You may have joined us when this year’s adventure began, way back in July, when a smallish group gathered in the middle of the dry lakebed that is colloquially called the playa. There, we took turns hammering a spike into the ground, the very spot where the Man would be built. Then came the nine miles of trash fence encircling the city, then the mess hall tent, the roads, the signs, the ice stations, the box office, the Rangers, the medical staff, everything and everyone needed to get ready for the onslaught of 70,000 wild-eyed, extremely excited people who were ready to party. Or to seek personal transformation. Or to dance all night. Or to build an art project. Or to do all those things. They were all linked by a communal experience of heat and dust.
When the event began, we gave up trying to keep up with what was going on. There were most definitely significant moments along the way, but everyone has those moments, and they are all going to be different. Your mileage may vary. We’re certain ours did, too.
But there are the big events that large numbers of participants come together to experience jointly — the big art burns, the Man burn, the Temple burn. But mostly, what happens at Burning Man is pretty much up to you. You are free to customize your experience to your particular needs and wants.
Symphony orchestra? Got it. Poutine at midnight? Yep. Tea ceremony at dawn? Check. Orgy dome? Yes, that too. In all, there were more than 600 mutant vehicles (aka art cars) of all shapes and sizes, and almost 2,000 registered theme camps, each with its own idea of enriching the experience of the people who might wander through. And that’s not even mentioning the registered art pieces, which numbered more than 400 this year, plus the countless number of smaller, random pieces that were scattered around the open playa. Some were delightful, some were puzzling, all were welcome.
So yes, there were many ways to customize your experience.
All this work, all the planning, all the money, all the effort for a weeklong celebration of … what? And for god’s sake why? These are questions too broad to adequately address in our diminished state. We’ll leave it for you to decide if this powerful demonstration of creativity and community is a net positive or negative. People see the burns and admonish our carbon footprint, and correctly note that so much charitable work could be accomplished if we somehow redirected all this to feeding the poor, housing the homeless, comforting the sick. All we can say is that those two paths are not mutually exclusive. We’ll also say that the values espoused and encouraged here might have made a lasting impact, even on just a handful of people. You never know what an energized, creative, determined group, with fresh encouragement and inspiration, can accomplish once they get back to Reality Camp.
Others will simply be glad that they got to dance until dawn at Robot Heart. And good for them! Radical inclusion!
But here’s the thing: This has been happening for more than 30 years, and we don’t know if there’s anything like it in the world. Actually, we’re pretty sure there’s not. Personally speaking, we know that there’s no other place that draws so many people to watch, say, a giant metal octopus shooting flames to a funky beat, and maybe it’s no more complicated than that. As our friend Beave said, quoting a favorite line from Willy Wonka, “A little nonsense, now and then, is tonic to the wisest men.”
So with that as our preamble, we’ll wander our own path through the streets and playa once again in words and pictures. If you attended the event, we hope maybe you’ll see things you didn’t get to see while you were here. And if you weren’t here, maybe this will help you form your own opinion about Burning Man, and the people who make it happen.
Fewer than 10,000 people had left the 2019 Burning Man event before the Sunday night Temple burn, which is amazing. In the old times, folks would start streaming out of Black Rock City on Saturday, even before the Man burned, in hopes of escaping the long lines of vehicles trying to get out (it can easily take six to eight hours to get off the playa and reach the nearby town of Gerlach, which is only about 12 miles away.) But not this year; everyone seemed to want to stick around to the end.
And some wanted to stay even longer. On Monday night, there was a small group of exuberant participants still riding their blinky-bedazzled playa bikes around the Center Cafe. One shouted to the other, “Hey, where’s the after party??”
There is no after party. It’s time to put your pants on and go home. From now until the end of month, there is only the work: Pulling up the spires, removing the fence posts, digging up the power lines, plucking the containers and getting them back to the ranch, pulling down the Commissary tent. And then, after these two weeks of heavy lifting, Playa Restoration begins. A couple of hundred lucky (or unlucky) souls will spread out in long lines and walk the length and breadth of the playa, looking for the mostly tiny bits of trash that participants may have missed. (There are exceptions, of course: every now and then, an entire camp will have been abandoned — tent, sleeping bags, food, pee bottles, the whole works will have been left behind. Some people just can’t take it; they give up and flee, leaving everything behind.)
