And that’s that

The crew moves in to light the torches at the Temple of Promise
The crew moves in to light the torches at the Temple of Promise

The sky was steel blue and the Temple of Promise glowed golden in the chill night air. Scissor lifts and booms hovered against the sky in the distance, and people were gathering in small groups on the ground. Soon the giant art cars would circle too, their lights bright and pulsing, but their sound systems mute.

It was the last night of the Burn, and as is usually the case, there was only silence in the night. The Temple crew slowly and silently carried flaming torches toward piled stacks of wood, which had arrived in the desert only a few weeks before.

In maybe 30 minutes, it was all gone. The soaring arches, the shiny copper, and the collective purpose of the hundred or so people who had come together to make a place of remembrance and reflection.

A solitary voice called out of the darkness: “I love you!” The hundreds, maybe thousands of names scrawled on the Temple, were invoked as one. Soon other people from different parts of the perimeter were calling out, as well: “I love you!” “I love you!” “I love you!”

The Temple aflame
The Temple aflame

Burning Man was small this year. Oh, it was as big as ever in some ways: a nine-mile chunk of the Black Rock desert cordoned off behind an orange trash fence. There was big art, and big sound, and a bursting-the-seams crowd. But still, Burning Man was small. It might have been the afternoon dust storms or the nighttime chill, but the most significant moments came when you were huddling with friends around a burn barrel, or sharing an unexpected meal, or having a quiet conversation at the back of a dusty bar.

Somehow, Burning Man became human-sized again: the Man himself was scaled down from last year’s stubborn behemoth, and the village-y Midway invited people to linger and explore. A mystery telephone at 10 o’clock and the trash fence invited people to make dinner reservations at a lush eatery in the city. And the cold forced bodies together — some nestled under blankets in camp, others pressed together, penguin-like, far out in the starry playa.

Either way, the big moments were small and intimate, like a newcomer relieved finally to be making friends in the bustling strange city.

The big question, the continuing challenge for Burning Man, big or small, is helping people get it. Get what? That the event is not a show, that it’s not meant for consumption. Rather that it is something to be a part of, not just watch.

The wind and the dust hit us hard
The wind and the dust hit us hard

The big timers who come, the Silicon Valley titans, the captains of industry and entertainment, generally fall into one of three categories: the ones who get it, the ones who are trying to get it, and the ones who, and we say this without malice, don’t care to get anything but a party and maybe the freedom of anonymity. We can hardly blame them, really, when their lives are spent living in the bubble of general adoration.

There was Ronaldo, the soccer star, in the crowd at Robot Heart, wanting nothing more than a pair of glasses with the name Robot Heart on them. Cute. Childlike. And of course he got the glasses tossed to him, but then people realized who he was, and the crowds gathered, and he had to make his escape.

But there also was Susan Sarandon, all playa-fied and crusty, out there with Mike Garlington at the Totem of Confession late Saturday, making the arrangements to place Timothy Leary’s ashes inside, so that his remains would be carried aloft by the smoke and fire of the roaring blaze. She’d been working on the project for months, and it was said that she knew Leary would have been happy at the scene and to take his leave in this fashion.

Mike Garlington and his pal
Mike Garlington and his pal

And there was also Grover Norquist, who of course we’re not going to talk politics with (but then we don’t talk politics with our sister, either), but he was there gently tapping on the trailer door, then having a beer and chatting amiably about things great and small – how to fix the leak in his trailer, and how the military embeds archivists with the troops, much in the way Burning Man allows this guy to roam unfettered, without being an officer or an enlistee.

But the challenge this offseason, and maybe it’s been this way for some time now, is to build an access ramp for those on the outside with the desire to promote art, promote civility, contribute to something more than a party, in a way that is engaging and interesting. How do you get the attention of these influencers and enablers for more than a week? How do you rebirth Medici?

—-

The sound of drumming dominated the Man on Burn night, such a great leap from last year, when the DJ ruled the night. We couldn’t tell if the sound was being amplified or was simply loud enough to be heard everywhere, but in any case, it was tribal and primal and perfect. And guess what? There were no lasers. Not a single red or green or violet dot on the Man. The organization asked people not to bring lasers this year, because they have become dangerously strong and can cause grave injury. And holy crap the citizenry of Black Rock City listened and took heed. Huzzah!

Crimson was there at the beginning of the night, leading the procession from the top of the keyhole to the perimeter of the Man, her face lit by a flaming torch instead of the blue glow of a radio screen or a safety LED. She seemed genuinely happy and completely at ease. Maybe it was the cold, or maybe the effects of the hours of dust in the afternoon, but the evening was without the anonymous bizarreness that often characterizes Burn night. It felt like pre-event, a little like Early Man.

