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Black Rock City has been around as we know it for a little while now. The population has steady increased like any other town in America, the urban planning has developed to a point of satisfactory stability and the citizens understand the basic laws of the land. The “everyday life” here is not like any other place, however there are daily procedures by the citizens that keep sanity around. But, within this routine there are the anomalies; the unexplained. The stories of people they have scene, events that took place, or of times before the order of the land are now all a part of the lore of Burning Man, and in this contemporary context, these stories have become what we can consider urban legends.
Urban Legends at Burning Man have a common thread of being completely crazy, zany and fun, but at the same time they are completely believable. For example, it is rumored that Perry Ferrell attends every year. That’s not too hard to believe, for where else could he go and travel in the open, but completely under the radar for a week? Another famous face that is rumored to have graced a few stages is Paul Oakenfold. Previous years Oakenfold has played a show at the event, but this year it was rumored the face did not match the name on the playbill for the scheduled evening. Both these artists are believable legends for the event with the advent of the enormous electronic music trend that graces the playa. Other rumored names that might be brought on like moths to a flame are DJ Spooky and Phish. Phish’s appearance is the most highly rumored on the playa, however, I asked many of the organizers about this and every single one laughs it off with a roll of the eyes.
Funnier experiences are such legends as Waldo. One person dresses up as Waldo every day, and if you see him, you see him. No big deal, but funny.
There are things on the playa, too. Rumors of a porta-potty fully equipped with curtains, newspapers, fresh scents and other amenities that would make it the most desirable one on the playa.
Disasters are rumored, as well. Airplane crashes, people dying from falling off an art car, money being stolen, or even muggings are rumored. It seems that every year there is a story of a large camp losing a lot of sound equipment, or having vandalizing occur while performance groups are off performing. These are aspects of an evolving city, which makes it a complete urban landscape.
One myth to dispel is that Larry Harvey doesn’t walk around and do stuff anymore. That is simply not true. Larry is the most laid back large event organizer I have ever met. My friend Jeff, a photo journalist, and myself went to a press conference to ask him some questions and we were totally blown away by his down to earth stature. So, if you see Larry say hi and thank him for giving you a chance to find yourself.
For the New York burners, there is the decompression coming up: Link: Astral Slide. Its December 5th, 2004, so get a ticket before its too late.
New Burning Mans
After this 2004 year, the Burning Man organizers are beginning to focus their attention on regional events much more than in the past. Information about year round playa details can be found here from the Burning Man website. Regional events are mini-Burning Man events located all over the country. Andie Grace oversees these events to make sure they follow the basic 10 commandments of Burning Man. Right now there are 85 people running 65 regional programs all over the world.
Regionals are important for Burning Man because the playa can probably only hold about 50,000 people, which would mean a new place would have to be sought. Finding another place more desolate than Black Rock Desert seems a stretch, so the regional events are hoping to compensate. Initial concerns from participants are this process is “dilutive”.
“More the merrier” is the general attitude countering the dilutive concern. Regionals are an attempt to introduce the social aspects Larry Harvey is trying to get across with the event to new groups of people that cannot make it to the playa or cannot handle the playa. “Fuck them!”, is the initial counter to branching the event out from the playa. The organizers feel, however, it is more important to have ideas like the gift economy and loving your neighbor rather than simply living on the playa.
Serious cynicism believes the new regional promotion is, “I think it is a marketing line…a play for money…franchise the whole fucking thing.”
Larry’s drive for the event is different than that. He feels like the yahoos that come to the event with beer hats looking at girls and to see things burn, who are really not understanding of the initial premise behind the event, if they can come to the event and learn about the sociological aspects of the camp, the community aspect of the camp, then he has done something right. They go home and they start talking about it, stop being a yahoo and that makes things better in the world. It might stop someone from buying an Escalade with two TV screens in the backseat.
Conversations immediately head back to the money aspect, which I address in “The Woes of Creating Burning Man”.
