My re-entry into consensus reality has been a little bumpy. I’ll post a full report soon.
My re-entry into consensus reality has been a little bumpy. I’ll post a full report soon.
A few weeks ago, the guy in charge of theme-camp siting, Michael 7.0, contacted me, and with a subtle mixture of flattery and menace, asked me to come to the next work weekend at Flat Creek—although he never said it in so many words, the underlying message was something like “It would be really helpful to have you out there to make sure your camp gets a good spot, and you’d better come if you know what’s good for you.” So how could I refuse?
I got back from the work weekend a couple hours ago, and I am wiped out. Unlike Flipside itself, which is a “leave no trace” event, this was a “leave no tree” event. Tree less than 10′ tall (and some larger that were in the way) were cut down with chainsaws or uprooted by a bobcat. We had two woodchippers going, and when they both broke down, we started loading the cut brush onto trailers and dumping it off cliffs. I dug a couple of holes trying to find a water line that wasn’t there. I tried to groom what will be the fire circle, with modest success. I dug up cactus, broke rocks, etc. So it was sort of like being on a chain gang, but without the chains and with beer. I also hashed out Circle of Fire’s exact location with M7 (as he is called). He refers to the problem of camp placement as “Tetris,” but while Tetris is a problem in two dimensions, he’s dealing with eight or more variables.
Saturday night there was a big fire fueled by some of the trees we cut down, barbecue courtesy of Rob and Niki, and a curious mix of Beatles and Nine Inch Nails blasting from somebody’s van. Sitting by the fire, we discussed how many people were at WWIII, and came up with 50 as a likely sounding number. In one sense, this is discouraging—it’s 2.5% of total Flipside participation. In another sense, it’s impressive—the first Flipside had about 25 people, so we’ve got double that now just to get ready for the event.
Despite the fact that it was a metric assload of work, I’m glad I went. Aside from the fact that I’m doing my bit to make the event overall better, I had a chance to improve the land at CoF’s site, making sure that trees that should come down did, and those that should stay up did, getting rid of cactus, smoothing out the fire circle, etc. More than that, though, it’s important for the community aspect on several levels. While I know kinda-sorta know some people in the burner community, I don’t know a lot, and this was an opportunity to meet some and get some face time—and while politics aren’t a big problem at Flipside, I did get some info on the political problems that might come up. Some of the people I met are people who I’d want to call on (or who would want to call on me) at the event, and knowing who’s doing what ahead of time is especially helpful. It also scored some cred for me, and some brownie points for CoF. I’m sorry I didn’t encourage more people to go more forcefully.
I was taken aback at the amount of work being done to the site—for example, they’re putting in a fire hydrant up on the plateau. This is a pretty big undertaking, involving a lot of machinery, labor, and materials. Stuff like that and the land clearing suggest to me long-term plans for the site and for Flipside that make me imagine the event getting much, much bigger.
Photos from Flipside are up. I’ve got commentary in the notes on a lot of these photos. I would have taken more, but Flipside instituted very restrictive rules on photos intended for the web—and although I consider the rules unenforceable and overreaching and kind of resent them, I understand the reasoning behind them.
Many of my Flipside observations from 2005 apply to my experience this year as well. But my experience at this year’s Burning Flipside was somewhat different from last year’s. More advance prep, less on-site hassle. This year as in past years, Circle of Fire was my theme camp, and I think everyone who was part of last year’s COF wanted to make this year’s camp a better one, and so we had our shit together a little better. I took responsibility for organizing a shade structure and PA for a DJ to use (luckily, Clint, a friend of the camp, volunteered the use of his DJ rig, and sat in on Friday night to play music for us; Schon played music Saturday). I put together spin-out buckets and soaking tanks for the fuel depot, and made a dozen sets of practice poi for lessons that never quite materialized (in the end, only four pair of those practice poi got used, and somebody else brought even more)—if we’re serious about holding poi lessons, we need to schedule a time and get it on the calendar of events. And have a clock somewhere. And although COF did have functional, acceptable infrastructure for a change, our camp was still put to shame by so many others that had fantastic installations, showing a level of creativity and industry that we didn’t come close to matching. Of course, we had the firedancing, but that was our only draw. Other camps hosted firedancers plus this or that, such as Spin Camp (which always has incredible infrastructure, and had Mark’s Bible lessons and Greg’s spinning jenny) or Groovepharm (which has the best firespinners, even if they don’t come to Flipside to spin, as well as the best DJs, and a giant trampoline-lounge). What can I say? We’re a bunch of slackers.
