This is me spinning poi to a remix of “Everything in its right place” by Hybrid.
I didn’t take any photos at Flipside this year, but I’m putting together a little gallery of shots I liked.
Flipside was on new land this year, a pecan orchard and pasture adjacent to Apache Pass. The site has been nicknamed Apache Passtures.
The topography is flat and allows theme camps to be situated much more closely than in the past. Flat Creek in particular has such varied terrain that theme camps wind up in isolated pockets, and getting from one to the next takes a long time; in contrast, one could comfortably walk a loop around all the campsites at Apache Passtures.
The trees are a huge asset.
The river was another huge asset, and the fast-moving current kept the water cool, preventing the hippie-soup effect that Flat Creek is prone to. And I never trusted the water at RecPlant.
The art ridge was great, and I hope to see it fill in more in the future.
The allergens. I don’t know what was in the air, but it rendered me almost completely non-functional all day Friday.
The flies. They were never much of an issue in past years, but they were a constant presence here.
The poison ivy. I haven’t suffered any outbreaks (yet). On some level, I’m inclined to look at the PI as the environmental challenge that seems to be endemic to burner events: Burning Man has the desert and the dust; at Flat Creek, it was cliffs and cacti. All of these require you to take certain precautions to deal with your environment, and I feel that’s part of the experience. So while I don’t want to wind up dealing with urushiol (the motto at Flipside this year was “Poison Ivy is the new STD”), the threat of it and the need to prepare for it fits in with the Burner experience.
My way of dealing with it was to stay on existing paths—no bushwhacking—and to wear my boots all the time. We kept alcohol wipes on hand to wipe down our boots if we thought they had come in contact, but I never used them. Also had Zanfel, just in case.
Parking at past Flipsides has been tightly controlled, to keep the camping area free of cars (except for art cars), with each car given a parking permit good for only a few hours, and vehicles that openly flaut the rules either being towed away or turned into impromptu art cars. For whatever reason, there seemed to be no parking organization this year—nobody even discussed limited-time parking permits, nobody seemed to be guiding people to parking places (admittedly less of an issue at Apache Passtures, since the parking field was wide open), and a lot of cars conspicuously parked at theme camps all weekend. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but that bothered me.
Fantastic idea and execution. Designating certain spots as parks, guiding people to them, and educating us about the environmental hazards were all important services to the community.
I’ve been theme-camp lead for Circle of Fire since 2007; before that, it had been led by SCESW, and looking back, the camp started going south when I took over.
I’m not sure if there’s a cause-and-effect relationship between those two facts. Stephen has a very different personality than I do, and may well be better at motivating people than I am; he’s also closer to more people than I am. But the real reason that I think the camp started deteriorating as a camp is because the roll call of people in camp changed.
When Flipside was smaller, CoF was bigger. Firedancing seems to have been the gateway to burner culture for a lot of people, and so it’s no surprise that they would camp with other firespinners, at least at first. But as time has past, some of the people who were at the core of CoF in my first years there moved on to find other ways to express their Burner identities, or simply moved on with life.
When I took over, I extended an invitation to any fire performers who wanted to camp at CoF. While this led to my meeting some good friends and solid campmates, it also opened the door to people who were just there for a party. They weren’t there to make CoF or Flipside better, they didn’t seem to get the whole point of Flipside, and they weren’t people I wanted to camp with.
While this has been a low-level annoyance for some years, the problem came to a head this year with a contingent of 10 kids from Dallas. I’d only had brief phone and e-mail contact with one of them shortly before Flipside; he turned out to be the den mother for that group, which was mostly guys in their early 20s, not one of whom would be able to find his own ass with both hands, a map, and a flashlight. They were (mostly) firespinners, and at least some of them had been to Burning Man and/or Myschevia before, but none of them seemed to understand the basic principles of a Burner event or have any interest in contributing to the camp. I am sure they hold me in equally high regard.
Anyhow, this forced me to reflect on how I run the camp. I’m not sure what I’m going to do in 2011, but it will be different.
