Black Rock City got hit with some harsh wind this year. Not as apocalyptically near-tornado-level wind as the playa can whip up, but still, 2015 saw enough consistent and prolific dust to monopolize half the Burning Man experience for some people.
What this means for Playa Restoration, in general, is dustpiles on the moon.
It means the DPW stays busy combating dunes across the city’s site. On line sweeps, we look for little serpentines with rare MOOP treasures in them, and we rake long arrays of fine-dust layers until they smooth out and/or blow away.
Then there are the larger dunes where structures and fences once stood, which need to be manhandled and sometimes even heavy-machined.
Dunes have become Bobtuse and crew’s bailiwick. Bobtuse, DPW’s prime dunebuster since after he started volunteering in 2000 or 2001, drives his truck in large loops and pirouettes all day, pulling a huge flat heavy metal square thing.
“You might get seasick riding with me,” Bobtuse says on a recent crackling-hot day on playa. This is his sixteenth Playa Restoration, and he hasn’t gotten woozy yet.
“Sometimes it’s worse for the passenger than the driver,” he offers. Luckily, this writer doesn’t get seasick either, but on Bobtuse’ crazy-eights route, we begin to feel that euphoric and yukey carnival-ride feeling.
The dunebuster he’s pulling behind him with a chain smashes through tiny hills of playa — BOOSH — making miniature dust devils and wee windstorms as he tears down the dune. This huge tool on a truck chain, a square of metal-with-rebar welded by the DPW’s metal shop at the Ranch as usual, resembles a spiderweb.
Pen-and-paper note-taking becomes chicken scratch and we soon give up on writing and dunebusting simultaneously. It’s like mowing the lawn, this writer points out.
“Mhm, except it’s kinda random and irregular.” Bobtuse calmly drives in crazy patterns while we hold on to the truck’s oh-shit bar. Perhaps his relaxed and balanced manner, cowboy-succinct speech, and ninja-level composure are all due to his job requiring him to shake and spin his organs up all day long.
We reminisce about the first dunebuster Demilitia, then head of metal shop, created around 19-2000 or so. Her dunebuster prototype was basically a big chain to drag.
After the chain, Bobtuse says, Demilitia fabricated “one that was a railroad tie on a chain — but it was too heavy for most trucks to pull. It was hard even on the bigger engines. Then there was a big fence chain kinda thing with a tire for weight on top of it, but that one created dust. It was just abrasive.
“This one, we’ve had it for a while. There’s two edges that push — so it doesn’t really dig, it just displaces. We also have a new one now — more heavy duty. Because it’s heavier, it pushes more instead of just floating.” (That’s the one Mr. Blue’s driving this year.)
We ride out to the fence, with Bobtuse busting big dunes marked with Special Forces cones along the way. We are instructed to drive right behind him, right in his dust line, because to the left of us is unbusted dune, and to the right of us is fluffy, flat, freshly-busted playa. (more…)
Ezra Li Eismont, or DJ Darkat, helps run the trash-collection circuit for the DPW in Black Rock City, with a stellar team of dumpster freaks who help reduce our waste by literal tons. Ezra also runs Chickenfish FM, a most eclectic radio station just about everyone on the DPW listens to during their workdays on playa. Ezra also DJs parties throughout the year, where even the non-dancers in the DPW find themselves dancing and having a good time. Ezra’s sets keep the woo flowing.
Last year in 2014, the Thursday before Last Supper, the event had ended and the DPW Ghetto threw a smooth-rock party to celebrate. Of course Ezra was to headline the DJs, so he ramped us up for the occasion by playing soft-rock hits from the 70s all day on Chickenfish radio.
For this writer, that era represents a small childhood surrounded by musician family and friends who paid a whole hell of a lot of attention to those songs. And that day, when the event had ended and the Chickenfish-listening DPW needed sonic support for strike, everyone on the desert had no choice but to pay full attention to the smooth rock hits.
Literally growing up learning to sing by singing these songs means feeling trapped in the past when the soft rock comes at you from every direction on an ancient lakebed which last week was filled with a cornucopia-cophony of music. The soft rock took over, knocking every other thought out. Childhood memories attacked — good and bad, one right after the other.
We tried to go to the smooth-rock party that night, but were already feeling queasy from having been forced to reminisce seemingly every aspect of our early years for a solid 24 hours.
We went to bed early, too exhausted to be irritained, but the party raged. Then, the smooth-rock hits continued on Chickenfish into the next morning and afternoon.
So, this writer left the playa, one full day early, to get away from it.
