Here’s a copy of an article I wrote in 2005 for Triplopia, a ‘zine which is now defunct.The issue was called “Heat”, and I was invited to write a “review” of Burning Man that was eventually turned into a feature article! As the ‘zine is no longer around in print or online, and I really want this article to be read, I’m going to re-post it here, and say THANK YOU once again to my friends Paul and Michele, who alerted me to this wonderful magazine in the first place. If you happen to come across a non-working link, please let me know and I’ll fix it asap.
And now, without further delay…
BURNING MAN IN REVIEW
by SUSAN BARRON / SEPT 15, 2005
Originally Published in Triplopia.org, a former online poetry magazine.
It is September 3rd, 2005, and I am at The Burning Man Project’s Black Rock City, riding in a pick-up truck that has a giant flamethrower attached to it as a part of Black Rock City’s annual Department of Public Works (DPW) Parade. The Parade, a DPW tradition that has gone on since the late 1990s, is a way for those who build the infrastructure to Black Rock City to let off some steam and take an afternoon off from work. Unlike the majority of Burning Man participants, who arrived only a few days before hand, most of the DPW arrive to build Black Rock City at least a month in advance of the event, and some DPW choose to live in the Nevada desert year-round.
My good friend Wheelgunner, who has recently returned from Iraq and is the owner of the flamethrower truck, is the Grand Marshal of this year’s DPW Parade. To my right is my friend Caleb “Shooter” Schaber, a writer for Hustler Magazine who is about to go to Afghanistan and Iraq to write a piece about the war. As the parade, which includes some 35 altered vehicles, about 10 altered bicycles and a steady stream of work-trucks, snakes its way around the city, we blast flames at the desert revelers as they pile more and more cold beers into our laps. A young kid runs up, tugging an imaginary air-horn. “Pull the trigger!” Wheelgunner obliges, and the kid jumps about 10 feet into the air. “YAY!” a bunch of people scream.
A few minutes later, we, along with the rest of our cavalcade, pull up to an art project called The Dicky Box, which houses 27-year old San Francisco resident Christian “Dicky” Davies, who, because of his feelings of shyness and isolation from the world and from the Burning Man community, decided to do something about it by encasing himself in a 10’x10’ plexiglass room. His eyes get kind of wide as about 25 DPW women — most of us tattooed, pierced or just drunk and exhausted from the desert – run up to the box, tits blazing, and press ourselves up to the plexiglass and bang on it so intensely that it breaks from its frame and lands squarely on Dicky, who grins (at least I think he was grinning) and tries to hold the piece of plexiglass up so it doesn’t crash on the ground, thus removing him from his separated state. We, along with several of the DPW guys, help put the Dicky Box back together, thus restoring Dicky to his full isolation. And the parade mushes on.
Now, to begin, I’ve got to state that, while I’ve always been kind of a prankster and have been fond of getting away with…well…everything, I’ve also been quite shy in public. While I was always up for a nekkid midnight swim in the neighborhood pool or altering the occasional billboard, I was never much for public displays of affection or really anything else before attending Burning Man. Much like Christian Davies, my introduction and subsequent attendance at Burning Man (and the changes that occurred outside of the event’s setting) were kind of forced in the beginning. I knew I belonged there, yet I also found myself to be kind of an alien wherever I went. Burning Man and, as I would later discover, the Black Rock DPW, opened up an entirely new world to me and, as I discovered during years of participation, led to things that beforehand I might have only imagined.
In the beginning. . .
The year is 1998, and it is two-thirty in the afternoon in the middle of the Black Rock Desert, and I have just stepped outside of the camp shower set-up by Mark Van Proyen, who has led a group of art students (myself included) from The San Francisco Art Institute out into the middle of the Nevada desert to for a Labor Day Weekend art event of 15,000+ people. As I am stepping out of the makeshift shower, the wind picks up, blowing a fresh layer of dust all over me and blowing a clean dress and underwear onto the ground and across the desert. I eventually recover my errant outfit, and throw on my dress without the offending dusty underwear, which I shove into my tent while thinking “Well, everyone ELSE is doing it.” It is one of the first and only times in my life when I’ve ever felt compelled to follow the crowd, but this time, it doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.