If you attended, you likely have already gone through a similar experience — covered in dust, tired and probably cranky from hunger and exhaustion, you slaved away. Every single thing that you crammed in your car or camper or truck somehow had to be crammed back in — the filthy tent, the now-cruddy chairs, whatever piece of shade you put up, your lights, water coolers, the half-eaten box of crackers, the cheese that’s gone slimy. And the clothes. Oh my god the clothes. Skimpy or substantial, they are all covered with playa talcum that will take multiple washings to remove, and even then, they likely will never be the same.
Tell me again why we do this, because at this particular moment, it is very hard to remember.
On Opening Night in the long-ago times, hundreds of workers would “greet” arriving participants with insults shouted over megaphones, spray dust at them with leaf-blowers, and plead for liquor and food. It all might have made the arriving crowd wonder if perhaps there might have been better uses for their time.
But those days are mostly done. Now, mostly to ease traffic, participants are allowed to enter the city at midnight on Saturday night, although the event doesn’t officially open until the next day.
The production values of opening night have also been given a big boost, first last year and then again this year, with art cars, fireworks, and nary an insulting word to be heard.
As we wandered through the traffic lanes, watching the Gate crews searching for contraband and stowaways, we wondered, what must these early arrivers be thinking as they passed through the gates. Imagine a first-timer being greeted by the fire-breathing Chester art car, complete with a fetching pole dancer (who by the way married her sweetheart later in the week). And there was the first sighting of El Pulpo Mechanico, back from a two-year hiatus, looking all spiffy and shiny and even more fire-friendly than ever.
The early morning hours saw a steady stream of taillights trailing off into the city, the revelers had arrived, and we were launched.
Here are some pics from the midnight welcoming party:
The Black Rock Philharmonic
The conditions could not have been more spectacular when the Black Rock Philharmonic Orchestra https://blackrockphilharmonic.org/about/ played at the The Folly on Tuesday evening. A tremendous crowd packed the space, both inside and outside the shanty town, and the orchestras performance was stellar. There were a half dozen or so classical crowd-pleasers, but the multitude truly went wild when the orchestra launched into “Bohemian Rhapsody.” There was something very special about the sound of hundreds of voices shouting out the words, standing, singing, clapping and dancing along.
Here are some more pics:
The Larry Temple
Before the event started, we ran into Dana Albany and Andrew Johnstone as they and some friends set up a shrine to departed founder Larry Harvey. It was the second such shrine; last year, the man who built what came to be the very first Temple at Burning Man, David Best, also built the first shrine to Larry. Of course, the Temple is the place at Burning Man where participants gather to mourn their losses — parents, lovers, pets, partners, friends. (One of our favorite inscriptions at the big Temple this year, the Temple of Direction, said “I love your smile, Mick! You were such a dick! But thank you for my children! <3 Forever”)
Anyway, Dana and the others were in the hot sun, putting in place the shrine that she had built for the occasion. Larry was fond of Japanese culture, and the structure was appropriately pagoda-like. The supports were covered with books (Harvey was also a voracious reader), and lanterns were made of what looked like balls of opened pages. Inside, there were marigolds and pictures, small mementos of what had turned out to be a very big life for the former San Francisco landscape gardener.
Harvey was one of the smartest and best-read men we’d ever met. One of his last big innovations at the Burning Man Project was to set up the Philosophical Society, with Stuart Magnum and Caveat Magister (Benjamin Wachs) as the other members.
Every year, Harvey would have a “press availability” during the Burning Man event, and we always went, even if we thought there would be nothing much new to our ears. We were always surprised at how engaging, how interesting, and sometimes how funny he could be. It was almost as if he delighted himself in the way he could play with concepts, how he could weave in the thoughts of writers he was familiar with (and there were a lot of them). He sometimes almost seemed surprised at the words and ideas that were coming out of his own mouth. He always seemed to say what was on his mind, without being strident or arrogant or obnoxious. He was funny. Many things, many ideas, many people delighted him. It was probably the thing we liked most about him, that when you brought him a notion that hadn’t occurred to him, rather than be defensive, he seemed open and eager to understand the new insight, and often he could place it in a context that you couldn’t have imagined. We’re pretty sure he wasn’t always so accommodating, but when he got going, when he got really engaged with taking ideas apart, man, he was fun.
The Larry shrine was only on playa for about a week, and it was the one of the first burns of the year, on Wednesday night. It didn’t feel as sad or traumatic as last year’s Larry burn. It all felt more appreciative, maybe even a little celebratory. A series of brief performances was capped by Andrew Johnstone playing his damn bagpipes (we say damn because they always get us in the feels), and an interpretive dancer. Then Dave X did his fireworks magic, the flames were lit, and up in smoke it all went.
We don’t know if there will be a Larry shrine every year, as there’s some discussion about whether to make it a yearly thing. But we do know one thing for certain — there is a part of Larry Harvey still very present in the Black Rock Desert, and there always will be.
Here are some more pics:
The Head Maze
We’re not too sure how to approach Matt Schultz’s incredibly ambitious 2019 project, one of the most visible, yet elusive, art pieces at Burning Man this year.
We know that the scope and ambition was enormous — a series of modular rooms, piled on top of each other and four stories high, framed in steel, would be taken over by a group of artists that Schultz brought together, and their collected efforts would sit under the fabric skin of a giant head resting on the desert floor, with an area that looked like stained-glass giving a glimpse of the torment inside.
The fabric that covered the head had to be hand-stitched into place. If that had been all it was, a giant sculpture with a stained-glass window into its innards, it would have been amazing. But it was so much more.
So it was heartbreaking to see and hear of the difficulties in pulling off this massive project. Crews worked long into the night to get ready for the opening, and they were still out there as participants arrived in Black Rock City.
We’ve had many inspiring talks with the visionary Schultz, who, with his Pier Group, has brought some of the most iconic art to the playa in recent years — the Piers projects, Embrace, the Space Whale, and others. His work lives on at Fly Ranch and in downtown Reno, and other places.
But this one seemed tougher than the rest. Maybe the reach was too high, we don’t know. But what we do know is that the concept was magnificent, and some of our favorite people were involved.
The fundraising campaign for the project laid out the intention of the piece:
“Head Maze is a 40-foot mediating mind, resting on one hand and ripping its face off to reveal a crystalline stained glass being. Inside of the mind is an immaculate interactive labyrinth of our subconscious and dreams. It’s a massive collaboration dedicated to the complexities of cognition, our common struggle between body and mind, nature and nurture and our persistently fluctuating perception of self. A series of hidden doors in the mouth, wrists and head open into a 4 story, 18 room maze.”
(By the way, the fundraising campaign is still active, and they would very much appreciate your help. Go here to help.)
And Shultz told MixMag, “After finishing The Space Whale in 2016, I’d blown through this 10 year repository of Burning Man ideas, and one of the things I was struggling with was psyche, our minds. I’ve always struggled with mental illness, quite aggressively. I feel like a lot of artists do, but I also wore it as a badge. Over the years of playing with psychedelics and learning how to meditate, I found that I kept returning to this space of discovering this magical beautiful creature inside of me that if I could just release out to the world, everything would be better. But as I became closer to that, I felt myself becoming different and estranged from everyone I cared about. So this desire to chase enlightenment or brilliance through madness meant the world became a bit more alien to me.”
Davis Galligan, aka Stinky Pirate from HEaT, had a beautiful two-story stairway, gilded in snaky manzanita. And Mark Deem’s offering, The Chain Room, was one of our favorite installations ever. His space was in total darkness, and once inside, you had to make your way through an increasingly thick tangle of chains. By the end, you were struggling with fear and wanted to escape — exactly the intent.
Deems says the room, “… exhorts people to understand the struggle against and the toll taken by depression and addiction. As the sign at the exit to our room reads, “YOU CAN’T DO IT ALONE.” The darkness, isolation and weight of that room and these diseases CAN be overcome, but only when we lean on one other.”
