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Monday, August 30, 2010


What it's like to help build a fire chapel in a wasteland


There's a lot to loath about Black Rock City and much of it is incapsulated in this short essay "Why I Will Never Go to Burning Man." I vowed to never return after last year. I told friends that "once is more than enough." Still, I felt like I hadn't really experienced the dang thing. Plus, I've always wanted to work on a festival but I've never had the time until this summer. I was intrigued by the idea of watching Black Rock City rise up out of the dust of the playa and to see if Burning Man's high-falooting ideals of "leaving the real world behind," and "building a better world" were true from a behind-the-scenes perspective.

As mentioned in a prior post, I've been here in Nevada since Monday night. I rode out with a writer from Portland who I'll refer to as "Brenda" and traded a ride in exchange for her extra Early Entry Pass. Brenda, who I doubt will ever read these words, embodies a lot of the negative aspects and stereotypes that I associate with the festival. She's flighty, condescending, pretentious and acts like she's 22 but she's actually 42. Brenda's a Burner who breaks out phrases like "you can't understand Burning Man if you've never been there."

I call BS on that. Do you want to know what this festival is all about? I'll wrap it up in a nutshell right now: "it allows people from all walks of life to roll out into the middle of a wasteland in Nevada to dress up in funny costumes, feel spiritual, boost their pride at being able to live in a rugged environment for a week, look at modern art, see naked people and/or do drugs (mushrooms, ecstasy or pot)."

While Brenda was chatty and pleasant on the drive out, she turned into an entirely different person as we drove down the final stretch of highway to Burning Man. On the desert floor Brenda uses a code name, like many Burners do, typically referred to as "playnyms" or "playa names."

The good-natured, intelligent but daffy gal I had spent the prior nine hours with turned into a gregarious, childish weirdo as we pulled up to the Black Rock City gates. She put on a pair of rabbit ears and began bouncing around the car like a pre-schooler. Brenda, now in full bunny mode, hopped out of the car while it was still moving to hug a guy at the front gates. I ceased to exist and she treated me like a cab driver from there on out. I dropped Brenda off at her camp and that was that.


Offers to help me out with a few meal vouchers and a volunteer gig were instantly forgotten. I wandered into the Info Tent on Wednesday and found her sitting on a couch with a group of her colleagues. I said, "hello" and she couldn't be bothered to acknowledge my existence, sort of like a prom queen ignoring a nerd in a high school cafeteria. Everybody around her was equally cool and bristled when I dared to ask for a piece of duct tape.

But no matter. A colleague from Portland put me in touch with an artist named Capra J'neva and her crew, all of them from town, who are in the process of building a "fire chapel." They began work on what they're calling "The Aeolian Pyrophonic Hall and Whispering Wall" back in March and started constructing its parts in May with a crew of local volunteers. For a full rundown on the installation, check out the YouTube video below.

I rolled out to their project site on the desert floor on Tuesday night and they welcomed me into their flock. Their attitude was totally different than the "too cool for school" cold shoulders I had received from Brenda and her Info Tent pals. My preconceptions about the arrogance of Burners quickly melted as I chatted with a fellow named Matthew, a Portland architect who designed the 2008 temple and has been commissioned to construct the 2012 edition. With next to no construction work experience to offer, there was little I could do that first night but help hoist arches and hold ladders. Nevertheless, Capra's crew found little things for me to do and helped me feel welcome.


Matthew insisted on shutting things down to allow everyone to watch the sunset and the moon rise over the hills in the distance. Despite the heat, the vibe and general atmosphere out there was, I'll be honest, downright magical and oozed with the positive aura and community involvement I had been told about by veterans of the festival. It was amazing to watch, first hand, a group of volunteers work on a difficult project in the blazing heat of August in Nevada while staying upbeat and not complaining. At sunset, someone rolled out a pair of speakers and began playing Bollywood soundtrack that meshed perfectly with the mood.

I returned on Wednesday morning and painted portions of the exterior walls before soaring temperatures forced the crew to shut down shop for an afternoon siesta. I returned in the evening and did my best to stay out of the way as more experienced members of the crew used a diesel-powered lift to install portions of the exterior. An artist named Mike, who is out here for his 16th straight year, allowed me to assist him with putting together the large "fire organ" that will serve as the chapel's centerpiece. Along with another greenhorn from Phillidelphia, we spent the evening tightening bolts and screwing pipes into this monster.

I had intended to return on Thursday but high winds and heat convinced me not to truck back out to the project site. Capra and her collaborator/partner Mark had been talking about shutting things down due to weather in order to make a run to Empire for supplies. With a dust storm coming in and visibility dwindling to a mere five feet from my nose, I decided to flee to Reno for the day.

Cheers to Capra, Mark, Matthew, Buffalo, Mike, Matty, Hot Stuff, Trisha, Tink, Christopher and everybody else involved with the project. Also: thanks for the spaghetti, guys! If you're heading out to Black Rock City this year, the Hall can be found about 500 yards from the Temple on the city side. You can't miss it.

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