Burning Man turns 30: How a group of radical pranksters built a city in the desert
FROM THE SUICIDE CLUB TO EARLY SILICON VALLEY TO FANCY DESERT RATS, HERE’S THE TALE BEHIND BLACK ROCK CITY AND ‘THE MAN’
By Jenny Kane for RGJ
Burning Man was born 30 years ago as a bonfire beach party in San Francisco.
An 8-foot-tall wooden stick figure planted in the sand of Baker Beach, and the Golden Gate Bridge loomed in the background. Three dozen avant-garde souls surrounded the recycled lumber effigy as it burned, the attendees summoned by two vagabond comrades, Jerry James and Larry Harvey.
« It was like a second sun brought down to this earth, it was just … it transfixed us, but … that’s where the story begins, in fact. Because at the moment it was lit, everybody on that beach, north and south, came running, » Harvey would later say in a 1997 speech.
The burning of “the man” stuck, became an annual tradition and, after a few years, the free spirits traded sand for dust. They migrated to an ancient lake bed outside of the gun-toting, leave-me-alone, 200-person town of Gerlach in Northern Nevada. Over a bizarre three-decade evolution, the getaway would turn into Burning Man, a weeklong capital of nowhere inhabited by 70,000 fancy desert rats driven by mischief and mindfulness.
In the spring of its age, Burning Man was a wild, unruly, devious teenager. No doubt, today it is more composed, but it struggles constantly with its identity, perhaps because so many kinds of followers now identify with it. The hippies. The techies. The punks. The pyros. The ravers. The libertarians. The dreamers. The creators.
As Burning Man turns 30, the Reno Gazette-Journal has collected interviews with some of the « movers and shakers » of Burning Man to piece together a story of evolution — a story that begins before Burning Man ever was and ends somewhere in the future. In today’s age, Burning Man has come to be known for the techies, stars and fashionistas who attend, but this story sheds light on the lesser-sung influences of Burning Man such as the Suicide Club, Cacophony Society, Desert Siteworks, Survival Research Labs and early Silicon Valley.
While the institutional knowledge of Burners is vast, only a smidgen of it ever makes it on the playa as an increasing number of people attending Burning Man are newbies. In the beginning, the mission simply was to live bold, creative, fearless lives, but now there is this soul search — an expectation from Burners to answer a greater question: Why the hell are we doing this?
« It’s a thing in American culture now. It’s like the Super Bowl, it’s like Mardi Gras, like the World Series, » Brian Doherty told the Reno Gazette-Journal. Doherty, editor of the Libertarian magazine, Reason, has been a Burner since 1995 and also authored the book, « This is Burning Man. »
Burning Man has evolved, and — in looking at its history, and moving toward its future — it’s not likely that the answer to « Why do we do this? » will stay the same for very long.
Burning Man’s roots run far deeper than the spark lit at that moonlit bonfire on June 22, 1986. Before a man ever went up in flames, there was the Suicide Club and the Cacophony Society.
Before the Suicide Club and the Cacophony Society were the Dadaists, Situationists, and the Communiversity. The Dadaists were politically driven anti-artists sprung from a protest of capitalism, bourgeois society and war following World War I in Europe. The Situationists were a similar group, though they had a particular interest in living in the moment. The story of the Communiversity will unfold.
But the story is easiest told from the dawn of the Suicide Club.
On January 22, 1977, a tremendous storm hit San Francisco. Twenty-foot waves broke over the barriers, and four friends ventured to the seaside at midnight to see what it felt like to hold on to the handrails as the angry Pacific spilled and crashed over the concrete.
“The waves would shoot up … and they would fall down on top of you. If you weren’t hanging on it would suck you up, pull you out and you’d die,” John Law, a former member of the Suicide Club, told the Reno Gazette-Journal. “They looked at it and figured it out and they took the risk.”
The four masterminds behind the Suicide Club were Gary Warne, Adrienne Burk, Nancy Prussia and David T. Warren, all of them leaders at the Communiversity, a free, experimental college overseen by San Francisco State University as part of the Free School Movement of the 1960s. Classes included everything from Volkswagen repair to how to play guitar to theoretical physics to how to make tofu. Anyone could be a teacher, and anyone could be a student.
Warne was the chief administrator, but he was starting to push the limits of what SFSU would allow.
“There was a tipping point – Pie of the Month Club,” Law said. “You came and signed for the class, and your requirement was that you would write down on paper when you would be available to be assassinated and when you could not be bothered.”
