Gate folks have a tough job.
They are the people you see as you reach the playa but before you make entrance into Black Rock City. You should definitely not confuse Gate folk with Greeters, who you encounter a little further up the road. The Greeters give you hugs, have you ring a bell and roll in the dust, and generally extend outstretched arms of friendship and welcome.
The Gate is … different.
It’s been a tradition for years for Gate folk to dress up as clowns on opening night. But they still have to perform their essential duty: Make sure that everyone’s tickets and vehicle passes are valid, and make sure that nothing and no one who is not supposed to be here gets in.
There can be moments of angst and dread. What happens if your ticket scans as invalid, or one person out of the four in your car doesn’t have the right credentials to gain admittance? It means that the Gate staff has to have negotiation skills, technical expertise, and the ability to stay cool under pressure.
Opening night adds another layer of drama. People may have been sitting in D lot for hours. But, “If someone has been there for more than six hours,” Athibat, the head of Gate, Perimeter and Exodus, said, “then they probably left too early and left something at home.”
Still, it can make an already tense situation even more fraught. It’s midnight, the general admission gates have just opened, people have spent countless hours on the road and countless hours before that getting ready for a week in the desert. The last thing they want is a hassle, especially when they are so close to their destination.
And hey, first impressions matter. If your initial experience in Black Rock City involves a vaguely dangerous-looking person dressed all in black and who might not be in the best of moods, things might not get off to a good start.
Don’t get us wrong: we do not mean to imply that the Gate is staffed by mean people, but the fact is, they’ve seen a lot of things, and it can get wearying. They’ve heard all the stories, seen all the things. In a way, they’re like cops: they often see the worst the world has to offer.
So what can be done to flip the situation around?
This year, Gate staff decided to add music and lights and fireworks to the mix, and man was it a scene. There was also plenty of fire shooting up into the night sky, and if you’re going to Burning Man, you know that is never a bad thing.
“This whole festival is built on ritual and ceremony,” Buck Down, a 21-year Burner, was saying. “This is a terrible place to work or go on vacation. … The only logical explanation is that this is scratching a very important itch in people’s lives. In America, particularly among white people, culture is gone. We’ve sort of strip-mined it. … What Burning Man does is, it replaces all those rituals and context and community. … People don’t talk to their neighbors back home, but by Wednesday, anybody in here knows all of their neighbors.
“There’s these things that sort of happen metronomically, like the burning of the man or the temple, and even our little string of staff parties, they are these little nodes …
“So what we wanted to do was put a first note in the song that everybody sings out here.”
And what a frikken song they sang.
There was Rabid Transit. There was Robot Heart. There was the Department of Spontaneous Combustion. There was Chester the art car. And there were fireworks at the stroke of midnight, just as the cars in D lot, the folks without any kind of early admission credentials, started moving into Black Rock City.
And a completely fabulous new art car named Sanctuary was also on the scene, and honestly, words and maybe even pictures can’t do it justice. It has sound, lights, fire and the intricate detailing that highlights true artisanship. It’s always a joy to see fresh excellence make it to the playa, and Sanctuary, a two-year project from Hayward, CA., is going to make a huge impression here.
All this so that Gate could create a better experience for arriving Burners.
The name on everyone’s lips for pulling off this massive achievement in negotiating the bureaucracy to satisfactory outcome was Scotland Symons, whose official title is GP&E art director, and she was the de facto production coordinator for Gate’s opening night party.
“You know that old story,” Buck continued, “of Danger Ranger drawing the line in the sand, and when you crossed that line (and entered the playa), everything is different. … We should do something that makes it feel different. Because right now, look at that,” he said, waving his arm at the line of cars waiting to get in. “It’s pretty anticlimactic.”
But last night was anything but anticlimactic. Art cars weren’t even allowed on the playa yet, but here were some of the all-time greats, all lined up in a row. And on the other side near the Gate crews, the Dust City Diner was doing up their oh-so-fabulous grilled cheese sandwiches.
Drea Gate, one of the shift supervisors, was reading the roll call for the arriving staff who would man the 12 midnight to 6 am shift. There were lots of people missing when she first went through the list, but soon a yellow school bus arrived from the Black Hole, where Gate people camp, and the roster started to flesh out nicely.
She noted the night’s captains and said, “We’re going to be the adults of the night, so if anything gets weird or not normal, not just process it and go, call for one of us to come over and we’ll help you out.”
Gate is a 24/7 operation, and people work in six-hour shifts that, in reality, are more like seven hours when you add the commute time to and from the Black Hole. You sacrifice a lot of your Burn to help the Gate run smoothly, and the earliest Gate staff are here just as early as the Survey and Fence teams, manning the lone entrance to the playa in the first weeks of the build.
On opening night in the long ago, DPW and other staff would come down and sit on bleachers and use megaphones to hurl insults at the new arrivals, “ask” for donations of alcohol, and blow dust with leaf blowers at the shiny clean cars.
It was good jackassery, but it got old in a hurry.
This night was a new start, a night that more fittingly kicked off burn week. And one of the beautiful things was, not everyone in the city knew it was going to be a thing. There might have been a couple of hundred people wandering around in the music and the flames, and just about everyone was astonished at the production values.
Scotland was the person Buck brought on to do the detail work to make the Gate experience resemble more of Burning Man.
“I’ve spent the last few days with the ASS (art support services) team, the pyro team, trying to learn everything I could to make it happen,” Scotland said. She used to be on the Gate tech team, “but I gave my body and soul over to Buck for art,” she said.
“We’re not even sure what we’ve unleashed,” she said.
There were unreliable reports that DeadMou5 was playing the Gate opening, much in the way that Daft Punk will be at the trash fence Wednesday night.
Eventually, Buck sees scaffolding erected across the containers that make up the Gate, and he wants to put up a giant banner welcoming people to Black Rock City. “Every great city has a gate,” he said. “What we want to do is provide the infrastructure, and have a different artist come in every year to design it.”
“That’s Danger’s line in the sand,” he said. “Let’s make that something.”
Well begun is half done, Buck. Good show. Fanny Pack was there enjoying the festivities, and she summed things up: “Hey, why have Burning Man when you can have a Gate party?”
Here are some more pics: