Featured image: “Bloom” – Peter Hazel and team from Reno, NV (2017).
For the first time in eight years, my Labor Day weekend will not be spent in the middle of Nevada’s inhospitable Black Rock Desert.
This year I will be in Fargo, working on TAP projects and watching my cats chase each other through my garden. It’s a bit different than being surrounded by the dusty kaleidoscope of unpredictable human interactions and towering art installations that make up that thing in the desert known as Burning Man.
But honestly, between you and me, as transformative as the last eight summers have been for me, I needed a year off. And I know I wouldn’t have taken it on my own. If COVID hadn’t cancelled the in-person event, it would have been impossible to resist the siren call of that dusty open place and the beautifully crazy people I’ve been working alongside the last five years.
Every one of those past five Julys I’ve pulled myself away from my peaking summer garden in Fargo and headed west to Nevada. If my heart had fingers, you could have watched me fight to pull each one loose as I walked out of my yard knowing it was the last summer day I’d spend in it.
My backyard before I left last year, July 2019.
But I’m hooked. Some of the draw is unquestionably the ephemeral collective insanity that is building a 70,000-person city in the middle of a barren ancient lakebed. The spectacle of Black Rock City is easy to fall in love with. Improbably huge, complex, interactive art installations, interspersed with smaller more intimate artistic offerings, any of which might shoot flames or be burnt to cinders at the end of the week. Art cars around every corner, slowly rumbling by and doing their best to defy both our expectations and physics. And a wealth of human experience weaving in and out of all of it.
“The Folly” – Exterior at night – built by Dave Keane & The Folly Builders, San Francisco (2019).
“The Folly” – Interior stage at night – built by Dave Keane & The Folly Builders, San Francisco (2019).
“The Folly” – Being burned on Friday of the event – built by Dave Keane & The Folly Builders, San Francisco (2019).
Taken out of my “normal” life, it’s easier for me to create freely as well. I’ve made it a habit to paint while I’m out there, and to let my experience in that environment inform my subjects and style. It’s a place where art doesn’t have to earn its keep by being marketable. I can focus on satisfying my own desire to play with imagery and color and share whatever happens to be rolling through my mind.
Two murals, a self portrait, and a friend’s marionette sculpture that I’ve painted over the last few years at Burning Man.
More than anything, I keep going back because the contrast of knowing and not knowing what will happen while I’m there is intoxicatingly unique. I know I’m going to work so hard for three weeks that I can barely stay up past sunset most days, and I’ll miss parts of the event, because I’m still tired, and possibly nursing whatever illness ran through our crew, from the pre-season. I know that taking everything back down will be a blur that most likely leaves me wondering how I could possibly have the energy to come back next year.
The truck I drive my crew and supplies around with, an F700 named Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Lucky, another crew lead, is holding up the radio I just drove over after someone left it on the undercarriage of the truck. It was a banner year for me destroying tools–I also managed to decapitate three shovels.
Building shade–what ‘Shade crew’ does best. Also, the only thing ‘Shade crew’ does. We build the same structure over and over again in different sizes.
And when we’re not actively building shade, we’re usually talking about building shade or making fun of building shade. Shade, shade, shade.
But I also know I have no idea exactly who I’m going to be working with and what their stories will be. I’m bound to know some of the veterans, but there will be new people. I’ll have to struggle to relate to some of them, right alongside the ones that immediately feel like old friends. In a place where every drop of water and meal has to be transported directly to us and any waste we make has to leave with us, I’ll be aware of the space and energy my human life consumes in a way that’s harder to see at home where city infrastructure makes it nearly invisible.
The event itself is jarring after working with a few hundred people for weeks. Adding tens of thousands of strangers to the mix and every over-the-top accompaniment they can imagine requires me to open up again. If I don’t, I’ll just resent how our smaller community gets swallowed up and dispersed into the bizarrely contained chaos of Burn week.
So I find the friends from other states that I might only see there, try to spend quality time with them, lose them in the throng despite our best attempts at making plans, find them again, find new friends, be awed and disappointed by turns, and know in the end that after they leave and we take everything down and clean up the pieces, that I’m not going home the same person. Again.
I see things differently when I get back to my house. My priorities get examined with a new perspective. And after a few months, predictably, that dust-born clarity starts to fade as I get comfortable in my Fargo routine again. And that’s where the next year comes in.
There are still people in the Black Rock Desert this year. I can’t speak to how deep or frivolous their motivations are, but I know it’s a place and experience that speaks to them as well, and they’re doing what they can to tap into it.
For my part, I’m making up for lost time. I’m losing myself in growing things and watching the diversity of life that growth attracts. I get to pick my tomatoes off the vine this summer and watch the hummingbirds enjoy the late summer blooms. Moments I appreciate even more deeply thanks to the summers I spent away at Burning Man.
The Arts Partnership’s CEO, Dayna Del Val, gets ready for a two-week writing retreat: