Burning at Burning Man: Decompression 2010

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Sunday 10/10/10. 5 weeks since Burning Man came to an end.  Also, the date of Decompression in San Francisco.  I can’t adequately answer the question “What is Burning Man?”, but “What is Decompression?” is easier.  It’s a 12 hour street party in the spirit of Burning Man, meant to rekindle the Playa vibe, extend the Burn.  I’d been warned: “it’s not the same”, “don’t expect too much”, “expensive drinks instead of the gift economy”.  And one friend said, “I’ll leave Burning Man to the Playa.”   There was no question but that I wanted to go.  The question for me was this: “Does it work?”

Just Art: Balloons, The Rainbow, and High Voltage Discharge

A 6 block section of the city, tucked in just east of Interstate 280 in San Francisco’s China Basin is cordoned off and access controlled.  After 20 minutes or so of waiting in line, a ticket seller scrutinizes our costumes.  If we’ve shown enough commitment, we get in for $10, otherwise $20.  The Playa dust on my camera helps, and we get the real Burner rate.    While waiting in line, people are insular.  Is this going to be an SF freak show, or a transcendant Burn?

Reunion of the Familiar

A guy had just Sharpie’d himself on the chest, letting us all know he wanted to buy mushrooms.  The smell of street food was pervasive.  Music and people milling in the daylight.  The scale was different from generic Street Fair; too many cranes. My friend L wanted to find her friends from Fire Camp.  They were set up with Medi Tent and fire control equipment only a few feet from the entrance.  There were hugs, and L had begun her reunion with the familiar. Crowds were thick.  Some lined up for not wickedly overpriced beer.  Some for food.  Some to get spanked at Scarbutts.  Some for their favorite bands on sound stages up and down the Strada.  Art cars were parked; Art Cars here in SF!, but not moving.  Art buses, again stationary, were loaded with revelers.  Music blared, both DJ’d and live.

A free cup of coffee comes with a spanking of any strength at Scarbutts.

Walking into My Own Dream

On the Playa, I had spent what seemed a lifetime at a small theme camp called The Paddy Mirage.  An authentic Irish Pub built by Irish Burners, first produced in 2003, it’s been a fixture ever since.  Good music, good drinks, good feelings, all for free.  I wandered in one night and for 6 hours it became home.

The Paddy Mirage on the Playa in Dawning Light

Was it a mirage, this feeling of home, of belonging, or Playa magic?  Now, so many weeks later, I can only describe it as a dream.  As I walked past the Heart Deco art bus, dancers swaying, leaning over the railing, dribbling beer down to the ground, I had my own reunion with the familiar as the actual building of The Paddy Mirage came in to view.  Silly as it may seem, it made me shiver.

The Paddy Mirage, or at least part of it, on the Strada

Inside, it was crowded, shoulder to shoulder.   The dancing was frenetic.  The room was alive.  The music was more boink, beep, bloink of Techno than soul-infused House, and certainly not Irish.  There was no way I could have spent 6 hours there tonight, not even with some kind of mind alteration.   Feeling something like, “You can’t go home again”, I wandered out.  Overall, it had the look and feel of Burning Man, and the real building!  Something was missing.  What was it?

Making New Friends

One of the great things about Burning Man is the way you can go up to anyone, really anyone, and start a conversation.  Another facet of this is that your most casual interactions with people there turn out to be richer than you’d get in Default Reality, aka home.   The more of this you can bring home with you, the longer the After Burn.  As the night wore on here at Decompression, as the concrete pillars of overpasses, and the exteriors of neighboring buildings became lost in the darkness, the suspension of disbelief became all the easier, and these special interactions with fellow humans went on the upswing. Farthest south on the Strada was the 22nd St. sound stage.  A man with a sitar played.

South Asian music seemed so right for the Playa.

The Raga Camp that Wasn’t

I hadn’t seen it on the Playa, but I’d read about the Sacred Cow Grille and its DJ “spinning bhangra jungle, Bollywood beats, and tabla’n'bass”.  One night after returning home I had a richly detailed dream of a place called Raga Camp, where men and women in colorful authentic dress served an unending stream of lassis, banana frappes, nan, pooris, parathas, pakoras, spicy sweet biryanis, channah massalas, saffron rice and everything Desi, set beside a stage where a boy genius played morning ragas on guitar as dawn came,  his mother running her hand through his hair before he shrugged her off with a smile, and he was accompanied by older musicians, white, brown, black, red and yellow, carrying sitar, tabla, veena, Les Pauls, mandolins, cellos, fiddles and licorice sticks, whose ever increasing numbers and skill pushed the boy to his limit, after which he walked off to loud and long applause, while the band played on and the sun shot through the far away ridges. The rhythms of South Asia seemed so right for the Playa.  Here, again, had I walked in to my own dream?  At least for a Burner, Decompression was not your average street fair.

