Me at the Thursday Nighter
Firenight at Spider House, 7 April 2011 from Adam Rice on Vimeo.
This is me spinning poi to a remix of “Everything in its right place” by Hybrid.
Firenight at Spider House, 7 April 2011 from Adam Rice on Vimeo.
This is me spinning poi to a remix of “Everything in its right place” by Hybrid.
I didn’t take any photos at Flipside this year, but I’m putting together a little gallery of shots I liked.
Flipside was on new land this year, a pecan orchard and pasture adjacent to Apache Pass. The site has been nicknamed Apache Passtures.
The topography is flat and allows theme camps to be situated much more closely than in the past. Flat Creek in particular has such varied terrain that theme camps wind up in isolated pockets, and getting from one to the next takes a long time; in contrast, one could comfortably walk a loop around all the campsites at Apache Passtures.
The trees are a huge asset.
The river was another huge asset, and the fast-moving current kept the water cool, preventing the hippie-soup effect that Flat Creek is prone to. And I never trusted the water at RecPlant.
The art ridge was great, and I hope to see it fill in more in the future.
The allergens. I don’t know what was in the air, but it rendered me almost completely non-functional all day Friday.
The flies. They were never much of an issue in past years, but they were a constant presence here.
The poison ivy. I haven’t suffered any outbreaks (yet). On some level, I’m inclined to look at the PI as the environmental challenge that seems to be endemic to burner events: Burning Man has the desert and the dust; at Flat Creek, it was cliffs and cacti. All of these require you to take certain precautions to deal with your environment, and I feel that’s part of the experience. So while I don’t want to wind up dealing with urushiol (the motto at Flipside this year was “Poison Ivy is the new STD”), the threat of it and the need to prepare for it fits in with the Burner experience.
My way of dealing with it was to stay on existing pathsâ€”no bushwhackingâ€”and to wear my boots all the time. We kept alcohol wipes on hand to wipe down our boots if we thought they had come in contact, but I never used them. Also had Zanfel, just in case.
Parking at past Flipsides has been tightly controlled, to keep the camping area free of cars (except for art cars), with each car given a parking permit good for only a few hours, and vehicles that openly flaut the rules either being towed away or turned into impromptu art cars. For whatever reason, there seemed to be no parking organization this yearâ€”nobody even discussed limited-time parking permits, nobody seemed to be guiding people to parking places (admittedly less of an issue at Apache Passtures, since the parking field was wide open), and a lot of cars conspicuously parked at theme camps all weekend. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but that bothered me.
Fantastic idea and execution. Designating certain spots as parks, guiding people to them, and educating us about the environmental hazards were all important services to the community.
I’ve been theme-camp lead for Circle of Fire since 2007; before that, it had been led by SCESW, and looking back, the camp started going south when I took over.
I’m not sure if there’s a cause-and-effect relationship between those two facts. Stephen has a very different personality than I do, and may well be better at motivating people than I am; he’s also closer to more people than I am. But the real reason that I think the camp started deteriorating as a camp is because the roll call of people in camp changed.
When Flipside was smaller, CoF was bigger. Firedancing seems to have been the gateway to burner culture for a lot of people, and so it’s no surprise that they would camp with other firespinners, at least at first. But as time has past, some of the people who were at the core of CoF in my first years there moved on to find other ways to express their Burner identities, or simply moved on with life.
When I took over, I extended an invitation to any fire performers who wanted to camp at CoF. While this led to my meeting some good friends and solid campmates, it also opened the door to people who were just there for a party. They weren’t there to make CoF or Flipside better, they didn’t seem to get the whole point of Flipside, and they weren’t people I wanted to camp with.