Circle of Fire did have a much better location than it did last year, thank you site committee. I would have preferred a bigger space for our fire-circle, but since we didn’t really push the boundaries of the one we had, I can’t complain. We had a monumental fire circle that could easily accommodate six people in 2003; this year’s would would be a little cramped with four, but an improvement over 2005, when the fire circle would barely accommodate three, was on a slope, was not obvious, and also happened to be used as an alleyway to cut between parallel roads. On Thursday, I was too whipped after getting the shade structures set up to burn even once, but I had many good light-ups and even some great ones on each of the remaining nights—a few that pushed me to a different level. Firedancing can be considered a form of ecstatic motion, and in its original usage, “ecstasy” referred to a form of religious possession that is something to fear. I’m neither religious nor spiritual, but a really good light-up is one of the few occasions when I feel what I guess must be something like ecstasy in its original sense. Part of this is good, loud music, part of it is energy from the crowd, and part of it is the importance that all the participants invest in the moment. And I only have a few burns to show for it.
The new location, Flat Creek, has pros and cons compared to RecPlan. The fact that it is bigger, and therefore Pyropolis is more spread out, is both a pro and a con in itself: Flipside was definitely outgrowing RecPlan, but things are now sufficiently spread-out that it can take a lot of walking to get between two theme camps. I estimate that I walked five-plus miles a day. !Bob told me that Flat Creek has 600 acres we never even touched. I’m guessing we used 100-200 acres, so that’s a lot of potential for growth, which will bring its own set of pros and cons if it happens.
The fact that Flat Creek is laid out around a roughly horseshoe-shaped road, with “center camp” on a plateau in the middle of it and radial paths cutting across at random, means that it’s hard to get a clear sense of where camps are in relation to each other. Contrast this with RecPlan, which basically has one long road with a couple minor branches. A bicycle will be necessary equipment at future Flipsides; some kind of signage showing which camps are where would be especially helpful (an interesting wayfinding project for Gwen’s office, perhaps). One improvement in layout that we saw this year was theme camps zoned by noise level—that said, I was still camping in the loudest zone, but the fact that we were more spread out seemed to lower the intensity a bit. One curious fact about the Flat Creek site plan is that the plateau feels smaller than the field at RecPlan. A little more ground-clearing (if possible or desirable) to remove some of the trees that break up the plateau’s space would fix that. The terrain at Flat Creek is much rougher than at RecPlan, both at a large and small scale. The field at RecPlan is practically like a city park—smooth, with nice grass. The plateau at Flat Creek is much rougher, with giant divots where trees have been uprooted, prickly pear here and there, etc. And where RecPlan has a gradual hill, Flat Creek has cliffs. Flat Creek has a much more inviting cold-water stream flowing through it, the best feature of the property. It is unlike the creek at RecPlan in that it is removed from everything else—you need to go through a cave and down a bit of a hill to get there. At RecPlan, the creek is right next to the field, so you can be in the water and still semi-connected to the main action. But many people, myself included, spent a lot of time down at the stream, and with the cliff overshadowing it, it was by far the coolest place to be on days that climbed to 100°F.
