Burning Man Festival
By Cressandra Thibodeaux
Publication: Houston Chronicle
Date: November 3, 2001
Captain Cocktail adjusts his dark sunglasses and glances out his truck's side window as a Houston city-limits sign slips past. He's driving west on Interstate 10. Destination: Nevada's Black Rock Desert, the site of a fringe alternative festival called Burning Man.
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Athletic-looking at 56, with thick silver hair and beard, Captain Cocktail has made the annual trek to Burning Man for years.
"If you're not living on the edge, then you're taking up too much space," he says. "I find the edge attractive, and Burning Man gives me a chance to do that for an entire week."
Definitely not for everyone, the Burning Man Festival, in its 16th consecutive year, was held over Labor Day weekend in the Black Rock Desert, a desolate 400-square-mile stretch of desert floor 120 miles north of Reno, Nev. It drew an estimated 25,000 participants.
Anyone who's never been to Burning Man asks, what is it? What does it mean? One explanation is that it's an ongoing experiment in temporary community and radical self-sufficiency. It's held on a so-called playa, a flat, dry lake bed. There are no observers, only participants who are responsible for their own food and provisions. No commerce transpires except for coffee and ice. There are no corporate sponsors. There is nudity, some drugs, uninhibited behavior and -- very important -- lots of creative self-expression. The festival lasts a week and culminates with the burning of a 70-foot "man" made of wood and neon lights visible for miles.
This year a group of Houston art-car artists, including Pepper Mouser, aka Captain Cocktail, made the 1,540-mile trek to Burning Man. Mouser, recently separated with two daughters, is a rental manager at a video equipment store and a mixed-media artist. His particular art project for Burning Man this year, The Motorized Living Room, is a 1995 Dodge van that has been stripped down to the frame and outfitted with a 14-by-20-foot deck on which he has secured all the modern amenities of home. These include a couch, chairs, two-tone carpeting, split-level step down in the front, a 200-watt sound system, and a bar to serve margaritas, beer and tequila Jell-O shots.
It begins to rain. Captain Cocktail turns on the wipers. Next to him sits lanky 39-year-old Dolen Smith, aka Scar Man. He's doing a video documentary about scars. He says he's a man of a thousand scars. When asked why he has so many, he says, "I guess bad karma. Or maybe my childhood was rougher than others'." A scar to him represents a trace of an event that otherwise might have been forgotten.
Captain Cocktail's cell phone rings. It's Stephan Stout and Mark Wright, riders of the award-winning art car Push Me, Pull Me. Their car has broken down -- a bad water pump. They're heading back to the Heights in Houston.
Captain Cocktail and Scar Man decide to continue on to Black Rock. A station wagon speeds past them. A little girl presses her face against the window, staring at them and the folded-up Living Room in tow. Only 1,500 miles to go.
Larry Harvey, the founder of Burning Man, likes to blur the line between audience and art, between spectator and participant. Burning Man started in 1986 when Harvey and a few friends ignited an 8-foot-tall wooden man on San Francisco's Baker Beach. Much mythology has built up around that first burn, but Harvey says there was no particular reason other than that he wanted to do it and thought it was pretty cool as a form of "radical self-expression."
As Harvey explains in the only book about the event, Burning Man (HardWired, $27.95), "You have to go back to the '80s to see what we were coming out of. The '80s were a tough time, and it began to seem like no authentic gesture was possible. Everything anybody would do seemed to be instantly exploited, commodified and turned into another mass cultural product.
"There was a huge amount of anxiety like we were a remaineroid product on the shelf of Ronald Reagan's America; the only recourse was to liberate small areas at a time. Make little jungle clearings. Create zones of liberty. Like the Viet Cong taking over villages and then melting back into the jungle. Burning Man came out of that sensibility."
The festival is a showcase of unusual and eclectic art, much of which Harvey oversees. He is director of a limited-liability corporation with an annual budget of almost $5 million. The budget allows for $250,000 in grants to artists working on projects related to the theme for each year's festival. This year's theme is "The Seven Ages, From the Cradle to the Mausoleum.
At the Black Rock Desert, a number of artists who arrived well in advance of Captain Cocktail have been constructing the Mausoleum, also known as the Temple of Tears.
The Mausoleum is a wooden filigree fantasy designed by David Best, one of the founding fathers of the art-car movement. Helping him today is Tom Kennedy, 39, of Houston, whose latest art-car creation is The One-Eyed Wonder, a stylized yellow 1951 Nash Rambler with a giant eyeball on the roof.
For more than 30 years, Best, of Petaluma, Calif., and a frequent visitor to Houston, has been a pioneer on the fringes of the art world. In the 1980s he became known for superassemblages that resembled bizarre automobiles, wagons and chariots. He's famous for gathering crews of up to 400 participants who then work with him to combine as many as 25,000 parts to create one of his multilayered, elaborate visions.
