Astronauts and dinosaurs shimmied to pulsating techno pop in a drafty Brooklyn warehouse. With all the costumed bodies packed on the floor the celebration looked like a cross between Halloween and Carnival. In April.
This fundraising bash at A Cavallo, an artist studio in Redhook, is just one way hijinks are part of Burning Man-related events in New York throughout the year.
Burning Man is an annual week-long art event in the Nevada desert. It takes its name from the ritual burning of a 72-foot tall wooden effigy that turns to ashes on the last day before the entire encampment is dismantled.
Fifty thousand burners, as participants refer to themselves, brave the heat of the desert days and the cold of its nights; withstand isolation from other human settlements; and build a temporary place on the desert floor to accommodate their revelry and art. Last year Quill Hyde led his A Cavallo team to transport a carousel mounted with steel horses out to the desert.
Many participants, before becoming burners, have a preconception that the event is a drug-infused sexual free for all. For some that is a part of it, but for most burners it is the contagious creative energy that drives the entire event.
Before Stefan Pildes, 32, went to Burning Man he thought it was just a hippie festival. But after his first experience in the desert, he found more than that.
“It's mainly about community and it's about realizing the most authentic version of yourself,” Pildes said. “And possibly the best part of burning man is when you leave you're imbued with this creative spirit that you can’t manufacture.”
Audio snippet: Stefan Pildes talkS about the mixture of the sacred and profane at Burning Man. (Length: 23s)
Pildes used to work in video editing for corporate clients. On the playa [ply-uh], as the alkali salt flats in Nevada are called, he found a passion for hula-hooping. When he returned to New York, the Burning Man local community encouraged him to start his own hula-hoop company.
“I kind of found that silly and funny” but “I thought ‘why not go for it,’” he said. “Now I am the founding member of New York's premier hula-hoop event company.”
Some burners return from the desert inspired to revamp their professions to align with their newly found creative muse. Others keep their corporate lives separate but participate in evening and weekend burner events in New York.
Mike Allen, a real-estate agent who works in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, has been going to Burning Man every year for nearly a decade. Last year he worked on the carousel project, performing mainly welding and some carpentry. Racing towards the end of the project, he was working full days and after hours.
He says going to Burning Man is not just for aimless drifters. Hard work is involved in making camp and putting up art installations.
"You don't get as many yahoos as you think you would," Allen said. "It's really not that kind of crazy. People do party, but people work to get there. It's not for the faint of heart."
But hearts do swoon on the playa. Romance and sex is on the menu for many burners, with some relationships lasting more than others.
Jena La Flamme first went to Burning Man on her honeymoon. That relationship, however, did not make it to the following year’s festival. La Flamme wanted certain freedoms that her partner was not comfortable with.
“I said ‘freedom is calling me, sorry,'’’ she said. “And that was it. I never looked back.”
At her next Burning Man festival, La Flamme met someone else during a women-only bike-riding event. She and her girlfriend are still together.
To La Flamme, Burning Man symbolizes “infinite possibility, creating your own life, burning what’s not useful, letting go of the past,” she said. “And if a relationship is limited, if it’s not living into the infinity of possibility, then it comes to be obvious, itchy, aggravating.”
Many burners say that the 105-degree heat, the random windstorms and the bare-naked temptations can help break apart already unstable relationships. To Pildes, the one-year at Burning Man when he went with a girlfriend was his worst.
Despite all the drama and stresses of the playa, Pildes still looks forward to dressing up for year-round events in New York, like the Horned Ball in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. There, he will help raise funds for his next year on the playa.
“Whatever you want to be, you want to be it at Burning Man,” Pildes said. “You have free license to create and be whatever you want.”
Click around the site to see the ways in which Burning Man has changed the lives of New York City burners. Explore the preparations for this year's Burning Man in late August. Meet artists who are preparing their art projects (A Cavallo), fund-raising by throwing parties (Kostume Kult's Horned Ball and A Cavallo's Astronauts and Dinosaurs). Meet a couple who got married at the festival (Teagan and Arrow), and someone who started his own hula hoop company after returning from the desert (Stefan).