The theme camps and installations blew me away, as much as ever. Somebody built a hot-tub on the bank of the stream, for cryin’ out loud. This fits right in with what I called the “extravagant gesture” a year ago. The effigy, a chalice, was built by a Houston crew (that wound up getting into a fight with the Chupacabra Policia, who were otherwise suspiciously well-behaved). The effigy was smaller than the past couple of years and relied more on propane than wood for its fuel, so there was almost nothing left the next morning (in contrast to last year, when there was still a huge pile of burning wreckage). The firedancers had a typical procession, although it was disorganized enough that many of us who were standing right there almost missed it. After the big burn, firedancers formed a couple of fire-circles next to the remnants of the effigy and burned for hours. I had some killer light-ups.
It’s hard for me to condense the Flipside experience down into a few well-organized paragraphs, and I’ve put off hitting the “publish” button on this post for a few days as I try to bring some order to it. Then again, the motto at Flipside is FUCK SHIT UP!, so trying to bring order to one’s reflections on it is perhaps missing the point.
Gwen and I are going to Flipside in a couple of days, and we’ve been in buzz of activity getting ready. I’m really looking forward to it.
Today I went to rent a PA system from Rock-n-Roll Rentals. At least two other patrons there were (I’m pretty sure) renting equipment for Flipside. The guy who took care of my order immediately sized me up.
Is this for Flipside?
I’ve got it written all over me, huh. Are you going?
Which camp are you with?
I’ll be at Get Lost.
Oh, do you know Ish?
Sure, I know her
It’s as if we’re there already.
Went to Burning Flipside this past weekend. Unfortunately, Gwen wasn’t able to be with me. We found out (after we had our tickets) that a friend was having a weekend-long wedding bash at the same time, and because this was the same friend who had officiated at our weddding, we didn’t feel like we could miss that. But because The Powers That Be at Flipside had gone out of their way to make it possible for us to be there, we didn’t feel like we could say no to that. So we split the difference: one of us went to Flipside, one went to Davey’s weddingpalooza.
For those who don’t know, Flipside is a “regional burn,” a companion event to Burning Man, which started it all. Flipside is the oldest and largest of these regional burns. What these burn events are is a little harder to explain. When I don’t want to go into details, I call it a camp-out, but that’s like calling the Grand Canyon a ditch. It’s also an intentional community, an art festival, an experiment in “radical self-expression and radical self-reliance” (meaning: anything goes, and you better be able to take care of all your needs except for sanitary facilities). At the popular-perception end of the scale, it’s also an opportunity to do a lot of drugs and see a lot of boobies, but again, that’s completely missing the point.
Larry Niven wrote a science-fiction story called “The Anarchy Cloak,” which I read as a teenager. It was a gedankenexperiment about a future society with “anarchy parks” where anything goes, as long as it’s not violent–and there are little hovering robots to zap you if you get out of line. His story explores “what happens when the little robots get knocked out”–basically, warlordism in miniature. Niven’s view of human nature is cynical, albeit with ample justification.
Flipside is like an anarchy park, but without the same social-control mechanism. People are generally decent to each other because they want it to work. There are rangers to deal with problems, and problems do exist, but for the most part the rangers seem to get people to back off from confrontations and deal with people who have OD’d on some drug or another. I was discussing the whole experience with a ranger, Keeper, on the way out, and she observed that people show up not only wanting to make the event work, but to do something to make it better.
Flipside is a place where you can watch good karma in action. At Circle of Fire, the theme camp for firespinners, we had the dual problems of an inadequate sound system and inadequate power supply for it (despite Scott’s ingenious efforts), along with the fact that we were near two DJ’d camps, and would be competing with their sound output. Scott and I had strategized ways to deal with this without really coming up with a solution. At one point, I was filling the tiki torches surrounding CoF, and someone came over asking to bum some fuel for his tiki torches. I offered him all he wanted (there was still plenty left over when we were packing up to go home), and he asked if I wanted anything in return. I said no. He then told me he was from one of the adjacent camps, Winner’s Circle (whose DJ had been spinning vinyl I really enjoyed spinning fire to), so I said “you know, there is something you can do for me: point one of your speakers at the fire circle.” He was happy to do that, and our music problem was solved.
