I’m back and halfway recovered from Burning Flipside, one of the “regional burns” associated with Burning Man. As I understand it, Flipside is the oldest (since 1998) and largest (900 tickets sold–quickly–in 2003) of the regional burns.
I had been delinquent about getting tickets when they went on sale, and missed out. Fortunately, a secondary market sprung up, as many people bought tickets for friends who later cancelled (this resulted in a frantic last-minute round-robin exchange of e-mail messages as ticket holders tried to hook up with ticket seekers). It was pretty late in the game that we got our tickets, and so we hadn’t done a lot of advance preparation. We did get supplies to make a shade structure out of PVC and old sheets, along with all the usual camping crap one would need, food (lots of food), beer, wine, fuel, etc. We both scrounged up weird odds and ends around our households to use as barter goods. Apart from a daily ice delivery, commerce is not allowed at Flipside. Technically, barter isn’t either–everything is on the gift economy–but as a practical matter, it would be a bad idea to show up without anything to trade.
We headed out Friday around noon, and got to the site quickly. Admission is a tedious process.
We first signed a multipage waiver absolving the site owner of any liability. Flipside takes place on a private campground called Recreation Plantation. RecPlan is a 40-acre site with limited modcons (a few flush toilets, a few showers), a few RV hookups, a pool, and a creek. Most of the property is rocky and covered with scrubby trees (which someone aptly referred to as “upstairs”); there’s a fairly short and sharp decline from this that leads onto a smooth, open, grassy field of about 10 acres. The field adjoins the creek, which has some trees along it. In past years, all the action at Flipside was on the field. That’s still where the biggest theme camps are, but as the event has grown, more camps are found upstairs.
After that, we drove a little ways in and arrived at the main check-in, where we were subjected to a somewhat condescending interview process. I suppose this is necessary to keep out troublemakers and people who don’t get it (or at least get some idea of how many of those people are arriving).
Finally we made it to the “greeter’s station,” where we were given a temporary permit to drive onto the field and unpack the car. The car was very full–I had packed an enormous beanbag chair that we wound up not using, and the materials for the shade structure, which also turned out to be unnecessary (there was no room for it). We were camping at the Circle of Fire with my fire-freak friends. We deployed our stuff fairly quickly, said Hi to quite a lot of friends, and went back roughly to where we came in, quite some distance away, to park. We walked back down and said Hi to more people, and took it all in.
After that, impressions of time become very fuzzy. Not many people wore watches. Some activities were supposed to happen at specific times, so knowing when to be where was somewhat problematic. But it’s probably just as well–otherwise I’d know exactly how much sleep I wasn’t getting.
The COF camp was on the field, which was extremely hot and bright (except when it was raining), and although we had an enormous dome that should have been a fine shade structure, it was in fact intolerably hot and close in there, so we spent most of the time under two much smaller canopies in back. Or at other camps: Jenny, for instance, was camped at the Toadstool Kingdom of Slack, which was positioned right on the slope between the upstairs and the field. This spot was about 15° cooler than any other place in the camp, so we spent plenty of time hanging out there.
Our camp was near another theme camp, the name of which I never learned, but which I came to call the “obnoxious techno music at 7:00 AM camp” for reasons that should be self-explanatory. This camp had a giant parachute-covered dome that played music all the time, but played it especially loud at hours that everybody else wanted to be asleep. At one point, Flipside’s most obnoxious participant, Xeno, of Flipside’s most obnoxious camp, Chupacabra Policia, came over with a bullhorn to chastise them “no one is listening to your music.”
The toadstool was an ambitious project that the builders had great trouble erecting. They had tried using a fairly elaborate gantry with block & tackle, which didn’t work at all. They eventually put a fulcrum above it and pulled it up with a Jeep. This was just one of many really amazing projects that got hauled out there. The Gateway fire-sculpture thing is like a giant double-barreled sheetmetal chimenea on rockers. The art-car that shoots flames out of four jets. The flame-shooting totem pole (you may sense a theme here). And the Man itself, which bore little resemblance to the original (or any man), but was basically a wooden derrick with arms sticking out.
