One of the most amazing things about Burning Man - or Black Rock City, its temporary home - is that it's so incredibly well-organized. Despite its reputation for chaos and license - both of which are earned - it all takes place inside of a structure, or array of structures that work.
A picture - from a satellite - is worth 1,000 words. Which may not save you from them, but...
Here is Black Rock City from above, close to it's peak, in 2006. (We found our CAMP on this thing.)
Now, the 1,000 words. I'm doing this in part in prep for being a guest on Insight, at 90.9 FM tomorrow at 2 p.m. Not sure when I'm on.
So many things strike me about this photo. First of all, if you skipped the link, go back. For those who haven't googlearthed, all you do is click the plus sign to go close in and see more and more detail, which is just frighteningly, amazingly accurate. Again, we could find four vans and some tarps. From space. OK.
Just click the plus sign. First of all, the two images of the concentric circles (the city) are not matched up. I'm pretty sure (correct me) the years are 2005 (faint) and 2006 (in box) - it was moved about a mile out in 2006, further NE. Now I hear that it has been moved another mile east, because (I'm told by a good source) that the lack of rain has made the playa (dust plateau) even looser than last year. And windy plus flour-fine dust equals...not good. Last year, I went through six dust storms in 9 days. So, we know what we're getting into.
We get into it, as I began, because of this city. Wherever the city is laid out, it doesn't matter: With GPS coordinates followed by volunteers, who stake out a series of concentric circles that define city blocks, the city grows on a circle, with the "spoke" streets aligning with the half hours of a clock. The top of the circle, the NE (-ish), is open playa. So the streets start at 2 and go around to 10. The big circle you see at 6 o'clock is Center Camp, an enormous tent full of acrobats and musicians and some very engaged, smart, elaborately dressed, expressive, smiling people. And espresso drinks. And besides ice, that's ALL you can buy there.
OK, this is a little too Burning Man 101. Here's what's on the ground at Burning Man (besides all those people): art. It IS an arts festival, after all, and a great number of those 50,000 people will have created either amazing costumes, art cars or decorated bikes, small pieces of art they give away, or huge pieces of art that took literally dozens of people to design, build, haul hundreds (or thousands) of miles, and rebuild in the desert.
What kind of art? Well, just some random memories from years past: A pair of giant hands where people use rope to string a cat's cradle; a cluster of four gas jets suspended on a hook and remotely controlled to fire in different directions, moving the cluster back and forth, up and down; perpetual motion machines; a giant, lifesize reproduction of the Mousetrap board game, or "Operation"; A tree constructed entirely out of actual bones; a miniature planetarium projected inside a geodesic dome; and literally thousands of more pieces of art, many of which are too complex to describe in a single phrase.
And then there's the "gift" (not barter) economy. People do literal "random acts of kindness," just because it feels good. For instance, round about dinner time, two women dressed in provocative delivery outfits may bring your camp a hot, solar-cooked pizza, asking nothing in return. People set up massage tables by the side of a road and ask you if you want a massage. Or you can go to a "begging bar," where you can have a free drink - if you can creatively beg the hand puppet that is tending bar.
And then there's the playa itself, which is remarkable. Yeah, when the air is full of dust or it's hot as blazes, it can feel like one of the circles of hell, but it's also the great American west in its most extreme, breathtaking form. It FEELS incredible, out on your bike, the temperature (at 4000 feet, remember) just right, and the dusty softening everything it doesn't dry out or rust. And it feels like you can see for miles, because you can.
So, with that mind, here are a couple of the projects people are doing THIS year. Here's the page for the honoraria (art funded by the foundation that is funded in part by ticket sales), and I'm going to put up a couple of links to specific pieces, and video, when available.
The Flaming Lotus Girls create very large sculptures that breathe fire. Two years ago, an array of metal claws poking through the playa surface...the next was a serpent coiled around her egg. This year's creation is called Mutopia. Here's what they're doing this year on their blog.
Then there's another group of people who do the zoetrope, which last year was a 50-foot-tall carousel of monkeys and snakes who climb...well, you just have to see it to believe it. This year's theme (tied into the larger American Dream theme) is Tantalus.
So, this year, some interesting stuff. Did I mention the 35 foot tall ketchup bottle? Then there's Illusion, a light sculpture that will feature images projected on an arrangement of 64 weather balloons. Now, just stop and think about that for a second: 64 weather balloons. Think of the light, the movement...think of the SIZE (according to the artist's website, it will cover the size of a soccer field - take THAT, Beijing Olympics!). Where else could art that big be displayed? Then throw in the wind...
Some of it, like Swarm, a group remote controlled balls that roll around the playa in unison, was promised last year, but as far as I know, never materialized. Doing this stuff isn't easy. But just reading some of the descriptions is amazing.
Then there's this year's version of Shiva Vista, a cluster of 16 propane jets that fire in rhythmic sequences. Last year, they went in a long row that you could hear go off from a mile away. This year, they're trying something different. In the midst of a mandala of these jets will be a raised stage where other performers can do their thing.
Another project is the PyroCardium, by False Profit Laboratories. A double-helix structure that will also shoot flames (hey, it's BURNING man), the Cardium part of the name comes from the pulse that triggers the bursts of flame: the heartbeat of whoever happens by and allows a stethoscope to be placed on his or her chest.
Or how about The Hand of Man, a huge mechanical hand that you operate using an ergonomically correct glove?
Finally, there's Zsu Zsu, the Crybaby Queen, the video for which is great (but not embeddable). And the music! This whole project took some time, and skills, like many of them. And this doesn't even cover theme camps, or really even many of the honoraria. But it's a start. No description can convey the size and depth of this experience in this remarkable place. But I thought I'd try.