Burners in flux - Page 5

Why would anyone spend four months and $180,000 building something that will only last a week? The answer says a lot about Burning Man culture

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The 21,000-square-foot Temple of Flux rises in the desert
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY JOHN CURLEY

"Then I get to pop in and help them make it art," Davis, a.k.a. The Stinky Pirate, said as he prepared to take Lou Bukiet (a Flaming Lotus Girl in her early 20s) and a stack of thatches up in the boom lift on Aug. 23 to staple the cladding to the windward side of Cayuga, with Jess and her artistic eye spotting from the ground.

Davis has helped build Black Rock City every year since 1999 when he joined Burning Man's Department of Public Works. In recent years, he has operated heavy equipment for a variety of notable artworks, such as Big Rig Jig and the Steampunk Treehouse. He said the groups do all the prep work and "I get to come in and be a star player."

I began my work day on the playa ripping off cladding that had been placed on wrong the night before, an exercise that was a regular occurrence as the artists sought to perfect their work.

It was a little frustrating to undo people's hard work, and Davis even told Jess before going up into the lift with Lou, "My goal is no more redoes, whatever time we have to take for a do." Yet it was a minor quibble with a group he said was the best on the playa.

"This is a killer group. It's probably the best crew I've gotten to work with," Davis said, explaining that it was because of their attitude and organization. "Art is more than just building the art. It's about community, and this group is really good at taking care of each other."

Taking care of each other was a core value with this group. Not only did the Temple team have a full kitchen crew serving three hot, yummy meals a day and massage therapists to work out sore muscles, it also had a team of "fluffers" who brought the workers snacks, water, sunscreen, cold wet bandanas, sprays from scented water bottles, and other treats, sometimes topless or in sexy outfits, always with a smile and personal connection.

Margaret Monroe, one of the head fluffers, instructed her team to always introduce themselves to workers they don't know and to touch them on the arms or back to make a physical connection and help them feel cared for and supported.

PK said he initially bristled at the high kitchen expense and other things that seemed extraneous to the cash-strapped project. "People are eating better here than they eat back at home," he said. But he came to realize the importance of good meals and attentive fluffers: "If you keep people happy, then it's fun. And if it's fun, then it's not like work."

 

BUILT TO BURN

Don Cain is the head of the burn team, the group charged with setting the temple on fire. They worked out of his workspace and home in Emeryville, known as the Department of Spontaneous Combustion, which is like a burner clubhouse complete with bar, rigging, classic video games, old art projects, and the equipment to make new ones.

Don grew up in Georgia working in his dad's machine shop and did stints as a police officer — where he cross-trained with the fire department and developed a bit of pyromania — and in the Army. After that, he lived in Humboldt and then came to the Bay Area to study art photography at San Francisco State University.

He attended his first Burning Man in 2000 "and my very first night there was epic." So he immersed himself in the culture, making massive taiko drums for the burner musical ensemble The Mutaytor, creating liquid fuel fire cannons and building massive fire-spewing tricycles.

"I've been doing the fire stuff for a while and I have all my fingers and toes and I haven't set anyone on fire yet," Don told me in his shop.

So he was the natural choice to lead the team that will "choreograph the burn" of the Temple, as Don put it, an experienced group that loves geeking out on the best ways to burn things. "We have a collection of very experienced people in the fire stuff," Don told me. "About 50 years of experience."

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