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Destructive Criticism

Nikita Nelin continues his report of the Burning Man Festival in Nevada, 8/15/12-9/5/12. You can read his first post here.

“Art washed away the dust of everyday living.”

-Pablo Picasso

Here, on the Playa, you are covered in dust. “Playa,” is what this stretch of desert is referred to as. It is Spanish for “beach.” Someone thought it was funny. Maybe this is irony? Maybe a gesture to what is obviously missing? Maybe a metaphor to what has been created in its place. Either way, I like the sound of “Playa.” Here, you get a Playa name. There are few rules about the name except you cannot name yourself. “The Playa names you.” Here are no trash receptacles and yet there is no trash left behind. Here, you participate, you take stock, ownership, time. Here, you juxtapose the here to the there, and back again, just to see what can happen — to see what remains when the dust is washed away.

I have been off of the Playa for less then 24 hours. I am in Circus Circus hotel in Reno. What more appropriate place to orient one’s self. Hunter S. Thompson did it. I may as well steal that little bit. The Playa still feels like the here. The there is quite unclear to me right now. Here, in the circus, I can practice making time work again as an abstraction rather than a point of location. In the mean time here is a little something of what remains and what does not.

The ornate temple, filled with messages from loved ones to the departed. The forty foot man with his 60 foot base, stapled with an alpha symbol on one side and an omega symbol on the other, a nod to the theme of this years Burning Man (Fertility 2.0), and honoring the equilibrium of the genders. The smaller projects round the playa: a ten foot wooden head, with a cave and deck, decorated with Osho Zen pictures, and phrases of compassion; the glittering three letters of EGO, which from a far looks simple and gregarious but upon close encounter is revealed to be made from intricate carvings reaching towards the religious and sociocultural milieu; a brass, broken heart (I sat in it); a laser harp (I played it), a wooden hive which held space for sunrise tea ceremonies (I drank it). All of them, and more, I saw, and lived inside, and then I watched them burn. All those I experienced, I celebrated, and I acknowledged their passing — all those except for one. The one I had worked on; Burn Wall Street.

My initial invitation here was as a reporter — to work on, and write about the Burn Wall Street project. The project was the largest non-temple, non-Man, Playa built to-date. Two city blocks. Five buildings. Two weeks on site to put the walls together, and up. It was first meant to make a statement and to encourage unity. The mock approach, to build buildings with names like “Bank of unAmerica,” “Goldman Sucks,” “Merrill Lynched,” “Chaos Manhattan,” you get the picture. The idea was to unite through outrage. Otto Von Danger stated clearly, “the Tea Party and Occupy are getting [worked over] by the same enemy.”

Yet, once they finally burned I did not celebrate. I felt no sense of relief or unity. I just saw buildings burning. Fire in windows. And as much as I wanted to feel a sense of completion or inspiration, I just kept coming back to those windows, and the idea of people. This is not an easy entry for me. I want to tell you about everything beautiful I saw, all the unity, all the dimensions of gratitude — a chaos so gifted and dense that it approaches the image of the divine, a vision of what Burning Man approaches for me. But first I have to tell you about irony, anarchy and terrorism.

I arrived to Reno on a Wednesday. A guest of Joe Olivier, a brilliant engineer who became involved with Burning Man in 2001 and has since been a central player in the development of the event. This year Joe (a.k.a. Exact Lee) committed to the Burn Wall Street project. Like me, he was impressed with the scale of the installation and the potential of its resonance. If we consider Burning Man to be space created for the creative engineering of the human experience, who better then an engineer to be central in its evolution.

This concept of engineering (of experience, of environment, of society) is key here, and something I want to return to in a future post. Burning Man is both a test lab, and a sample of society. When we begin to extrapolate we begin to see this act of “engineering” in every facet of our regular world. Similarly, the identification of everything built on the Playa as an “installation,” has reach into the regular world. All is an installation, in one part because it is intent with creating an experience, and in another, because it is acknowledged as impermanent (remember, everything burns). No wonder I felt so disoriented once I left the playa and drove into Reno yesterday. I was reentering the familiar, and yet I continued relating to everything I saw as an installation (a patch of grass, which I had not seen in almost three weeks, a stream with trees and a canopy, the bright outlines of Reno’s casino center, the Wal-Mart installation, the curved golden arches, of a fast food joint, etc…). Could we, in fact, be engineering our society, removed from the words of Ozymandias? What is our creative intention? What experience are we burning to facilitate?

Back to the story.