The annual Burning Man event is happening with me in it for the very first time. Though I had first wanted to go to Burning Man in 1996, one year after I saw a small orange flyer in a local record store in Houston, Texas, it wasn’t until two years later, just after I began working my way through college in San Francisco and thinking up ways to divorce my abusive husband (which I eventually accomplish about a month after returning from the desert), that I was able to attend the event.
What immediately appeals to me about Burning Man is the knowledge that all of my limitations are exclusive to me – in essence, my imagination and ability to interact with the community are largely dependent on what I bring to the table – and what I allow to come to me.
The art theme for The Burning Man Project’s Black Rock City, which is the fourth or fifth largest city in Nevada for one week depending on which news outlet you read, is The Nebulous Entity, which revolves around the idea of interactive art and the otherworldly. The central piece of theme art is mobile and requires participants to interact with it as it moves throughout the city. As it moves across the desert with plastic-horned kids, winged fairies, and fire performers running alongside, The Nebulous Entity reminds me of a deranged Pied Piper on the road to nowhere, which is exactly how I feel after a while. Allow me to explain.
Earlier that week, I helped my school chums build a fully-functioning camp, including a lounge, kitchen, and a large, painted flag of a drunken clown, who triumphantly proclaimed our camp Palookaville from atop our lounge area. Palookaville comes from the Bobcat Goldthwait movie Shakes the Clown, of which mostly everyone in the camp is a huge fan. The camp is a huge success, with many people arriving to interact with us. As we are Maenads on the trail of The Burning Man, we also build Bacchanalian-style staffs for burning. We are down the “street” from a camp called Bianca’s Smut Shack, which features nonstop heavy metal and house music as well as a safe, comfortable place for live sex acts. They’re nice folks who offer us lots of free grilled cheese sandwiches and ibuprofen. Some of us tread there at our own discretion, using the Bianca’s lounge as a second hangout, happy that somewhere in the world this kind of place exists, even if we’re not really taking part.
Also, somewhere out on the open desert within Black Rock City limits and about a mile from our camp is the Palookaville art project, a large sculpture of a giant head on a pedestal. As a camp, we are all proud to have been associated with something so visible, and after the work is done, we are free to enjoy the freedom the desert brings as we wish.
We are also free, as adults, to suffer dehydration and near-hysteria without overshadowing from a supervising entity, which is exactly what happens to me after three days of nonstop building on both my own project and anyone else’s project that needs help, plus enjoying the art and celebrations in Black Rock City. Sure, my camp mates and others constantly remind me to drink water and Gatorade, which I do, but it is to no avail, as suddenly, after a few days of being completely fine, I am assailed by a bizarre allergy attack that swells my eyes shut, dries my skin and brains out completely, and renders me a shell of my former self.
My fellow Palookavillians decide to help, and enlist the help of another nearby camp called 10,000 Wonderful Things to come to my aid. At 10,000 Wonderful Things, which is a carnivalesque camp with a great display of natural oddities in a museum setting, I am plied with vegetables, fruit, hydrating energy drinks, and a woman who washes my hair and offers me an eye-wash station and a cold, “blue ice” eye mask. Feeling better a couple of hours later, I decide not to wear out my welcome by hanging around too much. I bid my new pals adieu, promising to come back later for their offer of dinner, and wander out into Black Rock City.
About three blocks away from 10,000 Wonderful Things, I suddenly realize I am kind of lost. No, wait a minute — there’s no mistaking any of this with a sheepish “kind of” — I am most obviously lost. It is at this point, when I am just past feeling my weakest and am still unsure of why I came all the way out to the Black Rock Desert to suffer from severe allergies and dehydration to build an art project that won’t survive the end of the week and will only be a blurry memory, that I begin to truly take notice of what is around me besides a bombardment of rave music and people who seem a lot better adjusted than myself.