We’re not going to make any sweeping judgments about the overall success or failure of the Head Maze project. But so many people were taken with it, and curious about it, and may have wanted to get in but were unable to, we’ll just give a visual taste that we were fortunate enough to experience:
We rolled out to the 10 o’clock side of the Esplanade to visit the Roots Society sound camp. The scene is so different from the burn we usually find ourselves in. In the long ago, when we were new, we looked on the huge and amazing sound camps as playa palaces, where all the royals went. The people there seemed to have perfected an iconic Burning Man “look” — there was fur and boots and skin and radical hair and giant walking sticks with glowing balls on the top, the easier for your tribe to stay together. And this crowd has been looking fabulous long before Instagram came on the scene to make it all seem so contrived.
It’s a younger crowd, for sure, and they all seemed to have gotten there by the most extravagantly decorated bikes imaginable. [A brief side note: bike lights have ascended to heights that could only be dreamed of, even only a few years ago. Spokes and seats and antennas emit patterns in bright shards of light, all very stunning and almost overwhelming when there are hundreds of them glowing and blinking on the ground while their owners bump and dance and jump inside the sound space.]
We apologize for being pretty much irrelevant and unknowledgeable, because we are not going to be able to tell you what band or DJ was playing on this evening, because to be honest we are out of it and have lost touch. We didn’t think it would ever happen to us, but it has. Still, there were friends there who said it was one of their favorite bands, and we respect their opinions, and we are going to agree that the music was fabulous. There were live instruments in addition to what another friend calls the knob twisters (the mixing board wizards) — saxophone, flute, and more, at different intervals. The pacing was familiar — the repeated tonal patterns, the rising crescendos, the pause, and then the dramatic beat drop, accompanied by flashing lights and a furious frenzy on the desert dance floor. It was a blast, and the sound, well, it was perfect. It was the stereo system you’ve always lusted after — deafeningly loud, bass strong enough to shake your ribcage and re-start your heart, without the merest hint of distortion. To our wide eyes, it was all impossible to resist.
It was now about 3 am, though, and we were starting to wilt. But the crowd seemed to know how to play the long game. Sunup was only a few hours away, and that was going to be gorgeous, so no need to get all hot and heavy before the bar closed down. The bar never closes here, so pace yourself, and be ready for the party to really sizzle when the sky starts adding to the light show.
This, too, is Burning Man, no doubt about it.
El Pulpo Mecanico
Duane Flatmo is probably the nicest mad scientist you could ever meet.
To see him working the control board for El Pulpo’s fire blasts is watching a maestro at play, his orchestra made of fire and tentacles, and his audience agog.
Flatmo is a longtime veteran of the Grand Championship Kinetic Sculpture Race, in California’s Humboldt County, where human-powered contraptions race from Arcata to Ferndale. When someone told him about Burning Man, and he found new challenges and opportunities. His first art on playa was the Tin Pan Dragon, in 2008, and El Pulpo made its first appearance in 2011.
Flatmo first assembled a scale model for El Pulpo while spending time at the house he shares in La Penita de Jambalta, Mexico, with longtime collaborator Jerry Kunkel. He collected junk from roadways and trash heaps and made something wonderful, then brought the scale model around to show the workers at his favorite restaurants in the area. They loved it, and he was encouraged to build the real thing.
From the moment it hit Black Rock City in 2011, El Pulpo was beloved. You wouldn’t necessarily think that a 25-foot tall flaming metal octopus could be thought of as cute, but it undeniably was. As it made its way around the playa, you began to think of it as an old friend. When it showed up for a flame-off with other art cars or at big communal burns, it always added to the excitement and joy in the air.
In 2017, Flatmo “retired” El Pulpo and brought the even more intricate Rabid Transit to the desert. It was fresh and whimsical and immensely popular, but Duane must have felt the community’s pangs for El Pulpo. He spent much of the past year upgrading and reconfiguring El Pulpo, and he brought it back to Burning Man this year.
You might think that it would have been a triumphant return to glory, but at the outset, that was hardly the case. El Pulpo hadn’t been placed on its new chassis (the one used for Rabid Transit) until the team reached Black Rock City. And things did not go well.
“It looked horrible,” Duane’s wife, Micki, realized in horror. “It was all out of proportion.” She recalls telling Duane that, “It looks like a box of Velveeta cheese. No one is going to like it.”
