Burning at Burning Man: Dancin’ and Chillin’

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What is it about camping with 52,000 strangers that makes us willing and able to dance all night, night after night?  Who knows?  In my case, there had been no precedent.  Was it just Mid-Life Crisis with a sprinkling of Playa Dust?   The music, Techno and House, Soul and 60s, whatever some spinner wanted to spin, blasted straight to the heavens.  Night and Day.  It rocked the desert, giving every step across the Playa a kick that’s not there at home.  If that’s not enough, the dancers on an art car passing by will get you in the spirit. Something is happening here, and but it’s hard to know what it is – to paraphrase Dylan.

The Sirens hailed me over

Siren Dancers on an Art Bus

A Small Club with No Name

Electroluminescent wire wrapped into the shape of animal masks.

My adoptive family was the good people at Hung Far Low Camp – whatever that name means – and they were getting ready to head out for the night.   Across from us, this world class example of electroluminescent wire masks drew a crowd while waiting for its owners to put them on.  Three of us headed over to a small club where a nephew was the DJ.

The DJ is My Adoptive Nephew

A couple of geodesic domes 60′ across and about 15′ high were linked together.  In one, there were lounge chairs.  The other was the dance venue. A bar was set up and drinks were free, since serving drinks for a fee would have been a violation of the No Commerce Clause of the Burning Man Code.  Lights were strung from the scaffolding.

Lights, Bar, DJ and Dancers

You entered and exited through fabric draped over gaps in the scaffolds, tent-like, but a tent whose scale echoed Arabia and not Yosemite.  The music was loud, the lights pulsed and the electronic beat got lots of people moving.  There were small groups, larger groups and what appeared to be single people. But in 4 days, I met only one other person actually traveling solo.

When her boyfriend looked at her, smoke poured out of his eyes.

A Taiwanese New Yorker who couldn’t have been 24 told me about her job at the world’s most recognizable NGO.  She had flown from Kabul to San Francisco, met her boyfriend, bought everything they’d need for a week of Burning Man, rented a car, and made the drive to BRC.  While we danced, she tried to score some mushrooms from me, but I was out.

Every once in a while, it seemed like someone put a coin in the blue blonde and she swept the dance floor with her heated moves and see-through getup.  Then she’d sit down and charge up until the next coin was dropped.

I started to do the arithmetic.  There were 52,000 people here, almost all of whom were out dancing.  This club held 50 or maybe 75 people.  Were there a thousand clubs like this?  No, but there had to be hundreds. In each one, people were having the time of their lives, feeling that it was all so unique.  So many people.  Would Malthus conclude that he was wrong, or that the payday was just down the road?  Is the uniqueness an illusion, or is it real?

Brian Doherty, author of “This is Burning Man,” tries to find the commonalities, having had a decade of Playa experience to distill them.  The uniqueness is real, but they cluster.  The lessons learned are the memes of Burning Man, some of them entering the rest of society.  One of these is that there is more art in all of us than we know.

The artist is illuminated from within.

It’s locked inside, and we’re fearful of letting of it out.  At an event like this, where we are surrounded by creativity, both intimate and on a huge scale, the creativity of others permeates our skin, cracks our armor, and begs us to be creative ourselves.  We respond by recognizing that there is less reason, less than we expected, to let fear prevent us from living the life we want for ourselves.  Doherty says, “I started living again instead of living in fear.”

Giant Heart in the Middle of the Desert

I split up from the couples I had been with and headed out in to the Playa.  No map.  No plan.  Just unencumbered time and the world’s biggest carnival.  By now it was late, but what is late when you’re on Burning Man Time?  It never occurred to me to look at my watch.

I wander in to another dance venue, a raver’s heaven.  It appears to be little more than a single wall:  a huge wall of speakers, on top of which is a sound room for the DJ, and above and below which is neon, the most signficant piece of which is a giant heart.

Neon Heart atop sound studio atop stacked speakers to die for

Hundreds of people danced, stood around, milled about, mixed, talked and came in and out.  Many wore backpacks or carried water bottles to guard against dehydration, one of the enemies of the desert.

Hundreds of dancers, watchers, talkers, millers and ravers

Zooming in to the upper right of this picture you can see a string of blue lights heading towards the sky.  It’s a real string, a single string, floated by hundreds of illuminated helium balloons, arching upwards, yearning for the heavens.  A catenary or a parabola?   It’s a simple idea, but to pull it off, the artist must  assemble vast infrastructure.  And that’s part of the magic of Burning Man. It commands so much commitment.  And for what, besides the joy it gives us, the audience, and then reflects back on her or him, the artist?

A string of illuminated He balloons yearns for the unattainable

Dancing on the Playa in the dark, with a huge neon heart pulsating, stacked speakers blasting the special sound they blast when there are no walls, a possessed DJ possessing you with her spins and mix, surrounded by hundreds of people you don’t know.  Something catches your attention.  Is it a vision or is it real?  She’s on a long trajectory you follow first with your peripheral vision, on a guided mission targeted at you.  She puts her bright face and body flowing with the juice of youth right in front of you, dancing, smiling and saying little.  Then she’s gone.  Mirage? Playa Magic?  Your mind wanders to the curves and their almost mathematical perfection.  To describe them with equations, that seems too cold.  Still …

ParametricPlot3D[ {Sin[t]^3*Cos[u], Sin[2t]*Cos[u], Sin[u]}, {t, 0, 2Pi}, {u, -Pi/2, Pi/2}, PlotPoints -> 100]

Anything said would be too much

First Look at the Temple

More walking and I come upon a vast party.  There must be thousands surrounding a stage with live band, a stage with a bar and a crazy huge neon bird.  Huge – like 100′!

Thousands dance to a live band outside the Temple of Flux

And all this beside a building I can’t really see and don’t understand.  It turns out to be The Temple of Flux, a massive wooden creation which will burn on Sunday, the day after The Man goes down on Saturday.

The Temple of Flux - photo by James Addison

A masterpiece, a labor of love, the artists creating it for us and themselves, but for only a week.  The Temple’s design evokes 20th century Finnish architect Eero Saarinen and his curvaceous forms, including the inverted catenary of the St. Louis Arch, and in particular this Yale Whale from my home town.

Ingall's Rink, New Haven, CT. (Copyright Yale University)

Apocalypse Now

One man’s apocalyptic vision was burning.  So much burns here.  He carefully pitched his logs to create the feeling of collapse, collapse of humans, kings, civilization.

Three vast and trunkless legs of fire stand in the desert.

Subliminally, his vision was shaped by Shelley’s Ozymandias:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Although the metaphor was both fitting and depressing, the heat from the fire drew people near.  All that dancin’ requires some chillin’, or in this case warmin’.

Chillin' while warmin' in the heat of the apocalypse

The artist, tending his fire, wanted nothing more than to be talking with his audience. And so we talked.

Burning Man is such a great venue for artistic expression because artists are the alpha dogs that make it happen, whatever it is.  Artists are adored here.  The adoration is not delivered with a check.  There’s nothing to buy.  The adoration is cerebral,  emotional and often physical.  The so-called After Burn, re-entry into real life, let’s say Reno, must be particularly hard for the artist.

To be continued

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