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A diary of my experience at Burning Man 2004

I went to Burning Man for the third time in 2004. My friend Rick came along, and we fit everything in his van, with a roof rack on top and a bike rack on the back.

My art installation was Radio Free Quasar, an antique radio with sound and a laser display. A single knob on the front could be used to adjust the sound. This installation was quite a bit smaller than the Lyre in 2003, and allowed me to spend more time enjoying the event and less time maintaining the installation. Below is my diary of the week.

Sunday

We packed up Saturday afternoon, so we were able to leave early Sunday morning, about 7:30 AM. It was an easy drive, not much traffic, and we arrive around 3:00 pm in the afternoon. I was somewhat worried about being able to get in, because there was a lot of noise (more than usual) about them not letting you in until Monday, unless you were on an early arrival list. Fortunately, all we had to do is say we were setting up an art installation on the playa (which we were) and we got in. Of course, the two four-packs of beer that we gave to the greeters might have made our entry easier, too. There was hardly any line of people getting in - I suspect the noise about the early arrival list kept a lot of people away.

Rick and I drive to the general area where Logan and JD said they would be establishing our camp. We couldn't find it right away, so we stop the car and get on our bikes and ride around. We find the camp after a few minutes. They have claimed a big area for our camp, we end up using a little more than half of it. We quickly start setting up. We stake out an area for our shade structure, but that gets moved later. Near our camp is the Pee Funnel camp. There are hardly any cars on the roads, another sign that early arrivals were discouraged.

I'm amazed at the lack of dust - the air is crystal clear. We bike to center camp, and I check in at the Artery to see where my installation has been placed. It's right on one of the main paths, from the Man to the 9 o'clock plaza - it should see LOTS of traffic. I get driven out to the installation site (one of my favorite parts). The driver and I talk - he has an installation of his own, a rotating fire thing, and remembers the Lyre from last year. His installation needed a foot-controller, and he says he went to my site to check out how I used the dance pads.

I come back from the Artery, and we set up our tents. David and Deb and others were supposed to arrive about the same time as we did, but they ran into various troubles on the road and arrive late in the evening. Rick makes dinner, and it tastes good. Camp layout is under constant discussion.

Monday

We take the radio out, and I fire it up to make sure it still works. It does! I work on the back cover of the radio a bit, and we then take it out to the playa in Ricks van (I had gotten the playa driving pass on Sunday). The radio sets up easily - we just pound a few rebar into the ground to anchor it. It looks cool just standing there. The location is great, about 50 yards off a main path to the Man, and right next to the Pagoda of Infinite Reflections that will get burned Wednesday night. (Actually, it got delayed till Thursday night.)

We come back and set up our shade structure and the solar panels. We're all set for the week. We sit back and relax. I play some new agey bits of music on the Yamaha keyboard I brought, to relax.

I ride my bike back to the radio, about 4:30pm, and turn it on. The first person who stops by to check it out starts pressing all the preset buttons on the radio, which do nothing - only the knob affects the sound. After seeing that, I decide to put a tiny label on the knob saying "Turn Me" so that people know what to do.

Back at camp, I help Hillary with her inverter. The wires are unlabelled, so it's not clear how to connect it to the battery, and it has a blown fuse. I have extra fuses, it takes one more blown fuse before we figure out the polarity of the wires. I take a shower and we have dinner. Most of our camp is out working on their installations - the LEM and Chasm. Both are big ambitious installations, and lots of people haved worked on the various pieces of them. I wonder if any other camp has so many installations on the playa.

Rick and I go out biking and try to find the Hawaii camp to pick up some glow sticks I ordered before the event. We can't find it. I make several half-hearted attempts looking for it during the week, but never did find it.

We pass this really-cool-looking electronic music stage with lots of chrome-covered drums and a Laser Harp. We make a note to return later at night to check out the music. (The music turned out to be far less interesting than the chrome-covered instruments.) Rick dances at a lot of the clubs that we pass, as I look on and enjoy the music. The HookahDome had some of the best music, consistently.

At 1am, Synthia is scheduled to play at Center Camp with Will Grant, so a bunch of us go to see them. It's an entertaning event. Will does vocal improvisations with amazing intensity. This type of music is pretty challenging for this audience to appreciate. A persistent heckler is simultaneously hilarious and obnoxious. At 2am, Kid Beyond performs an unbelievable set of Beat Box vocals (drum and instrument sounds done entirely with his voice). At 3am, I ride out to the Radio to check on it, and it's still working. The next morning when I replaced the battery at 10am, it was still going - the batteries are lasting a fair bit longer than I anticipated! As a result, during the week I end up turning the radio on earlier and earlier in the day, leaving it on longer and longer, and the last few days of the week it was running 24 hours a day.

