Voices of Burning Man features a wide diversity of perspectives on Burning Man culture, including official announcements,
cultural commentary and participant views.
You're encouraged to add your voice to the spirited and civil dialog around the ideas and issues that affect the Burning Man community.
The weekend before Gate opens is approaching and a certain feeling has set in. I’ve been out here early before and felt the change from being part of a small group of people building Black Rock City, then having the big art come in to start on the Temple and other huge projects, then watching as the big Theme Camps arrive and suddenly landmarks you’ve been using to navigate are replaced. The great unpacking begins with enthusiastic Theme Campers smiling as they create their fabulous spaces. Once the Gate opens, it becomes a free for all as you beautiful people flood in to stake your space in Black Rock City and build then share what you’re bringing.
Towards the end of pre-event, you realize that you’ve forged bonds with people out here that can only happen in a place as dry and desolate as this. There have been challenges met and there has been solemn sadness. There’s been triumph and a lot of hard work. It is tribal and essential, sometimes feeling as if we’ve stepped into another time where big personalities build things just because they can. My job is nothing compared to what the infrastructure groups like DPW, Tech, IT and their support do out here to build this place, and it takes a certain larger than life type of person to make Black Rock City happen. During the build, meals bring everyone together and it is there that you find old friends and make new ones. I sit there eating and face after dusty face passes on their way to grab grub and these are some of the most lovely dusty people I’ve ever had the honor to live amongst, if only for a short time each year.
As big Theme Camps begin their build, you no longer navigate in straight lines to your destinations. You’ll smell your first BBQ. You hear the hammers pounding all around and containers are opened with last year’s tarps and lights and everything that makes Theme Camps strewn about. You will see the groups of serious campers standing around, hands on hips, evaluating how many people they’re going to need to raise up that 60 foot wide shade structure. Work lights are running all night as massive tents are erected and decorated. People begin visiting you because they can tell you’ve been here for a while and maybe they can use your stove to make some coffee and share it with you, or borrow some zip ties.
Bring your own zip ties people.
Riding my bike around I met Seth Maxwell Malice and I asked him how it was going. He said, “Don’t forget to bolt things together. Gravity doesn’t work like it should.” Passing all the camps that are setting up you’re greeted with constant hellos from happy folks setting up in the friendliest city on earth. They’re insanely happy to be here, but what rational person would consider packing, hauling all your stuff to this dry lake bed, working for days to build a camp, dealing with the weather, then tearing it all down and hauling it out while leaving no trace a vacation? We are a peculiar bunch.
We like to take at least one trip back into Gerlach after moving onto the playa for the build season. We like … no, we need … clean laundry, and there’s a spot at the Shell Station to do it if the Saloon gets too crowded.
But we like to see some of the people we’ve gotten to know a little bit in Gerlach, too.
Pete, who works at the gas station, had his nice pickup truck parked off the shoulder of the road the other afternoon when an arriving Burner got a little too close with the trailer she was towing. BOOM! Her awning caught Pete’s windshield, smashing through the passenger side. Fortunately, no one was inside.
Up the road a little bit, Bruno, the 93-year-old Gerlach patriarch who owns a lot of the town, is moving unsteadily from the bar to a back room. A little later, his daughter asks if anyone has seen him, and fingers point to the door Bruno disappeared through. Most days Bruno sits quietly in one of the chairs that line the other side of the bar. Sometimes he wraps himself in a blanket against the air-conditioner’s chill. A blurry mounted TV is on pretty much all the time.
A young man named Adam is hanging around outside Bruno’s, telling his story to each new person who pulls up. He was supposed to be hauling trailers from a nearby storage yard out to the playa, he says, but the guy who hired him never showed up.
Andy’s upbeat in a Rainbow Gathering kind of way, all platitudes and joyousness, ready for the light to start shining on him. He says he’s been doing odd jobs for a week on a ranch nearby (“Working my ass off!”), and he’s got $450 in his pocket to show for it.
