Burningman 2000: An Autointerview
Notes: In this interview, Sebbo displays his usual combination of crankiness, airy theorizing, and utter self-absorption. Those looking for an overview of this year's Burningman festival should turn their attention elsewhere--good places to start include the Journals and Essays page and Moorlock's list. Illustrations are a mix of photos by Sebbo, his friends, and complete strangers who were kind enough to grant permission. Images are designed to pop-up in another browser window. If this bugs you, go here.
Q: So, how was the weather?
A: Grody to the max. Multiple day-long duststorms, low temperatures, and one nasty rainstorm to give the roads that nice lumpy look.
Q: How does rain make the roads lumpy?
A: Jeez, didn't you read the '98 essay? When the surface of the playa gets wet, walking on it lifts up big chunky divots on the soles of your feet. This is fairly annoying, but once the playa dries out again after a few tens of thousands of people have been walking around on it lifting out foot-shaped inch-deep patches of ground, the surface hardens in place, and biking becomes like taking the scenic route through a paint mixer.
Q: You had a bike this year?
A: Yeah, Julian lent me a hand-me-down he had in turn recieved from man-about-BRC Steve Raspa. It was a racing bike, with the high-strung temperment of the breed, and thus ill-suited to the playa environment, but it was ever so much better than no bike at all.
A: Yeah--it's exhilarating to cruise acoss The Man's Land (the open area surrounding the Burning Man effigy), and watch the city fall away behind you. Crossing Black Rock City takes the better part of an hour on foot, and a few minute on bike. Plus, there's dozens of small art projects out on the playa that you'd probably never find wandering around on foot.
Jackie's down on bikes--she finds it harder to socialize when biking around, but I haven't really found that to be so. Or maybe I'm just antisocial enough not to mind so much.
Of course, last year I had a bike too--we bought a couple last-legs machines from a Reno pawnshop. I've always kinda figured that the shitty bike I was riding was at least partly accountable for the knee problems that had me on crutches for much of BM'99
Q: You want to talk about that some more?
A: No, not really. That's why there wasn't a '99 Snapshots. In short, I was getting on the bike one day after riding around for a while, and Pop! an eight-year-old ACL injury reappeared.
Q: Mad props--was that a pun?
A: Anyway, I was off the crutches again by Friday, but the experience kinda soured my week.
Q: It can't have been too bad--you came back in 2000.
A: True 'nuff.
Q: Were you with a themecamp this year?
A: Well, it worked out pretty well, but it wasn't enough of a success as a community that anyone felt on fire to replicate it when spring '99 rolled around, but in the meantime, Charlotte had struck up a correspondence with a guy from SF who took studio portraits of us for his website. He invited Charlotte, Julia, and me to come help with the--
Q: Studio portraits?
A: Yeah--he had set up a little white tent to diffuse the sunlight and simplify the background, and had people come in to have their portraits taken. I could rant about why this was a brilliant idea, but your time is better spent browsing the site. Go look around and come back in a couple hours when you're done.
[a couple hours pass]
Q: Okay, I'm done. You were saying this guy invited you guys to help with something.
A: Yeah, infrastructure stuff. Haul cool people off the street; have them sign a release form; then throw into the tent to have their souls stolen; help with putting up the photo tent; stuff like that. Basically, Julian does 60% of the work of the camp, his girlfriend Jackie does 30 and the rest of us scramble to do the other 10%.
Q: How'd that work out for you?
A: In '99, it worked out all right. I wasn't really into it, I'm not sure why. 2000 was much better. It was more people at Supersnail--a lot of different personalities working together really well. I worked a lot harder at it, which meant that I felt more invested in the endeavor.
Man by Bob Gelman
I came down with a flu at the end, and didn't pull my weight on cleanup, but it was generally a real pleasure.
Q: So you spent all your time hanging out with the Supersnails?
A: Far from it. This was the year I started to realize what a small town Black Rock City really is. I ran into an old college roommate, an old college girlfriend, spent some time at Pulse camp with Andy, ran into various Boston burners of course, and spent a lot of time wandering around with my friend Eric the Fruitbat.
Q: Has he been before?
A: Yup; his second year. His M.O. is to fly out standby with a backpack filled with beans and cooked rice. Last year his water came from two five-gallon folding bags he filled at the Reno Airport men's room.
Q: Sounds a little harrowing.