During availability times, you could be hit by a pie at any time by anyone. One student was pied by a waiter during dinner with her parents, another while teaching his own class. SFSU was done putting up with classes that doubled as jokes, and Warne was done, too. Warne took the Communiversity elsewhere, to his own bookstore in San Francisco, and after the night of the storm, he put one of the classes down as the Suicide Club.
That’s when Law took interest. Law, a 17-year-old juvenile delinquent runaway from Tennessee (he only had his record expunged earlier this year), had spoiled his chances to attend college on a scholarship. He hitchhiked to California, which held memories from a 1960s family trip to San Francisco, where his father drove around Haight-Ashbury with the windows rolled down to gawk at the hippies.
After a bout of homelessness and going sober, Law joined the Suicide Club. He would later become a rogue founder of Burning Man before becoming estranged from the crew as ideas diverged.
Inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale of fictional comrades who would gamble their lives at midnight, the Suicide Club would have no specific mission or philosophy other than experiencing life through revelry as they’d never experienced before.
They entered a grown man into a baby beauty contest. They climbed the Golden Gate Bridge in the dark and rapelled down its sides. They toured sewer systems in Victorian costume. They held burlesque shows in abandoned theaters. They pretended to be mental health patients touring the City by the Bay.
“You can feel free to be (you must be) as insane as you know how. We request all forms of noninjurious acting out – howling, hair-tearing, crawling, spirit possession, silly laughter. Each person must dress himself; your costume, however, should coincide with the diagnosis you choose,” read the mental health tour’s announcement by one of Law’s friends, club member Ron Unger, on April 30, 1977 in the club’s “Nooseletter.”
As Law recalled, Unger was a mental health hospital employee at the time and he wanted to see how the public would respond to people who actually were in need.
“We got on this cable car, and no one was drooling on anyone else or hurting anyone, but by the time we had gone a few blocks, everyone (else) had gotten off,” Law said. Other members pretended to be doctors and talked like they thought doctors would of “vacations at Tahoe” and golf and then bought the “patients” ice cream cones.
The club even hung out with controversial groups such as the Unification Church of the United States and the American Nazi Party.
By the mid-1980s, however, Warne had left the club, and many of the first members had moved on as well. Communiversity dissolved. Not to mention most “everybody had slept with everyone else,” Law said, so certain events were off-limits to at least a few people.
“It ended with a whimper, not a bang,” he said.
Although the Suicide Club ended up “suiciding” itself, as Burning Man founder and Suicide Club fan Michael Mikel put it, the Cacophony Society picked up where the club left off in 1986.
“They were so far underground that I couldn’t find them,” Mikel said of the Suicide Club in a June interview.
The Cacophony Society was an offshoot of the Suicide Club, more or less, and would carry on the absurd aspirations of the Suicide Club, but it would be more open, according to Mikel, who helped start it. At the time, Mikel was a tech-curious Texan and Vietnam veteran who moved to San Francisco to open his mind.
“Our motto was a ‘randomly gathered network of free spirits united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society,’” Mikel said.
Within the first few years, the Society’s newsletter, « Rough Draft, » had a 500-person following in the Bay Area, Mikel recalls, and the Society had offshoots in Los Angeles, Portland, Chicago, Seattle, New York City and Austin.
The Society went on to create many events that still exist today, including the Salmon Run, where participants dress as fish and “swim upstream” against the thousands of runners in the Bay to Breakers footrace every year in the Bay Area. There are iterations of Santa Con, where bawdy drunkards en masse dress as Santa Claus, all over.
“At the time I was sitting in conference rooms with all these people in suits and I’d be sitting wearing a suit and tie, and I was thinking, if they knew what I did last night and how I was dressed,” Mikel said.
The Society also was rubbing elbows with a group called the Survival Research Lab, a group of robotics savants who wanted to make quasi-art out of engineering.
And then there was Burning Man.
Mikel and Law had become partners in crime through the Cacophony Society. In 1988, Jerry James reached out to them asking for help with a Summer Solstice beach burn at a nudist stretch of beach.
“It sounded like some kind of pagan thing to me,” Mikel said.
There were disputed accounts of how the « man » himself came to be. According to a speech he gave in 1997, Harvey told himself, « I’m tired of this, » and called up a friend and said, « Let’s burn a man, Jerry. » A different account, however, suggests that Harvey and James had watched the film « Wicker Man » before smoking weed and attending a similar bonfire event held by Mary Grauberger, a local hippie who encouraged her friends to bring their art to the shindig.
The next year, Mikel listed the bonfire in the event section of “Rough Draft” and the attendance at Burning Man was almost at 300. The man had reached 40-feet tall.
And so it went, until the cops came in 1990.
The Golden Gate Park Police had caught wind of the event, now in its fifth year, and – considering that Los Angeles was awash in beastly wildfires — put the kibosh on it, allowing the celebration to ensue minus the burning of the man.
One Cacophony member, Kevin Evans, had been to a place in Nevada, Law recalled. It was a dusty, white expanse where there had been a wind sculpture event. One of the Society members – P. Segal— had made a vessel of a four-poster bed with a sail and whipped it across the never-ending pond of pancaked dust.
There were no humans, creatures or even flora of any kind on that alkaline slate.
Come to think of it, perhaps it would not be a bad place to burn a man.
One of the Cacophony Society members, Carrie Galbraith, came up with the idea of “Zone Trips” after watching a cult film, “Stalker. »
“The idea was that you left San Francisco and left your home physically, intellectually and spiritually for an alien environment,” Law said.
After the burning of the man was hindered on the beach, a portion of the crew decided that the man would still burn, and the trek that same year to the Black Rock Desert was known as Zone Trip #4.
After the man accidentally got chopped up for firewood and they had to rebuild the structure in just a few weeks, the man reached its new home on Sept. 30, 1990.
“I took a stick and I drew a line in the ground and I had everybody line up, and I said, ‘On the other side of this line, everything will be different. Reality itself will change.’ We all stepped across that line together and things have been different. That line is now a giant area, two miles across, and my how we have grown,” Mikel said.
Burning Man became a three-day annual affair, where more and more underground artists and experimental renegades piled into caravans bound for Gerlach.
« Initially it was the goal of changing ourselves. And in doing so we could change the world, » Mikel said of those first few years.
During those years of legend, there evolved the first theme camp, a Christmas Camp with a grumpy, shotgun-toting St. Nicholas. The first art cars, one a crunched-up and earthquake-damaged 1978 Olds Cutlass Supreme. The first electronic dance music performance also emerged — although stories conflict as to who put that on since, even then, they would get pushed out to the party’s edge.
Undisputedly, drugs, sex and alcohol were available in heavy doses.
The San Francisco punk scene, including a popular punk-polka band called Poltacide, had become fond of the Burn, according to Law. At the time, many punks were absconding to the desert, mainly the Mojave from Los Angeles, to get rowdy in the badlands. Northern Californians found an equivalent escape in Northern Nevada.
“The first time I drove through (Gerlach), I noticed there were five bars and no churches. I thought, ‘This is my kind of town,’” Law said.
Only one Washoe County deputy surveyed the activity, Law recalls, and the locals kept their distance. For the most part.
“They would say, ‘They’re a bunch of Satanists,’ and then we would invite them to shooting events and we would set out stuffed animals and drive by and shoot them and then, ‘Well, they’re Satanists, but they’re Satanists with guns so they’re OK,’” Mikel said.
Most of the activity strategically happened so deep into the playa that anyone not aware of the event would almost have to stumble upon it to find it. Organizers did not go out of their way, either, to recruit softies.
“I could have gone in 1994. I had been hearing about it all summer,” Doherty said. “The propaganda about it made it sound like it was too dangerous. They really sold it that this place will kill you and you’ll get blown away by 100 mph winds and you’re going to get shot by a flamethrower. I caved to peer pressure, and this girl I liked was going.”
As a member of the L.A. Cacophony Society, he finally went in 1995. By then, the man was not the only item torched. Burners brought all kinds of artifacts made in garages and studios to be set fire for creative kicks.
“There was no rhyme or reason or planning to the burning of things. Now if you want to burn something you have to ask and have to talk to a fire marshal. I mean, it wasn’t cool to burn things that weren’t yours, but it did happen, and it certainly was not like you were back in the city. It wasn’t criminal to burn something of your neighbor’s,” Doherty said. “Everything was on fire by the last night.”
The burning of the man was no casual feat anymore either, as all of the participants collectively raised the man by rope in a communal display.
Lighting the man was another significant task, one that founding member of the Suicide Club David Warren, also an encyclopedia salesman and former carnival worker, botched in 1990 when he lit his face on fire lighting it with his own breath. He was OK, but embarrassed, Law said.
By way of the magical desert, a new Burn was beginning to take shape, one that would set the tone for the next few years.
“It wasn’t f***ing rocket science. The archetypal image of a man on fire is incredibly powerful,” Law said.
As the event progressed, art began to evolve around it.
In 1991, a San Francisco model and dancer, Crimson Rose, came out to the desert and turned the Burn into a dance.
