Arts Desk

Burn Before Leaving: Meet D.C.’s Burning Man Set

D.C. National Treasure team

The theme of this year’s Burning Man festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert is fertility. The first thing that came to Kelly Kalac’s mind was the nation’s biggest prick.

The 30-year-old Riviera Beach, Md., resident (shown above, center) has led the construction of a 20-foot replica of the Washington Monument, an homage to the nation’s capital that she and a band of assistants will bring to the massive desert party that begins Aug. 27. They’ll transport it there—by truck, snail mail, and airplane—assemble it on the dusty playa, party with it for several days, then burn it to the ground.

Immolating a replica of the Washington Monument sounds like the stuff of anti-American protests, but at Burning Man, death by fire is de rigeur. Even multithousand-dollar structures built by hundreds of volunteers go up in flames by the festival’s end. It’s a combination of art, spirituality, and cleanup: Burning Man has a strict leave-no-trace policy.

Kalac’s sculpture, “National Treasure,” has been selected to be one of 34 artworks in the festival’s second annual Circle of Regional Effigies, or C.O.R.E. The structures are supposed to symbolize their places of origin in some way: New Orleans is bringing a big baby on top of a king cake; Boston, a 19-foot-long wooden cod; Saskatchewan, bison. On Thursday, Aug. 30, they’ll all get torched.

That’s partly why D.C. might seem like an unlikely homestead for Burning Man regulars, who are known as burners: Enjoying the party seems to require a total suspension of cynicism. Attendees bring acid, steampunkery, free love, shameless appropriation of Eastern theology, bad art—lots of stuff that’s easy for uptight East Coast city slickers to mock, in other words.

But ask any local burner why they go, and there’s a good chance they won’t say anything about sex, drugs, or jika-tabi boots. They’re likely to point to the Burning Man sensibility, which prioritizes inclusion, self-expression, and participation. Black Rock City LLC and its subcommittees transform the desert basin into a livable city, laying down infrastructure—including an airstrip—but little else. They don’t book entertainment. You are the entertainment. To some of the self-starter types that dwell in this town, that sounds pretty awesome.

* * *

Visiting the Washington Monument is boring. It’s there to be marveled, not painted, pawed, or dry-humped. These days, visitors can’t even enter it, thanks to the 2011 earthquake that cracked its stony peak.

Kalac’s Washington Monument will shoot flames. During the day, it will spew bubbles. It is, basically, a 20-foot phallus that ejaculates fire. Hey, it’s all part of the fertility theme, its creators say. “Shooting balls, and more importantly, globs of flame out the top of it, you know, it’s only fitting,” says Shawn Levin, 37, the project’s safety lead. He says burners will be able to walk up to the sculpture and “basically flip a switch” to release a 10- to 30-foot fireball from its apex. “We thought OK, do we take this structure that is such, like, a heart of D.C. culture, and even American culture,” says Kalac, “and add our own little burner twist to it, and still pay respect to what it is?”

In February, Kalac, a marketing rep for Stolichnaya vodka who went to her first Burning Man the year before, heard about the C.O.R.E. grant program through a mailing list, and decided to apply. She submitted extensive plans for the sculpture with the guidance of electronic-music promotion company Eighty Eight DC. Dozens of people volunteered to help. According to Min Thura, 33, the team’s P.R. guy (shown above, at far right), some followed through, and some didn’t. “It’s like herding 40 kittens,” he said in July. “Highly mobile kittens with jet packs.”

Several weeks ago, it almost seemed like “National Treasure” wasn’t going to happen. The team’s projected cost was about $14,000, including $5,000 for lighting alone. They weren’t even close to making their $8,000 goal on Kickstarter. The sculpture itself was still mostly an idea. Burning Man only provided five free tickets and a $500 grant, which came in a couple of weeks ago. But in a short period of time, their fortunes improved: They finally raised the $8,000, thanks in part to generous burners and some team members themselves (Kalac and Levin say they personally contributed a few hundred each), and they settled on a way to scale back their ambitions, lowering the total cost of “National Treasure” to about $10,000. “A lot of people say Burning Man is, like, a hippie event,” Thura says, “but just the shit that is going into this project is like, you know, [not something] a potted-out hippie can put together.”

