Adam Rice

My life and the world around me

Tag: burning man

The Temple Burn

Burning Man was too big to fit into one blog entry. I’ve got a few ideas for things to say, but for now, I’m going to focus on the Temple and the Temple burn.

The Temple was finished on Tuesday, and we spent Tuesday evening getting rid of temporary scaffolding and cleaning up the work site so that we could open it to the public. Finally, Dave and Marrilee, the project leads, called all the crew up to the top floor of the Temple for a champagne toast and to hand out T-shirts. Fine words were spoken. The fire tornado was lit up. We all got to experience the Temple as it had been designed—for the last time.

Once this brief celebration was over, the safety perimeter was dropped and the Temple was instantly flooded with visitors. In that moment, it became a gift to the community, and became transformed into something else.

I later spoke to Johnny 5 about how he felt about the Temple, and he admitted to having complicated feelings about it: the Temple, to him, was about happiness. But to the community, the Temple has always been a place to seek solace—to say goodbye to people who have died or to let go of some negative personal trait. When we dropped the perimeter on Tuesday night, that’s what the Temple became. People immediately began writing on it and leaving memorials. There was at least one box of cremains left there. There were several elaborate memorials to pets, which left me especially choked up and which cause me to mist up just recalling. There was a message from a grandfather to his lost grandchildren. How could one not be moved?

After it had been open for a day or two, it was impossible to walk around in the Temple without being moved by the emotions there. I’m not a spiritual person, but I do believe that artifacts can be sanctified by the labor that goes into them. That definitely happened at the Temple, but it was sanctified far beyond that by the emotional outpouring for which it was the medium. The memorials were like a new skin on the Temple that made it impossible to see it in its original form.

We all knew in advance that there would be plenty to do on the day of the Temple burn, so Gwen and I got out there around noon with our work gloves. When we got there we learned that the plan was to set up a safety perimeter around the Temple pretty soon, to prepare it for the burn that night: the fire tornado at its center needed to be removed, another art piece that was going to be burned needed to be lifted into place (both these operations requiring a really tall crane), and the structure was going to be filled with as much scrap wood as possible, plus accelerants. When we got there, the upper floors were already cordoned off and other crew people were up there being industrious. A young couple arrived with a small chest. It was full of toys that had belonged to their infant son. Everybody there was wrecked.

Shortly after that we set up a safety perimeter, which Gwen and I and several other people maintained. People kept showing up, wanting to leave a message or memorial in the Temple. We couldn’t let them in, but we had offcuts from the panels and sharpies so that they could write messages, which we carried into the Temple on their behalf. We carried in other things too: I scattered the ashes of three people that afternoon. That’s a hell of a thing, to have a complete stranger walk up and give you the ashes of his brother to leave in the Temple. The same went for someone else working perimeter: we both knew in the abstract what the Temple was about, but we hadn’t realized what we were in for when we volunteered. It may have been the most emotionally intense day of my life.

A deaf woman approached me and whipped out a Sidekick, on which she deftly typed out a question asking if she could leave a message in the Temple. I less-deftly typed out a reply telling her what I told everyone else. She came back a few minutes later with a wood scrap bearing her message, gave it to me, and immediately walked away. I imagined she was frustrated communicating through the gadget, and wondered if she wanted someone she could talk to directly.

The people kept coming. We generally didn’t have any trouble with people trying to get past the perimeter, although I recall one couple blithely stepping over the yellow CAUTION tape and when I pointed out that we had a perimeter up, acted surprised. Yes, it does apply to you too. I held back on the sarcasm—it wasn’t the occasion for it.

At about 3:00 PM, Gwen took a bathroom break and found that the cable locking my bike to hers had been cut. My bike was stolen, and so was her headlight. I decided not to let that get to me, but being forced to confront behavior that shitty at Burning Man was a real disappointment.

At about 7:00 PM, we headed back to camp to have a bite and a bit of rest. By this time, a bunch of Rangers had arrived, as had the Temple Guardians. At 9:00 or so, we rode out on Blinky the art car with a bunch of other members of the Temple crew to work perimeter during the burn. I wound up standing in front of a few members of the Pyronauts, and had a chance to chat with them before the burn.

The burn itself was fast and quiet. The burning of the effigy the night before had been a huge party—all the art cars were there with sound systems going full blast. There were fireworks. It was fun. The Temple burn was different. Parachutists trailing fireworks circled down. A single firedancer performed. Only a few minutes passed from the time that the fire started inside the structure until it was completely engulfed, and it was reduced to a pile of embers in less than half an hour, I estimate. Dust devils spun off downwind every few seconds once it got going. Most remarkable was the crowd—there were probably 30,000 people present, and they were all silent.

