Thursday, September 21, 2006

AN INVIEW: The Burning Man Art Festival 2006

“The Man Burns in 6 days”

Written by: Matt Pierce

We left from Temecula at the rather ironic hour of exactly 4:20 am. We had just filled up the tank on the great green beast that we were taking out to Black Rock City, still in a dream-like state of disbelief that we were actually leaving to go to the playa. My companions until we were far past Bakersfield on our way towards the Nevada deserts slept until just outside of Reno. The drive proved to be such an endurance trial that halfway up the I-80 I was seriously tempted to say “hey guys, let’s just go back, this drive is way too long.” But then, about that time I realized, “we just drove 8 straight hours, and we’re only 6 away, let’s just go…” I talked to myself for most of the way there on the 11 hour trek. Hey, at least it kept me awake.

At approximately 2 pm, we made it off the I-80 and onto the home stretch of the Nevada highway 447 that we would drive for the next 82 miles until we arrived at the gates of Black Rock City. It was a long and trying drive.  All 3 of us in the car were tingling with anticipation, and we were just so happy to be living out the dream we’d held onto for so very long. When we finally made the turn onto county road 34, just outside of GerlachNV, none of us could hold it in any longer, and we all screamed at the top of our lungs and jumped with anticipation. As we came to the gates, we were met by the first greeters of the event, who searched our vehicle for stowaways, as is common practice. Many people do not attend the event because the cost is at $280 a ticket and you have to pick up all supplies to feed yourself and thrive on your own in one of the world’s most harsh environments.

We arrived in the city at approximately 5:30 PM Sunday afternoon. At the gates, the greeter made us all get out of the car and ring the bell. Jimmy and I had to scream “I’M A VIRGIN!” just before entering the city and setting up camp. We took a left on Guess and headed towards 7:30 and Destiny to try to find the Black Company (they’re a ren faire group from out of Escondido, but comprised mostly of ‘burners’ aka poi dancers). Needless to say, I failed miserably in that attempt, and we ended up at 7:50 and Destiny with Camp No Camp. They were out of San Francisco, and took us in very willingly. We had ourselves a neighborhood. We quickly set up (our own) camp and went out to see the Man, overlooking the city, lit up with blue neon. It was then that we realized that we were in for the biggest magical mystery tour of our lives. We toured the city for about 3 hours before I finally called it a night, as I had been up for about 36 straight hours at that point. Caffeine saved us all during the ride up.

“The Man Burns in 5 days…”

We awoke early Monday morning, just before sunrise to be exact. I Iooked around in a weird sort of daze, as if the environment itself wanted me to feel as if I were submerged in an alternate reality. We toured much of the city during the first day, but didn’t spend much time together as a group. However, just after I left camp in the morning, I ran into the early stages of the Burning Silicone Collective. I helped them finish setting up camp in the morning, and had a breakfast beer with them. Myself and Johnny, who was camped with them, went out to go see the city at night, and man did it ever get windy. The winds picked up more and more every minute after the sun went down that night. We walked for what seemed like a million miles just taking in the city before parting to go our separate ways. I eventually ended up in a bar on 4:10 AM. Eager and I had a couple too many shots of Tequila, and I passed out on an air mattress but found covers for the night. At least I wasn’t passed out on the esplanade like quite a few people who partied way too hard ended up. I was well taken care of and comfortable. Burners take care of their own, and I think it was put best by Captain Tuesday. “Take all your ideas about people, society, and interaction with them, and throw them out the window. Then you have Burning Man’s blank canvas to go with.”

“The Man burns in 4 days…”

When I awoke in the morning, I made a very hung-over stumble back to camp and proceeded to eat before curling up in the tent for the majority of the afternoon. Hangovers in the desert really suck, so I just decided to sleep mine off rather than be a grumpy bastard. When I awoke yet again later in the day, the 3 of us (Bridget, Jimmy, and me) who had traveled together, decided to get to know our camp. So we talked all afternoon and halfway into the night, eventually deciding on a different separated call than “Marco Polo.” So after a few minutes, the entire camp decided on “ASS, TITTIES, ASS ASS, TITTIES TITTIES.”


After a couple hours of getting hydrated and ready for the night, we made our way out to the Belgian’s structure that everybody called the Waffle. Please do not think that it was not the actual name of the structure and the Belgians took great offense to that moniker, because it was the name. We walked for what seemed like hours on our way to the Waffle, far past the Temple of Hope. After arriving, we realized that the entire structure, which during the day, looked like a giant pile of toothpicks that had been arranged somehow, was lit up green from the outside, and had lights in the walls that (were synchronized) to play with the DJ. That was, without a doubt, the craziest one-week-only night club I have ever seen. Here’s a picture from its construction on Sunday.

