They Burn Men There, Don’t They? Part 4: Leave No Trace
The art of Burning Man is mind-blowing – the art of what people create of materials and of what they create of themselves, neither of which I have ever seen or imagined anywhere else. The mutant vehicles of Burning Man are massive, mobile, functional sculptures: fast cars in the shape of animals with luminescent spirals for eyes and facial features, tiny autonomous cupcakes careening around the city streets like something out of Alice in Wonderland, surreal geodesic shapes seeming to hover futuristically around and through the campsites and small ships, firetrucks, hot air balloons and 16-wheelers converted into moving dance floors, flamethrowers, bars, restaurants and the odd grasshopper. Our own camp had one such transformation: the Playapillar, a retired S.F. MUNI bus bought for $3000 on Craiglist and converted into a hazy, dusty, green-lit dance hall that took passengers at night.
The first night we arrived we found a huge, spider-like contraption with headlights circling around the Playa and terrorizing passers-by. Intrigued, and not a little scared ourselves, we approached it and discovered it was a yellow velocipede with two huge wheels, two seats between the wheels and two sets of pedals. When they are both cycling forward, the machine goes forward, backwards back, and if one rider slows down while the other speeds up, the contraption either turns or begins to violently rotate, depending on how abrupt the stop is. The perfect toy, that is, for pedaling around the spacious Playa at rapid speeds, pretending to go crash course towards pedestrians and cyclists, then breaking sharply and spinning off into another direction. Well, Johnny and I thought it was the perfect toy until a set of older men on bicycles (who we also pretended to be running over) stopped us and told us they were with an official camp in charge of this machine, and it wasn’t supposed to be out at night. “This isn’t a toy,” they said. Oh.
There were the massive sculptures: the beautiful, gargantuan Woman visible all over the Playa and capable of gorgeous chameleon-esque color transformation, or the Man himself, standing at the center of the Playa. There were smaller, interactive structures like flame cages for warming up at night and spinning kaleidoscopic tubes to stand (and get dizzy) in. And there were those in between—large structures of otherworldly entertainment value, including a tall and climbable honeycomb structure for high views of Black Rock City and Syzygryd, a glowing (and burning) geometric music sculpture with a touchscreen composer’s panel designed to let the participant mix and broadcast ambient noises.
We ourselves had no art, nor any planned performance, to give back to the Playa. Inspired, however, by all we had seen there, Ida and I, one night, undertook to shake things up a little ourselves, Cacophonist-style (or, if you please, Monty Python-style). After a bit of experimentation with spontaneous hypnotism, we discovered that, for the sake of performance and fun, people were willing to do about anything anyone told them on the Playa, so long as it was done in a funny-enough voice, with ridiculous-enough costumes and wild-enough gesticulations—and so long as we believed in our own absurdity.
Suddenly it dawned on us to create a new Playa religion. I turned to Ida, “What is the name of our God?” Without missing a beat, she responded, “Jessidaauooaahhhooaahhhooaahhhooaahhhooaahhhooaahhh.” “Brilliant!” I said. Almost immediately, we stumbled upon a trellis sitting out in the middle of the Playa, with no signs, props, people or apparent purpose. It was clear to us that the Playa was giving us a gift of this trellis, the new temple for the religion of Jessidaauooaahhhooaahhhooaahhhooaahhhooaahhhooaahhh.
Ida and I staked out the grounds surrounding the trellis and, upon ‘invasion’ by ‘infidel’ forces, we would storm out and castigate the trespassers: “You have entered the holy land of Jessidaauooaahhhooaahhhooaahhhooaahhhooaahhhooaahhh. Mwahahaha!” The evil laugh was just for effect. “You may not pass until you have done two things. First, you must devote yourself to the religion of Jessidaauooaahhhooaahhhooaahhhooaahhhooaahhhooaahhh. To do so, you must pray at our temple!” We would lead the poor, confused infidels to our trellis temple, where, on spur of the moment thinking, we told them that to pray at the temple, they must say the full name of our God while bobbing their head up and down to the rhythm of the name, i.e. “JessiDAAUUooAAHHHooAAHHHooAAHHHooAAHHHooAAHHHooAAHHH.” We would all say it together, congratulate them effusively for being new converts to the religion, then give them the second initiatory task – usually making them laugh in an evil laugh.
We succeeded, all told, in converting around 15 people, though the religion later hit a schism point when a new convert, whose playa name was “Mystical Warrior,” demanded that he, too, become a god of the religion, lengthening the name to a chunkier-sounding “Jessidaaumysticalwarrioraahhhooaahhhooaahhhooaahhhooaahhhooaahhhooaahhh”. And then we got bored with the whole thing and decided to try walking blind for the rest of the night, with the aid of shamans we ran into while groping our way around the Playa.
Burning Man was a “Leave no trace” event, meaning we were to leave the way we found it. We were required to pick up anything we might drop, to bring our trash with us back to civilization, and even to discard gray water off the Playa. The most monumental symbols of the event were burned rather than taken along in the final few nights on the Playa, including the Metropolis, a set of large wooden buildings arranged like a city skyline, the Temple, a magnificent porcupine-like structure that glowed red through its serrated exterior walls, and, of course, the Man. The Playa, weeks after the event, bears no trace of anyone having ever been on it.
There was no requirement for Burning Man to leave no trace on us. It would have been a very difficult rule to follow.
This post was originally published at Painting the Passports Brown.