Posts by John Curley

September 25th, 2014  |  Filed under Building BRC

Killin’ Time Till Resto

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The signs were not good at all.

First off, we were headed back to the Black Rock desert to visit people who, incredibly, had never left the playa.  Some of them had been there since July, and it seemed the only question was just how cracked out they would be.

All their friends and everyone else who’d been to Burning Man had left them behind. They had to know that we’d been eating sushi and pizza and burritos, and we’d been showering whenever we felt like it, and when we used the bathroom, it didn’t the way only a PortaPotty can stink at noon.

So these folks had to be bitter. And they were probably resentful, too, because who wouldn’t be? By the time we rolled into town, they’d already been working Playa Restoration for days. And they had a lot more mooping to look forward to. They’d been walking slowly across the empty desert, sometimes getting down on their hands and knees, to pick up what the partygoers had left behind.

But worst of all, these lost souls might even be hostile, and that made us nervous. Who the f—were we, all clean and shiny and caught up on sleep, to come sashaying into town? What the f—were we doing there, and who the f—did we think we were?

And then there was the trip itself.

The stench of broken dreams had been with us since before Truckee. The sky was dark orange, clouded by the smoke from fires ravaging Northern California. Reno seemed like some Saudi Arabian town in the middle of a dust storm. The sky there burnt ember, and it  smelled of smoke and destruction.

 

D.A. has been doing Playa Restoration for fifteen years

D.A. has been doing Playa Restoration for fifteen years

By the time we got to the other side of Nixon, where the beauty of the ancient lakebed usually hits us in the face, we were almost ready to turn back. We couldn’t see more than a couple of hundred yards on either side of the road. There was no sun, no glowing, golden hills. There was only smoke, and the growing sense of dread that this was all a very bad idea.

D.A. has been doing Playa Restoration for fifteen years, even though they haven’t called it “Playa Restoration” for nearly that long.  He’s been around since the days when only a couple of dozen people would stick around after everything had been trucked back to the ranch, after everything had been stowed away for the year.

Brukka was telling us about the old days, too, when it was a just small bunch of really ragged people who did the cleanup. They didn’t eat well, mostly stuff out of cans, and they didn’t sleep much. They did drink pretty hard, though, which only served to make things … volatile.

There were no fluffers, there were no support teams, and no one really knew they were still out there. There was no such thing as a Moop Map — there was only the need to leave no trace.

The BLM has always made Burning Man clean up after itself. It’s pretty simple, really: Officers will come to random points in what had been Black Rock City, and they’ll put stakes in the ground, and they’ll stretch out lines. Then they’ll inspect the circles of desert defined by those lines, and if they find too much crap  … boom. Inspection fail. Permit pulled. Event over.

So this Playa Restoration is serious business, and it is quite literally true that the future of the event depends on leaving the desert the way we found it.

Sometimes you have to get down on your hands and knees to clean the moop.

Sometimes you have to get down on your hands and knees to clean the moop.

And all the work is being done by people who haven’t seen home in months, and who have spent very little time with anyone but each other.

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September 1st, 2014  |  Filed under Building BRC

A finale full of Grace

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There were so many things to like about the Temple of Grace burn last night, it’s hard to pick a favorite moment, so we won’t even try. We’ll just tick off a list of things that were just about perfect:

– The weather was calm, warm and dust-free. The sky deepened from pink to purple to blue to black, and by the time night had fallen, the fire from the Temple threw a warm orange glow on everyone’s face.

– The crowd was unusually respectful. There were many art cars lining a perimeter circle, but, as in years past, their sound systems were turned off for the burn. There were few, if any, raucous outbursts that would have changed the mood.

– Marisa Lenhardt Patton sang “Freebird” as the fire was lit, a fitting nod to the DPW’s fallen brother, and an echo of what happened two years ago, when a blaring version of that song offended many in the crowd. This time, it was only a single, beautiful voice.  That song was followed by the Doors” “The End.” And then there was only silence and the sound of the fire.

– David Best his own self actually asked a Ranger to lower her voice as she was telling the crowd what to do and where to sit.

– Similarly, David made sure that all of the people who were privileged enough to be in the inner fire circle were sitting on the ground so that the crowd that had gathered behind them would have a good view, too.

– When fire engulfed the structure, it collapsed in the most graceful way possible, a half-twisting pirouette of flame and wood and embers. The Temple of Grace, indeed.

David Best watches the burn ...

David Best watched the burn …

... and then threw his arms up as the structure fell with a twist

… and then threw his arms up as the structure fell with a twist

The fire lasted just about as long as seemed appropriate, and when the fire perimeter was dropped, the crowed moved slowly forward toward the flames. Best left the people he had been sitting with and called out, “Maggie! Where’s Maggie?” and went off to be with his wife.