Most of his story, we come to find out, isn’t true. He had only gotten to town that morning. He didn’t know how to drive a stick-shift, didn’t have the license he was supposed to have to haul the trailers, so he was told things weren’t going to work out. We’re not sure exactly what he was hoping for at this point, but getting onto the playa without a ticket was likely at the heart of the matter.
Lacy is big-city pretty in a small lonesome town, so when she works behind the bar at Bruno’s, there’s a spark. The rocketeers, the hunters, the locals, the Burners, they all like her easy smile and the way she listens and laughs. She seems kind and forgiving, so she makes the hard-edged drinkers feel better for awhile.
Her sister, Heidi, who also causes hearts to beat faster, moved to town last year, and the two of them will open a coffee shop on Main Street this weekend, hoping the travelers to Burning Man will need some caffeine and maybe a rest before they hit the craziness of Burning Man. They were testing the espresso machine and making freezy mocha frappuccinos the other evening. Real Ghirardelli chocolate, too.
Lacy’s sensitive to the plight of the hard-luck visitors this time of year, the ones without tickets, the ones still hoping that a miracle will happen. But Burning Man isn’t spontaneous anymore: You can’t decide at the last minute to make the trip. You need a ticket, and you need a vehicle pass, and neither comes easy. You can’t depend on the kindness of strangers, either.
A woman sitting at the counter in Bruno’s coffeeshop said she had just arrived from New York. She was supposed to have a ticket waiting for her at will-call, but it wasn’t there when she showed up. “But it’s ok,” she said, smiling. “It’s going to work out. I know it will.”
She had recently gotten out of a relationship, and Burning Man seemed like the right thing at the right time for her. But now she was struggling to figure out her next move. “The guy I got a ride with, he’s 62 years old, a really cool guy. But they wouldn’t let him in, either.”
Burning Man doesn’t let stranded travelers become a problem at the event site, so they require the people they are with to look after them, which sometimes means driving them back as far as Reno so they can get a place to stay.
Out on the dusty four-mile road into the event site, Tabitha was working a Gate shift. The wind was blowing hard, and most people were pulling on their goggles and facemasks. “We had a guy show up,” Tabitha said, “who felt his path in the world meant he should go to Burning Man.” The black-clad Gate folks were busy in the lanes of cars, checking for early arrival passes, checking for tickets, and looking in the trunks for stowaways. “But he didn’t have a ticket, or early arrival, or anything,” Tabitha said. And he, like so many before him, was sent away.
“If you show up here in a vehicle with someone who doesn’t have a ticket, you’re responsible,” Tabitha said. “That whole car, everyone gets turned around, and they have to deal with that person and make sure everyone gets taken care of.”
Do people get mad when they are turned away, or do they take a la-la, playa-will-provide approach?
“Most of the belligerent comes from people who are tired,” Tabitha said, “because they’ve been driving for three days. They don’t want their car to be searched, they just want to get into the city and do their thing.”
Miss Roach and Sailor were down at the Gates, too. We’re coming up on the biggest night of their year, when the doors open for 70,000 visitors.
“The rules are the rules,” Sailor says. “If there’s some mind-bending story, we’ll kick it upstairs, but ninety-nine percent of the time we just don’t have time for this stuff.” Miss Roach agrees: “We just don’t have the resources to make miracles happen,” she says.
Believe me, these are good-hearted, generous people, but there’s not a lot they can do. “Every now and then you get one that really moves your heart,” Miss Roach says, “but you’re like, crap.”
Hopefully, though, you’ll make it past the imposing, no-fooling-around Gate people, and you’ll head another mile or so up the dusty road to the Greeter’s station. Once there, all is well. Happy people will encourage you to get out of your car so they can give you a hug. If you’re a first-timer, they’ll want you to bang a triangle and roll in the dust.
“She didn’t want to do it at first,” one guys says after his lady friend got up from her initiation in the dust. “But she figured she might as well do it the right way.” He had taken pictures while she was down on the ground, and then the Greeter gave them more big hugs, and they got back in their car, and off they went.
Back at the bar in Bruno’s, Lacy is annoyed. She’s learned that her mom, who lives in the house with her and her sister and her brother, has invited smooth-talking, non-stick-driving Andy back to the house until he can get himself squared away.