Flipside, like other burner events, involves an astounding amount of work for a very large number of people who are derided as hippies and slackers in everyday life. An ordinary person showing up at Flipside would observe the amount of work going into creating a temporary community and ephemeral art, and shake his head in incredulity. Even the simple act of showing up at an event like this involves bringing a hell of a lot of shit for most folks. I showed up with my little wagon packed to the gills, and one of my campmates said, without sarcasm, “you travel light!”
The psychological cornerstone of every burner event is an effigy that is burned on the last night. At Flipside this year, the effigy was a rocket (resonating with this year’s theme: “Innergalactic Circus”). Major sub-assemblies for the rocket had been completed offsite in advance, and were assembled on the spot The result was (I am guessing) about 40 feet tall, and built like a brick shithouse. Seriously: houses that people live their whole lives in probably are not as solid. As I understand it, Dave Umlaus was in charge of the rocket’s construction. I doubt he slept for a week, and construction was still underway just a couple of hours before the burn.
What’s the point of building something, only to burn it down as soon as you finish? There are a lot of ways to answer that. To acknowledge the temporary nature of all things. To put on an exciting show. To create a ritual in which people can cast off the past and purify themselves. To have fun burning shit. Ephemeral art is common in Japan (cf: ikebana) and in other cultures. Perhaps this kind of thing wouldn’t seem so strange (at least for that reason) elsewhere.
Part of the reason behind this is the “wanting to make it better.” I think there’s also an element of auto-one-upsmanship, that is, people think “well, we did this pretty well last year, but we can do better this year.”
This is the most obvious example of the extravagant gesture, but only one of many. I was talking with my friend !Bob about the LED ring, which describes a very large circle around the effigy (this area is referred to as the L2C). Bob had written the code (in Assembly, no less) to control the lighting patterns of the ring, and explained to me just how homemade the damn thing is. I had seen it before, but never knew that it started life as epoxy mix, lumber, bare LEDs, custom-printed circuit boards, and some cheap off-the-rack chips. !Bob had dedicated a ridiculous amout of time to writing patterns for the ring, only to have his efforts stymied by various hardware malfunctions–overextending the limits of the serial communications protocol between the panels, two power supplies that failed because of the rain, poorly soldered joints on the boards, etc.
At many theme camps, people had schlepped out domes or other massive shade structures, DJ rigs and speaker setups, enough rugs to carpet the entire interior, etc. Perhaps the most extreme example was Chupacabra Policia, which set up a three-story scaffolding stockade, surrounded by a locked barbed-wire gate, blaring Extremely Strange Music, fake news reports, and intimidating directives over their PA at all times. Its members adopted names like Bootcutter, and wore uniforms with custom badges and emblems. They even had their own squad car. As Bootcutter put it, it’s not easy being that obnoxious, and that makes it a higher form of art. Just to piss off any feelgood PETAphile hippies, they made themselves notorious for slaughtering and cooking chickens at their camp.
Andy, a firespinner from Germany, seemed to be marking his Flipside experience by the meals he ate. At every theme camp, someone was pushing some kind of meal on him. We had been chatting for a couple of minutes when he excused himself because a camp up the hill was about to be serving chili.
A lot of people (me included) pack way too much food so that they’ll have something to offer to others. At Spin Camp (where I sited my tent), we had a de-facto cook, Crispy. She had brought along hard-boiled eggs from her own chickens. She made cowboy coffee over a campfire every morning. On Friday morning, she made bacon/skirt-steak skewers for breakfast. On Sunday, she filled two massive cast-iron kettles with breakfast-taco fixing (again, using eggs from her chickens) and cooked them over the campfire. At other camps I saw Greek food, fajitas, burgers, chili, etc. One camp (Better Brains Bureau) made a name for itself by handing out chocolate cake and bacon for breakfast. Right after I heard about this, I ran into Striggy on the trail down to the field, and mentioned this to her. She enthused that that was exactly what she wanted.