Monday night was the latest night for me - most nights I wasn't up quite that late.

Tuesday

Monday, we had started helping our neighbors set up their shade structure. They happened to have a 2-person pedal-powered car, and I asked if I could borrow it to carry the replacement battery out to my installation. They were just about to use their vehicle to go to the other side of the playa, anmy installation was right on the way, so they could take the battery with them. We followed them on bike, and I replaced the battery. (They took the replacement battery and brought it back later in the day). While I'm replacing the battery, 3 people stop by and say they had been playing with the radio - they love it (one person says it's the coolest thing she's seen on the playa). We give out a few of the little CDs we brought - little rectangular business-card-size CDs with a few audio tracks of the radio's output.

We bike out to the deep playa, and visit the LEM installation under construction. There is a mailbox at the orange fence which marks the outer edge of the playa, and Rick delivers one of our CDs. Coming back, the wind is strong, forcing us to wear our goggles. We stop at the "Big Bubble" installation, which is big but not particularly interesting otherwise - it's probably better when it's lit up at night. We get back to camp and relax for a while.

Sometime during the day, I meet Dan, who's doing an installation near mine, and I find that he only lives a few blocks from our new home in San Francisco.

Wednesday

I had a good night of sleep. Rick and I borrow our neighbor's 2-person pedal-powered car to take out the replacement battery. We take the opportunity to use it to bring back 5 bags of ice from center camp. Back in camp, I help our neighbor fix the LED flashlights that decorate the top of his 2-person car. We go out biking toward center camp, and play miniature golf on the way. At center camp we split up - Rick stops at a place to make some pottery, and I watch some fantastic hula hooping performances in the center of center camp. On the way out of center camp, I hear people yelling "All Hail Water Girl!", and I see them wheeling around a metal framework with a big body-shaped rubber translucent suit filled with water, and there's a girl inside, completely covered by the water and using a snorkel to breath. Only at burning man.

I pass a camp where they have big pools of dye and they're painting people all-over in various colors. During the week, Rick says that he wants to get painted just before he leaves and surprise Sue when he gets home. Fortunately for Sue, Rick eventually loses this idea.

I drop off a few Radio Free Quasar CDs at the BMIR (Burning Man Information Radio) radio station, perhaps they'll play them during the week sometime. There are a lot of dust storms this afternoon. I go out to the radio and turn it on. I give some CDs to the first few people that stop by. On the way back to camp, I get stuck in a dust storm, and stop at an installation that has some big bowls/bells. They make a beautiful deep sound when I use the mallets that are conveniently provided.

There was a stage where people could come and play electronic music, fairly close to our camp. I stop by in the late afternoon to check it out, and talk to the person setting it up, telling him I'll be back that evening to play. The arrangement seems a little vague. Amar (a musical friend from our camp) also wants to play, and we both show up in the early evening with our equipment, but the stage isn't set up, partly because there have been a lot of dust storms and even a bit of rain. I had carried my keyboard and computer over, so on the way back I stop in one of the (many) lounges and try to connect to the internet to get/send email. Immediately after opening my laptop, several people come over and ask if they can use it to pick up their email. It turns out that the lounge was hosting a get-together for people using the "livelog.com" service - a blog/diary site. I meet several interesting people from various places around the country, including one that runs a small record label. I give him one of my CDs. Hillary and Phil see me sitting in the lounge (they had wanted to check out the electronic music), and we visit for a while. The internet wireless connection was intermittent and not usable. A guy next to me had two (!) laptops, and his experience was the same, so I know it wasn't just my laptop. I was able to get one piece of email sent out at the beginning of the week, but after that I was unable to get or send any email.

Since I didn't play music, I was able to race out and meet everyone else from camp at the LEM installation, celebrating it's completion at moonrise. Everyone is justifiably proud - it's an impressive installation. The el-wire on top can be seen from quite a distance, and during the week it's a popular hang-out on the edge of the playa. On the way back to camp, I find the stage with the chrome instruments and Laser Harp. They are performing, and it's an impressive visual display, but the music is not very compelling.

