We Are Lit

What’s the first word in Burning Man (as Dave X likes to say)? That’s right, it’s “burning,” and you could say that the event officially kicked off Monday evening when Crimson Rose lit the flames in the cauldron in front of the Center Café. A crowd gathered in the golden dust to watch the ritual, as she held a fancy magnifying glass in front of the wood and lit the blaze with rays from the sun. Of course this same flaming cauldron will be carried in procession to the Man on Saturday night, but this seemed a fitting way to declare an official beginning to Burning Man 2017.

There are any number of happenings that you could say mark the beginning of the event, including the opening of the Man, or the Esplanade fireworks show, or even the fact that people are now pouring through the gates without “early arrival” designation.

All we know is that by Sunday night, when an Olympic Games-type opening ceremony took place at the Man, there were already 42,000 people in Black Rock City. The city is lit, with sound and light and fire, and there were more people here on Sunday of the event week than there were on Burn Night when we first started attending in the early 2000s. (We are relative newcomers; the earliest gatherings had attendance figures that barely reached five figures.)

Crimson is the keeper of the flames at Burning Man, and as she approached the gathering, long silver hair glowing in the early evening light, she hushed the rhythmic drumming with a wave of her hand. Then she danced and writhed her way around the delicate white metal cauldron, before focusing her magnifying glass on the wood. In moments, the cauldron burst into flame, and you got the feeling that yes, this year especially, many people and things are yearning to burn.

Here are some pics of the lighting of the cauldron:


Bianca and Syn

The big ceremony at the Temple of the Golden Spike was produced and art directed by Syn, directed and choreographed by Bianca, and witnessed by hundreds, although there were probably thousands more who would’ve crowded the space had been room.

People packed the railings around the raised platform of the Man, hoping for a view of what was unfolding below. Some technical challenges delayed the opening until around 9:30, but that the whole Man project came in on time, complete with an opening ceremony, was amazing.

Rigging had been hung in the structure, and four performers in red shrouds were hoisted aloft. Dramatic instrumentals played over the scene, and the performers gradually worked their way out of their wrappings while still aloft.

The aerialists were lowered to the ground, and there was interpretive dance around the red-shrouded mound between the Man’s legs. Then more shrouds were removed to reveal a glowing omphalos on the desert floor, the very center of Black Rock City. It was crafted by Henry Washer (Opa’s stepson), and it has already proved a hit with participants. You can’t help but want to rub your hands all over it.

We didn’t try too hard to interpret all the meanings of the opening ceremony, but themes of blood offering, renewal and rebirth were rich in the air. Justin Credible summed it up nicely when she said the ceremony reminded her of the days of Pepe’s operas, which were strange and mystifying but also undeniably compelling. And as for Syn, the force of nature behind the production, all we can say is hey Wonder Woman, hold her beer.

For the record, here are the people who staged the opening:

Artistic Director/Creative & Executive Producer: Melissa Barron (aka “Syn”)
Director/Choreographer: Bianca Sapetto (aka Bionica)
Artistic Collaborator: Larry Harvey
Rigging Design: Russ Stark (aka Riggerruss)
Ensemble of Performing Artists: Akasia Inchaustegui, Alicia Cutaia, Aliya Protto, Carmit Bachar, Daniel Passer, Russ Stark, Stephan Choiniere, Stephanie Kim, and Bianca Sapetto

Composer: Dayburn
Additional Music: Robin Finck
Violinist: Rebecca Cherry
Percussion: hambone hix
Gamelatron: Aaron Taylor Kuffner

Laser Light Art: Sofy Yuditskaya
Costumes: Carmel Snow
Airbrush Artist: Happy Chad
Costume assistants: Tzipora Hoynik and Heather Thompson
Riggers: Mountain, Lolo, Panda
Sound Provided by: Dougie Style
Sound donated by Disorient & Charlie Funk
Contributing Dance Choreographer: Jade Hale Christofi

Special Thanks: Lightning Clearwater, Disorient, Shwami Smooth, Roboheart, Joel Shearer, Yaella Frankel, Rob Fyfe, Rae Richman, Tomas McCabe, Adam Belsky, Ceasar Alonso,


Here are some more pics from the opening ceremony for the Man:


The Yellow Bikes crew and assorted helpers from DPW took the last of the bicycles that will be distributed for participants’ use from the work ranch to Black Rock City in what has become known as the Bologna Hole Blitz.

