This Year’s Burning Man Was No Flameout

(Below is a story I wrote for a local newspaper on Burning Man 2012.  Hope you enjoy it. — Alan Markow)

This was the year when it all supposedly went wrong for Burning Man – the annual art festival in northern Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.  Ticketing snafus meant many long-time core burners wouldn’t be coming.  An increase of an additional 10,000 people meant potentially crowded conditions.  And the lack of rain this past winter plus the prediction of high winds threatened continual dust storms, white out conditions and a playa surface that would be tough to negotiate for bikers and walkers alike.

Then came the Burn itself, and everything went right.  There turned out to be a plethora of available tickets priced at face value or below allowing veterans to attend and work their magic.  Black Rock City (Burning Man’s evanescent home town) absorbed the extra numbers without a whimper.  The weather was largely ideal with only a single major dust storm, and the playa surface was mostly flat and firm.

This year’s festival was, in fact, a creative tour de force that featured more and more elaborate art cars than ever roaming the desert and a radical increase in art on the playa because of the Circle of Regional Effigies (CORE) program that brought local Burning Man groups together to create 35 new art installations placed around the Man.  The Sacramento region designed, built and moved to the playa its own CORE project called Arboria – a double decker tree house that was constructed in a volunteer’s backyard.

The 2012 Temple was a particularly evocative structure.  Sitting inside this spiritual, if not religious, artwork you felt a sense of calm reflectiveness.  Burners contributed to the setting by reading poems, singing songs or playing instruments.  Memories marked the Temple in the form of notes written directly on the structure, memorials posted on walls or the simple tears of those inside.

Night at the Temple

Another remarkable art installation was called The Pier, and featured a lengthy boardwalk leading directly to a shipwreck that appeared to be sinking into the playa.

The week passed with remarkable speed and before we knew it the time for the man to burn was upon us.  Saturday night, September 1, nearly all of the 60,000 attendees gathered around the effigy to begin the celebration that – at least to some – represents letting go of bad feelings, old habits or just inhibitions.

The “Octopus” art car in action on Burn night.

Surrounded by a core of drummers and fire spinners, a mass of attendees on foot, and a ring of brightly lit art cars, the Man burned in a celebration of music, dance and revelry.  I watched from atop a staff vehicle perched next to a flaming octopus, a rooster whose beak opened to reveal fire and a bus-disco churning out the relentless beat of electronica music.

Fire from a central cauldron is brought out to the statue in a ritual led by Lamplighters – a group responsible for lighting the city every night with more than 800 kerosene lanterns.  The burn itself begins with fireworks – first directly from the effigy’s arms and legs, then from canisters all around the Man.  The figure soon catches fire and begins to burn in earnest.  A propane bomb goes off inside the structure that sits below the man and all is aflame, eventually burning to the desert surface.

Later that night, one of the major art installations – Burn Wall Street – was set aflame as well.  And the next night was the far more somber Temple burn.

It was a remarkable year for Burning Man despite a spate of problems and potential problems.  Someone must have been looking down at the desert and wishing us all a great Burn.