Not sure that classifies as a meltdown music event, but it was real. Still love that Chickenfish radio tho, every day. We just cringe at Lionel Ritchie now.
It all started with Metric’s now-defunct radio station, KDPW. Early days out here during cleanup, Metric curated the pre-Chickenfish airwave of choice for the workers. One day, when we were all already about to snap from the heat and exhaustion and starvation and dehydration and broken hearts, he played every version of “Moon River” he could find to download.
“Moon River” all day. All day. So many versions, so many genres. We had no idea.
Who needs drugs when you’re walking on an ancient lakebed in the searing heat and sun, picking up tiny bits of trash and listening to “Moon River” in almost all the ways humanity has ever interpreted rhythm and the holy twelve notes? (more…)
Here’s a world that’s hard to describe. Possibly the only postmodern non-patriarchal city-state on Earth besides Cristiania, Black Rock City is built and run by women and men. If not in race, at least in gender, BRC seems, to this writer at least, as equal a place on Earth as anywhere that’s ever been.
The American sense of freedom (and freedom to complain) lies at the heart of Burning Man. Sure, when the gates open, some media outlets gravitate toward boobs, painted boobs, and sparkly boobs — making BRC look like a giant strip club to the dude-bro Youtubing us from the flyover states. Fact tho: Everyone’s mostly naked because it’s hot, and because we can be.
In real life, people run this place. Women and men. Burning Man would be nonexistent without the Cacophony Society and its predecessor the Suicide Club, both of which were founded by an equal number of men and women. Burning Man’s LLC has always been equal gender-wise as well. The women have insisted on it.
When a majority of the population doesn’t feel powerless in some way, systems can thrive. There’s a larger rant about patriarchy, monotheism, capitalism, and two-party-system-government’s controlled effect of subjugation here, and/or the steady pressure of negative realism meant to demoralize the masses into feeling too powerless to take any action for change … but we’ll spare you it. However, the point can be corseted into this: Imbalanced power relationships keep capitalism humming at the expense of the user, while collaboration breeds respect, community, and anarchy (the good kind).
Women run the top echelons of Burning Man, along with the men. It’s a slight majority, even. That may be why this event is such a modern touchstone; a cultural breath of fresh air; something nobody can pin down but everybody likes to complain about and tear apart.
What’s more, so many people, justices, and injustices go into this dirt-rave production and its worldwide yearlong tentacles, we’ve collectively found the patriarchal idea of ‘leader’ or ‘figurehead’ to be outdated. We prefer leaderless, radical interdependence, and for our IRL bosses, we just defer to their individual ability, thanks. Lattices of benevolent dictators and dictatrices are welcome if they’re nice.
Through the decades (especially in the early times) there have been disagreements, unfairnesses, and creeper things that happened around us in the DPW, but at a fraction of the percentage they occur in the default world. Most DPW women will tell you nobody has ever taken the tool out of our hand. Mansplaining is socially illegal and, in the rare event it arises, it’s hilariously rebutted before spectators.
This change was so imperceptible over time, it took this writer 18 years of DPW life to even realize that’s what’s so refreshing about working out here. These men building Black Rock City, the men who respect women as equals and don’t try to vibe them off the forklift … they are the sexiest men alive.
Things haven’t always been so equal-feeling. In the earlier, grittier days of the DPW, our crew wasn’t only patriarchally-based — it was a slap-up sausage fest. Fledgling DPW women like this writer just happen to be attracted to traditionally dude-ish things like explosions, construction, heavy machinery, people with weapons and apocalypse skills, and a full-contact sovereignty lifestyle.
Over time, Burning Man’s traditionally most macho department has become a beacon for multitalented, alpha-level, overly-skilled women and the protective-fixer-type dudes who love them. Like moths to a blowtorch, seemingly every badass woman on the West Coast with a bent for — or proficient in — explosions, construction, and heavy machinery came a-runnin’. (more…)
There are certain DPW types among us who have been here long enough to start “in my day”-ing people. We try not to do it that often — regale newer volunteers with horror stories of our pre- and post-event Ranch living back at the turn of last century — but when we’re asked, we can go on sometimes. Crews wandering off, rice with maggots in it, overworking constantly, stress-fights, and piles of junk with no OSHA regulators in sight.
We try to use as little emotion as possible when telling the kiddoes about the days before the Internet exploded, before the DPW developed a vast and internecine infrastructure.
This writer joined the DPW in 1998, staying for cleanup here and there sometimes over the years, until 2008. As always with this Burning Dude thing, the DPW was making it up as we went along. Seven years later, this writer has once again stayed in the desert past Last Supper to document Playa Restoration, and boy have things changed.
