I'm sure a lot of people think of Burning Man as a big mindless party, but a more accurate (albeit only slightly less simplistic) account would have it as a rave in an art museum. The playa would be nothing without the art installations dotting the landscape (to say nothing of the art people wear and ride and drive, etc.). Here are a few of my favorites. Award for Best...
Boys' Toys: Big Rig Jig
Explaining the geometry of this one is a bit tricky so I'll just let you look at the picture. Yes, those are 18-wheeler tanker trucks stuck together and planted in the desert. You can see people climbing on them, but what you can't see is people climbing IN them. The inside is a jungle gym filled with fake vines, and you could go all the way to the top. When I reached the tip, I found one of the builders lounging on pillows sans clothing. He looked like he'd been there a while and asked if anyone had any games to play. Devoid of Pictionary, we thumb wrestled. (Here's a video and an article about the Jig.) [image source]
This one elicited more simultaneous "Holy shit!"s from spectators than any other installation (non-explosion division). The 24-foot-tall zoetrope had 30 arms, each with an ape-type creature and snake in slightly varying positions. At night, strobe lights would start up, the device would begin spinning rapidly, and then when its velocity hit that sweet spot, the planets aligned. Suddenly we were looking up at 30 monkeys smoothly swinging from branch to branch, as serpents slithered down and placed apples in their mouths. There are so many metaphors mixed up in this thing I can't even stand it. (Or can, and love it. Hooray for Burning Man!) [image source]
Bang for the Buck: Skyline
At night, from a distance, it was just a line of bright dots stretching into the sky. Easy to miss when in every direction on the horizon you see mushroom clouds of flame. But then you spot it and try to figure out what it is. My first hunch was a big balloon attached to a string with lights, but then it starts to move in weird, snakelike ways. It's not immediately obvious that it's hundreds of balloons, attached 5-6 feet apart, each with its own LED. I watched as other people tried to figure it out too. The artist told me his goal was to make it a mile and a half long. So with just some balloons and LEDs and fishing line, you have a playaful of people staring at the sky and and scratching their heads.
Bang for the 2,000 Gallons of Liquid Propane and Jet Fuel: Crude Awakening
You know they burned the Man (twice). You may even know about the annual Temple burn. But this year they were both outshone by Crude Awakening: a 90-foot tall wooden oil derrick with eight giant metallic worshipers bowing to it. The characters' insides pulsed with their own fire effects [image source], but on Saturday night after an elegant fireworks display we witnessed something truly grand. Just watch this video.
Despite days of anticipation, and a proximity much closer than that of the camera used for that video, Katie, Suzie, and I just couldn't keep our eyes open. It had been a long week, and we were in for a, ahem, crude awakening. [image source]
Use of Ping Pong Balls: Big Round Cubatron
Thousands of changing lights enacting dozens of patterns in a 3D space, from the organic to the formally geometric. You have to watch videos to get the effect of this one. Overheard at Burning Man: "It's like a giant hippie bug zapper!" [image source]