Flame Retardant: a questionable account of Burning Man 2012 (1 of 8)

ARRIVE by Damian

It’s Saturday afternoon and we’re finally approaching Black Rock City. We’ve been on the road since dawn hauling our camp’s infrastructure in a rental truck. Our early morning disorientation was a fitting precursor. Now Pandora’s box is finally in sight and the familiar unreality is setting in.

My friend and driving partner, Medium Tim, is in the passenger seat looking dispassionately at the ever-slowing procession of cars in front of us. Don’t be fooled by the name; he’s 6’3” and built like an Alabama cinderblock shithouse. You’d never guess from his intimidating physique that he was a San Francisco software engineer with a heart of gold. (That proverbial heart, by the way, is cast entirely from the thin gold flakes that float in bottles of Goldschläger.)

Traffic has now slowed to a stop. We’re officially in line. A few people have gotten out of their cars and are socializing. One acne-scarred young man is walking aimlessly in a utilikilt without a shirt. His thin pale torso and unconfident posture suggest he doesn’t attend many outdoor festivals.

“No!” Medium Tim shouts. “It’s not time to party yet. Get back in your fucking cars! Express yourselves later. Or how about you don’t?”

I chuckle and he asks if that was mean of him. A cheesy rock song is playing on the radio. It will be the last of the non-electronic music we hear for the next week.

I glance over at the SUV next to us. There’s a man with long hair, a woman in a sequin-studded cowboy hat and a little boy in a child safety seat in the back.

“Well the good news,” I say to Tim. “is that we finally made it to Disneyland.”

“You got a problem with children?”

“I love children. Just not at the movies and not at Burning Man.”

“Whatever, dude. You’re a monster. Child-hater! You should just dress like Freddy Krueger and creep around Kidsville every night. They’ll beg their parents to never bring them to Burning Man again.”

“That’s so wrong… and genius. Let me rephrase this. There should be some limits to the age and/or number of kids running around out here.”

“So you’re not Freddy Krueger. Maybe just the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”

“I’ve never actually seen that?”

“Are you shitting me? You’ve seen Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas 700 times but you’ve never seen Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? You are a goddamn monster.”

“I’m a child of the 90s. Fuck yourself. Look at that kid in the car next to us. He’s, what, 3? Does he really need to be here? How many parties would you bring a baby to?”

“My kids is a dog and she’s almost 20. That’s beyond octogenarian in dog years.”

“She looks good for her age.”

“I’m not on the pro-kid side of the debate,” Tim says. “There are too many fucking debates. I just like to bust your scrote. You’re always nostalgic for an era of Burning Man you’ve never been to.”

“Let’s not deny we’re in an age of decline here. We got the ticket lottery, plug-and-play camps, growing police presence, guerilla commodification stunts…”

“Yeah, yeah. I’ve read your blog. It’s like the rantings of the Unabomber. You spend too much time feeding the Facebook trolls.”

“So you’re not cynical, Tim? This is like your 12th burn.”

“13th. And I am cynical. I don’t know if I’m getting everything out of it that I want anymore.”

“But we still come back. There’s still something here we can’t get elsewhere, right? Something more than the sum of its parts?”

Tim doesn’t answer. Neither of us subscribes to the myth that BRC is a utopia where everyone’s dreams come true. Make no mistake: You can be left to wallow in your misery like some archetypal tragic fool. Every year, burners come here with their hands out and their hearts open, ready for the playa gods to gift them some grand, serendipitous blessing. At the end of the week, more than a few find themselves alone in their own custom-crafted hell, holding onto the random pieces of a puzzle that don’t fit anywhere.

We’re almost to the gate when the DJ on the radio announces that someone has lost a cat. As he gives a description of the animal, the restrained contempt in the DJ’s  voice suggests that his disgust at such an avoidable occurrence matches our own.

“Now I gotta worry about running over toddlers and cats,” I say. “God, wouldn’t that be fucked up? People die here every year, but if a kid died it would be a catastrophe.”

“You think that’d be the end of Burning Man?”

“Potentially. I don’t know. That would definitely be the end of the accused.”

“You would go to prison if you ran over a kid,” Tim says. “Even by accident, the courts and the media would crucify you along with the whole fucking event. They’ll say you were a anarchist and a hippie and someone will rape you in Nevada prison.”

“Are you saying I’d be raped because of the ‘anarchist/hippie’ label?”

“No, you’ll be raped for the label of ‘sweet meat’ you’ve got written all over your androgynous face. Quit worrying about yourself and your own violated poopshoot, you selfish bastard! The goddamn future of Burning Man is at stake here!”

“Eat a medium dick.”

We finally reach the ticket takers. I roll down the window and say, “What seems to be the problem, officer?”

The ticket guy grins. “Wanna tell me why you were going so fast?”

“My wife here is going into labor,” I say.