There were so many people that came to the Temple looking for solace and catharsis. I hope they found it.

On the road to El Paso

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.

The Temple

temple sketch

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.

Black Rock, White City

While visiting Chicago recently, I borrowed the book The Devil and the White City, a book about the Columbian Exposition of 1893, and a serial murderer who stalked Chicago at the same time, H. H. Holmes.

Even growing up the better part of a century after the fair ended, as a Chicagoan it was always part of the collective unconsciousness, and fair factoids were part of my knowledge of the city’s history. But the book brought a lot of the small details and broader themes into clear relief for me. Some of those themes got me thinking that, at least in some ways, Burning Man carries on the principles the Columbian Exposition.

The World’s Fair of 1893 was conceived partly as a temporary utopian city, partly as a grand spectacle of the exotic, the titillating, and the audacious. All of these things, at least in the abstract, are true for Burning Man.

At the World’s Fair, the utopianism was material: it was called the White City partly because all the major architecture was that color, and partly because, unlike regular cities (Chicago at the time was described as “a gigantic peepshow of utter horror.”), it was very clean and manicured. It had pure drinking water and effective sewage. It was extensively wired for electricity, with hundreds of thousands of bulbs being lit—for some visitors, it was their first exposure to electric lighting. None of these things strike modern city-dwellers as miraculous, and indeed, it is perhaps partly the fair’s legacy that we can take them for granted. Accordingly, the utopianism that Burning Man represents is intangible: the gift economy, self-expression, volunteerism, and community-building. Indeed, at the material level, Burning Man is a harsh place demanding “radical self-reliance” that reminds participants not to take their everyday material comforts for granted.

Both Burning Man and the World’s Fair had their own urban infrastructure; at the Fair, the private police force was another aspect of the utopianism (Chicago’s regular police force at the time was apparently so bad that it never even occurred to anyone to contact them regarding the many women who went missing at the hands of Holmes); Burning Man doesn’t have its own police force per se, but it does have the Rangers, who are considered “community mediators.”

The World’s Fair had numerous spectacles. It would be hard to top the Ferris Wheel, which was invented for the Fair. That first one was a doozy—each carriage was the size of a train car accommodating 60 riders, and there were 36 cars. The whole thing reached a height of 250′, probably a higher altitude than any of the visitors had experienced without having a hill underneath them. The Midway of the fair (which has given its name to a part of every carnival since) introduced Americans to exotic foods and peoples from other countries. And for titillation, it was the occasion for the arrival of belly-dancing in this country. Burning Man has its share of the epic, the exotic, the marvelous, and the titillating as well.

The comparison between the fair and that thing in the desert was gradually forming in my mind as I read the book, but one passage really brought it home for me. The buildings of the fair were never designed or constructed to be permanent, and the question of how to dispose of them once the fair was over occupied many minds, who couldn’t bear the prospect of the White City fading out into disrepair. One of the architects involved in building the fair, Charles McKim, wrote “indeed it is the ambition of all concerned to have it swept away in the same magical manner in which it appeared, and with the utmost despatch. For economy, as well as for obvious reasons, it has been proposed that the most glorious way would be to blow up the buildings with dynamite. Another scheme is to destroy them with fire.”

Burning Flipside 2007 report

I’ve been putting off writing about Flipside because it’s been hard for me to produce a coherent narrative based on my experience. This is my fourth Flipside (see my writeups on 2003, 2005, and 2006). I took a handful of photos, and while I regret not having more, I don’t regret not carrying my camera around more. I feel that the camera gets in the way of being directly engaged with one’s environment, and Flipside is all about direct engagement.

One thing that I came to realize well before this Flipside is that everyone who goes there creates their own experience. At the greeter’s station on the way in, a greeter will ask you “who is responsible for your experience at Flipside?” The correct answer is obvious, and the intent here is more limited in scope than what I’m talking about. The greeter’s point is basically that if you don’t like what’s happening to you at Flipside, you’re responsible for making your situation right, and if you get into a bad situation, you need to take responsibility for it. Which is an important point, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Some people see Flipside as nothing more a Dionysian weekend of drugs, sex, food, and debauchery. And while that Dionysian experience is a component for almost everyone there, for most folks it’s not the only one, or even the most important. For most people, it is to some extent about creating and experiencing art, and about creating a community. I have a friend who is a real party animal, but is also extremely generous with her time and energy, and I’m trying to convince her to go to Flipside, partly because I am curious which side of her it will bring out.

