What’s Burning Man?
Burning Man is a huge radical arts festival in the desert in Nevada (in the middle of nowhere). This year there were 48,000 people who came together to build a temporary city for a week. It’s also the largest “leave no trace” event in the world. Every person who comes is responsible for bringing in all of their food, water & supplies, and are also responsible for taking it out with them, including any used water, trash, food scraps, etc… Port-a-potties are provided. The only commerce is ice (sales go towards local schools) and coffee (sold at cost). There is a lot of “gifting” – whether it’s a gift of a handmade piece or jewelry, or a drink or something to eat. But there is no bartering or sales beyond ice or coffee.
The art is big and small — huge, beautiful installations in the desert, many of them with fire or illuminated at night. Many are interactive. There’s also many art cars and art bikes.
For more info (better info) on what Burning Man is, go here and here. Also, a documentary that we watched on the behind the scenes prep was: Burning Man: Beyond Black Rock City. I really appreciated knowing the year round effort that goes into the event when I was there.
The photo below is an aerial photo of Burning Man, 2007:
Astor Place is a block in New York that has the potential to be a great pedestrian space, but besides the insane traffic it also has 3 Starbucks, a Kmart, and other chain stores and restaurants – all of which keep it from living up to its potential. It’s anchored by a rotating cube sculpture that has been a meeting place for people since it was built, and is easily recognized by all New Yorkers. It’s also home to a beautiful subway station. Our theme camp built replicas of these icons, and included other things that make for an ideal urban block- no cars, lots of bikes and pedestrians; park benching; greenery (Ian and I made the flowers); brownstones with comfortable stoops; a tea house (I made the pots for this); street lamps; a cinema; a lounge and more. All of these parts that were built were shipped out to Nevada and assembled in the desert to create this urban oasis that any and all could interact with or just hang out.
For the whole story on our camp, please go here.
Some great pictures of our actual set up is here. (make sure you go to that link!)
- From the blog Incoherent Thoughts.
- Tom’s blog (who was in our camp), and a follow-up.
- From the blog Living The Romantic Comedy.
- From Gothamist
Now that you have some sort of image of what Burning Man and Astor Place Imagined is all about, I’ll get a little bit more personal about the experience that Ian and I had.
We have spent a ridiculous amount of time preparing for the event- you have to be prepared for the following conditions: extreme heat (110 degrees); cool nights (down to 30 degrees); crazy dust storms (goggles, dust masks, etc…); camping gear (tent, sleeping bags, headlamps, CamelBaks, etc…); bikes & bike repair stuff (we rented space on a truck and shipped them out with someone else who was going from Chicago); snacks (salt!), first aid, tons of sunscreen, good shoes, etc… We also made sculptural plants to decorate the brownstones and stoops with (see them here). There was a tea stand that a couple other people were working on, and I made pots for them (see here). That was all shipped out on the Chicago truck, too.
And to participate in the experience of gifting, we made tons of ceramic pendant necklaces that had some of the Playa soil rolled into the clay (“the Playa” is the name they use for the desert where the event is every year). My friend Gina had gone to Burning Man two years ago and brought back some of the dusty Playa and shared her stash with me. The Playa soil is a huge part of the experience. It’s a dry lake bed that is extremely alkaline. It’s completely lifeless. If you let your feet be exposed, they will burn and crack. And if you have a small cut, it has a hard time healing. The necklaces were a little piece of the Burning Man experience that people could take away with them.
Since I make my living selling pots, it was an very different experience to give away my work over the course of the week instead of selling it. I wish I could do it all of the time, but it’s not the most practical business model. After spending the last 11 years of my life with Ian, an open source programmer, and spending the week at Burning Man with other open source folks and living in a temporary gift economy, I’ve been trying to figure out how to bring those ideas together with my life as a potter. I realize is that I can do that through this blog. I might not be able to give away pots all of the time, but I can share information.
The thing about gifting that really struck me (as a giver and receiver) was giving with no expectation for reciprocation. No expectations, just a warm fuzzy feeling from a kind gesture. It makes it easier as a giver too – you don’t have to try to figure out who someone is before you give, you don’t have to decide if the exchange or interaction will be worth it, because you know it won’t be worth anything really, you don’t have to figure the person out because it doesn’t really matter. As a receiver, if someone shared their bottle of sunscreen with you, you didn’t have to think “should I give them some money for that.” It’s subtle, but the lack of tension around reciprocation was freeing – a letting go of the question of economics, of valuation, the skepticism you have to constantly maintain in a consumer-oriented environment. The freedom I felt is how I feel about writing this blog. I’m happy to link away and share with you things that I think are fabulous, and if someone decides to link back then that’s great, but it should always to up to the individual. I always get a funny feeling when someone emails me asking for reciprocal links – I’m happy to link to neat things, but exchanging links makes it feel disingenuous.
Back to the dust. There are the dust storms, big and small. High winds (65mph), white-out conditions, blowing debris. You have to be careful- take shelter and make sure that your camps are well secured. But they are also really fun. There is something about an intense, slightly scary situation that brings people together. During the first storm we found ourselves taking shelter in another camp that we happen to be next to when the storm hit. They were nice, but their structure seemed a little precarious, and we move slowly back to our camp where everyone was hanging out snacking and drinking under one of the shade structures waiting it out. We were having such a great time that we didn’t even notice that the storm had ended!The second storm we were out on the open Playa and one of the big crazy double decker art-party buses pulled up and via loudspeaker told everyone around that a big storm was about to hit. We jumped on, and within 2 minutes, there was a total white-out. We stayed on the bus with other dust storm refugees until the storm quieted down and we had enough visibility to walk back to camp. At the end of the storm, there was a hug double rainbow. Beautiful! We were left with a 1/2 ” of dust coating everything in our tent. The tent was made to shelter from rain, but not from dust storms!
Then there are art cars and installation pieces- big and small. And constant pulsating techno music. I wish we’d heard other kinds, but there wasn’t much. Everyone has bikes, and at night everyone lights themselves up with glowing electroluminescent wire and LEDs. Not many white lights, but lots of glowing colors. At night, when it’s cooler, everything come alive and everything’s glowing. The art looks totally different at night, and much of it has a fire aspect to it ( burning man). All very surreal.
Perhaps the best part of the experience was spending an intense week with with Ian’s co-workers and extended crew and getting to know them. It’s an amazing group of people, and since most of them are in New York and we’re in Chicago I hadn’t really gotten to know them yet. I am glad to know them now.
The group worked like crazy for months and months before Burning Man planning and building our camp. And they pulled it off better than I ever could have imagined! People keep asking me if I’ll go again. My immediate answer is YES! But then my next thought is that I can’t imagine going with another group.
Once of the many surprises of our camp was the absolutely amazing food that was prepared for us by chef Lacey. I NEVER imagined that we’d be eating better in the desert then the rest of the year. You can get her cookbook here on Amazon.
The transition into the default world has been surprisingly difficult, but in a really good way. My dreams have been full of Burning Man thoughts for the last 3 weeks trying to process the experience. Getting some of the thoughts down on paper has helped too. Thanks for letting me share.