THE COMING OF AGE OF BURNING MAN BACKSTORIES
This image is one of the few in Waking Dream where the year it was shot is important in a documentary sense.
Most of the camera-based art I make about Burning Man is less concerned with documentary info (who-what-where-when) and more preoccupied with metaphor and symbol. Roland Barthes talked about the subjectivity of photographic time, that it’s here and it’s then, and it’s now and it’s formerly, and it’s present in thought yet dead in fact; and by process of association one can access different levels of signification and meaning beyond the slice of time as framed. In that sense an image can suspend time and continue to be relevant. We value something that remains still in the changing world. Something that, like a yantra, helps focus the mind.
Here, the year was 1990, and this was the first time Burning Man had set foot on the playa.
Larry Harvey, director of Burning Man, and his son have climbed part way up the right leg, and Dan Miller, master of construction and rope raising, sits astride the Man’s right shoulder. John Law, logistical wunderkind who made the early years happen (at all) is the tall, standing figure with torn jeans behind the guy wire.
The Man is blue in my picture because he had come from Baker Beach, and the sea, where he hadn’t been permitted to burn in 1990. After ‘chewing over’ where to burn him, John Law, Kevin Evans and I each approached Larry to tell him about the Black Rock desert where Mel Function and John Bogard had played giant croquet using pick up trucks as mallets – and where we thought we could burn the Man with impunity (fly beneath the radar).
No one would know we were there except – us! (Us being Larry and Jerry James, co-creator of the Man, and Michael Mikel, John Law, Dan Miller and me, along with fellow members of the SF Cacophony Society – billed as “a randomly gathered network of free spirits united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society through subversion, pranks, art…”).
That first year we had 80 or 90 people. That was it. But nature abhors a vacuum. And the Black Rock playa – one of the largest alkali flats in the world, essentially lifeless and flat as a pool table where a 6’ man standing three miles away will disappear due to curvature of earth –is one big vacuum. And Larry came along with express intentions to fill it. “Bill," he told me early on, “I see a million people on the playa."
Blue Man Chew features my sleight-of-hand use of color, where the literal is often transformed. The Man, built of Douglas fir, was natural wood color, the playa, a washed-out silt, and the sky pale, hazy blue with no hints of lavender or purple.
Since this was our beginning on the playa, though – the Man’s baby step – I reached for gouache-like plum and purple for the sky and atmosphere, and bluey-greens and rose for the playa.
Larry’s foreshortened arm is pointing directly at the camera, as if both to acknowledge my presence and, presumably, wanting to direct. At Michael Mikel's suggestion, he’s wearing the white fedora he sports for his trademark persona.
Colors, chosen for their emotional resonance, dress this documentary image in shades of feeling. After all, this is morning of the first day of a movement that by 2014 was attracting 70,000 revelers from around the world for the ‘greatest rave and sculpture garden on earth’ and a global networking caravansary, aka the Burning Man-demic. What a radical transformation!
The 'cosmo-polis' of good feeling Burning Man would eventually become is hinted at in the sweet lavender of the sky-vault and the sky-high blue of Blue Man Chew.
Titles are important to me. They give clues about ways to enter the picture.
This image is an example of what Hollywood calls ‘day for night’. This is where an image shot in broad daylight (in this case, early afternoon, about 1:30 pm) is made to look like a moonlit night or, as here, twilight.
The picture shows two prominent sets of 4x4 truck tracks venturing out onto the Hualapai Playa (the one year Burning Man was at Fly Ranch). One guy, encountering soft mud just under the thin dry crust, veered left to avoid getting stuck. The other guy, perhaps primed on testosterone and beer, charged ahead until he started getting stuck – then, wisely backed out in his own tracks. Saved himself an expensive and risky tow job!
In this graphic earth drawing made by tire tracks, we have a dialectic: two ways of dealing with a problem. Both were successful in this case.
The reason for making the image as a day for night is that it amplifies the existential sense that we’re always making choices, and sometimes the choices we make are crucial in some way.
The image floats in an atmosphere of timeless twilight, day and night are balanced. It’s a time for looking into ourselves to ask pertinent questions and chart a course through whatever-it-is that we personally face.
I have another reason for draping this image in twilight. I think it’s suggestive…
My brother Nate and I once had a compelling UFO experience at Black Rock Spring, where we were enjoying an after-burn soak. (And no, we weren’t on anything.) It was dusk; the first stars – Venus the evening star a bit brighter – hanging just above the mountains. We were relaxing, feeling soothed in the mud and warm water. But then we noticed that something was wrong.