This year I was more involved than before in the community-creating aspect. In a sense, I’ve been having my Flipside experience for a few months. I went to Church Night, which is held twice a week and is a volunteer effort to build the effigy. I was lead for the Circle of Fire theme camp. I attended Town Hall meetings (where things get planned and discussed) and burn-night safety meetings. For the third year, I was the cat-herder in charge of the fire procession.

This level of involvement meant that Flipside was a lot more work for me than it had been in the past, but it also meant that I was coming into contact with a lot of other people who dedicate an astonishing amount of time and effort to the community-building aspects of Flipside–people who spend many, many hours before the event getting ready for their part in it, and many hours at the event in some kind of public-service capacity. These people are all volunteers–this is the Flipside experience they have chosen to have. Many of these people are also hard-rocking party monsters, and I wonder where they get the energy.

Anyhow, like I said, no coherent narrative. At least not yet.

Thursday

I was a theme-camp lead, and I wanted to get out there early. We were bringing out a lot more infrastructure than Circle of Fire ever had before, and I had borrowed Greg’s 1971 green GMC half-ton pickup (with AM radio!) to get it all out there. It barely fit, and took a hell of a lot of doing just to get it packed. I wanted to get out there right when the gates opened, but we were about two hours behind schedule. Finally, Gwen and I got in the cab (crammed in with all the stuff that wouldn’t fit in the bed, thinking only at the last minute to grab sweaters just in case it got cool) and turned the key. The starter ground away, but the engine would not catch. Tried again. Same result. Again. Same.

Turn truck off, breathe deeply. I do not want to unload this truck, rent another one, and load that. Try again. Success! Phew.

We hit the road, driving very carefully. I realized that maneuvers that would be easy in my car would tip this truck right over. Mention of that made Gwen pale, riding as she was sans seat belt in the middle. Made it out to Flat Creek in a reasonable amount of time. June, dressed as a cheerleader, flagged us down at the greeter’s station. I got out, reached into one of our ice chests, and fished out a beer for her.

On the drive out, Gwen and I had discussed what order we should attack everything in: we had the shade structures to erect, and the fire-circle backdrop to install. Both would be time-consuming. I said we should get the shade structures up first. It wasn’t clear how many people would be on hand to help when we got there (as it turned out, Travis and Spot were there before us, and they helped out), and the shade structures were our highest priority. Good thing: shortly after we got them up, it started raining. Hard. All the stuff we had just dumped off the back of the pickup we moved under the canopies. We wound up erecting our tent under the canopies, and then moving it out to our spot once the rain let up. Kevin from Kansas showed up. We got started pounding in the T-posts for the fire-circle backdrop. Amy and her entourage showed up. We got our kitchen and trash system set up. Realized we had forgotten a few things, so I called Kat (due to show up the next day) to request she bring those items. I was somewhat amazed that my phone worked at all out there (as it was, it was on roaming). The Brothers of the Flame showed up with their wives, girlfriends, etc. It rained some more, a lot more, and at one point, strong winds threatened to tear our shade structures loose from the ground. Next year: better stakes and tie-downs. The Brothers had trouble navigating their cars through camp, and then had trouble setting up their tents because of all the rain. This was the first year we really got to hang out with the Brothers, and despite the inauspicious start it was great having them at the camp. All those rainy hours sitting in a circle around the one dry spot were much finer because of their company!

Friday

Got up, made coffee for as many people in camp as wanted it. Started a fire in an elevated firepit–at some point someone asked “what’s the fire for?” and I could only answer “uh, Circle of Fire?” Actually, it was nice to have it going just because it felt homey, and it was useful as we burned a lot of waste over the course of the weekend so that we wouldn’t need to bring it home. A guy down from New York, Jeff, took shelter under our canopies and wound up hanging out for quite a while until the rain abated. Sean showed up. (Or did he arrive Thursday? He was like the wind.)