Crimson Rose led the procession
Crimson Rose led the procession

People were dressed in layers as they might have been for a baseball game in San Francisco at old Candlestick Park. The costumes of the performers at the Fire Conclave, the hundreds of poi spinners and snappers and dancers, provided warmth instead of titillation. People huddled in clumps, waiting for the Man to burn. Soon he was bathed in silvery showers of fireworks, setting off one of the biggest and finest displays we’ve seen in the desert. Some kind of new level had been achieved.

The Man’s head caught fire first, and after the propane explosions ignited his whole body, the sky was filled with good-sized embers that stayed hot dangerously close to the crowd. We encouraged Mel and Coyote’s boys, Atticus and Colby, to puff their cheeks and blow them safely over the circle, and for awhile that’s exactly what the boys did.

But then they tired of the fight, and the family retreated. The Man soon fell with a snap, and the fires burned down, and then the fire stalkers rushed forward. But it seemed like most of the city was headed back to camp. To the burn barrel. To get another layer of clothing. For some whiskey. Perhaps they were in for the night.

We wrestled with the forced hilarity of Burn night, the same way you might find yourself being forced into making elaborate New Year’s Eve plans. But the cold and the conviviality at home — and the hot chocolate — made it an easy decision to stay in.

The fire conclave
The fire conclave

Amanda, a first-time Burner from the Bay Area, seemed to get the overall vibe of this year’s Burning Man, even as a newcomer. “It was so much different than I expected,” she said. How so? “I guess I thought Burning Man was all going to be like the open playa,” she said. “But it was so much more interactive. … You’d stand outside a camp and people would say, ‘Come on in!’ You didn’t have to stand outside and be nervous. It was all really friendly.”

Everyone seems to have an arc at Burning Man. You want to keep going, you want to dance and explore and stay up till morning, and you want to do it day after day. The spirit is willing, but the body … well, you know the story. You sometimes succumb to the most powerful drug on the playa, and that is sleep.

But this Burning Man was the first in years to demand even more if you wanted to prevail at all times, at all hours. The nights were cold. Very cold. Not quite freezing, but in the high 30s, and out here where the humidity is so low, the cold and wind seems even sharper. On Friday evening, when the wind was whipping and the cold front had arrived, the playa seemed empty, like in pre-event.

Even in daylight, if you wandered the playa, you could lose sight of everyone and everything, and you wondered why did you come to this godforsaken place? And how will you get home? And why didn’t you bring more water? And more warm clothes? And more lights? And better goggles? Dammit all!

But then the mini vortex moved on, and you’re surrounded by a gentle dusty glow, and people emerge from the whiteout, and they, like you, are covered in what looks like baker’s flour, and it’s funny, and you wipe each other’s faces off, and you have a sip of water and wipe off your goggles, and you continue on, bonded in strength, linked in experience, uniquely so.

The DPW parade took place in a mix of sun and dust
The DPW parade took place in a mix of sun and dust

You are amalgamated by the elements here, and by some strange alchemy, you find yourself more accepted, and more accepting. The young accept the old, and vice versa. All body types are equally encouraged to show skin.

You meet and talk with people you wouldn’t otherwise talk to, while at the same time you get to see the people you admire so much for their tenacity and creativity and wish you saw more than just once a year. But if this is all you get, you’ll take it.

And just a brief note for those of you keeping score at home (and who’ve read some of our earlier dispatches): By all accounts Lacy and Heidi did gangbuster’s business in Gerlach at their new coffee shop. The biggest problem they had was keeping up with demand – more coffee, more cups, more everything. Maybe next year they’ll be able to employ one of the hopeful strays who wanders into town looking for a ticket to the big event.

Sometimes there were unexpected reminders of the outside world. At the Mazu temple burn, the scene was like something out of the Olympics, the opening ceremonies and the parade of nations. There were dancers in Taiwanese costumes (the poor things looked awfully cold), flags and music and one frenetic male fire dancer wearing a thong and not much else.

You could see Dave X’s hand in the fireworks, all green and red and silver and gold, and culminating in showers of silver sparks raining down from all around. As the flames consumed the wood, the elegant steel underlying structure of the lotus petals emerged. Even after the flames, the temple was a thing of beauty.