As we gazed intently, Venus seemed to begin slowly growing in size and brightness! We blinked – and poked each other. Do you see what I see? But what the heck is that – “Venus” now definitely appeared to be moving – moving along a vector toward us, slowly descending … an aggregate of light, many miles out, not like any plane, slowly descending as if down a zipline – coming right in our direction – not turning left or right – straight at us … and we realized with spikes of alarm – my God – could be it’s coming right here, like we’re the destination, like maybe it’s going to land…! Right Here!
Now the light was getting much brighter; it was no more than five miles away, I estimated - very close, just above the ground in the middle distance, a bright orb of light in a shadowy shape … and we’re wishing for God, any God, something, anything, and we’re uttering prayer-and-mantra-like gutturals while acknowledging there was no place to hide.
We slumped deeper into the mud, cringing, shrinking down, gasping with a puking sense of resignation … but then suddenly – suddenly! – “it” shot straight up in the air seemingly about the height of my hand held outstretched for persepective, then it angled 90 degrees left, then straight up, then 90 deg. left, then straight up … and so on – in a radical stair step motion going to upper left, maybe 15 or 20 steps to where it was well up in the sky and far away, then without pause it made a huge sweeping arc like a Saracen’s sword across a quarter of the dome of the sky to a point (from our perspective) where there was a certain star, and somehow it “merged” with the star.
And though we continued to stare for half an hour or so, we never saw it again, and the star continued to be just where it was before the UFO “merged” with it or disappeared into dimensions somehow contained within the light of that star (from our time-warped perspective) … and then we slumped with relief, hog-nestled in the warm mud of Black Rock Spring.
One (of many) things we marveled at: those 90-degree angles appeared to be absolutely precise! There were no radii in these stair-step turns. Even the most nimble front line fighter jet can't turn without a radius. What we witnessed utterly upset the quantum apple cart of physics. The movement of the craft, or whatever it was, was so extremely rapid and out-of-this-world precise that from the time the slowly vectoring-in light first shot straight up to when to merged with that star probably took no more than a second. But we saw it in extreme slow motion. Every detail.
Hence the title, Alien Declension, Invergence Denied. Whatever it was, it scratched a glyphic pattern into the fabric of the evening sky, an alien cuneiform, a pictograph – something – and our mental chops got busted, for we had been permitted to enjoy some kind of a trans-world communication.
Which thankfully didn’t involve our being abducted and supra-medically examined, or whatever else.
And so, I invite you as the viewer – give yourself free rein interpreting this picture. This is Day For Night.
When it occurs (seldom), rain is a break from the often-incessant heat on the playa.
Burnished in Maxfield Parish colors, this moment following a cloudburst was such a rush it sent burners slithering in the newly made mud..
This gave me the opportunity to imagine burners as restored to their common element, a star cluster of humans in space, just dust, water and molecules needed to create organic life. Adults cavorting like children, and tensions of the day, released.
The playa alkali silt consists of very fine, flat-grained particles that act strangely when wet. With a little water the playa becomes gummy, which can ball and clog up wheel wells so tires won’t turn. It can stick so gloppy to your footwear that you can’t walk but a few feet without stopping to scrape it off again. Oh well. But if it keeps raining, then it gets so slippery even badass 4x4s sit and shudder in place (with all four wheels spinning).
That’s when the playa becomes magic for otters and mudfish.
A little conjecture: If a major rainstorm, several hours, were to occur during the exodus, no vehicle would be physically able to leave the playa (hovercrafts excepted). The only thing you could do is ’shelter in place’. Yet the common instinct to escape could trigger dangerous attempts by a few throttle jockeys to gun their engines and make a run at it like road warriors in a bog. This would present a challenge. The mass mind would need to engage in realpolitik problem-solving, and spread the word to chill, make no sudden moves, just hang until the playa dried enough.
I think most folks would figure it out. And those that didn’t might be amusing to watch (in a twisted schadenfreude sort of way) assuming it all ended well. Which it probably would.
At dusk I encountered four colorful folks near this zinger of a metal flower, and I asked them to pose as an ensemble. I saw them as representing the four classic elements: Earth, Air, Fire and Water. And I felt they were grounding the space around them, helping to bring the evening into balance.
Thus the figures stand distinctly in their personal space, animating it with their intent and intensity, poise and sculptural bodies. They all relate to the flower and their gestures seem to pass energy to one another. The woman is flowering Earth, the man with the concave mirror is Air, the mariachi-hatted man is Fire, and the blue man is djembe-trancing Water.
Together they represent balance and an equanimity of people and place. They’re standing at the end of the world, the end of our default reality, the end of normal thought and action, and the transition to the new.
These four are keepers of the spirit of Burning Man. Simply and immediately involved, each doing his/her part with no wasted motion, in desert trance, keeping the beat and the light going, tending the fire and helping to grow the common body of the event.
