There’s an empty space in my oversized closet, the type of closet that New Yorkers joke could be rented out as a room of its own. This luxurious walk-in however has a purpose, however. It caters to a hobby of mine – no, not shopping: the intimate art of costuming. Today, the void in my closet seems conspicuous. Its proper contents, six crates of costumes, are still en route, returning from the heart of the Nevada desert.
I am a “costumista:” one who collects, creates and wears costumes as a creative outlet. Though there are people who do this as a profession, for me it is a hobby and a pleasure. I use costuming to stretch the elasticity of my creative self and as an excuse to mingle and collaborate with other creative beings.
Burning Man, the art festival that leaves all others in the dust, has steadily fueled my passion for costuming, fanned the flames of my creative inspirations and fundamentally changed my life over the past six years. After hearing about it in through the grapevine, I finally took the plunge and embarked on a weeklong adventure to this temporary magical metropolis. I have been going back ever since.
However just as Rome was not built in a day, neither is the stupefying grandeur of Burning Man. Also known as Black Rock City due to its location in the heart of the Black Rock Desert, this “city” is a conglomerate of camps and villages prepared all around the country as backyard projects workshops and rooftops. The creation of these projects, from initial imaginative sparks to their full-blown execution drives the coming together of creative community, dissolving the isolation that modern life can easily impose.
For example, early this past summer I had been working late at the Jena Wellness office. As one who prefers to work late rather than early, it is not uncommon to find me in the office hours after everyone has left. As the night creaks by, sometimes loneliness sets in.
This was one of those nights. Loneliness ached in me like a seething wound. I left the building, began unchaining my bike and I rang through the “favorites” on my phone. The results were dismal. My boyfriend was out on the town with his best friend. My best friend didn’t pick up. Neither did any of the next seven friends I rang. My desire for human interaction led me to nothing but a disappointing orgy of voicemail.
I had given up and was riding home when my phone rang.
“Hey, I am at a crafting session at Stefan’s, come on over.”
Perfect! My Burning Man camp, the Kostume Kult, was in the throes of the creation of our offerings for the upcoming event. At the heart of Burning Man is its culture of gifting. It’s a moneyless society where commerce is forbidden. Burning Man was once described by a Rabbi as a weeklong shabbas. The effect of forgetting about money at the door (because there’s nothing to buy) confers an ecstatic quality to Burning Man, the event.
The nickname for the flat sandy surface on which Burning Man occurs is the playa, referring to the Spanish word for beach. Each camp conspires to give a gift to the playa and in the case of my camp, we offer costumes. Each of us has personally experienced costuming as a potent tool for instantaneous transformation and is therefore dedicated to sharing this with the masses for their delight and enlightenment. “Costuming the naked since 2001,” as goes one of our slogans. We are able to dispense thousands of costumes for free every year, thanks to our fundraising parties and relationships we cultivate with theater companies, costume manufacturers and the creative community at large.
Costumes are a signature feature of Burning Man. The majority of people wear them day and night. Unlike the typical Halloween method of “dressing up as a superhero,” this type of costuming takes a different angle. At Burning Man costuming is about using adornment to highlight your own unique energy, expression, and express any message you want. Participation in art is a leading ethos of Burning Man and costuming is one of the most accessible and intimate ways of being involved with the creative process. Where else does flesh become the canvas and art interface directly with skin? The curves of your body become the frame and even inexpensive materials can be recycled by your imagination into costume haute couture.
Last year at Kostume Kult, located in the Village “NYrvana,” a conglomerate of New York camps, we set up a huge geodesic dome with costumes inside. Imagine a boutique where everything is zany and everything is free, and you are attended by a “costumista” delivering service akin to a 5th Avenue store. Not just you, but adults of all ages and sizes are trying on lots of different costumes in search of an item, or even a whole accessorized outfit that would be neither too small, too big, nor too bizarre. By experimentation you discover your outfit and leave dressed anew and transformed.