The counterpart to all this food, of course, is booze. I packed a case-worth of good beer, which I barely made a dent in (beer is not as effective for hydration as water, and hydration is important). Also fixings for damn good margaritas, which, again, mostly went unused despite my persistence in offering them around. There were several theme camps that ran open bars as their centerpieces.
There’s a lot of it, and it’s loud. If you read the theme camp descriptions, you’ll find a lot with vague, trippy descriptions that don’t tell you what will be going on at that camp. These can mostly be translated as “we will have DJs and lasers.” Different camps had different musical styles, of course, and there’s enough variety that anyone can find something that they’ll like. There was at least one camp spinning 130-bpm trance music more or less non-stop, and it all sounded the same. Wonderlounge, next to Spin Camp, had an interesting musical selection that I mostly enjoyed, but kept some of my camp-mates awake later than they wanted. Some of my camp-mates were using both earplugs and earmuff-style protectors to block out the sound.
The real problem with all this highly amplified music is that when you’re down on the main field (which some people wistfully refer to as “the playa”) and between music-oriented camps, you can hear at least two–and probably three–different tracks at any given time. This was a problem at CoF, because we were pretty much relying on the sound from a nearby camp for our music, and when you’re twirling fire, it really helps to have a beat (just one) that you can groove on.
There are a lot of different events during the long weekend, which are all more or less open for anyone to participate in (that’s the whole idea). Both CoF and Spin Camp were holding poi lessons, in addition to hosting fire circles. Spreader Bar & Grill was tying Japanese-style bondage knots on anyone who asked, and you could see a lot of people wandering around with elaborate trusses around their torsos. There was a “Cthulhu Devival Hour.” A “Miss Flipside” competition, which was most entertaining–the first round of judging was an obstacle course in which contestants had to light someone’s cigarette in a creative fashion, hammer rebar with a sledgehammer, and wipe something–anything (and they did) with a wet-wipe–all while carrying a tray full of drinks. The second round consisted of the talent and interview portion. I have no idea who won, but my favorite contestant was Miss Firepants, who had enough attitude to power a small village.
There was a wedding held there. I didn’t know any of the parties involved, but a fire-friend did, and he asked me to be one of several people spinning fire as part of the ceremony. I was happy to oblige. As I heard it, civilians were also being trucked in to take part in the service, and I can only wonder what they thought of the freak procession (which was over a hundred people).
It has rained at every Flipside, as far as I know. This year it rained a lot–some folks were calling the event Burning Mudslide.
We had a relatively brief but heavy storm on Friday night. This fried two power supplies used in the LED ring, and made a hash of many campsites.
Saturday night, we had a rainstorm strike earlier. It was obvious that storm clouds were rolling in, so we had time to batten down the hatches, and I made it into my tent about a minute before the first drops hit. Some folks stayed out and made merry anyhow, but it was a massive storm that dumped sheets of water on us for hours. I am pleased to report that my tent basically stayed dry (upon striking it, I discovered that there was a small divot under my tent, and a pool of water had collected between the groundcloth and tent floor, soaking through the floor, but my air mattress was between me and the water). I took a nap. When I woke and found the rain had stopped (around 4:00 AM, I guess), I pulled on my shoes and walked down to the field. Except for one camp, it was dark and quiet. That was worth experiencing.
The big draw for me is the firedancing. Although my tent was at Spin Camp, I put in more work at Circle of Fire (both of which are oriented towards firespinning).
Because of the nature of burner events (hell, even the name), firedancers seem to have enjoyed a little bit of priviliged status at these events. But firedancing has become common enough within the freak community that the priviliged status seems to have worn off–it doesn’t draw as much of an audience, or as many would-be spinners eager to learn, and a lot of firespinners have decided that they have better things to do at flipside than burn.
