This is the final post in a three-part series on the annual arts and (counter) culture festival, which has its roots in the San Francisco Bay Area. The first two posts are also chronicled below.
One week after Burning Man, a steady stream of dirty cars still flow into the San Francisco Bay Area.
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.
A remote control hot tub still sits in the NIMBY’s yard. A giant cereal bowl with pillows in magical, delicious shapes lay in waiting for Burning Man. Earlier this week, a semi-truck hauled them from industrial Oakland to the desert plain of Black Rock City and Burning Man.
“About seventy-five percent of the art from here has already reached the desert,” Michael Snook, founder of NIMBY, said. “We helped create 10 large scale installations.”
That these artworks got this far is a small miracle. NIMBY, a do-it-yourself art warehouse, has had trouble staying open for its artists. After it opened in West Oakland in 2004, they had a small fire. Then the City of Oakland said they had to move.
Dave Pedroli, NIMBY business consultant, hated to leave his West Oakland neighborhood. “Pals lumber was our next-door neighbor and that’s the only place you can get custom cut wood. They don’t sell that at Home Depot.”
But by the end of 2008, NIMBY found a home in East Oakland, in so-called warehouselandia. Zoned as an M-30 Heavy Duty manufacturing space, the former wood manufacturing plant’s 64,000 square feet of space now house NIMBY tenants. The move cost more than $50,000 and set up a fundraising necessity upon move-in.
Luckily, Burning Man organizers threw down some cash. “The Black Rock Arts Foundation really helped us in our transitional times,” Dave said.
Many tenants at NIMBY are self-described burner artists. Pedroli, or “Super Dave” as he is known, worked for BRC’s Department of Public Works, the planners who lay the groundwork for Black Rock City.
“They also give away great, bizarre grants every year. Once you get a grant from BRAF, you reach a whole new level of opportunity as an artist,” Dave said.
Snook nodded. “Burning man is the gateway grant,” he said.
Both managers stand more than six feet tall and burly, like brown bears in a den of manufacturing equipment. Their art factory, which embraces Burning Man’s “radical inclusion” principle, is run a bit like the Island of Misfit Toys. Volunteers materialize to turn a loose screw or run tools for fellow artists even as they fight to remain on the cityscape.
“For newbie artists inspired by Burning Man, this place is a great place to learn,” Super Dave said. “And Oakland has everything you need.”
A few feet from where Snook and Super Dave stand, and scuttled in between stacked shipping containers was a parked ‘59 El Camino. Sparks fly as Bruce Tomb and his crew readies their homage to the car industry: a transforming car with the likeness of Maria, from the utopian film “Metropolis,” perforated on the hood. That the original Squeegee factory stands a few blocks away from Maria Del Camino seems fitting. And while the Oakland warehouse scene isn’t making any cars these days, the parts are all within city limits.
“They spent about $6,000 on the frame from a shop right around here,” Dave told me as welders soldered parts to their Ave Maria, “and an another $5,000 on the retrofit and welding equipment, electrical components—all of it purchased from Oakland businesses.”
NIMBY isn’t the only art foundry in Oakland. Several warehouses, like Vulcan, Kinetic Steam Works and the Crucible function as art-event spaces to keep creating. But it is hard to build utopian dreams in a city with dystopic bureaucracy. Every year, NIMBY pays some $10,000 in permit fees.
“We’re still paying for our Haiti benefit,” Super Dave said. The fundraiser, held last February, necessitated several police, security dogs and a lot of dead time waiting for a green light.
“In the end, all the money we raised went to the permits,” he said. “I think we sent about 16 palettes of clothes for Haiti’s earthquake relief, but not much cash.”
The road to permit compliance for any artist is marked with detour signs. City Council member Larry Reid, whose District 7 houses the NIMBY lot, took issue with the space. He could not be reached for comment but did claim that NIMBY was nothing more than a party gang.
So, NIMBY holds onto its ten-year lease and waits for their assembly permit (they’re optimistic) as Reid refuses their invitations to visit. Meanwhile, NIMBY reaches out to its neighbors.
“For National Night Out, we had the kids from Tassafronga housing complex. Communities across Oakland took to the streets to see each other and build neighbor relationships. NIMBY “They were really into seeing the fire art displays.”
These kids probably couldn’t swing the $360 ticket price at Black Rock City gates. Displays of a grandiose magnitude have risen on the playa.
And Snook couldn’t be happier. He’s looking forward to another quiet season at NIMBY, when the city of Oakland simmers in post-production burner blitz.
“In the next few months, we’ll be moving out everyone’s stuff,” he said. “And then next winter, we start all over.”
Dan Das Mann and Karen Cusolito displayed many metal sculptures at Amerian Steel, home of Big Art Studios and Sand by the Ton.
Dan Das Mann called me from his 40-foot school bus, on his way to the Black Rock desert, the location of the annual pilgrimage known as Burning Man - the art event of radical self-expression that this local artist approaches in earnest.
This participatory community waiting for him on what is known as "the playa," can grow to nearly 50,000 citizens. It's also what Das Man, co-founder of Big Art Studios of Oakland, calls his art school. For 2010's "Metropolis" theme, he and his partner Karen Cusolito have fantasy in mind.
"We have a new project this year called 'Infinarium,'" he said. "It's a scrap metal forest of funky plants. The pieces range from 5 to 30 feet tall and each one of them is smoking, misting, shooting fire and water. And the forest is interactive, something you might experience in 'Alice and Wonderland.'"
He's also bringing two of the recycled metal sculptures featured at his recent Sand by the Ton party - an electronica, fire art beach party, for which he carted 200 tons of sand into the old American Steel warehouse. These human figures towered over the West Oakland carnival, where dumpster diving in the container pools was encouraged.
The recent event had a similar vibe to Burning Man, with the element of spontaneous fun coming from riding down water slides or scoring at the Cherry Poppin' Skeeball booth. Ever since a San Francisco artist burned an effigy on Baker Beach more than 10 years ago, this and infinite displays of radical self-expression are what makes for utopian moments — in Oakland and on the Burning Man playa.
However, artist Lee Harvey does not consider Black Rock City a paradise.
"I've never regarded Burning Man as a utopia," he once wrote. "Utopias have always seemed to me a little dreary. They are one-size-fits-all propositions. They are rigid schemes that make little allowance for the pluralism of reality. How can we expect to inhabit a perfect society when no human being has ever been perfect? In practice, utopian efforts often reduce down to a search for the 'like-minded.' But by what cheap signboards are we to know the like-minded?"
Since its inception in 1986, Burning Man has shown evidence of like-mindedness in its fashion. Oakland-based costume designer Katherine Becvar sold some of her handmade burner designs at Sand by the Ton. She said she struggles with the standard burner look — a seeming combination of the movie "Waterworld" and burlesque — that tends to make individuals appear more or less the same.
Becvar deviates from the "tribal fur, black leather and hangy things" and instead focuses on Victorian-inspired, LED-lit butterfly tops and utility belts. She gets a lot of her materials at the East Bay Depot for Creative Re-Use and enjoys the handmade hipster craft scene that thrives in the Bay Area.
"In Burning Man fashion, there are all kinds of niches, but beyond that there are no limitations," she said. "If there is a utopian place called Black Rock City, it is this ethos of self-expression, and the way that people dress is wrapped up in that."
At Sand by the Ton, around the corner from Becvar's booth and across from the Cock Toss, stood a display of another installation headed to Burning Man. "Megatropolis," a six-building skyscraper park stationed near the man. Otto von Danger, one of the engineers of the spectacle, had a more apocalyptic notion of Metropolis. The Lift Tower and cityscape centerpiece will feature an elevator that raises people 50 feet to Black Rock City's highest vantage point. But like the man, its future lies in flames.
"It's the only structure on the playa that's going to burn and explode," he said.
Oakland - with its port container cranes and industrial ghost towns - has become a burner city and one of the epicenters of the movement. A sunny city in a dystopian moment, Oakland faces a projected deficit of $50 million next year and has an unemployment rate that hovers around 17 percent. In the throes of recession, art faces eviction from the cityscape.
Yet, the city's artists continue to rise from the pyre. As Das Mann points his school bus toward one contentious utopia, he remarks on another.
"There's a lot of interest in creating work/live spaces that artists tend to congregate in," he said. "Rising costs in San Francisco have turned many artists toward the East Bay. I think that politics of this city are very accepting of the artist's way and the way we want to live and create. Oakland is more like the Wild West."
Suddenly, Das Man's 22-foot trailer carting generators made a lurch.
"I'd better pull over and take care of this," he said. Like every burner, he was willing to work for Black Rock City, even before his arrival.
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