During the day, black rock city is a languid place, hot and dusty. The sun beats down.
The knowledgeable burner, like other desert inhabitants, seeks shelter during the hottest portion of the day. You visit friends, touch up your face paint, or simply lollygag in Center Camp, watching naked yoga and sipping cachaça cocktails with a group of beautiful brazilians.
But when night comes, the city awakes, refreshed and hungry. We shake ourselves and head out to the playa, hungry for art.
Our first stop is the Purple Palace bar near 10:00 and Begonia. A small bar, it glows and sparkles at the edge of the city. Beyond is the open playa. Through the mesh cover of the bar we can see dancers and a good-sized crowd enjoying their first (or tenth) drink of the evening.
We make our way to the bar and ask for whatever’s being served, proffering our tin cups. The bartender looks at us over his megaphone. He presses the trigger. “CALL ME CAPTAIN STUBING” he says. Okay, I’m thirsty, I’ll play along. “Captain Stubing, can I have a drink?” The megaphone crackles as he presses the button. It’s clearly been turned up to ’11’ or maybe even ’12’. “CALL ME ‘CAPTAIN STUBING, SIR’!”
I roll my eyes a little and say in my most-bored-sounding voice, “Captain Stubing, Sir, can we please have a drink. It’s been a dusty, dusty day.”
He’s satisfied, and fills our cup with a mixture of fruit juices and lighter fluid. We drink it down. No currency changes hands, but you do occasionally have to pay for a drink in Black Rock City.
Tonight I’m photographing the Burn, but there is plenty of time before that occurs. We wander across the playa with the multitudes, moving like moths from one shiny art piece to the next.
The Opulent Temple is a dance space, a circle surrounded by elevated platforms and fire jets. The music there is amazingly good. On any given night the circle is filled with dancers, and all of the platforms as well. We stop for a while to dance. The mixture of dancers is so wonderful, and their dancing styles are similarly varied. People dance with hula hoops, flags, and each other. Some people are naked and painted in mud, and others are dressed in white lace. Everyone dances, in their own way, and for their own reason.
One of the big art pieces this year is “Burn Wall Street”, a set of five office towers rising as high as 5 stories above the playa. It’s an interesting piece… counter-cultural and provocative, and the sentiment amongst burners is appropriately divided. Personally, I like it for the scale, but dislike it for its negativity. Great art should be controversial. It should piss people off.
There is a colonnaded balcony on one of the buildings. It’s one floor up in the air, and a mixture of people perch there. One guy with a megaphone harangues the crowd below to destroy the capitalist predatory system, while next to him a man in a suit flirts with two well-dressed women, one wearing a gold lame dress. It’s a typical cross-section of Black Rock City culture. A city of 80,000 people will have a fairly diverse population, and it’s on display here. If someone were to tell me that the man with the megaphone was an investment banker, and that the threesome in evening wear were members of zen commune, I wouldn’t be surprised.
The buildings are constructed so that they can be occupied, and I climb to the roof of one for a fantastic view over the city at night. Along the way I pass an older couple passionately kissing. On the wall beside them someone wrote “politics LOL”. I think it’s a perfect response to the message of ‘Burn Wall Street’.
Another fairly random walk across the playa, and we come to a piece called “The third space“, a organic lounge constructed entirely from zip ties. From a distance it looks like a thicket of thorny white bushes. At night it’s softly lit, and despite it’s nature seems less ‘briar patch’ and more ‘shag rug’. Couples and small groups gather in the protective thicket, resting on zip-tie sofas and ottomans, talking, laughing, dozing. An old hippie gently strums a guitar. A pretty girl in bunny ears laughs at a pretty boy’s flirtations, then blushes and casts her eyes downwards to gather herself. New people enter the thicket, and we move on into the night.
Over at Thunderdome, a battle is occurring. The dome is covered with cheering, screaming spectators as two warriors spring around inside the dome, swatting one another with foam bats. Thunderdome and the Death Guild have been part of Burning Man since the mid-1990’s. They show up in classic American muscle cars painted flat black and decorated with spikes and sub-machine guns. They wear ridiculous amounts of black leather and mascara in the desert heat. They’re bad-asses.
Nearby a group of fire dancers performs, and a tropical island slowly drifts over to watch, it’s palm trees swaying in the wind, and burners sleeping in hammocks between the trees as the island glides across the darkened sea of the playa.
So far we’ve been circling the playa from place to place, but the time of Burning draws near. Our group heads towards the center of the city, where the man stands atop his pavilion. He glows white, his arms by his side. He’s been there all week, waiting, observing.
I’ve managed to snag a spot on a scissor lift, a 4×10-foot platform that will lift me and three other photographers 50 feet into the air. We climb aboard and the platform slowly rises, up, up, up above the gathering crowd. The view from up here is amazing. The man in the center of a ring of glowing humanity. Outside the people, the art cars are parked, bringing music and dance to the outskirts of the Burn.
Some of the cars shoot fire into the air. El Pulpo Mechanico (‘The Mechanical Octopus’) is parked nearby, a 40-foot tall monstrosity. Tentacles lash the air, jaws snap, and fire shoots into the air. It’s hard to look away from it, you know it will attack when you’re least prepared. When you do force yourself to look away, you can still feel the hot blasts of its fiery breath against the back of your neck.
I’m still keeping a wary eye on El Pulpo when I hear the crowd begin to cheer. I turn around to see the man slowly raising his arms towards the sky. As they rise the cheers get louder, the sound of tens of thousands of people shaking away the last dusty remnants of civilization and preparing themselves for the catharsis of the Burn. The whole week has been a preparation for this, a refactoring of our ‘default world’ programming. The crowds below me have been tempered by the heat and dust of Black Rock. Everyone who comes here is changed, and this is the moment of their rebirth.
A procession of torch wielders begins a slow walk around the man. Each torch has been lit from the same source, the Center Camp Cauldron, which has been burning all week long. The Cauldron was lit at the beginning of the week by Crimson Rose (the fire goddess), harnessing the flames of the Sun. Burners are encouraged to visit this primal flame, to feed it, to do their part in keeping the fire alive.
Every twenty feet a torch wielder stops and stands with her torches held aloft as the group continues. In 15 minutes, the circle is complete, and the Man is surrounded in a dotted ring of flames. Then the fire dancers come into the circle and take flame from these torches. The number of individual flames is multiplied by 100, and the dance begins. From my aerie I can see the hundreds of dancers moving together and apart, while the man presides over them and the full moon floats overhead. There is no one pattern, no conformist choreography. Each dancer performs their own dance for the Man.
Eventually the fire dancers’ flames subside, and they retreat to the edges of the circle. The crowd quiets.
There is a pause.
And then the Burn begins.
The Man burns, and eventually is consumed. He disappears into the conflagration of his pavilion. The heat is so intense that it forms dust tornadoes 100 feet tall that spin off into the crowd. The pavilion burns for an impossibly long time, its walls falling in one at a time.
When there is almost nothing left of the pavilion, I watch as a lone naked man runs into the fire circle. Firefighters and Black Rock Rangers try to stop him, but the dam has broken, and the entire crowd surges forward towards the embers of the man. The crowd comes as close as possible to the flames and begin to circle the man clockwise. People are quiet, their eyes turned towards what is left of the fire, their skin glowing from the light of the flames and embers.
Every Burn is different, and every burn is wonderful.
Every Burn is cathartic.
Every Burn is renewal.