Geek Heaven at Burning Man

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I spent last week in the greatest, weirdest, geekiest city in the world. Burning Man is the annual, weeklong art and culture festival that’s been going on in one form or another since the mid-’80s. It happens on a very hot, very dusty prehistoric lakebed in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, the week leading up to Labor Day; upwards of 50,000 people attended this year. This was my twelfth consecutive year there, but the basic principles of the event have remained the same: Participate! (If you go, you’re expected to do something for the benefit of the community–art or infrastructure or entertaining self-expression.) Decommodify! (It’s not a cash or even barter economy, it’s about giving gifts–which changes almost everything about how people relate to each other.) Leave no trace! (Clean up after yourself. Seriously.) Piss clear! (It’s a desert. It will kill you in no time flat if you don’t drink water. A lot of water. At least a gallon a day is a good idea.)

To answer the questions I always get: Yes, it’s very different now than it was in 1999, but I like that it changes all the time. No, it hasn’t “gotten really commercial”–it’s kind of hard for that to happen when you’re not allowed to use money (for anything other than ice and coffee) or advertise anything. No, the strongest thing I consumed this year was half a cup of coffee.

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For some people, Burning Man is the biggest dance party in the world, with big-name DJs pumping out beats all night every night from clubs and bizarrely decorated vehicles. For others, it’s a weeklong yoga and meditation retreat, or an opportunity to get totally wasted and indulge the absence of inhibitions, or a testing ground for cutting-edge technology, or just a particularly challenging camping trip.

For most attendees (including me), though, it’s an insanely interesting art festival, with tiny and huge and awful and magnificent work sprawling all over an enormous patch of desert (to experience a lot of the bigger and odder pieces, you have to bike a few miles out into the “deep playa”). There are aerial-silk butoh performances, and hordes of rampaging ninjas in cow costumes, and cooks dishing out traditional Viking pancakes, and a human-scale ant farm, and rock bands with electric cellists, and cars shaped like gigantic metal snails, and a Thunderdome where people wallop the bejesus out of each other with padded staffs, and enormous wooden letters that spell out OINK, and naked bicycle repair geniuses, and a Billion Bunny March, and a 40-foot-high sculpture of a blissed-out nude dancer with stainless steel skin, and a huge chill-space full of hookahs, and a phone booth labeled TALK TO GOD with a very wise and helpful entity offering advice when you pick up the receiver, and a 6 1/2-ton mechanical spider walking across the desert floor, and that’s not even the beginning. 50,000 participants mean there’s a whole lot of stuff to see.

This year’s theme was “Metropolis”; some of the contributing artists took that literally, and a handful of works made reference to Fritz Lang’s 1927 movie. (If you biked a good long way out into the desert, you’d eventually come upon a little movie theater, with plush seats and popcorn and candy and everything, that screened it a few times after midnight.) More generally, though, a lot of this year’s art was constructed around themes of the modern city, industrialization and technological cross-chatter. There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of works on display, but here were three of the most impressive:

*The Temple of Flux. Every year, at the crown of the city, there’s a temple; it assumes a different form every year, but it’s traditionally the place where Burning Man’s attendees come to write messages about loved ones they’ve lost, and it’s burned on Sunday night in a solemn ceremony that’s effectively the end of the event. This year’s temple, designed by members of the Flaming Lotus Girls, was a sort of commentary on the “Metropolis” theme–a grand, rippling cavelike structure, with a few fire pits, and “ports” to see the rise and fall of the sun and moon. (If the modern metropolis is the city, the original metropolis was a cave with some fire in it.) It was an exquisite work, very different from any Burning Man temple before it. In the middle of the week, among the memorial messages, I found the single geekiest thing I saw all week: a heartfelt, passionate, multimedia memorial to Nightcrawler of the X-Men.

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*Syzygryd. Created by Interpretive Arson–the same people who designed the hilarious Dance Dance Immolation a few years back–this was a fantastic piece of interactive tech: a gigantic piece of sculpture with light, melody, rhythm and fire elements controlled by three step-sequencer touchscreens. (Daniel Garcia took some splendid pictures of it in action here–you can see one of them above.)

*Ein Hammer. The brainchild of an artist who calls himself Mister Jellyfish, this was a giant sculpture of a hammer that shot flames into the air. It was less a Ding an sich than the center of a performance piece. Every night, “Dr. Rotwang” (as in “Metropolis,” again) commanded the “workers” to strike a blow to restart the turbines beneath the city: three audience members had to hit their targets simultaneously with sledgehammers to activate a burst of the grand fire. Meanwhile, three costumed “strudel girls” served freshly toasted apple Pop-Tarts to the crowd. It was awesome.

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