Apart from that, Circle of Fire was a success. Our site was out in the open—no benefit from those great pecan trees—so it was a lot hotter than other camps during the day. The bjurt we built for Flipside last year, along with the radiant-barrier sub-canopy we fabricated for Burning Man, proved their worth again. Our kitchen cleanup situation seemed to be just about ideal, thanks to David Cummings putting together of a couple of compression vessels that sprayed soapy water and rinse water; these were worked into my existing not-quite-there camp kitchen, and in the end, we only used a total of 5 gallons of water for all washing up. The camp was sited along a low rise with a gully running behind it, which made getting everything laid out a little tricky, and the fire circle needed to be a little smaller than in previous years, but it saw consistent action and the setup seemed to work as well as ever. Ultimately, the camp’s central mission is to provide firedancers with a stage and a safe fuel depot, and in that respect, I feel that the camp was not only as successful as ever, but had become the place to light up, from what I could tell.
As if singing Tesla coils weren’t enough on their own, Arc Attack keeps stepping up their game. Last year, Parsec stood in the discharge field, wearing a Faraday suit. When we saw that, Gwen was transfixed, and said “I will do anything to be in that suit.” This year, she got her chance, pretty much. Arc Attack has added a small Faraday cage, just big enough for one person, that they place in the discharge field, allowing audience members the experience of being in the middle of that lightning storm. There was, unsurprisingly, a long line, but Gwen got her chance, and was more excited than a ten-year-old who was just given a pony.
Kudos to Kris Blahnik for designing and heading up construction of an effigy unlike any others I’ve seen, in terms of its representational design, use of color, surrounding gantries, and use of two figures instead of one. I know that he and a lot of other people busted their asses to make it happen, and it was worth it.
One of the unexpected high points of the burn was waking up to Interstellar Transmissions (no website, as far as I can tell) playing on the effigy stage. Having been woken up to megaphone wars at past Flipsides, this was so chilled out and uncharacteristically pleasant that Gwen thought she was dreaming.
Burn night went pretty well. I know there were some technical difficulties with the methanol cannons and I get the impression there were some with the propane jets. Caleb (or someone) was tinkering with a control box in the middle of the effigy circle even while the fire procession was taking place–something I hadn’t been aware of beforehand. But the effigy was great, and it made a good fire.
The fire procession beforehand also went as smoothly as I could hope. There’s always a certain amount of chaos that attends this, but I feel that I’m getting better at accommodating that, and for the most part have the process figured out. There was only one minor safety incident, where someone set his hair on fire. I didn’t have as many spotters as I wanted this year, but for the first time, I felt confident that all the spotters I had were competent.
Gwen and I got on the road at about 10:00 AM today, only an hour behind our desired start time—pretty good for us. Ever since a road trip back in ’96 or so that was plagued with mechanical troubles, every road trip I’ve embarked on since has made me anxious. This one included, even though we just had the car checked out. We were in Junction before my stomach settled down and I settled into driving.
This trip is also special in that it almost feels like a religious pilgrimage. I don’t exactly expect to be changed by it, but I expect that I might be.
I handed the reins to Gwen in Fort Stockton. Our destination for tonight is Tucson. A long way away.
Today is a minor milestone for me.
I’ve been talking about going to Burning Man for about ten years. Every year I’ve come up with a perfectly reasonable excuse not to go. In the meantime, I’ve become an active member of the local burner community. I’ve been to the regional burn, Burning Flipside, six times, and have become at least a medium-sized fish in a medium-sized pond.
The longer I’ve been involved in the local burner community, the more Burning Man has become freighted with diverse significances. I’ve heard all the stories of how harsh the environment is (I’ve seen playa dust stuck to seemingly impervious surfaces for years), how astounding the art is (I’ve seen the pictures), how corporatized, mainstream, and Californicated that Burning Man is (everybody likes to complain). I know that if I go, I’ll be a small fish in a big pond. A newbie.
And then Dave and Marrilee, two stalwarts of the Austin burner community, were awarded the Temple build this year. With an inadequate budget and half the normal amount of time to finish. Shortly after this year’s Flipside they held a fundraiser. David Best, the artist behind the first few Temples, was present, and a documentary about his work was screened. A whole bunch of burners were there. Before that event, Gwen and I had been talking about how this, too, was not a good year to go to Burning Man. After we got home, we just started making plans, without ever explicitly discussing the fact that we had suddenly decided to go. The decision had become inevitable.
The Temple as Marrilee and Dave envisioned it required a huge amount of new design work, which would be cut into of plywood panels using two robotic routers. They had a wiki to sign up. I dived in and wound up designing 11 panels. There was also a huge amount of manual labor that needed doing: assembling pieces, moving stuff around to make room, or just sweeping away the torrents of sawdust spewed out by the Shopbots. Gwen and I made our way up to the work site as much as we could.