“The first thing I did was put on the 16-foot silk wings and ended up climbing the man. It’s like it was working subconsciously. I somehow knew where to step on the man, got up to his shoulders,” Rose, now one of Burning Man’s founders. “At one point, one of the fellows who’d been working on the man ran over to stop me but he realized I was … I felt like I was the protectoress of the man, really. If we’re going to release the man, we’ve got to do it correctly, and I have been doing that ever since.”
Her dancing would establish a following of fire dancers for years to come, not to mention she would later delve into the shaping of Burning Man’s art heritage.
William Binzen, a Cacophony Society member and San Francisco photographer, would bring the first structural art to the playa in 1992 via Desert Siteworks, a collective of San Francisco artists handpicked by Binzen and fellow artist Judy West.
“Burning Man had no clear idea of what they wanted to do. I would describe it as a tailgate party,” Binzen said.
The collective created land-based art with materials made of, and inspired by, the land that it graced. From neon installations in the hot springs to wind-reliant ditch serpents, the group explored the outskirts of the playa to tap into nature’s artistic inclinations.
“Without the art, Burning Man would have petered out,” said Binzen, who also documented some of the first few years with a camera.
His images capture not only some of the work of the Desert Siteworks, which lasted three years, but also the aura of it. Using layers of exposures, Binzen captures the movement and energy of the subjects, making them appear to be neon ghosts in the night and dynamic beings in the day.
Giant mouse traps, operas in castles and gasoline-torched cities would be just a tiny sampling of some of the pieces to follow in the years to come.
But, in the years ahead of the nascent anti-festival, there would be elements that would not be so pretty. The tangibility of risk would become all too real.
‘THAT WAS THE MOMENT I DECIDED I WAS DONE’
Another metamorphosis commenced in 1996, two decades ago.
At the time, there was no city to speak of, or boundaries – physically or creatively. People drove at insane speeds; after all the land speed record would be broken on that same ground in 1997. No fences, no roads. No infrastructure. Nothing but dirt and sky made it easy to feel disoriented and helpless.
“The instructions to get there were to get off the asphalt, go down on the playa and drive for 16 miles and then turn right and go another 5.2 miles, and people would get lost, literally. They would drive around for hours,” Mikel said.
Mikel created the Black Rock Rangers in 1992, a team of volunteer scouts trained for search and rescue and general assistance. Mikel still remembers a trio of teenagers from Empire, a tiny mining town just a few miles south of Gerlach, who had snuck out to the event to see what it was about and then decided to go home in the middle of the night. They mistook lights in the distance for Gerlach, though it was actually a mining operation far off the target.
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The one with the water was found first, and he was in decent condition, but the other two took a while to find.
“We spotted the second kid. He was staggering around, no shirt on, sunburned, about to collapse. We got him in the car, gave him some water, we had called the sheriff by this time and we found the third one by about six o’ clock, lying on his back near the railroad track when the sheriff found him, almost dead. A lot of missions like that,” Mikel said.
As the event grew, however, it required more and more oversight. The resources that the organizers had did not suffice considering the scale of the event.
In 1996, the event was themed “HELCO,” the second theme after “Good and Evil” in 1995. The theme was an anarchical demonstration against corporate America and inspired protests and parodies and a theatrical handover of Black Rock City to Satan.
“The aesthetic theme of the event pretty much was completely mirrored in the brutality and execution of the event,” said Law, who would leave in the wake of 1996 events.
Bicyclists at the 1998 Burning Man event ride beneath
(Photo: Photo by David Parker/ RGJ file)
The greatest horror of the event – and probably the one that most divided the organizers – was the death of Michael Fury, a San Francisco punk rocker
Law, a friend of Fury’s, saw him just hours before his death. He said that Fury had been drinking in one of the local bars before he took off on his motorcycle the first night of the event, which technically started at midnight.
On his way, Fury passed a van driven by another punk rocker from San Francisco with whom Fury had a friendly but somewhat adversarial relationship.
“They were kind of frenemies, chest bumping, ego, super competitive …. Michael was about a half mile ahead, driving around in circles around the van and then driving straight toward the van, kinda playing chicken,” Law said. “It was after sunset. But still slightly light. He was driving about 30 mph and Fury kept making passes at him, and the last one he made a miscalculation and hit the side of the van.”
The fatal accident was near the entrance to the playa, where participants started arriving soon after for the midnight opening. Volunteers diverted traffic away, and a few hours later Harvey showed up asking when the incident occurred.