While this has been a low-level annoyance for some years, the problem came to a head this year with a contingent of 10 kids from Dallas. I’d only had brief phone and e-mail contact with one of them shortly before Flipside; he turned out to be the den mother for that group, which was mostly guys in their early 20s, not one of whom would be able to find his own ass with both hands, a map, and a flashlight. They were (mostly) firespinners, and at least some of them had been to Burning Man and/or Myschevia before, but none of them seemed to understand the basic principles of a Burner event or have any interest in contributing to the camp. I am sure they hold me in equally high regard.
Anyhow, this forced me to reflect on how I run the camp. I’m not sure what I’m going to do in 2011, but it will be different.
Apart from that, Circle of Fire was a success. Our site was out in the openâ€”no benefit from those great pecan treesâ€”so it was a lot hotter than other camps during the day. The bjurt we built for Flipside last year, along with the radiant-barrier sub-canopy we fabricated for Burning Man, proved their worth again. Our kitchen cleanup situation seemed to be just about ideal, thanks to David Cummings putting together of a couple of compression vessels that sprayed soapy water and rinse water; these were worked into my existing not-quite-there camp kitchen, and in the end, we only used a total of 5 gallons of water for all washing up. The camp was sited along a low rise with a gully running behind it, which made getting everything laid out a little tricky, and the fire circle needed to be a little smaller than in previous years, but it saw consistent action and the setup seemed to work as well as ever. Ultimately, the camp’s central mission is to provide firedancers with a stage and a safe fuel depot, and in that respect, I feel that the camp was not only as successful as ever, but had become the place to light up, from what I could tell.
As if singing Tesla coils weren’t enough on their own, Arc Attack keeps stepping up their game. Last year, Parsec stood in the discharge field, wearing a Faraday suit. When we saw that, Gwen was transfixed, and said “I will do anything to be in that suit.” This year, she got her chance, pretty much. Arc Attack has added a small Faraday cage, just big enough for one person, that they place in the discharge field, allowing audience members the experience of being in the middle of that lightning storm. There was, unsurprisingly, a long line, but Gwen got her chance, and was more excited than a ten-year-old who was just given a pony.
Kudos to Kris Blahnik for designing and heading up construction of an effigy unlike any others I’ve seen, in terms of its representational design, use of color, surrounding gantries, and use of two figures instead of one. I know that he and a lot of other people busted their asses to make it happen, and it was worth it.
One of the unexpected high points of the burn was waking up to Interstellar Transmissions (no website, as far as I can tell) playing on the effigy stage. Having been woken up to megaphone wars at past Flipsides, this was so chilled out and uncharacteristically pleasant that Gwen thought she was dreaming.
Burn night went pretty well. I know there were some technical difficulties with the methanol cannons and I get the impression there were some with the propane jets. Caleb (or someone) was tinkering with a control box in the middle of the effigy circle even while the fire procession was taking place–something I hadn’t been aware of beforehand. But the effigy was great, and it made a good fire.
The fire procession beforehand also went as smoothly as I could hope. There’s always a certain amount of chaos that attends this, but I feel that I’m getting better at accommodating that, and for the most part have the process figured out. There was only one minor safety incident, where someone set his hair on fire. I didn’t have as many spotters as I wanted this year, but for the first time, I felt confident that all the spotters I had were competent.
Gwen and I got on the road at about 10:00 AM today, only an hour behind our desired start timeâ€”pretty good for us. Ever since a road trip back in ’96 or so that was plagued with mechanical troubles, every road trip I’ve embarked on since has made me anxious. This one included, even though we just had the car checked out. We were in Junction before my stomach settled down and I settled into driving.
This trip is also special in that it almost feels like a religious pilgrimage. I don’t exactly expect to be changed by it, but I expect that I might be.
I handed the reins to Gwen in Fort Stockton. Our destination for tonight is Tucson. A long way away.
Today is a minor milestone for me.
I’ve been talking about going to Burning Man for about ten years. Every year I’ve come up with a perfectly reasonable excuse not to go. In the meantime, I’ve become an active member of the local burner community. I’ve been to the regional burn, Burning Flipside, six times, and have become at least a medium-sized fish in a medium-sized pond.