Stopping at my Radio, I find that the antenna is no longer lit - probably caused by unanticipated rotation of the antenna. Actually - that's an amusing story. I stopped by once and a person was playing with the radio - he didn't know that I created it, and to help me out he confidently told me that in order to change the sounds, you needed to turn the knob (true) and move the antenna (false). It's always amusing and surprising to see how people use things in unanticipated ways.

Another time (I forget when), I was at the Radio and someone walks up and pulls on the big silver knob - pulling the knob off! Fortunately, it was only the outer aluminum shell of the knob, and the inner knob still worked, but it would look pretty ugly without the shell. Fortunately, the person who pulled it off was the creator of one of the installation inside the Observatory (under the Man), and he says he has some Super Glue! So, he goes back to the Observatory to get the glue, and I wait until he gets back, and we super-glue the knob back on. The super-glue actually worked - the knob stayed on for the rest of the week.

Thursday

I replace the radio's battery, and take the antenna back to camp, to figure out what to do with it (after noting that the el-wire was broken). I take all the old el-wire off, and glue on some new el-wire (in a new, brighter yellow color) that I had fortunately brought. The new wire isn't quite long enough to cover the entire antenna, so I have to make the wire coil turns smaller on both sides. Ironically, this turns out making it look much better than the original design.

Thursday early afternoon, I went on a 3-hour tour of the deep playa, trying to visit almost every installation out there, and largely succeeding. Too many to recall, but the hilights were Chasm, a big reflecting cube, a big egg-shapd jungle gym, a flourescent light twirler, and the Improbable Orchestra - a fabulous 4-station electronic music installation. I play with its controls for about 90 seconds, and it stops. Its generator has stopped. Darn. I was grateful to get even 90 seconds on it, however, since I had heard about this particular installation from last year, and had never been able to see it.

One of the most memorable installations was a bit mysterious initially - it consisted of more than a dozen circular grills with thin metal strips hanging from them. Below each grill and its collection of strips was a pan with a bundle of thin skewers. The metal strips had holes, and some of the thin skewers had been placed in those holes. What in the world was this? I looked at it for a while before noticing that the metal strips were actually oil dipsticks, and that each one had a tiny name inscribed on it - a name, rank, and date. All the dates on a particular grill had the same month on them - each grill represented a month, ranging from April 2003 to the present. It became obvious that these were the names of soldiers killed in the Iraq War. The relevance of the oil dipsticks became obvious as well. And the thin skewers presumably were inserted in particular dipsticks by people who knew that particular solder. The slow realization of what this installation represented was one of the more compelling experiences of the week, for me. If I had known one of the people on those dipsticks, I would have broken down crying the instant I realized what they were. Even without knowing any individuals, it was hard not to cry thinking about the reaction that other people - knowing people whose names were on those dipsticks - would have when they randomly encountered this installation in the middle of the playa.

Thurday night, I installed the new antenna, and discovered that the laser had gotten covered with dust. No problem, I dusted it off as I had done previously. Unfortunately, this time the laser was no longer bright enough to be seen - it appeared that either the laser had burned out a bit, or the dust was affecting the circuitry, or something. I didn't bother trying to fix the laser (and hadn't brought a backup), so for the last few days the Radio was without a laser display. Fortunately, the audio still worked fine, and peple still enjoyed it without knowing it also had a display. Most people in our camp had seen it with the laser display, so I was happy they got to see it working. (David paid me the highest compliment by saying it was a "museum-quality piece")

Rick and I went out for the night and found lots of interesting things. We looked for the Cubatron but didn't find it (it had been moved, strangely - we found it later). We watched two car-sized monster machines with huge jaws attack each other - one got turned over and had to be righted by a crowd of people. Lots of fire sculptures. We saw the big flourescent-tube twirler in action. We spent a LONG time in the "mission to mars" maze - stuck in a crowded maze consisting of sheets of black felt, hidden doors, and more. To finally get out at the end, you had to climb up to the roof, lean way over and slide down a big telephone pole. We saw the Lotus Girls shoot flames a hundred feet in the air. We saw the Pagoda of Infinite Reflections burn spectacularly. We saw fire dancers. This night was quite cold, probably the coldest of the week.

Friday

We try to visit Emily (a friend from work) at her camp, but she's not there. We go to center camp and see someone who looks like Emily - and it's Emily! We bike around and see lots of things. Trampolines seem to be very popular this year. I must have seen ten of them.

