This year's theme at Burning Man was Evolution, and evolved it has. 2009 was widely felt to have been the best Burning Man in a very long time. Perhaps it was the better than average weather. Perhaps the stunning design of the Man, with a base to rival the Temple. Perhaps it was the joyous installations such as The Rocket, The Slide and The Nest. Or perhaps it was that, in a year marked with recession, war, healthcare bickering and other pestilence, 40,000 people came to find refuge in a place they call Home and devoted themselves joyously to a week of radical self reliance, open self expression and generous community.
Before getting into the story of my week, here's an insight to share. The theme of this year's Venice Biennale is 'Making Worlds'. Much has been written about the exhibition and the various meanings of the curatorial stance, especially that of featuring artists whose works evoke an entire world by literally filling space and/or taking on an internal logic, a language of significants that transports one to a new plane of relating. Although Burning Man's official theme this year was 'Evolution', it can be said that 'Making Worlds' is an underlying current of every Burning Man and of most of the works there. What else does tens of thousands of people coming to the desert to build a community for a week mean? How skillfully captured in 'The Nest', an installation in which folks climbed a tree to lie in the secure comfort of luxurious pillows and warm conversation. How magnificently stated in The Temple which brought together symbols of the worlds religions to show the undeniable unity of a true spiritual outlook. How playfully interpreted by Randy Polumbo's Grotto and Garden of Manifest Destiny where glowing colored dildos and glinting solar panels fused into new hybrid species of flowers, Buttercups and Blossoms, that lured one into the glowing confines of a mysterious cave. If there was one work missing at both the Bienale and Burning Man, it was a set of Kippenberger portals which could transport one effortlessly between the two cities and enrich each with
an understanding of the other.
I came to BRC with Martin, a new friend who had jumped at the opportunity to come to Burning Man and then energetically threw himself into the entire experience. We were well shopped and well organized by the time we hit the dirt road, with just a small dust storm and a sprinkle of rain to greet/challenge us as we set up our tents on Monday evening. We camped in Hushville, as per last year, and met some wonderful folks pitched around us. The Hushville community is a welcome mixture of fun and respect that creates a great base from which to explore all that BRC has to offer.
On a brilliant Tuesday morning, we set to building our shade structure. As the sun took to the sky, it was time to join Lady Bee, the former long-time curator of Burning Man, for a tour of the art. Art tours are conducted daily, hosted on large art cars that carry a crowd around the playa pointing out the major pieces and meeting artists along the way. Our tour took place on the Omnibus to Nowhere and I was introduced by Lady Bee to the first of many South Africans that I would meet along the way. We were ably acquainted to many of the key art pieces, and also reintroduced to the joys of sitting in a dust storm. This year, there were a series of
small storms as opposed to the ragers we had last year and the year before.
The rest of Tuesday was spent organizing, organizing, organizing. A neat camp is a place of joy. That evening. Martin and I ventured out onto the Playa to take in the magnificence that is BRC by night. Grooviks Cube, a giant internally illuminated rubiks cube played by three people at the same time, caught a lot of our attention. Then Martin went out and I succumbed to sleep.
Wednesday dawned bright and early. A big play day ahead. First, a couple of hours as a greeter at the gates. I was invited to join the New York greeters by Debra Keneally, a former colleague at frog design. We were greeting arrivals to BRC, giving them info and directions, as well as initiating virgins to the joys of playa dust. As it was 8 in the morning, and another team of greeters was there too, we far outnumbered arrivals. This led to a very fun game of luring approaching vehicles into our respective gates. One team got extra competitive and went tearing out and attaching themselves to vehicles with running boards. After losing several large rv's to them, I decided to up the ante as I saw a large bus arriving. At a steady clip, I dashed out to the bus and banged on the door. Once inside, I was able to persuade the driver to ignore the competition heckling at his window and head over to my gate. The prize was a luscious group of Russian virgins that made lovely snow angels in the playa dust.
From there to year 2 of the WNBR. Somehow, riding naked through BRC with several hundred fellow burners is the most fun to be had. I met a great group of guys, avoided burning the bits and enjoyed watching my fellow riders throw themselves down a massive slip and slide at one of the stops. I met two more South Africans on the ride, and, amazingly, we had all attended the same elementary school in Johannesburg. It's a small naked world. That afternoon, I went dancing with one of my new buds. The Deep End, a special day dance place that closed last year, was sorely missed. I did enjoy the music at Pink Mammoth yet never found the bliss of years past. We'll see what 2010 brings. That evening, I was content to cook up some dinner, shared with several neighbors, and fall into a thankful sleep.
Thursday saw the arrival of our third camp mate, Johnny, an artist from San Francisco that I had met the year before. Johnny brought a lovely additional shade structure, some great easy meals and his even-handed and handsome disposition to our camp. While he set up, I joined an all male march in the buff that is a retort to the annual Critical Tits bike ride. While we didn't seem to take up the political angle as well as our fearless leaders might have liked, it was a great opportunity to hang (!) and I caught up with Jordi, a Spaniard I had met the year before. Then our camp decided it wad time for a thorough cleanup - of ourselves, not the area.