The Mazu Temple on its last day
The Mazu Temple on its last day

We ended that night at the Time Traveler’s Saloon, the wood-fronted old-timey place that Stuart Mangrum and his friends put right there on 6 o’clock off Ring Road. There were hefty pours of good whiskey, a perfectly balanced home-made IPA (not too hoppy, not too sweet, aromatic with hints of black cherry and beechwood), and plenty of good music. An old-timer sat on the porch wrapped in a Native American blanket, seemingly on the nod, but he gave us a cheerful “Thanks for coming” as we left. “Thanks for having us,” we said.

Neighborly, as so much of this Burn was.

And then, just like that, the balloon pops and it’s all over. Camps break down. Playa space that had one been so precious (no, the survey flag CLEARLY shows that this is our spot!) becomes … open again. Empty plots appear, people line up and moop their site, and only a few diehards are still wearing wings and peddling around and around Center Camp, wondering where the coffee and the music went.

Soon we’ll almost all be gone. The Strike and Resto crews will inherit this barren slice of earth and help the desert re-emerge.

For the people who work to build Black Rock City, this is a place of connection and community. They travel lightly, but widely, on the earth, without many of the connections and constrictions of the mainstream world, but Black Rock City is a chance for them to belong, a chance to contribute, a chance to connect with others in a more profound way.

The Man aflame
The Man aflame

For the people who work at the org, it’s a calling, a vocation, maybe even a mission. Some would like to see the event keep happening in the desert. Keep Burning Man dangerous! Read the back of your ticket! Burning Man can kill you!

For them, the questions will begin again: Has Burning Man jumped the shark? How will all this continue to happen in a way that might make a mark on the world, but in a way that empowers and enables the poverty-line artists to keep making the real magic, the magic that makes Black Rock City.

That’s what the offseason is for: the after-reports and the re-assessments and the complaints, and the problem-solving and the innovation.

And for you, for the rest of us, there might be questions, too: Have we graduated from Burning Man? (I don’t really think of it as a school, though, or something with a curriculum.) But why does this week in the desert matter so much? And why should it consume so much of our creative energy, and our money, and our time?

Of course we have no answers for you. We are fresh out of them, but encourage you to share your thoughts on the matter.

All we have right now is the fondness and tiredness and dustiness, and the renewed belief that bigger is not always better. Small is the new black.

And we also have the wish that the art will continue to flower, and that more people, maybe new people, will get to do something they believe in. And that maybe the people who are simply looking for a show or an event or a party will have found a different thing here, and that maybe that thing will have hooked them.

In the meantime, we’ll pool the leftover food tonight for a potluck. We’ll hold some booze back for the folks at Collexodus, and tomorrow we’ll go back to jobs and bills and emails and texts and Facebook and traffic, and all the other things by which our lives are consumed.

But we’ll be thinking about the cold and the dust, and the fire and the art, and the new friends and the old friends, and the things that mattered.

A few more pics:

The Mazu Temple on its last day
The Mazu Temple on its last day
The Totem of Confession on its last day
The Totem of Confession on its last day
We got hit hard and often
We got hit hard and often
El Pulpo was everywhere
El Pulpo was everywhere

IMGL2843

Remember, at the DPW parade, the middle finger means "Have a nice day"
Remember, at the DPW parade, the middle finger means “Have a nice day”

IMGL2978

IMGL2994

IMGL3102

Stabby's coat is a historical document of the burn
Stabby’s coat is a historical document of the burn

IMGL3450

The Burner Boutique transformed people
The Burner Boutique transformed people
They don't pose often, but they did this time
They don’t pose often, but they did this time

IMGL3704

The Death Guild invaded Artica for a shift selling ice
The Death Guild invaded Artica for a shift selling ice

IMGL4886

IMGL4896

IMGL4900

IMGL4921

IMGL4965

IMGL4974

IMGL5006

IMGL5023

IMGL5031

IMGL5049

IMGL5052

IMGL5080

IMGL5094

IMGL5130

IMGL5133

IMGL5167

Coyote, Colby, Atticus and Mel at the burn
Coyote, Colby, Atticus and Mel at the burn
The Man in outline
The Man in outline

About the author: John Curley

John Curley

John Curley (that's me) has been Burning since the relatively late date of 2004, and in 2008 I spent the better part of a month on the playa, documenting the building and burning of Black Rock City in words and pictures. I loved it, and I've been doing it ever since. I was a newspaper person In a previous life, and I spent many years at the San Francisco Chronicle. At the time I left, in 2007, I was the deputy managing editor in charge of Page One and the news sections of the paper. Since then, I've turned a passion for photography into a second career. I shoot for editorial, commercial and private clients, and I'm especially fond of shooting weddings. I'm also the editor at large of the Tasting Panel magazine, which is devoted to the beverage industry. I've also taught a bit, including two years at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and a year at San Francisco State University. I live on a (house)boat in Alameda, California.

