Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Burning Man Roundup, pt3 - Crazy constructions, and the most meaninfgul BM art project I've ever heard of

Tuesday August 26th, Burning Man day 4

Woke up with the sun - it's hard to do anything else, the sun is so goddamn hot.  I get up, then go right back down for 2 hours from exhaustion while random, loud, often terrible music blares from the Lamplighter Bar.

Once I was up I started making Kimchi Camp caesars - which I started describing to Americans who thought of caesars exclusively as a salad as "a bloody mary only Canadian and better."  This was apparently the beginning arc of a good reputation that the Kimchi bar started to earn.  I co-hosted a talk on creating Kimchi with a camp-mate, bartended s'more, made negronis and spicy caesars and got a good number of people plenty drunk and plenty happy.

That night was the first "official" camp excursion into the playa.  Quite a few of the art projects on the playa had been set up, and one of our virgin burners had a letter that gave the advice "go onto the playa at night.  Pick a blinky light.  Move towards it.  Repeat."  We collectively decided to follow this advice.  OH MY GOD THERE IS A LOT OF BEAUTIFUL RANDOM WEIRD AMAZING ART OUT THERE.  The long strands of glowing plastic that looked like the tendrils of a sea anenome reaching 20 or 25 feet into the sky, the glowing cow skull that would pulse to your heartbeat, the grid of tiny little posts that would glow and twinkle when you went past them, the orb that threw blue twinkles all across the playa (that you couldn't see clearly until you were literally standing under the orb)...

The three most remarkable, to me:

The stroboscope showing an acrobat doing flips.  It was a metal structure, and was surrounded by little rowing machine benches where the seat slid back and forth.  At first I got really, really excited and coaxed about 15 people into climbing on with me and sliding back and forth on the seats to try to make the thing turn and light up and strobe... but after a few minutes of attempting this, it became clear there was absolutely no relationship between the seats moving and the structure moving / lighting up.  I stood up and laughed and pronounced the thing "placebo art" thinking that it was powered by a hidden generator that turned on at random times.  On one hand I was irritated by the illusion of interactivity, but on the other hand I was impressed by the piece's ability to show people how superstitions happen - you do something, and you see a result, and you think the two things are connected.  This art piece created the superstition that if you interacted with it the lights would light up and the acrobat would start flipping, and that was a total fiction.

Thing is, I was proven wrong.  One of the people who contributed to building the thing came up to me and let me know that there were some difficulties in construction and so there was only one seat that had a proper pulley.  It *was* properly interactive, and I had the odd sensation of my irritation going away and being replaced by disappointment - I kind of liked the idea of a falsely interactive sculpture that asked people to examine superstition.

The second was a thing called "Squared" - a 50ft tall structure made up of glowing plastic cubes.  20 feet away from the structure was a large wooden table with little white plastic blocks etched with symbols tethered to the table.   There were similar symbols etched onto the table itself, and when you touched the symbols on the table with the blocks, the very large structure would react.  One symbol would make the colours all freak out, another symbol would make the colours shift in a particular pattern, the whole thing was a really remarkable feat of enginnering, programming and creativity.  The designers talked a little bit about how each of the cubes was mapped with an individual IP address, and the programmer had an interesting time integrating with creative types in a non-standard work environment... but that it all got pulled together in a good way.  "Impressive" just doesn't cut it - in terms of the amount of effort that went into creating something beautiful, this art piece was my favourite.

The third was simple, and epic, and beautiful.  It was a large (20-ish ft tall) hollow metal globe set onto a spinning base.  The globe was made up of metal beams, so you could hop up and grab onto them and climb inside the globe, and then continue climbing up to the top of the globe.  In the center of the globe there was a bright, bright white light.  At the base, you could grab onto the structure and push it and spin it around - the spinning was all hand-powered.  It forms the most beautiful moment that I spent on the playa - sitting on top of the globe looking out at the brilliant glow of Black Rock City, neon and crazy intense art in every direction.  In the middle of the globe there was a couple casting a shadow out across the blank area of the desert immediately next to us, and as they leaned in to kiss each other their shadows kissed and spun across the empty whiteness of the desert floor.  They had no idea of the image that they were creating, the simple expression of inter-personal beauty surrounded by the complicated madness of Burning Man. 