The Temple is being loaded in pieces onto a number of large trucks even as I write these words. Along with dozens of Austin burners who have committed to spend a month living in incredibly harsh conditions, the pieces of the Temple will head out to the Black Rock desert in a few days, where the rest of the construction work will happen.
Tomorrow, Gwen and I are going out to San Francisco to celebrate a friend’s wedding. It’s not the timing I would have picked, but I can’t fault the happy couple, and am happy to be going. But when we get back, the Temple crew will be gone. By the time we get to Black Rock City, the Temple will be up. So today, my role in building the Temple ended.
It’s a hell of a thing to be able to be involved in the construction of the Temple, especially as a first-timer at Burning Man. The Temple is one of the major landmarks and spiritual focal points at every year’s Burning Man. It’s probably the biggest thing I’ve ever been a part of. It’s going to be significant to some 50,000 people. As a newbie, it would ordinarily be difficult to contribute to Burning Man in a serious way. Being involved in the Temple has been an opportunity to do that.
Almost a year ago, there was a bit of a brouhaha in the fire community—especially the local fire community—about some “championships” sponsored by the National Fire Performance League. I wrote about what little I knew at the time.
I learned shortly after the NFPL event that it was organized by a guy I kinda knew: one of my fire friends, Baru, went to the event and had a chance to chat with the organizer about it, and she learned that it was his very explicit intent to avoid associating his (or anyone’s) name with the event/organization.
A few months ago, he got wind of the blog entry linked above, and called me on the phone asking me to take it down, since it was showing up in Google searches before any of his own pages. I refused, but said that if he wanted to post a rebuttal somewhere, I would happily link to it. He wound up posting the last comment you see on that blog entry now.
A couple of weeks ago, I encountered the organizer, which was momentarily awkward, but we wound up talking about what he’s doing for about 90 minutes.
He told me he’s been involved in fire performance for only 3 years. I get the impression that is part of why he’s reluctant to have his name associated with the NFPL: because he doesn’t have a well-established name in the community. He’s been doing shows, and has gotten schooled by more established performers on two issues: safety and rates. He’s apparently taken these lessons to heart, and wants to promote better safety standards and more awareness of what a fire performer can/should earn for a gig. He also wants to create a mechanism for pairing up newcomers with established performers as a mentoring thing.
And in general, he feels that the fire community is too fragmented, and he wants to make the NFPL the central talking-shop to tie us all together and to use it to reach these goals, which are reasonable, even laudable.
One problem with this is the wheel-reinvention. There are other websites and organizations that that already exist but have not become centralized talking shops (I am reminded of the Unification Church, which seeks to unify all religions by creating yet another religion). And there are organizations with overlapping goals: I mentioned NAFAA to him. He had never heard of it. I did not get around to mentioning Wildfire or Fire Drums or the Crucible, and I wonder if he’s heard of them.
There’s also considerable irony in the fact that someone trying to organize a talking-shop is so opposed to communicating himself. I tried to emphasize to him, in a friendly way, that I thought his insistence on anonymity had backfired. He explained he got a lot of hate mail, and even one physical threat (which would be hard to carry out against an unknown person, but whatever). He felt that this justified his insistence on anonymity. Of course, I think it was mostly created by his insistence on anonymity.
Indeed, anonymity is the crux of his problem. People in the fire community often keep outsiders at arm’s length, because they know that exposure to people who don’t understand it can be dangerous, because they feel protective of the community, and because they are concerned about fire performance being exploited on someone else’s terms. My perception is that people in the community gain a reputation based on their accomplishments, their helpfulness, and their humility. And for any major undertaking that involves the community, reputation is the key to community buy-in, which in turn is the key to the success of the undertaking. While an anonymous person obviously has humility in spades, the humility hides one’s reputation (or lack thereof), but more importantly, masks whether the person is even a part of the community. Many people were concerned that (or assumed that) the NFPL was organized by outsiders to exploit us.
In short, I think his goals have merit, but he’s shown poor judgment. Although he’s done a fair amount of homework, he seems to have the enthusiasm of a newcomer who looks around and says “I want to do this! And this! And this!” without finding out what others had already attempted.
Since he wants to be anonymous, I’ve avoided naming him in this post.
I’m not even going to try to give a blow-by-blow of Flipside this year. Suffice it to say that fun was had and asses were kicked. I’ll just tell some stories.