I pass a group of families with small children preparing for birthday party in a camp established for people with children who want to attend the festival and do adult things, but who also want their kids to enjoy the playground-like environment that Burning Man brings. More than just a city for adults to celebrate a temporary respite from responsibility, many families come to Burning Man with the desire to show their kids the possibilities of the self: what ordinary people and artists can do when they put their minds to doing things that are just as valid, but outside of the mainstream of society. A group of kids and family members working on a giant wooden birthday cake wave hello to me as I amble down the street.
A few blocks later, I am greeted by a large party bus called Cyberbuss, which is filled with colorfully dressed revelers who have recently arrived to take part in the Black Rock Fashion Show, which is starting up around the corner. Drag Queens and pregnant mothers in full costumed glory take the stage, along with belly dancers and performers dressed like Pan and Bacchus. A few traditional fashionistas dressed in their own glamorous creations sashay across the stage, turning for an invisible camera. Sequins and satin glare at me in the evening sun, but I am mesmerized as I squint into up at the stage, thinking of what I might wear if given the opportunity to join them.
“Hey!” A woman dressed in a cape and tiara tugs at my sleeve. “Would you like a cup of tea?” As I have nothing better to do, I answer “Yes,” and she pulls me along by the arm into a huge tent filled with carpets, houseplants, new age music and a huge fountain. She offers me a cup of hot green tea and explains that no men are allowed into the tent unless they’re gay, and how the idea behind the camp was to create a sanctuary specifically for women who were feeling overwhelmed at the event…a safe space. Though I’m not overwhelmed by men or anything much at the moment, it’s great to explore yet another environment in Black Rock City, which, as I eventually discover, holds something for almost anyone looking for the experience.
Realizing that I am about to miss out on the SFAI “mandatory” four hour-long volunteering session for the Burning Man Project organizers, I say my “thanks” for the tea and stroll back out onto the street. A guy from The Church of Subgenius, who is running a mobile game show, offers me a prize in return for answering a question about Ancient Egypt. I don’t get it right, but he presents me with a small plastic kazoo and thanks me for trying.
Eventually, I make my way down the main avenue leading to the “Greeters Station,” where I am to do my volunteer shift. There I meet Harley Bierman (now Dubois), a Black Rock, LLC member who is heading up the greeting operation. She hands me a stack of Black Rock City maps and a guide called “The What Where When,” which includes descriptions of events and camps around the temporary city, and gives me some brief instructions about how to greet people. The “Greeters” station, which comes directly after passing through the gate and presenting a Burning Man ticket, is supposed to lighten the experience and welcome participants to the city. They offer maps and camping information, and will often run a mock-interrogation of “Burning Virgins” – people who are new to the event. I end up meeting a lot of Burning Man Virgins, and soon find myself joining in on the mock interrogations. They are a lot of fun and jazz people up for the event, especially me. Gradually, my “heat stroke” fades into the background, and as far as anyone is concerned, I’ve been coming here for years and am now part of the aesthetic.
Throughout my work at the Greeters Station, I meet a number of different people who each further defined the diversity of the event: punk rock kids, hippies, a stock broker, a lawyer, people from Europe, India, Africa, and all across the US. Among my favorite US travelers was a snowbird couple in a Winnebago who were making their way across the US with their seven-year-old grandson. They had recently heard of Burning Man, and decided to buy a few tickets and check out the event.
What else could I say to any of these folks except for “Welcome Home”?