The longer I’ve been involved in the local burner community, the more Burning Man has become freighted with diverse significances. I’ve heard all the stories of how harsh the environment is (I’ve seen playa dust stuck to seemingly impervious surfaces for years), how astounding the art is (I’ve seen the pictures), how corporatized, mainstream, and Californicated that Burning Man is (everybody likes to complain). I know that if I go, I’ll be a small fish in a big pond. A newbie.
And then Dave and Marrilee, two stalwarts of the Austin burner community, were awarded the Temple build this year. With an inadequate budget and half the normal amount of time to finish. Shortly after this year’s Flipside they held a fundraiser. David Best, the artist behind the first few Temples, was present, and a documentary about his work was screened. A whole bunch of burners were there. Before that event, Gwen and I had been talking about how this, too, was not a good year to go to Burning Man. After we got home, we just started making plans, without ever explicitly discussing the fact that we had suddenly decided to go. The decision had become inevitable.
The Temple as Marrilee and Dave envisioned it required a huge amount of new design work, which would be cut into of plywood panels using two robotic routers. They had a wiki to sign up. I dived in and wound up designing 11 panels. There was also a huge amount of manual labor that needed doing: assembling pieces, moving stuff around to make room, or just sweeping away the torrents of sawdust spewed out by the Shopbots. Gwen and I made our way up to the work site as much as we could.
The Temple is being loaded in pieces onto a number of large trucks even as I write these words. Along with dozens of Austin burners who have committed to spend a month living in incredibly harsh conditions, the pieces of the Temple will head out to the Black Rock desert in a few days, where the rest of the construction work will happen.
Tomorrow, Gwen and I are going out to San Francisco to celebrate a friend’s wedding. It’s not the timing I would have picked, but I can’t fault the happy couple, and am happy to be going. But when we get back, the Temple crew will be gone. By the time we get to Black Rock City, the Temple will be up. So today, my role in building the Temple ended.
It’s a hell of a thing to be able to be involved in the construction of the Temple, especially as a first-timer at Burning Man. The Temple is one of the major landmarks and spiritual focal points at every year’s Burning Man. It’s probably the biggest thing I’ve ever been a part of. It’s going to be significant to some 50,000 people. As a newbie, it would ordinarily be difficult to contribute to Burning Man in a serious way. Being involved in the Temple has been an opportunity to do that.
Almost a year ago, there was a bit of a brouhaha in the fire communityâ€”especially the local fire communityâ€”about some “championships” sponsored by the National Fire Performance League. I wrote about what little I knew at the time.
I learned shortly after the NFPL event that it was organized by a guy I kinda knew: one of my fire friends, Baru, went to the event and had a chance to chat with the organizer about it, and she learned that it was his very explicit intent to avoid associating his (or anyone’s) name with the event/organization.
A few months ago, he got wind of the blog entry linked above, and called me on the phone asking me to take it down, since it was showing up in Google searches before any of his own pages. I refused, but said that if he wanted to post a rebuttal somewhere, I would happily link to it. He wound up posting the last comment you see on that blog entry now.
A couple of weeks ago, I encountered the organizer, which was momentarily awkward, but we wound up talking about what he’s doing for about 90 minutes.
He told me he’s been involved in fire performance for only 3 years. I get the impression that is part of why he’s reluctant to have his name associated with the NFPL: because he doesn’t have a well-established name in the community. He’s been doing shows, and has gotten schooled by more established performers on two issues: safety and rates. He’s apparently taken these lessons to heart, and wants to promote better safety standards and more awareness of what a fire performer can/should earn for a gig. He also wants to create a mechanism for pairing up newcomers with established performers as a mentoring thing.
And in general, he feels that the fire community is too fragmented, and he wants to make the NFPL the central talking-shop to tie us all together and to use it to reach these goals, which are reasonable, even laudable.
