From Apotheosis to Artful Cities: Ra$pa’s Ride Through Burning Man’s Evolution

“It was better next year” is a popular joke among veteran Burners, while others wax lyrical about how things once were at Burning Man and how much things have changed — sometimes for the worse. $teven Ra$pa, Burning Man Project’s Associate Director of Community Events and a founding member of its Regional Network Committee, has been involved with the event since 1996. In this post he shares his thoughts about the 1998 video “Apotheosis of Crimson Rose.” He ponders the joys of the event’s evolution and takes us back to a time when trash was treasure, an “anti-aesthetic” earned more thumbs up than any sparkly, svelte instagrammer, and EL wire had made its first appearance on playa. 


As I watched this video from 1998, I was reminded that the forms of expression were simpler. They were often made of salvaged or found materials or just a kind of raw freedom. I love seeing how just being nude and marking our bodies with body paint was a medium of expression: “Radical” in the sense of “radix” or “root” and getting back to basics. Going primitive. Many of the outfits and identities people made were created from crap we had under our sinks and broken things of little value. The detritus of consumer society and in some cases our very own consumption patterns.

No one felt pressured to buy something to look good. Quite the opposite. The more you astounded people with daring, weird and unexpected combinations of crap, the better! If anything an anti-aesthetic was more beautiful and “valued” than something purchased. Formal wear and weird finds from thrift stores were also prized and given new contexts and combinations, but salvaged materials and trash ruled!

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I love most when people make trash into something unexpected, even spiritual (I’m thinking of Basura Sagrada by artists Shrine and Tucker). For me that will always be the case, although I also love that people in our community are making their livings now creating wearable art and encouraging expressive dress on and off playa. It’s a part of being a patron of the arts for many and that’s great so long as we remember that it isn’t necessary to buy anything to express yourself.

Pepe Ozan’s Temple of Rudra, also depicted in the video, was something ancient he and his collaborators completely made up. Pepe was the first to make temples at Burning Man that I recall, combining opera, dance and ritual. He recruited participants to join different sects and play out dramatic roles. Pepe would go to exotic destinations, absorb the local religions and rituals, then digest and reconstitute them into new kinds of ancient myths.

It could have verged on cultural appropriation, but when Pepe and his creative collaborators did it, it was more like a retelling of a myth in an imagined new culture. He found inspiration in ritual, but they created theatrical versions that felt more real than the real thing. Truly powerful and memorable.

Pepe is no longer with us and I miss his machismo and huge personality. I drive by where he once lived and see his handiwork, an undulating metal gate he created to Project Artaud’s back lot and one of his colorful Monicacos de Esperanza sculptures. You can learn more about Pepe here.

The golden bull procession in the video was organized by the Mystic Krewe of Satyrs: Richard and Mary Valadie and others from New Orleans. Extra Action Marching Band is also in that procession, along with a couple members of what would become March Fourth Marching Band.

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Processions and Bands

At the time those early members of March Fourth were in a Beatles Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club cover band show in Portland. They went back to Portland and combined what they were already doing with what they experienced on the playa that year and became the delightfully colorful, psychedelic and circus-driven March Fourth Marching Band, which in turn birthed Lovebomb Go-Go and various other glistening creative off-shoots.

Richard Valadie of Mystic Krewe of Satyrs went on to create floats for several Mardi Gras parades professionally, including the Proteus Parade and the political satirical, Knights of Chaos — one of my favorites! He got a job with a master float maker in New Orleans after returning from Burning Man, I think the year after this video was made. He submitted pictures of what he was doing at Burning Man and they hired him. Eventually the owner of the float company passed the business and cultural legacy to Richard. Now Richard is the master float maker and continues the annual tradition.

This is who Richard became. He is the guy in the white outfit in the middle. 

In the procession depicted in the video, Mary Valadie ripped the limbs off the bull and poured the “blood” into the mouths of processioners. They had cleverly hidden bags of red wine in the limbs! At the end Mary ripped the head of the bull off and others set it afire, igniting fireworks also hidden inside. The drumming and dancing continued, illuminated by flambeaus, and we were all lost in the moment…someplace timeless,  thoroughly present and wild! I think that is one of my happiest moments. Such marvelous debauchery!

I remember something just now. During or perhaps at the end of that procession, I grabbed Simon Cheffins, who remains today the reluctant leader of Extra Action Marching Band, and I put his hand to my heart and said something like, “I bond myself to you. I am your brother. What helps me will help you.”  I was given to dramatic gestures of love and appreciation. I think people should do that kind of thing more often and not second guess it. Simon remains dear to me and I both performed with and represented EAMB at various times. Simon and members of EAMB went on to create the unforgettable La Contessa.