A: Would be for me. Left to his own devices, he seems to pull it off. This year he tried something more organized and therefore got screwed. He and a bunch of SF friends were gonna hook up with a themecamp that had all their gear, and so of course it never appeared, and their shelter consisted of two cars, a tent, and a couple tarps. Then one of the car owners got sick and left, and they were down to one car. Then the storms started hitting.
A: Yeah, but he's a trouper. And their next door neighbors helped out as much as they could. Those guys had an amazing shade structure, with a 20-foot high observation platform. And they gave me Bailey's and coffee. They know how to impress a Sebbo.
Anyway, early in the week, he painted himself all black, which nicely complemented his welding goggles, for a shoot with Julian, and we went walking around the city for a while, him nude except for the goggles and a fisherman hat. After having been quite unobtrusive until then, he was rather gratified to have folks stopping him to take his picture every couple minutes. The following morning, while we were heading in search of a shower, the nasty weather arrived, and he had to stay body painted for several more days than he had expected.
Q: Where were you going to shower? Isn't there some health code issue with public showers?
A: Indeed there is. In '98, we were just across the street from an ambitious public shower one group assembled. It lasted for about 36 hours until the state fuzz shut it down. Apparently it didn't conform to the hygenic standards required of public showers. So, they turned it into a public mud wallow instead, which ended up being very popular.
Q: And what did you have to do to get invited?
A: You had to walk by in front and accept the invitation the guy handed you.
Q: When did you tend to do your exploring?
A: Well, for a lot of people the main purpose of Burningman is the night--that's when the raves and the bars come to life. That particular aspect doesn't thrill me--if I want to spend a lot of time in crowded bars and dancehalls, I can do that in my hometown, and occasionally I do. Not necessarily worth a 2000 mile trip for me.
Q: You sound a little defensive.
A: I feel sort of weird about it--like if I'm not getting into Burningman night culture I'm somehow missing the Point of the event. Last year Eric helped me become more at ease with choosing what aspects of the event to focus on--it's a vast and fastmoving place--you can't see everything, or even most things, so it's important to make concious choices about what to concentrate on.
Q: So he's not much of a raver, either?
A: On the contrary--Eric's a Dancing Fool. Put him on the dancefloor, and then just cart away the bodies he knocks aside. No, his issue was the slickness of Esplanade camps. He'd been hoping to find a rougher and more improvisational event, and was initially disappointed by the shiny professionalism he saw along the main drag. Eventually he found a simple solution--explore the outer reaches more. Black Rock City is shaped like a segment of a flat ring, with the more glitzy camps along the innermost street (colloquially called the Esplandade--a '98 official name that mysteriously stuck). Wander out closer to the perimeter fence, and you find the less attention-hogging setups--often as interesting, Eric found, but generally not as lavish.
This is partially due to the preferential positioning given to the more impressive camps, partially due to the fact that people who plan less and show up later find the prime spots already taken, and partially due to some folks just not being attention hogs.
Q: So you were an Early Bird, eh? Kinda out of character...
A: Well, it's all relative. In previous years, I certainly kept later hours than Charlotte did. I kept planning to do some night time exploring with Eric, but that never happened. I did hit the club circuit with Spiral one night, which was a lot of fun, but in general I was turning in not too long after midnight.
Q: Speaking of Charlotte, you haven't mentioned her.
A: She didn't come this year, damn it. She had a new teaching job that had her busy all week.
Q: She must have been very disappointed.
A: Yeah, it's funny. In late '99, she was saying she probably wouldn't do Burningman this year, and she'd spend the time and money on a trip to Germany instead. By spring she was saying she was really torn, and once she got the job that made Burningman impossible, she was miserable about it.
It was a big disappointment not having her there, but early on I got caught up in a kind of euphoria that had me not thinking about it much. For the first few days I was going around saying
Q: And then the storms hit.
A: Exactly. Solla Sollew, where no-one has troubles, or at least very few.
We were able to batten down the hatches pretty well--our main problem at Supersnail (apart from the annoyance factor) was simply that people weren't wandering in as much it thirty-mile-an-hour winds. Other setups didn't do as well. For example, The Lustmonkeys of Xara had built an amazing Lost Jungle Temple of Xara with a real turf floor inside. The day after I visited it blew down. The next time I saw it, it was a mass of splintered plywood and twisted rebar. I talked to one of the Lustmonkeys there, and he told me they were planning on cleaning up a bit and reopening as The Ruined Jungle Temple of Xara. That's class.