After about an hour of dancing like crazed Irishmen inside the waffle, I decided to venture off onto the playa. The night was rather cold, so I ended up walking around the edge of the esplanade (the street closest to the open playa leading to the ‘Man’) to keep warm. I saw many amazing pieces of art, including the Serpent Mother, a project designed by over 40 women in San Francisco. The Serpent Mother was simply breathtaking when it was lit up at night. It was a giant iron snake skeleton, all of the vertebrae were lit on fire at night, and there were panels of buttons all around that people could push (that made) different vertebrae shoot out big fireballs. There was also a giant metal egg with the Serpent Mother that opened up more and more each night and let out more fire. This was, by far, my absolute favorite piece this year out on the playa. Shortly after paying a visit to the Serpent Mother, I went back to camp and went to sleep for the night.

“The Man burns in 3 days…”

I awoke Wednesday morning and something about the city felt different. As much stuff as I had seen, and as many people as I met, I hadn’t enjoyed myself nearly as much as I had wanted to the first 3 days we were there. I walked out into the deep playa, and paid a visit to the Man early in the morning before coming back to camp. While at the Man, I thought a lot about an event that happened earlier in the year, and broke into tears. I had come home half depressed and made collages. Here’s the actual blog entry from my tribe.net account, and why It meant so much to me.

‘So, I've been a bit more distressed the past few days than I've been admitting, and it’s led me to a lot of thinking. I came home from Java Joz tonight, and I honestly sat down and thought about my personal hopes and fears for the future in a number of different categories. I wondered where I was going with life, where my friends are going in each of their lives, (and) where humanity in general is going in the future. So I get the great idea of coming up with a huge collage for both hopes and fears for the future. Naturally, I start with the downside, so I start building this collage based on what I have in pictures for fears. I put fears of the present I see, fears that the media projects onto other people, how beauty is "supposed" to be shown, and things like that. So I end up with this massive collage that ended up being about 4 times the size that I had originally thought, and then I remembered that there are indeed 2 sides to everything. Needless to say, I end up with very close to nothing on the hope side of things, and really begin to ask myself "if there is so much fear in this world, why do we as humans choose to carry on?" So I sat in thought for a little bit, pondered and meditated on this very question for a good 10 – 15 minutes and then I had an epiphany from reading one article in a very old magazine of mine (and by very old, I mean about 6 or 7 months old, I don't buy magazines very often anymore). It was an old article on a band called Thine Eyes Bleed, and although I dislike most death metal now, I read on. The singer for this band had watched his father die from cancer the year before, and that made him realize something that really hadn't hit me near as hard as it should have until now. He said "Watching my father die made me realize that life is far too frail to not enjoy to the fullest." It was after reading that one quote that everything occurred to me. Hope is what makes life worth living. Just simply put, ‘hope is what makes life worth living.’ With that said, a very relevant VNV Nation song comes to mind called ‘Genesis’ which I post for you now.

Breathing an air 
permeated, soaked in darknessemanating from within 
resonating like a scream no one can hearI wear this chaos wellthough none should save me 
desperation keeps me hereMy need for innocence 
the place where I beganthe abyss becomes me 
I wear this chaos well

Are these not words of heresya venom on my lips, a poison?My spirit unpurifiedin everything I choose to say

With you I stand in hopethat God will save us from ourselvesEvery cry a wasted moment 
until another day is lostEven lands we once called home 
lie undiscovered and unknownonly Heaven's silence for an answer 
And did our laughter, did our tearshave some purpose after all? 
Did we toil in vain, in hopethat wisdom came from what we'd done?Even lands we once called homelie undiscovered and unknown. 
only Heaven's silence for an answer.

Are these not words of heresya venom on my lips, a poison? 
My spirit unpurifiedin everything I choose to say

If I would shed my skin, the layers left, 
but not the lessons learnedit would not undo what I have done 
or grant forgiveness in some better days

The blog wasn’t anything special until I received this message from my friend Jen: Sorry I didn’t answer the phone last night. I was having a family crisis. My cousin has been missing for 3 weeks now, he has a baby girl, only 3 years old, and last night they found his body, (which had been dead for 3 weeks). He shot himself. So here I am, trying to hold my family together. I’m just so sad for my family. They are already hurting so much, (we’ve had lots of deaths in the family in the last few years). I think I have a fairly good outlook on death, but they are just tearing themselves apart over it. So basically, I’m sorry I didn’t call you back. So just a minute ago Justin told me to check out your blog. He said it was inspiring, so I read it. And it is! I’m so glad that you had those realizations and shared it with your friends. I think it is exactly what I needed right now. Hope. Hope for myself, hope for my family, hope for humanity, and hope for the future. I’m just so happy that you’ve come into my life as a friend. I bet you didn’t know when you wrote that blog that it would be the thing to lift me up today... 