One problem with this is the wheel-reinvention. There are other websites and organizations that that already exist but have not become centralized talking shops (I am reminded of the Unification Church, which seeks to unify all religions by creating yet another religion). And there are organizations with overlapping goals: I mentioned NAFAA to him. He had never heard of it. I did not get around to mentioning Wildfire or Fire Drums or the Crucible, and I wonder if he’s heard of them.
There’s also considerable irony in the fact that someone trying to organize a talking-shop is so opposed to communicating himself. I tried to emphasize to him, in a friendly way, that I thought his insistence on anonymity had backfired. He explained he got a lot of hate mail, and even one physical threat (which would be hard to carry out against an unknown person, but whatever). He felt that this justified his insistence on anonymity. Of course, I think it was mostly created by his insistence on anonymity.
Indeed, anonymity is the crux of his problem. People in the fire community often keep outsiders at arm’s length, because they know that exposure to people who don’t understand it can be dangerous, because they feel protective of the community, and because they are concerned about fire performance being exploited on someone else’s terms. My perception is that people in the community gain a reputation based on their accomplishments, their helpfulness, and their humility. And for any major undertaking that involves the community, reputation is the key to community buy-in, which in turn is the key to the success of the undertaking. While an anonymous person obviously has humility in spades, the humility hides one’s reputation (or lack thereof), but more importantly, masks whether the person is even a part of the community. Many people were concerned that (or assumed that) the NFPL was organized by outsiders to exploit us.
In short, I think his goals have merit, but he’s shown poor judgment. Although he’s done a fair amount of homework, he seems to have the enthusiasm of a newcomer who looks around and says “I want to do this! And this! And this!” without finding out what others had already attempted.
Since he wants to be anonymous, I’ve avoided naming him in this post.
I’m not even going to try to give a blow-by-blow of Flipside this year. Suffice it to say that fun was had and asses were kicked. I’ll just tell some stories.
Gwen and I (and our campmate Scott) went out to Flat Creek on Wednesday evening, a day before the regular opening. We were able to get in early because Gwen had an early Zone Greeter shift the next day and because I’m a theme-camp lead. We had just enough time to unload the van and get our own tents pitched before dark. We had the small bjurt standing up half-collapsed like a geometric sculpture. Someone wandered through our camp and said “I know what that is.” We chatted about shade structures for a while.
A certain friend who had been partying a little too hard was taking a piss and passed out. He came to later and found that he had fallen into a cactus patch. Drugs may have been involved.
I was helping Greg set up his art installation, About That Time, which involved driving a lot of T-posts. Driving T-posts is a lot of work, and I try to avoid it (I say that, but my camp setup involves 24 of them). After we had gotten a few in, one of the DAFT guys working on the effigy came over and asked “Can I drive some?” He was wearing a DPW T-shirtâ€”DPW people are notorious for being rowdy and practically masochistic in their work ethic. I was feeling like Tom Sawyer having just convinced the neighborhood kids to whitewash the fence for him. I said “Sure.” He grabs my T-post driver and starts waling on that thing in a very sexual manner. After he got a few in, he started tearing off blisters (he wouldn’t wear gloves). A couple other DAFTies came over; he said to them “Want to drive a few?” They did. After they did two or three, he took over the rest, finishing with the same hip-thrusting gusto that he started with. The next morning, I saw a pickup with a bumper sticker bearing the DPW logo and the motto “My best vacation is your worst nightmare.” I thought “that sounds about right.” Later I discovered the pickup was driven by Demon Monk, the architect of the effigy.
One of the most notable events from this (or any) Flipside was the Arc Attack performance on Saturday night. If this had been just a typical performance from them, it would be special, but this was astounding. Parsec donned a Faraday suit and stood in the discharge field, like some science-fictional Thor directing lightning bolts. Everybody’s jaw hung agape. Gwen wanted to try it herself.
