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!”
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: