Despite many years on the Playa, I have to admit the heat is oppressive.
This is a different kind of heat. Every evening for the past two days tremendous thunderstorms have sporadically blasted over the festival site, sending lightning shooting across the sky and dousing everything in tepid rain. The result is a humid sweltering slickness that sticks to your skin. It makes me long for playa dust to dry things out.
I turn to Jana Polnischova, the young woman sitting next to me and ask what the temperature is.
“Oh, it’s 35 degrees at least, maybe as high as 38,” she says.
I do the mental calculation and figure that yeah, it’s well over 95 degrees Fahrenheit, maybe 102. So… it’s 1 pm on Saturday and it’s definitely hot.
Up on the stage Burning Man LLC founding members Larry Harvey and Marian Goodell are both sitting in chairs smiling. They’ve got a couple of stand-up fans spinning three feet away trying to keep them cool, but even so it’s clear there’s no way either is really comfortable. Standing next to them is Michal Kaščák, our host, and he’s smiling out at the audience as he speaks rapid-fire Slovakian into his microphone.
I’ve followed Larry and Marian to the Pohoda Festival, in the town of Trencin in Slovakia, where they’ve been invited to speak about Burning Man. It’s been a strange trip, watching the two of them navigate hotels, airports, three different languages and crossing international borders while they discuss the day to day operations of the org back home, the upcoming Burning Man in Nevada, and how to grow the org itself into the Burning Man Project. But now the moment of truth is here, actually talking to attendees of a typical music festival in a country on the other side of the world from home. And I have to wonder, will anybody show up? Do they care about our event in the desert, far… far away?
The answer seems to be yes, as over a 150 people have braved the heat of the day to pile into a circus tent and fan themselves as Michal talks away, occasionally punctuating his Slovakian with words I recognize like “Larry” or “Nevada” or “Playa.” He motions at me at one point and says “Thunderdome” so I smile and wave, the crowd smiles.
It’s still a little surreal, which makes it perfect for Burning Man.
Michal himself is exactly how I’d describe a Slovakian should look like. Stout, but not too short. Hair close cropped and matching the length of several days of stubble on his round face. His burly frame is bursting with energy as he, I assume, describes his own experience at Burning Man the year before. Despite his smiles though, you can tell he’s tired on this the last day of his festival. He’s been going nonstop since before it opened with Lou Reed as the opening act, making sure to introduce every band or discussion, racing between pavilions and stages on a mountain bike, and it’s clearly wearing on him.
Pohoda doesn’t translate well to English, he has explained to me, but essentially it means “we’re all hanging out together and happily chilling out.” He’s also told me the festival started decades earlier, when he and his friends were part of a rock-and-roll band in communist Czechoslovakia. Playing birthday parties and small venues, his band would have to submit their playlist to the local communist party for approval. When the wall fell, his band and others seized on the opportunity to start their own music gathering, and things grew from there. Now Pohoda is the largest festival in Slovakia, bringing in acts from around the world like Moby, Public Enemy, Elbow, Bomba Estereo, DJs galore and others.
Pohoda is located on an old airbase, which I’ve been assured was here before communism, and therefore wasn’t a military airbase, but I’m not convinced. It somehow has the feel of military history to it. Now, 30,000 attendees are walking along the old runways and camping in tents in the fields that border the airstrip, and a few old buildings are used as headquarters and a backstage area. More than just music, Pohoda also includes panels on current events, art work and interview programs. Which is how Larry and Marian found themselves up on stage.
As the interviewer, local journalist Juras Kusnienk, launches into questions in English, they’re about what you’d expect from a Slovakian trying to understand Burning Man. Why did you decide to burn a wooden man on the beach in San Francisco? Why go to a desert playa? How many people attend? How much trash does it create? The questions from the audience are much the same. Are there a lot of police there? A lot of drugs? What about the dust?If you don’t have a backstage, where do you keep the bands? What’s this we hear about a lottery?
Larry and Marian navigate the questions with a practiced ease, usually by guiding their answers to address the more interesting topics surrounding Burning Man. Yes, it’s a leave no trace event, and mostly that policy is enforced by other attendees who will chastise you if you’ve made a mess. Burning Man is set on the playa because it gives you a blank slate to create something new and different. It’s more about the creating of community, and expression than just dancing in the desert, although there is that too.
The audience is drinking it up, and despite the heat there are bright eyes and more questions than there will be time allotted for. I’m reminded of how eager Michal was to bring us to his festival, when I’d met him a year earlier. In a typically surreal turn of events, he and his business partners Jana and Mario Gešvantner, had traveled to South by Southwest in March 2011 to find new music and ended up listening to Marian speak on a panel, after that one thing lead to another and they soon found themselves on the playa, exploring the city on an impromptu Death Guild artcar parade and fighting the Czech Republic regional contact, Misa Rygrova, in Thunderdome. Michal immediately set about trying to bring parts of the Burn back to Pohoda, by inviting us to visit, and making contact with art groups to bring them as well. It turned out to be too difficult to get large pieces like Charon or projects from the Flaming Lotus Girls to Slovakia in such a short time, but that hasn’t stopped Pohoda from adopting smaller touches.
Along the airbase art projects dot the landscape. Pianos are dropped randomly about for people to sit and play, elsewhere large photographs of local area gypsy’s posing in formal attire float above our heads, and in one area a maze has been created of a large grouping of flags and a field of sunflowers. My favorite touch however is the roller disco, inspired by the original in Black Rock City, where festival attendees are borrowing skates and listening to 70s music as they roll along the tarmac. It’s not much in the greater scheme of things, but it shows the interest in interactive art. All coming from a country on the other side of the world from Nevada.
Looking around at the audience of mostly young people, ranging in age from 20 to 40, it’s clear they’re curious about what it’s like to go to a festival where you bring the art, and engage with others to create it. They’re getting their heads around the idea of going someplace not just to see a performance, but to be the performance… although the lack of a backstage does seem to stymie a few, as the question comes up again. But mostly it seems that people here have heard rumors of Burning Man, or have had friends of friends that have gone, or maybe they saw a picture of the Man burning and wanted to know more, and it brought them to hear more from two people coming to them direct from the desert.
Someone asks how they can go about “bringing this kind of thing to Slovakia?” and Larry and Marian seize on the opportunity to explain the importance of the many Burning Man regional events that take place around the world, and point out Misa where she’s sitting in the audience. She gets up and lets everyone know that she’d love to talk to them about helping with setting up a local Burning Man community and regional events nearby. After their discussion is over, 20 or so attendees come to the stage to ask further questions or just say thank you for coming. One excited young man beams at Marian and nods. “I’m just so happy that someplace like this exists on the earth!” he says. “I’ve never been there, but now that I’ve heard I have to make it there somehow. I love the idea of it. This just gives me hope!”
He turns to me and points at my hat where I’ve wrapped a pair of dust goggles as a band. “Are those from the desert?” he asks.
“Sure,” I say, taking off the hat to show him more closely. “In fact, if you look closely, you can see I’ve still got playa dust on them.”
I’m startled for a moment as he reaches out to touch the goggles, almost reverently, rubbing them with a finger. “Oh. That is so cool,” he sighs and smiles at me. “Dust.”