Gwen and I (and our campmate Scott) went out to Flat Creek on Wednesday evening, a day before the regular opening. We were able to get in early because Gwen had an early Zone Greeter shift the next day and because I’m a theme-camp lead. We had just enough time to unload the van and get our own tents pitched before dark. We had the small bjurt standing up half-collapsed like a geometric sculpture. Someone wandered through our camp and said “I know what that is.” We chatted about shade structures for a while.
A certain friend who had been partying a little too hard was taking a piss and passed out. He came to later and found that he had fallen into a cactus patch. Drugs may have been involved.
I was helping Greg set up his art installation, About That Time, which involved driving a lot of T-posts. Driving T-posts is a lot of work, and I try to avoid it (I say that, but my camp setup involves 24 of them). After we had gotten a few in, one of the DAFT guys working on the effigy came over and asked “Can I drive some?” He was wearing a DPW T-shirt—DPW people are notorious for being rowdy and practically masochistic in their work ethic. I was feeling like Tom Sawyer having just convinced the neighborhood kids to whitewash the fence for him. I said “Sure.” He grabs my T-post driver and starts waling on that thing in a very sexual manner. After he got a few in, he started tearing off blisters (he wouldn’t wear gloves). A couple other DAFTies came over; he said to them “Want to drive a few?” They did. After they did two or three, he took over the rest, finishing with the same hip-thrusting gusto that he started with. The next morning, I saw a pickup with a bumper sticker bearing the DPW logo and the motto “My best vacation is your worst nightmare.” I thought “that sounds about right.” Later I discovered the pickup was driven by Demon Monk, the architect of the effigy.
One of the most notable events from this (or any) Flipside was the Arc Attack performance on Saturday night. If this had been just a typical performance from them, it would be special, but this was astounding. Parsec donned a Faraday suit and stood in the discharge field, like some science-fictional Thor directing lightning bolts. Everybody’s jaw hung agape. Gwen wanted to try it herself.
We had some heavy weather during the day on Saturday. I don’t know exactly how much rain fell or how hard the winds blew—I checked weather almanacs for two nearby weather stations that completely disagreed on rainfall, wind speed, and even wind direction. We had about 20 people clustered inside the big bjurt, and apart from some water getting past the rain flaps when strong winds lifted the canopy, we were dry and comfortable within. Having put so much work into the bjurt, I was very gratified to see that it worked.
After the rains, Gwen and I went wandering around and stopped by Red Camp. I was admiring a pendant a woman had fashioned out of pop-tops when she asked “Are you looking at my necklace?” I said “no, I’m checking out your tits.” She said “Oh, thank you!” I love Flipside.
We didn’t get to burn the effigy this year. Everybody was disappointed about this, but Demon Monk had come up with a no-burn plan to allow for this contingency, and I feel like the whole “unburn” ritual was a success. We had fire performers do a long (~10 minutes) set to music that was slower and more ethereal than I would have expected. That was followed by Sparky’s firecracker hats, and then excellent fireworks by Moss and the DAFT crew tearing the effigy down, having weakened it beforehand so that they could flatten it by pulls on a few ropes. This was good, but not as cathartic as a burn, and the mood throughout Pyropolis seemed more subdued—the fact that we received a noise complaint from a neighbor, which caused Sound Town to be shut down no doubt contributed to that subdued quality.
I hope I’m not giving away any secrets by explaining how the no-burn decision came about. The Flipside organizers knew for months beforehand that, because of the historic draught conditions, we probably would not be able to burn the effigy, and a no-burn plan was part of the selection criteria in the effigy contest. At a Burn Night meeting a few weeks before, it was decided that a final go/no-go decision to burn the effigy would be made at 4:00 PM on Burn Night, as this allowed the minimum amount of time needed to rig the effigy for one contingency or the other. In the week or so leading up to Flipside, there actually was some rain, but the property owner, Child Inc, in the form of its manager Strick, informed us that he would not allow an effigy burn (or any large burnable-art burns), as brushfires had followed even those recent rainfalls. After the toad-floater we had on Saturday, the organizers did contact Strick on Sunday asking him to reconsider, and additional rain was even in the forecast for that evening. Strick was present at the final go/no-go meeting and said he’d only allow the burn if that rain actually materialized. But we were already at our cutoff time, and in fact the rain never did come. Strick was apologetic, and has been supportive of Flipside for years now, but there were obviously larger issues at stake. The previous day’s rain had already soaked in and the ground was relatively dry by Sunday.
