Burners in flux

steve@sfbg.com

Temples are the spiritual centers and gathering places for the communities that build them, standing as testaments to their faith. In traditional culture, they are lasting monuments. At Burning Man, these complex, beautiful structures are destroyed at the end of the festival.

Building something that takes months to plan, design, and construct but lasts only a week takes an unusual attitude and a faith — not in some unknowable deity, but in one another and the value of collective artistic collaboration. In many ways, the Temple of Flux, this year’s spiritual centerpiece on the playa, represents the essence of an event that is redefining the American counterculture.

Burning Man has been experiencing a renaissance in recent years as it moves from a wild bohemian celebration on the open frontier into a permanent counterculture with well-developed urban values, vast social networks, and regional manifestations around the world.

The Temple of Flux crew toiled for months in West Oakland’s huge, burner-run American Steel workspace, designing, cutting, painting, and assembling the parts and pieces of what would become five massive wooden structures. And for the last few weeks, they camped and worked in the desert to create what looks like a stunning series of peaks and canyons, dotted with caves and niches that tens of thousands of visitors will explore this week.

Even with volunteer labor, this 21,600 square foot project cost $180,000. And on Sunday, Sept. 5th, it will be completely destroyed by a carefully orchestrated fire. Yet its real value will linger on in the spirit, skills, and community that created it. And that’s true of many of the projects that comprise Black Rock City and this year’s particularly timely art theme: Metropolis: The Life of Cities.

The city that nearly 50,000 citizens build for Burning Man each year is one of world’s great urban centers while it stands, with mind-blowing art and world-class entertainment offered free to all in a stunning visual environment. The $210–$360 ticket that people buy to attend the event only entitles them to help build the city.

But it doesn’t last — the city is dismantled entirely, and some of the most impressive art is destroyed. Why do people devote months of their lives to build art that will be burned in a week?

An ambitious undertaking like the Temple of Flux required five carefully packed semi trucks to move and a mind-boggling logistical effort to construct in the hostile world of the Nevada desert. Making it happen was like a full-time unpaid job for four months for many of the more than 200 diverse volunteers.

I spent four months embedded with the crew and helped build the Temple, seeking to understand what drove the artists and builders. The question is pronounced, the answers varied, but it comes down to one of the defining characteristics of Burning Man: the process, the work, the experience, the challenge, and the ability to bond with and learn from others was far more important than the final product.

The three project principals and designers — Rebecca Anders, Jessica Hobbs, and PK Kimelman — have been lauded within the Burning Man community, but they say they are humbled by the efforts of the team that supported them and their vision.

“I was under the impression that I’d have to call in a lot of favors, but people have been coming out of the woodwork,” PK, a veteran of the Space Cowboys sound collective who is new to making large-scale art, told me in the desert. “It’s a very diverse group of people in their personalities and backgrounds, but it’s amazing how it’s become just one cohesive group without any factions.”

Indeed, a steady in-flow of volunteers showed up, ranging from experienced builders and grizzled Burning Man veterans to first-time burners (and a few who weren’t even attending the event) with no relevant skills but a desire to help in any way they can. Almost all said they were honored to simply be a part of the project and were willing to devote themselves to it.

“I’ve been amazed by people’s dedication and devotion. That doesn’t necessarily happen in the real world,” PK said.

This was a project that required an immense commitment, from raising the $120,000 needed to supplement a $60,000 art grant from Burning Man organizers to the thousands of person-hours required to build and burn it. And there were many unexpected obstacles to overcome along the way, such as when PayPal froze the group’s finances just as they were leaving for the playa.

 

BEFORE METROPOLIS

The only set pieces at Burning Man each year are the Man and the Temple, which get burned on successive nights as the week ends. Only the base of the Man changes each year, but the Temple gets designed from scratch. This is the first year the Temple isn’t a traditional building, but rather a throwback to precivilization.

The temple’s structure resembles five dunes, named for notable ridges, canyons, and land forms — Antelope, Bryce, Cayuga, Dumont, and El Dorado — the latter the biggest at more than 80 feet tall. Together they form sheltering canyons and create a contrast to the event’s Metropolis art theme and the tower that the Man stands on this year.

