Sunday Michael told
me of his stumbling onto Tethered Aviation camp early in the morning
hidden in a niche just off the Esplanade, and I quickly made my
way there. Carter Emmart was found at once and we had a brief
but enthusiastic time sharing tales of the previous night and
catching up on things. Unfortunately the routine of his camp dictated
being at a mass dinner at an appointed time so he had to cut short
the visit after a frustrating interval of trying to play a DVD
I made on a Mac on his apparently incompatible PC. A kind campmate
allowed us to use his Mac laptop and at least some of what I had
hoped to show on the camp projection system could be shared.
He was most impressed with my new laser derived visual textures, reassuring after my first attempt to show such material to a gathering of fellow space artists a few weeks previously seemed to fall flat. I resolved to have a nice longer version available next year. While at tethered Aviation I saw some old friends, and met some great people with regret only for the brevity of the encounters. Carter told me where to find Dr. Lizard and while saying good-by to him a young woman appeared, expressing rightful anger and sadness as she discovered a phone booth she had brought there, through which people could talk to God, had just been stolen!
I found Dr. Lizard fast asleep in his dome near sunset, and not daring to disturb him I wrote that I had been there in the dust atop one of his characteristic purple plastic containers. I never did find Camp Wishing Star. I missed out on anticipated times with some friends this year, and it is not clear how to prevent such foul ups from repeating. In other ways it was gratifying to share much of this with old friends. That night I rode about one last time, depressed that the event was ending but with the exhilaration of having experienced at times the most adventure I had ever seen there.
One bizarre episode I heard of later deserves mention. The 'Crude Awakening' prime movers Karen Cusolito and Dan Das Mann initiated the final surprise act of their planned artistic drama Sunday morning, trucking onto the playa a living 50 foot Redwood tree which was to be erected atop the charred wreckage of the tower bonfire! Apparently they never got the word that despite a claim of an endorsement by Larry Harvey the idea had been officially vetoed several days previously. Art curator Lady Bee was horrified to see this giant tree suddenly appear, for not only was this in defiance of a stated 'no plants' policy, but the branches shed thousands of needles under the harsh Sun all which had to be cleaned up! Crimson Rose appeared and ordered the tree evicted from the playa, to the dismay of the artist team and a few who briefly sat within the shade of the branches. So commenced the brief playa career of the largest living thing to make an appearance at the festival.
Sunday morning Gordon was tilting his emptied plastic tank to get water. As things turned out had Karen and Emily stayed they would have run out of water over a day ago, forcing us to share our remaining supplies and hoping nothing happened to maroon us there for an extended time. Gordon removed and cleaned the air filter of his truck engine, then after a couple of whinnying false starts his engine roared to life and he was off. By then it was getting dark and we would spend this last night with only the bare necessities for sleeping in our tents. Instead of 6 AM we elected to awaken an hour earlier to try and beat much of the rush. After several hours of rest we shook ourselves awake in the cold dawn. I noticed that Venus hung just above the eastern mountains as a brilliant beacon, the first time in the year I saw it as a Morning Star.
Just over an hour after awakening we were starting the engines of packed cars, taking a last look at our carefully cleaned area before joining the long lines of traffic inching along towards the exits. After about an hour of creeping along the Burning Man Radio announcer told of stalled cars hopelessly fouling the exodus and that people who hadn't left yet should consider leaving tomorrow! We passed a couple dead vehicles and after nearly another hour we finally reached the single file line to the exit. What our extra hour had bought us was only a slightly longer exodus than we experienced last year. Eventually we reached the highway we had left a week ago and a couple hours later a great breakfast was had at the casino. This years Black Rock City experience gave me a decade of memories of extraordinary experiences to reflect upon.
Some analysis and opinions on the event and recent trends.
I would like to bring to the attention of those
involved a couple suggestions based on my observations this year.
Things worked really well in all things that directly concerned
me like bathrooms, ice availability and such.
I would suggest to Rangers and groups of huddling performers to keep a respectful distance from the sitting people and to keep down. To their credit I saw them shoo away people who tried to cut in front late, admonishing them that the people already there had waited hours for their views.
I would insure that people looking for a missing person could be told at one of the medical tents if the person they are looking for has died. Perhaps something like news programming could be broadcast on a playa radio station.
were 47,366 attendees, although a Ranger there told me it was
more like 53,000, for whatever that is worth. If the event gets
much bigger crowd control near the big bonfire could be a safety
issue based on this years personal experience. The BLM has stated
they want no more than 50,000 people there so something will have
to give if things continue. Perhaps some day there will be something
like the 'lottery system' used to handle the Grateful Dead New
Years Eve shows, where only part of the people sending for a ticket
There were so many people walking and riding about on bikes at night without lights they were a genuine hazard even to bicyclists with headlights. Many of them were just unprepared, others reportedly refused offers of glow sticks from people in camps trying to help out. Some of these people were likely among those accusing people like me, admonishing them to get lights, as 'holier than thou' Burners which was a term in vogue this year. I decided the largest risk of accidents were between bikes without lights, both of whom would have chosen their own realities.
I saw people bringing young children, even infants to the event. I couldn't imagine subjecting an infant to one of those dust storms, hopefully those families weren't caught in the storms far from their RVs. I saw a man pulling a wagon in which sat a boy about 6 years old, covered and masked like a world one soldier in the trenches and sitting with his head in his hands oblivious to everything and apparently miserable. I think it is selfish for parents to bring very young children and expect them to endure what even many adults cannot. I saw instances of carelessness which could have resulted in tragedy, such as a woman tripping and falling with her head landing a couple feet from an unprotected iron rebar tent stake. Common sense precautions seem to be in decline there as the population grows.