Likewise, many of the camps were pretty amazing undertakings. One camp had a trampoline and moonwalk (which we enjoyed immensely). John Cougar Melon-camp, apart from creating an excellent visual pun, hosted a Bill Hicks revival hour at which spicy Bloody Marys flowed freely. Spin Camp had a QTVR rig that I never got around to posing for. The Groovepharm camp had the usual Groovepharm visual/auditory feast. Camp Baksheesh had some kind of puppet karaoke that I somehow never saw. And so on. Every night we would wander from camp to camp, taking in the experiences like we were going through a Whitman’s Sampler.
The bigger and crazier theme camps were all on the field. Next year, I think I’m camping upstairs, where it’ll be cooler and quieter.
Of course, the main attraction is the people. I had a lot of friends there scattered among seven or so camps. I met a fair number of new people. I’m sure that the environment helps, but pretty much everyone I met was a pleasure to be around.
At one point, a friend on X came by to give me the earnest “I love you, man” speech that is characteristic of that drug. I realized that Donald Rumsfeld desperately needs to take X. Apart from booze, I took no drugs the whole weekend, and in a way, drugs are redundant: the experience is already an exercise in sensory overload. There were a few people who were so far gone on drugs (or simply so far removed from reality even without them) that they couldn’t take care of themselves, but this was less of a problem than I expected (fortunately, there are Flipside Rangers to take care of them). And even going on indirect evidence, there was a bare minimum of assholes. People seemed to be there in a spirit of conviviality and community.
Costumes were probably more common than street clothes (I was an exception–even among freaks, I’m a freak)–of course, the line between the two can be a blurry one, especially in this crowd. Nudity was common, and I observed that nipple piercings are way more common than I ever imagined. Tattoos were conspicuous only by their absence.
The Big Burn
The high point of the whole event is the big burn, when the Man is burned. A lot of preparation goes into this, despite which there is still a lot of last-minute headless-chicken imitation. The burn ceremony (perhaps “rite” would be a better word) began with a procession of firedancers and stiltwalkers, who walked from the Circle of Fire to the main circle. They were organized by color (this year’s Flipside theme was “dreams of chromatic distraction” [don’t ask]), with about six firedancers, one torchbearer, and one stiltwalker in each of six color groups. Once around the Man, they all did their thing, and the last man burning, Bob, then lit the Man. Everybody was crowded around the perimeter (delineated by a huge circle of nifty LED pods that fired off different colors in different sequences), screaming and excited. After the Man burned for about 20 minutes, it collapsed in on itself and everybody rushed to get as close to the fire as they could, jumping and dancing around.
I observed this from a distance. I was one of the safety people for the big burn, and one of the few experienced firedancers to be working safety. I was one of the people in headless-chicken mode beforehand, trying to round up enough towels, buckets, extinguishers, and other safety people. As the burn drew near, Tiglet and I drilled unexperienced safety people on what to do (fortunately, there was only one minor incident during the burn). After the performers had cleared the field and the Man started burning, Stephen realized that our fuel depot was directly downwind of the Man, which was casting a lot of embers in its direction. He rounded up safeties to help make sure none of the embers landed there to start a fire, so I moved buckets and towels back there and tried to help. As I looked on the people around the fire, I was struck by the energy and intensely primal and pagan spirit pervading them.
I made up for not being part of the procession by having seven or eight really good burns later that night. Kudos to Juan of Camp Baksheesh for being an excellent DJ for COF.
A pretty serious rainstorm whipped through in the wee hours Monday, but most of our stuff came through OK (lucky thing we already had the rainfly on the tent). We got up at a reasonable hour that morning, cleaned up around the camp, packed up the car, and were on our way by 11:00 AM. On the country road leading out of RecPlan, we passed by a Hummer, paradigmatic symbol of American crapulence, and re-entered everyday reality.
I’m missing a million things. You had to be there. I took a few pictures (login as adamguest/adamguest — if there’s a picture of you that you want removed, please let me know), but these were all taken during the day, and much like bars, Flipside isn’t seen in its best light in the light. Scott took some too (same login). Bob got a bunch more. Kristin is maintaining a master list of Flipside 2003 photo albums.
There are any number of ways to define burn events: as temporary autonomous zones, as art festivals, as experiments in radical self-expression/self-reliance, etc. To me, they are about suspending the constraints of everyday life, creating a situation where people can either be more fully themselves or experiment with being other people, having extraordinary experiences, and living fully and in the moment.