Uniting with the New

I came out of this reverie to enter yet another, finding myself surrounded by a troop of performing artists.  The sexiest clowns in the world, or at least that’s how they promote themselves, the Sisters of Honk, were waiting to go on stage with a German Band called Wahnder Lust.

Her Strada name was Cupcake.

Navi-tall beauties from Stilts Camp were strutting about in devilishly seductive outfits.

Drop Dead Gorgeous Girls on Stilts

And Miss Rodeo Texas, wearing her costume on the clock, promoting Texas Rodeo across the land.  Couldn’t ride a bull, she said, but wanted a life around the Rodeo, so she entered the beauty contest and became the ambassador.   Has an email address that will make you laugh.

She said this was her uniform, but was she pulling my leg?

Yes, it was starting to feel like Burning Man.  The way people spoke so openly about themselves is signature Playa; and I’m not just referring to the fact that Miss Rodeo Texas spontaneously pulled her red checked cowgirl shirt away from her body, inspected herself, and said to me, “And I don’t even have my fake boobs in tonight!”  The Playa, or in this case the Strada, is a great equalizer.   Strangers come together and find themselves fast friends, if only for a moment.  These two below, acting like the oldest of friends, were just two partigirls colliding, had never met, and were not a bound pair, but that’s how they seemed and photographed.  The Playa makes everybody friends for 15 minutes, or more.  That’s not a bad way to live.

Girls Who Had Never Met

Best Street Party Ever

Eventually, Wahnder Lust did play

Wahnder Lust Lead Singer and Harmonium Player

and the Sisters of Honk did join them.

Wahnder Lust with the Sisters of Honk

The visuals were out of Weimar Germany, but the sounds were 2010.

And then I was swept up by the Glitter Girls of Glitter Camp,

Glitterati is the plural of what? Glitteratus?

and crowded back in to The Paddy Mirage where by now the crowd was so dense it couldn’t even be called elbow to elbow.   As we left, a guy carrying an LED-illuminated bikini top approached one of the beauties.   His gimmick, and not everyone has a gimmick, was to put the bikini on the Strada girls, any girl, carefully adjusting it to make sure that the fit was just right and secure against the body, and then to ask someone to take a picture of him with her.

Itsy bitsy teeny weeny yellow LED Bikini

We all laughed at what a good gig he had going, and he had so many takers!

Decompression had by now become the best street party ever.   But was it Burning Man?

Decompression and the Knock Out Mouse

Hypothesis driven science is often practiced by isolating a phenomenon.  In physics, you might create an unnatural environment where only the one thing you care about exists at all, and then probe or prod it, measure it and analyze it without any interference.

In more complex systems, like the biology of mammals, or sociological experiments like Burning Man, you need to proceed differently.  In biology, when a scientist is trying to understand the function of a section of DNA, one approach is to turn off that gene and observe changes to the organism’s development or its behavior.  A mouse that’s had one of its genes turned off for this kind of experiment is called a Knockout Mouse. Decompression is a kind of Knockout Burning Man.  By studying the behavior of the model organism, that is Decompression, we can hope to understand the role the missing piece plays in Burning Man.

The Ultra Marathon Factor

Burning Man is an endurance event, a metaphor not much explored in the literature.  More than any other factor, more than the fact that you can buy a beer, text your friends, or get home in 30 minutes, the most important difference between Burning Man and Decompression is that one is an ultra marathon and the other is a long party.

At BRC, you have to dress comfortably, eat right, and have your mind ready for days of it.  Here at Decompression on the Strada, you’re talking about 12 hours at most, unless you planned to go to an after-party which might run another 5 hours or so.  That doesn’t require the same mindset, the same commitment as seven days (plus travel!) on the Playa.  You can always see the end when it’s only a few hours away.  Here, if your feet hurt because you made a stupid choice of shoes, then you might think about just ending the night early and going home.  On the Playa, that’s not a solution at all.

This ultra marathon aspect gives Burning Man part of its unique and most difficult to reproduce qualities.  When you’re there, you’re a member of a community, however trite it sounds, and your membership is paid for with your commitment to the ultra marathon and what it demands.   Having crossed through the admissions gate where you’re asked about firearms, explosives and water, you’re in, a member of the entire, gigantic, too big to conceive extravaganza.  Nothing more is required of you, except participation.