Like a beacon or lighthouse delivering homing signals to travelers on the playa, the tuner is Pepe Ozan’s sculpture, pulsating with silky, plasma-emitting, starburst messages.
Silk & Tuner dwells near the "threshold of a dream" as the Moody Blues once sang: "Lovely to see you again my friend/Walk along with me to the next bend… Tell us what you’ve seen/In faraway forgotten lands/Where empires have turned back to sand."
That song from my youth played in my head when I witnessed this sunset. As the sunset peaked and people raised their arms toward the sky, it felt like an epiphany when you suddenly realize the truth of something that had long been confounding.
The playa seems conducive to such experiences. Silk & Tuner is an analogue for the state of mind when the blinders come off and one recognizes what has been there all along (but perhaps never before seen).
At the turning of the day there’s a moment when one can affirm something important to the self and other, grasp the brass ring – and fly into the threshold of dream the camp becomes when it lights up at night.
Officially known as the "Carthedral" (sic), this art car by Rebecca Caldwell is a stunner, one of my favorites.
I happened on the artist at her camp and asked if she would pose for me with her machine. I wanted to take the car out to the Man because I felt such a pairing was a natural. She agreed.
Rebecca posed with arms up-stretched, conveying the inescapable power she and her machine possessed. I dubbed her car Mont. St. Michel for the way it rises up, with massing that recalls the famous island with an abbey on top off the coast of France.
The deep shadows in the image are turquoise and blue-green to set off the cranberry mousse of playa silt. This combination creates vibrancy and color adjacency (retinal) effects, helping to tie the playa to the blue of the sky.
This image is dedicated to the vast contributions made by the women of Burning Man. Without them the event might well collapse under the weight of its own success.
This Janus-faced art car puts a dimple in the fabric of space/time on the playa. It’s a phantom that stares at you both coming and going – quite hypnotic to watch. It suggests altered states of awareness.
It’s often said that the playa is already altered, that we don’t need substances of any kind. The fact is that just walking around with open eyes is sufficient to transport one into an altered something.
I think of this as 'desert trance'. The heat, light, dust, vast space and hive-mind of endless activity and relentless socializing produce altered states naturally. Some things dissolve into insignificance while others flame up into vivid moments that seem to spin at their own frequencies, like dust devils at the burn, just outside our normal sense of time and space.
It’s all subjective, after all, and the playa leaves nothing untouched. Nothing. It permeates our tongue, eyes, pores and omindset, moment by moment. Red Shift is about just such a desert trance.
What was Charlie Gadekin’s playa curtain doing out there, stretched like a living room drape the length of a cruise ship? Was it an echo of Christo’s Valley Curtain (Rifle, Colorado, 1972), albeit a quarter of a century later?
If Christo’s Valley Curtain was a monumental art world feat of engineering anchored to mountainsides high above our heads, a spinnaker spanning Rifle Gap with a punch-out for the highway, Charlie’s playa curtain was a people’s low-rider, rough cloth, a family affair, painted and stenciled and stretched out by hand.
If Christo’s Valley Curtain shrieked ‘look at me’ in universal orange like traffic cones and had to be taken down after 28 hours because of an approaching gale-force storm, Charlie’s playa curtain was a durable affair, raised in sere desert heat where it gracefully lived. Perhaps it impeded your passage – yet it delineated a view. It offered itself as a navigation reference and a gathering spot with a shadow line. It bisected the landscape: mountain above, playa below.
Charlie’s playa curtain has its echo in the shadow cast by a powered paraglider’s wing. The pilot attempts to take off with help from friends. We’ll never know if he succeeded. Charlie’s curtain is shaped like an aileron. I think it suggests flight and movement. Certainly, to be on the playa is to feel exhilarated – yet constrained – by the vastness, the implacable flatness.
To me, the aviator’s effort is a distant cousin of the Wright Brothers over the sands at Kitty Hawk. The aviator wants to break the bonds of Earth. Wants to gain perspective. Wants to cop breezes above the "ant"-ics of hive mind as displayed on the playa.
The Balling Loon plays with 'lift off', the desire to raise oneself above the ordinary. The wing seems to sprout an atmospheric sack, like a hot air balloon, jellyfish or thought balloon. Or maybe an embryonic sack? For somebody’s birth of flight, certainly. What’s your vision?
In A Son Also Rises, the age-old celebration of the return of the sun following the shortest day of the year is echoed in the yearly celebration of the return of the Man to the playa.
In this time exposure he is shown being pulled up from the ground by folks hauling a rope (not visible) at the bidding of Dan Miller. Standing, the Man appears inside his glyphic-light ‘eggskin’ set against an alabaster sky.
