At approximately 10:30 p.m. on the night of Monday, Aug. 29, the double-decker art boat “Dodo” drove up before BMIR, Burning Man’s official radio station, and was fired upon by a mounted cannon on the roof.
It wasn’t the bloodiest battle they would fight that week: just the first.
Author’s Note: The following is an account of the events of The War of the Rites, an epic conflict at Burning Man 2011 between the camps of BMIR and Monticello. Unlike previous playa stories I’ve told here, no part of the story has been fictionalized. All details are accurate to the best of my recollection.
BMIR and Monticello had never fought before, and weren’t even arguing until just two hours earlier. But when the call to war came, they were ready. Eager.
The two camps had been united in five years of friendship by Zeus. A key founder and long-standing director of BMIR, Zeus is close friends with “Guv’nor,” the Governor of Monticello (a theme camp based upon Thomas Jefferson’s ancestral home.) Guv’nor had even been the de facto best man at Zeus’ wedding two months earlier.
Had Zeus been present, many combatants agree, the War of the Rites probably never would have been fought. He would have made peace. But he wasn’t there this year. I was.
I’d never started a war before. But, everybody needs an art project, right?
Early that afternoon, J. Kannizle, one of BMIR’s two station managers on-site, asked Guv’nor to send the Dodo to BMIR that night and give the station’s hard-working crew a tour of the playa and its art. The Governor said yes: they’d done this several times before over the previous few years. Everyone was happy with the arrangement.
Everyone, that is, except Kenneth Griswak, the brilliant, mad, artist-in-residence at BMIR.
Last year the Dodo had given BMIR’s staff a playa tour, and as the massive art boat sailed along the desert at 5 miles-per-hour, Griswak (a man of high voltage) danced around it like an Olympian God.
Opinions differ as to whether Griswak hit the bus or the bus hit him. Some even claim there was no collision. Certainly no damage was done: Griswak literally bounced back on to his feet and kept dancing. Everyone put it behind them. Except now, in 2011, when Griswak heard that the Dodo was giving them a tour again he muttered under his breath. And when they heard him mutter, other members of BMIRs staff made fun of him.
“Watch out, Ken! The Dodo’s going to get you!”
I was there, and told Ken I’d go to Monticello and tell them that he wasn’t happy about this. “Yeah,” he said. “You tell them.”
I flew across the desert, from about 5:45 and Esplanade to 8:30 and Esplanade, bearing this news.
“Hey guys,” I said. “You know, Ken at BMIR’s pretty pissed that you’re bringing the Dodo back this year.”
The citizens of Monticello, who call themselves “The Royal Society of the Powdered Wig,” were stunned. What was his problem? They’d been ASKED to come! Screw him and his “I’ll dance around your bus while it’s moving” bullshit! Had that even really happened?
“So …” I said carefully, “I guess I’ll go back and tell Ken that you don’t care what he says. He’s irrelevant. The Dodo’s coming whether he likes it or not.”
“Oh hell yes,” they agreed. “Although, you know, you don’t have to rub it in or anything.”
I flew back across the desert.
“Listen Ken,” I told him, “Monticello sends word that it laughs at your warnings and mocks your prowess.” (I was getting oddly formal at this point). “They arrive at the night’s high tide, like pirates upon calm waters, to take you like a blushing bride.” (I don’t know what came over me).
“Oh yeah?” said Ken. “Oh yeah? Well, then, I’m making a cannon.”
I blinked. “You’re making a …”“Cannon. Yeah. And you tell them that if they sail the Dodo over to BMIR, I’ll meet them with cannon fire!”
“I can do that.” It was a moment I’d been waiting for my whole life.
“And … and …” Ken said, “can you sing them a war song, so that they’ll know I’m serious?”
“Yes. Yes, I can do that.” I love this man.
I crossed the desert again, my cape billowing in the wind. (Witnesses will attest that I was really wearing a cape.) I came to Monticello near sundown.
“Governor!” I called when I saw him. “Summon your council!”
“Your leadership council!”
“Right! Okay!” He brought over the Baron and the Baroness, the Lady Vice, Lord Squirrel, and Lady Sparks. “What tiding from BMIR, Caveat?”