We headed over to the Human Carcass Wash, a real gift to the community where hundreds of folks wash each other in a display of good clean fun. Afterwards, a little ride around, taking in the late afternoon ambiance at the Slide and The Nest before hanging in camp over a long meal and catch up conversation. I crashed that evening without hitting the Playa.
Friday was another action filled adventure. I awoke at 5am and headed out for my annual early a.m. photoshoot. I glided across the Playa, taking in the energy that had been transformed from late night vigor into dawn's sweet tones. From Center camp to the Man to the perimeter fence and back. Shooting, smiling, dancing from time to time. At The Nest, I listened in on an amazing conversation that mirrored my essay on Radical Independence and connected with the speaker, Betsy, now a new friend in Utah. As I biked back into town, collecting ice along the way, I had the sense that I had never been more alive - I was totally present.
After coffee and a costume change back at base, a life drawing session at Comfort and Joy, a wonderful homo haunt. That was followed by a massage workshop that had many in a true state of bliss. An afternoon of biking around, checking in with Jenny, Dani and the folks at Camp Ubertubers, and then an early-ish dinner before hitting the Playa. Friday was a big night with The Rocket due to blast off and Shiva turning its stage into a giant pyramid to be burned, a last hurrah for this three year long project. The Rocket "launch" was delayed due to winds and we just missed te actual burn at Shiva. Nonetheless, we spent a good while dancing to the great music off several art cars as the flames leapt into the night sky. Then off to the Grooviks Cube again, only to see the Rocket launch from a distance - a massive display of colored flames and fireworks. After visiting several other pieces, and crawling into the "booty" at the back of Buddha Bunny, we hit the Ashram Galactica.
AG was rumored to be a hot ticket in town. A 5 star hotel setup with lobby bar, restaurant and 4 rooms. The rooms were raffled off at 9pm each evening and 4 lucky guests got to enjoy a 9 course meal before retiring for some serious pampering. The bar area was filled with interesting folks, an air of undeniable elegance in the air. The music was wonderful and a pro dancer, in glittering pants and a top hat, wended his way through the bopping crowd. I closed my eyes to take in a lyrical vocal number and found myself enfolded in the wings of a mystical woman who was cocooning people in the wings of her long dress. Magical. Soon thereafter, pixie dust worked its magic and we returned to camp to hit the mats.
The weekend air at Burning Man take a distinct turn as thousands more arrive to take in the spectacle of the burn itself and to party hardy. For me, it was a time to start mellowing. Some yoga at Nectar Village, with Jenny and Dani. A restful turn at Center Camp watching the passing parade, some more biking around and a relaxing bop at Pink Mammoth. An early dinner too as I was spending the evening manning Randy Polumbo's gift to BRC, The Garden and Grotto of Manifest Destiny.
True to tradition, a strong dust storm blew in, delaying the burn. I trudged out to the Grotto at 8pm as scheduled, only to find it dark and the Playa missing in a total whiteout. After an hour spent looking for switches and eating dust, I decided to hike over to AEZ to find Adam, Randy's assistant, to see what was up. I made it, in true Amundssen style, and as we chatted for a few minutes, the storm cleared and a cold, clear evening emerged. Back to the Grotto, lights on and then a speactacular burn as fireworks filled the sky and the wooden base flamed toward the heavens. We spent a while cleaning dust off the pieces as folks streamed back and stopped in to ooh, ahh and ask questions. As 1 a.m. rolled round, sleep again took over and I dragged myself home, as many were only just setting out for the bacchanal.
Sunday was a more wistful day. Johnny packed to go and I was determined to get a massage at Center Camp as the week on an unfamiliar bike took its toll. I waited a couple of hours for a wonderful skillful session and came back mellowed to bid Johnny farewell. I rode around for several hours, looking for a dance spot and was saddened to find everything being dismantled. Back to camp, a giant cookout of all the remaining meats (block ice kept things fresh all the way through), and another sharing meal with all the neighbors. Then Martin and I headed to the Temple and arrived just in time to see the burn commence. A fiery silhouette against the sky that resembled a B&W photograph from time to time. Not as quiet and meditative as two years ago, this burn still reminded me of the emptiness that follows the dissolution of community. On the way home, we encountered a young guy who's birthday it was. He invited us to sign his body with a greeting anywhere we liked, so we did. Contact Martin for the full details, he owns this story.
Monday's clarity allowed for a relatively quick pack and departure. Tacos cooked by the local community served as a roadside lunch and before long we were dining in style back in Reno. Arrivederci BRC, the lessons learned will be lived for the year to come and I long to see you all again next year. Happy New Year everybody!