A day later, it rains like crazy, making a strange soup of water and mud, which sticks to my shoes and enables me, for the first time in my life, to see over the bar without standing on my tip-toes. It also destroys part of the signage of the 10,000 Wonderful Things camp, and I am now asked to repay the favor they granted me earlier in the week, and, as an artist, repair the signs. I do this gladly, re-drawing their logo and pictures of giant rats, lobster girls and bearded women. Soon after repairs are made, the art installation is once again filled with revelers, who view the art and interact with the project’s builders. It is quite a treat to work with these guys again, and soon enough, they’re inviting me to share meals and accompany them to the burning of the Man on Sunday night.
By the time Monday rolls around and Palookaville is packing up to leave, I’m babbling endlessly about how I’m going to volunteer for the organization next year, and am yakking Mark Van Proyen’s ear off about what kind of art project our camp should build in 1999.
1999, 2000, Department of Public Works, and looking beyond the event. . .
As 1999 rolled by, I became interested in making a documentary about Burning Man. Mark Van Proyen introduced me to the members of the Black Rock LLC, as well as to many of the hardworking employees, volunteers and characters who make Burning Man happen every year. Needless to say, I was hooked on the idea of making a project that looked past the “Whoopie! Here we are at Burning Man!” experience and movies already on the market, and, since I hadn’t yet seen a documentary about the almost endless amount of work that is put into making the event happen every year, I decided to make my undergraduate thesis into my art project for Burning Man 2000. In essence, like so many of the people I had interacted with throughout my time in Black Rock, I was finally contributing something that was truly my own. Called Working for the Man: The building, burning, and disappearance of BRC 2000, my documentary project is produced in part through The San Francisco Art Institute and a bunch of (at least until I ran up the tab) innocent credit cards, and is mentored by underground film legend George Kuchar [LINK: http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/26/kuchar1.html ]
George Kuchar, along with twin brother Mike, is well-known in the underground film world for many things, including some truly brilliant underground classics (Hold Me While I’m Naked and Baltimore ) and being credited with inspiring Jon Waters (Hairspray, Pink Flamingos, Cecil B Demented) to make movies. Far from the rest of the SFAI film faculty, who seemed too overtly serious to understand how I want to structure my documentary, I realize George is the perfect choice. He tells me to make my project as wacky, enjoyable, and as informative as possible – that those are the attributes that should be most prized in a document of such a radically different event.
Armed with this advice, I move to the Black Rock Desert in July of 2000 and live with the Department of Public Works (DPW) for the better part of three months, collecting all I can for my film about the construction of one of the largest cities (and temporary autonomous zone) in the great state of Nevada.
While I am making my film, I discover and fall in love with a completely different part of the event and the camaraderie that I didn’t feel as much when volunteering in other departments (not to say that this kind of camaraderie doesn’t exist in other depts., but I didn’t get as much from them). Perhaps it’s the fact that I, like many of the people building Black Rock City, have worked hard to support myself since an early age without much family support, and perhaps it’s the fact that I often waver between feeling like I can relate to everyone at one moment, and feeling in the next like Adam Sandler’s evil twin in a Faberge shop: like things will break even if I’m just standing around minding my own business, that makes the DPW a welcome sight for my eyes. I found them a friendly, tough, interesting, humorous, sometimes misunderstood group of some of the hardest working, most ass-kicking “participants” out on the playa, and, after people got used to me and my camera, I fit right in.
Still, whatever has driven me to concentrate on making my film in the desert, it allows me to meet an even more diverse group of people: bartenders, circus clowns, a piano mover, mechanics, IT people, a gunner and two former Marine snipers, engineers, Republican cowboys and ranchers, and a few men in skirts, sailors, riggers, and lots of welders and other kinds of artists. Together, we work to build Black Rock City, and in part because I arrived with my own tools, car, food, and an unassuming attitude, they let me videotape the daily work and play of the DPW with few objections.