I went into full on Shakespeare. “Hear me oh men of Monticello! Kenneth Griswak, the mad inventor of BMIR, sends warning that should you sail the Dodo into BMIR’s fair waters you shall be met with Cannon! And Artillery! And blood! The seas shall turn red and the moon shall weep at your plight! Thus says Griswak, defender of BMIR! Men of Monticello, WHAT SAY YOU?”
The Governor nodded, and looked grave. “Give us a moment,” he said.
“Well, actually, first … there’s a song.”
“There’s a song?”
“Yeah, I’m supposed to sing you a war song. To show he’s serious.”
“That bastard!” he said. “Go ahead.”
I sang “Follow me up to Carlow,” a song about the Battle of Glenmalure in 1580.
“Okay,” The Governor said when I was done. “We’re just going to confer over here.”
I waited while he consulted with his council.
Five minutes later, he called an all-camp meeting.
When the majority of the camp arrived, he gestured at me. “Caveat, can you say all that again?”
“Hear me oh men of Monticello! Kenneth Griswak, the mad inventor of BMIR, sends warning that should you sail the Dodo into BMIRs fair waters you shall be met with Cannon! And Artillery! And blood! The seas shall turn red and the moon shall weep at your plight! Thus says Griswak, defender of BMIR! Men of Monticello, WHAT SAY YOU?”
“Well?” asked Guv’nor. “Griswalk speaks a mighty tongue, but we’ll see if his ballistic fire can withstand the Dodo’s wrath. To WAR!”!”
The camps answer was deafening.
War was declared. The Dodo made ready. Plans were made and strategies discussed. As it happens, mobilization takes a while and eventually J. Kannizle came over to see what the hold-up was.
“Oh, hey,” Guv’nor said to him. “Let me explain. Caveat, can you …”
“Sure.” I cleared my throat. “Here me, oh BMIR! The mercy of the Royal Society of the Powdered Wig is at an end! Like Icarus before him Kenneth Griswak has aimed to high and now must be brought down to earth! Monticello has declared war upon you, promised to bury its sword in your corpse, and shall set sail this very night to for glory and combat!”
Kanizzle had not been expecting this. “Really? That’s …”
“Oh yeah,” said the Governor. “This is happening.”
“Ohhhhh – so that’s why Ken’s on the roof testing a cannon! Fuck, this is awesome. Okay, when are you heading out?”
“Any minute now.”
“Okay, just … I’m heading back right now. Okay? Just wait till I get back. I’m on foot, so, this’ll take a little longer, but … just hold on!”
He started running back.
Ten minutes later the doors to the Dodo opened. The call to war echoed out over the Dodo’s loudspeakers. The campers of Monticello, dressed in their wigs and formal attire, crowded into the bus … as did a number of people just walking by who heard “We’re going to war!” and thought this sounded like a thing to do.
The Governor asked me to take the microphone, and sing war songs from the Dodo’s speakers until the conflict was over.
We drove off into the night, a lone voice singing of battle underneath the moon.
When the Dodo drove up to Monticello, it was fired upon. Ken’s “Cannon” was a giant sling-shot shooting some kind of hardened canvas cotton balls. The impact was solid and enough to push the Dodo back. It sailed in a circle until it came to a safe distance.
Then the bus doors opened and a horde of men and women in wigs and formal wear from the 1700s poured out. A few of them actually rappelled down the bus’ side. They ran into the station carrying hemp rope and tied up every BMIR station member they could find, then dragged them back onto the Dodo.
Ken and his cannon were on the roof of the production studio, and his assistants pulled the ladder up after them. He kept firing as the Wigs scattered under his attack and looked for another ladder.
The Governor knew the layout of BMIR, and ran around behind it to the woodpile. He scaled the woodpile to the roof of the main studio, ran across the wire mesh connecting it with the production studio, and leaped into the air, taking Griswak down with a flying tackle.
Stunned, Griswak stayed pinned as the Wigs found a second ladder and rushed up to the roof, tying Griswak up and taking him down onto the Dodo.
The station personnel secured, the victorious Wigs forced BMIR’s staff to undergo a night art tour around the playa.
The first battle had been fought, and Monticello had conquered.
BMIR vowed revenge that very night.
Everyone knew it wasn’t over. What no one realized was just how far it would go the rest of the week.
Next: Monticello declares a Thomas Jefferson themed empire!
Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com