The Beginning

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This is the story of the Spike, the first official act of the Burning Man season, which is important because of all the ritualized practices that have grown up around the event, this one might be the most heartfelt and stirring.

But this story is also about the beginning the work that is necessary to build Black Rock City, which will become home (or Home with a capital H, as the participants like to refer to it) for somewhere around 70,000 people, who will gather in the desert at the end of August and over the Labor Day weekend to celebrate art and express themselves radically, among other things.

It’s ironic that Burning Man takes place around a national holiday, because Burning Man has reset the calendar for many people. For them, the year is about the season of the Man; and it culminates when the Man burns on the Saturday of the event. That day is their New Year’s Eve, and after the Temple burns, a new year begins.

So we are into the high holy days now, and to carry the metaphor just a step further, Spike becomes something like Christmas. It’s not so much about the giving of gifts or the birth of a savior, but rather it is more about an affirmation of hope. Maybe in some ways it’s Easter, too, because the feeling of renewal and rebirth is strong.

Maybe this religiosity makes you nervous, but we are not talking about deities here, or paganism, or any other worshipfulness. What we are talking about are the things that bind people together – hope, love, community. It’s no random accident that people say they are going Home when they go to Burning Man, because for many people, this is the family they have chosen.

Here is an outline of what happens over these days: The first of the crews arrive in Gerlach several weeks before Spike happens. The season begins earlier than you might realize. The logistics and office work and ordering of goods and arranging for services takes months. The tiny town of Gerlach begins to fill up with the folks who make the event happen.

Coyote called people to gather around the Spike.
Coyote called people to gather around the Spike.

Then, a few weeks in, there is a ceremony that marks the official start of the organization’s presence in the Black Rock Desert, and it is when the people who are most intimately involved with building the city gather together to collectively drive a stake in the ground, the exact point upon which the Man will be built. But before they take the sledgehammer in their hands and strike their ceremonial blow, they will say a few words to the assembled crowd. They will speak of their intentions, their joy, their sorrows and disappointments. Or they might be completely absurd, depending. There is no script.

But mostly, people take advantage of the opportunity to speak from the heart, to people who love them and will stand by them. There are often tears in the deathly hot desert, from both the speakers and the listeners.

Coyote is the superintendent of Black Rock City, and he takes the hammer and speaks first. “Every year we put the stake in the ground, and every year we change people’s lives,” he says. “And every year people take a little piece of Black Rock City home with them in their backpacks … little embers. … It’s a break from the normal madness. None of the mudslinging and politics and crap that’s in the news every day.”

Some people carry umbrellas to keep from getting scorched by the sun, many people have beverages in their hands, and there are shouts of agreement, as well as catcalls and whistles. Nothing gets overly solemn or cheesy. But somehow the words penetrate the everyday armor of cynicism and safe distance.

“It’s hot out today,” Coyote says, “So I’m not going to talk much. And we ask that you do the same!”

And then others step forward to take the sledgehammer and say a few words.

Will Roger, who founded Black Rock City’s Department of Public Works, says, “My hat’s off to all of you for keeping the spirit of DPW alive. A remarkable, dedicated, wonderful group of people. Here’s to you.” Then he hands the sledge to “the only person I love more than DPW, my wife, Rosie.” That would be Crimson Rose, who directs many of the fiery things that attract the Burner moths to the desert, who has been at Burning Man for 23 years. “We couldn’t do it without you,” she says.

Will Roger and Crimson Rose
Will Roger and Crimson Rose

Playground takes the sledge and says, “Every time I say the word ‘cancer’ I want you to say, “Fuck Cancer.’” Her husband is home undergoing chemotherapy and radiation. “Fuck Cancer!!” people shout. She asks some of her colleagues to join her in the center of the circle. “These are the people who have totally had my back as we go through this cancer nightmare,” she says. “Fuck Cancer!” the crowd roars back. “I could not do it without these guys. They make me shine. You make them shine.”