Playa Restoration manager D.A. joined DPW cleanup in 1999 and changed the name to Playa Restoration in 2005. He’s now the general who strategizes with maps, leading the charge at day’s beginning as we set sail from the shoreline for the open sea of Lahontan to search for MOOP.
“It was raw,” D.A. agrees about the olden times. “We weren’t as well-funded. We weren’t as healthy becaause we didn’t know what it meant to be healthy out here. The Fluffers changed everything for the DPW.”
[Fluffers, for those who don’t know, have nothing to do with pornography and everything to do with driving around huge utility trucks full of snacks, drinks, and self-care sundries. They huck heavy coolers full of water and ice and make sure we don’t die.]
“We used to get dropped off in the middle of nowhere with just a bucket of water, and sometimes it spilled over,” D.A. says. “Now we have buses that stay with us — and radios. We didn’t have portapotties with us. We dealt with it but it was time-consuming. Now we have a person whose job it is to keep a portajohn with the lines.
“We have a 24/7 auto shop,” says D.A. “When we broke down before, it was for the whole day. We didn’t get as much done. The system we have is still the same system — it’s just evolving.”
D.A. branched out in his own Burning Man DPW cleanup career by joining Special Forces in 2002 — a new crack team of capable people assembled by Phyxx to deal with the moopy hot spots. There was rivalry at first. These days, everyone on the line sweep crews gets to be Special Forces for a day or two.
“But the line sweeps are the heart of the matter,” D.A. says. “They just needed love. We put the Fluffers, Portajohns, and buses at the line sweeps. Special Forces can roll.”
When speaking of ye olde DPW Days, it’s always hard to avoid sounding like a Russian grandmother visiting an American grocery store for the first time. Some of the vintage DPW crew still huddle together to gush over the delicious meals our Resto kitchen now serves us — serves us with a smile, without yelling, without leaning over to dump their shirtless tits in the food, and without maggots.
This year’s Burning Man theme, “Carnival of Mirrors,” seems to be continuing in the default world, with some not-so-pretty funhouse mirrors clanging and shattering against each other every time non-understanders-of-the-dirt-rave make a dissonant mainstream commercial exploitation device or hone in on rich people and two-day bug infestations in the desert. Instead of maybe talking about how a temporary city for over 70,000 people appears and disappears each year with precision and grace.
However, those of us still cleaning up the desert out here haven’t borne the full brunt of the squares’ warped notions of Burning Man. We’re still away from mass media and mainstream life, safe and sound in the Resto bubble.
We in the Department of Public Works are still riding high on the like-clockworkness of this season’s staging and strike — and still happy to be rolling around the desert as roustabouts in our very own circus sideshow. We are all carnival and circus fetishists here, to some degree. For many of us, life and work are the same thing, to be ridden like a … well, like a carnival ride.
Wouldn’t you know it, Burning Man’s — and the Cacophony Society‘s — dang paterfamiliasGary Warne once wrote himself an infamous essay about just such a concept. We’re posting it in full, because it needs to live on the Burning Man site and we can’t believe it doesn’t already.
Never heard of Gary Warne, have you? Tragically, he died suddenly at age 35 in 1983, but not before leaving a huge scorchmark on the earth. It’s no understatement to say we are all still playing in his smoke and ash.
Gary Warne founded the Suicide Club with four other people in 1977, while he was teaching classes on pranks and hijinks as part of the budding “free-school” movement at UCSF’s Communiversity.
The proto-punk Suicide Club morphed a few years later into the Cacophony Society, “a randomly gathered network of free spirits united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society.”
Early Cacophonists were the ones who invented Burning Man, after 89 people took one of Cacophony’s newly-notorious Zone Trips out to the Black Rock Desert in 1990, inviting Larry Harvey and Jerry James to bring along their wooden statue the cops wouldn’t let them burn at Baker Beach. (more…)
Do yall know who invented Burning Man’s trash fence in 1995? Lawrence Breed — inventor of the world’s first computer animation language and system, and also the playa’s longest-running art piece besides the Man himself: Chaotick, the flaming tether ball.
Danger Ranger, Vanessa Kuemmerle, Burning Man co-founder John Law, and other Cacophony organizers had been tearing their hair out over the sad reality of trash blowing from the Black Rock City site downwind and off into the desert during their Zone Trip. One of the Cacophony Society’s main uh, guidelines, is to leave everything better than you found it.