Beyond money, the regional events are a new evolution of thought on how to promote the ideas that Larry desires to have spread in the world. What strikes me is how this branch out is very American in it’s development. Looking at the regional map, the dots on the landscape remind me of the proliferation of Walmarts and Home Depots. Ironic since Burning Man is so strictly against the corporations. But, the organizers seem to be learning from the corporate examples and taking what they need. Corporations like WalMart and Home Deport, no matter how much you disagree with them, they have phenomenal business expansion examples. Copying their example through voluntary expansion does, in theory, take the event and its philosophies to an audience that might not be able to experience the playa because of intimidation, travel distance or simply not knowing about the event.
I recently received a notice for the San Francisco decompression F(a)ire in the Jack Rabbit Speaks. Andie Grace outlined many guidelines for the event including noise hours, street conduct and neighborhood consideration. I will not be able to attend this event, but I would have to guess that some of these rules might be a deterrent from the normal social environment at Burning Man on the playa. For those that have not participated at the playa, their initial experience for the few hours will be significantly different from the playa.
Other regional events take the better course of a week in some locations. These events seem to have a better chance of mimicking the playa and seclusion. If the areas are far enough from the nearest town and the participants are there to pack in, pack out and to participate in the gift economy, it might be a successful event. I hope some of them have inclement weather to parallel dust and windstorms of the playa, though.
I am partial to the playa, and a part of me shares the sentiment of the few people I interviewed regarding this. I made a trek to a foreign place to an environment that demanded I participate in a community. My first few hours at the playa I was not a happy camper. My initial sentiments were very different from my feelings at the end of the week, but only because I got beyond thinking about dirt and wind and began to have a seriously different lifestyle from the norm. The urban tapestry was amazing, too. I wonder if the regional events will even try to mimic the urbanism of the playa, or if it will be more resembling of the earlier chaotic events when there were only 300 people.
Regionals have a potential to reach out a positive message to a much larger group than keeping the event centralized to the playa. Although the associated events will have to overcome the preconceptions of the event, the groups that can be affected by the message will hopefully allow new people to alter their lifestyles as Larry would hope.
The Woes of Creating Burning Man
The Costs of the Contemporary Beast
Burning Man is now an event that most participants feel is a huge enterprise, easily filling the pockets of the creators allowing them luxury and ease of living. Unfortunately, this is not a reality for the creators of the event. Cynicism for the creators reared its head in a timid gesture this year with mock flyers in every single porta-potty telling of a fiesta BBQ dinner for all. Word got around fast, and the 2pm BBQ time was met with a dry erase board reading, “No BBQ today! The flyers are a hoax!”
Why would participants that thrive upon this week of unleashing want to hold contempt for the creators? It all comes back to money. Money is exchanged in order to enter Black Rock City. Larry Harvey considers it a “tax”. Participants consider it an expensive ticket. I bought early this year and my tax was a few dollars north of two hundred. Participants are not stupid people, and with a little math their algebra takes them to formulas such as this: Each participant pays around $200/person. There are 35,000 participants. Multiply $200 by 35,000 to see how much money is brought into the pockets of the creators. Answer: Roughly $7,000,000.
It is a safe bet to estimate that 85% or more of the population of Burning Man will not earn this amount of money in their lifetime. To them, this is a large chunk of change that can take them to places known as Tahiti or Morocco every day of the year for the rest of their lives.
Reality check: Burning Man is a business. Campmate Jeff from San Francisco assists small start up businesses as his living. My first night at camp I was expressing my cynicism for the tax, while Jeff was talking about the possibilities of growing the event for the sustainability of Burning Man. The growth of the event was “for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was they probably needed to make more money if they were going to live off of it, and I’m not talking about getting rich, I’m just talking about paying salaries.”
“Yeah, I’m sure it does at this point,” I interjected.
“No,” Jeff replied, “I don’t think it does.”
I protested that $200 a pop for 30,000 people would give you at least $6,000,000.
“$6,000,000, that’s your whole budget for the year. That’s peanuts…[start-up companies] burn a million dollars a month, easy,” Jeff said.
My thoughts at this point were how companies are entities that function at full throttle year round. Burning Man does not function at full throttle year round. At best it is only at its peak for three months of the year including set up and take down.
“[The companies I advise] are small… they have, like, 30 people, 40 people…they’re burning $2,000,000 a month. [Burning Man] has way more than 30 people… and when this thing is going they have hundreds of people.