“We said, ‘Hours ago.’ He said, ‘Thank God it didn’t happen at midnight. And then he just kept repeating the phrase, ‘There’s no blood on our hands, there’s no blood on our hands.’ I ascertained that what he meant was it didn’t happen during the event. And then it was another five or six days of disasters that we had to deal with,” Law said. “That was the moment I decided I was done.”
Harvey addressed Fury’s death in Doherty’s 2004 book, « This is Burning Man. »
“This got turned into a big story about ‘all Larry cares about is insurance,’” Harvey told Doherty for his book, published in 2004. “But that missed the point. All the way out there, I kept seeing blood on my hands, and I was just relieved to discover there was nothing we could have done to stop it.”
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Most of the participants were oblivious to the mayhem that was ensuing.
A neon smiley face appeared on the man’s head, for the sake of prankery. Burning Man also found itself on the cover of WIRED magazine after science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling wrote a Gonzo piece, “Greetings from Burning Man!” about the mass pool of eccentrics congregating in the desert – what he called the new American holiday.
“I went to Burning Man. I took my kids. It’s not scary, it’s not pagan, it’s not devilish or satanic. There’s no public orgies, nobody gets branded or hit with whips. Hell, it’s less pagan than the Shriners. It’s just big happy crowds of harmless arty people expressing themselves and breaking a few pointless shibboleths that only serve to ulcerate young people anyway,” Sterling wrote. “There ought to be Burning Man festivals held downtown once a year in every major city in America. It would be good for us. We need it. In fact, until we can just relax every once in a while and learn how to do this properly, we’re probably never gonna get well.”
After that year, anyone who was in Silicon Valley and had not been paying attention before now was paying attention.
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Sterling recalled that, already at that time, the tech culture was seeping into Burning Man.
“Probably more techies showed up next year. But all of California was tech-ifying at the time. The change in culture couldn’t have been more obvious. It didn’t need me to say it,” Sterling said. “Hippie/punk and cyber always had a fraught relationship, but there was simply no way that they could ever leave one another alone.”
The first documented live connection from the playa to the internet occurred in 1994 and in 1996 they put together the first real netcast from Burning Man.
“We were beaming pictures back to Bruno’s Motel. Room 31. There’s a little tower out in the back, and we had a dish on this end, and we had a Yagi receiving dish out on the playa,” Mikel remembered. “We were sending images from Burning Man live and they would go into this motel room and we had a 50-60K modem plugged into the telephone lines. Bbbbbrrrrr. It took about 20 minutes to upload one picture from Burning Man, but it was amazing. It was cool – live from Burning Man.”
By 1997, CNN, ABC’s Nightline, NBC, Time, Washington Post, and a German television crew, and publications from England, France, Japan and Brazil attended.
While Harvey, Mikel and Law were considered the three original founders, Law was out before 1997 ever happened.
“I had been kind of unhappy about the ambition to grow the event at any cost. Anything that would get more attention for the event, (Harvey) went for it without much discretion. I didn’t like that. We had disagreements. We talked about it. My ambition was never to make it my living or my profession,” Law said.
Law felt that Burning Man was the “child that ate its parents,” and that the organizers should have walked away after 1996.
“We had drug freak outs, we had burns, we had deaths, we had people run over in tents. Larry wasn’t here for any of this,” said Law, who also went broke trying to pay for all the costs of Burning Man.
Harvey talked about Law’s perspective in an interview with the Reno Gazette-Journal.
« Maybe it just got too big for John, and that’s OK, » Harvey said. « Burning Man would not exist if it were not authentic. »
While Law criticizes what Burning Man has become, he still tells people to go once.
“I believe people get a lot out of it, and I believe in the value of it, but I don’t believe they get that out of it because of the organization,” Law said.
While Burning Man’s explosion did not happen overnight, it did happen fast.
After the bedlam of the 10th anniversary, Burning Man struggled to acquire a permit for the event the following year and the event was held north of the playa on Fly Ranch, a privately owned ranch property filled with hot springs.
While that year was far from perfect, that was when Burning Man started to get its act together as a cohesive business with finances, departments and titles.
The beginnings of the Burning Man Project formed at this point. What would one day be a nonprofit that would spend $32.4 million annually with headquarters in San Francisco, started as an LLC including all of today’s founders – Harvey, Mikel, Rose, Will Roger, Harley Dubois and Marian Goodell, as well as two other people, Joe Bullock and Carol Murrell.
“The waterline was right under our nose, and we were just above the surface. I think back, and this was just the weirdest concept for a business. You never knew how many people were going to show up, you never knew what kind of weather it was going to be – whether it was going to rain on your ass or blow your tent down on the playa – or what kind of crazy, wonderful or f***ed up stuff was going to elate you or sue your ass. Those are the things we built a business around,” Rose said.
