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Smoke on the Water

by Rob Scher / Images by Adam Kent Wiest / 21.05.2012

My heart stops briefly. We’re transporting delicate cargo, and the trailer in which it’s contained is an inch off the ground. Screeching to a halt, we brace ourselves. A few moments pass. No explosion. We inspect the damage. It’s a typical procedure on the R355 – a wasteland of shredded tyres. We add ours to the lot, continuing en route to Tankwa Karoo to begin work on the sculpture we’re building for AfrikaBurn. And I’m left wondering how come I’m the one who got stuck transporting the 45 litres of Napalm?

It’s a week before the festival begins and the desert is sparsely populated. The only camp at this stage is the Department of Public Works (DPW). They’ve been in the desert setting up infrastructure for the festival for ages now. The effects are visible. Three weeks of unrelenting sun, bongs and building toilets has left them in a perma-dazed state. I worry for the state we’ll be in by the end of the burn.

It’s my fourth year venturing to Stonehenge Farm, home to the temporary community of AfrikaBurn. For one week every year, this small patch of Karoo desert is transformed into a vibrant community of artists, non-artists, participants and the odd observer. AfrikaBurn is an officially sanctioned, regional event of Burning Man, held annually in the Nevada Desert. Now in it’s sixth year, in South Africa, the event stays true to the guiding principles of the “burner” philosophy. It’s these principles that keep the festival from devolving into just another rave in the desert.

Fire on the Water - Desert Hippos

Over the years, I’ve slowly transitioned through the roles, as do many who attend. Last year we contributed to the community by making a massive potjie to feed loads of hungry burners. This year, we’re aiming higher – the central sculpture.

The central sculpture ties the festival together. Brendan Smithers, a set builder by profession, has been the man responsible for making this happen in years past. With Smithers busy on a Mad Max sequel in Namibia, we got handed the task. We were given the largest art grant ever awarded by the AfrikaBurn Committee, the pressure on our shoulders duly felt. We choose the name Khamsin for our structure, an Arabic word used to describe the five-day sandstorms that occur in North Africa. Its a name that will eventually haunt us.

I finally get the napalm to the desert. The rest of the team arrives, with Khamsin in tow. The structure, a 16 by 6.5 meter gridded pavillion made of cardboard, begins its life flat-packed on the back of a trailer. Unloading the flat sheets of ‘X-cor’ – the Skynet-esque name of the material we’re working with, we begin to understand the enormity of the task ahead. With over 1500 pieces of prefabricated X-cor that need to be popped out of the sheets, sorted, double laminated and eventually slot jointed into sections we make the profound realisation – Khamsin’s a bitch.

Sanity is slipping. Apply glue, gently massage, check alignment, clamp, tighten screws, wait, loosen screws, unclamp. We repeat this process endlessly, the unglued piles of X-cor never seeming to diminish. We’ve been in the desert for five days and are rapidly approaching a Lord of the Flies showdown. Water’s running low and the AfrikaBurn’s guiding principle of ‘self-reliance’ is becoming increasingly apparent.

The team has begun referring to the structure as Cami, for short – a fun-loving gal who’s occasionally a bit of a slut – sense of reality, lost. Friends from the outside world arrive timeously. One such person is a nude enthusiast and brewer of homemade cider – Naked Phil. It’s not long before Phil’s stripped down, having already cracked open 20 litres of cider. It’s beginning to feel a lot like festival time.

Unfortunately it’s literally festival time, and Cami’s far from complete. It’s only Wednesday morning and the perimeter of the ‘Binnekring’, the large circle around which the festival takes place, is filling up. The organisers have put a cap on ticket sales at 5000, but with the amount of people who’ve already arrived, I begin to wonder if it’s limited enough. The final piece of X-cor is glued together, the pieces arranged in their respective order in the Binnekring, tomorrow – final assembly.

Fire on the Water - Sunset

It’s been the white elephant in the desert. A fatalist would argue it’s nature’s wrath upon our arrogance for attempting to construct something out of paper in this environment. It’s also just shit fucking luck. The rain begins around midday. We’ve done our best to protect Cami, but like an angsty teen, she can’t be controlled. The storm takes the festival from behind. The only dry place is Dad’s bakkie. Dad’s not actually anyone’s father, but between the floral shirts and his penchant for nightcaps, he’s assumed the role of patriarch. The team’s mood is sombre. We’re a family in a cramped canopy of a waiting room, preparing for bad news. A blurred figure approaches through the rain. A reminder that as much as the storm’s been a dose of reality in a place removed from such things, your doctor can still be a naked, soaking wet hippie named Phil. “Who wants some cider, I’ve put mushrooms in it?” The diagnosis has been made – it’s self-medication time.