“This year the DPW guys, the guys that do the heavy lifting…are working for food….Nobody is getting rich off [Burning Man].”
Not only are there 30 or more full time employees to pay, but a multitude of other expenses:
--A $1,000,000 land use fee imposed by the US Government for use of the barren land.
--Three divisions of law enforcement: State, Local and County
--Sanitation for the porta-potties
--Electricity at the site
--Water trucks to keep the dust down
Each of these listed could potentially cost $1,000,000 or more, and then you still have underlying costs.
Walking through the event and talking to people about general operation of the event and what they felt about it, the conversation always came back to the revenue. An unknown person on one of my tapes expressed, “I have a tough time knowing that this event pulls in somewhere between 6 and 8 million dollars of revenue and Larry having all these lofty moral goals, but at the same time the guy is obviously pocketing some fucking doe.” After explaining what I had heard regarding costs for the event, however, this individual and others felt a little more comfortable about it. My friend Jeff from camp (not Jeff with the business background, but Jeff from Huntington Beach) adds, “[Larry is] not cashing in off this; he’s having a good old time…he’s a good going guy…He’s looking at the benefits of…[the money] going towards everybody, not just himself.”
Larry does make a little money off the event, but he oversees the entire event. Jeff added, “He comes out a head, but he’s not sitting out there milking it; he’s not doing that MTV shit…he’s a good guy.”
Larry is also very aware of the ramifications of having a corporate sponsor for the event. Corporations are not well loved at Burning Man, for many people go to the event to get away from them. I met a whole camp of computer engineers that work for Google who come every year to just relax and not be a part of that doldrum. The temptations for having corporate sponsors for the event, if you need money, are huge, however. If Budweiser were to sponsor the event, the organizers would most assuredly have enough revenue to cover all the operation costs at their current rate. Larry is constantly asked to consider sponsorship and he always adamantly says no. “I think [not having corporate sponsors is why] people don’t really have a problem paying $200 a ticket,” another unidentified participant interjected, “because, I mean, you know there is no corporate sponsor out there.” Introducing the corporate sponsorship would bring in a new crowd, but also significantly change the dynamic of the event. Jeff finished the thought by saying, “[Larry is] basically doing this [event] so that we all have a good time. That’s what it comes down to. Make sure we’re all fucking cool. Make sure everything is clean and we’re having a good old time.”
Liabilities are an issue for the organizers of the event. A few thought Burning Man could be held responsible for heinous acts or events in the court of law, even though the event says it is free of all liability. Last year (2003), a girl fell off an art car and was crushed by it. In the same year, a pilot forgot to put down his landing gear and crashed his airplane at the Black Rock Airport and another plane that just outright tumbled on the landing strip. Disasters like this at the event are serious concerns for the organizers and they have to be taken into account when putting everything together. Because of the general atmosphere, however, the blaming for accidents seems to be kept in check. The attitude of my interviews prevailed through out the week of saying that if you come out to the desert and you are stupid, its your own damn fault, and everyone is going to hold you responsible for what happened to you. But when accidents become disasters, “understood” rules can give way to the written documents that hold the event down and people responsible. A sad evolution of a large beast.
There are Girls Gone Wild aspects that the organizers have to contend with, too. Nudity is accepted and, for the most part, the norm of Burning Man. When you video tape girls dancing around and then broadcast it on your website, the context changes. Three years ago all video cameras (and digital still cameras that have video capability) began to have to be registered at Media Mecca. The intent is to know exactly who has the capability and if something pops up online or worse, on DVD, the organizers can search through the registrations of equipment and hold the responsible party liable.
How that exactly works, is up for speculation. The registration process basically says that you have to tell the event organizers what you do with your published work. Whatever is gained in commission for publication, 10% is to go back to Burning Man. Because the event has a year-round full-time staff, it is possible for them to check the internet for publications of Burning Man related articles, pictures and video. If you have not told them about what you have done or made from your work, they can come after you, which is totally not worth it for the author of the articles. It makes much more sense to pay $100 than $1000 in fines or hassle charges from the event.
Problems with Individual Costs
Still, there are many costs that are incurred to each participant. Myself, I had food and water costs, camping equipment and liquor expenses that I would not have normally encountered. Those that put on elaborate theme camps or even organized camps the costs must be huge. Other aspects, such as the gift economy, cannot function beyond the week of the event.
