Here’s why Burning Man is worth a week without showers, and also maybe hypothermia.
“Love,” a sculpture by Alexandr Milov. View on Instagram
I have this friend who always says, “I could never go to Burning Man. I like showering.” He rolls his eyes at the dust-covered mayhem; he disdains the desert’s lack of amenities.
And if you’re getting your info from the terribly lazy Burning Man slideshows produced by mainstream media outlets, then it’s reasonable to conclude that Burning Man isn’t worth a week without showers.
Besides, it’s just so easy to hate Burning Man. The dust is toxic, the trip is a giant expensive hassle, there are class issues, and other issues too.
But there’s also nothing else like Burning Man. The festival is a remarkable expression of serendipity, connection, innovation, and openness.
This manticore was part of Mazu, Goddess of the Empty Sea, a temple that was built by The Department of Public Arts from New Xishi City, Taiwan. View on Instagram
Last year, I felt so good afterwards that I came right home and wrote The Best Art of Burning Man 2014. So, here you go: The Best Art Of Burning Man 2015.
Before I get started, though, I gotta admit. 2015 would have been a great year to miss Burning Man.
First there was the plague of horrifying bugs, which was celebrated with glee among the schadenfreuding press. Luckily for me, by the time I got to the desert, the bugs had been swept away by 55-mph winds… which destroyed a huge part of our camp before the festival started. Throughout the week, there were uncountable whiteout dust storms, including one that lasted literally all day Friday. (I spent the time in my tent reading a heretofore undiscovered CJ Cherryh book, so that was all right.)
Then Saturday, the night of the Man Burn, was 28° Fahrenheit. The cold was unprecedented in my experience. It was so cold that by 4am, when we all walked back to camp, the city was nearly deserted. The only people we saw were huddled around firepits and burn barrels in a post-apocalyptic fashion. I was honestly concerned that there’d be hypothermia deaths that night.
Why does anyone go to this stupid festival, anyway?
This giant cat art car is named Xuza. View on Instagram
Close-up on “Reflection,” a human-sized box of pearlescent screens by Lorna Jackson. View on Instagram
I thought about why I was there, as we rode out to the Man Burn on Saturday night. “I feel like it’s the Fourth of July,” I said to one of my companions. “I feel like it’s a very tribal thing we are doing.”
We passed an older couple with matching long fake-fur coats. Matching patterns of light were woven into the fur, so that the couple would be visible at night. “I want to be like those two when I get older,” said my companion, and I nodded.
The roof of Sacred Spaces Camp. View on Instagram
I think I found my favorite art at the very beginning of the week, when I came upon the Magic Lantern Story Trading Post. I never met the people who built it, but I spent hours playing their game, and it was beautiful.
They’d taken a lectern and piled it high with bracelets and brooches and stickers and bottles, plus a tiny jar of peanuts labeled “Jar of Disappointment.” There was also a hat that said “Magic Lantern Bartender.” They had written out the rules of the game, so that anyone could come in and learn the rules and become the bartender. If you chose to be bartender, then your responsibilities were:
1. Don the bartender hat
2. Ask people who entered the tent to tell you a story
3. If they agreed, then you’d ask them to choose a prize from the pile on the lectern
4. After they chose a prize, they would spin a wheel that was full of topics — “When You Kissed A Stranger,” “Why You Came To Burning Man,” etc.
5. Once the wheel clicked into a topic, then the person told a story about that topic. If you, the bartender, were impressed, then the storyteller won their prize!
6. If you, the bartender, were not impressed, then the storyteller had to eat a peanut from the Jar of Disappointment. (Only one peanut!)
This is me, playing Magic Lantern Bartender for two people who were really cool and who I sadly never saw again. Do you know them?
I heard a gamut, a glorious glut of personal stories from strangers as we shared the Magic Lantern tent. I declare it the Best Art Of 2015.
There were many more elaborate pieces of art at the Burn, of course, including the Man itself. In keeping with the “Carnival of Mirrors” theme, the Man itself was a maze. Visiting the Man meant that you got lost for hours in the twisting labyrinth of corridors at its base.
