Archive for August, 2007

The Story of Burning Man

Tuesday, August 21st, 2007

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Thomas K. PendergastJessica BruderJessica Bruder


Prologue: Tinder
The Man is a wooden monument to nothing specific, in the middle of nowhere. He’s a stick figure drawn huge, a splinter jutting out of the Nevada desert.

He looks like a man only in the way folded paper looks like an airplane—suggestive lines, not much definition. Still, you can’t mistake him. Anchored to a giant pedestal, he rises eighty feet from the ground. When the sun drops behind the Granite Range to the west, his spindly frame lights up with neon tubes. You can see him glow like a truck stop sign from more than a mile away.

For the past week a temporary city has been swelling around him, hoisted out of the dust and duct-taped together by nearly forty thousand pairs of hands. The city is roughly circular, with the man as its axle. Everything turns, grows, and changes around him.

Win this book!
Burning BookSend SMITH your Burning Man story in 100 to 1000 words. Five storytellers will win a copy of Jessica Bruder’s brilliant and beautiful Burning Book.

Then, on Saturday evening, it’s the Man who changes. His arms rise slowly from his sides like levers on a corkscrew. The gesture is triumphant, but it also means that he doesn’t have much time left. Thousands of temporary homes—tents, RVs, geodesic domes draped in parachute fabric—are emptying. From all directions, revelers converge on the Man.

They’re dressed like Egyptian gods and leather angels, sci-fi space jockeys and feral children. They come on stilts and bicycles, dangling from cranes and cherry pickers, riding on the decks of homemade pirate ships. Their faces are streaked with glitter and dirt.

“Burn it!”
“Burn him!

All week long, these audience members were the show. But tonight they’re all part of the same crowd, watching.

With a sudden crack, fireworks spit into the sky from the base of the Man and explode. There’s a second volley, and the Man catches fire. Flames climb his skeletal torso.

Then, all at once, the Man falls. He tips like a bottle, hitting the ground in a draft of sparks.

Starting tomorrow, the week’s spell will break. Pieces of the city will be packed away in crates, consumed by fire, or dragged out in trash bags. There will be an exhausted exodus, and then a bleary reunion with jobs and bills, the cling of responsibility, and strangers who don’t meet your eyes in the street. The evening news will come from another desert, where a war is happening.


BACK IN 1986, WHEN A FEW FRIENDS ROASTED A ROUGH-HEWN effigy on a San Francisco beach, they didn’t realize that they were founding a ritual. Their bonfire evolved from a small gathering into an annual party; gradually the event gathered steam, got a name, and exploded into the center of an enormous, celebratory metropolis. It spawned a scene so beguiling that people now travel from all over the world to take part in what has become America’s most fascinating festival.

Nowadays you can see the show from almost anywhere. Footage of the fire is transmitted to television sets across the country. There’s a free simulcast on the Internet.

You can also read the headlines. Dozens of them have distilled Burning Man since 1996, when Bruce Sterling’s big story made the cover of Wired magazine, crowning the festival “The New American Holiday.”

Since then, Burning Man has been called everything from “Woodstock at the Stake” to “The Neon Babylon,” “Pagan Sacrifice in the Nevada Desert,” “Operation Desert Swarm,” and “Bonfire of the Inanities.”

So why do the pilgrims, in growing numbers, still journey to that bleak desert? They go because the burning Man—a one-ton monument in flames—isn’t the whole of Burning Man.

They fill the desert with a staggering variety of art and amusements, gatherings and performances, and when the week is over, they scour the dust to make it all disappear. The festival runs on a simple credo: “no spectators.” To put it plainly, the city is the work of the people who live there. If everyone came to sit back and absorb the culture, there would be nothing for them to see.

For years observers have been identifying nebulous social forces to which Burning Man can be—must be!—a response: the rise of secular and corporate culture; the expansive connectivity (and later, the physical alienation) of the Internet; the hardening of America in an era of homeland security. These subtexts are interesting enough, but none of them quite scream, “Let’s go to the desert and make something!” They aren’t intimate enough to account for some subtler explosions: what actually happens in the desert when thousands of people embark on a collective experience.

That story is a journey: how they get there, what they do, and how they integrate a week’s worth of dust, ashes, and ideas into their lives after the last fire goes out. It’s about what they burn and, even more, about what they build.


