The Other 51 Weeks of the Year

Burning Man 2009

Once again, the outreach groups of Burning Man ([BWB], The Black Rock Arts Foundation, [BRS] and The Regional Network) have teamed up to create a unified presence on the playa: District Everywhere!

District Everywhere is housed under one large pavilion. This year, our interior space will take on the appearance of a large world map, with continents cut out of wood, set up at table height. With the assistance of our Team, guests will create miniature sculptures or flags to represent their off-playa projects and endeavors. Together, the outreach groups will also host interactive activities, art projects, events and gatherings, all geared toward kindling ideas and generating momentum for off-playa, after-Burning Man out reach efforts. Join us for daily BurnSide Chats, hosted lectures, salons and discussions about art, community and culture. Each outreach group will also be hosting cocktail parties and mixers specifically for their group at District Everywhere.  Please visit the Black Rock Arts Foundation any day of the week to learn more about recent projects and future endeavors, and to add to their community-created art installation.  They will be lounging in the shade, sipping lemonade and conspiring to bring interactive art to communities beyond the playa.

BRAF at Burning Man
Monday, August 30, 2010 – Sunday, September 6, 2010
6:30 and Esplanade
Black Rock City, NV
10:00 am – 6:00 pm

Burnside Chats
Monday, August 30, 2010 – Saturday, September 4, 2010
1:00 pm – 2:30 pm and 2:30 pm – 4:00 pm

Party Everywhere – opening reception for District Everywhere
Monday, August 30, 2010   5:00 pm – 7:00 pm

Annual BRAF Playa Cocktail Party
Thursday, September 2, 2010     4:00 pm – 6:00 pm
District Everywhere is located at 6:30 and Esplanade.

We’d love to see you!

photo: affinity

Doing the heavy lifting

They’re discussing the early burn at the 8 am meeting of the Heavy Machinery crew, and Chaos was filling in for Big Stick, who was off the playa for a few days.

“I want us to set an example,” Chaos was saying. There’s a protocol for the early burn, where all the various crews build wild, ramshackle objects, haul them out to the playa and set fire to them a couple of weeks before the actual burning of the  Man. It’s one of the biggest nights of the build, and coordinating with Heavy Machinery is key.

Any group that wants to burn something has to let  Heavy Machinery know, so that they can prepare the playa and make sure any equipment needed will be ready to go. But even though there were 14 projects last year, by Thursday there were only a handful of teams that had checked in for this year.

Chaos in the office above the equipment yard.

The early burn is Heavy Machinery’s world in microcosm: The logistics of gathering 50,000 people in a harsh desert landscape for a giant festival and making sure that it all comes off without a hitch are a continuing amazement. If each person is expected to be radically self-reliant, imagine what it’s like to be the crew that everyone else relies on. As Chaos said, “We don’t want to disappoint 50,000 people.’’

There are waves of activity that sweep over the heavy equipment yard. The first is “transpo,” which means transporting all the rail containers and everything else from the Burning Man ranch to the playa. Then comes the buildout of the city’s infrastructure (and yes, there is considerable infrastructure even in a city that will leave no trace a few scant weeks after the Man burns).

If you need post holes dug for your shade structure, you call Heavy Machinery. If you need trenching to lay your electrical lines, you call Heavy Machinery. If you need containers or trailers moved, you call Heavy Machinery.

As Chaos sits in a two-story tower that looks out over Esplanade and Ring Road, he easily juggles three conversations, two over different radios and one with a visitor. Sometimes he’s using one radio to answer the request he’s just getting over the other. Then he comes back to the in-person conversation in mid-thought, no problem.

Chaos has done this before. A lot. Most recently he was in South Africa for the World Cup, doing corporate event work. He got into Heavy Equipment when he worked closely with Big Stick in New Orleans after Katrina.  Big Stick runs Heavy Machinery, and the two found they worked extremely well together, and they’ve been a team at Burning Man ever since.

We’re nearly at the end of the second week of the build, and Heavy Machinery will move from transpo and infrastructure to the needs of the funded art installations. Of course, there’s plenty of overlap, because there have been operators all over the Man and the Temple since the beginning of the build. The Temple, particularly, has been busy.


Notes from all over

We’ll do a little bit of this and a little bit of that today, so stay with me to the jump for more surprises.