So probably my favorite piece of interactive art was when we I turned a corner in the Man maze, and discovered this:
(Video shows “Lumiphonic Creature Choir” by Mark Bolotin)
We happened upon this sculpture while exploring the vast maze at the base of this year's Man. In front of the sculpture was a batch of lighted plastic circles. Each face on the sculpture was quiet unless you laid your palm on its circle — and then the head would come alive and say, "As a disembodied head, I miss most…" and continue with what it missed about having a body. I wanted to listen to all the voices, but it was hard to separate the cacophony, and people kept wandering in and out of the room and touching the circles without realizing that they were activating the voices. It was exquisite confusion, and my companion took this video as I activated one head and then shook my head in wonder. #burningman #burningman2015 #carnivalofmirrors #cacophony #voices #lydiaatbm
And my favorite moment of serendipity? I think that probably happened at the grotesque, giant dancing skeleton:
“Colossal Skeletal Marionette,” by Christian Breeden. View on Instagram
This enormous skeleton, many times the height of a person, was hung from a gibbet — and it could be made to dance by ropes attached to its limbs. I stood appalled and fascinated as its hands jerked and begged, a grotesque parody of mute pleading. Onlookers laughed and forced the skeleton to dance more. My companion offered me a rope so that I could participate, and I couldn’t accept the rope. I was so horribly moved that I almost cried.
Then things took a turn for the absurd: A group of people dressed in medieval garb arrived, bearing glowing swords and amulets. “Attack!” screamed the leader, and the crew flung themselves at the base of the skeleton. Eventually they declared that they’d defeated the terrible beast. Proudly, they turned and told the onlookers that we need fear this skeletal scourge no more. “This land is safe,” they said sonorously.
(In retrospect, I wish I had pursued and met those people. Do you know them? Can you connect me?)
Want more? Here, have some more.
A mirror house made by some Canadians. View on Instagram
We took this picture from within a building that, from outside, was mirrored. From inside, a visitor would realize that the mirrors were one-way. You could lie in the chairs and hammocks and watch the people outside as they gazed at themselves in the mirrors, posed, giggled, fixed their hair.
“Inflection,” a piece by Trevor Schrock. Photo by my friend arbitragery.
This twisting, swaying rope bridge was so dangerous that Burning Man Org shut it down by mid-week. Fortunately, my traveling companion and I got there on Tuesday, so he had the opportunity to save my life! So dramatic!
As we were climbing the thing, a fellow traveler remarked that: “This is why there are t-shirts that say, ‘Keep Burning Man potentially deadly.'”
Update: A person who works for BM org contacted me to say, “This is unofficial and I don’t speak for BM org, but BM org did not shut down ‘Inflection’ because it was dangerous. I hear Medical actually got very few reports of injuries from it (if any). The artists shut it down because the ropes were fraying too much.” end of update
Hotshot the robot. View on Instagram
We found this friendly “robot” named Hotshot in the middle of the night Saturday. It was standing around chatting with passerby, requesting company to go to the “white trash bar.” Hotshot took a shine to me and begged for a hug, and all the onlookers insisted that I hug it, after which the robot turned its eyes into crazy whirlpools that blew my mind and held my attention.
Hotshot really tried to get me to go off alone with it, and I was so enthralled that my companion had literally walked 50 feet down the road before I turned away from Hotshot and pursued him. The crowd laughed and consoled Hotshot as I ran off.
All these (and more!) photos are available in my Instagram account under the tag #lydiaatbm. Also, please note that Burning Man builds a city of many miles and 65,000 people, so I probably missed some things.
Oh, and… incidentally? Speaking of showers? Check out this shower that some of my campmates built at Burning Man:
The shower at False Profit camp, Institute village.
Yes, that is a bead curtain, and yes, that’s two disco balls. Here’s another picture of the shower, taken at sunset:
False Profit shower by night. Photo by arbitragery.
See? You don’t have to give up showers during Burning Man after all.
See more of my Burning Man 2015 photos on Facebook.
The sign between the teeth of this giant cat says, “Burning Man? It’s ok I guess.” It’s an art car from a camp called Movement of Jah People. View on Instagram