The smell of sage and copal became thick in the air, and people pulled picnic blankets and food and drink toward the smaller piles of embers. They joined together to share what they had brought. Read more »

August 31st, 2014  |  Filed under Building BRC

Burn night

Crimson Rose led the procession up the 6 o'clock boulevard

Crimson Rose led the procession up the 6 o’clock boulevard

The big Man is just a pile of smoking ruins now, even if people are still picking through the ashes, looking for burnt treasure.

We imagine that the biggest treasures have already been scooped up – Joe’s big nuts and bolts, the ankle and shoulder metal, even the cables and anchors that kept the Man upright for so long.

This year’s burn went longer than most. He was a mighty big Man, after all, constructed of 20×20-foot limbs and spine, and the whole thing took awhile to consume, which was not unexpected. You build a big man, you get a long burn.

We  don’t have a problem with a long, slow burn. It has its advantages: More time for visiting, more time for appreciating, more time to soak in the flames. We can think of many times when we have been reluctant to be the person to douse the flames at a campout, because there are times that we don’t want the night to end.

But we admit that we were waiting for the Man to fall last night so we could escape the sound. Yes, yes, we know the saying, “If it’s too loud, you’re too old,” and maybe that’s true. But honestly, we always thought that one of the corollaries of radical self expression was that your actions not impinge on another’s experience, and let’s just say there was lots of impinging going on last night. We do not expect to hear a DJ exhorting a crowd in a way that might work at spring break in Daytona Beach, but doesn’t work on the playa. At all.

Crimson gave the signal that the arms should rise

Crimson gave the signal that the arms should rise

Plus, we’d like to be able to HEAR the burn. Not just the exploding shells and fireworks, but also the crackle and pop of the flames, the whoosh of embers falling, and, last night, even the climactic crash of the Man’s big legs.

But no. Last night that was not possible. And yes, we might be the slightest bit cranky about it. We’re not saying that there shouldn’t be sound and celebration, because this is the big finish, the Bacchanalian moment.  But there’s got to be a way that the sound cars don’t take over the experience. It’s not your show, comma, dude.

Anyway, onward.

The night began as it always does, with Crimson Rose transferring the flame that has been burning at the top of the keyhole in the El Diabla cauldron since Monday to the Luminferous, the wagon that carries it to the Man. A grand procession of flame-carrying stilt-walkers and drummers and Black Rock citizens processed up the 6 o’clock boulevard, then made a circle around the giant Man. When their circuit was complete, it was time for the Man’s arms to rise so that the fire conclaves could commence their show. Read more »

August 30th, 2014  |  Filed under Building BRC

Touching the elephant

 

 

Here are some quick stories from the week, in hopes of giving you a little sense of what’s been happening at Burning Man.

When the event starts, it is impossible to keep up with. The Roshomon effect is especially strong, except we’re not touching various parts of an elephant, but a fire-breathing Tyranosaurus.

The day starts early and ends late, it is full of both giant spectacles and tender intimacy. All things great and small.

So from our narrow little perspective, a peephole view of the past few days.

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A sliver-y moon brightned the eveing skies on Friday

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Erica drank a margarita from the end of the Zebracorn

Chris and his Zebracorn

Chris and his Zebracorn

And then out of nowhere you meet a supermodel

And then out of nowhere you meet a supermodel

Scott London and Sydney Erthal, whose wonderful new Burning Man book, written by Jennifer Raiser, is tearing up the Amazon charts

Scott London and Sydney Erthal, whose wonderful new Burning Man book, written by Jennifer Raiser, is tearing up the Amazon charts

Little kids seem to adapt to the desert extremely well, especially when they have experienced and self-reliant Burner parents

Little kids seem to adapt to the desert extremely well, especially when they have experienced and self-reliant Burner parents

"Are those heavy?" we asked. "My shoulders are killing me," she replied

“Are those heavy?” we asked. “My shoulders are killing me,” she replied

The Lamplighters off to light the lanterns around the city

The Lamplighters off to light the lanterns around the city

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August 28th, 2014  |  Filed under Building BRC

A pause

The Temple of Grace

The Temple of Grace

We’re going to stay quiet for a little bit, out of respect for the family and friends of the woman who lost her life in Black Rock City. Keep them in your thoughts.

August 26th, 2014  |  Filed under Building BRC

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

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August 25th, 2014  |  Filed under Building BRC

Opening Day: wet, not so wild

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As Peanut put it, Burning Man pressed the “pause” button today, as heavy rains and hail prevented people from getting in and out of Black Rock City, caused widespread power outages, and intensified the misery of people waiting in the “will call” lines at the box office.