The sky is like a plasma-filled stained glass window, a crystalline atmosphere. It’s effervescent – a toast of the sky to the Man.
A Son Also Rises presents a scene of shared activity, hope and transformation; It portrays a state where everything is somehow right with the world, for a moment at least – as in an epiphany. It’s a new year rising, writing over the old.
It was deep night and still hot as Hades, the graveyard shift – the Styx shift. And here came a band of brigands driving their deconstructed Chrysler land boat (Charon's boat, I swear) across the wasteland. As a punster once fond of Greek myth, I couldn't resist the connection.
I liked their attitude and asked if they would pose for me. Of course they said yes, and I set up my 8'-tall tripod and stepladder, gave them some direction, tripped the shutter – and went to work.
During the ensuing two-minute exposure I ran around making about twelve pops with my gelled, hand-held flash unit, moving among and around my merry band of posers. They patiently and gamely followed my directive to remain motionless "as in a still life" while I darted about using my best flash-dance moves, popt!-popt!-popt!
Raking their figures in rays of sidelight bursts, I never paused long enough in this process of sculpting with light to show up in the exposure. Their dog, though, obviously thought "still life" was an oxymoron. Pooch got himself light-clipped three times – three heads. He's gotta be Cerberus, no doubt about it.
Pepe Ozan was a metal sculptor and videographer, who lived in San Francisco at the artist’s cooperative, Project Artaud. When Judy West and I were organizing the second year of Desert Siteworks in 1993, Pepe joined in the fun and built the first of what he called “lingams” (chimney-like fire funnels) at the DSW event at Trego Hot Springs. That year I encouraged DSW participants to volunteer at the Burning Man project. (From day one I considered Burning Man and Desert Siteworks to be like brother and sister projects).
Pepe was an indefatigable personality, tireless as an artist and community organizer. The lingams he built were tall, phallic sculptures that he stuffed with cordwood and set afire. He built them using rebar-enforced armatures supporting metal mesh coated with mud, which cracked and became illuminated filigree as fire rushed up the chimney.
Pepe also used the lingams as stages for his popular Burning Man Operas that he held for several years on the playa, replete with hundreds of costumed actors and dancers, with original music and choreography.
In Hand Off we see: (1) a rehearsal for the opera; (2) a group of ghostly Sky People clad in dark robes and attire convening a meeting in the clouds; and (3) a semi-transparent man (carrying a briefcase?) and a woman with a parasol walking through the four-columned space of the lingam.
This is a 'magical realist’ image. By this I mean seemingly unrelated, realistic elements are brought together in a context that, while technically impossible, makes sense within the logical construct and linguistic parsing of the image. People generally don’t float in the sky in our world, but within the charmed language and landscape of metaphor they do.
I had already composited the bones of this image before I learned of Pepe’s tragic suicide at his home in Argentina. The original title was Hand Off (a Confederacy of Sky People). I changed it to the current title when I realized this image was a most fitting memorial to his life and work.
Incidentally, Pepe appears in this image, shirtless, bowed, turning away, in the left middle distance surrounded by his many players getting ready for a show (that never ends).
In 1996 Steve Heck delivered 100 spent pianos to the playa. He handed out boxes of sticks. The inevitable result was achieved – a gluttonous cacophony of odd and curious sonorities.
Playa carpenter ants went to work banging and clanging on strings that protruded everywhere from the two-story high aggregate of soundboards. Talk about a soundscape of joyful noise! Players of all skill levels were called into action. It was a volksmusik of playa muscle.
I made two images of the Piano Bell: this one, and another done at night. "Playing Taps" is about the community spirit that coalesces around a focal point like the Bell, and jumps in and gets involved. The ebb and flow of sound has its visual echo in the fiery wraiths and vapors rising from the piano.
I asked myself: How do you convey sound and feelings (not just depictions) of celebration in a still photograph? And I began playing with the idea of synesthesia.
If you stare at a visual representation of sound, can you better imagine the experience of being wrapped in a cacophony of noise with sonorous overtones? Can you better re-create the experience of being warm and happy and grooving in an atmosphere distant from where you are now as you read these words?
If you bring your active imagination to this image, what then? Will you be inspired to go to the kitchen and bang on pots and pans and glasses and dishes? Many drummers started out this way.
The man dressed in white and wearing a straw hat is the focalizer. Visually, he sets the tone and tempo. He’s the turbulator. The lead musician for a group that doesn’t need a lead. It’s really a self-directed free-for-all. It’s a celebration, and it can be whatever thoughts you let fly over the abstract ‘smoke’ that rises from the bell. A smoke of personal alchemy in an image that is a kind of yantra, an orchestrated image that, despite its cacophonous energy, can transport the viewer into a meditative state.