In contrast, the Official Keystone Art project did a great job of attracting advance publicity, but never actually got off the ground on site, and appeared to be entirely abandoned after the middle of the week. The lesson here is that Burningman projects should be scalable. Have a Plan B if Plan A implodes. Otherwise you look like a complete lunkhead.
Q: Any good Supersnail stories?
A: Well, mostly ones that aren't that interesting without the pictures that are still months away. Let's see... Late in the week, Jackie brought in a guy from the Beggar's Bar.
by Big Brother
by Big Brother
Q: The Beggar's Bar?
A: Yeah. They had a little puppet theater down on Esplanade, and these little grotesque homemade puppets would make passers-by beg for drinks.
Q: And would they actually serve them?
A: Well, sort of. Jason (the guy Jackie brought in) said they spend almost nothing on booze, because most of the beggars are so lame, so they get weak drinks.
Q: What's the difference between a lame beg and a good beg?
A: "Please, I really really really need a drink" is a lame beg. Jackie's the one who pointed out that a lot of people seem to think describing the intensity of your desire for alchohol counts as begging.
Q: Sounds pretty dull, actually.
A:Well, what makes the difference is the quality of the puppeteer's humor. And he keeps the beggars moving through pretty briskly, so it doesn't get stale. Also, the puppets themeselves are gorgeous. I had an intense fit of avarice and mourned out loud (for the third year in a row) not having brought one kickass dazzling barter item for heavy-duty occasions such as this, Llyra, god bless her sweet soul, offered to give me an enormous stack of glowsticks from her enormouser hoard as barter goods, but I wasn't able to find Jason at home before he packed up. It happens.
Q: What was--?
A: Oh, and he told me a great story. One of his two colleagues at the Barter Bar went to the Cafe for a coffee, and the guy at the bar said, "Sorry, your money's no good here."
"We won't take your money. If you want coffee, you're gonna have to beg for it."
And they did it. They made him beg, they gave him his coffee, and they wouldn't let him pay for it.
Later, he went to get ice, and, "Sorry, your money's no good here. You're gonna have to beg."
Q: Fantastic. How'd they know who he was?
A: Jason was a little vague on that point.
Q: Any more stories?
A: Early in the week, a guy dressed as the pope rode by on a penisbike--
Q: A *penisbike?*
A: Yeah. A bicycle with an enormous papier-mâché male member protruding from the front. By the end of the week I was sick of the damn things--I must have seen a dozen of them--
I wish I'd had the presence of mind to check how many guys looked around, but I was intent on my quarry.
Q: Only in Black Rock City, huh?
A: One hopes.
Q: What's the most amazing thing you saw this year?
A: Well, as always there's all the impressive art and the bizarre costumes, but that's what the photo sites are for....actually I think what impressed me the most were the 7:00 & Throat Port-a-jon maitre d's. After the lines at the port-a-jons got really bad near the end of the week, these two guys had set up a by the line, and were offerring people those wax paper seatcovers (which they called 'butt gaskets'), and playing a tape of helpful multilingual Disneyworld safety messages.
picture of these guys?
Q: That sounds kinda cute.
A: Small-bladdered caffeine-addicted lad that I am, I dropped by several times over the course of the afternoon. By my last visit, they had a pair of enormous incense sticks that they would wave inside each stall as it was vacated, they had a case of bottled water, several cases of beer, a gallon of orange juice, vodka and bourbon, and a couple baskets of candy and other snacks; all of which they were distributing to people waiting in the ever-growing line.
Q: Where'd this all come from?
A: Grateful customers! They'd managed to make stone soup in the desert. If anyone has more info on who these guys were, I'd love to give them credit.
Similarly, when Eric and I went to the Oracle Booth for some free advice, we assumed that the booth and the staffers were part of one project. As it turned out, the sybils we spoke to had just wandered by when the booth was unoccupied and set up shop dispensing their divine wisdom. It's when the ecology of the event comes together like that that I'm most impressed with Burningman.
