What is the most absurd thing you could do? Imagine it, right now. If you’re thinking of merely putting a lampshade on your head and drunkenly dancing on the table, you’re not even close. Get creative. First, you’ll need to look far sillier, so put on an unholy mismatch of your last few Halloween costumes and some of your partner’s formal wear. Grab some duct tape or rope and strap random objects to yourself: a teacup on your elbow, a dog toy to your thigh, TV remotes from your earlobes, a lit candle balanced on your nose. Okay, now speak nonsensically: insist that people call you Sludgecinder, come up with silly — and preferably clever — names for ordinary objects, and talk like a space pirate. Next you need to act weirdly too. Show off your party tricks: tie cherry stems in your mouth, juggle, eat pickles with ice cream, dance like a chicken — ideally all at once. Now you need a ridiculous way to get around. Stand on a skateboard and use a mop like an oar to move across the kitchen floor, put roller skates on your hands, or ride your lawn mower across the carpet. You’re doing pretty well, but we’re just getting started.
To be truly absurd, go out and admire that deck you put in last summer, the one that you custom designed to fit your house, that you spent hours building and then sanded and stained so it will stay beautiful for thirty years. Now grab a can of gasoline and burn the whole thing to the ground, along with the house whose mortgage you just finished paying off. Alright, that’s what you can do at home with no planning. That’s baseline.
Let’s get sillier and change the setting. What if you were at your weirdest in the desert, with no infrastructure except what you brought with you. Merely trying to survive out there is fairly ridiculous, so anything remotely decadent is absurd. Drinking ice water and eating Eggs Benedict in the middle of the wilderness is utterly bizarre. Don’t go alone. Welcome anyone — absolutely anyone, of any race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, religion, or political viewpoint — who wants to join you, and freely share your precious supplies without any expectation of anything in return.
Leave your wallet and phone locked in the car. Don’t litter or even spill any water; leave no trace whatsoever so that an entire city-sized party can sprung up and then disappeared a week later. Don’t think about your job or your life back out in the rest of the world. Bask in the immediate moment. Oh, and while you’re at it, get all the proper permits and permissions so that all your pyrotechnics and camps are legal. In fact, be so competent and friendly that you get the fire department and police to patrol your tent city looking to help people. For added degree of difficulty, get wasted. It’s hard enough to do anything remotely skilled when out of your mind on substances, much less the sort of nonsense you’ll be up to. Listen to Robin Williams talking about Dock Ellis pitching a no hitter while on acid in order to understand how absurd it is to be competent while far from sober. Alternatively, being totally sober at the craziest party in the world and acting silly without the excuse of intoxicants is awfully absurd too.
Suppose you have two weeks to prepare for this nonsense. You purchase goggles and a face mask to protect yourself from the dust in style. You go on a serious grocery run to buy food for three people for a week. You swing by the Goodwill outlet store — the place full of stuff that was rejected at the normal thrift shop and is sold by the pound — to pick up crazy floral print clothes, a hollow plastic purple candy cane the size of a proper cane, and two almost functional bicycles. You buy a dozen LED lights with finger straps, a psychedelic hat, five colors of duct tape, and tons of little plastic dinosaurs at a party goods store. Toss these finds in a pile along with other silly costumes you’ve collected over the years since, let’s be honest, if the idea of being the most absurd you can be appeals to you in the slightest then you already own some pretty out there hats, toys, and jumpsuits.
You ask a local bicycle repair shop to get the cycles minimally road worthy then decorate them with the duct tape and attach the dinosaurs with super glue. Pack everything into your friend’s minivan, along with a collapsed geodesic dome, nine sealed buckets of water, another friend’s massage table, a chandelier, survival gear, tents, sleeping bags, and who knows what else. You and one friend manage to get all of the piles of stuff into the van and still have three seats. The bicycles are solidly strapped onto a rack on the van’s back despite one of cycles being too small. The two of you go on one last gas and fresh food run then pick up your third friend as she finishes nursing school two weeks early.
Then leave at midnight, straight from the hospital because you managed to pack all her stuff already too. You drive for seven and a half of the twelve hours down to the Nevada desert, changing drivers only when you start to feel unsafe from being up for nearly twenty-four hours already. You pull in to camp and spend eight hours setting up the twenty-three foot diameter dome, securing the tarp over it, hanging the chandelier inside, and setting up your tents before passing out for nine hours.
In the morning you put on three different floral prints, a bright orange scarf, your goggles (on which you super glued some gears), and your brightest hat to go cycling around the desert admiring the art. You spend the whole week making friends, sharing food, volunteering for hours in the Hug Deli, and washing dishes for the camp at hours that normal humans don’t even want to be awake. One night, totally sober, you end up having to change out of your shiny sequin dress into your bunny suit after getting patched up in the med station. You should have taken your sword off before jumping your bicycle over that barrel of flaming coals. You instigate some adventures, such as making your lyrically clever friend talk in rhyme for six hours and having people play Calvinball. You learn the layout of the city and embrace the culture of the odd place to the extent that you’re soon giving out advice and directions to the people you meet. You become able to find your way around and keep track of all your belongings despite being intoxicated in the extreme, even after your friend kicked out one of your contacts during your midair battle in the Thunderdome. Not bad for your first time, but you’re still a novice.