Finished getting the fire circle set up, with a lot of help. Took our first trip down from the plateau to the ring road, where we encountered Bean in her guise as Captain Cameltoe (“nine kinds of wrong” as she put it), and learned that the Subaru completely covered in astroturf was hers. I don’t remember doing anything else in particular during the day on Friday other than seeing the rest of Flipside, re-meeting old friends and making new ones. Amy worked on painting one of the panels on the fire-circle backdrop. More rain, and threatening skies all day. That night, Shiree of Spin Camp staged some fire art: she had brought out a full trailer-load of fire bricks, which she saturated in denatured alcohol doped with salts that produce colored flames. These were arranged in a low wall running about 50′, with curlicues splitting off from it, culminating in a small tower at one end. She did fire-paintings, spraying the same doped fuel on the road, and eventually started lighting the wall. It burned slowly and was quite a sight. After that was over, I headed back up to the fire circle to try to kick-start some action there, but as it turned out, most of the spinners were doing their thing at Spin Camp. I admit to feeling a little peeved that, after the amount of work I put into it, the circle was barely getting used. Reconnected with Gwen and went wandering. Hung out in the music tent at Ish–to take advantage of their comfy loungers as much as anything else, because my feet were killing me. I had gotten a pair of Bates combat boots–these were comfortable, waterproof, and supportive. Money well spent. But I was spending so much time on my feet walking around that by the end of the day, I could barely stand.

The neighboring camp, Giza, was unbelievably loud, and I had unwisely situated our tent close to it. We didn’t sleep well. Earplugs were almost useless.

Saturday

Saturday was much like Friday, except that I actually swam in the creek, which had been closed much of Friday (and part of Saturday, for that matter) due to the risk of flash flooding. The fact that we saw very little direct sunlight and that temperatures were on the cool side made the creek somewhat less inviting this year, as well. At one point we sat around discussing “what’s the most disturbing thing you’ve seen at Flipside?” My first choice was an older fellow with a multiply-pierced johnson, but on reflection, I decided it had to be the art piece “Marriage is (not) about doing the dishes,” a sculpture made of found objects arranged in a roughly anthropomorphic shape, in a wedding dress, with broken dishes and human blood on the front. A fair amount of human blood–I’d estimate about 4 ounces. I later learned a little of the back-story to this piece, which made it even more disturbing. As a friend put it, “Ellen [the artist] has some interesting issues.”

We moved our tent to place as much landscape, foliage, and stuff between it and Giza as possible.

We had a no-fire spin jam in the fire circle during the day, with experienced spinners and newcomers. That was fun.

Saturday night was the night of the glam-rock opera Arrogant Satin, being performed in the Smash Camp dome. I was reminded of this during the day when I encountered Michael 7.0 in his Burning Ridge Country Club theme-camp persona, going around and offering to buy people’s art: he was performing in the show that night, and explained that everyone involved had been rehearsing two nights a week for three months. It had an all-original score. The fact that M7 had done this while also serving as theme-camp siting lead as well as presumably holding down a day job impressed me greatly. Gwen and I showed up at the nominal starting time for the show, but the Miss Flipside Booty Pageant was still underway, so we watched that for a while. Eventually the show did start, and it was really quite good, and not just in an “A for effort” sense. Also involved were M7’s lovely wife June, Kristin, and probably some other people I should be able to name. I didn’t let myself watch much because I felt that I needed to check in at the fire circle. Good thing: power had been diverted from the PA, so I needed to run a new line to that. The fuel depot needed some attention. And just when I was finishing with that, our gracious DJ, Juan John, showed up, so I helped him get situated.

Saturday night at the fire circle turned out great. Any peevishness I had felt before was washed away: the music was good, everything was running smoothly. One problem was that the surface wasn’t as smooth as it really should be, and one woman took a misstep and tumbled on her ass. Next year: spread wood chips. Another problem was that Giza had a ridiculously loud PA, and it was difficult at times to hear our own PA (admittedly, just about the cheapest thing I could rent, with 400 W per speaker) over it. Giza was shushed repeatedly during Flipside, with sound levels metered at 112 dB or thereabouts (110 dB is described as “front row of rock concert” loud; I think the organizers wanted PAs kept to 85 dB). Next year: consider getting a bigger PA. Other than that, though, I felt like everything was paying off and I was very happy. I guess you might say this was the Flipside experience I wanted to have.

After I was done with the fire circle for the night, I put on my neon suit, and Gwen and I made the rounds. Got a good reaction.

Went to bed and slept very well.

Sunday

Sunday was the day of the effigy burn, the psychological peak of any burner event. People seem to take it a little easier during the day on Sunday because they’re holding back for the blowout that follows the burn.

