|Burning Man 2001 - Jon Ross (aka Catweasel) - jon 'at" averystylish.net|
It was a strange year for me. 11 days on the playa produced more than enough moods, enough bodily feelings, enough emotions, enough adventures and enough stories to cover most spectra. I'm sure everyone present would know that writing about burning man is like dancing about architecture. Impossible to capture the essence. But here's what I got up to Sunday night.
Sunday, fiery Sunday.
The priests of high weirdness, denizens of Whatever, stand atop our buzz observation tower watching the sun sink behind the mountains as the full moon slowly pokes its grinning head above the opposing mountain range. In greeting, the whole city erupts in feral wolf howls to greet the gleaming satellite into our plane of existence.
Sunday night at Burning Man. I'd been saving myself all week - traditionally I've had my most fun on Sunday nights (even when the burn was on Sunday). Although I'd been very pleasantly surprised at how well Saturday night had gone, tonight was my night for serious mayhem.
From the tower I can see some action happening on the other side of Gigsville, looking suspiciously like the Skynyrd barbecue. And lo and behold, my senses do not deceive me. We eat, drink and are generally very merry around the Car-B-Q while the skynyrd band behave badly (vomiting mid song, goat abuse etc...) until it begins to get dark, at which time the Sindicate girls take to the Gigsville stage with their outrageous cabaret routine, in a moulin rouge meets madonnna danceclash stylee. My home village, in which I've spent ridiculously little time this year, going off as a finale before it returns to becoming an insignificant patch of dusty playa in the middle of a barren desert. This is the way of burning man, beauty is only temporary in this environment.
After some preparation time (retrieving goggles, dustmask and fireproof nomex jumpsuit), I set off for the esplanade. A crowd is gathering outside Dr Megavolt's setup at the Sindicate. Matty the Mutaytor, an incredible drummer, has his drumset inside a large chicken wire cage right next to the imposing bulk of a 10 foot tesla coil. Girls are go-go dancing in cages nearby. Dr Megavolt is dancing around in his wire mesh suit, directing the million volt plasma arcs over the various cages as the Mutaytor keeps the rhythm movin and a groovin. Excellent fucko entertainment, but I have an important date to keep....
Cycling off from the Esplanade and out onto the open playa, the wind picks up and a whiteout envelops me as heavy gusts liberate sheets of loose playa and launch them swirling through the air, wrapping everything in a dense white blanket. The full moon projects a ghostly glow, lighting the whiteout from within, creating an eerie incandescent fog that twists and swirls and chokes and blinds. Cycling with the wind, a complete silence envelops me, for all intents and purposes I am deaf and blind. Shrouded shapes loom out of the mist and seconds later dissipate in my wake. Glowing vehicles, busses packed with people, fire breathing behemoths, all appear and disappear like magic - soundless, perfect moments from a bizarre dream. Big yellow cat vans with bright headlight eyes, glowing neon fish tractors, armored school busses with marching bands atop, a disco truck, a missile car, landyachts, people on stilts, people on fucked up blinking bikes, weirdos in every kind of attire imaginable clutching rags and dust masks to their mouths and noses, trying vainly to protect their already playa-tainted lungs. The memory of this magical cycle ride will live with me forever. I can imagine this being the scene outside Kubla Kahn's pleasure dome as the tribes converge to gain entrance to the paradise contained within, an oasis in the harsh desert terrain of Xanadu.
The feeling around the mausoleum is intense. This is not just another big fire, this is something so much more. The emotional energy poured into this creation is unbelievable. Many separate groups of friends who walked into the mausoleum during the day confessed to bursting out into tears from the power trapped in the towering edifice. The collective grief of a whole city, entombed in its most beautiful structure, ready for release by fire.
The only problem being that no one could see the mausoleum through the pea-soup whiteout. The burn ends up being delayed for around an hour, while we wait for the storm to abate. During this time I wander around, staring at all the faces and vehicles crowded around, like the freaks convention this so obviously is. This is my tribe. These are my people. Folk who will devote their time, energy and power to being out in the middle of a desert in the middle of nowhere in the middle of a dust storm to witness a gigantic intricate temple burn to the ground. Freaks, weirdos, adventuresome souls. My Brothers and Sisters. My kin. Only the hardcore need apply.
Suddenly the wind abates, and the structure looms out of the haze, backlit in glowing red from the afterlife tower. Fire starts to lick at the base, and quickly jumps up the insides until the whole glorious temple is ablaze, consuming the city's grief as it combusts into carbon dioxide and ash and memories. The crowd are understandably sombre throughout the burn. No screaming or cheering, just awe-struck faces illuminated by the glowing pyre, jeweled tears tracing their hesitant path down many a dusty cheek. As the temple collapses in on itself the end of the funeral is marked, energy is released and cheers go up as the tribe rushes in to sing and dance around the remaining superheated pile of flaming wood, pools of flame licking towards La Luna, the overseeing Lady of the dance. Tension and release. The oldest trick in the book for generating a great performance, once again drawing us up tight with emotion, filling our hearts with pain and pleasure, then torching the pressure with ritual until we are cleansed, and can continue afresh - lighter, transformed, absolved. And it is time to move on....