On...I think it was Friday, Eric & I were loitering around Center Camp, feeling pissy. It had been cold, overcast, drizzly, and very windy all day, and our nerves were frayed. A big tall guy came striding through, shouting, "Help the lamplighters! Help the lamplighters! Your city needs you!" Well, we dashed over to see what we could do, and were directed to the lamplighter's tent. In one of those funny coincidences that seem to happen constantly out there, we found our stream converging with Rich--the old roommate I mentioned and an old gaming buddy of Eric's. The three of us arrived to find exactly three slots left, as the "extras" for the three Lamplighter crews, essentially tagging along to fill in should anything go wrong.
by Jeffrey Mazur
So, we put on our robes, which took an fair amount of fuss as we tried to figure out the funky headdresses, and joined our respective parties. As it turned out, they had counted wrong, and I got pressed into being a Bearer, carrying ten-odd gas lanterns on a pole down the North Esplanade. As we processed down the road, I had to keep supressing the urge to march, as it would swing the lamps rather frighteningly. Folks would gather and cheer and take pictures as we passed by, many shouting out "Thanks, Lamplighters."
Walking back, I suddenly realized that the weather had been perfect since we started out.
Q: Funny coincidences, huh?
by Bob Gelman
The hive-mind seems to be hard at work at Individualism Central. I found out about four different groups that brought two-gallon tubs of Utz's cheese puffs. Apparently several groups this year independantly discovered that the scraps left after toy companies make wooden dinosaur skeletons are a cheap and utterly bizarre looking building material.
Q: I hear there are a lot of drugs at Burningman.
A: Heh. I'm in the embarassing position of going every year planning to smoke pot at some point, and I never get around to it. I was all over caffeine and alcohol, though. The colder weather meant I was a little more comfortable drinking than in past years, because the dehydration risk was lower. On burn night, I hauled out a flask of Glenlivet and carried that around with me, sharing periodic swigs with Spiral, and various people with impressive coustumes or vehicles. Single-malt scotch turns out to be a great Burningman supply. It's classy, it's a little naughty, it's legal, and of course alchohol is an antiseptic, so it was relatively safe to share. On the other hand, I came down with a nasty cold two days later, so maybe there's a flaw in my logic.
I brought my own coffee and plunger pot this year, but managed to lose it for most of the week, but moseying down to the cafe in the morning was hardly burdensome. The cafe was amazing this year--a huge venue, with multiple stages, mostly playing really good non-techno music, (including a lot of World Fusion, which I had been getting into lately anyway), and a really good-spirited staff. It took on a kind of refugee camp atmosphere during the storms, but it was always an ideal spot for people-watching. After a day of nasty storms, Julian even came over to the cafe for a few hours (him leaving Supersnail is always an occasion) to take pictures with his Coolpix. Everybody and her turtle had a Coolpix this year--it was ridiculous. Looking for a way to stand out at Burningman? Don't carry a Coolpix--that'll draw stares.
Q: What about the Notorious Yahoo Factor?
A: What do you mean?
Q: Well, you've complained long and loud in the past about all the guys who show up near the end of the week for the tits and explosions.
A: Well, it's trickier than that--after all, I can't say I entirely ignore the tits and explosions myself. And it's--
Q: Yeah, yeah, yeah. There was enough handwringing about that in your last essay. In the end it's something that does bother you. How big an issue was it this year?
A: Okay, this was the year the organization finally started taking the Yahoo Factor seriously. They took two big steps that seem to have done a lot to make my experience more pleasant.
A: Yeah. My sources tell me they ended up letting folks in then anyway, when turnout numbers were below expectations. That really kinda bugs me. All leading up to the event, they were shrilly repeating, 'we won't sell tickets then, even if you beg and plead,' and then they change their minds. I feel like it punishes the folks who paid attention, and rewards those who ignored it.
Q: But it worked?
A: Yeah. It certainly seemed to. I didn't hear the phrase "show us your tits" once this year, the garbage didn't seem to be as bad at the end of the week, and the nighttime noise was really under control in my part of town. On the other hand, this year I didn't spend any time during the weekend hanging out on the Esplanade with a topless woman, which is the only way to seriously judge the yahoo factor.
Q: How was the final burn?
by Julian Axolotl
A: Well, as Scott McCloud said to me once, "it's like herding cats." About a dozen Greater Supersnailiens tried to walk over together.
Q: You just put it that way to drop McCloud's name.
A: Guilty, your honor. So, it took us, what, an *hour* to just get out of camp. Once we started hitting the crowds it just got worse. We started hemmoraging people, and I started to envy the people who were getting lost, without it ever hitting the level of frustration for me to strike out on my own.
