophony Society had built the exhibit. (Later that evening, I heard and felt a series of concussive explosions come from the direction of Tinsel Town, but only got there in time to see one of the Cacophony Society's members do some mop-up work with a flame thrower.)

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David Holthouse
Contact: David Holthouse