There’s no way of knowing if Micki’s prediction would have come true, because the next morning, the Thursday before the event, Duane took a saw to the chassis and cut nearly three feet off the back. He also made other changes so that El Pulpo would have a more integrated look on its new ride.
It worked. All around the playa, night or day, people ran up smiling and clapping, welcoming back Flatmo and his crew and the much-loved critter. And you could see the delight in Flatmo’s eyes when the crowds started jumping to El Pulpo’s beats and fire blasts (Steve Gelman engineered the flame effects). “A month before Burning Man, the house starts thumping,” Micki said, as Duane starts practicing what tunes he will use on the playa.
Flatmo is something of a cornball, too — he loves pranks and practical jokes, and he’s pretty good at it. He planned to take a picture of some janky, deep-playa artwork and then show it around, saying, “Hey, look at Sean Orlando’s new piece!”
He notices things that others don’t; he’s constantly taking pictures of small details in big works, or odd objects that just catch his eye. His camera roll is filled with idiosyncratic photos, of rocks, walls, dead fish, all items that for some reason or other stoke his imagination.
We don’t know yet what the future holds for El Pulpo, whether Flatmo and his friendly crew will continue to bring it to the playa year after year, but we know that we treasure the time spent with the creature and its creator.
Here are some more pics:
Jasy and the Jaguars
A year ago, a young woman from Colombia helped to create and brought to the playa a gigantic art car, the Jaguara, that was meant to both attract a crowd and also raise awareness about the jaguar’s habitat, the Amazon tropical rainforest.
It was wildly successful, if an all-consuming task. Luna Lunera Jasy had a successful first year at Burning Man, but all the work meant that she didn’t get to experience much of the event. So this year, longtime playa photographer George Post and his friend Michael Bourne chipped in to buy her a ticket and helped her get back to Black Rock City.
During the week, she and some friends visited Danger Ranger, and there was an exchange of ideas worth sharing. Under Danger’s shade, with a beautiful view of Razorback Mountain, the two went back and forth about the potential of Burning Man to change the world:
Danger: We teach people responsibility … to change the way we are using the Earth’s resources. We have to change what is happening. …
Jasy: Half of the world is already on fire. … Jaguara, the messenger from the rainforest, is calling us to join our hearts, voices and actions towards the conservation of the home of the jaguar, for the sake of our own home, planet Earth, and our existence. Right now, the revolutionary thing would be the opposite — stop burning everything! I feel we are the people who will bring this message. … As a very little part of Burning Man, I was thinking, what is the message we are spreading to the world? … We should make a difference right now. … So we have two possibilities. We can make a change, as Burning Man, and tell the world that hey, this is happening. And we are aware and we want to create something about it. … Or we know, and we cannot change, and we are a part of this trend of consuming.
Danger: We are the ones that we have been waiting for. This is a process. And it needs to be seen over a process of time. We’re here right now and we burn this figure and we have this community. But understand that this is only a part of a process to get to a point where we can reach the rest of the world. And not burn, and protect the resources. But in order to do this, we have to have a campfire, a Man, a Temple, that burns, in order for us to have a light that shines to the rest of the world. And they hear about Burning Man, and they say, I must go there. It’s the teaching process that they go through here, but we have to have a light that shines to the rest of the world.
Eventually we will reach a point where we do not have to burn.
My camp here is what I wish to set an example for. I do not have a fancy big RV. I have a simple shade structure. And I have these things here which are recyclable, which I find on the streets which are castoffs. Almost all of the furniture is that.
I also have an open gate. Anyone can walk into my house, and they are welcome. These are things I want to teach the whole community, and that’s why I’m here. … And I’ve that way in this place since the beginning.
Jasy: … The truth is sad. … How long can we maintain this life that everything is fine. I believe Burning Man is a very very powerful community that can bring a message. Jaguara, the art car, the cosmic messenger, wants to contribute to Burning Man, creating awareness, as a symbol of what is happening in the world, half of the Amazon is on fire, and the Jaguar’s habitat is being destroyed, everything is interconnected.
