Burning Man 2010: A Freakishly Cold Fish Barrel for Cops?

Categories: Burning Man
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Taymar Richard Gillmore
"Hell," as P.B. Shelley wanly admitted, "is a city very much like London," but it's hard to imagine this simile gaining much traction at this year's Burning Man. The theme for the 2010 installment of the gigantic annual art party held in the Nevada desert was "Metropolis: The Life of Cities," which seemed a heroic conceit as we arrived Friday before the event to the usual ramshackle sprawl of tents, RVs and portable toilets. Some few thousand toolbox visionaries labored through a long weekend of dust, wind, and freakishly cold temperatures to bring it all together.

Black Rock City's gates opened hours early in advance of an anticipated thunderstorm, and revelers drove straight into a swarm of police stopping cars at random for spurious offenses. For feds and local cops alike, the sight of a record 50,000 freakish out-of-state tourists is like rattling a stick inside a long-neglected swill bucket. These woes were plaguing the festival well before my first Burn. This would be my fifth, but, like reelection campaigns and sex comedy, repetition is farce.

Despite any angst imposed by nature and authorities, there's always some unifying happenstance early on that brings the event into sharp focus, turning a lumpish haul of lip-cracked and skin-blistered civilians into a subculture on a spree, and this year it was the double rainbow after Monday's thunderstorm. As soon as the clouds broke and twin bands of impossibly bright color lassoed across the sky above Black Rock City, people dove into the streets with the giddy fervor of corn farmers saved from drought. One fellow, wits clearly addled by this minor chromatic miracle, ran through Center Camp screaming "What does it me-e-e-e-an?"

Metropolis in the Desert
Burning Man has a way of turning the most PBR-addled wrench-monkey into a philosopher, and this fellow was scarcely alone in needing emergency aesthetic assistance. The Metropolis theme proved wildly popular, unlike last year's 2008's "The American Dream (America being the very thing most Burners drive to the Black Rock desert to escape) or "The Green Man" (2007's gesture toward sustainability in a festival devoted to conspicuous destruction was rendered incoherent by organizers' decision to rebuild the Man statue after a demented fan burned it prematurely.)

Artists ran ludicrously with this year's theme. Ein Hammer (a towering maul that spurts flames) and Mant Farm, (where humans crawl through segmented tunnels in imitation of that other busy social animal) were immense brute metaphors of industrialization reimagined as a dystopic Disneyland. A pre-restoration version of the Fritz Lang classic Metropolis played thrice nightly on a makeshift theater out in the deep playa, and images of Rotwang and Maria the robot were everywhere, along with calls for Head and Hand to be guided by Heart.

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Taymar Richard Gillmore

As Crazy as Ever
The spirit of the movie seemed to take on a vagrant life of its own, and even the late-night crowd, drug-blasted and decked in the usual mindblowing range of cult-retro-ironic-electronic party fashion, crept the streets in the small hours like the rows of life-blighted workers in Lang's mise-en-scene. EMTs and medical services vehicles careened through the open playa at speeds well past the five mph limit to cart out causalities. Attendees were throwing down harder than I'd ever seen. The crowd was visibly younger and more amped than in years past, with more female Burners than ever and regional contingents from across the U.S. and Canada turning out in force like a Depression-era Shiners convention.

It was hard to escape the feeling of dancing on the twin edges of economic abyss and social vertigo; a nitrous rush of pure joy unavailable in more civilized environs, but being field-tested here. Among the more coherent, talk turned from how Burning Man was going to take over the outside world to exultation that it already had. Tightened circumstances and vanishing political possibilities are things these merry survivalists have already acknowledged, even celebrated, by being out here in the first place and, if America is to again embrace rootlessness and dilapidation, historians of whatever future we get will credit Burning Man with getting there firstest with the weirdest.

A Fish Barrel for Cops?
The party spirit this year might have been Weimar, but the police presence was uncomfortably Soviet. Outside of co-managing my camp, my chief on-playa contribution to the festival this year was co-writing a story for the Black Rock Beacon about the mounting paranoia cops are instilling in Burners. Officers toured the playa in their own Wild West-themed art car while rows of Bureau of Land Management rangers plowed into the dance-dance euphoria of Opulent Temple in arrest-free displays of pure force. Revelers were reported waking in their tents nose-to-muzzle with police dogs, their handlers intent on squeezing every last cent out of attendees in fines and citations.

Questions on whether Burning Man was becoming a vast fish barrel for cops were raised at a press conference organizers threw on Tuesday in celebration of yet another successful year. I got in the first cop-related question and other reporters took up the issue, eventually winning the concession from Burning Man founder Larry Harvey that police were likely profiling festival attendees as potential lawbreakers. Indeed, one didn't have to walk very far away from the press conference to get the impression that police thought simply holding a ticket for the event was somehow proof of drug abuse and criminality.

Permission Engine Kicks in
Still, the Man went down late Saturday night in a gaudy display of fireworks and pyrotechnics, collapsing in sheets of wind-blown flame as a last minute duststorm came howling up and Burners cakewalked the traditional three-times-round the pyre. The night then exploded into the kind of delicious free-for-all that would wreak scandal, divorce and career-death at even the grungiest rock festival. Harvey calls the festival a "permission engine" and all eight cylinders cranked into overdrive as temperatures nosedived and roughly used partiers collapsed onto couches, hammocks and even the dust-lashed ground. Though there was very little quiet, peace was plainly visible in every weary, dirt-whited face as if adrift in giddy zombie nirvana.

Things were a lot more somber and much colder at Sunday night's Temple burn. This year's structure was called the Temple of Flux; an immense jumble of wooden siding that looked like a canyon made of Triscuits. It burned far better, perishing in a smear of smoke and shower of bright cinders. Sunday on the playa is a time for remembering those winter garments of repentance flung months ago, and many turned in their Burner finery for hoodies and woolen layers as all gathered around the fire.

This ceremony is quiet by tradition and silence was enforced where my girl and I sat by a gentleman from the Beacon aptly named Rhino, who offered to stomp rowdies into ptomaine. As the fire spun into brief glittering tornadoes, a woman nearby burst into tears and the cheer that went up when the structure fell resounded like crusaders breaching the walls of Antioch. By Burner reckoning, the dread year of 2010 had ended and the future, however unappetizing, was yet to be incinerated.

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