© 2007 by Jessica Bruder. Published by Simon Spotlight Entertainment, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed with permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

An interview with Jessica Bruder, author of Burning Book

Tuesday, August 21st, 2007

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Thomas K. PendergastJessica BruderJessica Bruder

“Maybe you’re walking around the festival and a gaggle of motorized cupcakes whizzes past, while a troupe of French maids is trying, ineffectually, to tidy up the desert with feather dusters, all in the shadow of a barn-sized rubber duck with a jazz club in its belly. Then things will probably get weirder.”

On the eve of her book tour, and just weeks before the 2007 Burning Man festival (this year’s theme: green), SMITH’s Kathy Ritchie talked to Jessica Bruder, a 29-year-old staff writer for The Oregonian and author of Burning Book: A Visual History of Burning Man.


SMITH: Tell us your favorite Burning Man story.
Jessica Bruder: The wildest Burning Man story is the event’s own history. Two guys torched a hastily assembled, eight-foot-tall wooden effigy on a San Francisco beach in 1986… and ka-boom! That impulsive gesture exploded into the center of an enormous celebratory metropolis built each summer by tens of thousands of people–more than 39,000 folks in 2006.

Win this book!
Burning BookSend SMITH your Burning Man story in 100 to 1000 words. Five storytellers will win a copy of Jessica Bruder’s brilliant and beautiful Burning Book.

But my favorite Burning Man story is a quieter one.

It began in 1998, when an Oregon fisherman showed up in the desert with 1,300 pounds of tuna loins. That was a bad year for fishermen in the Pacific Northwest; a global glut made tuna all but worthless. So 63-year-old “Cap’n” Jim Peterson from Coos Bay packed his entire catch in a U-Haul with ice and drove it out to Nevada. He figured he’d sell it to the revelers at Burning Man.

Jim had seen some pictures from the festival the year before. These were wild scenes, folks slathered from head to toe in mud, cavorting gleefully as if they’d never been in the middle of such a delightful mess. He figured all that running around must work up an appetite. Even mud-people have to eat. Maybe they would buy his tuna?

Jim drove 450 miles to Burning Man, only to learn that vending is against the rules there (and bad etiquette, too). So he started a marathon barbecue session. He served his tuna to everyone in sight. He ended up giving it all away.

Now, every year at Burning Man, Jim and his friends—nicknamed “The Tuna Guys”—bring hundreds of pounds of fish to cook and share with everyone. And it’s not easy for them; they’ve had their share of misadventures. Their rattletrap pickups and Volkswagens always seem to break down on the long drive to the festival. And the Nevada health department has hounded them so much, their camp has practically become a seafood speakeasy.

I love his story, because it offers insight about the kind of dedication and generosity the festival seems to bring out in some people. These days, the mere mention of Burning Man conjures up visions of tech-savvy hipsters baying at the moon and gyrating around the desert in hot pink fake-fur loincloths. That stuff bores me. And that’s why I love the Tuna Guys’ story—it’s less about the Burning Man stereotype, more about the potluck style of participation that makes the event so fascinating.

What can Burning Man newbies expect?
Jessica BruderExpect sensory bombardment. Just when you’ve decided the scene is strange—maybe you’re walking around the festival and a gaggle of motorized cupcakes whizzes past, while a troupe of French maids is trying, ineffectually, to tidy up the desert with feather dusters, all in the shadow of a barn-sized rubber duck with a jazz club in its belly. Then things will probably get weirder.

Remember and repeat: you can’t see everything at Burning Man. Finding a specific niche during the event is a great way to get your bearings. Black Rock City—the name of Burning Man’s temporary metropolis—can feel amorphous and alienating to first-timers. But if you’re hammering nails on an art installation, greeting people at the front gate, DJ’ing at a local low-wattage radio station, or lending your hands to any one of hundreds of projects, that’s a great way to feel like you’re a part of things and get oriented.

And don’t forget to drink water. Plenty of water.

Best way to attend Burning Man: Naked or clothed—and why?
In my personal opinion? Clothed. Particularly if you’re as pale as I am, which means the desert sun will leave you about as comfortable and attractive as a well-boiled lobster.

I don’t have a problem with most of the naked people at Burning Man. For some of them, I think going naked probably feels like wearing any other kind of costume (apart from the ventilation factor).

Only one kind of nudity makes my eyes bleed: men wearing T-shirts and no pants. Those guys look awful. They’re prime targets for one of my favorite Burning Man inventions: the pants cannon, which uses air pressure to sling slacks over great distances. I consider the pants cannon a public service.

How has the story of Burning Man changed from the first year you went to the last year?
For the better part of two decades, the festival’s survival from one year to the next was precarious. But in 2006, the federal Bureau of Land Management—essentially Burning Man’s landlord—granted the event a five-year permit to operate in the Black Rock Desert.

Now people are wondering just how far the game can go. They’re debating whether Burning Man should be a self-contained escape from routine, or if festival-goers share enough common desires and values to work together towards some kind of progress—social, political, environmental—during the rest of the year.

After Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, a group of festival-goers (later named “Burners Without Borders”) went down to Mississippi to help clean up. They found some of their desert skills—building a base camp in a hostile environment, working with heavy machinery on colossal, daunting projects—came in handy as they rebuilt a devastated Buddhist monastery and demolished 60 ruined houses.

Now that Burning Man has proved it’s not a passing fancy, how does the whole thing evolve? That’s where the narrative tension is today. People weren’t thinking in quite those terms back in 2002, when I started attending the festival.

On top of that, the event keeps growing. In 2002, the population hit about 29,000 people; there were more than 39,000 people at Burning Man in 2006.

If the Burning Man festival itself had a six-word memoir, what might it be?
Dusty wide kaleidoscope, where’s my chapstick?

And your own personal six-word memoir?
Talk to me. Write it. Repeat.

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Thomas K. Pendergast Tim Timmermans Tomas Loewy-Lansky Jessica Bruder Rick Egan Rick Egan Rick Egan Jessica Bruder Thomas K. Pendergast Jessica Bruder Michael Christian Fabian Mohr Caroline Miller Caroline Miller Stewart Harvey Stewart Harvey Stewart Harvey Stewart Harvey Stewart Harvey Stewart Harvey Stewart Harvey Rick Egan Jessica Bruder Dan Adams Rick Egan

Another Look at the Katrina Story

Tuesday, August 21st, 2007

ms_pearl.jpgThe second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is a big story—10 major Time, Inc. publications, for example, are featuring Katrina coverage according to The New York Times. A lot of the coverage focuses on the politics of Katrina and how the government failed its own, a notion Spike Lee explored so well in When the Levees Broke. But our webcomic A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, David Redmon and Ashley Sabin’s new documentary, Kamp Katrina, focuses on the individual stories of a handful of people who lived through it. For six months, the filmmakers embedded themselves into the life of Ms. Pearl, a 56-year-old Upper 9th Ward resident whose backyard became a self-made tent community for 14 displaced residents.

The film debuts at NYC’s MOMA this Thursday, August 23, moves downtown to the Pioneer Theater for a weeklong run, before traveling the United States. Some SMITH editors will be at the Friday night screening at the Pioneer. It’s far from a popcorn flick, but if any SMITH readers can make it, let us know—first bucket’s on us.

Cross-posted on the A.D. blog.

Seven Words to Live By

Tuesday, August 21st, 2007

Courtesy of Rebecca Woolf’s forearm, something to keep in mind after another manic Monday:

On the Road—Paradise Refound

Thursday, August 16th, 2007

keraouc.jpgOn the Road isn’t exactly a book that you a) need an excuse to re-read or b) write about. Still, much has been said and done on a book that generation after generation have the supreme pleasure to discover for the first time. Back in the day, I taught the book to a group of high school students in a course called, “I got my tie-dye at Macy’s: The 60s meets the 80s,” (which I thought was quite witty at the time).

A piece in the (now smaller but still grand) New York Times meets and greets Kerouac and co. on the fiftieth anniversary of the book’s publication. As is the (em>Times’ way, the package around the piece online is rich: a PDF of the original Times review in 1957; an audio reading of the first chapter; tons of reader comments, like this one by “Kendal”:

After WWII it was necessary for transcendentalism to be condensed like a can of soup for the quick consumption of late 20th century moderns. Not that there’s anything wrong with it. The lesson is that these themes continue to influence us, parsed, however, in terms that reflect the gritty reality of the street, or road, if you wish.

Here, here!

Now, not to sprinkle too much hate on a book I love, but I wonder: You have to figure that, while the book is certainly considered a memoir, Kerouac had to have exaggerated part of his journey. And who’s kidding who? Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (the book you of course read shortly after On the Road) is not pure nonfiction. Does it matter if the essence of the storytelling experience for writer and then reader rings true? If so, should future editions states: this ain’t all true? How is this different than James Frey and others who’ve been accused and caught of fabrication or gross exaggeration?

On the Road image from Flickr’s Corvar.

One is the Loneliest Number

Wednesday, August 15th, 2007

I love being alone. Actually, I love quiet more than anything else. And while it might sound surprising to some that in a city like New York, you can actually find both pretty easily—you just have to know where to look. See: Time Out New York’s latest issue, “Need To Be Alone?”

The same quiet and solitude can also be had at the “office.” It just depends on the kind of job you take. So, in addition to giving NYers the low down on where to go for that precious you-time, TONY spoke to four people who have pretty lonely gigs. But they like it like that. What I especially love about the Joes profiled is that they are all working outside the cube. And anyone who knows me knows that I am totally, 100% anti-cube.

A mortician, a window washer, an overnight doorman, and an overnight DJ spilled the beans about their work to TONY writer Kate Lowenstein. My personal faves are the window washer dude and the mortician—what wild jobs!

Here’s part of Duane—the mortician—Brown’s interview:

How long have you been working with the deceased?

Sixteen years.

What does working with a dead body consist of, exactly?

I clean and embalm it, and dress it for viewing. This includes removing all germs and putting the body in a state where it will be preserved through the time of the viewing. It can take anywhere from 45 minutes to two and a half hours, depending on the condition of the body and how the person died.

You can read the rest of his interview here.

And part of Tom—window washer dude—Bulawa’s interview:

Why do you choose to work alone?

It’s nice to be by yourself—that way you can concentrate on what you’re doing. You’re dealing with heights, and you don’t want to drop anything. You have to keep track of all your equipment. If a squeegee slips out of your hands at that height, you could injure someone pretty good.

Speaking of sights: Ever look into the window you’re cleaning and see anything…unusual?

Every once in a while you see something you don’t expect. I’ve seen people chasing each other through an apartment. Manhattan can be pretty strange.

Any nudity?

Only once in six years.

Wow, I’m kind of disappointed to hear that. Ever catch anyone in the act?

No, no—not yet.

And the rest of his interview here. You can read the entire piece aqui.

Viral Video…Tuesdays?

Tuesday, August 14th, 2007

I’d hate to steal Koppelman’s thunder, but I’ve come across a couple of videos recently too good not to share. For one thing, as seemingly every publication adds video content, even simple-as-pie personal media paragon PostSecret is getting in on the action.

On a more serious note, Guerrilla News Network features a 1994 video of Dick Cheney warning that invasion of Iraq would be “a quagmire.” “How many dead Americans is Saddam worth?” he asks and answers, “Not very many…” Apparently, YouTube hasn’t been too eager to spread this news. So, in the words of Mark Twain in a free, outdoor, lefty musical I just saw, “You have a blog—Use it!”

And on a far less serious note, the following music video, by Brooklyn band The XYZ Affair, is just plain awesome. Keep your eyes open for some familiar faces, especially if you happen to have watched Nickelodeon at all between 1989 and 1994.

I Am the Story, Hear Me Roar

Monday, August 13th, 2007

adc05p14_2.jpgHere’s an interesting meta-personal media moment: Google News recently announced that it’s allowing comments to news stories from the people mentioned in the stories Google publishes. If you envision some serious smackdowns, you’re right. Lots of spots, including SMITH, allow anyone (who proves he or she’s not spam) to respond to a story. Exhibit D: Followers of our webcomic, A.D., took in a recent exchange between a reader who questioned if one of the characters would actually use the language Josh Neufeld attributed to her and the character herself. Here’s a snippet:

Dean Haspiel: A.D. continues to amaze … My only criticism is with the last panel when the woman screams “I’m gonna die in this bitch!” It felt forced and took me out of the drama.

Denise: That woman is me, and that is exactly what I was thinking at that moment and for many, many moments during the hurricane. I was terrified, and that was my expression of terror, not false bravado.

That’s an excerpt from a longer (scroll down to “comments” area below the panels), really interesting exchange between Dean and Denise, reader and webcomic character (and indeed real person). Pretty cool, huh? And perhaps it’s the future of journalism.

Sweet Jesus It’s Friday

Friday, August 10th, 2007

I was looking around for a video for this week, and for some reason started thinking back to how our regular Friday video got started, which was basically that one Friday I was tired and stressed and didn’t feel like doing anything that required more intellectual ability than watching two Chinese kids do some funny lip-synching to a Backstreet Boys song. And then I realized why I was thinking about that first video: because this week sucked and I wanted to watch something silly, random and pointless.


Mississippi Dreamin’

Friday, August 10th, 2007

People keep asking to see pictures of Mississippi, so I’ve decided to do some personal storytelling of my own. I went to Natchez, MS with my parents
to see my baby cousin Alex get married.
People come to Natchez to see the beautiful antebellum homes
but I was much more interested in cultural relics like Mammy’s Cupboard.

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