Clutched in the Maw of the World | Alder & Ash An intertwining dance of clean and distressed strings. Chamber music for those who love distortion.
Ed. Note: The following was drafted a little over two weeks ago. Since then I have gone and returned from the trip referenced in the last section. But, as I am increasingly aware that the Perfect is the Enemy of the Good, here it is anyway. No idea what the next one’s going to be. Events, as ever, continue apace.
I decided a while ago that I was going to loosen up the restraints on this newsletter, and instead of making it fit whatever theme it seemed to be self-limiting toward, just let it be What’s On My Mind. I think I’ve been better about this, because usually something interesting (to me) is happening, because I have the good fortune to be surrounded by peers and colleagues and texts which are stimulating, and I like thinking. Sometimes, though, the most important things, the things that take up all of your mental space, are a series of events so dense with meaning that they defy analysis. Sometimes events just keep happening, and “What’s on my mind” is just thinking and processing and letting events percolate. So in the spirit of that, and not leaving you hanging, here is some of What Has Been Happening Since Last We Spoke.
August 1 is my birthday. I have been, depending on how I look at it, either waiting for things to stop moving long enough to have a proper birthday celebration, or, taking an entire month of birthday celebration across several continents.
First, I flew to Denmark to help build and run a piece of Fire art with some of my crew from Ardent Heavy Industries at the Smukfest music festival. That was a lot of fun, but it was less “A Trip To Denmark” and more “A trip to a music festival by way of Copenhagen.” Nonetheless, I learned a lot. I learned about the structural engineering challenges when something is built in a warehouse (which has little appreciable weather) at 2am, then assembled on a rooftop in a forest next to a lake (which has appreciable weather). Especially when that thing consists of large sheets of polycarbonate which act as sails, and shoots flaming propane at people. So that was exciting, but we made it happen. And I got to shoot flaming propane at a Danish fire marshall, and he seemed to enjoy it.
I also learned a lot about Danish. Every time someone would say something in Danish, I would understand it about two sentences later, mostly because of cognates and tonality. My brain kept wanting to parse Danish as German Pig Latin, like I knew all the words but they were being spoken in an intentionally silly way. My apologies to any Danish speakers for this analogy. Every single person I met, though, spoke English fluently. I was informed by Danish friends that this was because Danish is the second most difficult language to learn, so the Danish school system teaches compulsory English. Opinions varied on what the first most difficult language in the world to learn is. An Israeli in the Munich airport confided in me it was Hebrew, but his objectivity was suspect.
Everyone who attended the festival got a wristband that included an RFID chip you could use to buy beer (Because Denmark). They gave me a wristband, which I am still wearing, that says “OPSTILLER” on it. This is Danish for “builder.” This is what everyone who was there for the construction phase got. Everyone with a green wristband was there to build something, and for the first four days, it was all green Opstiller. Hundreds of people, all ages and genders, all of them working to build this huge event.
One of the people we worked with directly was named Claus. I sent a selfie with Claus to my partner with the caption: “This is Claus. He can build that for you. It doesn’t really matter what ”that“ is in that sentence, he can probably take care of it.” You know that guy who says “sure, no problem” to every request but doesn’t do any of it? Claus was that guy but he actually did all of the things. It was, to someone who has worked in event production for many years, a gentle ongoing miracle. Claus building us a windbreak. Claus building us an entire room off the side of the building to safely put our propane supplies in. Claus just showing up with his blowtorch to put some decorative burn marks on the plywood of the propane room because he thought it would look cool.
And basically everyone with a green wristband was like that. Opstiller. Builder.
If you’re familiar with Burning Man, you’re probably recognizing the ethos here. There’s a saying I hear from some people there, “Build Week is Better.” That’s the week before the event proper, before the crowds show up, when everyone there is there to work more than party. Which is not to say we don’t party, in either case. It turns out the best backstage party at Smukfest is thrown by the people who pick up the trash, and I was fed many, many beers in the Garbage Bar (Because Denmark).
There are a bunch of teams that build Burning Man, of course, but one of the most known and recognized is DPW, the Department of Public Works. They have a reputation for being hard workers, hard partiers, and having no time for your hippie bullshit. I’m not DPW, but I dress in a way that has made more than one person think I am. This has always come with an inherent tone of respect, from people thinking I was part of the infrastructure of the city, and that I had no time for their hippie bullshit. The second half of that is usually true, and the first half true enough, as every time I’ve gone there I’ve explicitly gone to work work on some large scale art project, if not the city proper. I’m not DPW, but I was there to turn wrenches and solder GPS units more than I was to party.
This is part of why I’ve only gone to the Burn twice. Both times I was excited about going mostly because I was excited about helping build something, first Thuderdome and then Straightedge (that’s the Kickstarter link because it gives the best description, we’re not looking for money). If I go to the Burn without a project, I get bored. There’s something about being part of something bigger than yourself, of course, but also, there’s a sense of pride and, yes, smug satisfaction that comes from having the Backstage Area access, from the sense of comradery when someone else with a green wristband opens a door or borrows a tool or hands you a beer. From, eventually, being able to watch all the people enjoying the thing you built, and you can lean against it and think “I made this happen for you.”
Smukfest is a long weekend event, so Build Week was the really just the first half of the week. On Wednesday, they open the gates to the public. There is a ritual wherein the hundreds of people wearing green wristbands gather at the main gate in the half hour before it opens, and sing songs to the festival goers waiting to get in. All of the songs were in Danish, so I have no idea what any of them meant, except that most of them seemed to involve taking a drink at the end. And then the gates opened, and the first people in red and blue and all the other color wristbands came in, and the crowd of Opstiller whooped and applauded and welcomed them inside. And even though I don’t speak Danish, I could understand that they meant “Welcome. We made this happen for you.”
And then I came back, and went to Oregon for the Total Eclipse, which is an entirely other event, that I’m still trying to get enough of a grasp on that I can make words about it. That is more something that I will hold in my secret heart, but I promise you, it will leak out in everything else I do.
And now in a few days I’ll be heading to the east coast for about a week. I’m in the time between tides, right now, and I’m trying to stand up long enough that I can see where the land masses might be. Not that it’s a bad thing; I’m extremely excited that I get to do all of this travelling and adventure. It’s what I want, more often than it usually happens. I am, to be honest, elated, and deeply thankful to those who are making it possible. But it means that you get raw feed right now, rather than refined brain-juices.
I’m reading a lot of Le Carré right now, as I pass through borders and checkpoints, in research for the novel I’m working on, as well as a sort of memetic infrastructure that allows me to smile at the passport control while my country is going to shit. I hope to have some more coherent thoughts for the next time, but in the interval I offer you this ancient blessing of my people, to be taken as literally or metaphorically as you need; I wish you clear roads, unsearched baggage, and sleeping guards at every border.
E. Steen Comer
You just read issue #32 of Fractal Interpolation. You can also browse the full archives of this newsletter.