(In an effort to bridge the gap between the coasts & inject some positivity around these parts, I’m going to be taking time to interview some of my favorite East Coast burners about the Burn & their experiences on-and-off playa. I’ll be talking to luminaries, logistics gurus, producers & minor celebrities in the Burner community here on the East Coast. Asking them about a number of things, but most importantly, why they burn.) By Terry Gotham
1. How long have you been burning & what originally motivated you to make the pilgrimage?
Ryan: This past year was my 5th consecutive year. What originally motivated me? It all started when I went to go help with a DiSORIENT party back in 2010 I would say. I was going to New York City all the time on a bus, every weekend I’d ask my friend what sort of events were going on. He was like”You should go to this DiSORIENT party, they’re these like, burner people, and they need help setting up their party” and I was sort of into that at the time. I fell in love with the vibe of the whole Burner scene through that. In 2011, I had a brother-in-law/veteran burner of maybe 7 years? He messaged me on Facebook being like “Burning Man tickets are on sale you should buy one. If you can’t go, just sell it.” So that’s what I did. From there I managed to find friends who were going and coordinate with them.
Erika: I have only been one year. I went because of Ryan, but I did say when I was a teenager that I would always go when I turned 25. And I’m 25 this year, so I decided to go.
2. Do you have default world jobs? How do you earn the requisite funds/time off to make it happen?
Erika: I do have a default world job, it’s not the most default of all jobs, but it pays the bills & it paid for me to go to Burning Man.
Ryan: I work as a software developer at a big video company. At night I do music production & freelance mastering.
3. Ryan, As Escher Beat & 23 (previously) you’ve made a lot of forward-looking music, did you spin at Burning Man at all? This was my biggest year for DJ sets. I had 7 sets scheduled, I didn’t get to play all of them. But I also ended up getting an extra set in there. I played a few different varieties of sets, I played sets with my original music, which is more bass oriented. I got to play one chill out sunrise set. And, 1 set where I was attempting to play the worst set that Burning Man has ever heard.
4. Erika, did you perform anywhere on playa? How do you balance your day job & night interests? My only artistic endeavor, I decided to go out on the playa and do a rope scene with a shibari rope set that Ryan brought. We took it out onto deep playa during the sunset and it was a really beautiful scene. We created an installation using myself on the playa. This was my first year, I didn’t really have much to contribute. If there was anything I could contribute, it was that.
5. Did you have any serious complaints about your Burn this year? Was there anything you think went even better than you anticipated?
Erika: Just being there kind of blows your expectations away. It was so much to take in & it’s such a vast experience that you can’t really describe it other than using first hand experience. The only complaint I have is something that can’t really be rectified because it’s the environment. You just have to make due with what’s there and tough it out. You can complain, but that’s really all that there is to get through it, complaining.
Ryan: Similar to that, I don’t really have complaints. I don’t have overarching positivity or negativity towards the event this year. I think,you know “It was another year at Burning Man.” There’s always criticisms to have. If you don’t have criticisms about anything you participated in, I assume you haven’t necessarily reached the depth of experience of that particular endeavor. There was good times, there was bad times. I know a lot of people had complaints this year about a bunch of things, but for the most part, I had a pretty solid burn.
6. Do you feel Burning Man has a problem with commodification or the so-called plug & play camps? Ryan: I think Burning Man has a problem with commodification. Although, when it comes to plug & play camps, I am sort of torn. At the core, they do sort of violate the principles of Burning Man. There are some arguments as to why they should be there, but ultimately, I don’t mind that they’re there because I have seldom run into someone who even seems like a turnkey person. I’ve never seen a turnkey camp myself. I’d estimate that these people make up less than 5% of the city of 60,000 people. I guess there’s room for them there. When it comes to commodification though, I think Burning Man in general does have problems. My friend Kevin Bracken, likes to say “Burning Man: Sponsored By Wal-Mart.” There’s other problems with commodification, but it’s a question of how far you want to go. I read an article a year ago, that was like “How far into radical self-reliance do you really want to go?” Like, did you sew the clothes on your back, did you make the car you drove here? I think, given the circumstances, it’s not nearly as bad it could be. I think that Burning Man has done a pretty good job of balancing it.