Goodell went on to become the business brow of the company, taking on the title of CEO by 2014. Dubois became the champion of volunteer efforts and was considered the manager of Black Rock City for 25 years. Mikel continued to drive the organization to embrace technology and also continued the efforts of the Black Rock Rangers.
Harvey continued to be considered the somewhat elusive Wizard behind Oz. Rose took on much of the organization of arts, which had become a more fundamental aspect of the Burn. Roger, an experienced camper and overall handyman, was put in charge of Black Rock City operations and would later delve into many of the government relations and create an on-site airport.
“We ran it like a family. It wasn’t just business. You didn’t get up from the table and walk away from it. You cared about the people. There was a caring there like they were your brother or sister. There was compassion. It’s not written anywhere. It’s not part of the 10 Principles, but there’s an attitude that I think is healthy,” Roger said.
In fact, Roger had a big job in 1997: Turn Burning Man into a legitimate – or at least somewhat legitimate – city. Organize this chaos, please. The request came from both organizers and from Washoe County, where the event was held at that time. Today, it takes place in Pershing County.
“I called Rod Garrett, and I said, ‘Design me a city,’ and I hung up the phone right there. He said, ‘What?’ So for three days, he didn’t sleep and he came up with the first (Black Rock City) design, which I couldn’t build because I didn’t know how to survey curves at the time. He wanted it to, but we only had three months’ time, and we just didn’t know how to do that,” Roger recalled.
Garrett, whom Roger considered a « genius » after he had worked with him on construction projects in years past, became the architect of Black Rock City, the crescent-shaped metropolis that now encircles the man – the belly button of the Nevada’s third largest city when in existence. He also designed the man base and Center Camp Cafe for Burning Man until his death in 2011.
Despite the organization’s efforts, 1997 did not impress county officials or the owners of Fly Ranch. Burning Man’s organizers were not entirely confident that they were welcome anymore in the neighborhood. Burners left the ranch littered and abandoned half-dilapidated art installations stuck in the mud.
“We knew what our shortfalls were and we knew what we needed to do. After 1997, we looked for a new place. We looked really heavily at Goldfield, Nev. It has a beautiful little playa there. Oh my goodness. Around the edges, it looks like the moon. It’s just beautiful there,” Roger said. “We almost moved it to Goldfield. But that would have changed everything. We would have had the L.A. crowd, the Las Vegas crowd. It would have been much further from San Francisco. Like 12 hours. Kind of a trip. We had already made a little bit of inroads here in Gerlach. We knew Gerlach. And the Black Rock Desert is like the perfect setting for big art. We ended up getting the permit for 1998.”
That year, Burning Man got serious. Considering the work put into building a city, the organizers made it into a weeklong affair, according to Roger. The organization also came up with six different departments, all of them made up of volunteers. One of the departments was the Department of Public Works, a conglomerate of some of the hardiest souls on the playa. In essence, they built the city.
“One of the problems I was having was recruiting people for it because it was seasonal – it was four or five months out of the year, and we didn’t pay,” Roger said. “So who did I get? I got people trying to kick a drug habit or people living under bridges or people without a job. Luckily there were always a few people who were in between jobs who were smart and skilled and not strung out. Those are the people that rose to the top and we ended up relying on them.”
One year, they even hired a circus troupe who became very popular on-playa thanks to their bawdy tricks. Roger has a million stories.
Volunteers also made up the Black Rock Rangers, art department, community services and the lamplighters, who lit the lamps leading to the man. Ticket prices also went up that year, from $30 the first year, in 1994, to $50 and $65.
A shift had happened, Doherty said, explaining that Burning Man didn’t change after 1998. It was the Burning Man then that we know today, he said. Burning Man at that point chose its future over its past.
Despite bad press during that period, the world at large started recognizing the name of “Burning Man.” After all, the rumors and images were pouring out by then.
In 1997, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was ahead of the game and slipped in a line about a teacher spending her summer at Burning Man. Within the decade, Burning Man had made it on to “Reno 911,” “American Dad,” “Malcolm in the Middle,” and “The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius.”
The very first « Google doodle, » essentially a fancified Google logo, was a doodle using a rendition of the Burning Man logo that Mikel created in 1998 when Google founders Larry Page & Sergey Brin left their workplace for the festival for a week. They wanted to let Google users know that they were off to Burning Man with the use of the doodle.
Rose even recalls a year when a Christian television show, the 700 Club, prayed for the Burners’ souls after visiting the event for 24 hours.