In May of 2001, after an advance thesis screening of Working for the Man draws some 400 people to the Art Institute, I am invited to videotape the DPW during the upcoming summer and to work on a variety of DPW building projects in exchange for a small stipend, which basically covers my gas and groceries for the event. Though a couple of the more conservative organizers are disappointed by WFTM’s lo-fi quality and its concentration on some of the earlier, anarchistic leanings of the event, the documentary nonetheless ends up being labeled a cult classic, and the DPW management and crew are glad to see me come back for another year, especially some of the people who were shy around the camera or didn’t trust me the first time around. There was no doubt about who I was now, and I was asked the same questions by a few people who didn’t end up in the movie:
Tattooed circus clown girl: “Why wasn’t I in your movie?” Me: “Because you asked me not to tape you.” Clown Girl: “But you shouldn’t listen to me!!! You’ve got some footage of me in there somewhere, right?” Me: “I don’t think so, but I’ll be sure to come by this year and give you guys an interview.”
My documentary, which more or less lays on the line my feelings towards my DPW-coworkers and towards the event, attracts attention from some of the managers, who, after sending me to about a dozen different jobs, decide in 2002 where to put me officially. After one of Simon Clark’s rigging crew members leaves the DPW, I am offered a non-documentary related summer job with the DPW. and for the next three seasons I build, rig, and operate heavy equipment (a small dream come true for me, the daughter of a construction worker!) for the Center Camp Café, the Man and his platform, plus a number of other art projects, including David Best and his crew’s Temple projects (see the Burning Man Image Gallery ) [LINK: http://images.burningman.com ] on the playa. I am also invited to photograph the different projects I‘ve been asked to work on, and they appear here. [LINK: http://www.eightyfeettall.com ]
After spending that first year working with the DPW, the event was no longer simply an event – a Bacchanalian-inspired romp for the country that never seems to stop working – but now I was a part of the group that didn’t stop working when everyone else got to let their hair down, which required me to make sure I found something to enjoy about every day I worked for the organization. For the most part, this was not hard to do, as every day brought with it something new to be built, torn down, or considered. I was able to meet an amazing, diverse group of people, and it was through my work with the DPW that I contributed most to the continuation of the event and to my own growth as well.
Additionally, the ability to see behind the scenes of how to put together a large, highly creative and original art event appealed to me and was well worth the blood, sweat and tears. As I had already taken part in the initial experience – getting to know other participants, working on art projects and feeling my own creative flow return in an environment where anything seemed possible as long as I had an idea – like many other “volunteers”, I took it one step further and learned about how the event is put together, which, in turn, taught me why it is so very necessary, even if the very nature of Burning Man could be considered beyond definition (or at least a homogenous one).
Though the reasons for attending the week-long festival vary from person to person, what seems most universal and most important for me (and many others) is the sense of community created both by the event itself, as well as for many of the people who work/volunteer for the organization and those who participate in artist events and parties throughout the year. Participants arrive from all parts of the country (and increasingly, other parts of the world) and bring with them their ideas, values, and artistic sensibilities; all are things that members of the community can choose to take part in. Think you’re the only tattoo-faced, celibate Catholic lesbian in the world? Well, Burning Man’s diverse population may ask you to reconsider.
Because the organizers of Burning Man do not allow any kind of corporate advertising or booths and discourages spectators (those who come to gawk and won’t take part in the festivities) it naturally invites attendees to participate in building and interacting with other members of the public. It’s the event organizers hope that those attending the event will take something positive out of it and give back to their own communities when they return home. The Burning Man event and what we gain from participation is what we (attendees and organizers/employees/volunteers) make of it, and each experience is unique.
Looking Beyond the Event and into Community
The wish for community has come true in many ways for the organizers and participants, especially as Burning Man attendees have taken their art projects to the public in their own cities, thus regenerating a commitment to public art, as well as generating support for participants to build a project on the playa, no matter how inexperienced they might be before they start.