Everyone there knows, at least implicitly, that you’ve given up a lot to be there, that you’re going to be cramping from dehydration some time every day, that over the course of a week you’re going to need something you don’t have, that over the course of a week you’re going be giving someone else something they need, that you’re going to be exhausted but not petulant, that you’re going to open to others.  It’s the only way you can survive out there.  All this conspires to make you treat your fellow Burner differently on the Playa than you treat strangers you meet in the City.  And it conspires to change the way you treat yourself.  There’s no exit, so you just keep going, find a way to survive, or better, to thrive, or better yet, paraphrasing George Gershwin, to rise up singin’, to spread your wings and learn to fly.

On the Strada, the interactions are just slightly different, not bad, in fact they’re great, but you can feel it not being Burning Man.  Maybe it’s because you know you can go home, maybe because you realize that the stranger is not dependent on you, maybe because you feel the press of time to do something and the clock is running out.   On the Playa, Burning Man Time is a joke because there is no clock.

George Eliot and The Girl Who Scrubbed Me

In George Eliot’s 1876 novel, Daniel Deronda, the incandescent Gwendolyn Harleth marries well but not wisely, leaving her to wonder what life is all about.  In the late pages she says to Daniel Deronda, “I want to be like you.  I want to make other people glad to have been born.”  This is the gift that Burning Man gives to us.  It makes us glad to have been born.

Picture this scene on the Decompression Strada.  My friend L and I are walking through a crush of crowds, Tokyo subway dense, almost immobilized.  Everyone around us is happy, calm, talking, watching robotic fire sculpture dance to music, or watching nothing at all.  Suddenly, there’s commotion.  Two girls are running fast along a path that has spontaneously opened up beside us.  Their gait has the grace of ballerinas, one arm swept low, the other reaching high, neck stretched, head up, radiant smiles.  They’re a blur.   One wears orange foam cylinders, 3 cm in diameter, 15 cm long, hundreds of them, glued to her body, or body suit, so the that square ends stick straight out.  She is a living breathing scrub brush.  She is past us and nearly gone, but something catches her eye, L catches her eye, and she circles back.  She gives a huge smile of recognition, unalloyed joy, and throws her arms around L.  She is smaller than L, so L bends forward to embrace her, echoing Brush’s joy.  She is fully committed, unhesitant.  Oh!  They are the oldest of friends, and they are just finding each other, so unexpectedly.  Brush releases L, and then runs circles around her several times, spinning as she goes, brushes in full body contact all the way around.  I expect a pause, but there is none, and then Brush and her pal are gone.

L is ecstatic.  ”Who was your friend?” I ask. “Never seen her before,” she says.  It was street theatre, marvelously acted, conveying the sincerest authenticity of feeling.   A masterful performing artist, a performance artist, both, gifting her wares for any stranger lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.  Whether we were scrubbed, or just watching, she made us all glad to have been born.  That’s Burning Man.  No pictures.  It happened to quickly.

Jugtown Pirates

Our feet, L’s, mine, and her friend K’s, are killing us.  We head towards the exit.

K's Medusa Hair turned every head on the Strada

Something tugged though, saying “please don’t go”.  A girl playing violin, or was it fiddle, or is there a difference?  Silver pants.  Black foam hair.  Sitting by herself, now joined by a clown.  She’s got a lovely tone, exceptional flexibility.  Are we hearing Gypsy music, or classical, or songs of my grandfather’s Eastern Europe and Russia, or hillbilly?

Meg May of the Jugtown Pirates and Clown

A crowd builds.  A clarinet, some percussion, a mandolin, some kind of blown keyboard, all join her.  We are glued in place, cannot leave.  Are they together?  Is this all spontaneously formed?  Vocals are added.  He is bad, and we want him to go away.  Piece after piece they play.  We are dancing. We are transported, but to where?  Another place?  Another time?  Another reality?  A girl next to me says she lives with these people, and they are the Jugtown Pirates.

As Casey Stengel used to say, “You can look it up”.  A mittleuropean man standing round is one of her teachers.  This is family.  We are admitted in.  Finally, dramatically, in virtuoso, not merely so-so coda, the violinist brings it all together and they are done.   Applause!   I introduce myself.  I thank her. Something special happened there, not quite like on the Playa maybe, not long enough for that maybe, but something special.  We can go, now.

Does it work?

Back to the question of the day.  Does Decompression, despite the commercialism, despite its short time scale, despite its lack of physical hardships; does Decompression work as a simulacrum of Burning Man?  Yes. Yes!

On the Strada, Mr. Silverman eats fries.