Burning Man trip report ’09

This was my eleventh consecutive year at Burning Man. Does that make me some kind of intermediate tribal elder or something?

My project this year was listed as “the evolution game” in the What Where When. I had manufactured 1000 silicone wristbands that had *evolve* debossed in them–125 each in brown (it was supposed to be beige, but whatever), purple, red, blue, orange, green, yellow and glow-in-the-dark white. I wore one of each of the first seven colors on my right wrist all week; I went up to people (mostly at Center Camp and Playa Info), and announced that I had a game, and which color wristband did they want to win? (“[Color X],” they’d say.)

Okay, I said, to win the [color X] wristband, you have to do TWO things. First, you to find someone in the city sometime during the week who’s wearing a [color X] wristband on their LEFT wrist, and when you find them, you have to (I leaned over and whispered:) [activity Y]. Make sense? Then you can take that wristband from them and put it on your RIGHT wrist. The other thing you have to do–left wrist, please?–is you have to wear this [color X-1] wristband on your left wrist. Somebody’s going to be looking for this, and when they find you, they’ll have something special to do to get it. I’m not going to tell you what it is–but you’ll like it. Good luck!

That was how individual players of the game understood it. The structure of the game was actually loosely based on the idea of spiral dynamics, which is where I got the sequence of colors; the various vMemes associated with that system also provided a framework for the specific activities associated with each color of wristband:

Brown: “You need to give them something good to eat.”

Purple: “You need to bring them back to your camp and make them an honorary member of your camp.”

Red: “You need to tell them your secrets.”

Blue: “You need to grant them a wish–anything within your power.”

Orange: “You need to teach them something.”

Green: “You need to figure out what they need, if possible without asking, and make that happen.”

Yellow: “You need to help them do something nice for somebody else.”

The activities were tricky to come up with–I spent a few weeks quizzing friends of mine about what might work well. I wanted to find activities that any person A could do for any person B in the desert, that any person B would probably want to have happen, that would take at least a few minutes (so that they could strike up a conversation), and that wouldn’t take more than a little while (so they weren’t trapped together all day if they didn’t get along). I’m pretty satisfied by what I came up with, although Purple might have taken too long in some cases, and Blue and Green are fairly similar.

I assumed it would take me all week to distribute the wristbands. In fact, they were almost all gone by mid-day Tuesday–I had a few extra stashes of a couple of colors that I passed out later, and the glow-in-the-dark ones were reserved for people who were particularly nice to me, but the game seemed very popular, and handing them out to people standing in line meant that I could easily distribute 25 or 30 at a time without a break of more than a few seconds. I have no idea how many interactions between players actually came out of the game, but I did hear a few stories of successful interactions later in the week, and saw a bunch of people wandering around with the wristbands on one wrist or another.

Things that worked about the game:

*The instructions. I worried that they were too complicated for players who might be dehydrated or perhaps a little bit high or both, but I pared them down to the simplest possible explanation–actually placing the “wrong” color wristband on the players’ left wrists seems to have helped a lot

*The basic concept: a lot of people said “I like this game!” or something similar. That made me happy to hear.

Things that didn’t work as well:

*I should have taken into account that some colors would be more popular than others. In particular, the purple wristbands were far more popular than any other color (well, they were pretty), and almost nobody wanted the yellow wristbands (perhaps because they’re the same color as the Lance Armstrong wristbands, although it’s pretty funny that the Spiral Dynamics scheme suggests that the yellow vMeme may not exist in practice yet). That meant that I ran out of a few colors fairly quickly; once I was out of four colors, I stopped the normal version of the game, and just handed out the remaining wristbands with the note that people were out there looking for anyone wearing them.

*I probably made too few wristbands in all. 875 in-play wristbands should have meant, in practice, that about 1 in 50 people in Black Rock City was wearing one, but they didn’t seem to be quite as common as I thought they might be, and in fact I bet a lot of people took theirs off at some point before an interaction with another player could happen.

In any case, if anyone who got an interesting interaction out of the game is reading this, I’d love to hear what happened.

Other notable stuff from this year’s burn that I want to get down while I still remember it:

*Riding down with the kind folks from the giant sandworm project (and reading Gilbert Hernandez’s Luba en route, quietly cracking up every time Fortunato! showed up). Their bus broke down about 25 miles outside of Gerlach (while I was in a car that was going on ahead), so I arrived a day or so before my stuff did, but everyone was very nice and helpful to me, and people from Kostume Kult and the Boutique even gave me some excellent clothes to wear while I waited for my own clothes to arrive.

*The Esther Williams car, my personal favorite thing I saw: a truck bearing 30 or 40 men and women in identical blue bathing caps and frilly pink bikinis, who launched into a nicely choreographed “synchronized swimming” routine to appropriate mid-century music.

*In the dept. of “only at Burning Man,” the woman on the cafe’s stage who demonstrated how to wrap a sari while rapping about it.

*I got my meals through Divine Nourishment/Red Lightning’s excellent meal plan. They are the hippiest hippies who have ever hippied (I believe one of their official kitchen tasks was “creating a sacred space”), but what fantastic food.

*We stopped at Summer Lake Hot Springs on the way down. A very, VERY burner-friendly establishment, and the hot springs (indoors!) were heavenly.

*I finally got to appear in a Photoboof! shoot. (My wig and outfit were both green at the time, so the greenscreen effect interacted interestingly with them.)

*I dressed up in medical scrubs on Sunday morning after the burn and wandering around town as the “serotonin fairy,” distributing 5-HTP to anyone who could use a serotonin precursor.

*My annual Thursday-midday mood crash somehow didn’t arrive until Sunday this year. Apologies to anyone who was the recipient of my Sunday grouchiness, but maybe by next time I’ll manage to avoid it altogether.

*After last year’s nearly unbikeable playa surface, it was great to be able to zip around again–I yelled some kind of yee-ha when I finally got my bike. Weirdly, the area beyond the Temple was nearly impossible to bike, and the deep-playa art was sparse and largely mediocre–I walked all the way out to the end of the trash fence on Friday evening, and didn’t discover anything particularly noteworthy–but at least point A to point B within the city was doable.

*Another little highlight: finding my campmate Mark’s keyboard-car out on the playa, not really sure at the time what it was, tentatively striking a few notes on it, realizing that they had the same pitch and timbre as the first few notes of “The Fat Lady of Limbourg,” and playing and singing the whole thing.

*As I often do out there, I realized that I was spending a great deal of time running around trying to make sure that other people I knew (or didn’t know) had fun and interesting experiences, and not enough time being open to what my environment had to offer me. This is something I’m still working on.

*Awesome: Groovik’s Cube, a triumph of conception, engineering and organization. I adore the people behind it, not least because they’re probably the most hypercompetent people I’ve encountered in a city of people who, as flaky as they can sometimes be, are in any case at least competent enough to make it out to Burning Man.

*I managed to hit the Steam Bath Project twice. By the second time, there was an hour-long wait to get in. It was still worth it.

*I had a handful of experiences that suggested that I’m pretty good at counseling people who find themselves in a bad way for one reason or another (oh, okay: because of really bad acid trips). I might look into this being-a-listening-ear thing some more.

*Best rumor I heard: that Prince was playing Thursday night, but only for DPW and staff with a “Prince pog.” (I imagined what one would look like: the Prince symbol superimposed on the Man symbol?)

*I had imagined that this might be a very art-and-interaction-with-strangers-focused year. It ended up being much more about hanging out near my camp (lots of dust storms), and more than anything else about reconnecting with dear friends I hadn’t seen in a long time. That’s totally fine with me.