Now let’s say you prepare for an entire year. You develop your silly party trick into an art form. If you juggle, learn to do it with chainsaws while riding a unicycle. If you spin poi, learn complex routines well enough to perform even when those poi are on fire and your acrobatics friend is holding you in the air. Learn how to flamenco or do aerial gymnastics. Rock climb so well that you can grasp the tiniest holds on a massive boulder that is suspended four feet off the ground by chains causing it to rotate or swing like a pendulum as you try to hang on. Your costumes are fully designed instead of cobbled together, and you’ve lit them with quality EL-wire, hand sewn into lovely patterns. Your bicycle is covered in neon pink zebra fur and has a shade canopy over it. You created an art car: a go cart stripped down then built up into an enormous shopping cart, or a bus turned into Jabba the Hut’s sand skiff with a couch swing hanging off the back and lasers shooting from the top. You make a fairly substantial art project out in the desert: sturdy cardboard tubes that make a palisade around a tea house, or a bar with tiki torches that send up bursts of flame when the bell on the bar is rung for service. Perhaps you go all out and make a lotus shaped structure out of 75,000 flattened bottle caps and place it over the balcony of a high-quality wooden pavilion that looks like it will last for decades. Maybe you join a camp that hosts major dance parties, games, lunches, society meet-ups, or seminars. Congratulations, you know how to be absurd.
What if you go further? What if you take absurdity as your god, the driving force in your life? What if you study engineering and chemistry, master carpentry and welding, advance the fields of architecture and sculpture, all in order make more ridiculous projects? Then you can make a dance stadium with a sound system loud enough to violate the noise ordinances of any other city in the world, where the DJs have control of huge fireballs and lasers to shoot into the sky that can be timed with the music. You make a sculpture with multiple stages: a wooden exterior that is lit from within and without by morphing strips of color and spotlights, then explodes in pyrotechnic glory, and finally glows as the twisted metal skeleton is lit with even more light strips, three spheres of fire — one of which is green — and glowing pressure plates that spew forth yet more fire when stepped upon.
You build a museum-quality, half-sunken pirate ship so detailed that every room is filled with skeletons, period cookware, or old books and preserved fetal pigs. Give the ship a prow decorated with a larger than life carving of a woman whose hair morphs into squid tentacles in the back, a deck complete with proper rigging and a set of stocks, sides that bow properly and have rope ladders that can be used to board the ship. Add light and sound effects that make the desert seem an ocean, and a long pier that feels nautical above while being home to hammocks below.
You build a wooden temple as ornate and well designed as nearly any place of worship in the world, creating a sacred space where those who’ve experienced loss can attain closure as the beautiful structure burns to the ground in near silence despite being surrounded by tens of thousands of people. You build the world’s largest effigy, lit so brightly it can be seen in a dust storm that makes anything else hard to see ten feet in front of you, an effigy atop an enormous building that houses a climbable beehive structure that is sturdy despite dozens of people clambering over it at any given moment. Build the whole thing without any fasteners, simply with good design and artfully carved joints of wood, wood that has been smoothed and beveled to perfection such that hardly any piece is merely rectangular but instead are each jewel-like in their facets and shininess. Then burn the whole thing down, filling it with enough fireworks and explosions to generate heat and wind so powerful that they kick up numerous dust-devils, four vortexes at a time and galaxies of sparks flying from the inferno. Create entire forces of nature with the destruction of the art that you spent thousands of hours and dollars planning and lovingly shaping. That would be the absolutely most absurd thing you could possibly do.
Some of you may be incredulous that anyone could or would ever do such things. Others of you witnessed all I described at this year’s Burning Man Festival in Black Rock City Nevada. For those who haven’t been before but are already planning your projects and costumes, welcome home.
this is it for me, read the comments… http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/elements/2013/04/schmidhuber-eagleman-science-religion-artificial-intelligence.html
you left out the parts about
at two weeks: rebuilding your camp (or your neighbor’s) after the wind and dust tear it to pieces, helping to manage a friend’s or stranger’s crisis, and figuring out how to adapt to a physical and sensual environment like nothing you’ve ever experienced.
at a year: join the gate (or greeter, or ice, or etc..) crew for a few shifts. go to the playa early. organize a big camp for the folks you know – or a small theme camp. make a bacon buffet for anyone who wanders down your block at 2:30 p.m. on wednesday.
a little further down the road: be a Ranger, coordinate a project or take on more responsibility as a volunteer, invent something that’ll make life easier for everyone on the playa, help run a serious theme camp, probably something else about bacon.
eventually: put together a regional burn, run a volunteer department, keep doing all of the above, or just use the skills and knowledge you’ve developed over the years to make the burn burn better for everyone around you.
and still find the time for the art, costumes, and hedonism discussed in the article.
Good points, lysenko. I expect that art projects will be the primary way that I personally contribute, but I hope they won’t be the only way, and I certainly don’t want to at all belittle any of the wonderful methods of improving the burn that I didn’t mention. An exhaustive list would be quite an undertaking, yet probably a worthwhile one to show our appreciation for Burner culture!