“Before we even discussed it together, we all gravitated toward the idea of natural formations, and the more we talked about it, the more it made sense. We wanted to relate Metropolis back to where we came from,” said Jessica Hobbs, who has done several large-scale artworks at Burning Man, last year creating Fishbug with fellow Temple artist Rebecca Anders.

Rebecca and Jess are veterans of the fire arts collective Flaming Lotus Girls (see “Angels of the Apocalypse,” 8/17/05), whose members are playing key roles with the Temple project as the group takes a year off. Rebecca has known PK since college and they’ve long talked about doing a big project together. The opportunity presented itself this year when Burning Man officials approached Jess and Rebecca about doing the Temple.

An architect by training, PK said the design and theme aren’t as incongruous as they might initially seem. “If the city was going to be architectural, then the Temple should stand in counterpoint to that and go back to where our collective enterprise began. Man originally sought shelter and dwelling in the land, in caves, and in canyons, and it was only after existing in the cradle of the earth, literally, that man then started making and building structures that became more and more elaborate … and we relate to it in very much the same way we once related to the peaks and canyons,” PK said.

Yet if the temple design seems to buck the Metropolis theme, the massive collaboration that created it epitomizes the urban ideal that Black Rock City is all about these days, as the chaotic frontier of old becomes a vibrant city with a distinctive DIY culture. The Temple of Flux drew together people of all skill sets from a wide variety of camps to design, build, fundraise, support, and create the nonprofit Flux Foundation to continue the collaboration into the future.

From the first meeting in mid-May, the project was broken down into teams devoted to design and structural engineering, fundraising, construction, a legal team (to create the nonprofit Flux Foundation, among other things), infrastructure and logistics, documentation, and the burn team, each headed by capable, experienced leaders (most of them women) with the authority to make myriad decisions big and small along the way.

“Big projects are really tough if I try to think about the whole thing all at once,” Jess told me June 6 during the regular Monday evening meeting and work session at American Steel.

Even at that early stage, before the design was done and all the wood had been ordered, there were already many moving parts to the project. A demonstration wall had been built to develop the look for the exterior cladding; a cutting station for creating the plywood strips for the cladding and a painting station for whitewashing them; 10 A-frames from Dumont — the smallest dune, the only one that would fit in the workspace — reached up about 20 feet and created a slow twist; scale models of the whole project were built and refined; and the whiteboard was filled with fundraiser dates and other project details.

Over the coming weeks, Dumont would be cladded with plywood strips and shapes, then torn apart and recladded, several times over, as part of the learning and training process. Caves and benches were added and refined. “This is the only one we can build in the shop, so this is our petri dish,” Rebecca said.

Johnny Poynton, a British carpenter and psychedelic therapist who didn’t really know anyone with the project but joined after his own request to Burning Man for “a ridiculous amount of money” for a lighthouse project was rejected, quickly became an integral member of the team, and perhaps its most colorful.

He had been going to Burning Man for 10 years with his son, Max, who is now 26. They each have been involved with a variety of camps, together and separately, something that has drawn them closer together. “It’s something we’ve bonded over, to say the least,” said Max, who worked hard on the Temple.

That kind of connecting through a shared purpose is important to Johnny, who quickly developed affectionate relationships with those on the project. He said it is the project, the shared vision, that unites people more than casual social connections. “For me, it’s not about how people are interconnected. It’s about what they want to do,” Johnny said.

Catie Magee, another former Flaming Lotus Girl, took on the role of project den mother, seeing to its myriad details while the principals initially focused on design and wrangling needed expertise and supplies. She was also dealing with Burning Man brass, who knew the project was underfunded but promised to make up for it with logistical support, free tickets, and as many early arrival passes as they needed to finish this labor-intensive project.

“From what we gather,” Catie said at the June 6 meeting of the passes needed to facilitate a large crew on the playa starting Aug. 13, “we get as many as we need.”