His works are displayed in numerous museums, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Oakland Museum, the San Jose (Calif.) Museum of Art, the di Rosa Preserve near Napa, Calif., and, of course, the Houston Art Car Museum.
The Mausoleum, a six-story temple, took several weeks to build. Because it is the festival's largest sculpture, and the most participatory, it has become Burning Man's architectural center point.
Thousands of "Burners" are pleasantly surprised when they enter the Mausoleum and discover it's dedicated to the dead -- a heavier-than-usual meaning for something attached to the Burning Man Festival.
All day and into the night, large crowds gather around the temple to commemorate, remember, venerate, bid farewell, celebrate and, above all, honor those whose death has moved them. They write messages and leave mementos such as poems, photos, military dog tags and stuffed dolls.
Jack Haye, architect of the Mausoleum, works as a computer graphics modeler for George Lucas Industrial Light and Magic in California. He turned Best's design into a complex structure that somewhat resembles a Balinese temple.
During construction, when a large enough crowd assembled, a dust-covered Best would quit working, walk over to them with parched lips and say, "You want to know what this thing means? Well, let me tell you."
"Put your right hand out like this," Best would begin, holding out his hand. "That's the person who committed suicide, alone and agonized. Now place your left hand close to you. That's the child who died of leukemia, surrounded by love and support. Now move the two hands together and lift them up. In this way those who died amid love will help those who died in anguish. Inside the Mausoleum are pencils and blocks of wood. Go say goodbye to someone. Forgive them or ask them to forgive you."
Sean, one of the many volunteers building the Mausoleum, rubs sunblock onto his sweaty face. He says that while working he couldn't help but think of his brother, whom he lost in the Vietnam War on July 27, 1966. It was Sean's 10th birthday.
He writes his brother's name on a block of wood and places it into a pile.
Raúl Lemesoff, a dynamic 29-year-old Argentine art-car artist, parks his two-story car Noveno Anti-Christ Mobile next to the Mausoleum. With the aid of his car, Lemesoff helps carry wood to the second story of the Mausoleum. After putting in a full morning of work in the blazing desert sun, he stops to write on its side, "Thank you for giving me the chance to say goodbye to my dead grandfather and dead father. Please release them of any suffering."
After three days on the road, Captain Cocktail and Scar Man finally arrive at Burning Man. An official greeter, a young man with a bright smile, gushes, "Welcome to Black Rock Desert. Yahoo!" He hands them a map and a pamphlet with the do's and don'ts of the playa. Their tickets read: "You voluntarily risk serious injury or death by attending."
A ticket costs $200 in advance or $250 at the door.
After locating the Art Car Camp, Captain Cocktail parks next to a U-Haul trailer and unfolds The Motorized Living Room. Later he secures a license at the DMV (Department of Mutant Vehicles) and begins driving the Room to the Mausoleum. Along the way a dust storm descends. It resembles a gray wall two miles tall, with winds that can gust up to 80 mph. Captain Cocktail stops driving; visibility is zero. People cover mouths and eyes with shirts, goggles or bandannas. A few choke and gasp for air. The playa dust is alkaline because of the desert climate and mineral salts.
After a few minutes the dust storm blows by, and The Motorized Living Room drives on, finally reaching the Mausoleum.
Best and Captain Cocktail embrace. Captain Cocktail says, "We lost too many men over there," meaning Vietnam. Best nods in agreement.
Although the Mausoleum may be the best-known structure at this year's Burning Man, it's just one example of the incredible art on hand. It ranges from homemade banners to wild architectural experiments, spontaneous theater and personal installations such as the Mausoleum.
Some Burners have compared the desert city to the Museo del Prado in Madrid, Spain. "It is too encompassing to experience in one time. That's why people keep coming back," says a naked man covered in silver paint. (Some people dress in paint and nothing else at Burning Man.) "Especially if you're on foot. Some of the best art installations are built a mile or two away from Center Camp."
One of those out-of-the-way art installations, Pair-of-Dice or, as some called it, "Amazing Larry's Cube Club," resembles a giant pair of red fuzzy dice. Inside is a chic casino and lounge.
One cool evening, Captain Cocktail parks The Motorized Living Room outside Pair-of-Dice. A few people jump off and rush toward the front door. A doorman in a tux greets them. He looks at Lemesoff, who is wearing World War II goggles on his head and a red shirt caked with playa dust. After 10 minutes the doorman lets him in.
Rumor has it Jenna Bush was there earlier.