We were out there all night, literally, until the sun came up.  The Lamplighter bar redeemed itself by killing the music temporarily, and inviting us up onto the balcony for champagne at sunrise at Burning Man.  The stars gradually receded and the sky became light, and a little piece of the eternal dance between day and night twinkled past.  I eventually made my way onto the playa just after sunrise and ended up at a different hammock dome halfway across the city and turned in for a bit... still not entirely asleep, listening to inspirational middle-eastern dance music and half awake in a hammock in a geodesic dome, dissolved and satisfied with the night's adventures and with the firm sense that this could only happen in Black Rock City.  That chain of experiences just wouldn't be possible anywhere else.

Wednesday August 27th, Burning Man Day 5

I was so tired from the all-nighter on day 4 that I don't have a lot of experiences to relate.  I slept in hammocks, realized that art during the day is mostly brown instead of multicoloured and glimmering, attended a workshop on the chemical composition of playa dust, and bartended a little bit more.  I was so tired that I wore mundane clothes and just couldn't be arsed to mirror the complex and beautiful costumes around me.

The short version of the dust workshop btw - playa dust is alkaline (ph 8.3) and isn't bad to eat or have on your skin, except that it dries out your skin.  It's only bad to breathe if you breathe a lot of it through your mouth - through your nose is fine since that filters the worst of it.  If you want to clean it off of clothes or belongings, rinse with water and vinegar and then rinse with water and sodium laureth sulfate (an active ingredient in a lot of bubble baths) and it'll be like the playa never touched your stuff.  Just use those two things one at a time, because apparently the acid in vingear also reacts with sodium laureth sulfate, so don't mix them or both will lose their potency.  Handy to know.

The full report, according to Jonathan Bean's handwritten notes, can be found...

Thursday August 28th, Burning Man day 6

4am wake-up call because the Lamplighters decided this was the perfect time to play the entire Creedence Clearwater Revival Greatest Hits album for as much of the playa as their sound system could reach.  Bartended again and made people cold "like bloody mary but Canadian and better" cocktails and (so I'm told) continued to gain a bit of a reputation as a respectable bar.

We also encountered the single most meaningful art project in Black Rock City, in my opinion, and it came to visit us at our camp.  A man in a trenchcoat pushing a shopping cart came up to our shade structure, and got a bit of heckling from one of the Kimchi crew... then he offered to explain himself.

He was a member of the Burning Man organization, and was in charge of the heavy equipment on the playa for quite awhile.  If he went to the staff they would recognize him, know him, and help him out, but he chose to come to Burning Man without food, water or supplies with only his shopping cart and trenchcoat and some cardboard to lay on.  He was there to draw attention to the incredible privilege that each person on the playa was exercising - no one who's genuinely worried about survival comes to Black Rock City.  The burn is predicated on having at least enough money and opportunity to get to the desert with everything you need, plus usually a hell of a lot more in terms of party supplies.  One man with a shopping cart wheeled himself from camp to camp and offered a tactile reminder both of how fortunate we are... and also forced us, at least a little bit, to look at the flip side of that privilege and the people who can't access it.  Philosophically I like the fact that he was asking people to take a look at a bigger spectrum of reality than the exclusive party we were all attending.  He pointed out the bubble that we were inside of, and invited us to remember that not only was there an outside of the bubble, but there are people who can't make it to the inside.  We are lucky, and we also have greater responsibilities.  No other art project moved me like he did.  I gave him a handmade leather bound journal as a gift.  I build those things to last, and I hope it lasts the rest of his life. 


Since a good number of art structures had only been set up on day 5 and 6, Kimchi decided to go for another outing.  This one was tricky for me, something in the food or water or experience got me feeling pretty sick, but I still wanted to keep up with the rest of my little tribe.  All of my most beautiful moments were with people, that night... the poet laureate of the Intention gathering, and realizing that I knew of him and his poetry before I ever met him in person.  Two friends from back home who were part of Kimchi Camp who went to lengths to look after me.   There were moments that were beautiful because of the art structures, but most of what I remember is the moments that I had with other people.

I was exhausted, but we stayed up until sunrise anyways.  I made macaroni and cheese but botched it pretty badly by using vanilla almond milk - ever had sweet mac and cheese for breakfast?  It isn't awesome.  Part of the reason for the long haul was that one of the major art pieces, The Embrace, was scheduled to burn at 7:00am.  The outside went up like a match, and was beautiful... the inside kept burning for more than an hour, and I was so exhausted I almost fell alseep on the desert floor.  I went back to camp before The Embrace collapsed and collapsed myself for a few hours.

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