If this sounds like I’m bitter, I’m not. There were a number of fire performers at Flipside who I knew by reputation, or who I saw goofing around during the daytime, and I would have enjoyed watching them more and doing fire-stuff with them more than I did–but it was a pleasure to watch them and play around with them as much as I did. If you’re out there–Skunk, Nico, Rachel, and Dan–I had a ball. Andy, the firespinner from Germany, never lit up that I saw, but he always had his poi in his hands, and would distractedly toss off crazy moves while chatting with you. I also noticed that he seemed to have his keys clipped to his wicks, for some reason.
Some time before Flipside, Tym asked me to coordinate the fire performance before the big burn of the effigy on Sunday, and I accepted. This turned out to be the overriding aspect of my Flipside experience.
I developed a general plan for how to organize the fire performance. Nothing very complicated–I knew that any plan would need to allow for a lot of flexibility. And I wanted to strike a balance between two conflicting schools of thought on how the performance should be organized: those who thought that it should emphasize talent and showmanship, and those who thought it should maximize participation and inclusion. In case this is of any value to anyone in the future, my original plan was this:
I had put out a request on a couple of Internet forums asking people who wanted to take part to contact me in advance. A few people did, but there were clearly far fewer respondents than there would be participants.
So at Flipside, I started tracking people down who I knew personally, knew by reputation, by referral, or who I just saw playing with firedancing equpment. I explained to everyone where and when to assemble, what to do, and what my plan was. And it was interesting that I got pushback from a few people who said the plan was elitist or hierarchical, but I knew that any plan would be unsatisfactory to some people, so I shrugged it off. I asked everyone to pass word on to other fire performers they knew. I found the “drum gods” camp and asked them to send a contingent of eight drummers to lay down a steady beat–my original idea was one drummer per slice. They explained they all had to be in one spot to stay on the same beat, but that the sound would carry across the ring. They were especially concerned about hot fuel being cast off by a wick, hitting a drum head, and destroying it.
On Sunday morning, someone asked me how many people I expected would be taking part. I answered “between 10 and 100.” In fact, I thought the number would be about 60.
At about 6:00 on Sunday, I just happened to be present at a war council in the circle around the rocket (having just marked wedges with orange spray paint), discussing the latest weather forecast: there was a thunderstorm watch, flood watch, tornado watch, and chance of hail for the entire county. Oh, shit. Everyone stands around with very serious faces, wondering “now what?” Dave Umlaus, who looked like he had been run through a cheese grater and hastily reassembled into his original form, absorbed the news with a dead expression. The original plan was for rocket ignition at about 10:00 PM, and it was decided that we would try to stick to that plan, but might move the launch up by one hour, to avoid the worst of the weather–apparently, high winds were the main concern, as they could carry embers into the trees.
This meant that I had to track down everyone I had previously told to assemble at 9:15, and update them that they should be there at 8:15. Maybe. Tym apologized to me unnecessarily, and I said “if I wanted to take it easy, I would have stayed home.” I started making a couple passes throughout RecPlan, and seemed to manage to find almost everyone who needed to be found. I also found a few people who had never gotten the invitation in the first place, so I was able to get them on-board. I stopped by the drum gods again–they had heard something was up, but wanted to get my story. After the previous night’s rainstorm, they decided to place their biggest drums on one of the “gator” utility carts that constantly crisscross the site, so they could drive it under the nearby roofed pavillion at the first sign of rain.
This was stressful.
I changed into my eveningwear, and someone from my camp (also named Adam) blasted some glitter onto my brightly sunburned torso. I grabbed a granola bar for dinner, and carried extra fuel down to Circle of Fire, the place where everyone was going to congregate. I arranged the fuel depot to make it clearer what was going on.
At this point, the decision on when to launch the rocket was still up in the air, and in fact was not going to be decided until the last minute. That decision was up to the fire marshal.