Although it depended on who you asked, there was a lot being said about Burning Man.
By the early 2000s, Burning Man was less a feat of survival and more just a happy, miserable, willing experience of whatever the hell you wanted it to be. Since getting some of the business affairs in order, however, there was an element of soul-searching going on.
In 2004, Harvey was suddenly inspired to create the 10 Principles, which would give Burners’s experiences more direction.
“After John Law was gone, they actually started thinking about ‘What is the purpose?’ There were no principles. There was not a stated set of reasons. That was the most attractive reason. There was this weird burning ritual and for no reason. And we are bringing weird s**t,” Doherty said. “I believe that Larry all along had a purpose, but he didn’t do anything about it. I think the reasons that they did it was that they had to establish a relationship with government officials. It’s a little better than saying, ‘We’re going to have a crazy party in the desert.’ There is now an ethos, and so you can tell people, ‘You’re doing it wrong.’”
Many of the principles were rooted in the early idea of the Communiversity, the Suicide Club and the Cacophony Society. They included radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation and immediacy.
At Burning Man, nothing would be bought or sold, or even traded. No advertising would be allowed. The playa would be left spic and span after the event each year, a mentality embraced prior but enforced by 1999 when the organization started writing a post-event environmental assessment.
For some old school Burners, Burning Man was becoming too institutionalized.
“You’re supposed to do this. You’re supposed to be nice. You’re supposed to participate. There’s a Burner way, but before a Burner didn’t exist,” Doherty said. “How long did it take for people to tell you not to do something?”
To some, the idea of a master set of principles written by one person was contrary to the idea of individuality that got Burning Man where it was.
“I think that the introduction of the principles may have moved it into the direction of the cult,” said Steve Outtrim, a wealthy Australian tech-emperor who also blogs about Burning Man on his website, Burners.me. “I think the choice of these particular principles caused confusion and a grey area. There are these principle Nazis.”
One year, Outtrim placed a beer bottle down to tie his shoe and “some bloke comes up to me screaming,” preaching the leave no trace principle at the top of his voice, he told the Reno Gazette-Journal.
Burners started, too, to notice a class structure developing as the event grew. Between 1998 and 1999, the event population had spiked from 10,000 to 15,000. By the year 2000, the population was 25,400 and by 2005 it was rising toward 36,000. Today, it is twice the size.
As Burning Man leaked further and further into pop culture, an identity crisis came into clear vision for those concerned about becoming mainstream.
In 2007, one Burner, Paul David Addis, lit the man on fire early in an effort to recall the sense of chaos that once inspired the ethos of the burn.
Following his arrest related to arson charges, he conducted an interview with WIRED magazine, telling them that Burning Man had sold out a decade ago, and he wanted to remind Burners of what Burning Man was founded on: chaos.
« I decided after 1998 it wasn’t worth it. Burning Man was only advocating social impact and responsibility in the name of its own self-preservation, survival and expansion, and I was not willing to be a part of that, » Addis told Wired following his arrest.
« Burning Man was losing money hand over fist through a series of bad decisions and a real lack of business acumen. They took a hit in 1997 that was almost fatal. That really cost the organization in terms of its fiscal stability and steady accounting and in that regard they had to do a mass appeal. And by doing that, they sacrificed everything. They took the edges off and they became the Alterna-Disney. You have a lot of people singing, ‘It’s a Small World After All’ but just to a different mouse, » he told the magazine. « … Burning Man has been nothing about the Burning Man anymore except for burning the Man. It has more to do with raising money than spreading the theory of community so we can all live together. »
Addis, who had a history of mental illness, took his own life in 2012.
The Burn was admittedly getting pricier by the year. A ticket cost $100 in 2000. Prices went up to between $200 to $300 during the aughts, and they did not increase substantially again until after 2010. Much of the money was going toward the bill from the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency that oversaw and continues to oversee the event. The organization would later protest the costs of the event from 2012 to the present.
Granted, the art was becoming extravagant by measure of anyone’s wildest dreams — sunken pirate ships, howling coyotes aligned with the sunset, fire-breathing dragons.
In 2000, David Best invented the temple, which was dedicated to a friend who had worked on the project and died just before the burn. The giant memorial, an elaborate wooden structure filled with makeshift shrines and trinkets of lives lost, became an annual tradition.
As more and more Silicon Valley technology gurus flocked to the event, the technology was progressing alongside the art. The first Faraday cage suit, a suit that deflects electricity, was tested at Burning Man and hexayurts, a disaster relief shelter now used for refugees, were as well, among many other forms of technology, according to Mikel.