“She’s gonna turn me into a mean person!” she says. “I don’t like it!”
Would she ever do that? Let a stranger with a sad-sack tale into her house?
“Oh yeah,” she says, softening.
The woman from New York who didn’t get the will-call ticket will be staying at the house tonight, too.
Yesterday the Man Base Crew took a little time off from their steady work pace to hang out in the shade, have some beers and get the low down on what art will be living inside the amazing structure they’ve built. BettieJune from the ARTery joined Kimba and Leslie to discuss the art, performance and otherwise illusory and carnivalesque interactivity that will saturate participants once the event begins. Right now the Man Pavilion is a hard hat construction zone with the Maze being completed and painted, the Illumination crew placing lights and eight Belgian tents (from the Souk last year) being erected to house Regionals’ and other artists’ Midway projects. At each of the four portals into the Man Pavilion, Hugh D’Andrade has created fantastical entrances inspired by carnivals around the world.
The Man stands tall above a Maze and not getting caught up in all the art in the Maze and Midway will be impossible. The Pavilion is anticipated to be a site to behold, an extravaganza of the odd, unusual and entertaining where you can become one with the carnys who bark to you and bathe in the veritable glow of a Carnival of Art. The Maze structure entrance is to be covered with the “Bannerline Project” by Killbuck. His art once graced Defenestration in San Francisco and now we will have his sardonic Carnival banners in Black Rock City for the week. At the Maze entrance is an installation by Tony Spiers and placed around the Maze look for “Colossal Skeletal Marionette” by Christian Breeden, which is a big skeleton puppet. You will also encounter the “Hall of Mirrors Arcade” by Wolf, “Larger-than-life sized arcade pieces including Giant Pinball, Foosball Reimagined and Jumbo Pachinko.”
“Be the Managerie” by Michael Koi, featuring exotic animals where one can put their face through a hole to become the animal, is inside the Maze and the ARTery is referring to these openings as “Noggin Notches.” “Laffing Sal” by Dana Albany, Haideen Anderson, Flash Hopkins and Tom Kennedy has returned to entertain the little ones with maniacal laughter. “The Church Trap Organ” by Rebekah Waites & crew has been re-imagined Coney Island style and has arrived on the playa. It is being installed today.
“Lumiphonic Creature Choir” by Mark Bolotin and Synarcade is a 17-foot-wide sculpture with projected faces that promises to be an interactive audio-visual collection of heads that will sing, beat-box or recite fragments of prose. Barron Levkoff’s “Mystical Midway” promises to delight you with all manner of cosplay and invite you to join in on the Mythic Play.
The Midway tents will house Burning Man’s Regional projects, and this year, as with last year’s Caravansary, the projects highlight one-on-one interactions. The CORE began in 2011 with large wood sculptures circling the Man that were burned on Thursday of the event. Burning Man also burned the CORE in 2013 and in 2014 Burning Man brought the Regionals closer to the Man and stopped the large CORE burns to provide more human interaction and cross pollination than sculptures could provide.
This year the Theme invites us all to create “panoply of strange and enchanting wonders” and Thursday morning pre-event, the Regionals and other non-regional artists will begin setting up their unique Carnival of Mirrors art and interactive performance. There will be 29 Regional groups that celebrate what makes them specifically unique in our vast Burning Man network and some installations include the “Pinball Machine” from our Wisconsin Regional group, “The Gallery of Infinity”, a sideshow of LEDs and infinity panels from Santa Cruz, “The Baltic Altar” from the Baltic States – Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia Regionals that involves immersing yourself in a cube structure where you can compose unique melodies, the “Philly Phreak Show” which is a collection of oddities and “FoxCarn & the Betel Store” by the Taiwan and China Regional that will let “burners experience both forms of capitalist exploitation.”
The Man Pavilion is a saturated hyper microcosm of the entirely of Burning Man. This year it promises to be a fertile art space and a place for reflection and participation so be sure to make your way out there add your spice to the stew. They start installing tomorrow and this is just a sampling of what awaits you. Many more mysteries will be revealed.