30 Comments on “And that’s that

  • burnersxxx says:

    Thanks for the review John. You should check out Ronaldo’s Instagram feed. He has 30 million followers, so a great name to drop. Unfortunately he was nowhere near Burning Man in the past week.

    Report comment

    • Ronaldoxxx says:

      Generally, Ronaldo refers to Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima, not Cristiano Ronaldo (both are quite famous footballers, although only one looks like a model). I don’t know which one John was referring to, or if either was at the Burn this year, nor do I really care…but I’m glad to see that you care enough to track their movements so carefully. If there are any other celebrities that you stalk on the regular, please let us know so that we can go to you to track their Burn attendance over the years to come.

      -the other other Ronaldo, aka Ronaldo the plumber

      Report comment

  • John Curley says:

    Wellll, I wouldn’t want to make a thing out of it, but I’ll stand by my story, no doubt about it.

    Report comment

  • Spunkmeyer says:

    thanks for the great write up. i haven’t been in a few years, and loved how you put things.

    Report comment

  • G says:

    Hey John,
    Great write up, thanks.
    I had to cancel this year for elderly parent reasons.
    I may be freed up about 10/1.
    Any chance I could show up for a day or a few to help Plays Resto ?
    ikscx@yahoo.com

    Report comment

  • Lynn says:

    Your words resonated with me after my third Burn, John.
    Burning Man encompasses the values that I wish society had.
    It is how I wished our human evolution had turned out and it actually
    seems to be going in the opposite direction. I think it sells out now because’
    there is an enormous need for that which we feel for one week on the Playa.
    I can only hope that 70,000 people take the BURN home with them to spread into
    their workplaces, homes, communities, governments. Thanks for your recap.

    Report comment

  • Rachel says:

    Thank you, John. While on and off-playa, I’ve enjoyed all of your posts during the build, the burn, and now the reflection.

    Report comment

  • Your words and photos are perfect, John. I do believe that your writings contribute to shaping a part of the BM culture that we love.

    Report comment

  • Thebrn says:

    Uh yah…totally silent aside from the art car that wouldnt stop playing shitty trap, and all the idiots howling and cheering.

    Report comment

  • john curley says:

    Thanks all for the very generous comments. … And Thbrn, sorry to hear about your lousy experience; I know it can differ depending on where you’re situated. I was fortunate …

    Report comment

  • Mahalo for sharing the incredible photos of Kalalea Fire! I would love the name / contact info of the photographer. We were the troupe in white with the umbrellas representing Hawaii as part of the Hawaii Fire Artists Collective at 5:38 Please pass along his info if can!

    Report comment

  • john curley says:

    So glad you like. The photos are from me, too. Drop me an email and I’ll be happy to share many more with you when I finish editing them. Thank you again for your beautiful work

    Report comment

  • david wiles says:

    Thanks John

    I would say that your sense of it all in words and pictures captures the spirit that remains. I would say why not go if given the chance. It was not the best year of my 12 years coming and going due to the cold and the dust. I did buy a motor home (it is for sale by the way runs great and a very fair price) and it really did the job to keep me comfortable and happy enough to have a good time. I felt I could have gotten more into the community interactions between dust storms although there was never enough time to do a that. look me up becomelightnow@gmail.com many thanks.
    David

    Report comment

  • David says:

    Thanks for the review, John. I said it to a friend in camp this year, and he made me write it down, because it really does describe my experience this year, which you echoed: “I came for Burning Man, but I stayed for Black Rock City.” It is the community, and how we relate in the smallest moments, that really sticks. Susan Sarandon made me a drink, and I’d forgotten all about it because I was remembering the tiny intimacies I enjoyed with people who no one will ever brag about meeting.
    Now, if I can only stop crying…

    Report comment

  • Cleu lady says:

    My experience in BRC 2015 mirrors your perception. Small is beautiful. I found the Resonant Heart an inviting place with candlelight, incense, pillows to sit on as I gazed at the circles of the Cleu at the center of Include the Cleu labyrinth and watched the lights on all the people and art cars passing by after the Man burned. On Temple night, I climbed into a lush baggage car where numerous tags identified emotional baggage to be left on the playa. In a confessional booth, I was told that following my heart’s desire was the clue to my next adventure. Thank you, Black Rock City. Such small-scale installations make for an intimate personal experience with the city itself, as if I was adopted by the playa and its citizens. Lovely!

    Report comment

  • Cam says:

    Love the portraits. You have a great eye.

