Burning Man 2005

Tom Davis

Last updated: November 7, 2005

Our fourth year at Burning Man was wonderful: lots of adventures, good art, and best of all, great campmates. This year I didn't take the camera out too much, so there are fewer photos than usual. You can click on any of the thumbnail images below to obtain a larger version.

Here are some pointers to web pages with some stories and photos from previous Burning Man events. For a discussion of what Burning Man is, go to the 20002 version.
Burning Man, 2002: Text and photos
Burning Man, 2003: A sordid tale
Burning Man, 2003: Best photos
Burning Man, 2004: Text and photos

The Man

As always, "The Man" is at the center of everything, and there is always a major art installation under it. This year, that art was spectacular: The man was mounted high on a platform that could only be accessed by passing through a fairly large maze that was composed of a series of rooms with eight-foot-high walls. When you were on the platform with the man, you could look down into the maze to see other people in it, but those inside the maze had to navigate by themselves.

There were doors between most pairs of rooms, so it was hard to get a long look down any "hall", and in addition, behind some of the doors were turnstyles, each with four exits, so exploring the entire maze took a long time. Finally, some of the doors were approximately half-circles which were sometimes blocked, but could be rotated open. But when you rotated one door open, it closed another door in another part of the maze. Beautiful!

Each of the rooms in the maze contained a different art project and amazingly, most of them worked most of the time. Almost all were interactive, to one degree or another. Here's a partial list of some things that could be found in rooms in the maze:

In past years, The Man was fixed, "looking" at 6 o'clock. This year he was on a platform that was supposed to pivot, but I think there must have been problems with the mechanism: it was never working when I was there, and toward the end, he was bolted in place. Early in the week, I found it very disturbing not to be able to look at The Man for orientation, since I never knew in exactly which direction he was looking.

One thing that was sort of "exciting", at least for anyone with a little bit of self-preservation instinct, was to look at the maze from the platform with The Man and to wonder what would happen if there were a fire. Of course everything is built of the most flammable possible stuff so that there will be a tremendous fire on Saturday night. It wasn't really hard to find your way out of the maze, but in a fire things would have been exciting. There were always a few Black Rock City Rangers stationed at The Man to make sure that nobody was smoking. And there were a couple of fire extinguishers inside the maze: those were a total joke!

The actual burn on Saturday night (of which I have no photos: I didn't take my camera that night) was spectacular. In fact, I suspect that the fire was quite a bit more spectacular than the designers intended. In previous years, the fireworks that fill the structure tend to go off for 10 or 15 minutes after the fire starts, as the flames gradually reach them. This year within just a few minutes, they all seemed to go off at once. You could feel the ground shake, and it was the most fireworks I've ever seen in the air at the same time. Also, The Man fell down in about 10 minutes as opposed to about 20 in previous years.

Head Games

This year, our group did not set up the Desert Nose; we decided to have artwork that was easier to build. It took basically two full days to set up the Nose, and a long time to take it down at the end.

This year, Burning Man's 2005 Art Theme was "Psyche: the Conscious, the Subconscious and the Unconscious". We figured it could mean the brain, and went with that. Our project was a big geodesic dome that we called the "Head Games Dome", and it was filled with objects that played games with your head. I built some giant versions of standard mathematical puzzles like pentominoes, tangrams, and soma cubes, where the tile size, or block size was on the order of a foot. The pentominoes and tangrams weren't particularly popular, perhaps because they were in a corner of the dome.

Here I am, with the pentominos on the left and with the tangrams on the right. It's pretty obvious that these photos were taken before going to burning man: just look at how clean they are.

Howard, the camp leader, built the most-used toy, sort of maze through which a ball was rolled to get from a start position to the exit, where it dropped through the floor. It was suspended from the center of the dome, and up to perhaps eight people controlled the motion of the ball by lifting an lowering their corner of the puzzle.

In the image on the left you can see the maze in operation at night, lit only by the UV lights (which is why the photo is so blurry). In the background you can see my painted soma cubes stacked up. If you look closely at the maze, it is structured so that it looks like a miniature map of the Burning Man encampment.

Chris, who also built the "MEZ screen" provided a bunch of enlarged images of mostly standard optical illusions that he'd obtained on the net. Follow the link to get a description of the MEZ screen: it's difficult to explain in a few words, but was vastly popular at night. The "best" illusion is the one to the right. None of the males in the camp were ever able to see the boat.