And, while such inventions were means of networking and fanfare, they were some of the best party tricks of the century.
« I don’t know that I’m responsible, but I brought a lot of tech people with me, » said Mikel, who was embedded in the tech industry. « There was a time when Silicon Valley would empty out, close up shop because everyone was out at Burning Man. We were on the edge of experience, the edge of what was happening. »
The tech folk were also bringing fancy RVs and and air-conditioned outposts, but they also were brainstorming the ideas of tomorrow, according to Mikel.
Meanwhile, other festivals were transforming themselves too.
Festivals all over the world – from Wasteland Weekend in California’s Mojave Desert to the modern celebration of Las Fallas in Valencia, Spain — were adopting some of the bohemian qualities of Burning Man, from philosophies of leave no trace to the generous dose of fire.
“It’s important for that thing – that thing that changes people’s lives – to be available to a larger part of society. Otherwise you’re only going to have a small group of people that will have these experiences and it will not affect society,” Mikel said.
The identity crisis, however, came to a head last year when it became clear how enmeshed Burning Man was with some of the most wealthy tech titans in the nation, and in the world, for better or worse.
Burning Man has a Board of Trustees, which is made up of highfalutin folks in the Burning Man, tech and art worlds. One of them was billionaire businessman Jim Tananbaum. In 2015, Tananbaum resigned after New York journalist Felix Gillette’s Bloomberg Business article « The Billionaires at Burning Man » shed light on the unspoken caste system at Burning Man.
The story centered on Beth Lillie, a Burner who first published a guest blog on Burners.meabout how she came to be a “Sherpa” for Tananbaum at Burning Man 2014. Sherpa, in this context, meaning she was a paid servant.
“Her grievances were raw, her portrait damning, and her tell-all account immediately touched off a backlash against Tananbaum that mirrors the San Francisco culture wars of recent years, in which symbols of the area’s surging tech wealth have become lightning rods for anxieties over class and privilege. Overnight, Tananbaum had become the Google Bus of Burning Man,” Gillette wrote in his February 2015 article.
It was a story of two worlds colliding at Burning Man.
Gillette, who never went to Burning Man but had heard much of it from longtime Burner friends, said that the story immediately intrigued him since it indirectly told the darkening fairytale of the Bay Area’s Silicon Valley.
“Every year this thing has jumped the shark, it’s getting too big, but more people from different places are going, and even if they’re not going they’re thinking about going,” Gillette told the Reno Gazette-Journal. “It seems to get at some of these class movements that are playing out elsewhere.”
Tananbaum never spoke publicly about the controversy, but Burning Man became more vocal about its ongoing battle against Plug n’ Play camps, camps where the set-up is executed by paid employees and self-reliance and communal effort are secondary, if not foreign. Many of the camps cater to the tech crowd, and also to celebrities, everyone from Katy Perry to Susan Sarandon to P. Diddy — just a few of the stars that have been spotted at the burn in years past.
“Everyone likes to pick on the one percent that come out to Burning Man and how they’re changing Burning Man. I say, no, that’s not what’s happening. They’re coming out to Burning Man, and the community is changing them,” said Roger, one of the founders who had a vital role in recruiting tech titans to donate more than $6 million to Burning Man for the purchase of Fly Ranch this year. “If we can do that, we’ve changed the world. That’s an opportunity, that’s not a problem. You have to look at it that way.”
So, why does the man still burn?
Today, that battle over identity and purpose continues as the organization expands its wings into the world.
Burning Man collects about $2.4 million from the event each year, but it is funneled back into paying the more than 70 year-round positions at the Burning Man headquarters in San Francisco. The now nonprofit organization also is doing more to fund programs such as Burners Without Borders, Global Arts Honoraria and more art for the annual event in the Black Rock Desert.
Burning Man Project also has purchased the Fly Ranch, the 3,800-acre property where the 1997 event was held. It is filled with hot springs, the colorful Fly Geyser and wetlands beyond the eye can see. Though it will take time, the founders envision a year-round home for Burning Man’s global community.
As for the founders, they are hoping to hand the torch off to the next generation. They are tired but proud of what they have created.
« Burning Man is on a zig-zagged path. And another thing is to have faith in your fellow human beings. There is a lot darkness in our times right now, but by and large people are inherently good, for the most part. Put your faith in that – and help everyone else rise with you, » Mikel said.
Even Law, the estranged founder who works on neon signs from a clocktower in Oakland, still believes in the creative magic of Burning Man.
« Things can’t stay the same, » Law said. « I’ve never advocated for things to stay the same. »