After we got home, I remembered the line that Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels. It’s sort of like that with Gwen. I think I have a more visible profile in the burner community, but the fact is that Gwen works as hard as I do, and is indispensable to making all the things I try to do happen. And she does it wearing a pink wig and platforms.
I took very few pictures (and none of them were good), but other people did, so I’ll just point to them.
About a week ago, Sage got in touch with me to ask if I’d heard anything about some “national fire performance championship.” I had not.
I started looking around. It seems that they have a profile and group on MurdochSpace, likewise a profile and group on Tribe. They have no independent website that I can find. There are no personal names associated with any of these accounts that I can find, but the person behind them appears to be in either Austin or Marble Falls.
They posted the same canned message to numerous groups on Tribe. There are a few red flags in it. Any post that starts out “This is an automated reply” does not show a lot of care. They are trying to interest DJs to perform (presumably for free) on the promise that “professional scouts” will be there; trying to interest judges with all the skills apparently needed to run this event; they warn that “space is limited to 2500 people at the event” (2500 is the maximum size of an event before you get into a much stricter level of official oversight) and the breathless “RSVP ASAP.” Plus the price, which is kind of high: They’re charging $30/person/night for spectators, and $40/person/night for performers. Compare that to the campground’s fees of $12/person/night. Of course, you also get a year’s membership in the (nonexistent) National Fire Performance League for the price of admission.
This event is apparently going to be taking place in about a month (Sept 26–28), just down the road from me at a private campground in New Braunfels, and I hadn’t heard about it. I started asking other firedancers. There are a lot of firedancers in central Texas, and we’re a pretty tight-knit group. Although a lot of people had heard about the event, nobody knew who was behind it. That is a very big red flag. It would be impossible to mount a successful firedancing event in central Texas that would welcome 2500 people without one of my firedancing friends being somehow involved, or at least knowing someone who was. I don’t claim to be the hub of central-Texas firedancing, but I am reasonably well-connected. And organizing an event with 2500 people requires a lot of hands. Burning Flipside has been around for 10 years and has grown to be about 2500 people. There are at least 100 people showing up for planning meetings months in advance; there are probably at least 500 people who contribute their labor at the event and just before it. Admittedly, Flipside is heavy on the infrastructure, but even if this event had one-tenth the staffing, that would suggest ten people meeting months in advance and fifty people who planned on being involved at the event (and those people would need to be lined up by now)—and fifty workers is probably well below a practical minimum for an event of 2500. In any case, I am confident that I would know someone who would know one of those fifty. Flipside brings me to another point: that they are (apparently) organizing this without drawing on the depth of talent and experience the burner community has in exactly this kind of event. The campground, as I understand it, is 50 acres, and is probably too small for 2500 people.
A couple of people mentioned that they had tried to get additional information from the organizers, to no avail. Indeed, the organizers seem to have made it a point to be anonymous and uncommunicative. Especially in a tight-knit community, that invites distrust. A couple years ago, a guy named Tedward, a stalwart of the firedancing community, mooted the idea of a fire-performance competition. He raised the idea on Tribe and discussed it there at some length. It was a very controversial idea, but to his credit, he attempted to work out the form of the event though public consensus. His event never took place because a sponsor backed out. Even if we allowed for the sake of argument that the organizers could run this event safely and efficiently (which I do not), we would still be left with an event that reflects only interests of a small group of organizers, not the broader fire community.
Today, I spoke to the Comal County fire marshall. He had not heard about this event. He pointed out that as long as it’s outdoors, there’s not much he can do to regulate it beyond requiring that the grass be mowed. But it still concerns me. It would be very easy for an event with this many people and fire being the central attraction to go wrong. Fire performance always occupies a gray zone with the authorities. We can try to get on their good side, we can hope to escape attention, or we can wind up on their bad side. An event as big as this purports to be would not escape attention in Comal County, so it would only make sense to get on their good side as a precautionary measure. If it went very wrong, it could have serious repercussions for fire performers throughout the state or even the country. A number of people, myself included, are concerned that this is either a scam, or (more likely) being run by people who don’t know what they’re doing. In either case, that ups the odds of something going wrong. I don’t want to see anyone get burned, literally or figuratively.
I have left a message with the campground operators to see if I can get some information from them.
