By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
No matter how much helium Lawrence Phipps pumped into his inflatable sheep, he could not get the damn thing to levitate.
It was 1997. Phipps was making his first voyage to the Burning Man Festival, and he had absolutely no idea what he was doing. He'd flown from Denver to Reno to meet up with six friends from San Francisco, then driven 100 miles north, deep into the Nevada desert, armed with a huge helium tank, two inflatable sex dolls (one sheep, one girl), two giant weather balloons and about fifty latex gloves. The plan was to create a floating world, but the dolls were too heavy. So Phipps attached them to the weather balloons and tethered them with rope. For a moment, he and his friends sat and enjoyed the splendor of their suspended garden, satisfied with their bouquet of floating curiosities.
Suddenly, wicked winds whipped off the mountains that lay to the west, kicking up dust on the ashen-colored stretch of cracked, primordial bedrock known as the Playa. With one mighty gust -- whoosh! -- nearly everything in Phipps's camp blew away: The weather balloons, the sheep and the girl spiraled skyward and were gone. The few remaining latex gloves quickly deflated and sank limply back to the desert floor.
"It lasted for about fifteen minutes," Phipps says, laughing. "We knew almost nothing about Burning Man at that point. I'd read an article about it in Wired, and we'd heard by word of mouth that you were supposed to do something interactive and artful. We had no clue about our environment. It was a disaster, but our neighbors thought we were pretty hilarious."
Two years later, the group returned to Black Rock City, the "mondolopolis" that the Playa transforms into every year over Labor Day weekend. The Burning Man population had swelled to more than 10,000 souls, and the city had become awfully, well, city-like, with street names and a circular, organized layout that linked villages and thematic camps -- temporary, art-ridden habitats with names like Oceania and the Esoteric Order of the Yumi Yoni. Phipps and his crew erected their own theme camp: the Dingo Parlor. This time, they staked it to the earth.
The huge interactive bingo board adorned with papier-mâché sculptures of wild Australian dogs with glowing red eyes was a hit. All week long, people stopped by the parlor to play a few rounds, win prizes and drink beers. Phipps saw every type of specimen in the Burning Man diaspora come through his camp: people caked in dirt and mud, people wearing wigs and costumes, people wearing nothing at all.
"It was a really popular camp," Phipps says, a proud smile on his face. "People really love to play bingo. I had no idea that deviant bingo would appeal to so many people."
When it was all over, the Dingo Parlor burned. Along with the forty-foot-tall Man (the event's namesake) and numerous other art installations, the wild-eyed dogs were set ablaze, creating a huge pyrotechnic display in the black desert sky. In a widely distributed video of the wooden effigy burning, one of the dingoes can be seen in the background, disintegrating amid a sea of flames, drummers and naked flesh.
Phipps is known as the Milkman by his friends, not because of his alabaster hair, but because, as he says, "I'm proud to be a mammal." In Denver, the Milkman is a DJ, a sound-installation artist and a well-known Burning Man veteran, a bona fide Burner. But it took a couple of years for him to really ramp up to the Burning Man experience. Since its beginnings on a small beach in San Francisco in 1985, Burning Man has become the most extravagant, outrageous and dangerous art festival in the world. Nearly everything about the event is hard. Temperatures lick the 100s in the day and drop to the 40s at night. Dust storms and cloudbursts demolish dreams and art projects -- not to mention camping tents and shade structures -- in an instant. There's no running water, no electricity and nothing for sale, just a collective belief in making cool shit and, maybe, torching it.
"People come, and they have these grand notions of what they want to build. When they get out there, the elements always surprise them," Phipps says. "Burning Man, for me, is a dangerous lifestyle obsession; I've been every year since that first year. So I feel like I have a pretty good sense after all these years of what is and is not feasible. But it takes practice."
In Denver, Burners who share Phipps's obsession are a veritable tribe of self-described oddballs and art weirdos -- a community whose creative connective thread radiates all the way from Colorado to the Playa. Though artists from San Francisco dominate the Burning Man community, Colorado Burners make up one of the largest contingents in Black Rock City. In the early days, it was a fire spinner with Denver's longstanding Colorado Fire Tribe who lit the Man. The massive theme village of Disturbia was a Denver hub before it dissolved a few years ago. Now, more than 200 Burners camp with Denver's HeeBeeGeeBee Healers in a sprawling network of tents, where weary desert dwellers show up for yoga, massage and other holistic arts. Every morning, lines 150 deep form in front of the Healers' realm.