After a day spent in Reno, Joe drove me into the desert. It was a surreal site. At the time there was only the base of The Man, the outline of the Temple, and the BWS territory. Otherwise just the cracked white desert floor and dust storms. I made introductions, helped fetch some water, and fell asleep.

I was awoken at 6 a.m. to the sound of someone yelling through a bullhorn. “Get up, mother fuckers, up, up, up.” I put on my goggles and bandana (both necessary for protection from the dust storms) and went out to find my place. It would not have been enough to just watch. If I was to understand anything, if I was to have something to write about, I had be involved, to participate (for a definition of “participate” please reference my earlier post).

Here is the thing, it is quite awe inspiring how quickly we can assimilate to the demands of our conditions. Scorching sun, one plate, one spoon, one cup, dust storms and 16 hour workdays, become normalcy rather quickly. We can even become accustomed to a type of chaos, a disorder of environment and circumstance, a certain disorganization. Such chaos breeds surprise and even serendipity. You are in a desert. You are thirsty, exhausted. Someone wanders by with gatorade and sits down to tell you their story. How they got there. It is something akin to the sense of deja vu.

My first day, I painted some, I butchered chicken carcasses without gloves, and then I landed on a build crew. Mind you, despite the wishes of my Russian father I have never had to build anything. I barely knew how to use a screw gun. Aren’t there special angles for optimal hold?

I spend the next nine days helping to build. No one was prepared. The build was run by two former military men whose idea of leadership was the application of pressure. The problem was that we were behind schedule and the original designs were not holding up well in the environment, and we had five buildings to put together. Oh, yeah, and there were only two real carpenters on crew.

The crew consisted of three classes. There were the war veterans who had joined the project either out of anger at our political system or out of their loyalty to Otto Von Danger (the artist behind the project, a staple name at Burning Man and a veteran suffering from Gulf War syndrome). There were the wanderers who wanted a ticket into Burning Man, and thus joined the project. And there were the professionals who through some strange chain of events ended up at 10 o’clock on the playa (the Playa is designed as a clock with the Man as the central point, and all distance is measured by time): a teacher, painter, and women’s rights activist from Reno who ultimately began to function as a leader of a wall-build crew; a former brew master from the midwest who had been laid off without cause some months before and stumbled upon an ad for Burn Wall Street on the internet; a former ad man for a legal firm who had also been laid off some months before the build; a mother of two from Michigan who had lost her home some months before; among others… This last group fascinated me most. For them the projects’ ideals communicated directly the experiences of their everyday lives. They were there with a purpose. BWS could be a voice to their outrage. They were the last to leave the build. When others began to abandon the site, me included, these were the people that held it together, these were the people we who fled felt guilty towards.

As the project deteriorated the morning bullhorn became meaner and more demanding. A meeting would be held in the morning. There would be threats: those who tried to leave the site would be “thrown off the playa.” Then the bullhorns would disappear. They would reemerge through out the day to monitor the progress, or the lack-thereof, and then again would be gone.

Decisions were made. Some walls had to be deconstructed as we had been putting them together in a way that could not hold up. Put together, take apart, rinse, repeat. “We had built and taken this thing apart twice already,” someone remarked.

Two of buildings were to be cut a floor short. Graffiti art was to be sacrificed (the graffiti artist having been, um, “thrown off the playa.” He was now sitting in a jail outside of Reno having been busted for hitchhiking). Construction would grind to a halt as either the winds were too harsh for the cranes, or another meeting of the red and blue hats was called (1 green, 4 red, 8 blue, and 50 white, is how you knew your place). The crews would huddle down for cover in front of the wall corners that had been built but were yet to be hoisted up to be made into buildings, drink water, smoke, eat granola bars. The playa was littered with them, the corners. In their own right the corners had become an installation. An interactive maze in which everyone got lost. Kind of pretty, almost. Chaos. Send someone out for more nails, lost. Send someone out for a drill, which were always lacking, lost. Send someone out for extra muscle, lost.

I am told that each Burning Man build takes on the aura of the idea that bore it. Each person who has worked on the temple reports it to be a transcendent experience. An overwhelming challenge of deliberation and connectivity. The Man Crew reports cohesion and pride. They build the symbol of the city, the structure that due to its size and positioning will help orient the 60,000 participants round the Playa . Burn Wall Street became a collision of disorganization, ego, and faithlessness. Even those who despite the stumbling blocks continued to trudge forward could not inspire the rest of us to follow. The rest of us chose self preservation instead. The concept did not hold together. The ones in charge became the embodiment of what the project was meant to mock.

