The Early Years: Reflections on Interactive Performance

Marian Goodell, destined to become a Burning Man board member, participated by producing one ambitious cult. Her installation was The Cult of Barbie. It formed a maze hung with dozens of mirrors. A giant Barbie statue loomed above it. This environment was collaboratively created by at least forty women, painted an alarming shade of pink, and guarded by men who chose to play the role of Barbie’s ever-faithful boyfriend, Ken. Upon arriving at the center of the maze, participants encountered an 8-foot square cubicle. Access to this secret chamber was obtained by inserting one’s face into an oval aperture. The other side of each partition was elaborately painted and decorated, framing the countenances of participants — much like an old-fashioned carnival attraction.

Now, however, instead of the Strong Man, the Pirate or the Southern Belle, participants beheld various aspects of their inner Barbie. These images included the Black Pope Barbie, the Hispanic Lion Tamer Barbie, and the Indian Kali Barbie. Upon exiting the maze, participants were confronted by Sister Dana and Sister Kitty, two members of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence — a renowned all-gay performance troupe. Perennially clad in nun’s habits, they were a San Francisco institution. Their role was to accost participants and ask them, “What does Barbie mean to you?” If people could supply an answer to this probing question, they were awarded a conventional Barbie necklace and stamped with a temporary tattoo. This image merged the features of a Neolithic fertility goddess with her blonder, blander and incredibly thin-waisted Yankee counterpart. As silly as this might appear, The Temple of Barbie actually induced strong, even primal reactions among participants, especially women. It seemed to tap into a vein of pre-pubescent angst.

The evening ended with a performance of the Burning Man Mythos. We had hung Burning Man high up among the rafters in a side hall of the SOMARTS complex, positioning it horizontally. At one end of this long gallery, we suspended a performer, Marlo Riley, in an enormous 18-foot high hoop skirt. She looked for all the world like a Minoan fertility goddess. A zip line attached to a concealed harness allowed her to glide smoothly forward as she and another singer, Steffanos Xantudakis, performed a love duet. When she arrived beneath the Man, we lowered her to the floor, her skirt billowing forward. Then, aided by hydraulics, we slowly lowered Burning Man in what is best described as the missionary position. As I recall, we raised and lowered him several times. The song she now sang was ecstatic.

The next phase of performance began when the flexible hoop of her capacious skirt, composed of PVC, was transformed into the arch of a curtained proscenium. Throughout the night, leotard-clad performers wearing papier maché sperm helmets had milled about amid the audience. Now, by a prearranged signal, they excitedly gathered in a group in front of this impromptu stage as an Afro-American Blues singer, Stephanie, emerged from behind the curtain. She was the Egg and undoubtedly the most talented performer in the entire ensemble. Soulfully, she belted out a song concerning her pursuit of one good man. Everything about Stephanie was huge. She was big bodied and equipped with an enormous voice (she had also played Aunt Jemima as part of the desert HELCO performance). As her ballad concluded, the troupe of sperm became more agitated. They darted toward the curtain, but were repelled by a group of Vestal Virgins attired in cheerful polka dot summer dresses.

Finally, one of the sperm cells, Marty Walker — certainly the scrawniest, but by far the most enthusiastic member of the troupe — decisively stepped forward. He was clad in a blue robe and sported boxing gloves. As the theme music from the movie Rocky suddenly issued from the sound system, he made a desperate dash, flinging himself into Stephanie’s outstretched arms. She cradled him like a baby as he joyfully twiddled his arms and legs. Then, hoisting him over her shoulder like a sack of bran, she disappeared behind the curtain. All of this was choreographed by Crimson Rose (she even served as seamstress and constructed Margo’s outsized skirt). Harley Dubois, another Burning Man board member, was the general stage manager for this show and the HELCO performance at SOMARTS in 1996.

about this photoFlashing lights and sonorous rumblings now issued from the swathings of the womb-like chamber, and a lone Child, the issue of this mating dance, emerged. It was Melissa, a diminutive singer with a carrying voice. She sidled shyly forward, sang her short and plaintive song and was then hoisted atop a litter and carried out of the room. This created a procession that drew the audience with it. It wound its way along an alley that led back to the main exhibition space of the building. The evening finally ended with a solo delivered by Melissa from atop the crest of Gaia’s pyramid. Meanwhile, Flash and I were busy underneath this structure wrangling great bunches of white balloons that trailed silvery streamers. We were accompanied in this effort by a pig, the companion of a volunteer. The pig’s name now eludes me, but I remember that she wore a bright blue ribbon. As the Child finished singing, we released these balloons, watching them swim upward into the rafters.

This show was a summary of all that we had learned. We were attempting to find ways to bring the desert home. We pushed the envelope of ordinary space, we invented interactive strategies, we worked at an extraordinary scale, we used mobile and processional elements, and we tried to create a compelling story that engaged our audience in role playing. When people speak about the good old days of Burning Man, they are often referring to renegade antics with guns and speeding vehicles – pranks they may have heard of second hand. But when we, Burning Man’s board members, reminisce, we are far more likely to talk about the shows we did at home and the intense sense of camaraderie these amateur theatricals awakened in us. Harley, Crimson, Will and I were personally involved in nearly every aspect of their creation. Crimson Rose and myself, I suppose, are the lucky ones and still do art. She orchestrates the burn and directs its fire performers, and I author and create our annual art theme, closely collaborating with Rod Garrett, our chief architectural designer, and with many other folks who help to engineer and build the Man’s pavilion.

Since then, several annual art themes have been orchestrated in the Black Rock Desert using many of the methods we invented in the early years. The Wheel of Time, produced in 1999, traced cardinal points upon the face of an imaginary clock. In one night of performance, participants progressed around it. The Body, in 2000, convened a processional space along a mile-long spine bracketed by elevated laser beams, created by Russell Wilcox. These limned the outline of our logo overhead. The Floating World, a maritime theme in 2002, employed a citywide treasure hunt for doubloons. This was a variant of the tokens that I’d first employed in our city performances. The dialogue between the country and the town had come full circle. What we’d discovered in the wilderness, we’d recreated in the city; what we invented for our urban shows, now helped supply the story of a desert theme.