 

THE NATURE OF ART

The Flaming Lotus Girls, who work in steel and fire, have always focused on teaching and spreading the skills and knowledge to as many people as they could. But that was even easier to do with an accessible medium like wood, and all the more essential on a project of this scale. They needed as many people as possible to understand the design and do the work.

“A lot of us come from groups where we encourage empowerment and teaching,” Jess told the group during one meeting. “If the opportunity is there, please take it [and teach skills to someone who needs them].”

It was something all the leads encouraged throughout the project. “The design is about horizontal learning,” PK told group, referring to how the knowledge gets spread, with one person teaching another, who then teaches another.

The cladding on Dumont was placed and removed several times with different teams to hone the design and facilitate learning, waiting until late July to finally break it down and get its frames and cladding ready for transport to Burning Man. While the team used computer programs to design the structure and faces, the artistry came in modifying Dumont and letting it inform how the other dunes would look.

To represent the varied texture of hillsides, the plywood received a light latex whitewash, the wood grain showing through. Solid plywood sections would represent veins of solid rock, surrounded by the layers of sediment and dirt that would be created using strips of plywood randomly thatched together at varying angles.

“The metaphor we’re working for is the rock face with the various strata and how it changed over time,” Rebecca said.

“It’s important that it’s not an artist’s sketch,” PK said, but a work of art in progress. So as they learned from Dumont, studied photos of their dunes’ namesakes, and thought more about their art, the leads would draw new lines on the cardboard model they created, refining the design.

“I’m trying to use geological rules to do this. It’s all conceptual geology,” Jess said one Saturday in late June as she drew on the model with a pencil, shop glasses on her head, earplugs hanging about her neck, wearing a Power Tool Drag Races T-shirt.

In addition to doing freelance graphic design, she helps run All-Power Labs with her boyfriend, longtime Burning Man artist Jim Mason. “Work gets in the way,” said Jess, who was working on the temple project full-time. She supplemented her hands-on Burning Man art experience by studying at the San Francisco Art Institute, earning her MFA in 2005. So she brought an artistic eye to her innate social skills that made her an unflappable connecter of key people.

During a meeting at American Steel, PK said the architectural term for the way shapes are created that only fit together a few different ways is a “kit of parts,” adding, “It’s like building a puzzle without the box.”

Later, on the playa, he conveyed the concept to the group in a way that seemed downright zen. “The pieces will tell you the way more than the guidelines,” PK said of the cladding shapes and thatches. He said shapes have an inherent nature, something they want to be, and “they will show you the way if you let them.”

But the process was always more important than the product, something that was conveyed regularly through the project. At the July 12 meeting and work night, Jess, Rebecca, and Catie said the need for progress shouldn’t compromise the central mission of teaching and learning.

They told the temple crew that one woman working on the project complained that some of the more skilled men weren’t taking the time to teach her, and they said that was simply unacceptable. Rebecca even invoked the original Temple builder, artist David Best, who built all the Temples until 2005.

“David Best said, ‘Never take a tool out of a woman’s hand. It’s insulting and not OK.’ But I’d like to expand that and say never take a tool out of anyone’s hand,” Rebecca said. “Hopefully we can take on that sexism and some of the other isms in the world.”

 

TEMPLE OF FLUFF

Heavy equipment has become essential to creating the large-scale art that has been popping up in Black Rock City in recent years, so Burning Man has an Art Support Services crew to operate a fleet of cranes, construction booms, scissor lifts, and other equipment that big projects need.

For months, the Temple of Flux crew built sturdy frames that were carefully broken down for transportation on five tractor-trailers, along with hundreds of cladding thatches stacked on pallets, boxes of decorated niches, a tool room built in a shipping container, all the pieces and parts needed to create a smooth build on the playa.

“Then I get to pop in and help them make it art,” Davis, a.k.a. The Stinky Pirate, said as he prepared to take Lou Bukiet (a Flaming Lotus Girl in her early 20s) and a stack of thatches up in the boom lift on Aug. 23 to staple the cladding to the windward side of Cayuga, with Jess and her artistic eye spotting from the ground.