We had some heavy weather during the day on Saturday. I don’t know exactly how much rain fell or how hard the winds blewâ€”I checked weather almanacs for two nearby weather stations that completely disagreed on rainfall, wind speed, and even wind direction. We had about 20 people clustered inside the big bjurt, and apart from some water getting past the rain flaps when strong winds lifted the canopy, we were dry and comfortable within. Having put so much work into the bjurt, I was very gratified to see that it worked.
After the rains, Gwen and I went wandering around and stopped by Red Camp. I was admiring a pendant a woman had fashioned out of pop-tops when she asked “Are you looking at my necklace?” I said “no, I’m checking out your tits.” She said “Oh, thank you!” I love Flipside.
We didn’t get to burn the effigy this year. Everybody was disappointed about this, but Demon Monk had come up with a no-burn plan to allow for this contingency, and I feel like the whole “unburn” ritual was a success. We had fire performers do a long (~10 minutes) set to music that was slower and more ethereal than I would have expected. That was followed by Sparky’s firecracker hats, and then excellent fireworks by Moss and the DAFT crew tearing the effigy down, having weakened it beforehand so that they could flatten it by pulls on a few ropes. This was good, but not as cathartic as a burn, and the mood throughout Pyropolis seemed more subduedâ€”the fact that we received a noise complaint from a neighbor, which caused Sound Town to be shut down no doubt contributed to that subdued quality.
I hope I’m not giving away any secrets by explaining how the no-burn decision came about. The Flipside organizers knew for months beforehand that, because of the historic draught conditions, we probably would not be able to burn the effigy, and a no-burn plan was part of the selection criteria in the effigy contest. At a Burn Night meeting a few weeks before, it was decided that a final go/no-go decision to burn the effigy would be made at 4:00 PM on Burn Night, as this allowed the minimum amount of time needed to rig the effigy for one contingency or the other. In the week or so leading up to Flipside, there actually was some rain, but the property owner, Child Inc, in the form of its manager Strick, informed us that he would not allow an effigy burn (or any large burnable-art burns), as brushfires had followed even those recent rainfalls. After the toad-floater we had on Saturday, the organizers did contact Strick on Sunday asking him to reconsider, and additional rain was even in the forecast for that evening. Strick was present at the final go/no-go meeting and said he’d only allow the burn if that rain actually materialized. But we were already at our cutoff time, and in fact the rain never did come. Strick was apologetic, and has been supportive of Flipside for years now, but there were obviously larger issues at stake. The previous day’s rain had already soaked in and the ground was relatively dry by Sunday.
After we got home, I remembered the line that Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels. It’s sort of like that with Gwen. I think I have a more visible profile in the burner community, but the fact is that Gwen works as hard as I do, and is indispensable to making all the things I try to do happen. And she does it wearing a pink wig and platforms.
I took very few pictures (and none of them were good), but other people did, so I’ll just point to them.
About a week ago, Sage got in touch with me to ask if I’d heard anything about some “national fire performance championship.” I had not.
I started looking around. It seems that they have a profile and group on MurdochSpace, likewise a profile and group on Tribe. They have no independent website that I can find. There are no personal names associated with any of these accounts that I can find, but the person behind them appears to be in either Austin or Marble Falls.
They posted the same canned message to numerous groups on Tribe. There are a few red flags in it. Any post that starts out “This is an automated reply” does not show a lot of care. They are trying to interest DJs to perform (presumably for free) on the promise that “professional scouts” will be there; trying to interest judges with all the skills apparently needed to run this event; they warn that “space is limited to 2500 people at the event” (2500 is the maximum size of an event before you get into a much stricter level of official oversight) and the breathless “RSVP ASAP.” Plus the price, which is kind of high: They’re charging $30/person/night for spectators, and $40/person/night for performers. Compare that to the campground’s fees of $12/person/night. Of course, you also get a year’s membership in the (nonexistent) National Fire Performance League for the price of admission.