Recently I saw someone share a video entitled “The Heart of Burning Man”, and while the video was slick and impressive, I came away disappointed because it almost entirely focused on Robot Heart and the dance camp experience.
To be fair to the creator of the video, they did say, “To me, the Heart of Burning Man is the people who make it happen year after year…” and you know, I absolutely agree. But I take issue with equating the people partying at a sound camp with “the people that make Burning Man what it is”. That’s a part of some people’s Burn, but I think it’s the minority, and it’s certainly not what makes Burning Man happen year after year.
What makes Burning Man happen year after year is the volunteers, and if you are not volunteering, you are missing out on the Burning Man experience. (more…)
The Man went up yesterday, and you’ve probably seen a lot of pictures of him already. It’s the way Burning Man is now; what used to happen in the electronic cone of silence of the playa is now seen everywhere almost as it happens.
We’re as guilty as anyone, of course. Yesterday, Alpheus was kind enough to take us up on a boom lift for the raising of the Man, and we had posted a photo to the internets even before we came back down to the ground.
Everyone likes to be first, and everyone likes to show you things that other people can’t. But the lines are blurred this year maybe more than ever about keeping the experience here in Black Rock City instead of sharing it immediately with the social media.
The phone service out here this year has been banging. In previous years, AT&T customers like us have been forced to use a “roaming” service when we arrived in Gerlach. The data restrictions were severe; check your email a couple of times, maybe post a pic, and you’re about done. (Verizon customers have always fared better, with more reception and no roaming to deal with.)
But AT&T has apparently put up new cell towers in the area, and phone service on the playa is 3G with four bars pretty much all the time. We’re thinking that that will change once there are 70,000 people here, and the circuits will become overloaded and all but impossible to use. But the communications landscape has changed.
It’s not a new discussion, whether to be connected to the rest of the world during the event. But the Burning Man organization believes that being connected to the world runs counter to the value it places on immediacy.
“Last year I was out at one of my favorite places to dance,” Communications Director Megan Miller said the other morning, “and I saw three guys standing in a circle looking down, in the white glow of their phones, and I was just like, ‘This is the one place you go where that’s not supposed to happen,’” she said. “You know, they should be talking to each other, or dancing!”
Miller said the organization gets a lot of feedback and discussion from participants about the issue of cell phones here, “and I don’t think I got a single one that said, ‘I’m so glad I can use my cell phone there,’” she said. “What I got was, ‘I saw people riding across the playa, on their phones, like you see in San Francisco,’ and how they thought it was an intrusion.”
Of course there’s no law or rule against being on your phone, “but we do try to set an example by not being on social media while we’re here,” she said.
The estimates are that by Friday there will be enough people here to make cell service unreliable, so there won’t be many as Facebook updates or fresh Instagram photos. So I guess enjoy them while you can, because the genie goes back in the bottle soon.
While we’re on the subject of media: You all probably know of Burners.me, the gadfly site that writes extensively about Burning Man culture. We’ve debated the merits of the content there on numerous occasions, and generally we leave it to the reader to determine when the writer(s) are grinding an axe, and when they are simply reporting the news. We believe “caveat emptor” is the appropriate term.
But Burners.me did something we thought was really crappy this morning. They took a photo of ours from Facebook and posted it as their own.
Now, I realize that posting photos as public on Facebook has its risks. But, as reader Josiah Sean succinctly pointed out, “The easy and organic process of appropriate redistribution of personal works on social media is to hit the SHARE button, so that it is still connected to the author. Burners.me went through the effort of downloading the picture and reposting it so that all comments and likes and interactions would be associated with their Facebook page. #FuckedUp. This was a methodical and dishonest approach aimed at self-promotion and advancement … (and) it makes it that much worse.”
The photo in question, of the Man being lifted into place yesterday morning, was NOT posted on the Voices of Burning Man site. It was posted on my personal page, and just lifted from there. So, Burners.me, do the right thing and take it down. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. It’s called stealing.