Following the incandescent red glow burning through the dense airborne particle mist, I make my way to the afterlife, an immense lighting structure pumping out 50000 watts of photon power into the sky, illuminating the surrounding area like daylight as the beams hit billions of dust particles and reflect their energy back to ground-zero on the playa below. My favourite installation on the playa, usually sombre and otherworldly to say the least, tonight they are having an afterparty with dance music, and playing the lighting tower like a disco. In the meantime, however, the dust storm is back with a vengeance, and conditions are tough to survive. The black rock mobile library pulls up out of the mist, so in I pop to browse the shelves. It's at this point the ridiculousness of the whole situation hits me. Here I am in a library in a bus in the middle of a duststorm on a harsh desert in an extremely unpopulated area of the western united states, 6000 miles from where I come from. Outside, my friends are having a rave with the best lighting gear any club will ever see and preparing to fire off a huge flame cannon. Surreal doesn't even begin to describe this situation. How do you explain stuff like this to people who've never been? If this isn't truly living life as it was meant to be led, I have no idea what is.
Suddenly the serenity of the library bus is shattered by loud bangs and crackles. I rush out, and in the distance the Pyromid is going off amid a blaze of twinkling fireworks. Missed it. Oh well. Firey fun to be had out here too. Mr Foo has set up Betsy, his homemade flame cannon (hah, homemade, as if you can buy these in the shops....). It's a small, innocuous piece of precision engineering that charges up a closed tube with 150 psi of nitrogen, fills up a second, open ended tube with half a gallon of gasoline and upon the trigger of a remote switch, releases a valve between the tubes, propelling the gasoline out of the nozzle on top and through a propane ignition ring. This causes a 50+ft fireball to go searing up into the sky. Impressive. Fun. Genius. From a very early age I've been hypnotised by fire, and tonight is no exception. Watching billowing red, black and yellow clouds exploding from within, billowing in chaotic globular waves, radiating intense heat and lighting up the playa for hundreds of yards all around, I am rooted to the spot. My mind is no longer under my control - it is the fire interfacing directly with my reptilian brain, programming my mind with unknown instructions.
As the Foo show comes to a close, I decide to remove my presence from the dust (which is mainly blowing along the central boulevard from center camp out to where the man used to stand). I hurtle across the playa (thankfully holding on to the Nurse and Dodger's golf cart for propulsion), and quickly arrive back at the city just in time to see huge 100 foot plumes of liquid flame scorching their way horizontally across the open playa. The Vegematic of the Apocalypse is in action. A twisted, demented, thoroughly evil-looking vehicle wrought from iron, looking like a cross between an ancient medieval war device and a high-tech penny-farthing. Its central iron tube spurts a stream of high pressure fuel, torching anything that dares get in its way, while its passengers pedal to propel it upon its roving pyro adventures.
Then an unmistakable noise permeates the night, high voltage ripping the atmosphere into purple-glowing ionized shreds, a large tesla coil going off nearby. Not Dr Megavolt this time, but another coil, which is rigged with the big iron moth vehicle next to it, and swinging from a huge cherry-picker crane is a human figure encased in a metal cage, being swung back and forth through the arcing of the tesla. If this isn't art, you got me beat as to what is.
After an age of watching the tesla, I notice a lot of art cars gathering around Michael Christiansen's Dali-esque headless beast structure, so I head over to see what weirdness is being concocted over there. First I notice a bullhorn shouting match between Chicken John and Jim Mason over their "art off". But I soon notice that a large cherry picker has lifted Mr Foo up to the top of the tall, spindly, fragile-looking sculpture, where he is installing his flame cannon inside it. Fully 100% ridiculous, completely stoopid and utterly over the top. Perfect. As a finale they are going to make the sculpture belch 50 foot clouds of fiery plasma into the dawn sky. Salvador himself would undoubtedly have been proud. The expectant atmosphere in the air is awesome - this is living like kings!
However, after a few hours and some false starts, it appears that there's an issue with the fuel pump that means the system is firing properly, but has no fuel to fire. A disappointment to all, and an anticlimax to the evening, but at the interface of art and engineering, coupled with extreme physical conditions, there is always a high probability of failure. You can't predict everything, and at burning man you for sure can't predict very much at all. The fact that the idea was conceived and very nearly executed is a tribute to the absolute genius that can be seen at burning man. Where else on the planet could you try to get away with something like that?
And that's why I'll keep going to burning man. It may have changed character a lot over the years, but it's still the weirdest, most intense crucible of creative energy and beauty on the Earth. And until it stops being so, I'll be there coating the inside of my lungs with playa dust every labor day weekend.