“Fuck Cancer!!”

Dylan Blackthorne comes forward. “A long time ago I decided that I was going to focus my energies on building the world that I wanted to live in,” he says, “instead of fighting the world that I did not want to live in. This is part of that.”

There are warnings and pleas to take care of each other, and for us to take care of ourselves. There are many people grateful for the opportunity to serve. And there is more heartbreak.

“I learned during (desert restoration) last year that my father had gone into hospice,” Makeout Queen says, through her tears, “and then he died in January. It’s been a really hard year. … And I moved out of the only home I ever knew, and the only community I ever knew. And it’s been really crazy. … But coming out here, and seeing ALLL of you motherfuckers, makes me realize that I made the right decisions. And the only reason I made the right decisions, is that all of you motherfuckers tell me to stop making the dumb ones.”

Makeout Queen
Makeout Queen

All of the stories were not alike, but many had similar themes – sorrow, joy, the gratefulness for being here again. There were people who had been doing this for ten years, fifteen years and more, and others who were there for the first time. If you weren’t moved by what was said, it wouldn’t have made sense for you to be there at all, really.

When all the people who wanted to speak had spoken, Coyote took a bottle of Champagne and smashed it into the Spike. People rushed to pick up the shards of glass, and then the ceremony was over. People drifted off the desert floor and back into Gerlach, to get ready for the next task.

But a few folks stayed behind to begin the actual work of building Black Rock City. The eighteen people who are on the Survey would start plotting out the map and marking the outline of the city onto the desert floor.

And that’s where we’ll pick up the story next.

The first gathering in Black Rock City in 2014
The first gathering in Black Rock City in 2014

 

The sun was hot, so the speeches were short
The sun was hot, so the speeches were short

 

Umbrellas provided a little shade
Umbrellas provided a little shade

 

When the talking was finished, Coyote smashed a bottle onto the Spike
When the talking was finished, Coyote smashed a bottle onto the Spike

 

When the Spike ceremony was finished, most folks headed back to Gerlach to resume their tasks
When the Spike ceremony was finished, most folks headed back to Gerlach to resume their tasks

 

The Survey team stayed behind to begin the building of Black Rock City
The Survey team stayed behind to begin the building of Black Rock City

Maybe Everything We Believe About the Universe is True

By John Curley and Hannah Miller

The Global Leadership Conference is about a lot of things. That was never more true than what took place on Friday afternoon at the Ignite session, where all the conference attendees sat in an auditorium-like space and listened to one speaker after another talk about what inspired them, what motivated them, what they had learned as they pursued life and the arts.

 

Brady Forrest
Brady Forrest

Brady Forrest
The Evolution of Ignite Talks
Brady Forrest introduced the audience to the concept of the Ignite talk: five minutes, with 20 mandatory slides. The format encourages speakers to keep moving and use visuals, and has now been used in 50 Ignite talks around the country. The real point of Ignite, said Brady, is that “anyone can be a rockstar.”

Danielle Leong
Corpse Party Bugs
Danielle laid down the ecosystem your body turns into after death. Within 10 days, it teems with maggots, ants, carrion beetles, and then a long beautiful process of increasing putrefaction: putrefaction (when your body bloats), black putrefaction (when your body explodes) and butyric fermentation, when your body starts to smell like cheese. (Danielle did not specify which cheese.) It’s transformation in reverse. Starting with the end at the beginning. (more…)

What’s Going On Here?

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Marian Goodell at the opening cocktail party for the Global Leadership Conference

We went to our first Burning Man Global Leadership Conference event last night and of course we were very nervous and uncomfortable, because hey, Global Leadership? We are suspicious and skeptical when it comes to just about every organized movement, and we reached adulthood around the time Jim Jones took his People’s Temple to the jungle, and now here we are talking about Ten Principles and Global Leadership and all the rest of it. So what exactly is going on here? We love Burning Man, love love love, but why would people come to a conference like this? And what grand plan is the Burning Man trying to foist on an unsuspecting public? We had questions, and we muscled up our courage and went seeking answers.