This still brings a tear to my eye to think of it. After writing the end of that blog, “Hope is what makes life worth living” in both the Temple and on the Man, I headed back to camp. After getting back to camp, I met up with the infamous Coffee Camp. We got wired on caffeine and smoked cigarettes during the early morning hours, had laughs and an amazing time. I hung out with K.B. at Coffee Camp for a good while the next couple of days, and we had fun riding the shark down to its end. Later throughout the day, I wandered far away from my camp and explored the city. I tossed whatever agenda I had out the window and just went with whatever looked cool. First, I met more people, had more interaction, and far more fun just talking than any of the previous three days. I met a guy in Center Camp that was almost exactly like Hunter S. Thompson named Gonzo Jimmy. We talked for a few minutes, gave a toast to the late great Dr. Gonzo, and I went wandering off to camp for the night.

“The Man burns in 2 days….”

Thursday was declared the lazy day at Camp No Camp. We were all so hung-over from the night before that we all had to take double the shots of whiskey that we normally had with breakfast. The Israelis that were camped behind us kept us all up the night before playing psychedelic trance until about 4 in the morning, and most of us slept until about 11 or 12, but hangovers in the middle of the Black Rock Desert are no fun. Especially considering that every day that you’re out there, you become more and more dehydrated, which makes everything just that much worse during the day. I walked over into the camp of the Canadians, who were playing the Grateful Dead. We had good conversation over a couple of beers, and relaxed during the heat of the day. As the sun set, I had a very interesting type of pizza, and we ventured out into the city. Myself and K.B. from Coffee Camp wandered around through many parts of the very chilled city that night. The wind picked up and things suddenly got very cold, so we headed towards fire like moths. Our wanderings ended up taking us to one of the playa’s biggest parties out by the Serpent Mother. The Space Cowboys had pulled their art truck around and were blasting trance while throwing out psychedelic visuals from the sides at the same time. We stayed for a couple of hours before wandering off towards what looked like a wall of light bulbs far off in the distance of the esplanade. When we arrived at the wall, we discovered that it wasn’t really a wall, but more of a circular tree of ping-pong balls that changed color. The light shows were simply amazing, even without the presence of music in the background. Burning Man truly is a place where the art is only bound by the limits of human imagination.

K.B. and I eventually ended up on the 9:00 Avenue and sat next to a fire pit that looked like a big iron lotus. We sat on very shoddily made chairs, but they made it so that we could stay warm, and it was really fun getting to meet other cold people that would just randomly wander by. We sat for quite a while when somebody came up with a guy covered in playa dust (more so than the rest of us anyway) who had passed out on the playa. I had every intention of just going back to camp and leaving the guy there, when we saw the ranger station off in the distance. Now going to Black Rock Rangers is different from going to the cops out on the playa, as they are volunteers and act as mediators, and will not report you to the cops unless absolutely necessary. We got a very reluctant ranger to call Black Rock Medical to give the guy a ride back to camp. After that, we walked back to camp and went to sleep for the night. The most insane days of the entire week lay ahead, and we still had no idea (of) what to expect.

“The Man Burns tomorrow night…”

I awoke Friday morning with a sense of comfort that I had not felt the entire week I’d been there, (at least) not as intense as I did that morning anyway. It was as if all negative energy had been cast off with my plans to make an agenda. I walked out to the temple after I peeled myself out of the back of the suburban, because I really felt the need to connect with the energy of the event. I sat under one of the columns in the shade on the playa and meditated for a few minutes and felt more at home and at rest than I ever had before. After walking back to camp, I talked to the people at camp, and just relaxed while munching on a box of Captain Crunch. God, that stuff works miracles man. I got to know a lot of my camp neighbors that day and we had some very fun conversations. I met a gentleman there by the name of Vox, who looked remarkably like Iggy Pop, plus we had a meeting with ‘Lucy in the Sky’ that evening. I wandered around the city going from point to point and eventually met up with a group of fire dancers known as the Fire Conclave Collective. I spun (my poi balls) for a bit with them, and then they asked a question that I seriously almost crapped myself on hearing. “Hey, how would you like to spin out in front of the Man tomorrow night before the burn?” I jumped at the opportunity and said “yes” as fast as the thought could process. My dream since the first time I picked up a set of fire poi (rawhide balls) was to spin out in front of the Man on the night of the burn. I spun (to practice) for what seemed like all night; the sun had begun to come up behind me as I walked back to camp. I couldn’t believe what had just happened. It was just like the week and a half before when I heard Bridget say “If you can get a ticket, we’ll cover gas and supplies.” I lay down with all of the dreams that I had held for the past 11 months swimming in my head, and fell into the deepest and most joyful sleep that I had ever had.