The "Blind" Priest

Staying in a camp near us was a "blind" priest whose duty it was to save unclean women. With all the filth and playa dust, there were plenty of those. In these photos, the priest is helping one of them to scrub herself in a shower, and due to what can only be ascribed to a miracle, he's managed to point his camera in exactly the right way in the other photo. The priest is from the Sacred Disorder of the Enigmata.

Performance Art

There was a lot of nice performance art on the playa this year. Here are a few of my favorites.

The Firebird

We didn't figure out this sculpture until the second time we saw it. The flaming metal structures are basically the ribs of a giant bird, which is totally obvious as soon as you see the head. I think that the first time we were there, it was so crowded that we never walked as far as the head.

The fire from the inner ribs was controlled by volunteers, and of course most of them were interested in as much fire as possible. It got very hot if you were standing nearby. To add to the apparent (and possibly real) danger associated with the sculpture, inside the ribs was a huge seating area made of highly flammable logs. Very nice!

Due to the intense heat, this was a pretty popular site on two of the nights when it was particularly cold outside. The folks running it said that they were going through around 400 gallons of propane every night, so it's not surprising that it was a pretty warm place to stand.

I just (November 7, 2005) got an email from one of the folks who worked on this artwork and who stumbled across this web page. The official name is not "Firebird", but "Angel of the Apocalypse" and the official web page about it is here. And here are some additional photos, whose background image is an amazing aereal shot of the sculpture on fire. She told me that my fuel consumption estimates weren't bad: for 5 days of fire, they burned 1365 gallons of propane and 700 of kerosene. That's 2065 total gallons, which, when divided by 5 days, gives 413 gallons per day!

Dance, Dance Immolation!

Unfortunately, I don't have any photos of this, but they'd look similar to the photo of the "Firebird", above, with a couple of major differences.

There's an arcade game that's available in a home version as well, I think, that's called "Dance, Dance Revolution". It consists of a set of foot pedals hooked to a computer, and you play it by dancing such that your feet hit the correct pedals at the correct time. Dance music is played, and on the screen you can see instructions for which pedals you're supposed to hit with your feet, so it basically gets you to dance. You can choose fast or slow music, and the required dance can be simple or complicated, so it's easy to make versions at any level of difficulty.

When you step on the correct pedals, the machine encourages you: "Very good!" "Great job!", and so on. If you screw up, a buzzer sounds.

The Burning Man version was almost the same. The only major difference was that you had to wear a head-to-toe aluminized fire suit, and when you missed a step, you were blasted by a flame-thrower. Now normally, when people go to see dance events, they go to see the best possible dancers. At this event, however, the crowd always thoroughly enjoyed the worst possibile dancers.

The Parasol Man

One morning Greg and I were exploring artwork in the deep playa when we encountered a man carrying a parasol that he insisted on using to shade us. What a great service! I liked the image made by viewing the sun directly through the parasol's material.

Drunken Driving

Well, driving a bicycle, that is.

On about Thursday night, we noticed that we had far too much alcohol left, and didn't want to take any of it home, so a group of folks in my camp set to work. We drank a full half-gallon of mixed margaritas, then finished another bottle that was some weird mixture of rum and coconut flavoring, and then went out across the playa on bicycles to a bar on the opposite end. (Our camp was in the 3:00 o'clock plaza; the bar was in the 9:00 o'clock plaza.) We were moderately snockered when we started.

We walked up to the bar, and the bartender's first question was, "Do you want to get fucked?" After the obvious affirmative answer, he poured us drinks, "flaming blue fucks", which consisted of a hefty shot of 151 proof rum, colored with blue curacao, and then set on fire. After a couple of those, we were more than just "moderately snockered", and started the bicycle ride back home. I told Howard, the guy I was riding with, "Wow! This is only the second time in my life that I've ridden a bike while I was roaring drunk." He asked me, "When was the first time?" My answer: "Last night!"

The Rock Sculpture

Inside the Esplanade, but between Center Camp and The Man was a massive sculpture made of three huge rocks, hanging in the air. A rope was attached to each, so that by pulling on the ropes, the rocks could be made to rotate. Once they were moving, of course, it was hard to stop them, so people tended to swing on the ropes trying various acrobatic moves while hanging from the bottom of a spinning rock. I can't imagine that there weren't a fair number of minor injuries that could be attributed to this structure.