In the end, I think we may be saved by their incompetence. They haven’t done much to create interest in the event, and what little they’ve created has been mostly negative, as far as I can tell. So I’d be surprised if they get 250 people. Even with more competent organizing, it would be difficult to launch an event like this and get 2500 people to show up in its first year.
I just spoke briefly with someone in the campground’s business office. She didn’t really know much about the event. The event organizers have not reserved the entire campground, or any section of it—they’ll just be sharing the space with regular campground visitors. So I’m not sure how the organizers will limit attendance to only those people who have paid for their event. The campground has about 200 campsites for overnighters, but sees up to 3000 people during the day.
Please see my follow-up post.
I’m not sure I can sit down and squeeze everything I might want to say about Flipside into a single blog post—or that I even want to commit all those thoughts to print. I may wind up dribbling out a few more posts on the subject over the coming days.
In the meantime, here’s one tidbit. In a conversation with someone I met at Flipside, he asked me about firespinning—specifically, if I had noticed any physical benefits. I think my answer might make a good blog entry.
I’ve always been a klutz. I attribute this in part to being left-handed, partly to a growth spurt when I was 13 that left me a stranger in my own body. But I think that a big part of this klutziness was a form of learned helplessness: I had learned that I tend to break, or scratch, or knock over things, so I accepted that as normal, and never made an effort not to.
With firedancing, there’s an obvious need to be precise in your motions. There are also strong incentives to practice—practicing is enjoyable in its own right, and it’s easy to make rapid progress by practicing, especially as a beginner. Firedancing also forces one to be more aware of the spatial relationship between one’s body and its surroundings.
So a lesson that I learned at an intuitive level (and later at an intellectual level) was that I didn’t necessarily need to be a klutz. I was capable of using my body the way I wanted if I put a little care into it. I became more aware of how my body related to my surroundings, and more conscious of how I moved in general.
While I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that I’m graceful today, I’m more mindful and precise in my movements, and that has been a benefit.
I attended the Fall ’07 round of Wildfire, a combination training camp and festival for firedancers, from September 20 to 23. This was the sixth running of Wildfire, which is held twice a year. It was fun.
I was nominally attending as a vendor, thanks to my fire-gear sideline. In fact, the Wildfire organizers had invited me to attend the previous one as a vendor, but that came just a week after Flipside was over, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to even think about it, much less prepare for it. But I told myself I’d try to make this one, and I did.
I had an excess of free time in the weeks leading up to Wildfire, and I put some of that time to good use running up inventory to bring.
Right off the bat, I’ll say that the vending aspect of the event was a complete bust. I didn’t sell a goddamned quick-link. Not many of my business cards even got picked up.
Having gotten that out of the way, I’m glad I went. It’s the only event like it that I know of, and I had a good time.
It wasn’t a burner event, strictly speaking—the fact that vendors were present pretty much rules that out. But it adhered to other burner principles: all volunteer, leave no trace. Two aspects gave it a really distinctive vibe: it was explicitly meant to be educational, not recreational, and everyone there was a fire performer of some stripe. Almost everyone had a set of poi or some other kind of toy at hand all the time, and there was probably as much teaching going on outside of the scheduled classes as within them. Another interesting difference between WF and a burner event is that meals were communal. People volunteered for kitchen shifts, and the food had been paid for as part of the admission price. While this introduces some complications, simply getting everyone sitting down together family-style also had a positive effect on the mood.
Days were filled with five simultaneous tracks by five sessions per day. I didn’t come close to filling my own class schedule. Classes I did take: intro to double staff, hoop making, poi geekery, choreography. They were all valuable to some extent. I also discovered upon arrival that I was on the board as leading a class in spotter training (something I’ve worked on before). I wasn’t sure how that happened, and I came with neither my training equipment nor handouts, so all I could do was stand there and talk. The talky part of spotter training isn’t especially valuable (the hands-on part is where it’s at), and so I was not thrilled with my presentation. I also spent a lot of time just hanging out with other spinners, teaching moves or learning moves from other people. There were, of course, lots of other classes (some of which I really should have made an effort to catch), including fire breathing, fire eating, flesh transfer, fire swords, stagecraft, etc. The teaching style at Wildfire is fairly traditional, and there’s considerable discussion on the Wildfire discussion board regarding whether a more free-form approach would be more effective.