You’re getting closer to departure. You might be frantically tying up the loose ends of your life, so that your absence will be minimized. Your playa gear might be in a loose pile in the middle of the room. But it might be helpful to realize, right now, before you even leave, that you will NOT in fact remember everything that you need. But that’s where the beauty of the playa comes in, because once you get here, you will find what you need.

Still, there are great lists and resources to check on the Burning Man home page. To my mind, water and shade come before anything else. Even if you didn’t bring food, you’d find enough to eat. Somehow, you would. In fact, you might wind up eating much better than you do at home. (I am not encouraging you to skip the provisions, though.) You’ll also eat a lot less than you thought you would. So don’t stress.

You don’t need to be told to wear your sunscreen. But it might also be helpful to bring a small container of vinegar, to counteract the playa’s alkaline dust.


Grab some shade

Think about the jobs you might not want to do in the desert.  Pounding posts? Digging trenches? How about cooking over a hot grill?

Sure, none of that is much fun. But how about a job where you don’t get to spend any time in the shade, but you have to make sure other people have plenty of it? That’s what the shade crew does, and that’s the essential irony of the job: You make the shade, and then you leave it.

And then you do it again.

You do it about 90 times, actually. Two seven-person crews work for a month, putting up  shade they likely will never enjoy.

Not too long ago, shade duty was a really crappy assignment. That’s where they put the people nobody wanted to deal with.

But back in 2005, a core group got together and decided that really wasn’t the way they wanted to do things. So they re-thought the process, put some good leaders in charge, and changed the culture. Quiet Earp is the person in charge now, and Art, the crew leader yesterday, was around for the change, too.

And they not only changed the people, they changed the process, too. They made the shade structures simpler to build (although it’s still no walk in the park). All of them are based on a basic 12-foot x 12-foot version, which requires nine 12-foot 4×4’s to be sunk 30 inches into the ground. Then kickers and top boards are screwed on, and then the whole thing is covered with tarp that is hammered into place.

Ok, so the process is easier. But it’s not easy.

The biggest shade that the crews will build will go over Playa Info, and it will measure 60×48. On Wednesday, one crew took the truck, Priscilla, out to the Gate. They were there to put up shade so that you won’t have to stand in the blazing sun when you pick up your ticket.

It was a tight-knit group. Most of the seven people there had been working shade for the past several years, so they didn’t have to bother with the niceties of new acquaintanceship. The comments flew fast and furious. Lewdness counted. But the work never stopped.


Spires to the sky

The spires that mark your way at night and guide you through the dust storms during the day are going up fast here in Black Rock City, but there’s still a whole lot more of them to do. By the time the build is finished, the Spire Crew will have built and installed about 300 of them, and that’s a lot of aligning and pounding and sledge-hammering.

Day after day, all day long, the Spire Assembly Team puts together the poles and fills the Depot yard with them. Erin “Thirteen” Meyer heads the production crew, and she and her team have constructed probably a couple hundred spires in the past three days.

There are two kinds of spires, the greater and the lesser. The greater spires mark the Esplanade and the main promenades toward the Man. (There’s actually a third type of spire, the Fire Spire, and they’re made of metal and have nasty, jangly edges. They spit fire and get placed in prominent locations around the city. But they haven’t been working for the past couple of years, a situation that may be rectified this year.)

Erin is known as Thirteen on and off the playa

Erin’s a longtime burner, though she’s of a tender age. (And she’s had her playa name  since she was … you guessed it, 13.) She came to her first burn when she was 15, which, maybe coincidentally, was also the year she left home for good. “I had a tendency to run away a lot,” she says. Since then she’s been to design school (“Design is my true passion, she says”) and had a stint as a line cook. But she’s always come back to the playa, and she’s been out here this year since the end of July.


The Temple takes shape

Jess Hobbs in the desert as the Temple of Flux goes up

The Temple of Flux is being put in place in the far reaches of the playa, and it’s radically different than anything that has come before it. Not radical in the sense that it draws attention to itself by its differentness, but radical in its approach to and relationship with its environment.

Wooden panels will swoop and soar, and they’ll be clad in whitewashed wood. And the erected hills will create interior canyons, places for respite and reflection.