You probably already know that more than 1,000 bikes are rehabbed, painted and put out around the city for people to use and share. What you might not know is that the Yellow Bikes team has been working for weeks to get ready for the event, and Sunday was the big finale. Of course, what began as a simple, workmanlike practice has become layered with ritual, just as every other thing that happens in Black Rock City. In the olden days, the bike ride was simply a way of getting the bikes from the ranch to the playa. Now it is a full-fledged production, with a fluffer truck, a bike repair truck, the Rocket Car, and, for the second year, the Bologna Hole Blitz Spritz. The waterworks, housing and special projects teams brought a water truck out to the top of the rise on Route 34, just before the bikers would descend into Black Rock City, and hosed them down and cooled them off from the afternoon heat. (The heat, by the way, has been intense; yesterday it was almost 105 in the shade at the Media Mecca headquarters.)

We’re told that in those older days, the bike ride was a great way to sneak friends into the event. Go to the ranch, hop on a bike, and ride on through the gate with the other riders. We’re pretty sure that doesn’t happen anymore, though we think that anyone willing to ride most of 15 miles in that desert heat on beat-up old one-speed deserves to be at Burning Man.

Here are some more pics of the Bologna Hole Blitz:

Dave X staged a fireworks show that could be seen from just about anywhere in Black Rock City, with launch stations ringing the Esplanade from 2 o’clock to 10 o’clock. We jumped at the chance to help out.

The level of intricacy and the amount of work that went into the display was both eye-opening and humbling. For that five-minute program launched from eight separate locations, Dave X spent the better part of four days constructing the launch platforms, doing the wiring, doing the schematics, and choreographing the show.

He had a good number of volunteers to man the perimeters and of course to help with the mooping afterwards.

Here are some more pics from the fireworks prep, performance and cleanup:

The placing of the Golden Spike on the top of the Man pagoda was, to us, a hairy thrill ride, but for those who did it, it didn’t seem like much of a challenge.

The spike would raise the height of the Man above 100 feet, but there was some concern that the Temple might wind up being the taller structure on the playa. We’re saying here that the pagoda is 105 feet high with the spike, and the Temple is juuuuust a bit less. (It’s said that David Best always designs his Temples to be five feet shorter than the Man.)

In any case, and fittingly enough, a group of the Man Base crew lifted the spike by hand and placed it in position to be lifted by crane to the top of the pagoda. Then the only problem was, how to de-rig the spike after the lift. SheepShank came to the rescue as he donned his caver’s harness, and Gary lifted him by crane into the air. The job was done in minutes, but not before SheepShank took a few selfies while suspended over Black Rock City.

Here are some pics:

Notes: We were working on a theory that three things have “won” Burning Man — they are ubiquitous and have had enormous impact on the playa: bike lights (just so many of them, in increasing complexity); art cars (the playa is mobbed with them), and sound camps (where the real money and innovation is happening). But then Susanna noted that the art cars, especially, could be seen as the new community art projects (when they’re not just provided as a way for plug ‘n players to get around). So we’ll go with that and say that community art has found another form of expression. … We know that there is a shuttle stop that art cars are supposed to use to pick up passengers and give them lifts around the city, but we haven’t figured out the system, but we’ll report back when we do. …

The dedication of Burning Man photographers is astounding. Eleanor Preger and her merry band are out at 5 am every morning, shooting all the things. At midmorning they were on their way to a meeting of the Doc(umenting) team to get the plan for the year. Similarly, Duncan stopped by Media Mecca around noon to check in. He’d been out since 4 am, and he plans to do that for the entirety of Burning Man. “I realized that if you really want to do it right, this is what you have to do.” … Never make a date with a photographer, or ask them to dinner, or ask them to go to a cocktail party, or ask them to do ANYthing from about 5 o’clock on. They only want one thing at that time: to be out shooting in the golden light. …

Two new words we like: “voluntold” – when you are told you are volunteering to do something. And “lightwad” – the opposite of darktard, when you are wearing entirely too many blinkies, or have a headlamp that hits people right in the eye. … Weirdest radio message so far: “I have here a gentleman who is delivering frozen fish.”




About the author: 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. I've also taught a little bit, including two years at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and a year at San Francisco State University. I live on the San Mateo coast, just south of San Francisco in California.

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