Playa Fire by Dan Dawson
One week after Burning Man, a steady stream of dirty cars still flow into Oakland.
A 1980s Toyota Camry pulled into a smog test center downtown on Saturday with unmistakable layers of playa dust. To the uninitiated, it's sign of a Labor Day party gone too long. This is the time of year when Burners return in a unified "walk of shame" covered in yellow silt. This burner - a Black Rock City greeter who preferred to remain anonymous - wanted the test certification so she could sell the vehicle.
"I'm amazed this car made it there and back," she said. She also confirmed that by the time the last bit of rebar unhinged Black Rock City, the Department of Public Works had begun the clean-up phase.
A record number of 50,504 citizens camped, danced and explored more than five square miles of prehistoric lakebed. Surrounded by mountains, the Black Rock desert spans roughly 420 square miles and borders the Paiute Indian Reservation. Its seductively soft, alkaline sand must contain no trace by early October. Then the federal Bureau of Land Management inspects the site for permit compliance and the last burner leaves. Feathers, bikes and cigarette butts ... this is the carbon footprint left behind.
Eight days in the Black Rock Desert revealed no perfect city.
At one end, it harbored pirate utopian elements, whose clashing temporary, autonomous zones sometimes lead to guys gone wild who took unsolicited pictures at the Critical Tits bike parade. Mostly, it was a smiling society of cyclists. On the night of burn, citizens strung with glow sticks biked or ferried in LED-lit art cars across the playa. Amidst the dust storms, it seemed like a foggy fireworks show on the San Francisco Bay.
Metropolis 2010 broke many records besides attendance. Temperatures hovered at an uncharacteristically low 85 degrees for most of the week. Under the Man, a crowd of 170 people dressed as Superman broke the Guinness World Record. It also was the year that the Black Rock Arts Foundation, or BRAF - a nonprofit corporation that brings Burning Man art to the urban areas - issued a landmark $50,500 in grants. Looked at another way, ticket sales funded less than one percent of the art in BRC - Black Rock City.
Syzygryd was one of the lucky ones to made the cut. It was a dream conceived in Oakland, a city whose rusty belt of warehouses hammers out art each year. In a reverse migration, the giant musical instrument traveled from the NIMBY forgery to one of the biggest deserts in the country, where more than a century before, settlers took a wrong turn and died of thirst.
Assembled in BRC, Syzygryd looked like a broken Rubik's Cube clumped back together. The blue, pink and yellow cubes pulsed from the center down four tendrils. Each end pointed to touch screens, where walk-up DJs played keys to create the display. Blinking lights and pulsing fire plumes moved to the tone of electric bells. Dancers gathered under its flaming, rainbow arches.
This project and other installations in this year's "Metropolis" required participation over voyeurism. Without players, Syzygryd could not light the landscape. Climb this and ride on that: no keep off the grass sign stands in Black Rock City. A ticket to town provides a way to explore yourself, whether as a dude in a tutu or a lady in Chewbacca-chic boot covers. And while there are grumblings about how Black Rock City LLC is too corporate for its mission, its art has inspired public policy beyond the playa.
One green outgrowth of burner culture was the nonprofit Black Rock Solar. It helped install enough panel arrays along Route 447 to produce 451 kilowatts of energy. This earned the road to Burning Man a proclamation from Nevada governor Jim Gibbons, who declared it "America's solar highway" on Aug. 30.
Burners without Borders formed five years ago when news of Hurricane Katrina reached the shores of Black Rock City. A group of volunteers, some temple builders and others DPW workers, brought donations to the south. They rebuilt a razed Buddhist temple in Biloxi, Mississippi, and helped residents throughout the south pick up the pieces.
BRAF board member Freddy Hahne said that rather than a utopian society, "Black Rock City is more a community, progressive group of people who bring what they do here back to where they live."
Matisse Enzer, a native New Yorker and 2009 BRAF grant recipient, agreed.
"The Metropolis theme has always been inherent to Burning Man," he said. "Among many other things, Black Rock City is a collection of people with the willingness to constantly ask, 'What can we do better?'"
For Enzer, setting up a flamethrower gallery made a statement about America's fascination with firearms and individual rights. Once he had the fire rangers and rules in place, people could literally play with fire.
When asked if the cities at home could be better sponsors of public fire art, Enzer said, "With rights come responsibilities." Permits are all a part of the process.
Archeologist Carolyn L. White also is someone who preoccupies herself with the imprint Burning Man leaves behind. A professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, she discovered Burning Man while working at the nearby remains of a 19-century mining camp. Soon after, she formed her own in Black Rock City, where she and her team studied domestic and public spaces.
Camp Anthro set up chairs out in front of their camp so that burners who blew up and down the street like neon-lit tumbleweeds had a place to crash. They bounced in, talked a bit and then leapt back into the horseshoe-shaped city grid.
White described Nevada's seventh largest city as "an urban space with a remote, rural feeling."
As for the event's impact, she said, "I see people bringing tenants of Burning Man back to the city, which is one of the amazing things that it does: get people to participate so things can work on a massive scale."
The Man dwindled to a hearty glow before my camp got up, switched on their headlamps and head back for the Esplanade. A frenzied bass beat reached the main drag with us, where unicycles, rangers, police and peds moved in organized chaos. Beyond the tent city and its boulevards, Megatropolis out of Reno exploded and the Honey Trap structure from New York City burned shortly thereafter. One by one, art burned in ritualistic catharsis.
Isabella, a veteran burner who danced in medallion-laced scarves at the Grand Hotel Ashram Galactica and who introduced me to the slip 'n' slide, was not impressed with the burn. She and her girlfriend T. drove out to BRC from Los Angeles. Throughout the week, they would stop by their camp for quick naps in between dance parties, sometimes bejeweled and other times painted in playa mud. They always came and went arm in arm and in a joyous state. Due to the cloudy conditions, neither one felt impressed with the Man.
"The Man burn isn't the main point of the event anyway," she said. "It's really the temple burn."
Temple Flux would burn the next following night. A wooden building whose frame undulated in a frozen, driftwood wave, the temple held alcoves and offerings for loved ones. People mingled in the winding hallways or curled up at night to sleep among the gifts. Right around the time the last BRC street signs disappear, the temple goes up in smoke. By Professor White's standards, the temple is not "art installation," but rather a participatory art piece.
And a place to propose marriage. Hours before the temple burn, Isabella and T. exchanged rings set with Alexandrite gemstones. The rare jewels change in color with the light, from day-lit green to incandescent red.
As they set about packing the car, Isabella and T. look forward to reaching the greeting station again next year. They talk about what kind of shade structure they will build to withstand the wind.
Next year's "Rites of Passage" seems far away, but they look forward to returning to Black Rock City.
"I didn't really know what the phrase 'Welcome home' meant until I came back," she said.