UPDATE: Burners.me has taken down the photo and offered an apology. They sent along a screen shot of the same photo that had been posted to the Facebook Burning Man page, where a Brian Romans first put it up. Now, the argument can be made that Burners.me just ripped off the person who ripped off me. But, “I do consider photos of Burning Man posted on the Internet to be fair use in discussing Burning Man,” Burners.me wrote in a message to us. “I’m not making money or trying to rip anyone off or claim credit for their work. Most Burners are happy to gift their photos to others.”
Ok, fair enough, but: 1) Lawyers get paid to decide if “fair use” includes using other people’s copyrighted work. 2) It would have been easy to attribute the pic to the person who originally ripped it off (although there was no “share” button available) (and we guess there was no intent to rip anyone off, just excitement about seeing the Man go up). 3) I think I gift as many photos as anyone. Maybe not the most, but probably in the top ten. 4) The larger point here, the teachable moment, for all of us, is to give credit where it’s due. We try to name the artists in any pictures we take of the art out here. Maybe you should too. And because you see something on the internet doesn’t mean that you can take it as your own. And yeah, we know, good luck with that.
There’s a changing of the guard going on at the Center Café today. The build team, aka the Oculus crew, is pretty much finished constructing the site, and the Décor team is about ready to make it all look pretty for you.
The Décor crew was out mooping the site this morning, something we hadn’t seen happening before. Betty Boop explained to us that they do the line sweeps inside and outside the tent three times a day now. “It’s easier to keep a handle on this as you go along,” she said, keeping her eyes peeled on the ground for Matter Out Of Place (moop) – screws, nails, bits of glitter, anything.
The line sweeps aren’t the only thing that’s new. Twin Peaks is the new head of the Oculus crew, the first time in our knowledge that a woman has led that team. “It’s different here,” she said this morning, talking about the gender neutrality of the place. Her assistant is Austintatious, and she’s new to the role, too.
Almost everyone on the crew is either new or in a new role. The only folks with institutional memory are Monkey Boy, who’s been one of the backbones of Oculus for as long as we can remember, and Stinger, who’s been the lead rigger for the past several years.
Rigging is a big deal at the Center Café. It is believed that the Café is the largest temporary tensile structure in the world. The shade covers nearly an acre of ground, according to Twin Peaks, and it’s a place of both refuge and entertainment just about any time, night or day.
These are the only times that you get to see the beauty of the structure itself, all geometric patterns and beautiful light and shadow. The Décor team will soon do its thing, and when the event starts, it is one of the finest places on the playa for people watching and people meeting.
Tomorrow they’ll roll out the rugs, and Thursday they’ll put up the flags. “The Café isn’t the Café until the flags so up,” Twin Peaks said.
The speed limit in Black Rock City has dropped to 10 mph as more and more people arrive. Many of the artists and bigger theme camps are setting up, and it was estimated this morning that there are about 5,000 people in the city. That’s a very unofficial estimate, though, and it should not be taken as authoritative.
We were out at the Temple of Promise, and we talked to Jazz, the lead designer of the piece.
It’s his first time building big art out here, and only the third time he’s been to Burning Man. What’s the hardest part about the job?
“One to five,” he answered. That would be 1 o’clock to 5 o’clock, when the heat is at its worst.
Jazz was awarded the Temple project honorarium the second time he applied for it. The first time was in 2014, when he read that proposal applications were due in 11 days. “I had an idea to make the Temple about transition,” he said. “So I got something that went from big to small. … And straight lines are kind of boring, so we put the curves in,” he said.
The lead builder of the Temple, who’s been playa-named Mary Poppins because he seemingly dropped from the sky to help them out, is also a newcomer. He’s built big art before, but not here, and it was his job to translate Jazz’s vision into something that could actually be constructed.
“Jazz designed the whole thing in a gaming software,” he said with a chuckle, “And, uh, there was no real relation of gaming software to architectural prints, so I took on the challenge of re-drawing the structure from the ground up.” And that was a continuing challenge; at the build site in Alameda, “I was on one machine, trying to keep ahead” of construction, he said.