So Breed, called “Ember,” was and is a genius computer scientist who, with a friend, overheard these managerial woes and brought out and road-tested 75 feet of trash-catching orange fence to make sure it worked.
Breed presented his winning example of hard-plastic gatekeeping to the Operations team, who were understandably beside themselves with joy. The trash fence was and still is one of the greatest ideas in Burning Man leave-no-trace history.
The fence is also an iconic piece of Burning Man visual continuity. But this year … this year … there’s blue string. Not orange string to go with the orange fence, but some blue string. As in, not orange. Some of us, particularly Stinger, are freaked out about the blue string.
On Monday, while the Fence was being built, this writer sat in the Dispatch booth at the saloon, wrangling dusty radios and telling the Lawrence-Breed-invented-the-trash-fence-and-helped-invent-APL story to so many people that official DPW photographer-blogger John Curley — who missed his annual Fence Day photography spree because delays in arrival happen in the DPW — made us write it up here.
Do yall know what APL is? We didn’t either until we searched on it when John Law first told us about Breed being a part of our proto-DPW history.
At Stanford in 1961, Breed invented the world’s first computer and animation language and system, using it for Stanford football games to program a 100-foot-by-100-foot array of colored square cards.
Breed then corresponded with a Harvard professor named Kenneth Iverson who had invented proto-APL as a mathematical notation for algorithms.
Breed and his crew transformed Iverson’s mathematics into a computer-programming language source code devised to work with mathematics with an emphasis on array processing. They dubbed it APL (short for “a programming language”), turning it into a widely-used programming language like no other, and implementing it en machina starting with the IBM 7090 in 1965. You make spreadsheets because of Breed and co.’s APL implementation.
Then, if that’s not enough for you, in 1972, Breed and Francis Bates III wrote one of Earth’s first worldwide email systems, which they called “Mailbox.”
More than two decades later, in the non-default world of Black Rock City, Breed became an oldest-of-schools Burning Man attendee and Cacophony Society member who helped with the original Black Rock Gazette newspaper as well as later co-founding the Black Rock Beacon.
Danger Ranger didn’t even know any of all this about how Ember pretty much helped uh, invent the internet until last night when we told him at the Black Rock Saloon.
Danger just knew Breed/Ember as the guy who invented the trash fence, as well as the flaming tether ball and a half dozen genius Cacophonist-on-playa, possibly-world-helping inventions like the greywater-obliterating Evapotron, or “Gray-B-Gon” (complete with open-source online instructions).
No really, check out the Gray-B-Gon — especially if you or someone you know has a theme camp with greywater.
Burning Man setup means a constant stream of stories proving you never know who you could be talking to under that messy tutu.
Fence yesterday? Dawn Patrol was led by Just George and Cowboy Carl, as always — two proud former military men who became cowboys of sorts. They are kind and crusty-fatherly super-men who could easily be models for action figures, who represent pretty much the pinnacle of proper masculinity.
Yes we are swooning over Just George, who makes us do pushups, and over Cowboy Carl, who taught us how to scatter herds of cattle standing in the middle of the road by rolling your truck window down and banging on the door.
If a group behaves like its alphas, then these two may be a large reason why DPW is such a draw. The world has too many assholes in it, and Just George and Cowboy Carl are here to protect us from acting too much like them, and to teach us cheerfully to protect others and the earth in turn — from assholes, and from trash blowing past us to where we can’t get to it to pick it up.
The trucks had been loved up on by auto shop, loaded with fence materials, and made ready to roll the day before. Fluffers were awake by 3am; “dawn patrol” worker teams left the trailer park at 4am.
Crews ate a quick bite on the Black Rock shoreline and got to work as the sun rose pink over the fire-smoke mist. Another equally large wave of DPW crewmembers left for work at 7am.
All day long, the radios crackled with nonstop trash-fence action and beaten deadlines. Milestones were announced over the repeater over background cascades of “woo” noises. We found Bachmann Turner Overdrive’s “Takin’ Care of Business” stuck in our heads on repeat.
By 8:30am, the pounders had finished. That’s zero-eight-thirty, in Just George language. By 1:45 pm, fence was done.
Of course, it’s only another record because pre-event DPW staff and volunteer count has grown by a few hundred people. A decade and a half ago, when there were only 30-40 of us in the DPW, putting up the trash fence took Cowboy Carl and his team two weeks.
Suggestion by suggestion, and learned lesson by learned lesson, this largely leaderless group of freaks learned together to build and strike a temporary city, all by ourselves, together. Not with ease so much as with collaboration and a crap-ton of meetings. Chaos with a thin layer of organization.