Davis has helped build Black Rock City every year since 1999 when he joined Burning Man’s Department of Public Works. In recent years, he has operated heavy equipment for a variety of notable artworks, such as Big Rig Jig and the Steampunk Treehouse. He said the groups do all the prep work and “I get to come in and be a star player.”

I began my work day on the playa ripping off cladding that had been placed on wrong the night before, an exercise that was a regular occurrence as the artists sought to perfect their work.

It was a little frustrating to undo people’s hard work, and Davis even told Jess before going up into the lift with Lou, “My goal is no more redoes, whatever time we have to take for a do.” Yet it was a minor quibble with a group he said was the best on the playa.

“This is a killer group. It’s probably the best crew I’ve gotten to work with,” Davis said, explaining that it was because of their attitude and organization. “Art is more than just building the art. It’s about community, and this group is really good at taking care of each other.”

Taking care of each other was a core value with this group. Not only did the Temple team have a full kitchen crew serving three hot, yummy meals a day and massage therapists to work out sore muscles, it also had a team of “fluffers” who brought the workers snacks, water, sunscreen, cold wet bandanas, sprays from scented water bottles, and other treats, sometimes topless or in sexy outfits, always with a smile and personal connection.

Margaret Monroe, one of the head fluffers, instructed her team to always introduce themselves to workers they don’t know and to touch them on the arms or back to make a physical connection and help them feel cared for and supported.

PK said he initially bristled at the high kitchen expense and other things that seemed extraneous to the cash-strapped project. “People are eating better here than they eat back at home,” he said. But he came to realize the importance of good meals and attentive fluffers: “If you keep people happy, then it’s fun. And if it’s fun, then it’s not like work.”

 

BUILT TO BURN

Don Cain is the head of the burn team, the group charged with setting the temple on fire. They worked out of his workspace and home in Emeryville, known as the Department of Spontaneous Combustion, which is like a burner clubhouse complete with bar, rigging, classic video games, old art projects, and the equipment to make new ones.

Don grew up in Georgia working in his dad’s machine shop and did stints as a police officer — where he cross-trained with the fire department and developed a bit of pyromania — and in the Army. After that, he lived in Humboldt and then came to the Bay Area to study art photography at San Francisco State University.

He attended his first Burning Man in 2000 “and my very first night there was epic.” So he immersed himself in the culture, making massive taiko drums for the burner musical ensemble The Mutaytor, creating liquid fuel fire cannons and building massive fire-spewing tricycles.

“I’ve been doing the fire stuff for a while and I have all my fingers and toes and I haven’t set anyone on fire yet,” Don told me in his shop.

So he was the natural choice to lead the team that will “choreograph the burn” of the Temple, as Don put it, an experienced group that loves geeking out on the best ways to burn things. “We have a collection of very experienced people in the fire stuff,” Don told me. “About 50 years of experience.”

The most basic goal was to create hundreds of “burn packs” made of paraffin, sawdust, burlap, and other flammable materials to “add a lot of calories in one spot, which is what we’re after,” he said. The burn packs, stacks of kindling, and tubes of copper and chlorine shavings to create a blue-green color were placed strategically throughout the Temple as soon as the framing was done.

The idea is to break down the structure before the cladding burns away so the A-frames aren’t standing up the air. “I would like to get the structure to collapse relatively quickly,” Don said. “Then we’ll have a pile of fuel that will burn for a while.”

They also created 13 “sawdust cannons” using the finest, cleanest sawdust from the cutting of wood at American Steel, one of many creative reuses of the project’s byproducts. Tubes of the sawdust, so fine they called it “wood flour,” were placed over buried air compressors that will be silently fired off during the burn to create flammable plumes. “I’ve taken the opportunity to turn this burn into more than just setting a structure on fire,” Don said.

The Temple is where burners memorialize those who have died, something that took on personal significance with the Department of Spontaneous Combustion crew when member Randall Issac died suddenly of cancer earlier this year.

