Just your average Tuesday

Forces atop the Alien Siege Machine
Forces atop the Alien Siege Machine

One of the things about Burning Man is that one day seems like three; when you think about what happened early in the day, it almost seems like it happened yesterday, or even the day before. So much happens in the course of 24 hours.

So you can imagine what it is like to try to remember what happened yesterday:  It seems like last week. So today, when we rode around the playa and explored the art and it wasn’t too hot and there wasn’t any dust, we could only be grateful for the rain that made things such a mess the day before.

(This post is going to be annoying if you don’t like Burning Man or are only interested in what can be done better. There won’t be much criticism, because right now we can’t think of any. Today was the kind of day that makes us like the event.)

So we’ll pick our story up where it ended a day ago. When last we visited, the rain had slammed us, but then had gone away.  The sun had come out by midafternoon, and the puddles started drying up, and there were rumors that Gate Road would soon open up. That apparently happened around 6 pm for the people who had been stuck between the gravel of Route 34 and the entry gates. After those people made it into the city, traffic control people started telling the folks who were stuck out on the highway that it was safe to travel. Then the ok was given to the people in Gerlach, then presumably the green light extended all the way to the 447 exit off of Route 80.

Don't believe everything you read
Don’t believe everything you read

We heard stories of the spontaneous parties of people trying to make the most of being stuck, of being participants at Waiting Man, and we also heard of horror tales of the hours it took to get through the lines. Louder Charlie said he heard the longest it took for one person  to make it from Gerlach to Black Rock City was 29 hours. Oof.

The population at midnight the night before last was 27,900; by midnight last night, there were 38,400 people in Black Rock City. So a little better than 11,000 folks made it through the gates by midnight Monday, the day of the big rain. But last night the city still felt small and intimate. That might have been because the recent arrivals were still setting up their camps, not going out and about.

As evening fell we went for a stroll. We ran into people we knew, which is always a happy thing: Just when you think that everything is getting too crowded, you have a reunion on the playa and it all seems like a big family party again.

We finally made our way out to the Man and wandered around the tent-like souks for a bit. The souks really were a philosophical and aesthetic risk this year; there was a lot of affection and community-building around the Regional Projects, which the souks effectively replaced. But for us the move worked on two levels; the playa area around the Man felt more open and spacious, giving the Man the space he needed to have the most impact. Plus, the souks created a gathering place at the base of the Man. It very much felt like we were in a marketplace, at least of ideas, as we were making our voyage. Canvassary, indeed.

The keyhole
The keyhole

Most of the souk displays are interactive. You wandered in and someone asked you to do something or explore something. We wandered into one souk that featured a terrycloth camel about eight feet tall. A woman was seated underneath the camel, almost as if she were milking it. You were encouraged to reach inside the camel’s udder, and there were fingers in there. So we pulled them as if we were milking them, and before we knew it we had a handful of special fortune cookies. The one we opened said, “Art is what you make other people see,” and we liked that very much.

We came back to Media Mecca, right there on Rod Road near the Center Café, where all the visiting press checks in. It is also where we call home, and this year it has a décor designed and implemented by Phoenix and her crew. It has elevated our surroundings to a new height. There are handmade Arab-y turrets and smooth flowing fabric everywhere. Window art boxes are framed by geometrically cut CDs, and the color scheme on the interior and exterior walls picks up the reflections cast by the CDs. Who knew there were so many beautiful pastel shades of purple and blue and green, and that they could be interwoven so beautifully.

Today we had an ambitious day of going to more Burning Man. We got our bikes, went to a friend’s camp, had some refreshments, and set out.

 

 

Heading out
Heading out

Even though it was just past midday, the sun wasn’t scorchingly hot, there was no wind (just an occasional breeze), and the playa was, and I have to say it, really really nice. We know there is probably still some rough stuff over by 3 o’clock, but where we were, mostly on the west side of the city, the rain had tamped down the dust and the playa surface was hard. Even on a bike that has been to 12 Burning Mans, we pedaled around with no problem.

We visited the “Paha’oha’o Volcano” project by Kahai Tate, where people were climbing up to the top of the 30-foot volcano and then sliding down. Her intention with the piece was to mark her personal transformation from the pain of abuse to a more healthy life,  and it is her first big art project on the playa. Marco Cochrane, of Bliss fame, was a consulting artist.

Over we went to the “Library of Babel,” Warrick Macmillion’s beautifully constructed wooden sculpture, with a big gold dome on the top. Inside there were handmade books with elegant paper made of recycled material. You were encouraged to express yourself in whatever medium you liked, and there were drawings and writings on many of the pages of the books.