Jazz is not the only first-time big-art designer out here this year. He and his Dreamer’s Guild team are new; Bree, the lead designer for Storied Heaven, is doing her first big piece, and Charlie Nguyen of the Mazu Temple and the Department of Public Art is doing his first big piece, too.
“We like to think that we’re establishing a new generation of artists,” Betty June said at the Artery.
I have always envied people their transformative experiences at Burning Man. Friends, acquaintances, strangers whose stories I read on the internet. “Burning Man changed my life!” they say, and point at one instance, one specific moment where they realized their life was going to be different moving forward.
This will be my 12th year in a row of attendance at the event, and I’ve never experienced that lightning bolt of differentiation.
Burning Man HAS changed my life, though, just not in the way I expected. It occurred to me recently that my life would be entirely unrecognizable if not for Burning Man. Transformation has snuck up on me slowly, over this dozen years of participation. (more…)
“The Spirit of Wonka,” Spoono’s iconic day-glo art car, was being towed up the 6 o’clock Promenade toward the Man on Saturday night. The sun had just set, and it was a silent, lonely funereal passage in calm desert twilight.
Tony “Coyote” Perez had hitched up Spoono’s rig to the Volare, the beat up, sorry-ass excuse for a car that he uses to get around Black Rock City. There was no one else with him, save for Matt “Starchild” Deluge, who was sitting in the driver’s seat of the art car, where Spoono would have been, should have been.
Soon, a few hundred or so people would be gathering for Early Man, where crews get ready for the final push of the build by burning effigies – some beautiful, some poignant – a miniature version of Burning Man itself. The Transpo team had made giant fly-swatter. The Commissary crew had made a giant greasy spoon. There were three giant Choco Tacos.
When it was fully dark, Dave X called for a moment of silence to remember Spoono. And then everyone lit up extra large sparklers that glowed red and green.
It’s ironic that this city, known for its debauchery and mayhem, will so often have its throat grabbed by sadness.
Maybe it’s the kind of people who come here. They leave big legacies when they depart, but they might not be the associated with great achievements of state or commerce. Let’s put it this way: People will always be telling great stories about the characters who have swung through this town who were wild enough and tough enough to leave their mark. And Scott “Spoono” Stephenson was one of those people.
No one seems to know with any authority exactly when Spoono first appeared in Gerlach or the Black Rock Desert. Most people say his first job in the area was in 2004 at Bruno’s, the frontier town casino, bar and grubhouse that’s the main sign of life for 70 miles in any direction. He worked as a cook there, and might have had several stints, coming and going as his frustration level waxed and waned.
No one ever heard the story of where he grew up, or who his parents were, or if he had any brothers or sisters. It was as if his life had begun all over again, in that most familiar American story of re-invention, when he came to Nevada. The version of Spoono that took hold here might have been more wholesome, but no less strong.
There’s talk that his past was … checkered. That he had moved with rough people, in dangerous circles. But even then, he always seemed to find the center of things, and to camp there and watch.
Mathew “Starchild” Deluge is the person who Spoono listed as his next of kin on his DPW paperwork. Starchild is actually no relation – just a person that Spoono felt close to, after working long hours over many months during the Burning Man season and afterward. They spent many hours together on the work ranch down the road from the event site, telling stories, being in each other’s lives.
Starchild is a thoughtful, philosophic young man who has a fondness for art, the desert and making things. He’s a crew leader on the DPW, and on the Resto team that makes sure we’ve left no trace in the desert.
Most recently, Spoono would visit him in Reno just about every day in the offseason. They lived about mile away from each other. He’d come by, pet the dog, just be there.
Spoono was one of the people who helped Starchild recover from memory loss issues after he had his own health problems. “He knew more about me than I do,” Starchild said.
They were working partners in Burners Without Burners in the New Jersey operation, when a team went to help out after Hurricane Sandy. Starchild believes Spoono was originally from New York, so he had a fondness and familiarity with the area.
Starchild was talking about the effect that Spoono’s death has had on Black Rock City, even on people who didn’t know him that well. He said it was like their reaction to a clebrity’s death. “Their work affected them in such a significant way, you know?” (more…)