So they created the largest cave in the Temple of Flux as a memorial to him, only to have Burning Man brass threaten to close it down because of concerns about the potential fire hazard. On Aug. 25, Burning Man fire safety director Dave X (who founded the Flaming Lotus Girls in 2000) led a delegation to inspect the Temple, which includes Bettie June from the Artery, lawyer Lightning Clearwater, Tomas McCabe from Black Rocks Arts Foundation, and fire marshal Joseph P.

“The thing we’re concerned about is closed spaces, ingress and egress,” said Dave X, who assembled all the relevant department heads to consider it together.

After touring the site with PK and Jess, the group eventually agreed that the risk was manageable if the Temple Guardians who will work shifts monitoring the project during the week watch out for certain things. “Their mantra needs to be no smoking, no fire,” Dave said. Joseph also said the caves needed to be named and a protocol developed for evacuation in case of accidental fire.

“The important thing is that whoever is calling in can use the terminology we use in our dispatch center,” Joseph said.

The fire arts were largely developed in the Bay Area by burners, who have developed an expertise and understanding that exceeds most civil authorities. And even though the Temple crew was like family to him, Dave X warned them, “You guys are in the yellow zone here where you’re taking precautions.”

 

KEEPING THE PACE

On the playa, a sense of camaraderie and common purpose propelled the Temple crew to make rapid progress on the project, working all day, every day, and most of every night. Given the uncertain weather on the playa, they still felt time pressure and the need to crack the whip on the crew periodically, particularly guarding against letting the great social vibe turn into a party that steals the focus from the work at hand.

“Let this temple be your highest priority,” Rebecca also said the night of Tuesday, Aug. 24, asking for a show of hands of when people were committing to work on the project: that night, the next morning, during the heat of the next day. “Look at each other and know that you’re making a commitment to yourselves and each other.”

That sort of hard sell, used several times during the week, hardly seemed necessary most of the time. People really were there to work long hours on the project and seemed to take great pride in it — even if many also took car trips during the hottest part of the day to the nearby reservoir and the on-playa hot springs Frog Pond and Trego. This was a treat for the crew, since they are all closed during Burning Man.

By Wednesday, Aug. 25, word arrived that windy, rainy weather was on the way that weekend, which got the group even more focused on finishing. “We need to ask everybody for a really big push,” Rebecca said.

“We are so close, so we need everyone to get out there and kick ass,” Jess said that evening. “We’re going to finish this tonight, and then we’re going to have fun for the rest of the time.”

And that’s what happened, with a huge crew working until the wee hours of the morning, leaving mostly fine-tuning to go as the winds began to pick up the next day, growing to zero-visibility dust storms by evening. But they finished with time to spare before the event began on Aug. 30, despite a nasty storm rolling in on the final weekend, complicating the breakdown of the camp and touched frayed nerves.

Seeing this massive project through was particularly poignant for PK, who suffered a seizure at Burning Man in 2001, leaving the playa with Rebecca and ending up getting a golf ball-sized brain tumor removed, the first of two craniotomies that left him partially paralyzed on his left side.

“I should have been dead by now if you look at the averages. I should have been dead a long time ago. So you learn to appreciate life in a slightly new way,” PK told me as the project was just getting underway. “The minute you give up the lust for life is the minute your life is over.

“Most importantly,” he continued, “you learn to appreciate the community, the people around you, and your support system.”

Catie, who has her master’s in public health and does evaluations and qualitative research, said the project was transformative for many of its participants. “It’s the capacity that has been built in people and the skills they’ve discovered,” Catie said of this project’s real value. “Even in West Oakland, people were having profound experiences. At the shop, I tell people it’s like being in love.”

And that love is likely to only grow as a spectacular fire consumes the Temple of Flux.

City Editor Steven T. Jones, who also goes by the playa name Scribe, is the author of the upcoming book The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert Is Shaping the New American Counterculture, which draws from articles he has written for the Guardian on Flaming Lotus Girls, Burners Without Borders, Opulent Temple, Indie Circus, Borg2, and other Burning Man tribes.