Kostume Kult headquarters was fronted with a giant mural on massive wooden boards and, to return to that lonely midsummer’s night in Manhattan, the East Village courtyard where I ended up was where it was created.
The mural’s construction was our response to the 2008 Burning Man theme, “American Dream,” a painted panorama dubbed “KKoney Island.” Depicting a spectrum of New York’s energy, beginning with colorful roller coasters, balloons and candy floss, and transitioning to grimy, grey Gotham City skyscrapers, the mural foretold the magical transformations the costumes would offer and the range of moods they can represent.
Back in New York, laughter, camaraderie and focused concentration filled the workspace. Critical to the project was that everyone in the camp contributed and more than a dozen people were part of the action. In order not to intimidate us, the leaders of this elaborate mural venture had created it in paint-my-numbers style, mimicking kids’ coloring books.
“Welcome, Jena, great to see you.” There were hugs and kisses, some familiar and a few new faces, a hive of bees industrially creating KKoney Island in paint. Dance and music are longtime friends of mine, but I confess painting has been outside of my realm for a couple of decades now, bar the walls of a couple of East Village apartments.
I looked at the paints, the brushes, the partially filled in murals and the numbers, and I didn’t know what went with what. I nervously balked and avoided painting, and instead flitted around chatting. Eventually someone noticed I was in disguised distress and asked gently, “Jena, would you like to paint?”
“Yes,” I said, “I just don’t know how.”
“It’s easy. Look, this area is color 23,” he referenced a paper chart with the code, “it goes with this color.” He pointed me to a particular shade of blue, handed me a paintbrush and off I went.
Soon I was under the back and forth spell of the paintbrush. My senses took in this new data, the spreading of paint over a surface and the distribution of color within an outline. I let out a quiet sigh as I touched a quiet place in myself. As I let myself sink into the moment, the tension I’d been holding melted away. The slightly nervous chatter I’d been initiating dropped away and I found a place where I could at once straddle being present with the environment and equally aware of my own inner world.
I made a few mistakes and was told it didn’t matter; we could redo lines and paint over color mistakes. The mood was bubbly and free of criticism. At 10 o’clock we were sent home so as not to aggravate the neighbors. In contrast to my arrival, I left glowing.
Seeing the KKoney Island mural out on the playa came with a great satisfaction, but that was only the tip of the iceberg. Burning Man tickles vast and varied aspects of one’s being. It’s a nature immersion, it’s an outdoor gallery, it’s a community, and it’s a ceremony.
The nature: a vast expanse of flat land, encircled by a ring of breathtaking treeless ranges and peaks. A parched ancient lakebed positioned in a high-elevation mountain desert, exhibiting barely a trace of life other than earth and dust. Dust that blows and becomes an effacing wonder, making objects a few feet away vanish and skin turn to alabaster.
The outdoor gallery: Over 200 registered art pieces out in the elements plus hundreds and possibly thousands of other unregistered ones. Vehicles that no longer resemble cars. Human beings in costume interacting with art, music and each other.
Community: A coming together, to not only survive in the harsh reality of the desert, but to thrive through acts of creativity and collaboration. 50 000 people cohabitating in harmony.
Ceremony: For me, Burning Man is a weeklong ceremony, where a sacred circle has been cast for all who enter, in which to safely burn and let go parts of themselves they no longer need or desire. And then from the ashes, to reinvent themselves anew. It’s a contemporary ritual that has allowed me to uncover my greatest gifts and deepest longings, and instilled in me the courage to sing them out loud to the world. Every year I let the pigment of the ceremonial paint leach into my soul, staining me with its significance. The message is life is the art we all create, the world is a community we share, and reality is only confined by what our imagination can conceive. Burning Man takes away the boundary between spectator and performer, reminding us that life is a stage.
“Are you performing?” a woman asked me at Burning Man.
“Where is the show?” she asked.
“This is the show,” I explained with a twinkle in my eyes. “You are now part of it.” She first blinked in confusion and then softened as she realized that our “show” was life itself.