This is me spinning poi to a remix of “Everything in its right place” by Hybrid.
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.
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.
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!
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 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 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.
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.)
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.
Let’s just say it was a Learning Experience and leave it at that.
Other cities have been doing this for some time, and now Austin is holding its first First Night, which will turn the downtown area into a big arts festival on new year’s eve.
I’m going to be a performer—there will be a total of five fire troupes (including Sangre del Sol, who are amazing, and our own troupe, which we are calling Pyrogenesis) performing at Auditorium Shores, in front of the skeleton of the old Palmer events center. The fire extravaganza will supposedly be running from 8:00 to 11:00 PM (add N minutes to allow for disorganization); our troupe is smack in the middle.
Every time I mention First Night to friends, they say “wha…?”. I’m sure this blog entry will make up for the paucity of publicity the event has been getting.