Fortunately, there were cocktails, which helped immensely.

Maybe the first thing you need to know is that it wasn’t always like this. The esteemed and august Global Leadership Conference had humble beginnings. Very humble, as in, some of the founders went to Austin with their hats in their hands, and then they passed the hats around the room.

“We were $200,000 in debt,” Marian Goodell recalled last night on the rooftop of Burning Man headquarters in the ever-so-hip Mission District of San Francisco. “We had never had a human being ask to do something outside of San Francisco.”

The human being who asked to help was George Paap, aka Tiki, who had been staging elaborate tropical parties with flaming volcanoes and fancy umbrella drinks in Austin for some time, and he had found his way to Burning Man in 1997, where he experienced a profound sense of belonging that made him want to do more.

“I had been in a deep depression for two or three years,” he says loudly and jovially now, so jovially that it’s hard to picture him in any subdued state of mind. But he had been struggling, and Burning Man was a solace and an inspiration. So he contacted Harley DuBois with the idea of holding a fund-raiser in Austin.

“Harley sent him a book about Burning Man, and some videos,” Marian said, to help build the interest and explain what Burning Man was about. But not many people came, and only $500 was raised. But that seemingly couldn’t have mattered less. “He sent us an email apologizing,” Marian said, “because only 25 people showed up. But they drove from Dallas and Houston in a rainstorm in November. … And we cried! I’m not kidding, we cried!”

Marian Goodell, George Paap and Larry Harvey
Marian Goodell, George Paap and Larry Harvey

That was 1997. Now, 300 people have gathered in San Francisco, and no one is passing the hat. The conference is heavily subsidized by the Burning Man organization (regional leaders attend for free, and their guests pay $100; they pay their own way to get there, though, and finding a place to stay is up to them). (more…)

SF Gets Decompressed

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We went to San Francisco’s version of Decompression on Sunday, and the cool grey city of love was looking anything but cool and grey: sunshine and late-summer warmth carried the day.

Esprit Park was jammed, the drinks were cool and the outfits were fantastic. No, we weren’t in the desert, and no, Burning Man wasn’t still happening, but wherever and whenever you get to the people and things that make you happy, that’s a good thing. And Decompression is that good thing.

There were art cars and info booths, Black Rock Solar and BMIR, flames and glowies, and plenty of happy people. It’s funny: during the event you might tend to stick with your own kind; ravers are with ravers, artists are with artists, builders are with builders. But at Decompression we all kind of get thrown together along four long blocks in the Dogpatch, and you see all the disparate sides of Burning Man in a comparatively small space.

There was Larry his own self behind the yellow tape at the Friends of DPW area (and thank you Caitlin and Pinkie and Abbey and all the rest who gave their time and money and energy to create a safe landing place for the slightly shell-shocked folks who only last week got back from the desert after finishing up Playa Restoration).

There were sound stages all along the event area, and there were DJs and live music, and interestingly enough there were also spoken-word performances, which leads you to believe that the entertainment and scope of what happens at Decom continues to expand and evolve. Late in the night a young guy was telling the story of a recent breakup, and there was a good 60 people or so, sitting and listening and feeling a little more connected to the experiences we all share.

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There was Marian and Lady Bee and Will Chase and Lightning and other BM luminaries, and there was Plex and Deborah and dozens if not hundreds of other volunteers who make all this possible. It never ceases to amaze us how much is accomplished because of the kindness and generosity of and open-heartedness of the volunteers. None of this could happen without them, and we thank them sincerely, if inadequately, every chance we get. Thank you for getting up early, thank you for staying up late, thank you for working the whole time. Thank you.

We naturally gravitated around the DPW enclave, because it felt like home. We could watch the parade of people strolling by, the stilt-walkers and the sparkle ponies, the makers and artists, the veterans and the newbies.