The venue is a private campground with some permanent structures, including a kitchen, communal bathroom, and the hall that was used as the vendor area. There were also some quasi-tent shelters with canvas walls and wooden floors; each of these had two hard-used bunkbeds. I bunked in one of those tents, along with Matthew and Jen from Flamma Aeterna (the competition, I might say, if I were competitive). Matthew, Jen, and I in fact arranged to meet up at the Hartford airport and shared a car rental. We drove to the site, stopped at the greeter’s station and got the “welcome home” routine, and got the lay of the land. We discovered we’d want some kind of bedclothes for those bunkbeds, which had vinyl-covered mattresses. We drove back to a nearby Walmart, where I discovered to my surprise that it is possible to buy a $10 sleeping bag. Also bought some white gas to throw into the kitty, but lamp oil was nowhere to be found. Stopped at a neighboring grocery store to pick up some beer, and was somewhat surprised at the limited beer selection (many convenience stores in Austin have a better beer and wine selection)—they did have Guinness, though, so I managed.
Back at the campground, I got settled in, got a table set up in the vendor area, and started meeting people, a few of whom I had corresponded with online.
That night, and each night, there was an open burn on the main field. The organizers had set up a gigantic fire circle, and there were often ten people burning at once from about 8:00 PM until the DJs called it quits at 1:00 AM. There were three big bonfires going, which the spectators crowded around. The field was at a lower elevation than the rest of the camp, and right next to a creek. It wound up being cool (just a little chilly in shirtsleeves) and humid, with fog forming one night. The fire and fog made for quite a sight. A dubious pontoon bridge was the shortcut between the field and the kitchen area; one night as I was crossing it, my headlamp illuminated every droplet of mist as I walked forward, creating a visual effect remarkably like the “entering hyperspace” effect in Star Wars. It was one of those little moments in life that take on disproportionate profundity somehow. Thursday night, for whatever reason, I wasn’t connecting with the music, and didn’t spin much. Spent a lot of time serving as a spotter instead. Friday night I probably lit up ten times though.
Part of Saturday night was set aside for performance demos: people who have prepared shows were given an opportunity to demo them for all assembled. This was a real treat, with four sets: two hoopers; a double-staffer on stilts along with a poi spinner doing a clever puppeteer and puppet routine; a fire-eating and flesh-transfer solo routine; and an extended routine by the event organizer Chad and his performing partner Joanna, which variously involved hoops, fire fingers, single staff, and double staff (and which also had a puppeteer and puppet theme to it). All of these routines were a pleasure to watch, and it was one of the high points of the event.
Also on Saturday night, there was an attempt at the longest firebreathing “pass” ever, where a bunch of breathers line up, and attempt to pass a flame down the line. They got 30 people in line, but after repeated attempts could not pass the flame for more than five people.
Almost everybody at the event apparently was from the Eastern Seaboard, from somewhere between Washington DC and Boston. I only knew of four people, myself included, that came from a greater distance. Whenever firespinners from different regions get together, it’s interesting to observe the differences in style. A lot of these spinners had a very technical focus (falling on the tech side of the “tech vs flow” divide). There were a lot more people who use multiple tools, although this is perhaps to be expected in a self-selecting community of spinners dedicated enough to go to an event like Wildfire. A lot more double-staff spinners, but no baton twirlers. A lot more contact staff spinning. Only one meteor spinner. A lot of hoopers. There was a woman selling non-fire hoops in the vending room who borrowed someone else’s fire hoop for her first burn at Wildfire. And someone fire-hooping up on stilts, which drove her spotters crazy. Another difference was that hardly anybody used lamp oil, everyone used white gas.
Wildfire didn’t unlock any amazing tricks or techniques for me, but it was still worthwhile. Simply being in an environment where pretty much everybody shares a strong interest in firedancing was pretty special. And one concrete benefit I did bring home was an urge to get more serious about my own firedancing. I’d been goofing around with double staffs for years, but never practiced with them in a methodical way. I’ve started practicing with them every day. And I’ve been trying harder to kick myself off the plateau I’ve reached with poi.
Although I’d been thinking about if for a while, Burning Flipside got me thinking more about safety in firedancing. Not so much in the act of firedancing itself, but all the stuff that surrounds it: equipment design, fuel-depot setup, spotters, etc. It also got me thinking more about the community aspects of burner events like Burning Flipside, and indeed, there’s some overlap between these two issues.
