Words & photos: Jonx Pillemer
I must admit at the outset, that while I knew there was a ‘Burner Exchange’ programme between the Great Lakes regional burn (Lakes of Fire) and AfrikaBurn, the South African regional burn, I have never applied nor knew what the application process or requirements to participate were. This year’s South African participant had to unfortunately pull out the the very last minute due unfortunate circumstances, and was not able to make this trip.
So there I was in Mykonos in Greece, on a job, when my phone buzzed and I received a message. It was from AfrikaBurn HQ with a message asking me to call, as something had come up. I gave them a shout and got asked pretty much 2 questions, “Do you have a visa for the USA, and can you travel in 5 Days”? Weirdly, while packing for Greece, I had come across my second (expired) passport which held my US visa, and thought to myself, “Lets throw this in the bag, what harm could it do?” So I said yes to both and suddenly life became the chaos of trying to change flights, trying to contact people in the US about accommodation, lifts to the festival, and a panic that all I had with me was my camera and a bag of dirty clothes. All the processes from the AB side of things of getting this organised was actually very easy.
So I arrived 5 days later in Chicago, with that bag of dirty clothes and only knowing that a guy called Dan Brown, had left keys to his apartment, in a place a won’t disclose, and that I would be picked up in 2 days by someone named Johanna to be taken through to the Lakes of Fire. In my jet lagged haze, things were seeming pretty surreal. Up at 5am the next morning, I had one day around Chicago, attempting to see some sights (managed to get to millennium park and see the bean, and wander through the Art Institute of Chicago), and get some of the absolute essentials such as warm clothes and a rain jacket. I crashed early as jet lag reared its ugly head and awoke the next day waiting for the journey to the festival to begin.
This was my first trip to the US, and there were some immediate oddities that I noticed. First they use the imperial system, and you really need to think and have paid attention in math class to understand all the conversions that one needs to make to understand the fraction nature of any measurement, secondly the way each state seems to have completely different laws that govern them, ie traveling with a medicinal brownie which is legally obtained and possessed in Illinois can get you arrested in Indiana, before passing into Michigan where it is once again legal, and thirdly, and seemingly most important for those from Chicago, you shouldn’t put tomato sauce (ketchup) on a hotdog.
Arriving at the LoF any fear I had of being ill prepared fell away, as Dan Brown and his camp had ensured that everything that I needed was well taken care of, from the tent and blankets, to basic survival goodies like cutlery and a cup. I was based with a camp called the Notorious Scoundrels club aka the Secret Gentlemen’s Club, who had subverted their name to connect with the theme of this year of Summerween, a take on halloween.
Unfortunately, due to the very late notice, and didn’t have any time to prepare any sort of art project for LoF, so I did what I do at AB, which is to try and actively document the experience as it is going on around me, hopefully allowing the images to give the viewer a sense of the experience and give them insights into a space that they have not been in, or if they have, hopefully a different perspective on what they experienced.
There were a few problems I found with this situation. Firstly at AB I always make sure that I arrive at least a few days before the event begins. That is where you meet those that are actively contributing, building, and deeply involved in the event. It is where you get access, and understand the limitations involved in what can or can’t be shot, as well as connecting with the many creative minds that make up the experience. Secondly at AB having been involved and documenting it for over 12 years, I understand the community, and the dynamics, and know where and when I can shoot. Walking blind into a new space and it takes some time to work that out especially in an event where consent is such a huge factor, whereas the way I work, I deal very little with gaining consent as it would in, the vast majority of cases, ruin what I am trying to do. So now that I have experienced it, as well as having people gained some insight to how I shoot, it would get more and more detailed and intimate if I could return year on year.
LoF was the first burn I attended outside of AfrikaBurn, and I found the differences and similarities quite interesting. Firstly the thing that stood out for me is, for something that sees itself as all about freedom of expression and creativity, how homogeneous burn culture actually is. People dress the same, whether at AB or LoF, and there were often times I felt that a conversation about the burn I was having at LoF, could be identical to one I have had at AB. I found the different setting quite disquieting at first, as it seemed that it was missing something without the survivalist aspect that one finds in the desert, with its beautiful lake, and super comfy camping spaces. Though I did grow to enjoy it, as there is something nice about having to not have to worry about whether your brought enough water to survive. We did have weather problems, of course, with everyone I met apologising profusely about the cold and rain. I of course have yet to experience a burn in which there is not some sort of weather problem.
Other things that stood out for me was the deep participation involved within this burn, where is feels like almost everyone is participating and there are almost no spectators. Almost every camp have a theme camp aspect to it, and there is something going on no matter where you walk. AfrikaBurn can lack a bit in this factor, though it is possibly a size thing, as LoF has just over 2000 people compared to the 12000 of AB. I also couldn’t help but noticing a certain lack of covering up of branding, with the U-Haul trucks all around and other done about the branding on the portaloos. There also seemed like (compared to AB) there was a lack of Art for art’s sake, that is much fewer pieces of art apart from the theme camps. Though again this could have to do with size.
The burn had a fantastic sense of humour about it and was filled with gags, from the portapotty sandwich gag (have a sandwich, leave a sandwich, need a sandwich, take a sandwich), to the Lakes of Fyre party at the Notorious Scoundrels with the bad cheese sandwiches.
Nonetheless, I loved the festival, and am forever grateful for AfrikaBurn for contacting me, and providing me with this experience and with Lakes of Fire and the Notorious Scoundrels for being so accepting of me from the moment I arrived, who mad sure I had everything I needed and helped me find a place in Chicago after the festival to experience the City for a few days.
Unfortunately I can’t, due the circumstances of how I was selected, talk much about the application process and what if any problems there are with it, though there does seem to be one major hurdle to get through: making sure people apply. Speaking to Braai, when I returned to South Africa, he says they get very few actual applications from the South African side, which in my mind shouldn’t be the case. This is an opportunity, to go and see a burn on the other side of the world, gain experiences that one would never have had before, and almost all the costs are covered, so it must come down to a marketing exercise as to why there aren’t more people from the 12,000 AfrikaBurn participants applying to be involved.