In the image on the right, you can see a person dressed completely in black sitting on one of the rocks as the sculpture turns. I am not sure at all how he got there.

The official name of the sculpture is "Collosus".

The Machine

This was a huge undertaking. The machine consisted of a huge central structure surrounded by three smaller structures of which two can easily be seen in the image on the right. Each of the smaller structures contained a turnstyle which could be powered by up to eight people.

As the people marched around the turnstyles, huge bands powered a complicated set of gears that turned the structure on the top of the machine itself. You could climb up a latter and sit on that piece and be gradually turned by the people below. It's not hard to judge the size of the machine itself by looking at the turnstyles inside the smaller structures. I'd guess the large part was 45 or 50 feet tall.

Near the end of the week (I forget if it was Thursday or Friday) the machine was to be torn down. It was built in such a way that the whole thing would fall apart if three pins were pulled out. On the night of the destruction, the machine was surrounded by hundreds of people and huge ropes were attached to the pins. People pulled rhythmically on the ropes for about a half hour with absolutely no effect: apparently the designers had underestimated the total weight or overestimated the strength of a crowd of crazed burners.

Anyway, after a half hour of failure, they decided that it was hopeless to pull it down with just people power, so a giant DPW (Department of Public Works) truck with a huge winch was attached to one of the ropes and it started to tug. But still, no luck: the structure was too heavy for that. After some consultation, they decided that maybe the truck should pull from a different direction, and finally after moving the truck, the winch was capable of pulling out the pin, but the machine, instead of falling apart, only tilted slightly in the direction of the missing pin.

But it was clear that this tiny tilt was enough to unweight the other two pins, and huge gangs of human volunteers started tugging on the ropes connected to the other two pins and within a minute or two, they managed to pull out the remaining pins, and the machine, as advertised, collapsed.

After the above was written, a member of the DPW read it, and clarified a lot of things I hadn't known. One of the reasons it was difficult to pull down is that two of the ropes broke! After our wait for the collapse, the machine only partially came down, compared with what the designers wanted. The DPW had to work for hours and hours to demolish it to a state where it was safe to approach.

In addition, the machine was supposed to have 8 "wings", but only four got installed in time. As people turned the turnstyle, the wings were supposed to rise up. It was like many Burning Man projects: only partially successful.

The Tower

A nice sculpture that included a ladder inside so you could climb to the top and sit inside the metal sphere at the top.


This was one of the best this year. The horses were made of rebar and old tires. Beautifully done!

French Maid Parade

This year, as in past years, there was a parade for anyone who "happened" to have a french maid costume. Also, as usual, a significant number of the maids were male. Here they are, gathered for a photo before the parade.

During the parade, they used their dusters to clean things up. One of the first things they did was to head from their gathering place out to visit Dicky. Of course as they started to walk, a woman in one of the camps they passed started yelling at them: "Come back here and clean this camp up! It's a God-awful mess! And there are no mints on the pillows!"

Mother and Child

This was a very nice sculpture, too. It consisted of massive steel structures whose size can be seen by comparing it to the building in the background of the the image on the right. Behind the mother and child were a series of huge footprints on the playa, which, in the evenings, were filled with burning water. On the right, you can also see water pouring from the left hand of the mother. This one was great both in daylight and at night.

A closeup of the child's head and torso appears in the image on the left.

The official name was "The Passage". It is now on exhibit at the Embaracerdo in San Francisco.

Smoke Rings

This was a pretty simple device: a tube into which was poured a couple of quarts of dirty gasoline mixed with transmission fluid so that it'd burn very black. Then a chamber under the tube was filled with compressed propane, and when the pressure was suddenly released, the propane-propelled gasoline mixture was ejected out the top of the tube where a flaming "pilot light" ignited the whole mess. Of course the rapid upward movement through a circular hole at the top of the pipe produced a great vortex ring, which was often visible for 10 or 15 minutes, if there wasn't any wind. In this particular animated GIF file, the ring was fired off just as a wedding nearby was completed, so the gift of the smoke-ring man to the bride and groom was a giant wedding ring.

The individual frames in the animated GIF were taken about 1/5 second apart.

Want to send me mail? Click here: tomrdavis@earthlink.net.

Return to my home page.