On the way to the Temple of Stars, we stop at the Improbable Orchestra, that fabulous music installation. This time, it's working for 5 minutes (during which time I am blown away by its musical operation), and the generator stops. Darn*2. I notice that their generator is running inside a tiny box - this is the same mistake I made with my generator last year. We visit the Temple of Stars, and then head back to camp. On the way back, I suddenly realize - I've got a backup generator!! I was using solar panels to recharge my installation batteries, but I had brought my (freshly tuned-up) generator as a last resort backup. I bet the Improbable Orchestra could sure use another generator! And it just so happens that the Improbable Orchestra camp (conveniently labelled) is just down the street from our camp. On the way back, I stop at their camp and introduce myself. I tell them that their generator has stopped (which wasn't totally surprising to them, since it had been stopping periodically) and advise them to take it out of the box. I also offer my generator as a backup. We walk over to my camp and I give them my generator. They are all from the Bay area, so we exchange contact information so that I can reclaim the generator when we get home. Later I find out that they take my advice to run their generator out of the box, but they still have problems, and they end up using my generator. I'm sure glad I brought that backup generator.

I go out to replace the Radio battery, and someone walks up (who did one of the other installations) and tells me he spent 20 minutes playing with the Radio, which of course is music to my ears. The playa is hopping on Friday afternoon - it's now packed with art installations (packed being a very relative term, since the installations are still 100s of yards apart). People and art cars are all over the place. In the middle of the playa, I pass a Snow Cone stand with a crowd of people waiting for snow cones. I pass a hamburger stand, and a hot dog stand, and a fruit stand, all operating in the middle of the playa. If you aren't familir with the commercial aspects of this event, nothing can be sold at Burning Man except for the ice and coffee in center camp. So, the snow cones and hamburgers and fruit were all being given out free, of course.

I see a massage table in the middle of the playa, with someone getting a massage. I see a guy painting on a large canvas. I see a guy sitting behind a TV-like frame with a puppet, creating a frenzied rendition of something resembling a kid's TV show. Later, I see the same guy, giving his show to a guy who was giving him a crazy show right back.

Friday night, Amar decided to perform at the Observatory (under the Man). There are 10 little stages on the outside edge of the Man's platform, and anyone can come and perform. Most of the time, only half of the stages are occuppied, so it's no problem to perform. Amar and I show up at 9pm. I carried my Yamaha keyboard strapped to the back of my bike. We improvise for about an hour. Our volume is very low, because Amar is using toys as instruments, and my keyboard's speakers aren't very loud. So, in order to hear us, people have to come right up to the stage. At one point, a woman comes up to our stage with a bamboo flute, and starts playing with us (I was playing new agey kinda stuff, so it fit right in). At several points, art/party cars with loud music playing would drive by, and since we were drowned out anyway, I would start improvising along with the beats coming from the party cars. After an hour, Will Grant showed up. He and Amar continued playing, and I took my keyboard back to camp so I could enjoy the rest of the night. I went to a club that was playing a Kraftwerk show. There were lots of fire dancers, and it was another cold night - I had 3 layers of clothes.

Saturday

We got up early to go to center camp for a mocha, read the paper, and get pancakes (yum). We ran into Emily again. There seems to be even more art on the playa. We see where the cubatron has moved to, so Saturday night after the man has burned, we find it - it's very cool.

We had dinner with our neighbors (the ones with the 2-person pedal-powered car). By coincidence, an old co-worker from Network Appliance was a friend of theirs, and had showed up to camp with them. These neighbors included a Stanford professor who does robotics research, and a robotics researcher from France.

We went out to see the Man burn, which was pretty good - the entire dome underneath him was engulfed in flames (nicely outlining the structure) without even touching the Man. The Man took a while to start burning, and then quickly toppled over. There were no big dust devils this year, that I saw. Rick and I went out to find the Cubatron. We found it, and it was doing some very nice displays.

Rick and I had planned to leave early Sunday morning, so after the Man burned, we went back to our camp and started packing everything up. By the time we went to sleep, we had packed up everything except the tents.

Sunday

Sunday morning, we packed up our tents, and went out for one last bike ride to see the remnants of the burn. On our way out, we drove out onto the playa and picked up the Radio. We got out by 9:30 am or so, and there was no line of cars getting out. We took the alternate path around Pyramid lake, on the way back to Reno, so there were a few new sights to see. We got back to San Jose around 5pm, and I was able to get back to San Francisco around 7pm. I took a long shower the instant I got home.