That procession was a seminal moment for me in ways I am still coming to appreciate. I just loved parades and mad processions all the more after that one! Come to think of it, that moment might have also been what later birthed the Marching Band March Off. I wanted to bring all the marching bands on playa together at once to see what would happen.

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Burning Paintings and EL wire Art

It’s really wonderful to see Charlie Gadaken burning his early paintings. It looks kind of shitty in the film but it was in keeping with how we were all thinking at that time and Charlie was applying ephemeral art to painting, perhaps the most commodified form of artistic expression.

I had a studio near Charlie at Cell Space in SF and watched him paint burnable paintings in the street behind Cell. He went on to create sculpture at Burning Man and right now his futuristic tree sculpture, “Squared,” is up in Reno, after being installed in SF for a year at the Temporary Art Pad, the Black Rock Arts Foundation helped found in Hayes Valley at Patricia’s Green.

I think this video shows the first or maybe second year that EL (Electroilluminescent) wire made a grand appearance in Black Rock City. The galloping EL wire horse, mounted on someone’s bike, was an innovation at the time and blew people’s minds! We couldn’t see the bike at night and many of us wondered how the heck the effect was created. The next year EL wire bloomed on the playa, as many more people began experimenting with it, including me. At that time, an EL wire horse that appeared to be running was new art. LOL.

Dan Das Mann’s One Tree installation (the copper tree with misting branches during the day and fire by night) was a serious piece of art that was well fabricated and stood out that year. It also created concern with the health department because people were “bathing” in the tree’s misting system during the day and it wasn’t potable water. That led to more concern from Nevada authorities about public bathing and even kiddie pools. I recall that was a concern for a moment for me and my friends. “WHAT! No kiddie pools! C’mon!”

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Sounds of the Playa

The sound of the playa was more industrial and tribal then. Drums. Electric guitars. Digeridoos. Clanging on metal. Smashing appliances. People laughing and howling. All these things still exist, but they are dwarfed by large dance sound systems and the multiple, simultaneous and overlapping beats of the playa today.

I often think how interesting it is that different forms of expression tend to rise and fall like the tide of human imagination, with new waves of light and sound and technologies overtaking the prior waves and cycling them into the undercurrent.

There was a lot less artificial light and a lot more gathering around fire barrels at night to see one another, talk and try to stay warm. LOTS of talking around the fire barrels. Often until sunrise. And I remember the nights being very cold and the days being over 100F. This year the weather was the nicest I can recall, but maybe I was just in a good mood.

Then and Now

One might romanticize that those were the “good old days” but there was much less art than there is now. So much less! It was much less international. And we were largely dismissed by the world as some “neopagan dirty hippie thing.”

Not that we cared and not that we aren’t still dismissed. We did what we loved. The founders fought every year for the survival of the experience and we all did (and still do) our parts. We kept coming and doing it over and over to see how things would evolve and what would happen next. It has never disappointed me to see what you all, we all, and newcomers come up with next and where the ideas and culture lead.

In 2019, we had more mayors, urban planners, architects, representatives from embassies and cultural institutions — than perhaps ever before. I love that the experience has created a forum for global cultural exchange and for culture itself to evolve. I love how our temporary city of 80,000 is more and more in dialogue with permanent cities and cultural centers around the world that want to figure out how to be more like Black Rock City.

I believe in this work and I love that we are consulting with permanent cities that want to be more expressive, socially engaging and place art at the center of urban design and civic function vs. serving as a mere object, aesthetic treatment or afterthought.

I think it’s a beautiful and noble thing for lots of different people to bring what they love and share it with others. To bring what they are thinking about and care about and to experiment to find different solutions and offer up better ways of engaging and being together in the world.

Things have become more multifaceted, more complicated. That’s what life does. It seems everything wants to exist once called into being and things tend toward complexity before they can become simple again. Or maybe they never become simple again until we become dust ourselves.

I don’t feel simple. Do you? Well I guess sometimes. Sometimes I just love you all and I stop right there and don’t have to overthink it.


Top photo: Still from “Apotheosis of Crimson Rose” by Doug Jablin and Anthony Bondi

About the author: Steven Raspa

Steven Raspa

$teven Ra$pa is Associate Director of Community Events for Burning Man and a founding member of the Regional Network Committee and Regional Events Committee. He is an artist, passionate arts advocate, community organizer and lover of cities.

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