Inside an art warehouse just above New Orleans’ Bywater neighborhood, Linden Keal taps away on an antique piano as KayKay Fantasia whooongs and whiiings ghostly sounds on her musical saw. Outside, the music is accompanied by bangs and bubs from marching bands — the unofficial New Orleans soundtrack through carnival season.
“A lot of people around the country, like in San Francisco, look forward to Burning Man. But here in New Orleans, people go to Burning Man and then look forward to Mardi Gras,” said Keal, a CNC artist and five-time resident of Black Rock City.
The parallels between Burning Man and Mardi Gras are many. People dress up in costumes — the stranger and sparklier the better. There are art cars *ahem* floats. Camps *excuse me* krewes. And there’s even a thoroughfare called The Esplanade. “New Orleans carnival and Burning Man also adhere to similar Burning Man principles,” Keal says. “I think it’s clear to anybody who’s been to both that [Mardi Gras] is very expressive, inclusive, immediate, and all the above.”
Another unmissable similarity is that both New Orleans and Burning Man feel impermanent. While Black Rock City rises from the dust and disappears without a trace in a month or two, New Orleans, a city founded in 1718, faces an existential threat of being drowned by extreme weather events resulting from climate change. You don’t even have to look as far back as 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, for example — both Leal and KayKay Fantasia were in the city when Hurricane Ida struck recently in August 2021, causing flooding and power outages. “We got really desperate for a minute. No power for 10 days,” KayKay Fantasia said.
“That’s when you’re glad you have some Burning Man experience, because [you may] have a generator,” Keal added. “They’re cities that aren’t really supposed to be there… we have to enjoy this while it lasts.”
And enjoy it New Orleans does, especially this year as Mardi Gras makes its triumphant return after a 2021 pandemic hiatus. When you walk around the city, locals have a pep in their step and the parades so far have been some of the best ever as everyone releases their pent-up party energy. Parades like the sci-fi themed Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus have been absolutely bonkers, with thousands dressed up as Star Wars characters. And New Orleans has Burners to thank for that, at least in part.
Plenty of krewes, especially Chewbacchus, are fueled by Burners, and many are responsible for artwork throughout the season. For instance, Keal has been working on an effigy for Lundi Gras, a series of Shrove Monday events that happen during Mardi Gras. It’ll be a six-foot upper torso with an exposed brain that will burn down to become a lotus flower and then an egg before it hatches and releases oxidized powders that turn purple and green — which, along with gold, are the Mardi Gras colors.
But NOLA’s Burners aren’t only showing up for carnival season. In 2019 Keal created an effigy of a woman metamorphosing into a butterfly for Engulf, Louisiana’s Regional Event; he has also been commissioned to build out a school bus “circus mobile” for Black Rock City. The community here is thriving, with meetups, parties, Regionals, Burner-led swamp cleanups and climate justice protests where everyone dresses up as clowns. “We had skits and stuff about nurdles — the little, like, plastic bits. So we do that not just during Mardi Gras, but we have random theatrical protests,” KayKay Fantasia said.
Burner or not, Keal says participation is in the water in New Orleans, more so than in other cities. “It’s a different vibe here. And it’s more arts year-round rather than, I think, in New York [where] people really work hardcore day jobs.”
According to KayKay Fantasia, there’s a saying that goes around the city: “‘If you can’t make it here, don’t leave.’ [That’s] the New Orleans saying because it’s so easy. It’s The Big Easy.”
Cover image of Linden and KayKay Fantasia at their workshop (Photo by Stephanie Foden)