Tym was leading a parade throughout the site, gathering up people from every camp as he went. His original plan (also a shambles now) was that the parade would arrive on the field just in time for the firedancers to start their show, then we’d do our thing, and then the rocket would be lit. Instead, he had to arrive on the field early and lead the parade through multiple laps around it. On one lap he gave me his bullhorn so that I could rally my troops. It turned out that there were a little over 30, with about a dozen safety people. I had them count off by eights to determine their position on the circle, had them start soaking and spinning out their wicks. At this point, I had too few firespinners to justify taking shifts, but 15 minutes of time to fill, so I told everyone to resoak and come back out immediately.
On another lap around, Tym came over and said “as of now, all your people need to be ready to go on at a moment’s notice” and I relayed this. Sure enough, a few minutes later, Tym came by again and said “get them out there now and light them up.” So they did. I patrolled the perimeter while they burned. One of the safety people took me aside and explained that someone in her wedge (whom I had not met) was insisting on fire-breathing–the safety had explained my position, but he was adamant. As it turned out, this wasn’t a big deal, since there was a pretty wide band between the fire performers and everyone else, being patrolled by rangers, and the circle itself wasn’t that crowded.
After about five minutes of burn time, someone came to me and told me “we have to clear the circle now.” So much for the re-soak and re-light plan. I ran over to the fuel depot and told everyone to stop re-dipping, though a few people got past. I went back out to the circle and hollered at everyone to clear the circle. A couple of showboats delayed leaving for a couple minutes, but apparently that wasn’t a deal-breaker.
Once the field was cleared, we waited. There were drummers everywhere, people hooting and hollering. The predicted storm was gathering–massive thunderheads, with frequent lightning. It made a perfect backdrop, and I half-expected a lightningbolt to strike the rocket. After some period of time, thrusters at the bottom of the rocket fired and everyone went nuts. Although there was a spinning fire-fountain on the top of the rocket, and it had been test-fired the previous night, it did not fire at this time. I suspect there were a hundred things that went wrong (the LED ring was completely shut off), but there was so much going on that you’d never miss it if you hadn’t known it was there. It took a while for the rocket to really start burning in earnest, but once it did there was a massive wave of heat that pushed everyone back about ten paces. It took a long time to burn and collapse (there was a lot of wood in there, and it was solidly built). It was sending embers perhaps 100 feet into the air, with the smoke creating a weak vortex. Firefighters were spraying their hoses to wet down the field downwind. As soon as the edifice had collapsed and the heat died down a bit, a lot of people moved inside the LED ring, and started walking in a circle around it. I was relieved and happy things had gone off as well as they did, and I hugged, congratulated, and thanked people as I went by or they did. As the fire died down a little more, people moved in to get as close as they could tolerate. Firespinners stepped into the band between the embers and the rest of the crowd (that is to say, the zone where the heat was intolerable). I grabbed my chains and joined them. After four light-ups in the hot zone, my sunburn was twice as bad–practically purple.
The storm mostly passed us by–we got a light sprinkling, but that was it. I wound up turning in relatively early. It was difficult to find a comfortable position to lie in with my sunburn, but I managed to get a pretty good night’s sleep.
The next morning, I hastily struck my own campsite (which was still kind of wet and muddy) and got it ready to load. I grabbed some garbage bags and went down to CoF to pick up the cigarette butts, tinsel, bottlecaps, etc. Finished up with that and went back up. Went to get my car, and found it blocked in by a gator–apparently someone at the adjacent camp had OD’d, and there were rangers and medics dealing with the situation. A few minutes later, though, I was able to get my car out. I loaded it up quickly and said goodbye to my camp-mates. On my way out, I saw Jori, a camp-mate and ranger, and said goodbye to her. Another ranger came over and asked “can you give someone a ride to the airport?” I said sure, and they loaded up Keeper and her one duffel bag (talk about travelling light!). The ranger gave me a piece of “flipside currency”–I have no idea what I would do with it, and I’m not inclined to part with it anyhow.
I’ll write more as I think of it.
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 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.