Why not just spend the money on getting there and partying? Why go through all the trouble of building a big sculpture and transporting it out to nowhereland? “I think it’s important just to show that there is this burner community in D.C. already, and that we want to participate, show that we’re there and that we’re established here,” says Kalac. At Burning Man, West Coasters rule. People from around here, it seems, make up a small but dedicated minority. “I think if you looked at [Burning Man] demographically...the D.C. number is quite small comparatively,” says David Fogel, founder of Eighty Eight DC, which has run a theme camp at the festival for five years. “But it’s like when we go out there and people stumble upon our camp, they’re like, ‘Oh wow, you’re from D.C.? And you did all this?’”

It’s hard to say how many D.C.-area residents will attend Burning Man this week. But among those who do go, it’s a safe bet that a lot of them do it on the downlow. Years of media screeching about the nudity and drug use at Burning Man have sealed its mainstream reputation as a week-long acid trip; even some members of Kalac’s team don’t want their names on the “National Treasure” website, just in case their employers start Googling. Thura, a three-time burner and a self-identified “Beltway bandit” who lives in Columbia, Md., initially kept his Black Rock City voyages secret from his company. “The first year, I just told ’em I was going camping in the desert,” he says. He eventually confided in a co-worker, who turned around and blabbed to the rest of the office. “My boss came up to me and he was like, ‘Min, I didn’t think you were the type of guy to own a bong.’”

* * *

“If you want to go to Burning Man and find naked hippies doing drugs and partying in the desert, you will find it,” says Debbi Arseneaux, 34, a D.C.-based theater artist. “But that’s not why I go back year after year, and that’s not why I connected to it in my hometown.” Arseneaux is a regular burner and one of three official Burning Man regional contacts in town. She’s responsible for facilitating communication between Burning Man HQ and the local scene, as well as coordinating burner happenings like salons and happy hours. Over the years, she’s borne witness to the community’s astonishing growth: Since her first trip to the playa in 2004, says Arseneaux, the D.C. network has ballooned from maybe a few dozen semiactive burners to email lists and Facebook groups used by hundreds, if not thousands, of Burning Man enthusiasts.

The Mid-Atlantic has its own miniature Burning Man: Playa Del Fuego, a Burning Man-sanctioned “regional burn” that takes place over Memorial and Columbus Day weekends on a plot of land owned by the Vietnam Veterans Motorcycle Club of Delaware. Capped at 1,200 tickets, it always sells out. There’s a group called District Burners that does a party or two each year and an occasional night at Looking Glass Lounge in Petworth. Figment D.C., a festival scheduled for Sept. 29 at Yards Park, is a local outgrowth of a national network of arts events that subscribe to the 10 principles of Burning Man. Mischief, a burner-oriented group, co-hosted a party called Intergalactic Speakeasy at the Warehouse in Northeast this month. The theme was future-1920s; it mandated that “all cigar- and pipe-smoking must be done outside on the balcony, with pinky fingers raised.”

Such local events are a refuge for burners repelled by the increasing expense of attending actual Burning Man. While commerce is banned at the festival itself—inside its barriers, goods can only be “gifted”—the cost to attend is still outrageous. Ticket prices range from $160 to $420. Outfitting yourself for a week in the desert, where there are no grocery stores or vending of any kind (except for ice), requires ample planning and a generous budget. Fogel has gone to Burning Man five times, including this year. He tells noobs to budget between $1,000 and $1,200 for the whole week. That doesn’t include airfare.

