Deep in Nevada’s backcountry lies the Black Rock Desert, home to a particularly large alkali flat, known as a playa. There, modern hubbub yields to geologic time. Winter moisture melts the playa to brine. Then, as spring days grow longer and warmer, the water returns skyward, leaving a vast, dusty surface, table-flat and pearly-white, until the next rainy season. It sits, silent and unoccupied, save for the occasional band of coyotes, land sailers, and rocket enthusiasts.
Then comes the end of August. And there goes the neighborhood! Throngs of humans descend upon the vacant expanse - briefly transforming it, by numbers, into the state’s tenth largest settlement: Black Rock City. Home of the week-long festival called Burning Man, for the 40-foot wooden effigy at the center of camp that is ritually torched come the last Saturday night.
As does any big counterculture event, Burning Man invokes the full spectrum of lovers and haters. In caricature, out on the playa, we find Annie Agnostic, immersed in hedonism, having ditched her moral compass at the Nevada border. Madden Max, donning his diving goggles and careening through the desert at full speed. Billy Brodown, totally wasted and groping as many nekkid chix as he can. Ashley Artiste, bobbing gleefully in a bubbling sea of creative collaboration and good karma. And back in San Francisco, John Q. Conservative, enjoying a week of “freak-free” relaxation and uncrowded Mission-district dining.
To Arthur Adman, marketeer extraordinaire, Burning Man is a wet dream. Fifty-thousand gregarious individuals at the intersection of the hipster and artist demographics. Self-selected for financial motility by their $200-plus ticket purchase, and their ability to successfully swing an extended vacation from the real world. Clustered in one place, for eight days straight! Rub their extremities with your advertising pollen, and, as would a hive of overactive bees, they will zealously spread it to far-flung fields, rich with like-minded creatives, information workers, and DINKs.
But advertiser beware! For within Black Rock City, as the stalking wildcat is to a small, furry animal, the marketing campaign is to a Burner. One faint whiff of commercialism will prick their ears, and a twig’s snap of branding will send them hastily scurrying into the underbrush, never to be seen again. Maximum success hinges upon stealth and subterfuge. To that end, Mr. Adman has a plan…
Of any art installation at Burning Man 2006, Uchronia, aka the Belgian Waffle, generated the most buzz, by far. Over several days, it grew from a single board to an arching structure of over 50,000 pine 2×4s, nailed together free-form, topping out at just under fifty feet. All were welcome to stroll within its diffuse walls, dappled by thick, dust-laden shafts of sun, and colored lights after dusk. By popular opinion, the spectacle of its flaming destruction surpassed that of the previous nights’ Man, and thousands of online photos and stories fondly recall Uchronia’s bright, if fleeting, existence.
Stop the presses! Because shortly after Uchronia’s immolation, unseemly details emerged. That the volunteers that built it for “free” were actually paid employees. That its creator, one Arne Quinze, owned an ad agency. That, a mere two weeks later, launched a showroom campaign for Lexus. That featured a slew of 2×4s nailed together in several undeniably-Uchronian arrangements. From this evidence, people drew some not so flattering conclusions.
In 2009, the spirit of Uchronia returned, at least stylistically, in the design of the wooden platform above which the Man stands. Some critics harshly panned this intentional choice of imagery, but in general, amongst Burners, it seemed well received indeed. By dint of simply freeing us from the shackles of the perpendicular, free-form construction has a lot of untapped potential, in the art world and beyond. For example, need a cheap shelter, pronto? Build a 2×4 mini-waffle-style frame, cover with plastic mesh, coat with construction-grade foam, brush on a few coats of paint, and Voila! You’ve got the bitchin’-est cave-house on the block! I’m only half joking here.
Now, please permit me to put on my engineering hard hat and comment on a more pressing matter.
That’s a hell of a lot of wood at the base of the Man this year - at least as much as went into the original Uchronia - an impressive 290,000 kg of pine, by my calculations. And it’s gonna get torched all at once. The energy contained within that wood, released evenly over the span of half-an-hour, will produce a scorching 2.5 gigawatts of uninterrupted power!
So, at peak combustion, isn’t the audience going to be hot? Like, take “I’m a bit toasty let’s back up a little” and multiply by a thousand? As in the vaporizing pachouli, molten glowsticks, wilting pubes, “oh-my-god-run-for-your-life-I’m-on-fire!!!” kind of hot?
In my performance art fantasy world, shortly after ignition, an army of the most courageous Burners will hop into shiny, flame-resistant suits, then navigate their way through the conflagration. To do something interesting. Like duel with spontaneously-igniting fireworks. Forge a giant abstract sculpture from glowing hunks of wrought iron. Or ferry various foodstuffs through the flames, cooking them for a Bacchanalian post-burn feast. Flank steaks and legs of lamb strapped on their backs. Marshmallows atop their helmets. And, in hand, marinated kabobs of mushrooms, tomatoes, jicama, onions, and other delectable fruits and veggies. Wouldn’t that be cool?! And, oh, so tasty. Mmmmm.