Festival Devotees Migrate East

A young man sporting elf ears and a pink beard danced shirtless to trance music. A crowd of people sipped Liquid Death, a new water brand marketed at festivals, as they shimmied and swayed, striking up conversations with strangers. Bystanders sat on grassy hills for a bird’s-eye view, taking in the colorful scene with intrigue. In a corner, a woman tested out a “sensory experience” chair, wearing a virtual-reality headset as her high-tech chair vibrated vigorously. Candy-scented clouds traveled from vape to mouth to air.

Welcome to Robot Heart. These parties, organized by the Robot Heart Foundation, which describes itself as a “collective of dreamers and doers,” typically lean toward a communal, countercultural brand of fun, and are normally held in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert during Burning Man festivals.

On this occasion, however, the foundation was celebrating its inaugural event in New York City, billed as Fare Forward, at Wollman Rink in Central Park. The merriment was a tad more controlled in its new urban environs. Police officers monitored the scene, and all of the action began at 2 p.m. on a Saturday and Sunday and ended promptly at 10 p.m. — an acceptable bedtime.

This two-day affair, on April 30 and May 1, was a return to glory, in a sense. The pandemic put a hard pause on Robot Heart, which debuted in 2008, just as it did the much-larger Burning Man festival. The loss was acutely felt among “Burners” (passionate festival devotees).

This gathering has grown into a refuge for a motley crowd that includes creative nomads, Bushwick art performers and Silicon Valley tech heads. At each event, a 1972 “Mad Max”-esque Bristol bus outfitted with speakers, called the “Robot Heart Art Bus,” blasts sets by renowned D.J.s.

The sun-soaked reprieves from the outside world were founded and led by George Mueller, known as “Geo,” who died unexpectedly last year from a cerebral aneurysm. This month’s festival was the first Robot Heart event thrown since his death, and attendees let loose in part to honor him.

A democratic, egalitarian spirt reigned on the dance floor. Bodies were pressed close together as strangers connected. Occasionally, someone would spot an old friend they had met at Burning Man and shout hello. When nightfall arrived, colorful LED lights glided over the crowd and articles of clothing were strewn throughout the grounds. Kisses were exchanged here and there.

And there was plenty to do in the V.I.P. section, accessible with tickets. Guests ordered giant plates of sushi (which ranged from $200 to $1,500). A tent for meditation and tarot card readings was pitched.

This Robot Heart may not have embodied the full-fledged festival experience many of the attendees desperately craved. That will come this summer, when Burning Man makes its long-awaited return to Black Rock. But, after a two-year pause on festival life, the weekend served an important purpose that mirrors much of this year: inching back to normal.

Age: 36

From: Washington, D.C. and New York City

I heard you’re a pageant star.

I was first runner-up Miss USA in 2012.

Congrats. What do you do now?

I work in blockchain at a firm that was founded by the guy behind Ethereum.

What brings you out here today?

Today is a celebration of life. Robot Heart is one of the most famous camps at Burning Man. If you go to Burning Man, you know Robot Heart.

How many times have you been to Burning Man?

This will be my fifth year. But my first year I hitchhiked from the airport, found a plot of land, pitched a tent and lived out in the desert for a week by myself.

Did you make friends?

Yes, absolutely. It’s really a journey for yourself, whether you’re in a camp or not. It completely changed my life.

What did you learn from that experience?

You really learn what you need to learn at that specific moment. At that time, I was really dealing with loneliness. And being alone. So I was alone for an entire week! I learned to finally be OK with being by myself. Now I’ve manifested a huge community here and other places.

Do you still feel lonely?

No. I’ve found myself. And the catalyst was Burning Man.

Age: 63

Occupation: Writer and entrepreneur

From: Miami Beach, Fla.

Tell me about your outfit.

Today’s inspo was Walter Mercado meets Endora from “Bewitched.” Which is my everyday drag. This is not festival wear — I look like this every day. I have never packed for a trip faster and with more joy.

Where are some of the pieces from?

The bag and glasses are Gucci. The ostrich jacket is Zac Posen. The ring is Alexander McQueen. Suede cowboy boots that my cousin bought for me in Texas. Vintage tights. Vintage Napier pendant necklace, probably from the mid-70s. Tom Ford Beauty makeup.

Is it fair to assume you’re a big fan of vintage clothing?

Yes. I’ve maxed out my saved searches on eBay. They won’t let me put anymore!

What’s the number on that?

Something like 150, I think.

What’s the power of fashion for you?

It’s about expressing yourself. But in order to express yourself, you have to know yourself. And in order to know yourself, you have to love yourself. I know myself very well.

Ages: 41 and 45

Occupation: Musicians who perform as the Illustrious Blacks.

Tell me about your outfits.

Manchildblack: These are our after-show ones, actually. We were performing today and had a whole different ensemble. But this is more of our casual after-performance look. And we’re bringing you purity with the white.

Were your outfits matching onstage too?

Manchildblack: Yes. They were multicolored.

Monstah: And tight!

Where are you based?

Manchildblack: Planet Brooklyn. We are currently in the Republic of Bed-Stuy. However we are going to be traveling to the magical land of Flatbush very soon.

Tell me about your musical style.

Manchildblack: We call ourselves the “afro-electro-disco space punks.”

Monstah: It ranges from house funk, disco and techno, a little bit of punk thrown in there.

What are some shows coming up that you’re excited to perform at?

Manchildblack: Lisbon, Portugal! We’re going to celebrate Pride there with them.

Age: 36

What’s the meaning behind “Dining Dominatrix”?

I’m all about spoiling you with food, love, permission and pleasure.

Tell me about your outfit.

If you took the word “compersion” — which is all about loving other people having love and pleasure — and put it into a kaleidoscope, and then took the color hot pink. Ta-da! It’s an explosion of pleasure.

Ages: 60 and 44

What do you do?

Andy: I’m a surgeon.

Tell me about your outfits.

Andy: It’s from our costume closet. Which is bigger than our regular closet!

Keke: I wanted something shimmery. Something that shimmers in the sun while I dance.

What brings you here today?

Andy: We go way back with these folks. We’ve been going to Burning Man for over 10 years. It’s like a family reunion for us. Throughout the pandemic and everything, we haven’t been able to see our friends. You know, people who go to Burning Man love masks, but we suck at social distancing. We like to hug.

Do festivals play a big role in your marriage?

Andy: Not festivals in general. It’s more so certain festivals, certain events. A lot of our friends like to get dressed up. It’s more great parties with wonderful people we happen to meet in the desert.

Age: “Ageless”

Occupation: Designer

OK, tell me about the horse prop you’re carrying.

Apparently my genetic female line, according to 23andMe, came from a group in Africa that settled 2,000 years ago and took care of horses. So maybe that’s why I was drawn to it. I have horses in many colors and I match them to my outfit. But I only take them out to places where they will be accepted, like here.

Does he have a name?

Fernando.

How long did it take to get ready?

Not long. I had to dress the horse and some of my friends too.

Age: 34

What do you do?

I have a costume shop here in New York City. It’s where I got this costume from.

What’s it called?

Harmonia NY.

Tell me about your outfit.

I’m telling a story about happiness, fluidity and celebrating the cause of life, which is why we’re all here today. We’re here to be happy, to express ourselves. This outfit is spring awakening.

Do you go to Burning Man and other festivals a lot?

Yes, I’ve gone for five years. I am also a D.J. I’m playing the after-party.

Have you made any new friends today?

I actually know a lot of people here from Burning Man. So it’s been a lot of catching up. I also have a baby, so I was busy at home with him before this. Now the babysitter’s watching him.

(With Inputs from nytimes)

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