The jaguar represents the ability to be free, to be strong. … The jaguar is a symbol of what the world could and should be.
We have come together to co-create a mutant vehicle portraying a Jaguar emerging from the Amazon River. … We want to raise awareness about the vulnerability of the main refuge of the jaguar, the Amazon rainforest.
In the Amazon, you can find communities that know how to live in balance with the earth, and I spent time with them, I lived with them. And there are some principles that are connected with Burning Man. … I feel like a part of the family when I go and visit them. They receive you, and they don’t care what is the brand of your shoes.
Danger: I see similarities with what we have with our principles. … My mission, I believe, is that of the coyote. I follow a lot of the ideas and deep histories and traditions of the coyote as being the prankster, the prankster/teacher. … I pull pranks in the outside world as a way of teaching something, as a way of making people think about the way that they think. … (how they think about) consumption, and having the newest product, and the best shoes. …
Burning Man is a teaching ground. We’re teaching people about the principles, about how to be in the most diverse community. … This is a city where you walk down the street and make contact, you smile at your neighbor. And you give gifts, unmediated by commerce. … We’re spreading out all over the world … and eventually we will have so many little fires, we won’t need this big fire.
Politics is very divisive, and Burning Man has always tried to be non political and non religious, because these narrow concepts divide ourselves. We need to be involved in some way, but the political system as I see it today is corrupt. It thrives on creating conflict. … These narrow, extreme views get set up here, and here, and here … and Burning Man needs to find a way to go beyond the politics that exist in the outside world.
Jasy: I think life is a political act itself. As Michael said, to love is to act. … You know, people have started to migrate, because the climate is getting unsustainable. I think every single individual act is political, so one thing I believe is that we are the people who can create impact. So we created Jaguara because it represents a message … we can work together to create a difference, we want to create a network.
Danger: This is so important to me, I’ve given my life to it, Burning Man. And it’s also true that so many people see this as a big party. But there is also a teaching moment in this transformation. … I think the Jaguara is just starting to grow up and be seen by more people. And I think it’s important for Burning Man to send a message out to the world about what’s happening to the planet. … Even though this appears to be a tremendous use of resources and oil, again it’s the campfire that’s making the light that shines out to reach people.
Jasy: Our dream is to travel around the world with the Jaguara, spreading the message.
Danger: One of the ideas that came out of [his involvement with the Burning Man opera] was to bring a bunch of Burning Man art cars, and send them on a caravan around the world, and you would stop in a city, and you would create a space, where the art cars were, and the people were, and the farmers were, and it would be like a circus, but it’s a circus with a message.
Jasy: I think a lot of art pieces can include this perspective, an art car talking about a different issue, that can be connected to actual transformation in the territories around the world, and not only a moment here.
I thank you for creating this, as a place of teaching these values … so people can feel the joy and magic and belief. Everything is possible if we open our minds, our hearts, to contribute.
(There was a discussion about reducing the number of big burns at Burning Man, and she continued:)
If we are in a higher level of consciousness, if we do something like that, it would be amazing. It would be in the news everywhere. People would be like, oh, this is happening. This is important, we need to take care of this. … Maybe if someone like YOU (gesturing to Danger) who started all of this … decided that this year, this is not going to happen. … And then find a way for the people to vote, to burn the Man, or to bring a change, create something instead of that, that can be amazing, too, but … it could make Burning Man something more powerful.
Danger: When that time comes, it will be what is not happening is what is happening.
Jasy: Fully of love and respect I consider we need to take action and embrace our planetary moment, wew need to act now, otherwise, there may not be a way to make it happen in the future.
Danger: Thirty years ago, if anyone ever thought that we could bring this many people to the most inhospitable place on the planet, they would not have believed it. That’s a radical idea. And yet here we are.
Jasy and her team are working to bring their art car, and their message, back to Burning Man next year. If you’d like to know more about it, or become involved, or make a donation, go here to lend a hand.)
And finally, this word from the leader of the Burning Band, which appeared in the center cafe late one night during the event. He told the people gathered there, “People have got to go out of their minds before they come to their senses.”
Fair enough. Hope you had a good burn.
And here are some random pictures from along the way:
Here are some more pictures from burn night: