by Claudia Willen
Strange things happen in the desert. UFOs haunt the skies. Cults arise and then vanish under the wrathful sun. Toxic waste disappears into the shifting sands of arid regions, perhaps to re-emerge in a backyard halfway around the world. Nuclear experiments rage underground, leaving behind legions of radioactive ions.
The Black Rock Desert, 100 miles north of Reno, has hosted all these phenomena and more. On Labor Day weekend 1992, its lunar landscape was littered with secret societies hatching arcane plots. Caravans of U-Haul trucks, Volkswagen vans and apocalyptic road-warrior vehicles covered on the scorched sands to observe a bizarre annual ritual: The Burning Man Festival.
Conceived by landscape architect turned performance artists Larry Harvey, the festival has evolved into a forum for artistic expression. Harvey and his friends started building elegant 3-story-tall bipedal figures from two-by fours and shoji panels in 1985. The figures were taken to Baker Beach in San Francisco and torched to commemorate the passing of the summer solstice.
Authorities cracked down on these attempts to revive Celtic traditions because of fire hazards. in recent years, the Burning Man organizers have resorted to using neon light when exhibiting the figure on a barge docked near Fort Manson Center. The Bureau of Land Management issues recreational use permits so the real festival can continue in the remote northwestern corner of Nevada.
“The thing is soaked in kerosene before the burn so we don’t want any premature ignition,” says Cacophony Society member John Law. Law, who makes neon for a living, deftly squirts silicon spark insulation around the electrodes of the 26 glass tubes and caps each connected with a rubber sleeve.
Nearby, a blender breaks down, so some of Law’s “assistants” amuse themselves by blasting the chrome base with a shotgun. Law stops their fun, pointing out that bullets can skitter for miles across the flat desert where vehicles and pilgrims wander incessantly. The ancient lake sediments that comprise the desert playa are great electrical conductors, as early arrivals found out Friday night. BLM agents had everyone get into their cars because a freak thunderstorm threatened to charge the ground with a lethal dose of electricity.
Out in the desert sound dies quickly. Less than a mile from the campsite, the only noise is the crackling of the deep layer of alkali dust. A silent train crosses in front of the mountains at the horizon, looking like a row of floating black boxes in the distortion of the shimmering heat. Suddenly the afternoon wind blows a dome tent across the playa like a tumbleweed and sweaty figures chase after it.
Though they have attended this year’s festival in force, Cacophony Society members like John Law are enigmatic about the purpose of their cabal. They seem to specialize in unannounced public performance art. A newsletter posted at the obelisk near the pavilion in camp central, proclaims: “You may already be a member!”
At dusk on Saturday the 40-foot-tall man is hoisted aloft for the first time by a gang of rope-pullers wearing everything from black leather to djellabas. The setting sun is aligned with the man’s crotch surmounted by a battery-powered smoke detector. The generators kick in and skeletal blue neon glows in the frigid evening air.
Some people tear off for a rave about a mile from camp, while others warm themselves by the fire at the Black Rock Desert’s only cantina, Itchy’s Place. Everything seems to cost two buck, but the wine come in 12-ounce tumblers. Another Cacophony convert, Karl X. Hauser, rides his neon-spoked bicycle through the encampment while wearing a hard hat illuminated with dancing neon-X shapes.
As Sunday dawns, it’s clear that the Burning Man has spawned an eclectic community. A stone maze and sundial have appeared overnight. Some late arrivals pull up in a four-wheeler and build a sturdy stand for their basketball hoop near the central pavilion. Events accelerate as the temporary settlement in the desert takes on the semblance of a town. In rapid succession, there is a wedding by the hot springs, the establishment of the church of Elvis and the posting of the first issue of the Black Rock Gazette at the obelisk in central camp.
A small plane circles overhead, then come in for a landing in a plume of dust. Suddenly, its nose tilts down and the tail comes up as the plane cartwheels on one wing to land belly-up in the sand. The Burning Man villagers rush out to the crash site to give aid, but the pilot and passengers are unhurt. The crowd trickles back to the tents, leaving the upturned plane like a sacrifice to indifferent deities.
‘As evening falls on the final day, a didgeridoo-based house mix thumps from one raver’s campsite, while cooking fire flare up and the festivities begin. A school of people wearing neon fish hats threads its way through the crows shouting at the base of the flaming man. Fireworks arch through the sky, bearing benedictions to the stars.