An escape to engage

Delaware arts festival adds an East Coast twist to the Burning Man phenomenon


The pilgrimage, a procession of vehicles stuffed with lights, music, tents, wood, geodesic domes, glittery costumes, fire-spinning equipment, giant sculptures and other oddities too surreal to be named, began yesterday.

The largest group of seekers drove from Maryland to Delaware. But they also came from New York, Massachusetts and as far away as England for what various participants described as a temporary autonomous zone, somewhere between anarchy and an intentional community, an escape from commodification, a party, a burn, a radically expressive space and a life-affirming event.

More than 600 strong, they'll eat, they'll share, they'll express, they'll revel, they'll torch a 15-foot-high wooden effigy of a horse at a fiery ritual. Then they'll clean up every last scrap and journey back to the comparatively staid real world.

That, in a nutshell, is Playa del Fuego, a semi-underground, volunteer-run, semiannual event that has quietly and steadily grown since 1998, when about 20 people headed to Assateague Island for the weekend. Refugees from Burning Man - the annual genre-defying arts festival that draws tens of thousands to the Nevada desert each summer - they were looking for a way to bring the ineffable spirit of the fiery desert party home.

"I missed the idea of the community that looks after itself, that really cares for its members," said Kathleen Ellis, 30, of Baltimore, a collective founder and board member. "In a way, it's a bit escapist from modern economic and social realities."

As so-called Burning Man East mushroomed, the founders incorporated as a nonprofit, formed a board of directors, forged an official relationship with Burning Man and moved to a private campground not far from Cecil County that is owned by the Delaware Vietnam Veterans Motorcycle Club.

The 650 entry tickets, which cost $30 or $40, were swept up the day they went on sale.

Don Elwell, the director of the theater department at Carroll Community College and a Burning Man veteran, started his own related gathering in Illinois called The Warren G. Harding Dada Festival of Subversive Art. He first attended Playa del Fuego last year, after moving to Westminster.

"The whole Burning Man thing seems to be an essay on the possible," said Elwell, 53. "They are catalogues of innovation that seem to be suppressed in other parts of society and are really cooking at these burns."

At this year's rain-or-shine event, which continues through Monday, Elwell plans to volunteer again on the fire crew responsible for building and safely setting the burning horse afire.

Inspired by the wild ponies that populate Assateague Island, the horse is a local twist on the eponymous, four-story man that is incinerated in the desert.

Playa del Fuego is only one of scores of regional groups that have sprung up across the country and on three other continents, said Andie Grace, Burning Man's communications director and regional groups manager. About 25 such collectives, including include Toast in Arizona and Flipside in Austin, now host mini-burns that draw crowds of up to 800 people.

Burning Man now requires regional affiliates to sign legal documents that compel them to adhere to Burning Man principles. According to those ideals, gift-giving, community-building and art are paramount, everyone is creative, everyone is welcome, everyone must participate rather than spectate, everyone must clean up after themselves. No vending, advertising or commercial sponsorships are allowed at Burning Man, and watchdogs expect the same at events around the globe that use the name.

"I see it as a movement," said Jeremy Hockett, an adjunct professor at Eastern Michigan University who wrote his American studies dissertation on Burning Man. "I look at it as being a form of a new religious movement."

Ellis said that as the Mid-Atlantic event matures, she's "more and more blown away by what people do." She named a few eye-popping feats from years past: a geodesic sweat lodge, 20-foot-tall spider and dinosaur sculptures, a temporary Baltimore rowhouse complete with a front stoop.

If all goes according to plan this year, participants visiting the various theme camps will be able to test an 800-square-foot slip-n-slide, crawl through the "Orgasmateria Tactile Dome," meet a soul mate at "215-SHACK-UP" or try extreme combat "bicycle jousting." (For the record, the event officially operates in compliance with the law - it's part of the Burning Man contract - and participants say drugs and alcohol are no more prevalent than they are at any wedding or baseball game.)

Paul Maier, aka "Hookah Boy," was 18 when he drove to Delaware for the first time four years ago. It was after midnight, but in the glow of lights strung across the campground, he could see elaborate costumes, nudists, and people dancing to electronic music at a makeshift disco. Maier, who lives in Elkridge, was shocked. And thrilled.

"It took me off-guard, and I fell in love with it," he said.

He's been to every event since. At several burns, he built the increasingly large and elaborate hookahs that led to his nickname and, with friends, invited fellow revelers to smoke tobacco at their Arabian Nights-like theme camp. One year, they were all about zombies; another year they went with pirates.

This weekend, at "Plunderdome," their take on the movie Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, they will stage fights using stuffed animals as weapons.

"The world is suspended for three or four days and everything is permissible basically," said Jamie Harrell, 24, from Hagerstown, another hookah boy-turned zombie-turned pirate. "You can't go there and come away the same person."

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