Crude Awakening

5 Sep

Crude Awakening

Over the past couple weeks, several people have found my blog by searching for Crude Awakening or for its creator, Dan Das Mann, so I thought I’d finally give everyone what they’re looking for. And I promise, this will be my last Burning Man related post for a little while.

You might ask, how does this massive Burning Man art piece connect to Oakland? Crude Awakening’s creator-couple, Dan Das Mann and Karen Cusolito have been toiling away in a West Oakland warehouse for years now, creating some of the most awe inspiring pieces of artwork in Black Rock City and beyond.


They even spent their honeymoon in West Oakland, creating Passage, a 30′ mother and 20′ child sculpted out of scrap metal, walking next to each other with hands stretched towards each other. Walking? Yes. Well, they didn’t literally move, but 50 concrete flaming footsteps followed behind them. I learned at the Crucible’s fire arts preview in 2005 that the couple had hoped to have 100 footsteps following the figures but realized that the weight of these footsteps would mean that their trucks would not have room for the metal figures!

So back to what you came here to read about… Crude Awakening. Imagine nine metal women, over five times the size of a human being, knealing, crouching, standing, praying before a 99′ tall oil derrick made of wood. Day and night, hundreds of burners climb the oil tower to look out from the top at a city the same size (distance wise) as San Francisco. After the sun sets, the art crew begins to light each of the figures. One has a flaming rosary. Another holds fire in her hands. Every where you look, you can see metal, flames, and people standing in awe.

I have to admit that I biked several miles, usually twice a day, just to look at and interact with this art piece. But all of that was overshadowed by the grand performance that took place on Saturday night.

After the man collapsed in flames (never my favorite part of the week), I grabbed my friends and walked across the desert to Crude Awakening. We sat down in the second row, the closest I’ve ever been to such a large burn, and proceeded to wait for an hour and a half. Luckily, we were in the good company of some sweet people from Toronto, who I proudly informed that the piece had been created in Oakland.

Again and again, rangers approached us and warned us that the explosion was going to be large and intense. We might want to cover our faces or duck down. It would last about 30 seconds. Oh yeah, and when the oil derrick collapsed, we were supposed to stop the crowd of tens of thousands of burners from rushing to the burning embers because there still could be some unexploded fire works lying around. But not to worry, the crew had assured them that we would be safe. As the artists at Dance Dance Immolation say, “Safety Third.”

The long wait was well worth it. The performance started with a truck circling around the art piece, sirens wailing, spreading a thick fog that soon entirely engulfed the nine figures and the oil derrick. For a minute, all lights were turned out. Then, out of the fog, a line of small yellow and blue fireworks emerged from the ground and music began playing. Strobe lights illuminated the figures, creating the illusion that they were moving towards the tower.

This was followed by 15 minutes of the most beautiful and varied fireworks I’ve seen in my life. But why tell you about it when I can show you?

You’ll see at the end of this video that that at the end of the fireworks show, the oil derrick lights up. Soon after, it started burning slowly. It needed some help. So why not create the largest explosion ever seen at Burning Man? Apparently, that wasn’t enough. The tower still burned slowly. So why not create a tornado of fuel, fire, and wind in the middle of the structure? The fire was so hot that it was white and blue:

Amazed is not a strong enough word for how I felt that night. Moved, elated, awestruck – those come closer.

There was a lot of talk after the explosion about whether it was worth it. Did Dan and Karen and their crew of nearly 200 helpers make their point? Or was it a worthless explosion that just polluted the environment?

I know Crude Awakening made me think, and considering that the amount of oil used was no more than a single driver uses in a couple years, I think it was worth it. Here’s an explanation from the artists, via a blog post on the Underwire:

The artists realize that it might seem indulgent to burn so much fuel for art meant to dramatize our warped relationship with fuel. They understand those concerns. But they stress the personal conservation efforts about environmental and carbon impact that working on the piece created in all the 180 people involved, which they expect to continue.

The fuel the piece consumes only amounts to an ounce or so of fuel per attendee at the event, they note. Cusolito… says she thinks of Crude Awakening as if “all the energy I have not consumed by living the way I do, it’s almost as if I get credits” to use the fuel to “make the biggest environmental statement I could make in my lifetime.” The pair hopes the message will reach far beyond the 45,000 or so who might see the finale at Burning Man.

I know their message certainly reached me, and I’m proud to see such awe-inspiring art being created in Oakland. Now, if we could just convince our city to commission some of their art, like San Francisco commissioned Passage

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