The gates to the city officially opened at 10 am on Sunday, and for most of the day it seemed like the event was off to a pretty good start, despite harsh weather during the build that forced everyone to hustle to catch up to schedule.

Things got further off track as Sunday progressed, though, with horror tales of people spending as many as eight hours in the will-call line. The scene at the gate last night was unprecedented. As people wound round and around waiting in line on foot to pick up their will-call tickets, there weren’t any cars ready to be processed through the gate.

It almost seems like there’s a new challenge in the ticket system every year, and this year it has been the backlog at the will call window. Nimbus, Burning Man’s ticketing manager, said in her seven years with the organization, she’s never seen so many people arrive at the will-call window in such a short time frame.

Megan Miller, Burning Man’s director of communication, said, “There are a lot of factors that we’re looking at. Some of it is in our control, and some of it isn’t.”

The contributing factors include the number of tickets that are sold electronically and require a check-in. Those include the 3,000 tickets that were sold in the “oh my god” final sale in July, the 4,000 low-income tickets, and the increasing number of tickets sold to international participants, who now are about 20 percent of the population (the organization does not ship tickets internationally). Plus, all the tickets re-sold through the STEP program also require a visit to the will-call window.

And then there are the vagaries caused by dependence on technology: If the wifi is down or bad weather is affecting satellite signals, the check-in process is slowed. It’s still the desert out here, you know, and things just don’t work they way they do in the default world.

The will-call line was hours and hours long

The will-call line was hours and hours long

Still, for the people who were already inside the city, although the rain and hail was scary at times, and made the roads impassible by virtually any means – foot, bicycle or vehicle, it also gave participants another opportunity to prevail over the elements.

The good planners knew that plastic bags wrapped around your shoes prevent “playa platforms” from building up on the soles of your shoes. That was really only the beginning of it, though.

There was the simple approach to getting around: no shoes at all. (The mud doesn’t stick to your feet.) Then there was the utilitarian approach: Black or clear plastic bags, zip-locked or taped. Then there was the fashion-forward approach: White plastic bags arising to mid-calf. And then there was Helen Hickman, who took advantage of the weather to invent a new genre of playawear: the trash suit.

“I must say, it’s very becoming,” Larry Harvey said as he walked around Rod’s Road, sidestepping the muddy clumps and randomly talking to people hoping to start their burn.

Helen had a message: “I have to tell everyone, trash-bag wear is going to be the thing this year.”

The fabulous Helen, aka Danger Ass

The fabulous Helen, aka Danger Ass

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August 23rd, 2014  |  Filed under Building BRC

Three friends, the Temple, and the heart of BRC

Ziffy in the Center Cafe

Ziffy in the Center Cafe

Michael Ziff and Craig Mullin have been coming to Burning Man since 1999, which, because it was in the ‘90s, should and does garner mad respect. We think the dividing line for old school is the year 2000; if you attended before then, you’re old school; if you started coming after, well, we’re happy to have you …

Ziffy and Corky therefore qualify as old school,  and on Friday, just a couple of days before the event starts, they had one of those fundamental kinds of Burning Man experiences that you can’t make up, ones that seem to happen with an almost unsettling regularity, and which restore your faith that you’ve made the right decision to attend again.

Because honestly, it’s not easy to come here.

It’s not easy to step away from the life you know and the people you love and maybe the job you have, to put it all in a state of suspended animation, not for a vacation, but for immersion and energy and maybe even renewal and rebirth. Yes, yes, Burning Man is a dirt rave and a hippy party and a corral for sparkle ponies, we get all that.

But it is also the opportunity to burn things away, both literally and figuratively. It is looking again at the life you are living, looking at it through a different lens, and judging it by different standards. It’s hard not to do that here, because in spite of the recent (and not really new) stories about how Burning Man has become a playground for the tech elite, for most people, the experience is anything but a contest in opulence.

Layna Joy said it pretty well out at the Man Base the other day. She said, “People are the currency here, and I’m rich. Money means nothing.” The strength and freshness of your personality and the authenticity of your life is what counts here.

Ziffy and Corky first came to Burning Man in 1999, and they went to the first Temple ever specifically built for Burning Man in 2000. That was David Best’s first year, and it was the first year there was an identifiable place for solemnity and reverence and memorial and yes, sadness, at Burning Man.

And Ziffy and Corky were out at the Temple again yesterday, too, even as workers were installing decorative panels in the still-under-construction dome. They wanted to be in the Temple at the exact moment, 11:11 a.m., that their friend Daniel, back in Vancouver,  would have himself removed from life support and thus end his long battle against terminal cancer. Read more »