I’ve said before that a bad spotter is worse than no spotter, and I say that having seen a bad spotter completely lose his shit at the moment a friend needed help. At Flipside this year, I was the cat-herder in charge of the fire procession before the effigy burn, and I kind of dropped the ball on spotters. I didn’t round up as many as I felt should be on hand, and not all the ones I did round up were known to me at all—meaning some of them might lose their shit when someone needs help. I also was aware that, while it resulted in only inconvenience, not injury, there were some instances at Flipside where the firedancer and spotter were not on the same page about who should be doing what.
To rectify that, I decided to organize a spotter training session. The idea is to solve two problems: to increase the pool of spotters, and to increase the skill level of those spotters. Most folks involved in firedancing are not trained as spotters: someone hands them a damp towel and says “will you be my towel person?” If you’re a fire performer yourself, you’ve got an advantage in that you’ve got a better idea of what to look out for, and should be less likely to freak out about running towards a fire, but there can still be gaps in your knowledge. And in some situations, the people serving as spotters are the people who aren’t (or aren’t yet) firedancers—they are the firedancer’s friend, S.O., or whatever.
This document is an attempt to codify the consensus approach to good practices for spotters, and simply to provide a common point of reference. Even if some of the points are no better than alternatives, spotters and performers sharing the same set of expectations will cut down on problems. Spotters and performers don’t always communicate before a light-up, so a common point of reference is important.
Using that document as a starting point, we held our training session, the first one we’ve had in Austin as far as I know. We had four experienced spinners (myself included) and eight newbies. The flow went something like this: hand out a copy of the notes to everyone, quickly review the contents of it and discuss why certain points are important. Demonstrate (sans fire) most of the “hairy situations.” Then all the newbies paired off and drilled on these situations. After about 20 minutes, we had live-fire drills. Before we did that, I produced a very small torch I with no exposed metal, and used this to stroke down everyone’s arm with flame (after doing my own). My point in doing so was to break down the (perfectly reasonable) wall that most people have that causes them to avoid contact with fire, to demystify the fire, and to show that while it is uncomfortable, it isn’t terribly painful. One participant flinched away reflexively, even after several attempts, and I think in her case this was a particularly useful exercise in that it brought this mental block to the surface.
Then we moved on with the drills. I put on some protective gear I had improvised, and with a set of poi built with easy-to-drop handles and small wicks, got into various awkward positions with fire near my skin. Each person ran in on cue and put them out. Everyone took two tries at each situation, and after we had gone through a couple of situations, Scott took over with much larger wicks. We also drilled on routine wick-extinguishing. It would have been nice to drill on fire-extinguisher usage, but impractical and expensive, since we didn’t have a CO2 extinguisher. But all in all, I’m pleased with how things went. It’s also become clear to me that there are a number of people out there who may not be interested in being fire performers, but are interested in being spotters. That’s pretty cool.
Some of the stuff in the notes might be the source of some disagreement. One point, which I don’t dwell on but which I do consider important, is the chain of command, which goes performer: spotter normally, but spotter: performer in emergencies. A lot of other stuff in the notes springs from this, and it would be the single most important common point of reference for spotters and performers to share. And for that matter, there are some edge cases where the rule doesn’t hold, as when the spotter is very experienced and the performer is very inexperienced.
I think this year was the first year we had a fuel depot for Circle of Fire that was marked, lit, signed, and all that good stuff. We could still do better. Soaking tanks with self-closing lids would be a safety improvement and would also keep rain out (we wound up wasting a fair amount of fuel that got rainwater mixed in). While there’s no product that fits this description exactly, there are “oily waste cans” that would be perfect for the job (though spendy). Wiring them down to a large platform to avoid tip-over would be safer still.
I’ve been making firedancing equipment for longer than I’ve been a firedancer myself, and over that time, I’ve learned a lot about what is safe and what isn’t, likewise what is effective and what isn’t. This is to be expected. Firedancing has been popular for less than a decade, and there’s a lot that nobody would know. When I started out, I made equipment that I assumed was safe and useful because I didn’t know any better. Gradually, I’ve learned what doesn’t work, although this has been mostly an empirical process. To some extent, I can look at certain materials and take a pretty good guess as to whether they can be assembled into a safe piece of equipment, but there are always new and clever ways to abuse a piece of equipment. There’s been some discussion among fire-tool makers of standards for fire-tool safety, and at this point, we haven’t even decided what the parameters for “safe” are, much less the values. As one person pointed out, different people will have different ideas of what is “safe enough”—even among safety-conscious people. And the fire community is notorious for it’s “safety third” attitude.