It is tragic that participants of this event feel so much initial animosity because of the initial money exchanged. Ideally, no one would be charged, but this is an event that takes place on government land and therefore has to abide by the measures imposed. It is also an event with a large population that needs certain comforts, such as porta potties. And, now that the event is a true slice of life, law enforcement needs to be in attendance because of the small percentage of criminals that appear.
Nothing Else Like It
Burning Man is the evolution of the beast. This event evolves with time. It has evolved into being a city that understands it’s business agenda, but also understands how it was founded and it tries to accept both. There is only so much the event organizers can do when they invite anyone and everyone to come out to the desert to do what ever they want. However, the predominant attitude at Burning Man is that you can walk down a street at any time in any section and feel safe, so don’t let my “criminal statistics” make you think otherwise. Crime that occurs is innocent, consisting mainly of people too “confused” about which bike is which and wander off with the wrong one.
Larry Harvey started this event because they wanted to find a time and place to do what ever they wanted to do. The week was for doing drugs or shooting a gun because they never did those things in normal society. Now there are no guns or dogs, but it is still a place where any one and everyone can come to be naked or dress however they want to and not be judged from it. In fact, you have a better chance not being judged if you do have a costume.
The money issues will continue to be an issue as long as the event grows. It seems people always need something to complain about, but its good to know Larry Harvey and the other organizers are not about to budge with corporate sponsors or other means of selling out. The amount of chaos the organizers have to contend with is enormous so to have an event happen every year of this scale that basically goes off without a hitch is amazing. Whenever you think curating a show is tough, think about this and you might feel a little better.
I saw a Reno 911 episode today where the guys try to make it to Burning Man to bust some "LSD-heads". They get lost outside of Gerlach and never make it. But, damn they had some good participation costumes.
I'm working on a few articles at the same time. I'm going over all my notes and making sure I am quoting correctly. Don't worry, more is coming soon.
"What is Burning Man?"
“What is Burning Man?” Without time to answer the first, the second and third arrive. “What do you do there” “Who goes there?” Traveling back from Black Rock City and telling people of my travels, I am barraged by these same questions. Honestly, there is no easy answer. In fact, the answer is as complex and hazy as the true origins of the event.
In 1986, Larry Harvey and 11 friends needed to get away from the everyday life of San Francisco. These individuals were not social outcasts or people even on the fringe of society. According to a camp-mate of mine named Jeff from San Francisco, the collective group were known as “intellectuals”. These intellectuals gathered on a beach in San Francisco to get a few things off their chests, namely Larry’s former relationship. Over the course of three days they forgot about the outside world and let their inner selves out. In the end, they gathered some driftwood and sculpted it as a figure, which they promptly burned. It was not a specific effigy to anything or anyone, as far as the tale goes, but an effigy of events and times of which they wanted to leave behind.
The 12 friends became 30, or more. The following year it is rumored to be 300. It was not because the event was a party beyond parties, or an orgy on the beach. The appeal was (and remains at the core) a time for the demons inside to be let out and then burned at the end, so as to have a clean slate for the following year. The expression of these demons has become to be known as “participating”. The cleansing has become the burning of the ever more elaborate figure known as “the Man”, the Temple, and now a Pagoda.
The evolution of the event to 35,000 or so for 2004 means a lot of souls are asking to be cleansed. The manifestation of this comes in every single shape and form. I can describe it like this: Think of something you would NEVER EVER do in your normal life. This includes your after hours. Think of the things that you only ever do in your dreams. Burning Man is the place where those dreams are realized and not criticized (except for a few yahoos on Saturday). Have you ever been naked for seven straight days?
Back in the day, the idea of doing something you would never normally do made the selection of the site ideal. Participants could walk out onto the edge of the playa and shoot a gun (because they had never had or wanted a gun (and this is now not allowed because you cannot have guns on the playa)) or jump out of a friend’s airplane without the fear of hitting something on the ground. The playa caused a default thought of “pack in, pack out” mentality that is strongly encouraged to this day. But it wasn’t because they had no services, but because the area was so beautiful that it was ridiculous to think of littering this place. Nowadays, it is a rule and demand by all to keep the streets clean. Rules are delivered in any and every form so every citizen of Black Rock City knows to “pack in and pack out”. The playa is still a beautiful place, but the collective social dynamic within the city no longer is able to retain a default attitude for cleanliness.