One such entity assisting in the creation of interactive public art outside of Black Rock City is the Black Rock Arts Foundation [LINK: http://www.blackrockarts.org ]. Created in 2001, BRAF has funded several community-based interactive art pieces from all across the country, including ArtCarTraz, an art car designed by teenagers at three different juvenile facilities and entered into the Houston Art Car Competition [LINK: http://www.artcartraz.com ], Reverend Billy and The Stop Big Boxes Choir, who, as the Church of Stop Shopping, travel the country to communities facing homogenization at the hands of so-called shopping “Super Centers” to raise awareness of what over-consumption and greedy corporations do to destroy the local economy [LINK: http://www.revbilly.org] – coming soon!), Kate Sorenson’s Synorgy [LINK: http://www.synorgy.com ], a public amphitheatre being built in Arizona, and two projects by David Best [LINK: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Best ] and his crew of builders, who are mostly located in and around the San Francisco Bay Area.
For those of you who have never attended the event and are not familiar with the Best crew temples (whose name and basic thematic elements change every year), they are monuments to life, death, and rebirth and are built out of balsa wood recycled from a factory that makes wooden dinosaur, airplane and science kits. Aside from being built almost entirely out of recycled materials, another thing that makes them so different from other sculptures on the playa is, in part, their universal themes of death and rebirth, which are coupled with an inviting, monumental, and interactive site. Unlike a lot of other projects, which might not invite such decoration, inside and out, and everywhere on the Temple, Burning Man participants are invited to leave personal memories, writings, drawings, photographs, works of art and prayers dedicated to lost loved ones, lost and future hopes, and, as I’ve seen more recently, prayers for the future. They are also invited to communicate and share with one another, bringing to bear yet another powerful (and sometimes overwhelming) experience. What ends up happening is nothing short of magical, and rather than feeling closed off and alone with their pain and memories, those who visit the temple every year are reminded of the universality of life and death, two things that connect everyone on the planet regardless of where they’re from.
One of David Best’s off-playa projects, called The Hayes Green Project [LINK: http://www.sfartscommission.org/pubart/about_us/press_releases/2005/6-9-05.htm] was a temporary monument built on a newly dedicated park green in an area of San Francisco that had once been the site of a freeway overpass. Built as part of a gathering of mayors and other civic leaders across the world for World Environment Day and the 60th Anniversary of the UN Charter, the Hayes Green Temple served as a stage and welcoming place for the mayors and others who had come for celebration.
A smaller version of the temples Best and his crew built at Burning Man, Hayes Green, as well as San Rafael’s Temple of the Laborer (which was torn down before it could be completed due to a complaint from a landowner who did not want the Burning Man influence on or near her property) nevertheless had a similar impact. Besides the arrival of civic leaders and performers, the Hayes Green Temple, as well as the Temple of the Laborer in San Rafael, invited the public to reflect, leave prayers and messages, and sometimes just to have a short rest before continuing the day’s journey.
Other Burning Man projects, too, have civic responsibility and a vision beyond the playa in mind as part of their message to both the Burning Man community as well as to the communities of participants. While not a regular feature for the event or something Burning Man specifically endorses, participants often bring to bear their own politically/environmentally minded projects. One such project, Granite Skunk Coal Power LLC [LINK: http://metric.cc/Sempra/ ] a scale model version of the hotly contested Sempra Granite Fox Coal Plant, which is currently being proposed to be located less than six miles from the Black Rock Desert, was featured at the 2005 Burning Man event and was created by local Gerlach resident and former Burning Man DPW Work Ranch Manager Matthew Ebert, a.k.a. Metric, with the help of Marc Brutschy and a small crew of dedicated artists, and included inside both information on the proposed plant as well as several beautiful photographs by Steve Chandler [LINK: http://chandlerphotos.com/color.htm ].
Ebert, who before working for Burning Man was involved in restaurant management and sound engineering in San Francisco, moved to Gerlach (the town outside of The Black Rock Desert) and worked for four years for the Burning Man Project caretaking their staging property. During the time he worked for Burning Man, Ebert was invited to take part in the local Citizens Advisory Board, otherwise known as GCAB, after making an eloquent case for the clean up and continued existence of the work ranch, which had, in the past, been the subject of argument among some of its neighbors due to the high volume of materials stored on the ranch. Additionally, Ebert also put together the Dooby Avenue Restoration Project [LINK: http://brc-dpw.org/who/metric/dooby/ ], further demonstrating his love for the desert and his respect for his neighbors.
