The City That Was: Spectacles of Burning Man, Year One
In The City That Was, Bohemian Archivist P Segal tells a weekly story of what you all missed: the days when artists, writers, musicians, and unemployed visionaries were playing hard in the city’s streets and paying the rent working part time.
By now, almost all the celebrants at Burning Man are back in the default world, senses blown out by the sheer spectacle, and covered with playa dust. The only people that remain out there are the unsung heroes that sift through the playa for the micro-traces of moop (matter out of place), and of course, the DPW, the acknowledged heroes who make the city rise and fall each year.
You’ve already heard about how Burning Man made it to the Black Rock Desert, but I left off when the Cacophony Zone Trippers had crossed the line into the zone. The only spectacle we brought with us was the Man in the Ryder truck. We, and the vicissitudes of nature, were the spectacle. So you might wonder how we spent the long weekend with only one major entertainment on the agenda and our universally compromised budgets.
We did a fair amount of shade lounging, chin-wagging, and beer consuming. Wiedemann’s, reputed to contain alcohol, was the camp favorite, being considerably cheaper than anything but water. A Cacophanist in a butterfly costume flitted across the nearly vacant playa, while the rest of us learned to cope with things like cooking and washing dishes in the absence of practical tools. We had to do things like raise and lower the Man by pulling on a long, thick rope attached to the figure’s solar plexus, a job that took the whole lot of us.
One of the most spectacular things about that first trip cost absolutely nothing and screamed Powers That Be. Walking out of camp about half a mile at night, we heard— for the first time in our lives—absolute, complete, undisturbed silence. On the playa, no plants to rustle, no water runs or breaks, no bugs or creatures scuttle or buzz, and all you hear is wind, when it blows. The experience is much more stunning than most million-dollar sculptures. We’ve all seen huge sculptures. Most of us have never really heard silence, a strangely scary phenomenon.
And then there were the stars. Billions of them: a free light show.
Of course we had a thrift store formal wear cocktail party after the burn, and I catered it with a desert theme. A few months before, I’d catered a party for a band from Scotland called The Blue Nile, and I’d asked my artist friend Sebastian Hyde to make me a sphinx mold. To do this, he sculpted a sphinx out of clay, and then covered it with layers of latex to make a mold. I stuffed the mold with really thick hummus and plunked it down on a desert floor of creamier hummus, and ringed it with pita foothills, vegetation, palm trees made of cinnamon sticks and dill fronds, and mummies of wrapped fettuccine.
We tried to watch the film “Bad Day at Black Rock,” but our only generator failed. Deprived of media completely, we fell back on our favorite free entertainment, blabbing. As we all know, talk is cheap. The topic on everyone’s lips started with the phrase, “Next year…” We knew this would be annual, every Labor Day, only much, much better. Of course by the time the next year rolled around, we were still insolvent, and only some of our plans got beyond the talking stage—the ones that called for ingenuity rather than capital. To this day, we always leave the desert saying “Next year…”
Before we left to return to San Francisco that first year, I walked away from our camp, to where no feet but mine had broken the cracked desert floor, and left the clay sphinx that the mold was made from. The following year, as we passed through Gerlach to eat at Bruno’s, I heard that the locals had found it, and went back to visit it until the winter rains came and turned the playa into 400 square miles of seasonal mud. The clay sphinx dissolved in the rain and became one with our favorite new playground.
I couldn’t help documenting that present to the playa, what you see in the photo above.