Author Wendy Voorsanger performing literary art on the playa. Photo credit: C. Voorsanger.
Burning Man is all about radical self-expression. 50,000 free-spirited “burners,” as they’re called, descend upon the Black Rock Desert in Nevada to create a city: an interaction, art, the performance and ultimately the whole Burning Man experience. Many burners labor all year creating stunning art installations and engineering marvels that sit surreally against the stark and eerie landscape of the playa. Imagine Chitty Chitty Bang Bang inventions on steroids, combined with copious quantities of jet fuel. See El Pulpo Mecanico. All commercialism is banned; creations are strangely random and come from a place deep within the mysterious subconscious. Check out this list of art on the playa.
Playa from a Plane. Photo Credit: C. Voorsanger
Surprisingly, there’s lack of literary presence on the playa. Perhaps the community is too enthralled with the extraordinary visual peculiarities to meditate on the cerebral. Perhaps the loud house music pumping from art cars and daytime raves might be incompatible for reading. Every year a unique Burning Man theme guides camps toward a common launching point for communal offerings. The 2011 theme “Rites of Passage” lent itself to some interesting variations on rites both familiar and fringe, such as beer pong, the Homecoming Dance, getting a tattoo. The theme seemed a perfect platform to riff off literature in some way, “the first draft,” “first reading,” “first rejection,” “first publication,”—rites for all writers. I searched the playa but couldn’t find much in the way of literature, books, words. I’d heard about a creative impromptu slam poetry happening in Buddha Camp at the Lotus Dome—Poetry Slam, a wee bit of poetry and spanking. The description scared me off: This is not some ordinary poetry reading, nor is it your poetry contest with score paddles. But you will be paddled with poetry in this full contact open mic. Curious yet? So are we! Bring a poem, or be a spectator, but stay away if you have a soft tush.
I did stumble upon a few open mic sessions in the Center Camp tent with poetry readings and spoken word performances. One woman set up a 1950’s typewriter and composed poems on the spot with a one word prompts. But really, words were missing from the playa.
Random Trojan Horse (Exploded and burned on Friday night.)
As an enthusiastic newbie burner, I wanted to embrace the Burning Man tenants, but lacked the engineering skills and pyrotechnics license. So, I turned to my own art: literature. I’d created my own radial self expression, writing a chapter of my first novel-in-progress Capturing the Eddy on a Japanese Zentai suit. I’d chosen a Burning Man-appropriate chapter, entitled—A Coated Spirit. The idea wasn’t to publicize my writing, (the novel is far from ready for prime time) but to get burners to pause and read. Meditate on the word. Relish in a beautiful phrase. Ponder the random sensation a sequence of sentences might stir. I wanted to get burners to read a “novel-off-the-page,” if you will. So the second night I pulled on my Zentai suit at sunset and walked out the playa in hopes of inspiring people to read me and enjoy a bit of literature as performance art..
Writing novel-in-progress on Zentai Suit
Turns out, I fit right in as a random object on the playa. I danced and twirled wearing my words, as the sun sank low and dust billowed in the dusk. When darkness oozed around, I joined in a larger dance party and burners caught random words on my back while moving languidly to the thumping beat. “What are you wearing?” one guy asked. “My novel. Wanna read me?” Responses were enthusiastic..
Wearing my words. Photo credit: C. Voorsanger.
.Literature on the Playa. Photo credit: C. Voorsanger.
Later, I caught a ride from an art car taxi through the playa and more people read random strings of words on my shoulders, ankles, and wrists. I’d offered my creation to the Burning Man community and felt fully accepted and appreciated in my participation.
The question I’m left with is why not more literature as performance art at Burning Man? I ask my fellow writers: What ideas do you have for adding more a more literary influence to Black Rock City 2012? I’m thinking of something more worthwhile than a poetry slam with paddles. What about a word labyrinth placed in the desert or signs in a selected solstice sequence that tell a story, or novel chapters embedded in the playa dust discovered randomly? I’d love to hear ideas from you. What say you fellow writers?
Amazing! All these years I’ve been doing student packets and they could have looked like this!
It wouldn’t have looked as good on me. 🙂
Inspiring! Thank you, Wendy.
This is great, Wendy. Brave, creative, wild! I have been wondering about your Burning Man experience ever since you first mentioned it to me last winter. I’m happy that you decided to incorporate your novel into your experience. Very, very cool. Loved the essay and the photos too. Will probably end up landing you a book deal! 🙂
Really?! That’s all I needed to land a book deal? If I’d only know THAT years ago! Ha!…thanks for the kind words Rich. Maybe you and the Missus can join us next year…help with the word labyrinth I’m conjuring up…
I’m in. Do I have to wear hair extensions?
Okay, another comment.
Better than a Kindle!
Perhaps we could talk to someone about productizing/patenting…extra revenue for NC? We could call it the “Novel Suit.”
Wendy, I think it’s awesome that you’re exploring intersections between performance and literature — stepping outside the more typical reading-slam spectrum. Great photos and essay. I can’t wait to see what you come up with next year.
Very cool, Wendy. I’d heard rumors that you were doing something with a word-riddled body suit during our last residency. It’s great to get the story behind it. And I love the idea of bringing more words to Burning Man. The word labyrinth is especially intriguing. I might be up for that — but only if I can wear hair extensions. (I’ll wear Rich’s.)
Ever since residency, I’ve been waiting for this post. Awesome. I love the idea of wearing words. And it’s so easy to read. How long did it take to write the words on the suit?
Wendy, thanks for this glimpse into the Burning Man experience. You look amazing wearing your novel!
Incredible. I’m speechless. And I love the photos, too!
Wish I had seen you at BM. While you have some great shots of you and some .. I would have loved to photographed you too
Here is a link to my work : http://snjacobson.com/BurningMan/
Maybe next year
Amazing photos, LensCap.
@dq Thanks !!
Wow! Your photos are amazing. I especially loved the one of the lamplighters…you captured the ethereal playa glow at dusk..Just magical! Thanks so much for sharing.
THANK YOU! Would you like a disk of all of the images as a slide show .. send me a e-mail to SNJ@snjacobson.com
Wendy, you are such an original!! I love the idea you came up with (wearing your novel) and how wonderful you looked (an extra aesthetic delight) and added to all the good fortune of having a husband able to take such good photos. I hope your observation about the poverty of written arts at the Festival is taken up and starts a whole new deminsion there.
Thanks for sharing this great story–love your photos, too! Will you be stashing away the word suit for the book tour?
Ahhh…interesting idea. Don’t think I’d have the guts to wear it outside of the playa!
Better than I imagined, Wendy. How about submitting for an AWP panel – “Life after the MFA,” or perhaps,
“The 21st century novel?” I was happy to see Taos County (El Prado and Carson) represented on the list of art. I am up for a reunion at Burning Man 2012. As long as we have air conditioning in the RV.
First of all, Wendy, you’re gorgeous in your suit. Would love for us to think of some way to be literary at this year’s Burning Man. I suspect the central issue is literature requires a level of concentration Burning Man in some ways prohibits. Loved your article. Looking forward to reading your novel!
Wendy – loved your writing suit and perspective on burning man. I would keep the intention and it might be the stars for burning man’s future of literature, poetry and words.