On Sunday, somebody dropped by the fire circle for spinning lessons, and I was teaching him some moves when I was dragooned into taking part in the burn meeting. This was a meeting attended mostly by rangers and some of the Flipside muckety-mucks, to go over all the logistics involved in the effigy burn. On the one hand, it’s a little surprising that this stuff isn’t all worked out and written down well in advance. On the other, it’s surprising how smoothly the meeting went. Everyone seemed to know what needed to be done, and people plugged themselves into the required roles on the fly. I was there as the cat-herder in charge of the firedancers’ procession. I’ve done this before, and in some respects, I felt that I wasn’t as on top of things this year. Then again, there were more things to be on top of. We had to move the fuel depot (something new) because there was only one lane being held open, which firedancers would need to pass up and down, and this was far away from the Circle of Fire fuel depot, over very slippery, muddy ground. The fact that we were moving the fuel depot meant that I was, literally, trying to be in two places at once, because firedancers were showing up at Circle of Fire to take part, but had to move quickly to the relocated fuel depot to get ready, and people in both places had questions for me. I got a bit short-tempered with someone, which I regret. We had only seven spotters on hand–good thing nothing happened. Gwen observed how harried I must have been and took over spotter coordinating without saying anything. Other people thought the fire procession went smoothly, but I was very aware of how badly I passed along the procession guidelines to everyone, how badly I had done lining up spotters, how I had completely failed to brief the spotters, etc. I think I know how to do better next year.

The effigy burn was surprisingly low-key. The crowd did not make a lot of noise, and the effigy’s conflagration was not especially spectacular–I was surprised that the fire had burned down to almost nothing within a few hours, and was completely extinguished by the next morning. The most impressive Flipside effigy burn I’ve seen was in 2005, the rocket, which reached one crescendo of heat after another until it became almost percussive, pushing people back ten feet, then twenty.

Not long after the effigy burn came the temple burn. The temple was nowhere near as grand as one of David Best’s creations, but it was pretty, well-conceived, and solidly built. As the temple burned, Giza actually put on some music that was not only appropriate but moving. Dave down at Spin Camp lit a dozen or so of his flying lanterns, and they floated slowly northward and skyward until they were like stars. The symbolism was perfect. Everyone present was quiet. I got a little misty–it was the most memorable moment of the weekend for me.

After that came a firedancing free-for-all. The past few years this has actually surrounded the burning effigy remnant, but this year, because the path between the temporary fuel depot and effigy circle was so muddy, the depot got re-relocated to Circle of Fire, and we used the fire circle. Gwen knew that I wasn’t going to want to haul those depot barricades home, so took it upon herself to direct SCESW to toss them in the fire for me (she was right that I didn’t want to bring them home, but I planned on burning them later). Another good night of firedancing. After I exhausted myself doing that, Gwen and I took a walk around the plateau, and at Art Car Camp (which had no art cars) we encountered for the first time all weekend an eight-note flame organ, which we both took turns playing. Wonderful fun. The whole thing was very homemade, with the electronics being powered by a jury-rigged DeWalt power pack, and the pilot lights for each of the pipes shrouded in Schlitz cans.

We went to bed happy in the glow of the burn.

Monday

Mondays at Flipside are hard–psychologically, because it is hard to leave that community and re-enter consensus reality, and physically, because packing up and cleaning the camp is a lot of work. I had 24 cast-iron T-posts to pull and load up in the truck, two shade structures to break down and pack into boxes that had gotten completely sodden in the weekend’s deluges, the camp kitchen, the fire pit, the tent, the ice chests, etc. I went out to the effigy’s spot and found a metal plate that had been used on one of its arms, and packed it away. Just as crews on aircraft carriers “walk the deck” to pick up anything that might foul the landing gear of the planes, we do the same at Flipside, picking up cigarette butts, cellophane wrappers, etc. Although I had done that on the previous days, I did not do it on Monday–several other people asked “is there anything I can do to help” and I put them to work on that. I have to assume they did a good job, because I got the truck packed up by early afternoon, and Gwen and I said our goodbyes and hit the road.

Once home, Gwen and I took a few days to get back into our regular rhythms–as Gwen observed, it was a lot like jet lag.

This was the wettest Flipside yet, I am told: we had maybe four hours of direct sunlight all weekend, and several vigorous gully-washers. My former neighbor Marie referred to it as Burning Dripside. It was also probably the coolest. I would have preferred more sun, but somehow, I barely remember the rain. (Gwen here, to say that I remember the cold because it’s a lot harder to look good when you’re cold! I would’ve preferred a wool sweater and jeans for most of the weekend, and had to suffice with platforms and fishnets…we must suffer.)

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