    Report comment

  • “But we’ll be thinking about the cold and the dust, and the fire and the art, and the new friends and the old friends, and the things that mattered.”

    :’-)

    Xoxoxo

    Report comment

  • roissy says:

    BM jumped the shark when the ferris wheel arrived, now it is complete just like any other festival…

    Report comment

  • Great piece John, and glad you liked my IPA.
    Moving forward: Medici? Hmm. Medici…

    Report comment

  • nik says:

    Beautifully written, thanks for that. And yeah it is always like that, every single burn, it’s the small interactions that make the burn. One of the reasons I love to walk around – walking means one can and will constantly interact with all the camps along the way, with all the burners one meets. And this year too, the most meaningful interactions for me came talking to two older women I met in a bar. I was grabbing my bag from where they had sat down and was about to go when I remembered that this was burning man, and that the most unlikely people are often the most interesting – and that is exactly how it turned out.

    Report comment

  • Finn says:

    As a first time burner from this year,…

    The amazing (and also depressing) about Burning Man is the moment when I realised that it is the only place that I can truly be myself.
    If I were to express myself without kerbing my personality in order to conform, the real world would not accept me.

    This is what makes burning man unique and inspiring.

    Report comment

  • Jason1969 says:

    11th burn for me and I still can’t believe it happens the way it does. Incredible.

    But the event is truly is at a crux point, and has been refined to a point where it really can’t change or grow. Just look at the way the themes have ben repeated, shit, the last 3 themes all started with CAR. The loud “where does it go from here” feeling you touch on is being asked on every level, the org, the counties, theme camps, volunteers, citizens. It can’t get bigger and everybody wants in it. The old school burners that made it so fabulos and desireable are the ones “graduating’, potentialy making the event less awesome each year. It brings up the question if Burning Man has to happen. Is it possible it will ever stop? Most would say that the machine is too big to stop.

    So, I think it’s time for next year’s theme to be: “No Burning Man.”
    Announce it and just drop the mic and offer no explanation why for a few months.

    It’s the last cacophony left for the event. The community and pundits with discuss every scenario and prediction and everyone will get a taste for what life would be like without Burning Man. Like the burning of the Temples and the Man, letting it go will let something new start to percolate and strengthen it when it returns.

    Even for just a year. It would be healthy for the org to see what would transpire and what would be said.

    Would thousands go out there that week on their own? Would other BM regional festivals get larger and more numerous? Would the BLM and counties beg for it to happen? Would they try to do a similar event themselves?

    Report comment

  • Jason1969 says:

    ^ Ugh, sorry for the typos.

    Report comment

  • James says:

    As a virgin burner, I was “overwhelmed” of the amount of gleaming ART and activity – a dream come true.
    Will be back next year.

    Report comment

  • blbpdsusa says:

    Wonderful write up! First time burner, and I wouldn’t have changed a cot damn thing. All the advanced social media criticisms (I now notice so often from folks who’ve never been) just melted away in the first hour, and the people I met were indescribable.

    It’s truly amazing this exists, it’s sad to read some folks taking it a bit for granted, and I hope every volunteer knows how much their work is appreciated….not just for the week, but for months and years afterwards. Thank you. I can’t describe the personal fulfillment, but also don’t really want to. You could already sell a million tickets every year, and me babbling to casual friends would only make it 1.1 mil.

    Hope to see every one of you next year, frolicking in the desert.

    Report comment

  • Greene Fyre says:

    Festivals like this represent temporary encampments of people who yearn for the connectedness of a tribe. They are ironic, in that millions of people are now living permanently in temporary encampments, as refugees, as displaced, many of them indigenous tribes who will never be able to return to their Homelands because of war, of climate change. I am very interested in seeing festivals like this become places where consciousness of this Mass Movement of Humanity is shared, along with raising awareness of the technologies that can alleviate the suffering of displaced humanity – comfortable temporary movable emergency shelters, small inexpensive portable water-from-air generators and electricity generators, even easy to set up and run mini food growing systems.

    Report comment

  • Sputnik says:

    You couldn’t have said it more perfectly. It was exactly that. All of that. Thank you.

    Report comment

  • exDPW says:

    The burn really needs to scale itself way down , I’m thinking 1/2 the size and the org really needs to realize they have enough money and stop this ridiculous goal of 100,000 folks at bman someday…it is getting too big for Gerlach with the ever so growing DPW (oh and no estates next year due to tthe brunos kitchen issue) and also getting too big for itself…..
    The desert has been warning bman with ever increasing issues… rain , bugs , record wind and dust to scale down or else…..

    Report comment

  • Comments are closed.