The place is packed. The drink special is black martinis. A lounge singer belts out Summertime. Lemesoff walks over to the craps table and starts to gamble. Since there is no commerce, no money, you can bet or receive drinks only by trading items: back rubs, rolls of film, art-car rides or, if you're feeling generous, a bag of ice. It's the only item sold ($2 a bag) besides coffee.
Another night The Motorized Living Room picks up a group of karaoke fanatics who sing into the late hours. Captain Cocktail drives them to the giant symbol of the festival, the Man. Designed by Harvey, it took volunteers about three weeks to build.
Rave music can be heard in the distance, blowing across the desert like a cool breeze. The karaoke folks have brought their own TV and microphone. A young woman cranks up the volume, stands on the bar and sings to the Man. The entire Living Room rocks back and forth as she gyrates her hips to the pulsating sound of 'N Sync.
Captain Cocktail seems to tolerate the music and happily refills her margarita cup. Many of the Houston art-car folks grow restless. Lemesoff goes back to camp for his car. Art-car artists inevitably become restless on someone else's art car. They are like parents of newborns who want nothing more than to play with their own babies.
Lemesoff returns with his car and parks near the Neon Man. A smile flashes across his face as he begins to tweak his propane. By flipping a switch, he can shoot fire out of pipes attached to his engine. He calls the pipes flame throwers. A crowd gathers. He flips a switch, and another gas ball shoots out. The flames flicker in his eyes. The crowd gasps, clearly impressed.
Scar Man interviews a girl dressed as a road warrior in a G-string. It seems everyone loves to talk about his or her scars. She admits that she also has a propensity for getting hurt. A few faded scars decorate her athletic legs.
A karaoke girl says she heard Bush was at the Media Camp earlier that morning. A fellow with a Nixon mask jokes, "Yes, and her bodyguard is the naked guy painted silver."
Rumors of Bush sightings spread through Center Camp like wildfire. Burning Man is known as a place where pranks become urban myths. A few years back, a bogus "Larry Harvey" book signing was staged in Center Camp. The prankster wore a fedora and a cigarette stuck in his mouth -- Harvey's signature accessories. He then sat on an earlier, smaller version of Captain Cocktail's Motorized Living Room. While a prankster bodyguard held a gun, bystanders were forced to kneel before "Larry" as the impostor signed thrift-store paperbacks with Xeroxed cover stickers identifying the book as Mein Camp by Larry Harvey. "Do not touch Mr. Harvey, do not speak to Mr. Harvey, do not look at Mr. Harvey," the gunman shouted through a megaphone.
Back at the Art Car Camp, Stout and Wright sit in the shade, next to a large fan that is placed under the camp's parachute tent.
After four days of sleeping on the hard playa, waking each morning on sweaty sleeping bags has taken its toll, but there's still plenty of spirit in everyone.
Noah Edmundson walks by carrying a bag of ice. He opens one of many coolers and dumps the bag inside. He then grabs a cold beer, cracks it open and smiles. Pointing to an art car called The Roach, he says, "When Kenny Browning said he wanted to build a giant roach, I said, `I'm in.' We started building it two years ago. For several months we worked on it, and some of his friends from the Urban Animals also pitched in. Then we put it in the Art Car Parade and won first-place art car."
Lemesoff takes a puff from his cigarette, then asks if anyone wants to go to town on a propane run.
"Don't you have enough propane?" a woman asks. He smiles and says, "You can never have too much propane, baby."
Scott Prescott, an award-winning art-car artist and pyrotechnician, confesses, "I love to tweak the propane cans before the night of the event. He sighs, then adds what he doesn't like about Burning Man: "You meet people and you think you've created a lifetime bond, and then you find out you were just on the same drugs that night. So maybe the next day it doesn't mean as much."
Theme camps such as the Art Car Camp were born the second year at Burning Man. This year for the Art Car Camp, Edmundson built an iron sculpture of a bandido holding a pistol that shoots fire.
Peter Doty, a member of the San Francisco Cacophony Society, created Christmas Camp, where Christmas tunes were played around the clock and where visitors were invited to drink spiked eggnog and eat old fruitcake.
This year hundreds of theme camps with names like Disturbia, Fornication Station, Autoerotic Asphyxiation Camp, Kidsville and the Barbie Death Camp are sprinkled throughout Burning Man.
One warm afternoon when the sun hangs in the sky like a heavy pumpkin, a 50-foot-long lion, a prop from a production of Verdi's opera Aïda, is dragged from Camp One Tribe to the Mausoleum area. A few art cars follow. When the lion finally comes to rest, Pamela Dillard of Sausalito, Calif., a professionally trained opera singer, jumps on a stage and sings her newly released original I Do Love.