You probably remember how challenging it was to readjust to the default world when you got back from the desert. But imagine if you had been out there since the beginning of August and just now returned to your other life. The desert cleanup is finished, but the BLM inspection hasn’t taken place yet because the government is at least partially shut down. And it’s unclear when that inspection will happen. But if history is any guide, and of course it is, there won’t be anything to worry about; the Resto crew went over the playa inch by inch so that we can truly say that Burning Man is a leave-no-trace event.

There were signs yesterday, though, that environmental mindfulness can get left behind in the desert. At the end of the night, as we walked out to Mariposa street, we couldn’t help but notice how much litter was on the ground. Sigh. And that’s why there was another team of volunteers on duty very early Monday morning, making sure that we could justifiably claim that Decompression, like Burning Man, is a leave-no-trace event. It just needs a little help.

(more…)

And Then It All Burned Down

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So, did you do anything special Saturday night?

We kinda did.

What if you dreamed up the most impossibly beautiful and perfectly timed thing you could summon your heart and mind to imagine? And what if you labored all year to pull the strings and find the money and overcome the forces who would defeat you? And what if somehow, once again, you persuaded all your friends to help?

And then what if you actually watched it all taking shape, agonizingly slowly and with great effort, rising in the bright white heat of the desert?

And then what if it finally stood there, appearing and disappearing majestically between whiteouts, and in the evenings glowing with a mesmerizing tranquility against the purple of the hills?

And then what if in that moment of triumph of will and sweat, of tears and blood, what if you said, ok, that’s it. That’s enough. We are done with this. We dreamed it and we did it and now it is time to be done with it. So you lit the torch and set fire to the thing, and you watched the flames consume that which had consumed you.

That was our Saturday night, and we wish you were here.

And if you were here, thank you very much, nothing more to see here; time to move on.

Oh yes, there is still a Temple to burn tonight, but the apex of Burning Man has been reached, and just like that, it is time to get back to the present, and to the immediate future, and then maybe, some time later, to think about what will come next. But for now, strike the tent, literally pull up the stakes, sort your trash and get the hell out of Dodge. It is time to get back into the moment.

Weather reports Sunday morning were scaring the general population, and we secretly thought that this wasn’t the worst thing that could happen. People being in a hurry to leave was ok with us. We don’t mean to be harsh, and we mean this in the most loving way possible, but we are tired of your face and it’s time for you to go.

This giant Burning Man has almost come to a close, and it is going to take a long time to get everyone out of boomtown Black Rock City, and the sooner some people hit the road, the better for all concerned. So here’s your hat, what’s your hurry?

In the daytime, the saucer would come and go with the winds
In the daytime, the saucer would come and go with the winds

(more…)

The Burn So Far

The Man welcomed crowds to his saucer
The Man welcomed crowds to his saucer

So after all the months, and then all the weeks, and then the days of prep and planning and building and worrying and leave-taking, guess what? Burning Man snuck up on us and blasted right out of the gate.

Just like that, the doors opened and thousands and thousands of people poured through, some more slowly than others, and swelled the population of the city to holy crap 55,000 by midday on Tuesday. So it’s pretty clear that this won’t be a year like last year, when the population declined for the first time.

We find it next to impossible to even pretend to have a handle on what is happening at Burning Man. We only touch one part of the elephant; your results may vary.

All we know is that people couldn’t wait to get here this year, that tickets seemed in demand right up until the the time of the opening, and the our little bubble of a world has been colored a rusty shade of red from the wildfires that rage nearby. Sunrises and sunsets are orange and red, and at night the moon looks like it is in eclipse, because it is so perfectly orange.

Is the city having growing pains? Hard to know. How big is too big? Also hard to know. We do know that most likely there will be more burners in Black Rock Desert this year than ever before; we also know that there are more people who consider themselves Burners who have never been to the Nevada desert, but they feel part of whatever this is because of the associations they have made on the Regional level.

