Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Man Burned Twice

Whatever kind of event Burning Man is - art festival, bacchanal, convention of radically self-sufficient types, or any of the million things it is claimed to be - it culminates in a series of large fires.

Actually, there is fire throughout the week. Lots of fire. There are cars that roam around shooting plumes of flame into the sky. There was an art installation on the playa consisting of perhaps 20 torches that lit up the desert at night with rhythmic blasts of fire. There are so many dancers twirling poi balls and scimitars of flame that they become Burning Man's equivalent of street mimes.

The burning of "the man" connects the event to the early parties on the San Francisco shore in the 1980's, when participants would hoist a wooden figure up and torch it. As these parties grew in popularity, the police interfered, and this drove them into the desert. These days, with tens of thousands of people in attendance (48,000 this year by most counts), things are a little more scripted. The man is 40 feet high and covered with neon that lights the playa at night. He stands on pedestals or pyres so as to be visible to masses of people. There are spectacular fireworks and explosions. It is a carefully planned, meticulously stage managed show.

As burning the man has evolved into such a large production, there are grumblings from people who have been part of this scene for a long time. One hears people tell wistful stories about older days, when things were more spontaneous and participatory. Indeed, after a week of interacting, encouraged always to participate actively, it felt strange to go back into audience mode and stand in one of the biggest crowds I've ever witnessed to watch fireworks and a bonfire. Rather anti-climactic.

At night, the desert is lit up with fire

As you may have heard on the news, this year the man burned twice. The scheduled burn, the big show, was to take place on Saturday night. Four days earlier, however, in the wee hours of the morning, as everyone was watching the lunar eclipse with childlike fascination, a man named Paul Addis took spontaneity into his own hands and set fire to the man himself.

Within minutes, Addis was being handed over to the County Sheriff by the Bureau of Land Management, as "burners" looked on the burning man with diverse feelings. Many were thrilled. Some felt cheated. The fire was put out, and the pavilion beneath the man - a space where various art projects and "green" technology were on display - was roped off. And a great many of us did not even hear about it until sunrise. For instance, I was at my camp with Chris, Phil, and Treiops, watching the eclipse and drinking scotch. We exercised all our jokes about the moon being eaten by the Pac Man Sith Lord and once the moon was completely hidden we went to sleep.

Burnt man, Wednesday morning

A great many people applauded this action. Burning the man early was a dream project spoken of with much joy and hilarity in previous years, in response to concerns that the event is becoming less spontaneous, more of a stage-managed event, popularized and some would argue commercialized. There is much sniping to be heard among elder circles of burners, and in playa publications such as Piss Clear and on the internet, about "newbies" who "don't get it," with particular revulsion for "tourists" who pop in on the weekend in their freshly clean clothes to walk around as if this were just an adult Disneyland for them to photograph and drop their litter.

What better way, some have said, to defeat the "tourists" and teach the "newbies" about freedom than to burn the man several days early? That'll show 'em. It has the added benefit of bedevilling the legal entity that now manages the event, yet another bone of contention for many. A corporate entity? A trademark on the Burning Man symbol? Isn't that like a pirate trademarking the skull and crossbones? Shiver me timbers! Indeed, the tensions around this issue exist among the founders of Burning Man.

The trouble is, some pranks are much funnier in concept. Every prankster learns this: some jokes cost too much once the genie is out of the bottle, even though the idea is funny. You put the metal bucket of water up on top of the door and realize just seconds too late that the metal bucket full of water is now a very heavy object that delivers a serious head wound. Too late, you think of other pranks that might have been just as effective and less dangerous.

Paul Addis, who is either a folk hero or a terrorist depending on who is talking at you, faces federal arson charges. No one was hurt, yet on that night there were many opportunities for things to go awry. Addis denies there was ever any danger and spins himself as the rebellious conscience of Burning Man, or something. He faces prison time and/or heavy fines. Some of the art projects and displays of "green" technology below the man were off-limits for a few days, as the burnt man was taken down and replaced by a brand new man.

Maybe he just lost his head for a moment.

The pavilion was itself a bone of contention for critics. Apparently, the organizers had approached a few energy companies about displaying "green" technology here. They were told they could not advertise, could not display their logos, or distribute advertising material. They could display technology, just as if it were artwork, and that would be it. A few small companies did just that. As a result, the tent was referred to in harsh murmurs as "the corporate pavilion." A great many people refused to go anywhere near such a thing. It wasn't something the Cool People did.

Say, aren't burners supposed to be independent free-thinking folk? Every time I encountered groupthink at Burning Man, there was a jolt of amused disappointment. Since I've never been Cool, and because I have this aversion to letting other people make up my mind for me, I checked the pavilion out. There were technological displays about potential uses of recycled material, algae that can eat ozone, a few very interesting exhibits and a few things that weren't so interesting. If the soul of Burning Man was being raped and strangled, it wasn't taking place here that I could see.