As it takes shape in the center of the Black Rock Desert, surrounded by rounded hills of many colors, the Temple seems to have found the place where it belongs. It is appropriate to the landscape, and man’s relationship with the desert vastness is re-emphasized by the Temple’s presence.  Rather than usurp the terrain, the Temple seeks harmony with it.

It’s the biggest installation in artistic director Jess Hobb’s career. “It’s grandiose,” she says lightly, “but I also wanted to make it feel personal. I wanted people … not to feel small, but to feel connected to something larger.’’

The Temple is and always has been a place for haven and refuge, and perhaps this is the year that it is needed most. The 2010 theme of Metropolis connotes bustle and vibrancy and chaos and crowded anonymity. The Temple is the counterpoint to the constructed city; Metropolis is of man, the Temple is of nature. It seems meant to be here.

If you wandered off into the hills surrounding the Black Rock Desert, you’d soon be winding your way through the kinds of canyons that are being built  in the Temple of Flux. Each of the Temple’s canyons is named — Bryce, Cayuaga, Dumont, Antelope and El Dorado. All of the places hold significance to various members of the Temple team, perhaps most notably Cayuaga, which is near Cornell, New York,  where many members of the creative team attended school.

Hobbs received her Masters from the San Francisco Art Institute, where she lectures on the integration of social community and art. She is articulate and vivacious and whip-smart. She’s dressed all in pink, “kind of an inside joke,” poking fun at traditional notions of femininity.

Hobbs and her frequent collaborator Rebecca Anders installed “Fishbug” on the playa last year, but it was as they were returning from a visit to Dan Glass’ “Crow Mother” that she and Anders looked at each other and decided in that moment of excitement that, “We should do the Temple!”  But a hectic schedule prevented them from committing to the project. That changed in mid-March,  when the Burning Man Organization asked them to take on the job. They enlisted an architect for the project, Peter “PK” Kimmelman, and off they went.


The Bike Culture of Black Rock City

[Matt Roth is Deputy Editor of Streetsblog San Francisco, and a rabid bicycle enthusiast working towards the realization of a world full of bike-friendly cities. This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]

Photo by Michael Holden
Photo by Michael Holden

Anyone who has lived in a relatively flat and congested city can tell you the best way to get around is on a bicycle. The Chinese, the Dutch and the Danish know it, and increasingly Americans are coming to understand there are few modes of urban mobility as convenient and healthy as putting the fun between your legs and pedaling where you want, when you want.

As the legions of urban bicycle riders grow, city planners have begun to take note and have carved away precious space from several generations of begrudging motorists who have long believed streets were their sole domain. Politicians now boast of how many bicycle lanes they have added, sometimes buffered from traffic, sometimes painted green, red or blue. Some cities have instituted bicycle sharing systems, where a fleet of public bicycles are maintained for use by anyone who signs up and pays a small fee. The newest bicycle trend to gain popularity in cities around the world is the ciclovía, a car-free event where roads are opened to bicycles, skaters and pedestrians for the day to enjoy streets as public space for recreating and socializing.

Bike Arch by Ilana Spector and Mark Grieve, Photo by Waldemar Horwat
Bike Arch by Ilana Spector and Mark Grieve, Photo by Waldemar Horwat

Black Rock City, more than any other urban area, has been given over completely to bicycles, making it unquestionably the highest bikes-per-capita metropolis anywhere on the planet. The playa is the perfect place to ride, flat as a board and expansive. The prohibition on driving anything but art cars beyond the Esplanade makes Burning Man an enormous week-long ciclovía, and makes bicycles of the ultimate utility during the event.

Kinetic Sculpture Race, Photo by Christian
Kinetic Sculpture Race, Photo by Christian

As with most everything else on the playa, a simple bicycle, with one wheel in front of the other, would scarcely begin to capture the experience of participating in Burning Man, nor would it be very cool. Though the dynamics of bicycle engineering haven’t changed much in a hundred years, Black Rock City has spawned a menagerie of innovation, still pedal-powered, but only vaguely resembling a “bicycle.” There are giraffes and fishes, camels and glowing eyeballs, carriages adorned with mastodon bones, tall bikes five frames high, and an number of kinetic sculptures belching plumes of fire and smoke from their steel innards. Whimsy trumps utility and getting to the destination is less important than preening like a peacock along the way (a twelve-foot tall fire-spewing peacock, of course).