“There is a Burning Man movement,” Larry Harvey his own self said this morning, “but we didn’t generate it. … We don’t provide the content, just the theme. … And we know that this community is allergic to pronouncements.”

True, true and true.

Crimson got ready to light the cauldron (Photo by Erica Bartel)
Crimson got ready to light the cauldron (Photo by Erica Bartel)

The Burning Man ethos strikes us as the same as a successful startup – first create something cool. Worry about everything else later. And it seems to us that the Burning Man organization has been doing that since the beginning, out there on Baker Beach.

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A Visit to the DMV

Sparky is justifiably proud of the changes at the DMV
Sparky is justifiably proud of the changes at the DMV

If you’re going to drive a mutant vehicle in Black Rock City, you’re going to need a permit for that beast. And to get one, you’re going to need to visit the DMV – the Department of Mutant Vehicles.

Tell us your favorite story of a visit to the DMV in the real world– oh, that’s right, you don’t have one. It’s a miserable, soul-sucking experience.

Not too long ago, it wasn’t much different on the playa. Fantastic and fantastical vehicles would be lined up along the Esplanade, their owners looking for someone who could PLEASE check them in and get them on their way. It was pretty haphazard and frustrating for all concerned.

“Frankly, we sucked,” Sparky was saying as a line of cars began taking shape in the morning sun. But things have changed, and Sparky seemed justifiably proud of the way the department has turned around.

“It took us two years, but we completely redid everything,” Sparky said. “All new software, and a really robust database.” That database makes lots of things possible, including quicker and easier registration, and access to the clientele.

Tashi Pomo does the cooking for the big Osiris sound camp, and she was having trouble getting clearance for food deliveries. “So I called the DMV and asked if I could do a last-minute registration,” she said. There was no way that could happen, BUT, what the DMV could do was get out word to all of their already registered vehicles to see if someone might be able to step up and help. And of course someone did.

“They saved me,” Tashi said.

Tashi: The DMV saved her bacon
Tashi: The DMV saved her bacon

(more…)

You’re Gonna Bring That Wood Where?

The Vancouver CORE team
The Vancouver CORE team

The Vancouver Regional burners were on their way to Black Rock City to participate in the Circle of Regional Effigies – the big ring of art installations around the Man that will go up in flames en masse on Thursday night.

The first folks from the Vancouver team were on the road with a big load of wooden pallets with which they would build their Artifactuary project. But when they got to the U.S.-–Canadian border, a moment of truth arrived with them.

Somehow, at least some of the pallets the Vancouver team had purchased had not been treated with the material that would prevent insect infestation. So the border patrol took a look at the wood for the big art piece and simply said nope, that thing’s not going anywhere.

The road to Burning Man is often a journey of frustration and despair, and so it was for the Vancouver team this year.

“We’ve had plenty of years when everything went smoothly,” Ryan was saying at a morning get-together for the various CORE teams on Sunday, “but this wasn’t one of them.”

So they were not going to be able to bring the wood for their project with them. And they worried that they wouldn’t have enough time to go back to Vancouver and get what they needed. So they made a decision to leave their project right there at the border, continue on to Black Rock City, and then sort things out when they got here.

“We were going to have faith that the playa would provide,” Carnie said.

And to make a long and difficult story short, the playa did indeed provide.

Ryan and Carnie stood in the dust and hooked their thumbs over their shoulders and gestured at the Man sitting atop his giant flying saucer. “The wood came from him,” Ryan said.

The Man base is a gargantuan project this year, and a thing of such scale generates a lot of scrap wood. So it was decided that the Vancouver team would get a lot of that leftover scrap. That helped a lot, and so did Betty June, who stepped up and found some last-minute money for them so they could get some more wood, too.

Carnie and Ryan from the Vancouver team
Carnie and Ryan from the Vancouver team

“We just feel so much love,” Ryan said. “We can’t believe how many people came forward to help,” he said. (more…)