Opening Night Gets a Makeover

Buck Down and Scotland Simmons

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.

Rabid Transit made an appearance

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.

Green meant go at the box office

“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.

The Sanctuary

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.

The midnight shift comes on duty

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:

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.

14 Comments on “Opening Night Gets a Makeover

  • I always look forward to your photos and stories! One day, i hope to make it there…bucket list, for sure!

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  • Julie says:

    DPW steals from attendees. Gate is where they send people after the’ve F’d up too many times at DPW (stealing from and assaulting attendees, etc). But Gate doesn’t steal. In fact, they’re offended by the suggestion that attendees should keep an eye on their possessions while Gate is searching their rig. Because Gate doesn’t steal.

    You make the call. It’s your stuff.

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    • A Gate person says:

      If anybody believes that a Gate volunteer has stolen something from them, they should contact the department, the Org, and/or law enforcement ASAP.

      I have never been in a position where I have noticed anything worth stealing sitting around in a participant’s vehicle, been in a position to steal anything, or heard of any of my fellow department members stealing. If someone were found to be doing that, our management would come down on them hard and fast.

      That said, there are hundreds of people in the department and I am sure some bad apples among them. Common sense dictates that we should not under most circumstances leave valuables lying around.

      While there is a fair amount of mutual respect between Gate and DPW, and some volunteer crossover (particularly among volunteers and staff who our out there for the long haul)…. And do you have any idea how hard it is to get fired from DPW? Few if any of the hundred or more new Gate volunteers brought on board every year have ever even worked for DPW, let alone been fired from it.

      Disgruntled Rangers, on the other hand…

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  • this is the one that gave me fomo… im usually on that shift. wish i were there.

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  • Shalaco says:

    “All this so that Gate could create a better experience for arriving Burners.”

    Guess that message didn’t get to those at the party talking $*&^ on megaphones to the incoming.

    Rest of the party was super great, wonderful idea well executed.

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  • CJ says:

    Could you use more inclusive language than “manning” the gate? Watching/staffing/attending the gate are all options, and I’m sure you could come up with more if you put some thought into it. Thank you.

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  • A Gate person says:

    A small correction – the parking lot you’re referring to, the lot where people who show up before the event opens go to wait their turn to enter, is not D-Lot. It is the Staging Lot. It only exists on opening night. One could say “don’t show up before midnight,” but it is the only Burning Man Traffic Experience where you can get out, have fun with your neighbors, and really stretch your legs without vehicles suddenly moving and somebody yelling at you to get back in your vehicle. It’s not punitive, even if those who end up “first-in, last-out” might not enjoy their wait.

    D-Lot is active throughout the event. It’s tucked behind the Gate HQ and Will Call Lot. It’s a place for problem-solving. If a ticket doesn’t scan or there needs to be an extra-thorough search, the vehicle involved can be pulled aside and dealt with by experienced staff who have seen everything and know how to handle it. There are even Ticketfly reps on site, wandering over from the Box Office when needed. It is not punitive, either, but it people who wind up there are often in very frustrating situations. I have heard that it was used a little more aggressively back in the leaf-blower days, but it is busy enough with people who have genuine problems and nobody has time for that kind of BS anymore.

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  • Kelli Hovetsten says:

    So when the art cars were running their lasers did they have lasers inspection tags from the DMV?
    Because one of the art cars you mention and have photos of was testing it’s lasers in the city without a permit?

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