This event is apparently going to be taking place in about a month (Sept 26â€“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)â€”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 campgroundâ€™s business office. She didnâ€™t really know much about the event. The event organizers have not reserved the entire campground, or any section of itâ€”theyâ€™ll just be sharing the space with regular campground visitors. So Iâ€™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 postâ€”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 firespinningâ€”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 practiceâ€”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 speakingâ€”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)â€”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 allâ€”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) firedancersâ€”they are the firedancer’s friend, S.O., or whatever.
I started a discussion on Tribe about this, and based on that discussion came up with a training notes document.
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”â€”even among safety-conscious people. And the fire community is notorious for it’s “safety third” attitude.
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 Creekâ€”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 discouragingâ€”it’s 2.5% of total Flipside participation. In another sense, it’s impressiveâ€”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 timeâ€”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 siteâ€”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 100Â°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.
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 performerâ€”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 â€œwha…?â€. I’m sure this blog entry will make up for the paucity of publicity the event has been getting.
My house has been on the market for about 7 months. That’s a long time. Gwen and I had reduced our asking price shortly before Flipside, and we were getting a lot more interest. I had a feeling that we might get an offer while I was at Flipside (and out of cellphone range).
Sure enough, when I got back early Monday afternoon, I learned we had an offer. Within six hours, we had a pending contract. With a 15-day closing period. And a 6-day trip to Chicago scheduled in the middle. Meaning we have 9 days to pack up my house, assuming the deal goes through (which it probably will, but might not). We’ve already lined up a good deal on a temporary rental.
An event like Flipside gives your brain a lot to chew on (see my previous post), and puts you into a different reality, from which you return to the humdrum world only reluctantly. Being forced to shift so quickly back into everyday life has completely stripped my mental gearbox.
Everything is happening at once.
So Gwen and I spent a few hours Tuesday night boxing up books. Normally, Tuesday night would be fire practice. Normally, the Tuesday following Flipside, nobody would go. But because we had heard that Andy (a phenomenal firespinner visiting from Germany) was going to be there, a pretty good number of people turned out. Gwen and I set aside the boxes and went down as well. A little Flipside dessert.
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.
Last night Jo’s Coffee hosted an advance screening of Beyond Black Rock (surprisingly, not in the IMDB), a documentary by Austin locals about Burning Man.
Quite a crowd turned out: the entire parking lot behind Jo’s was jammed full–perhaps 500 people. Some of my fellow fire freaks and I were going to provide a little pre-show warmup; as it turns out, I was the only one of the people slated to perform who actually did show up; the guy who was supposed to be coordinating this (and shall remain nameless) called me at the last minute to inform me of his non-appearance and, implictly, to hand off the baton. There were plenty of fire people there, though not many actually had their rigs with them, but in the end, four of us went up and burned, and there was much rejoicing.
Oh yeah, the movie! Enjoyable. Focused a lot on the people who organize it and the organization of it; also featured at some length a couple of artists (including the amazing David Best) who were putting in installations there.
If you have plenty of money and fancy yourself a bit of an enthusiast for some activity–any activity–there’s a luxury tour to accommodate you. You go to some wonderful location, you stay in a nice place, do some sightseeing, eat a lot of really great food, and oh yes, indulge in a little bit of that activity.
It seems this phenomenon has come to firedancing: I just got a piece of e-mail advertising what can only be considered a luxury firedancing tour. In Florence, Italy. I don’t know what to think. I’m sure that whoever participates will have a great time, but whoever is going to participate? For the most part, firedancing appeals to people who don’t have that kind of money to throw around. And I have…conflicted emotions when I consider the people who do have that kind of money and want to spend it on this kind of tour getting into firedancing.
I never did write about the Halloween show. I just found this picture in my digicam and wanted to get that up.
All things considered, the show went pretty well. Things backstage were chaotic. Lack of advance organization didn’t help. But everybody seemed to be on their game and turned in a good performance.