Because of this respect between neighbors and his association with Burning Man, Ebert was approached by a friend in 2004 who was willing to provide the funding for a project at Burning Man based on community opposition to the proposed Sempra plant. While some neighbors are for the plant for financial reasons, many more are against Sempra because, according to The Nevada Clean Energy Coalition [LINK: http://www.NevadaCleanEnergy.org ], it will emit 50 pollutants into the air, cause health risks due to mercury poisoning, and will adversely affect the local ranching community by draining already limited water sources.
During the few days that I attended the 2005 event, I saw many people interacting with Ebert and his small crew of builders. Ebert and friends directed them to NCEC’s website and invited them to sign a petition, and they also answered questions about how Sempra will affect the environment if it is built and why it is important that the community get involved in stopping the plant, whose energy, it turns out, would not even go to Nevadans, but would instead be sent to southern California. Overall, the project was a success in getting its message across.
Not all community-based projects built by current or former attendees emanate from Burning Man or an association with Burning Man, and in fact, sometimes an external force influences the course of the event and how it is put together. The Cyclecide Bike Rodeos [LINK: http://www.cyclecide.com ] are one such entity. Begun in the 1990s by Jarico Reese, John Joyce, and a group of friends known as The Hard Times Bike Club (now known as The Black Label Bike Club, who had been in the area since Jarico was a teenager) out of Minneapolis, MN, by 1996 what had started years earlier as a group of friends building and maintaining “tall bikes” grew into a touring group that specialized in the building and exposition of “Frankenbikes”, as well as an inspired (and incredibly fun) circus sideshow, live band and carnival-style rides.
Though Jarico had attended Burning Man since 1994, it was in 1996, as part of Chicken John’s Cirkus Redickuless that he built his first “Frankenbike.” It was a year later, for Burning Man 1997, that he, a few friends and Chicken, along with future DPW creators Tony Perez, Flynn Mauthe, Will Roger, John Joyce, and Johnny Feral, created “Pedal Camp.” A themed camp that built and provided altered bicycles for use during the event, as well as helped maintain and repair non-altered bicycles belonging to event attendees, Pedal Camp was a huge success.
Dropped off at the 1997 event after the Cirkus tour with little money and food, the HTBC created and maintained “Pedal Camp,” which is credited with being (among a few others) one of the first genuinely interactive camps on the playa, as a service to participants. After the event ended, they decided to remain on the playa and help with the clean up. Partly due to a lack of finances, and partly because they believed in the event (at the time – some HTBC members now believe Burning Man has become too organized and thus has lost its original intent) and the idea behind the BRC-DPW, Jarico and the HTBC remained, cleaning up the event, restoring the desert, cooking for those remaining, and providing the occasional late-night entertainment.
While the group does not associate itself with Burning Man, Jarico has this to say about the way he contributed to the event during his time there, and vice-versa:
“Burning Man helped facilitate Cyclecide’s growth because it gave them an event to work towards. A deadline. Plus, once they got out there with the crazy bikes, it inspired people at Burning Man and then in the larger world to build their own crazy bikes once they got home.”
Adds Cyclecide and BRC-DPW member Big Daddy, “In early 2001 I was laid off [from] my job and my house was sold and I heard that Cyclecide had a room open at their HQ [in San Francisco} and they needed a bass player for the rodeo band. That was enough for me! I moved out there in July and ended up working on the [BRC-DPW] man base crew. It was also the start of my working on all kinds of different projects in San Francisco, Burning Man and not Burning Man related [including] Haunted Barn, SRL, Seemen, Mousetrap, Odeon Bar, Power Tool Drag Races etc. I don’t know whether this is Burning Man or just San Francisco, but as far as contributing to artistic and community based endeavors it is completely different out here than in Minneapolis. In Minneapolis no one really gave a shit about anyone’s “ideas”; you work on your own a lot. Out here lots of people are ready to hear new ideas as well as help in their implementation.”