I had overdressed for the weather, and by the time Team Supersnail found a good Burn-watching spot in the crowd, I was sweating something fierce. The arms had just gone up a minute before, so I figured we had a half-hour or so before the burn began. So, I took off my backpack, took off my shoes, took off two (out of three--it had been a cold, cold day)layers of pants...
Then the Man went off. The sky lit up, the crowd surged forward, and I desparately tried to gather up my gear, stuff it into my backpack, and get my shoes back on, while keeping an eye on the Main Event. It was a little crazy.
The subsequent nocturnal wanderings were cool and surreal. We blundered across a field of baked-playa brains in the dark, we hitched a ride with a couchtruck of rowdy drunks, we danced in front of an RV blasting techno with an absurdly perfect-bodied nude woman undulating on top. Eventually we were down to just Julia and me. We entered the Temple of Elvis, and knelt in silent prayer for a minute or so, rose, undulated our hips for a moment, and walked off to the cafe for a drink.
On Sunday, I stuffed a folding chair, my water bottle, and a bag of "Snack-Sized" Snickers bars into my backpack (I guess the larger ones are considered meal sized?) and set out for the Large Intestine, which was their cute name for the exit gates this year.
In previous years, I had been impressed, during the notoriously long wait in line to get out, with the folks who had come out to make our languish a little more pleasant, giving out final snacks, titflashes, or just friendly waves. After a half-mile or so of biking, I arrived at the gatehouse, and found several rangers standing around talking, and the traffic progressing so smoothly that any attempt to give something out would have produced its own delay. I gave the rangers candy, and asked if it would be all right for me to walk out to where the path met the paved road, and try my luck there instead. One of the rangers said I'd have to have my ticket stub with me to get back in. I didn't, of course, and asked whether the fact that here I was, and I'd be leaving my bicycle inside wasn't sufficient. The answer, in short, was no.
After a few minutes of sipping water and watching traffic (and kicking myself for forgetting my sunglasses back at camp), I wandered off to where another ranger was relaxing next to his pickup and settled in to see if the traffic would thicken. This ranger was consideribly more lassiez-faire, and we had an enjoyable discussion of the event in general and ranging philosophy. After the better part of an hour, I packed up, passed my new friend a Supersnail invitation, and headed back in. At the confluence of the two main city veins, I finally found a spot where traffic was just barely slow enough to allow me to dispense my candy, if I was willing to jog alongside open car windows (someone was already there giving out fliers for the SF Decompression). The response was positive, and I returned to camp with a lighter backpack, a light heart, two excellent home-baked macaroon cookies, someone's mix CD, some tootsie pops, and a sticker. Favorite things to shout: "Have some evil corporate candy!" "Last Potlach fifty-one weeks!" and "Warning: You are now entering the real world. We apologize for the inconvenience."
On Monday the crowds actually started leaving, and for most people 2000 was at least as long a wait in line to get out as previous years had been. But by then I was out of candy, and my sore throat had kicked in.
Q: Wait...why weren't you leaving?
A: A few months before, a few careless remarks at a party had gotten Julia shanghaied into the post of Food Donation Czar, and she was working her ass off at center camp, attempting to process the huge quantities of leftover food people were trying to get rid of.
A: Watermelons. For obscure psychological reasons, everybody brings watermelons to Burningman, and nobody eats them . They end up all trying to give them away at the end of the week.
Q: How did the food bank respond to dozens of watermelons?
A: As it happens, the guy Julia had been coordinating with in advance wasn't there that day, and the rest of the staff seemed a little leery. One person was concerned they might have been dosed, and warned that each one should be inspected carefully before serving. I considered arguing to him that Burners tend to like their drugs too much to go around giving them away to random strangers like that, but thought better of it.
Q: Good. Plans for next year?
A: A bunch. Bring light gloves--Biking at night without them I thought my knuckles would freeze off. Bring a few surgical masks for the sandstorms, and untinted goggles for the night and evening storms (glacier glasses work fine during the day). Get a more playa-appropriate bike (cheap, new or newish single-speed cruiser)Keep clothes in garbage bags when you're not wearing them so the dust doesn't crep into every crevasse. I'd like to help out at the Beggar's Bar, and perhaps with the Spacial Delivery crew. I think I want to spread myself thin. Working on multiple projects appeals to me.
I also think I'll order a little more sunshine next year. Without nice weather, you don't get as many naked chicks and explosions.