Ultimately, what was needed was built. The rest, the corners never to be hoisted up, were salvaged as wind blocks for various camps. Carpenters from the Department of Public Works (DPW) showed up as a favor to Exact Lee, and did what we were failing to do — work together. They are specialists in this, sort of like the special ops of Black Rock City.

It was a Saturday. I had been there for eleven days and the event itself was to begin on Sunday. My girlfriend was due to arrive that day and the last thing I intended to do was enter the event, the celebration phase in that special state of disaster that BWS had brought out in me. People all over were setting up camps. The night before I had moved away from the project and entered my camp. I was determined to get ready for the next phase of this experience, having in part been counseled by some Burning Man veterans from my camp to step away from BWS before it ruins my first BM experience. After all, I was here to report on all of it, not just the anarchy at ten o’clock.

Yet, that day I continued to make runs from the camp area to BWS. In an art car, a converted F-350 that looked like a wooden tank with the turret missing, I ran breakfast and lunch out to the build (the bus with the stove having already been driven into the camp area previous night). I had also been charged by Joe to offer up rides to anyone needing to leave the site and build their camp. I like to think I was evacuating people, providing a route of transition.

The final vision of the construction was a monstrosity. Burn Wall Street was the ugliest installation on the project; in this it was a success. It was not meant to be beautiful. So askew was it from the other carefully crafted designs of the Playa — the magic, white polished wood, curved, ornate, awe and wonder inspiring, carefully thought out and nurtured pieces all over the clock of the city — that Burn Wall Street called attention to itself by its “outofplaceness.” It was a game of “what does not belong?” Yet, an odd trick of perspective made it so that many people did not immediately notice the two-block structure disturbing the sky. As they arrived, their eyes, yet to adjust to this carefully intentioned landscape, overlooked the ugly and unintentioned. And this calls into question the perspective of everyday. How is it that we have allowed ourselves to become so accustomed to the monstrosities in our vision? Why, have we so easily accepted the most dysfunctional structures of our everyday life? Could it be that we participate not only by building, but also by accepting what we see?

Burn Wall Street was due to burn on Friday. The smaller projects would burn on Thursday. The Man would Burn on Saturday and the Temple on Sunday. All of Friday a skeleton crew of volunteers held the demolition perimeter around the site. A number of the original volunteers were still there, to the end. The highlight of the project was to be the controlled burn and the fireworks/demolition/TNT of Burn Wall Street. Yet, the winds, and concern from the safety authorities of Black Rock City dictated a postponement of the Burn. Burn Wall Street would Burn on Saturday, after the Man.

Irony, it ended up upstaging The Man. Irony, it became what it rebelled against, it swallowed all kind intentions. It became a war zone; maybe we create what we know. Is that a lesson? Too cliche; too tired.

Friday a new perimeter was created. To the disappointment of the artist the explosives would have to be canceled. He would have to be satisfied with simply burning something.

I am told that on Saturday, as volunteers took their places again around the perimeter, Otto Von Danger, and his chief lieutenant, showed up on site with a meal they had prepared with their own hands. Do we identify “this” as irony, submission, redemption, at last an invitation of all parties to the table?

At 1 a.m., on Saturday morning, I watched Wall Street burn. Following the euphoria of the Man burn — a celebration of something, a cumulative acknowledgement to the culture created and its transiency — Burn Wall Street felt like the death of something. There was no gratitude, no closure, no more dialogue.

Someone asked me, “why not have built the buildings upside down?” Why not? That would have made it art. That would have made the burn more about statement then destruction. That would have been a conversation. No. I saw buildings burn. I saw horror. Before the fire started, the buildings, with their windows lacking glass or any other sign of life and care, still seemed a bit abstract to me, like toys. But filled with fire, like rows and rows of odd teeth missing, their crevices aflame, I thought of life. I thought of New York. I saw people in those windows. To me, this became a vision of anarchy and a metaphor for terrorism. And for that I am grateful because it crystalized something that my humanist roots have been suggesting all along.

Ultimately, if we are to have a conversation about change, there must be room at the table for everyone — a chance for every story.

Our society is failing. The theory of our being has broken down. We are approaching the state of chaos, an opportunity for building something. Not entirely doing away with, but regrouping on what we have, and setting about with a new intention. Mocking, belittling, only affirms fear — it creates the enemy, and it silences.

What Burning Man, what the Playa, the beach, this small social experiment, this slice of life teaches me is that the dust of everyday living, a harsh rock, a desert, an opportunity — not to be escaped from, but built upon.

-Nikita Nelin

P.S. I now know how to build a square house. Father would be happy.


Posted on 7 September 2012 | 9:47 am

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