The aftermath is apocalyptic. The storm has left a vastly changed festival in its wake. An inspection of the damage is pointless. A heavily mounted wooden mast with an attached Go-Pro had been set-up next to our structure to document its construction. It now lies smashed on the floor. When we watch that footage we’ll know the moment the camera crashes to the ground, that’s when Cami drew her last breath.

There’s word that a refugee camp has been set-up near the entrance. Cars lay abandoned along the road. Dazed burners stand ankle-deep in puddles, digging trenches to re-route streams of water from their camps. It’s an unfamiliar scene. Anyone who’s been a previous resident feels it. It’s a very different festival this year.

The uninterrupted view of the Karoo, has been replaced by 4×4’s. What had been the edge of the campsites in previous years, is now not even near the boundary. With the amount of Land Rovers and K-way, we’ve landed ourselves in the heart of suburbia, the deep Afrikaburbs. It’s the natural lifespan of any festival. Tickets capped or not, it’s the first time people have had to rearrange bushes to find a camping spot.

The next day of the festival is the first without rain. Three scribbled figures stand on the horizon. The ‘Fear Gods’, have weathered the storm better than any other. Constructed from the alien wattle plant, for many, the gods become the defining sculpture of this year’s festival. Cami’s not the only sculpture that’s taken a knock. Artist Daniel Popper’s beautiful fire-breathing dragon has to contend with a scaffolding neck-brace. The rain’s also assisted in some places. A school of metallic fish swims above a muddy pool. Showing that nature has no eye for aesthetics, the most literal interpretation of this year’s theme, mirage – a kitsch cutout oasis scene, is conveniently left with a lake of water in front of its wooden palms.

Fire on the Water - Giants

Simplicity is good. I walk towards Tankwa’s defining horizon as dusk approaches. A viewing platform is required. As is so often the case, the desert provides. An out of proportion wooden bench sits atop a hill ahead. I’m surprised there’re not more people around to enjoy its wide berth. A greying gentleman with smiling eyes watches as we take a seat. “This is this bench’s first sunset, you are the first group to sit on it,” he proudly explains. The bench is the best kind of art sculpture at AfrikaBurn. No lasers or sound systems pumping out beats. A facilitated meeting place where I find the most valued commodity gained from spending time in this cut-off utopia – conversation.

Cami’s been reinterpreted – more art, less architecture. The salvaged remains roughly fitted together to form a jagged wave emerging from the ground. Close inspection reveals a unique grid reference on every piece, now an undecipherable mess. It’s hysterical. One piece has a footnote, “This edge is slightly skew at one end, can be cut to fit better” – our obsessive attention to precision thrown in our faces. A kid best describes what she’s become when he’s overhead excitedly shouting to a friend, “let’s go look at the shipwreck!” It’s re-named ‘The Deconstruction of the Ego’ by one of the team members.

I’m lost. Aimlessly wandering, my north star is gone. The fire-spitting Landy come living room known affectionately by burners as the Vuvulounge is my safe place. This year, it’s nowhere to be seen. Instead it’s been replaced by hordes of cheap impostors. The comforting glow of flame, substituted with harsh blue LED. It’s easy to get lost in the nostalgia of previous burns. As the profile of the event increases, so will its popularity. It’s the first year I’ve had moments when a place that’s always felt like home feels foreign. Maybe it’s become too easy. Outsourced camps, set-up by hired laborers, hordes of weekend revelers. It’s a troubling conundrum. Put the festival further away? Verneukpan? Not the solution. If anything AfrikaBurn needs to move towards becoming more inclusive. It’s already too much of a rich man’s playground.

“We’re gonna approach from the side and work our way around. This baby should go up in no time.” The crazed steam-punk of a woman informs us before alighting into her armour-plated machine. It’s one of the many ‘art cars’ at the festival, but the only one that could be used for crowd control, artillery in every sense of the word. Spraying jets of lit gasoline into the air, this giant mobile flamethrower has been a valuable aide to several of the burns. It’s Cami’s turn. Doused in Napalm, she lights up like a motherfucker. Many wandering burners run towards her for the first time. It’s sad knowing the most attention she’ll get will be her cremation, a funeral pyre. Instead of fire destroying our structure, it was essentially rain that did the trick. The irony stings. It’s been two weeks in this desert, I’m ready to go home.

Fire on the Water - Apocalyptic

Fire on the Water - Skeleton Fish

Fire on the Water - Where's Wally?

Fire on the Water - Landscape

Fire on the Water - Tentlife

Fire on the Water - Cowboys

Fire on the Water - Moose

Fire on the Water - Opening Image

*All images © Adam Kent Wiest

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