Another venue created expressly for the facilitation of art and artists’ creations has been Mike Snook’s NIMBY Space [LINK: http://www.nimbyspace.org ] which is located in an Oakland, CA warehouse. Snook, a master inventor and mechanic and former contributor to the DPW, looked at all of the potential in the desert and in his community and decided he wanted to create a safe space for fabrication, a haven for artists looking to create in a good working environment without the problems of politics, egos and the idiosyncrasies of individual facilitators getting in the way. NIMBY, which stands for “Not in my back yard”, opened only a year and a half ago as “a space for artists to create, market, and distribute their art in a welcoming and diverse environment,” and though the space is young, it has already proved highly successful, with many creators waiting for a space to open, and mentions in such publications as National Geographic. The community that NIMBY was set up to serve includes highly creative fabricators who have intense passion for their work, are mostly self-sufficient, and have a strong desire to follow through on their ideas.
One reason why NIMBY has been so successful is that it serves the needs of the local artist community, as well as the entertainment needs of the Bay Area when someone at NIMBY puts an event together for the public. Like Burning Man and the other artistic endeavors I’ve mentioned, NIMBY reaches out to creative members of society and those who want variety in their lives and entertainment, and offers them a space to make great works of art and to become an active participant in their city, and at the end of the day, though NIMBY is a far cry away from Burning Man and how it is put together and run, both communities serve as a means to facilitate creativity and to bring society closer together.
This year, at Burning Man 2005, I learned that some of my friends in the DPW (as well as my cousin and other friends) had lost their homes, including nearly everything they owned, during Hurricane Katrina. These are friends I have known for years, and they lived in New Orleans 9th Ward, in Biloxi, MS, and in other places affected by the storm. Hearing about this tragedy, Reverend Billy and the Stop Big Boxes Choir held a spirit-rousing “revival” of sorts just beyond Mark Grieve’s Temple of Dreams, which was built by the same crew responsible for David Best’s temples in the years proceeding. During the ceremony, which was held on a double-decker bus that David Best’s crew brings out every year, a band played New Orleans jazz, and members of the Burning Man community spoke to the crowd about how the storm had affected their lives. At the end of the ceremony, audience members were invited to talk to other audience members about the Gulf Coast region and their memories of the area.
Whereas the person I chose to talk to had no family or friends in the Gulf Coast region, he obliged me to tell of my teenage summers spent with my best friend Regina, who lived in the lower 9th ward from 1990-1994, my friends in the DPW who had lost their homes, and my cousin Melissa, who had lost her place in Biloxi. When I finished telling him about these places, he said, simply, “I’m sorry that we’ve lost such an amazing part of our history, and I hope it doesn’t stay that way.”
In the end, partly due to the Reverend’s efforts, and in part because of the nature of the Burning Man community itself, over $35,000 was raised during the event. As I write this, many more participants, Burning Man employees, and volunteers are already in the Gulf Coast, helping with rebuilding efforts and putting their city-building skills to good use in the outside world. For more information on what the Burning Man community has done to help victims of Katrina, click here. [LINK: http://www.burningman.com/blackrockcity_yearround/misc/katrina.html ]
Bringing the community together is an important step in a society where people increasingly feel overwhelmed by isolation due to the growth of the corporate state, technological advances that put people out of work or allow them to hide from their neighbors, and daily developments in the news and in politics that continually serve to turn the world into a place where a person feels they can’t make a difference, despite clear evidence to the contrary. What Burning Man (and those events that are either spin-offs or else, in a reversal, inspired the event to grow) has done is give those feeling isolated a voice and a place to connect – and a means to reconnect with their communities back home in the so-called “default world.”