In Black Rock City this year, it’s likely there will be a lot of well-off software engineers hanging around, being uncool, trying to get laid by twentysomething yoga instructors. In recent years, Burning Man has been criticized as a playground for the rich. But regulars say spend the money and find out for yourself. “Burning Man is worth getting another credit card for,” says Fogel. “Go $1,200 in debt. And if you get upset about it, you can come yell at me. But I have a feeling you’d be coming up to me and kissing me instead.”

Photo 1: Lizzy Unger, Kelly Kalac, and Min Thura

Photo 2: Zachary Bennett, Lizzy Unger, Amanda Scott (rear), Kelly Kalac, and Min Thura

Photos by Darrow Montgomery

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  • Doug T.

    Great article! I've been involved in the DC burner community for just a couple of years and it's been totally inspiring. 2009 was my first year... 2010 I was funded by BM for $15K for an art project that consumed my whole summer and included 120 different volunteers... 2011 found me in Reno and the desert for three full months helping build and embellish the largest temporary wooden structure in the world. This year... you can call me a slacker... just going to enjoy... but I have big ambitions for coming years.

    What's Burning Man? It depends on you... but what I came away with way was the fundamental concept that Anyone can do Anything. Small or large... lame or insane... you can let your imagination and talents run free and wild. WhatEVER you do will be appreciated and applauded.

  • BrewHo

    Compliments on a good article, avoiding the sensationalism that so often pervades reports about Burning Man.
    I sometimes describe the event as a self-organizing community of self-selected anarchists. That has to be understood in the context that we transport everything we need to survive in a hostile environment (Nevada's high desert in August): food, water and shelter to withstand triple digit daytime heat, night temperatures that sometimes leave a trace of frost, sixty-plus MPH wind, brief but torrential downpours, a dry alkali lakebed that is devoid of any trace of life at all, baked clay that turns to talcum-fine dust, wind blown dust storms producing whiteouts with visibility down to six or eight feet. I have personally experienced everything on that list in half a dozen Burns. To survive and play in those conditions with style and elegance is exhilarating. To witness fifty thousand free spirits cooperate to do so because they want to make it work, not because anyone made them do it, is even more uplifting.
    There is a deep spiritual element that pervades the event. It's hard to put into words, and everyone uses different language to describe it. It is impossible not to recognize it when at the Temple Burn a crowd of twenty or thirty thousand becomes so reverent and absolutely silent that there is nothing to be heard but the flames hundreds of yards away, and if someone starts making noise the rest of the crowd shames and hushes them. It is something that cannot be described, it must be experienced.
    Or, simply put, it's a party with 50,000 of your closest unmet friends.
    Welcome home.

  • cathy

    so this is what happens when the basement dwellers come out in to society. interesting...

  • Mario

    Man, this is not the burn I remember. "$1,000 and $1,200 for the whole week." Huh? A sturdy tent and some food really doesn't cost that much. I don;t think I ever spent more than $400 excluding transportaiton but maybe I'm just simple.
    And careful there, Thura. Never underestimate a potted-out hippie. Since you had to go to Kickstarter, you'd think a little humility would be in order. Such is the new breed I guess...

  • Ravenbutterfly

    I have never Made it out to the Desert, but the regional burns and so many local events have been like a second family to me. And everyone is generally so supportive of everyones creativity in whatever form as well as knowing how to get together and have a great time, where everyone is part of the fun...

  • Jessie

    Just back from my third year at Burning Man, moving from a virgin to a team lead to a camp leader of the More Carrots, a group that provides a farmers market gifting fresh produce and ready-to-eat wholesome goodness on the playa. I love-love-love the event in the desert, with its community, vibe and ecosystem unlike anything else on the planet, and I very much appreciate the local scene as well. Big ups to Debbie Arsenaux, Darrell Duane and the regional reps who help us ground to the international and local community alike.

    Burning Man is changing. Moving away from the Mad Max world so familiar to GenXers and moving toward shared infrastructure, buildings that last (are not just burned at the end of the week), year-round storage, safety and structure ... a world in which Millennials (and the environment we all naturally create for them) makes more sense.