“I just need to make it to Camp Stork-n-Torque in time to have a safe and blissful delivery,” says Tim.

The ticket guy looks at the large, muscular man in the passenger seat and chuckles as he scans our tickets and early arrival passes. He says, “Newborns are always party-appropriate.”

I open the back of the truck to show him we’re not hiding stowaways or contraband. While I’m back there I retrieve my goggles and the over-decorated respirator I call a “riding mask.”

“Speaking of the Unabomber,” Tim mutters.

I say, “If you can’t handle the freaks, make haste exiting the kingdom.”

The ticket guy hands us back our papers and says, “Well you folks drive slow and have a good one. Welcome home.”

Tim screams “God bless us everyone!”

“That’s a mighty fine lady you got there.”

“She’s a looker,” I say.

Post-playa re-entry: an update

The massive preparation for this year’s Burning Man is my excuse for the radio silence as of late. I arrived back home exactly one week ago, almost to the minute. There is a notorious decompression period after the event. I know this sounds strange to the uninitiated, but it is a real phenomenon and its intensity can vary. Since this was a relatively mellow burn for me, I expected a softer transition back to the “Default world” (aka Defaultia).

Perhaps I underestimated the unyielding clockwork of fragmented glaciers that is the city life of San Francisco. The day after my return, everything in the “real world” seemed a massive, cold monolith that was looming overhead. Every bit of unfinished business seemed to be pounding angrily at my door. The pedestrian masses resembled the daily marches inside a military prison (not that I would know).

I’ve been evading these mundane horrors through the ancient art of procrastination. Aside from two social outings, I’ve only left my apartment for food. Way too much of my personal gear is still covered in alkaline dust. My priorities have been sorting and uploading Burning Man photos and napping, which I almost never do. I’m finally making a dent in the bottle of Bulleit that I surprisingly only half-consumed the previous week. All of my dreams are a unintelligible mosiac of desert imagery – the mark of a playafied subconscious.

As far as the decompressing process, this is actually pretty tame.

But my subterfuge was soon threatened by… a job opportunity. It seems I can return to a career I spent a year trying to distance myself from with a company I once quit without a confirmed alternative. This required applying online, which required the Frankenstein, corpse-cobbling task of writing a cover letter. I hate writing cover letters. I would rather write my own father’s obituary. Especially a cover letter to the effect of “Hi guys! I know I left 3 years ago because I couldn’t take the bullshit intrinsic to this line of work, but I sure would like to re-enter the vicious cycle!”

As you can imagine, this is an uncomfortable dilemma to face so soon after stomping around the desert dressed like a post-apocalyptic ranch hand. (A more comprehensive report of that experience will soon be posted, then I promise to put the topic to bed for a while.)

So long story short, things are in flux. Today I managed to stave off my own malaise, as well as the gastrointestinal effects of bad Vietnamese food, to perform well at the interview. Decisions will have to be made. Compromises are inevitable.

What would be the opposite of a honeymoon? Whatever you’d call that, it’s over.

But for you, dear readers, that means I’ll be manning the soapbox very soon!

Mazel tov,


Shut Up and Spectate!

Burners. We’re a proud and preachy lot. Admit it. Our occasional zeal often stems from the catchphrases that are impressed upon us during our virgin year. “No Spectators” is a particularly hollow sentiment that enthusiasts have been kicking around the dust like a taxidermy hedgehog. It has gone from a plucky encouragement of participation to the low-hanging fruit for burners who desperately need to be better than somebody.

Let’s take a look at this overworn battle cry and explore its relevancy.

No Spectators is not in the Ten Principles. There is the Participation principle, which includes “We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play.”

In the brief span of my Burning Man years, I’ve had some painful conversations with very self-satisfied attendees (especially newbies) explaining how spectating ruins the event. It’s like listening to teenagers on a bus talk tough about snitches. Or adults on Facebook complain about haters.

As far as I can tell, the primary targets of our righteous Burning brethren are usually a) people with cameras, or to a lesser extent b) people who are standing still.

We have this idea of a lecherous “tourist” snapping nudie photos to smuggle back to his dorm room, abduction van, country club, etc. I can agree that attendees with a rude fixation on anatomy are a drag. You should always ask before you a photograph or film a disrobed stranger.

But we all like to commemorate our exploits, right? What if photography or filmmaking is your art? You would think that it goes without saying that using a camera is not taboo in and of itself.

But of course, burners love to hammer flexible suggestions into dogma. Larry Harvey was quoted as saying:

“… photographers are sometimes harassed. And not necessarily because they’re being intrusive or violating someone’s personal boundaries, but simply because the use of a camera indicates to somebody that they’re a spectator. Sometimes I wish we’d never promoted the phrase, ‘No Spectators.’ Who are these people to say that these individuals aren’t participating? The fruit of a photographer’s work doesn’t appear until after the event when they produce images. They’re engaged in a creative pastime, it just isn’t immediately apparent…”   http://aquaburn.com/

There’s also a peripheral tendency to brand anyone on the playa who is quiet, observant, shy, subdued or not radically-something. Can you imagine someone calling David Best a spectator if he didn’t want to do the cabbage patch dance for a grilled cheese sandwich?

Perhaps a true spectator just sits around without contributing art, labor or charm. Even then, you’d have to conduct an investigation with character witnesses, background checks, DNA samples…

The whole No Spectators notion, or at least the level to which we take it, begs the question “Are we expected to be interactive at every given opportunity?”

I think a fair amount of problems at Burning Man come from over-participation. People invite themselves into private areas, climb structures, break toys, interrupt conversations, disrupt performances and rituals, take and touch without asking, overcrowd, overdose, overreact, and literally party till they drop.

Pictured: your constant obligation

My point is that it wouldn’t kill some of us to chill out and just take in the ambiance. There are now over 60,000 of us, there’s a lot going on and we’re in the middle of the goddamn desert (I call it that lovingly). Sit down. Shut up. Drink some water. It’s still an art festival, right? Go contemplate a masterpiece. We got plenty. Try using your eyes, ears and brain. Your mouth, hands and ass could probably use a break. Maybe, just maybe, being a spectator every once in a while isn’t such a bad thing.


(Picture by Jim Lee. Yeah, it’s from Batman. Trademark of DC Comics and Warner Brothers. The other is from South Park. The one where Cartman and Cthulhu destroy Burning Man. It was hilarious. Trademark of Comedy Central, Trey Parker, Matt Stone, etc)

Rundown of the Burning Man Desert Arts Preview 2012

The event had the feel of an informal breakout room presentation. Though not a costume party, there were touches of playa chic in more than a few attendee’s attire. A table in the back served wine in clear plastic cups. As far as burners go, this was definitely not the sound camp club scene. It was an older crowd, many of whom I suspect were at Burning Man in the 90s pre-BRC. These were the people who invite you into their camp off the street to have some BBQ tri-tip.

The whole thing had a certain down-home respectability. If I walked away with anything, it was the understanding that the yearly themes are not for the casual partygoer to bitch about when they can’t “participate” with a cleverly purchased costume.

The themes, arbitrary as they might be, are for the architects who sculpt the skyline of our playground with the stuff of their dreams.

Anyway, here’s the rundown. Please pardon the switch to present tense. Just think of it as a flashback:

Neverwas Haul: Delightful couple Kathy O’Hare (aka Lady Impetuous) and Shannon O’Hare (aka Major Catastrophe) dish on improvements to the Burning Man staple, including an interior motorized lift, updated Camera Obscura, and some engine repair (thank God!)

In camp, they will have a steampunk forest consisting of metal trees with gears and a video of Jules Verne movies. It’s worth noting that Major Catastrophe is the best dressed person in attendance. His combination cap, epauletted coat and steampunk goggles make him look like a supporting character in Escape from New York (I just can’t think of which.)


Anubis: 50’ sculpture of the Jackal god, Anubis. A spiral staircase in the back will lead to the head, which will offer a panoramic view. Dan Fox (whose birthday is today) also worked on 2011’s Trojan Horse, which he praises as a great experience he wanted to repeat.



EGO: The word EGO in large letters. Laura Kimpton, creator of the Celtic Forest, also crafted the big words OINK, MOM  and the iconic LOVE (which will apparently be featured in a new Rolling Stone).

EGO will be 20’ x 16’ made out of wood and plaster molded trophies, animals and religious relics. 150 different molds were created. Kimpton emphasizes the creed “We are an animal, but we’re not the #1 animal on Earth.” She tells a nice anecdote about meeting someone who introduced herself as the “world Scrabble champion” who mistook her Celtic Forest for being anti-intellectual.

The word will burn at midnight after the Man. The trophy pieces that don’t burn will be free for people to pick up and take as souvenirs.


Zoa: Jessica Hobbs of the Flux Foundation impressively showcases her background as a marine biologist. All named after jazz greats, “Billie”, “Etta” and “Nina” will have sound-reactive lighting at night. The three, wooden seedpods will burn on Wednesday, undergoing a metamorphosis and revealing pedal-powered interactive fire sculptures.

(NOTE: Props to Hobbs for using the word “xenomorph” to describe her creations.)



