Thursday, October 30, 2008

Burning Man Decompression 2008

The fire jockeys slap the pads of ignition systems connected to four vertical flame-throwing propane tanks. The crowd erupts in a paroxysm of pyromania.

As Promethean mavens perform the Flaming Simon, flames waltz and woo in a percussive display of upwardly explosive heat energy. The gods of Burning Man are aroused by the fire-based version of the late 1970’s electronic game “Simon.”

“Step right up. The fire demons are breathing,” says ringleader Eric Singer, who teaches pyrotechnics at Brooklyn musical robot collective LEMURplex.

But the setting is not the alkali flats of northwestern Nevada's Black Rock desert, the Burning Man locale where impervious Paiutes repelled pioneering white men seven score and eight years ago.

This is Burning Man's New York City Decompression 2008 at Aviator Sports on South Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett field. And, to mesh with the place where aviatrix Amelia Earhart broke several flight records, the theme of the costumes and art is “Flying Laboratory.”

"There was a time when Burning Man was thought of as counter-cultural," said Steven Raspa, lifetime burner and special events coordinator for Burning Man NYC Decompression. "We don't think of it as counter-cultural any more. We think of it as culture, and of New York as a hub of the community.”

The music, art, and pyrotechnic Labor Day weekend festival of Burning Man is about 20 times larger than the NYC Decompression version, but the latter strives to maintain the same emphasis radical self-expression, anti-commercialism, community, and spontaneity.

Although the ferocious rains on the eve of the October 25th Decompression rivaled some of the worst dust storms on the Burning Man playa, some participants doubted whether the annual main event at Black Rock City could be replicated by one of many satellite “decompression” gatherings across the country.

Veteran, virgin, and future Burners had mixed perspectives on their assimilation into the ethos of NYC Decompression and the broader Burning Man culture.

Some participants questioned the decision to hold the diet Burning Man at a philistine, Chelsea Piers-type recreational facility in Brooklyn.

Thirty feet from the pyrotechnic delights, six young Brooklynites raved about the displays, though they stood on the other side of the Aviator Sports fence on Flatbush Avenue.

Max Yablonovskiy, 21, is a student at the Polytechnic Institute of NYU who was passing by with fellow Brighton Beach residents, three on top and three inside his friend Ilya’s green Ford Explorer. They stopped on a whim to witness the fire games.

"There's just one lonely fire marshal,” said Yablonovskiy, eyes ablaze and entertained as if the pyromaniacs were circus clowns. “With that twirling fire, I expected to see the fire department everywhere.”

“I had never heard about Burning Man before, but the fire musical chairs is cool because non-pyros actually got to set off the fire too,” Yablonovskiy said. “I’m absolutely going to Decompression next year. I’ve been converted.”

Supervising the dance of fire was O Man, whose real name is Oscar Yong. He is a lifetime burner who raved about the "most ambitious fire project for Burning Man so far," a giant plywood rat’s nest built in 2006 by 79 Belgians called the Uchronians.

"The heat energy from the ‘Belgian Waffle’ was incredible. The fire here doesn't compare to the waffle," said O Man, as pyrotechnicians lit up the scene. "Even so," he continued, pointing towards a burly, white-bearded man in a black fleece, "He's our man at the fire department. It's his fourth year doing Decompression, but he's nervous about this one!"

Inside the Aviator Sports complex, kaleidoscopic video mash-ups generated by a NuVJ controller captivated passers-by. Two-time burners from New York Jeff Schram and Holly Danger toyed with archival Burning Man footage mixed with 1978 Sesame Street counting lessons, where pinballs blasted off from castle cannons. Until their set in the corner of the indoor soccer pitch lost power, and .5% of Decompression was temporarily out of order.

"People dig the visuals, especially when synchronized with the sonic stuff,” Schram said, reveling in his visceral connection to the video controller.

"Decompression has a lot of Burning Man elements, even if it doesn't take you out of reality. We’re still in the ‘default world,’ but it’s as close as you can get,” said Schram, referring to the contrast with non-Burning Man society.

"It's very Zen-like," said Danger, whose video toy was then generating a collage of moon and playa images. The psychedelic clips of a Black Rock City map hypnotically merged with a paraglider’s descent onto the sand. But, this contrasted with pastiche stencil prints on an adjacent wall of Marilyn Monroe, Geronimo, and Jimmy Hendrix.

Walking past a dormant LED-covered windmill, a glowing orb-bearing warrior peered at the prints as if rejecting what might now sell as Ikea artifice. He then frolicked with giant dominos on the floor, which looked like they had dropped down from the hangar ceiling above, where Tracey Real Estate and Nantucket Nectars banners were hoisted.