Erika: And I think the larger it gets, the more commodification tends to occur.
Ryan: It’s hard to avoid.
7. Have you been to any regional burns or other more retail-oriented festivals? If so, how do they compare to Burning Man in your opinion? Erika: I’ve been to regional burns. I went to PEX Costa Rica this year. That was an amazing experience. If I had to compare it to a typical festival that I had been to, for example Electric Daisy Carnival, I would say those pale in comparison to a regional burn. It kind of speaks for itself if you’ve ever been to either of them.
Ryan: I was with her at PEX Costa Rica. I haven’t been to any regional burns, although I’ve been pretty close to going to a couple of them. Due to mostly logistical reasons I haven’t been able to go. But PEX Costa Rica is a bit different than your typical regional burn, it’s more a vacation for people who run a regional burn, I’d say. You go down to Costa Rica, you rent hotels for the most part. Not like, hotel hotels, they’re rural hotel kind of things. You just kind of hang out and relax. We shot some shibari there, that’s where I got the footage for my pirate song. Bringing it back to retail festivals, the last retail festival I went to was the last Starscape. That was one of the worst festival experiences of my life. At the time I was really into my previous music project. Due to some friends who were playing I managed to get backstage passes. And the whole time, all I could think was “Thank God I have backstage passes,” because every time I was out of the backstage, I just felt like I was in a mess of people who didn’t have control over their bodies. It was just a constant stream of people and awful music. That is what really solidified to me, that I was really done with festivals. I had enjoyed Starscape in the past, but I also, at that time, had a much less discerning palatte & I was much younger. So how does it compare to the Burn? It’s a totally different experience. Burning Man is about participation. Even starting from where I began (volunteering to help DiSORIENT) I’ve been about participation That whole participation thing is what called me.
8. If there was one mistaken notion people have about Burning Man, what would it be?
Erika: That it’s easy.
Ryan: Yeaaa. I would say, I feel like a lot of people get a sliver of perception of the festival & then judge the entire festival based on that. And it’s different for everyone. Everyone hears one thin & thinks the whoel festival is like that. And doesn’t realize that it’s literally an entire city. It’s be like commenting on New York City based on one subculture within it. When in reality, Burning Man has a lot for everyone and a lot of different things. Even within it, there’s a lot of contention between the groups. It’s hard for people who haven’t been there to criticize it, although I don’t it’s fair to say that they can’t criticize it. I feel like, a lot of people get things wrong because they only get a shadow of Burning Man instead of the whole picture.
9. Will you be attending again next year? If not, why not?
Ryan: As far I’m concerned now, I will not be attending next year. That’s not for any bad reason, mostly because this is my 5th consecutive year in a row. Basically, every August, summer is my favorite time & August is the last month you can enjoy summer. So every August I just spend stressing out & not enjoying the summer. It’s a necessary part of the journey if you have something big to contribute to the Burn. I’d just like to take a year off and save money and not stress out for once.
Erika: I’m not going next year because the camp that I would be staying with is not going either. I’d like to participate in other things going on that month, for example Harvest Festival in Toronto which is occurring at the same time. And Ryan’s not going, and it’s almost necessary to have his company at the burn.
Ryan: How’s that for radical self-reliance?
10. Favorite moment of Burning Man 2015?
Erika: Riding my bike onto deep playa & experiencing the beautiful art installations & events out there.
Ryan: Was my sunrise set the morning after that? Very similar moment in time after that, was my sunrise set at a camp called Automatic Subconscious. They have one of the tallest domes on playa and along the top there’s this hammock-like netting, where people can lay and chill out and they can see all across Burning Man to the sunrise. And I played the chill out sunrise set, so I can only imagine what it’d be like to be on top of that dome during that set. Because, the sunrise down there (the DJ booth) was beautiful enough. Erika was up there with a bunch of people and a lot of people were saying it was the best sunrise of their lives. so it feels really good to be able to contribute to that, because I feel like I’ve had so many amazing sunrises myself. So it’s nice to be able to give that back.