"She is the first black person I've seen," says a deep voice coming from inside a dusty pink bunny costume. Which could be true, since this year only a small percentage of the population at Burning Man is black or Hispanic. The majority are whites in their late 20s.
Finally it's Saturday night, and it feels like New Year's Eve. Everyone at Art Car Camp is getting ready for the burn, passing around propane cans for their cars like double-A batteries. Captain Cocktail stands in the U-Haul enjoying a grilled chicken breast.
A girl appears and says Scar Man has been hit on the head by a metal beam and is in the medics' tent in Center Camp. The fear is that he might be paralyzed.
Within seconds Captain Cocktail is at the medics' tent. Scar Man is strapped down on a gurney. He can move fine, but the medics think the head injury might be serious. Scar Man is taken off the playa in an ambulance, headed to the closest hospital, in Reno.
With the burn only an hour away, the air crackles with electricity. Several hundred oil lamps are carried to posts to light the way to Center Camp and the Man. Two hundred fire performers begin to entertain the crowd. Some eat fire; most dance with burning objects. A van with a megaphone blasts out Dust in the Wind.
Kennedy, in his One-Eyed Wonder, heads down to the Man to look for a spot. He's pleasantly surprised when he sees an entire section of art cars parked in front of the Man.
Kennedy parks near Lemesoff, who is busy eyeing the crowd. A smile sweeps across his face, and Lemesoff quickly hops back into his car. Standing on five propane tanks, he lights a cigarette, thinking, he later admits, "When have I ever had an audience of 25,000 people?"
With a flip of a switch, a large fireball shoots out of the pipes. The crowd cheers wildly. He's gotten their attention.
Kennedy climbs up to the second story of Lemesoff's car and shoves small fireworks into his hat. A crowd has now gathered around The Noveno Anti-Christ Mobile. Tom lights the fireworks. Sparks fly out in all directions. A few fall onto the propane tanks. Luckily, a man by the name of Dr. Jackson is there to stomp them out.
Someone on the Living Room throws Kennedy a tequila Jell-O shot. As he's reaching out to catch it, Lemesoff, without knowing it, flips the switch, causing another fireball to shoot out from the pipes. Kennedy appears to be engulfed in flames. He instinctively ducks as the crowd gasps. Realizing he's still holding the Jell-O shot, and hearing the crowd moan, Kennedy jumps back up like a true entertainer and downs his shot for the audience. Everyone cheers wildly. Later he's treated for second-degree burns to his hand.
The Man is set afire, and the crowd is thrown into a spasm of ecstasy. Whirling mini-tornadoes of smoke appear from the base of the Man, created by the combination of heat, dust and wind. On the Living Room everyone watches, smiles on their glowing faces. The Man's right arm falls with a heavy thud, but the left one remains high in defiance as the bright yellow and orange flames lick higher and higher. Finally the platform gives way. The Man comes crashing down into a pile of flames and smoke. Hundreds of cheering people run forward to dance in the glowing embers.
Captain Cocktail cranks up some tunes on the Living Room, and the party takes on a new level of frenzy.
Someone jokes that he saw a silver-painted naked man running by, yelling, "Jenna, Jenna?"
Suddenly Scar Man appears, back from the hospital. He's fine and ready to have a good time. The Living Room drives off into the night. A line of art cars follows.
The next day there are rumors at Art Car Camp that Best will not be allowed to burn the Mausoleum. It turns out the design was supposed to include metal sheets on the bottom, to protect the desert floor.
"Leave no trace" is the No. 1 rule of the playa.
"We are burning it," Best promises. "Don't worry."
A beautiful naked woman with a chain around her waist bursts into tears and embraces Best. "Thank you," she sobs. "You don't know how much this Mausoleum means to me."
That night volunteers slide protective metal sheets under the base of the Mausoleum to protect the desert's floor from being scarred. The burn is back on schedule, but then a dust storm blows in, and the Mausoleum burning is postponed for about 30 minutes. People can't see a hand in front of them. Covering their faces, they sit and wait it out. Finally they light the Mausoleum.
Lemesoff sits in his car, thinking of his dead Argentine grandfather and father. Some people cry, others sing, and still others just stand, motionless, hypnotized by the flames.
Lemesoff says, "I would like to see Burning Man spread all over the world. Not only to South America and to Russia but to Houston, Texas, too."
It's already happening. On Memorial Day weekend, hundreds of people in Austin celebrated the fourth annual Burning Flipside, and Larry Harvey is talking with people in Japan and Europe to take Burning Man worldwide.
People will still ask, "What is the meaning of Burning Man?" If you interview 10 participants, you'll get 10 different views. All of them will be correct.
Cressandra Thibodeaux, formerly of Houston, is a photographer and writer in Los Angeles.
Fringe festival celebrates self-expression
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