One of the best commentaries about this whole incident I have read was on the tribe.net website, where a great many burners do their internetworking. To paraphrase, the fellow (who had a very balanced attitude about what Addis did) wondered what might have happened if the organizers had responded differently.

What they did was put a new, identical man in place and carry on with the show exactly as scheduled. Call this the "top-down, business as usual" approach, best executed with an air of calm efficiency that can be either reassuring or unnerving, depending on your disposition. What they might have done, according to this Tribe correspondent, was go to the people for a "bottom-up" solution. Something along the lines of, "Someone burned the man early. If you want a burn on Saturday night, we all have to come together and construct a new man. We must use materials and tools that we have here on the playa. Let's go."

It's an intriguing idea, thrusting any remaining spectators into the fold as full participants in the event, responsible for building and hoisting a new man. (Unless the crowd reconceived the man as a woman, or a dog, or a space ship. A gigantic phoenix, perhaps.) A sense that anything could happen, anything was possible, whichever way the human energy went.

And yet, the "Department of Public Works," as the Burning Man volunteer crew is identified, took the former approach, restoring the man as originally designed while sporting t-shirts that said, "DPW - WE decide when the man burns!" To do otherwise, in the eyes of some, would have vindicated what Paul Addis did. So restoring the man may have become a point of principle, pushing back against the resistance. The mutual resistance makes an intriguing koan for the citizens of Black Rock City: Who is rebelling against whose power?

Authorized burn

The man burned on Saturday night, business-as-usual, after an interminable prologue of firedancers doing the same impressive things we had watched them doing all week long. (No disrespect intended - the best of these dancers were breathtaking, and there is something erotic about bodies dancing with fire - it was just an embarrassment of riches, if you will.)

Thousands of people surrounded the pyre on foot, and on the art cars that pulsed with electronic music. There was a clamor of laughter and horns and competing sound systems and goofy, flashing mutant vehicles and "fire cars" startling people with random blasts. There was a feeling of all the spirits we had encountered during the week converging in one zone, every last sarong-wrapped, fur-trimmed, liquored-up, bare-breasted, shroom-headed, freshly-laid, neon-enhanced, glow-stick adorned, radically self actualizing, camera-wielding, freak-flag-waving chimpanzee that was there, save for the few who weren't "feeling it" and hung out at their camps for quiet time with friends.

While we waited for Dr. Moreau to come out and throw a virgin into the volcano, or whatever was going to happen, a woman came through the crowd in a wedding dress and veil. People were eagerly taking turns writing messages on her dress, and her companions explained to us that this woman was getting "Unmarried" tomorrow. She was leaving an unhappy marriage behind her, you see, collecting the wishes of her fellow Black Rock denizens. The following day, she would leave the dress on the Temple of Forgiveness, a structure which would burn the following evening. (More about the Temple will follow in another post.)

A long fireworks show distracted us while the pyre went up in flames and the man, built from moist green wood, was slowly consumed. It was a very long time before the rangers pulled the man down and the crowd rushed forward to run circles around the man.

Chris and Phil pressed us newish folks to enter the fray, at least close enough to feel the heat. Chris grabbed Shirley by the hand and dashed forward. I took Sarah's hand and followed them. The crush of people became disagreeable and slightly menacing. It's not so much that a lot of us were marching around the fire in a circle and bumping into each other. That part of it is no worse than riding on the New York subway at rush hour. The menacing part was the unnecessary pushing, shoving, and crushing that went on. For instance, Sarah - who could comfortably curl up to sleep inside a thimble - get herself sandwiched between two linebackers who were marinated in asshole juice. As I held her hand, they were crushing her. While I yelled at them to let her through, my own travel collided with a woman locked in a chain with some of her friends. Her eyes looked lack black saucers and she was giggling inanely, beyond the reach of any human language. Sarah felt unsafe and wanted out. I wasn't able to muscle us through, and my commands were not being heeded. So I reached into my bag of tricks and tried this one:

"Look out!" I yelled. "This woman is about to be sick!"

And suddenly, a path opened! Isn't that amazing? Well, clip me and call me Moses! No matter how stoned, tripped out, drunk, belligerent, deaf, and dim people are - there is still some cortex of wakefulness, some locus of awareness that does not want to be puked upon, and will sober up just long enough to get itself out of the way.

And so we emerged from the slavering mass and beheld the moon, which had also restored itself and shone brightly in the night sky as the delicious-smelling smoke rose upward and danced itself into beautiful serpentine shapes.


Little Mama said...

I really do love the words you use. They really capture the emotion in the moment, not just the physical act itself.

• Eliane • said...

What an adventure! I had no idea this event was so huge.

I will have to come back later and read your previous posts - I've seen those dancing trucks pictures before and I am intrigued.

Ji Hyang said...

Your highly improvisational skillful means show the honed reflexes of a cat, or a Zen student, or a stage actor-- the great compassion of Samantabadra.

Anonymous said...

And now I'm glad I followed the link - as if there was ever any doubt in my mind.


Algernon said...

Thank you all for stopping by and reading.