Juplaya 2021: A Standout Year for the Black Rock Desert Homecoming
From the Everywhen homestead’s vantage point in the Black Rock Desert, 2021 marked a year of transformation for the loose gathering known as Juplaya. From longtime veterans to first-time visitors and everyone in between, this summer’s participation indicates that a growing community of creators seek to experience the playa on their own terms.
Bureau of Land Management (BLM) officials counted roughly 1,400 visitors to the Gerlach-adjacent desert in Northern Nevada over the 4th of July Weekend. Others estimate the true figure was much higher, though. Art cars and large-scale builds studded the horizon of the otherwise featureless expanse, signaling a departure from the more modest festivities of years prior.
Sights and Sounds
On the campgrounds of the Everywhen homestead, at least, massive creations were in no short supply. Greeting visitors from the southeast was Kevin Dow’s Infinite Regression, a plexiglass paralleliped lined with LEDs whose facets were all mirrored inward at one end. Closer to camp was Deniz Nicole’s kaleidoscope, which itself played on the illusion of space in a manner reminiscent of her larger installations.
Everywhen’s own Mathew Gilbuena and Shannon Pistole channeled years of experience building sacred spaces in the Black Rock Desert into this year’s Juplaya temple. The “Temple of Five,” as it was called, consisted of structures symbolizing the five stages of society theorized by Bavarian philosopher Adam Weishaupt.
In contrast to Juplayas of years past was the number of attractions for revelers eager to blow off steam and dance. By nightfall, art cars like Time Bandit, Golden Gate Bridge, Techno Gecko, and The Funky Skunk cast surrealistic splashes of color across the desert landscape with otherworldly music to match. Meanwhile, the finely tuned speaker systems of camps like Sound Garden and Third Shot offered stationery options to those unwilling to get whisked away to remote corners of the playa in the wee hours of the morning.
Perhaps the most visible feature of Juplaya 2021 was a fire-spewing tower built by Ryan Niemi that was erected in Everywhen’s own backyard. Consisting of a 50-foot radio tower with an extra six feet of pipe protruding from the top, it ignited propane in luminous poofs on command with a switch-activated pilot light.
Niemi had nearly decided not to haul the apparatus out. “I went out the previous weekend and set up camp next to the Everywhen folks,” he says. “I went back home to Oregon for a few days, and since I was driving back out to the playa anyway, I brought along the other trailer that had all the tower and propane parts and crane on it.” In poetic playa justice, his spontaneity birthed the tallest structure to grace the Black Rock Desert over the weekend.
A Brief History of 4th of Juplaya
Black Rock Desert enthusiasts have of course visited the playa over 4th of July Weekend for generations, among them landsailers as well as groups like NoMan and Burning Bush. It was only in the past two decades that the seeds of Juplaya were sewn, though.
Earl “Dodger” Stirling planned the debut installment of what would become an annual tradition after helping organize the 1999 edition of New Moonie, an on-playa New Moon Weekend gathering. He wanted to set his outings apart by keeping them largely anonymous - so much so that even 19 years after the fact, he initially had reservations about being named in this article.
“One of the things that I was trying to do with this whole event was do something sustainable and non-permitted, specifically disorganized, and also not associated with any one person,” Stirling says. “The whole idea was that it was something anyone could do, and any group could do.”
Stirling’s first 4th of July Weekend excursion in 2002 (or maybe 2003; he can’t precisely remember) only drew a few dozen revelers and did not go by any official name. The following year it grew several times bigger, and Black Rock Desert mainstay Allen Denault contributed by arranging a camp called “4th of Juplaya” that immediately became eponymous with the yearly pilgrimage. “Of course, the name ‘Juplaya’ was too good not to stick,” recounts Stirling, whose own camp was called DesArt.
Overseas work opportunities meant that 2006 marked Stirling’s final Juplaya - but true to the ethos of the concept, it carried on year after year in his absence. In the decade to follow, annual attendance would often break the thousands. Everywhen’s own origins trace back to the 2016 installment, three years before we had picked our own name, and when our activity consisted of little more than a few friends exploring the mystery of the playa.
Making a Mark Without Leaving a Trace
Despite increased interest in Black Rock Desert gatherings amid the coronavirus pandemic, many accounts suggest that the 2021 festivities left little impact on the area. “I want to say that trash from Juplaya was minimal,” said Gerlach resident Laura Blaylock, who began visiting the playa in 1974 and tasks herself with educating visitors on the importance of leaving no trace. “No trash on highway 34. 447 was also in good shape. Some beverage containers, but that’s usual.”
Brigit Zent, a naturalist who oversees the Juplaya Facebook group, also gets the impression that campers paid more mind to their impacts on the playa than in years prior. “It feels and sounds like all the education we’ve been putting out there year after year might actually be making a difference,” she affirmed.
Everywhen collaborators and all others who enjoy the Black Rock Desert would do well to hold environmental responsibility at the foundation of their activity on playa. It is equally important to consider the residents of neighboring Gerlach. Even the most eccentric artists ought to make every effort not to disrupt locals’ day-to-day lives with behavior that may seem commonplace after several days alongside close friends in the desert.
A bright and colorful future lies ahead for Juplaya as long as participants remain inspired but also conscious of their place in a much larger ecosystem. Art can only continue to thrive on the playa if a blank canvas meets visitors year after year, after all.
John Cameron is a first-time Everywhen participant and longtime journalist covering the arts. His recent work can be found on Selector.news, for whom he serves as editor-in-chief.