Burning Man can be anything you want it to be. If you want to sit and read a book for a week, you can. If you want to rave 24 hours a day, you can. The major underlying premise of the event, though, is how people appreciate what is said or done in the streets of the city. Congratulations are delivered to people for taking a voice, even if people do not agree with what is being said. This is not a normal city. As Larry Harvey proudly states, “People still look you in the eye here.” This acceptance stems from one of the most well know laws of the city: “There are no spectators at Burning Man.” (And as the tour guide for the Artery Bus emphasized, “Get you ass off the bus!”) As long as people are participating in the events, or creating their own, it is appreciated. Burning Man is a place that is temporarily created for us to cleans our demons and have a chance at starting over for the year with a clean slate. It’s also a chance for the other side of everyone to be the front side, even if it is only for a week. My best answer to all those questions is, “You’ll just have to go and experience it for yourself.”
More to come…
"Documenting this event is like describing a kaleidoscope to a blind person."
--Carol, aka "Big Momma", Burning Man 2004
Nothing could be truer. Never have I experienced a city, place or environment like I experienced in the past 7 days. The people I met spanned the globe, yet we were all bonded by an event meant to be for the cleansing of demons inside us.
I have hours of tape to sort out and 300+ pictures to deal with. I spend every day on the playa riding my bike all day to see everything I could, and I barely even scratched the surface. My mind was overwhelmed with the variety in expression and celebration. The next month I will decompress what I found out about the event, the participants and myself in the Featured Projects section of Glowlab.
Before I go any further I want to thank everyone I met and talked to at Burning Man for spending a few minutes with me for this project. Hopefully I will run into you all again.
Burning Man Preparation
August 27, 2004
Burning Man Preparation
As I am preparing for the BM event, I am noticing and thinking about all of the waste that is being created by myself for this event. The amount of resources used for this event for one person for one week is phenomenal. 30 gallons of water, 30 pounds of food (non-perishable, which is not exactly the usual athletic nutrition I consume), camping supplies and materials that take up half the prep table I set up… all of these things for one person. This one person is someone that has been involved in conservation and reuse for respect of the environment, and I still am able to create a pile of cardboard and cellophane waste in my kitchen even before I depart. The myth of garbage disposal our society believes is becoming all too transparent as I prepare for this trip. I might be over packing a little, since I have had a bought of dehydration in the desert before and I do not want to have the same experience, but I am interested to see how the waste and cleanliness will be handled this week. I think the people I am staying with will be able to keep everything in check, but what about me… a first timer?
The community being established at BM is unique, for the community has a definition that is usually taken for granted in larger social contexts. The community that is about to descend upon the Black Rock Desert has a collective understanding of how to make this community run. It also knows how to make the community continue further, if it so chooses. These aspects are by no means an accident, but from rigorous, comprehensive informations given by the BM organizers. The necessity for listening to the desires of the organizer by 25,000 is through the harsh beauty of the desert. If people do not listen to how you are supposed to live, there is a very good chance you will not make it to the 7th day. The urgency does not exist in the regular domain of popular culture and society, allowing for anarchy and independent habits of living to survive. It also allows for habits of living that are not in the best interest of the popular masses to thrive and, as we see today in politics, dominate.
As I finish packing up my pickup with what the lists have told me to bring, I am anxious to see how others have adapted to these lists. But more so, I am interested to see how the adaptations promote or hinder livelihood in the desert. What we are all packing into this place for 7 days (or more) will be packed out as we have been told. The phenomenal amount of resources used for the event will be consumed, putting perspective upon how we live as a culture. Days will melt to hours, minutes and seconds, and this one person will have changed a little because of being put into a community that demands friendship, trust and common views just to survive.
Glowlab goes to Burning Man
Glowlab friend and collaborator J Gabriel Lloyd is off to Burning Man. He will be covering the festival for us and posting here on his experiences. Stay tuned...