This was a reminder that the organizers were challenged to find an appropriate space for the 2000-plus revelers, away from the perceived commercial profligacy of the “default world.”

Another Decompression attendee was Korean-born Jiyoon Yeom, who arrived in midtown Manhattan 15 months ago seeking to study graphic design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. In August, she went under the knife to remove a stomach growth and two days later left for Burning Man 2008.

"The different energy with the desert air cured me when I was on top of a steel tower 11 stories high. We could see the whole playa,” said Yeom. “After Burning Man, I came back perfect even though the doctor said it would take two weeks to heal."

For Yeom, the NYC Decompression had a similar energy to Burning Man - just without the inspirational art cars. Next year, Yeom plans to bring friends from Korea to stay once more at Burning Man’s Geisha Camp - the community known for giving out free sake.

She has already started planning the Geisha Camp vehicle, replete with Asian-themed decor, flaming dragons, and mobile sake distribution. Yeom’s worst fear is that fellow burners will lose control and make trouble with their art car. She also hopes that the whiteouts will simmer down at Burning Man 2009.

Outside the Disorient tent where Funk and Drum ‘n’ Bass coalesce, Rachael Moore was swaying in the chilly October air. She was taking a break from the night’s most sweaty dance affair, where guests dressed as a toucan, rocket man, exterminator, and spider were among the flight-themed creatures lurking.

The 30-year-old Williamsburg resident, originally from Australia’s bush, arrived in Los Angeles on Aug. 18. Having given away most of her possessions before leaving the land down under, she packed just two suitcases for her voyage to America and subsequent journey to Burning Man - one with regular clothes and the other with costumes and accessories.

“When you enter the gates of Burning Man, they say, ‘Welcome home!’ As I left Black Rock City at the end, it was like leaving home, because I literally had no other house,” said Moore, who stayed at Camp Straya with 25 people, mostly fellow Australians.

“Since there’s no money exchanged, there’s no fear that you can't afford something or have a bag stolen. Outside of Burning Man, people are afraid of the recession, afraid of Obama, McCain, of being ugly, growing old, afraid of their boyfriend or girlfriend cheating. You just forget about those things, but it's not really an escape or a tease. It would be a tease if there were no way to take Burning Man lessons back to the default world.”

“You can experience a little Burning Man here and there everywhere in New York,” said Moore, who is currently looking for an event-planning job.

“I could do 8 weeks of Burning Man a year. But I would need a good showering device. And maybe an RV next time. Our tent got destroyed in a dust storm the first night. The rest of the time, it was pretty much collapsed on our face.”

A visitor from the “default world” was gawking at the Smooch Dome’s nine enmeshed couples, one six-way caress group, and a single man licking his lips alone.

"It reminds me of the old Loft and the Garage clubs in Manhattan. You can just bring pillows and be yourself," said ice cream distributor Penny Monge, 34, who was with her son, Sonny, from Ridgewood, Queens.

"We never knew about Burning Man culture before. We came to Scary House at Aviator Sports and then sneaked into this party, which is much more exciting," said Monge.

She said she preferred the Decompression folks to the rowdy Brooklyn crowd of normal
Saturday nights.

"Too bad it ain't every weekend," Monge declared.

The 12-hour Decompression event wound down around 4 a.m. Nicole Mucciolo headed towards the Flatbush-bound shuttle buses, donning a blue wig with authority.

"I had a fabulous time, both at Decom and at the Burn. I even became more comfortable living in my East Harlem community after I got back from Nevada,” said Mucciolo, 27, who works for Phillips de Pury auction house.

“I found out about Burning Man on the Internet and then made the pilgrimage,” she said. “I flew from NYC to Denver, via Minneapolis, then drove 18 hours with my aunt in a Euro van from Denver to Burning Man.”

“On the way back, the clutch started to go. We were dirty, tired and hung over. Our car broke down on 80 then AAA came, we got towed to Reno and were stuck at a casino. Then flew to Denver, via Salt Lake City, and then flew to NYC, via Minneapolis."

Mucciolo’s journey to Decompression had a similar number of legs. “From East Harlem, I took the 6, the L to work, then the A, an MTA shuttle, a cab, the 2, and then car service to Aviator Sports.”

“The radical self-expression and explosive sense of community tickled my fancy. There is definitely a sense of escapism for anybody who goes. Anyone denying that is kidding themselves. You go to get away from whatever you're used to doing,” Mucciolo said.

“Burning Man is like picking up a musical instrument for the first time and just playing.”

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