The Circle of Regional Effigies

34 wooden effigies from around the world will be burned Thursday at 9pm:

  • Arboria (Sacramento)
  • Baby Bon Temps Brûlée (New Orleans)
  • Blukis (Lithuania) – negativity-absorbing stump
  • The Boston Cod Piece (Boston)
  • Cargo Train (Great Lakes)
  • CarouShell (San Diego) – a working carousel of sea creatures
  • Chords of Wood (Orange County) – a fire-spewing guitar
  • CowFed (Houston) – giant bull
  • Dragon Lotus (Colorado)– will contain giant moving leaves
  • Fertilitree (East Bay)
  • The Gateway (Reno)
  • Grow Fourth (Portland) – I’ll be honest. I don’t remember seeing this at the presentation, and I already deleted my recording. It’s still on the official page, so I’m going to give it the benefit of the doubt and list it anyway.
  • Growing Pains (Midwest)
  • Happy as a Clam (Maine) – giant clam
  • The Hatchery (Dallas)
  • Jozi (South Africa) – 20’ fertility doll
  • Kokopelli Rising (New Mexico)
  • Le Portage (Montreal) – two small versions of the Man holding a canoe
  • Life Tree – (Vancouver) – climbable double helix
  • Missed Conceptions (Tallgrass)
  • Naglfar (Sweden/Denmark) – Viking ship
  • National Treasure (DC Metro) – 20’ graffiti decorated Washington Memorial
  • The Nowhere Bell Tower (UK)
  • opalEssence (Idaho) – aka the Space Potato
  • PsychoPhilia (Victoria, BC)
  • Rise of the Planet of the Moose (Toronto) – version of the Moose Man from the regional burn
  • The Roeblingagon (NY) – a climbable interpretation of the Brooklyn Bridge
  • Secret of the Bees (Utah)
  • Seraphim (LA)
  • Stella Octangula (Mid-Atlantic/Philadelphia)
  • Tendrillar Woods (Seattle)
  • The Twisted Upright House (SF/North Bay) – a climbable lighthouse sitting on a bed of driftwood
  • Valley of Heart’s Delight (South Bay) – a climbable water tower “harkening back to the days of farm country”

Some of these will be featured at Precompression on June 30th.


The Burning Man Project – Harley Dubois of the Borg explains the timing of Burning Man’s move from LLC to nonprofit. She gives a very succinct Powerpoint presentation listing their ambitions outside of the playa:

  • -Support the regional burns
  • -Contribute to SF by helping local artists, engaging communities and partnering with the Black Rock Arts Foundation and others
  • -Big art for small towns – namely Reno, Fernley and Gerlach
  • -Commissioning Fly Ranch as an art park, nature park and/or a possible location for a regional burn.



Otic Oasis 2.0 – Melissa Barron and Gregg Fleishman. Fleishman, who has an obvious love of geometry, is a man of few words tonight. Barron, also known as Syn, more than makes up this. Otic Oasis is a 38-ft, climbable, honey comb-like structure made of interlocking pieces of wood. It will be removed on Friday, not burned.



Burn Wall Street – Otto Von Danger, a creator of 2010’s Megatropolis, completely steals the show. He promises that we will feel we are in physical danger when his structures burn on Friday night. Von Danger recommends we all wear astronaut pants.

I had heard of the Burn Wall Street project before, but I’m genuinely awed by the levels upon levels of satire and symbolism that’s going into this endeavor. It’s obviously politically charged and a somewhat devisive work. The creativity behind the sentiment is what makes it a searing message (no pun intended) beyond most Burning Man art and political statements that I’ve seen. Make no mistake: Otto Von Danger is not a rabid, confused hippie. He’s a mastermind.

Some basics include:

  • The oversized Bill of Rights on the ground that will be donated to an Oakland school if it doesn’t get ruined by visitors trampling on it.
  • The Bank of UnAmerica – you can bring your real-life foreclosure notices to post on the wall and see burned with everything.
  • Goldman Sucks – contains a giant jungle gym where you can climb the corporate ladder for the highest view of the playa.
  • Merrill Lynched –  will house 4 large murals and screen projections of riot footage at night.
  • Chaos Manhattan – bank tellers will charge you gift schwag for walking, breathing, etc.

Von Danger is obviously very passionate about the piece and doesn’t hesitate to use the podium as a call for socioeconomic change. The entire project will cost $100,000.



Temple of Juno – David Best, the man who needs no introduction, throws out a few specs about this year’s Temple: 75% recycled wood. A 100-ft “or maybe 200-ft” wall with benches on the inside. He doesn’t say much about the inspiration behind the design to us, but I imagine that’s been documented elsewhere.

David Best a soulful man who doesn’t seem too comfortable explaining his work to an audience tonight. I don’t blame him. He truly speaks through his work.

Apparently, Best is also a grief magnet. I swear he has more stories about people who’ve lost loved ones to suicide than anyone outside of the mental health sector.



***UPDATE*** – Burn Wall Street was pretty disappointing. It looked and sounded great on paper, but  up close it was bland and seemingly unfinished. It also burned a day late, which I didn’t get to see. I’ll more into it when I finish my BM retrospective. I just feel like I should at least address it here because I spoke so highly of the piece.