“The Man Burns tonight!!”

Saturday! The air tingled with anticipation of what was coming in the night hours. The air itself could not sit still because of the excitement that was going around (in the camp). My campmates and I all went over to Coffee Camp and got wired as could be before heading out for the day. I walked deep into Center Camp and ended up way out by the 3:00 plaza before the day even got started. I would like to add that Bad Idea Theater lives up to its name. I explored much of the city that day and actually met up with a couple of friends in the red light district at 4:20 and Eager. We talked for a good hour before I decided to venture on and go out into the city. I made a visit to the Entheon Village where Alex Grey was staying doing his art, and just sat and looked for quite a while. I eventually made my way around the city after about 6 hours of wandering and ended up back at our camp. When I got back to camp I bid farewell to two of our campmates and walked out towards the Man. 

I got out to the Man, made sure that I had a spot, and walked to Center Camp to meet up with the Fire Conclave, then grabbed a set of poi, and walked out with the procession at about 8. The fireworks behind the Man went off, and the procession of the lamplighters and their drums began to walk out. The drums were louder than I had ever imagined they could be, and completely encircled the Man. They played for over an hour while the lamplighters walked around the Man with the fire that would soon light him up. After the hour of the march around the Man was over, I heard my cue, lit my poi, and began to dance wildly out in front of the Man. I spun for what seemed like an eternity, fire dancing all around my face and upper torso, until finally the “Save the Man” protest began and I took my seat. I sat in total silence and awe as the fire dancers kept moving, dancing, almost taunting the Man before his inevitable fate. Slowly the fire dancers moved away and fireworks shot out from the Man’s arms and legs. Everywhere, there was light and sound and nothing could touch anybody that was watching. I was higher than I had ever been, and had taken nothing to help in that. I watched in total silence as the fireworks shot farther and farther into the air, and then, from out of nowhere, a cloud of flame engulfed the Man. I watched as the tower grew ever higher around him, and slowly the neon on his limbs died out. His arms fell next, and he continued to burn for about the next 5 minutes unhindered, until finally the structure holding him up gave way and he fell straight down into the platform. The burn was over, but there was still one more day before everybody went home.

“Tonight, the Temple of Hope goes up in flames…:”

I awoke feeling very changed the day after the Man burned, the vibe after it was all over was so different that I just went back to camp and hung out before going to sleep. I decided to grab an Altoids tin and head out to the ashes of the Man to grab apiece of him to take home so that I would never forget what I had just seen, and all the emotions I felt. I walked around the city one last time before I headed back to camp and began to pack up for the long trek home. Most of the day was spent doing packing, and putting stuff into the suburban, trying to make sure that we could leave immediately after the Waffle and the Temple burned. After the packing was done, I took a nap for a couple hours, and then walked over to the Black Company’s camp. I couldn’t help but feel a little bit down because, now that the Man had burned, the week was very close to over, and I would soon have to return to the default world. I met up with a couple of friends at the Black Company’s tent, and we talked for quite a while. I was shocked when somebody said to me, “Matt, you look like this has really changed you. Your face doesn’t hold the same boyish look that it did before.” I was sort of shocked, but at the same time, I knew I had changed from the time I first set foot on the playa. We talked for a few hours before grabbing the fire poi and heading out for the burning of the Temple. The feeling of being out in front of the Temple was very different from that of being out in front of the Man. The energy and emotion that went into the temple was so much different from that which had been the Man’s the night before. When the temple was lit, everything was dead silent. The nails and staples that held the structure together began to pop as flames encircled them. The temple burned to the ground and nobody said a single word. I heard people sniffling, crying off in the distance as their hopes went towards the sky in a giant pillar of flames. It was without a doubt, the most beautiful thing on the playa from the entire week.

Not long after the Temple burn, I headed back to camp. Jimmy and Bridget were waiting for me, along with Vox, whom we were giving a ride to the airport in Reno. We left shortly after 2 a.m. on Monday morning, and began our long trek home. The week was filled with laughter, tears, and every emotion of every kind, but none of us will ever forget anything that we have seen, felt, or heard. The burning of the Man will forever be a part of us that we will carry with us to our graves. We will always burn the Man.