Things get done much more quickly when there are fewer power relationships to contend with. Even hard labor seems easier in an anarchist city.
Good times are had most days by most people in the DPW — which is also different now, because we know enough not to accidentally overwork and underfeed a thin crew any more.
And we have an unassuming, DPW-orange fence — invented by a secret internet genius, helmed by cowboy servicemen, and constructed annually by a dusty cast of black-clad hundreds — to catch most of the trash.
Perhaps you’ve still never heard of the Cacophony Society, Burning Man’s parent group.
Pardon the cliche, but for history’s sake, we’re going to have to talk about fight club.
Fight Club is a book written in 1996 and then turned into a movie released 15 years ago this fall (we won’t provide any spoilers if we can help it). Author Chuck Pahlaniuk confirmed at several book-release events last year the “Project Mayhem” group in Fight Club’s story is indeed the Cacophony Society in real life … a wackier bunch of people, without the men-only Iron John subplot or all the property destruction and violence. (Well, serious violence, anyway.)
“But Larry Harvey invented Burning Man,” you may be saying to yourself. No, he and his homeys Jerry and Dan brought the statue to a “Zone Trip” the Cacophony Society had already planned to take to the Black Rock Desert.
The rest of the event didn’t spring, Godlike, from one man’s mind, and materialize like so much ganja in Shiva’s dreadlocks. Cacophony built Black Rock City. It was a group whim — a hive-mind good time which snowballed and splintered, glittering, like breaking mirrorglass.
Even if you don’t know it, Burning Man is and will always be the Cacophony Society’s yearly extended-family check-in and show-and-tell. It’s a fight club convention where old-timers don’t make a big deal about showing up to tweak and observe the city they created. This product of new collectivist activity reads like a neotribal Kumbh Mela which embraces chaos as spirituality. The event requires, and has always required, a dark army of dirtbags to make it all go flash bang boom.
Burning Man’s blank slate started as an anarcho-cyberpunk paradise away from the squares, on the moon. A living, breathing Internet, this equalizing Paper Street Soap Company in the dust churned art, analog, digital, fire, lust, danger, meetings, and magic into a whirlwind of construction and yelling. (more…)
If you’ll notice, talking to most of the elders of the Burning Man tribe, they put emphasis on the third syllable of the name of our weirdo company picnic. “The burning MAN,” they say, with a “The” at the beginning each time. All the rest of us say “BURN-ing man.”
So that’s how things used to be different right there, is the early Cacophonists emphasized the event’s syllables differently. That’s how you can tell an old-timer: They were there when “The burning MAN” was the only thing going on at “BURN-ing man” besides a sculpture or two, some buckets to poop in, and a bunch of people shooting guns or drinking or dragging each other around on tarps behind pickup trucks.
Just a statue and some surrealist freaks hauling junk. That was it.
Old-timers also know the other originator of the Burning Man sculpture besides Larry Harvey, Jerry James, designed and built the Man almost singlehandedly in the four years it was on the beach (1986-1989). Not to say Harvey didn’t do anything, but he definitely wasn’t the lead builder, since he was more of a thinker-type than a carpenter-type person.
So, factually, Jerry James was the co-founder of the Man’s design as well as first lead builder. James paid for the materials and everything out of his pocket, for the first years. Carson Duper and Bill Nolan also helped build the Beach Man. In ’91, Jerry James backed out for various reasons, and first Dan Miller and then Chris Campbell took over as main Man builder.
The guys initially started building the Man at the shop where Dan Miller worked, called Sound on Stage, in San Francisco. Then they moved operations to Campbell’s house in South City. Miller was the main helper in Man-building from the beginning, instrumental and around in the first place because he literally lived inside the closet in Larry’s apartment. Miller took over as lead Man builder in ’90-91 (because Jerry James left) and then Campbell from ’93 or ’94 to ’99 or 2000.
After burning a Beach Man for four years, the cops famously told Harvey, James, Miller, and the guys they couldn’t burn their fifth one on the ocean that Summer Solstice in 1990. It was Danger Ranger, John Law, Kevin Evans, and Sebastian Hyde’s idea to ask those “latte carpenters” then if they wanted to bring the wooden figure to the San Francisco Cacophony Society’s latest outing, called “Bad Day at Black Rock,” which was to take place in the desert. This would mark the Cacophony Society’s fourth “Zone Trip” outing, as opposed to their usual pranks and culture-jamming events locally, and surreal weekend excursions to Southern California.