Onward to the strange and scary but still somehow inviting “Alien Siege Machine” by Dan Fox. There were people who had climbed the handholds to reach the top of the four-story sculpture, where no doubt they were plotting the takeover of Black Rock City. In the belly of the thing, maybe two stories high, there was hung what looked like an atom bomb. You could ride it and wave your cowboy hat, just like the scene toward the end of Dr. Strangelove.

 

The only time we'd seen Kelsey before was when she was way on top of "Embrace," doing the dangerous things
The only time we’d seen Kelsey before was when she was way on top of “Embrace,” doing the dangerous things

Then it was on to “Cruz the Wave,” a wooden sculpture that you ride your bike through. It looks petty challenging, but here’s the trick: just keep peddling and find your groove. (There’s a lesson in there somewhere.) The wave rises 18 feet out of the desert floor, and it was the work of, fittingly enough, the Santa Cruz Burners.

Then it was on to one of the big-ticket items out here, Matt Schultz’s “Embrace.”

We’ve been visiting “Embrace” since the project was nothing but flags in the ground, and it’s almost overwhelming to be visiting now that it is complete. It is such a departure for Matt Schultz and his crew, who did the Pirate Ship last year and the Pier before that. There is a completely different aspiration here, one more contemplative and interpretive. The whole structure is covered in very thin pieces of wood, the kind that is used in making plywood. Kelsey told us that each of the sheets had to be torn by hand. And even though it is wood, it is bent and smoothed in such a way that from a distance it looks like it could be made of paper mache, the lines are so liquid and fluid.

The inside is astonishingly detailed and intricate. There are various rooms and passageways, plus stairs that ascend to upper levers, where there is more to explore. At the base of each of the giant figures, Alpha and Omega, there are big hearts, one a pulsating organism that changes color, and the other a delicately woven metal.

Dr. Deb be in the house
Dr. Deb be in the house

 

This was a daytime visit, so the shade inside felt delicious. People stopped and stared at all of the interior surfaces,  almost every last inch of which has been covered by the same wooden skin.

Then it was time to head back to camp and compare notes with others who had been out and about. Abby had been over at Rejection Camp, and she had been given an assignment to get rejected five times. She couldn’t ask for anything physical or unreasonable (don’t be a jerk, in other words), so she tried it out by asking for extra banana slices at a camp that was giving them out. Unfortunately, she was not rejected and got the extra slices. We told her maybe she should reject rejection camp.

And that’s about the day, really. You know, same old same old; ride around an ancient lakebed and interact with projects that artists have been working on for months and months, and then make plans to do more of the same in the evening.

It’s really not the worst way to spend a Tuesday, you know, and we’re awfully sorry if you’re reading this in your office and you have a report that is due soon.

And even though we saw a lot of the big pieces out here, there are lots more we want to see. And we’re also looking forward to roaming the back streets of the city, where smaller camps set up bars and soup kitchens and fire barrels and are as warm and inviting as neighbors can be.

We believe that the real Burning Man is back on those streets, and we don’t want to miss it.

 

Here are some more pics from going out a little:

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Juno is back! (And so are Andi and Tom)
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Wherever the Front Porch is is a good place
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Our camp mate Dennis and one of his drones, seen at eye level
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Phoenix putting the finishing touches on Media Mecca
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A few pals were having a birthday celebration
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That’s an atomic-looking bomb in the cargo bay of Alien Siege Machine
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You have to climb to the top

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Some say the Man has thunder thighs, but viewed from the side, he’s quite trim
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No appointments were necessary for the playa hairdressing parlor
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Riding the wave with the Santa Cruz Burners
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Some art was still under construction
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Feathers are apparently ok on the playa, as long as you look after them
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One of the hearts in Embrace
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Beautiful detail work at Embrace
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Another of the hearts in Embrace
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Embrace with visitors
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In the Library of Babel, you were encouraged to create in the handmade books
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The exterior of the Library of Babel
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Kahai Tate’s volcano
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No one would reject Abby
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Playa fabulousness
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The Alien Siege Machine
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Our home, Media Mecca

 

About the author: John Curley

John Curley has been Burning since the relatively late date of 2004, and in 2008 he spent the better part of a month on the playa, documenting the building and burning of Black Rock City in words and pictures. John is a longtime newspaper person and spent many years at the San Francisco Chronicle, where he was a deputy managing editor in charge of Page One and the news sections of the paper. Since leaving the Chronicle in 2007, he was a contributing editor on Blue Planet Run, a book about the world's water crisis, and for the past two years has been a lecturer at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. He has also started an event and editorial photography business, and is also working on a book about the "Ten Dollar Doc" from Arco, Idaho, which will make a lovely film someday.

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