Heaven’s gate meets Dante’s Inferno in the desert
September 4, 2004
BLACK ROCK DESERT – Bhak Tivedanta created an orange blob that literally and figuratively sucks in spectators at this year’s Burning Man, lifting them out of the audience and onto the stage to become part of the amoeba-like creature.
Tivedanta, a Vancouver, British Columbia performance artist with an obsession for orange, has one of the most successful of dozens of improvisational acts on 10 stages built into the base of the iconic Burning Man figure.
Tivedanta’s “costume” is a stretchy, orange fabric sphere that takes on an amoeba-like form when filled with a half-dozen or so spectators.
“At first I was really scared, then it felt really cool to be pulled into the performance art,” said Maria Propp, 21, of Madison, Wis. “That’s what Burning Man is all about – participation.”
Tivedanta, who calls his creature “Blobby,” said, “I noticed I could feed him people and it adopts their personalities.”
Alexis McDonough Pope, 25, of Portland, Ore., called the experience “very liberating – formless identity is awesome.”
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The annual fantasy world that is Burning Man grew out of San Francisco’s bohemian street theater nearly 20 years ago. A small group of artists and spectators spontaneously burned an eight-foot wooden figure on a Bay area beach, and the idea literally caught fire.
Into the platform that supports the now-giant Burning Man, organizers built 10 small theaters backed by high-resolution photographs of otherworldly landscapes.
“This is off-, off-, off-, off-, off-, off-Broadway. In fact, it’s Off-Planet Theater is what we call it,” said Larry Harvey, a Burning Man founder who helped design this year’s layout. Participants in each theater were told to “create a vision of another world, just like a diorama of natural history – but these are of another planet. We asked them to make these worlds come alive for several hours.”
With varying degrees of success, participants were asked to develop simple rules that would govern behavior on their planet, create costumes or makeup for their breed of alien, and keep it simple enough that spectators could be enticed to join the spontaneous improvisational theater.
On one stage a large bald man was fondling a half-clad woman; nearby a monked-cowled oracle debated the limits of freedom. On a third state, a woman in a pink spangled minidress sang audience requests.
The interactive stages are literally and figuratively at the center of Black Rock City, which appears for a fleeting week each year around the Burning Man figure.
The festival culminates in the torching of the wooden icon after dark Saturday.
Organizers drew this year’s theme, Vault of Heaven, from early concepts of the celestial order from the ancient Babylonians, Egyptians, Chinese and biblical Genesis account of the creation of the universe.
Streets were laid out in concentric circles around the central figure, and named after the planets of the solar system. The Burning Man was built atop a platform constructed to resemble a classic domed observatory.
The 400-square-mile desert setting is so vast and remote from light pollution that organizers note it is one of the few places in the nation where the full spiral of the Milky Way may be visible.
Participants beamed messages to the heavens all week, focusing a laser beam at distant stars and galaxies from a giant metal cylinder.
So far, there’s been no reply.