On nearly every aspect
of the event it is harder than ever to find anything like a consensus,
only splintering groups of people with different attitudes, if
they bother to contemplate the 'big picture' at all. This is another
side effect of growing numbers of relatively individualistic people
being involved in something. People gather for the Burn with a
myriad of ideas of what it is about, thousands of occasions for
as many groups of people gathered there. The central spectacles
unite the attention of much of the populace briefly. Beyond that
it is only a loosely common experience with all the details as
varied to each individual as those of life itself. As in life,
there is way too much for anyone to see first hand.
The dedicated 'core group' of attendees have limited cohesion over periods of years, but many still repeatedly go. At most perhaps a quarter of the recent attendees can be thought of as having any sense of how things have gone the last few years. I asked several people I met that week how many years they had been going, nearly all said this was their first. My ten years of going began to make me stand out statistically!
Unfortunately crimes of theft are a growing concern there. Bicycle theft is so common that the victims are blamed without hesitation for not locking their bikes. Roving unprepared vagabonds steal food and water from unlucky vacant camps. At least 10 RVs were entered and emptied of cash, credit cards and electronics. 11 sexual assaults were reported to police, but the amorphous nature of the event made bringing anyone to justice problematical. The greatest law enforcement effort at the event is directed not against aiding theft and sexual assault victims, nor it by the police, it is by BLM agents looking for drug use, especially Cannabis. Why that activity demands such a priority for BLM rangers is obscure.
To the 'Big Six' and other decision makers in the organization, Burning Man seems to be a process going through a yearly cycle with its episodes of anticipated tasks and unexpected emergencies. An oddly co-existing yet disconnected relationship seems to exist between Burning Man the organization and Burning Man the Populations. I use the term 'populations' because as with so much of the event there are numerous major trends of thought regarding such basics as the event's social meaning. In previous years there seemed to be more of an air of a gathering 'movement', and efforts were initiated to promote numerous local equivalent events. This idea is opposed by BLM actions such as those noted below.
The founders and many of those now involved still seem to regard it as a vehicle for expression of the joyous counter cultural madness which is especially prominent in the Bay Area. Many others think of the whole thing as a big rave, some bar hop for miles nightly. The 'party' atmosphere wears many costumes there, but the artistic efforts continue to be a solid basis of the uniqueness of the event. To me it helps keep alive the idea that a unique place can be created by a consensus of vaguely 'like minded' people.
Helping to create the weekly trip 'home' for many is inspiration for numerous people to donate free labor to Burning Man. A lot more work gets done through dedication to the cause than through money. The deep dedication many have about this could invite the question of whether the movement is a cult, however my observations refute such an idea. The underlying drive to create an alternate free form society is to me the driving force behind it all, not the deification of any individuals. There seems to be a significant 'cultural pool' of talented, exceptional and motivated individualists associated with Burning Man, generally too smart and wary to be useful as cultists. While there doesn't seem to be any traditional 'top heavy' cult structure, I suspect a modest fraction of the volunteers approach the threshold of dangerous unquestioning zeal independently of the intent of the leadership. Larry Harvey is no swaggering emperor surrounded by armed guards, he was unassuming and friendly on both occasions I have met him. Marian Goodell is approachable by e-mail, and has been helpful, informative and friendly to me personally. The arson and some background issues
The alleged arsonist in interviews told his
story of being a 'Second generation 'Burner' since 1996 and that
he fell in love with the initial experience as have so many others.
While I would ordinarily dismiss outright anything an alleged
arsonist says, some aspects of his recorded interviews illuminate
issues with merit beyond his ability to taint with his actions.
As many arsonists act from a desire for cheap fame, I decline
to offer his name to history.
The story he told, beyond a tale of contrived accomplices and of 'Saving Larry Harvey from himself' does invoke the longest developing discussion in the history of the event. His second Burning Man in 1997, my first, took place during the 30th anniversary of the Summer Of Love. This was the first Burning man event with a major overlay of rules, addressing the prevention of the tragic events of the previous year which resulted in at least one death and severe brain injury for another, all connected to carelessly driven vehicles.
A story related by the alleged arsonist in an interview told of Chet Helms, who during those days of the Summer Of Love was, with the 'Family Dog', a concert organizer very different in his approach to that of rising rock mogul Bill Graham. Helms emphasized the esthetics of his music experiences while Graham's primary motivation was money. (Graham was responsible for numerous humanitarian measures being taken in his many great concerts in the San Francisco region, rightfully insuring his place in the history of positive forces emerging from those times, but he ruthlessly suppressed his perceived competition.) Helms was reduced to a modest existence living hand to mouth. As regulations were becoming a precedent the question was supposedly put to the Burning Man leadership after the 1997 event, 'Do you want to be Bill Graham or do you want to be Chet Helms?. The perceived direction the Organization took appeared to many of the veterans as choking off the 'edge' of the event and accommodating hoards of spectators.
On October 28 he was again arrested in San Francisco wearing an ammunition belt stuffed with fireworks at the steps of Grace Cathedral after a neighbor of his alerted police that he intended to burn down the city landmark!
As for the yelling of "I did it for John
Law!" as he was taken into custody Law had nothing to do
with planning the arson. He has been retired from the organization
as long as I have been going to the event. Law was a founding
individual of the festival, who in a lawsuit early in 2007 outlined
his historical perspective which is briefly sketched: The Cacophony
Society merged its planned event in Black Rock Desert in late
summer 1990 with the forced relocation of that years annual Baker
Beach solstice burn. These art and bonfire gatherings were founded
by Mary Grauberger in the early 80's, which had been named 'Burning
Man' by Cacophony in 1989. 90 percent of the roughly 300 people
on the Playa that year, the first listed as 'Burning Man' in the
Cacophony society newsletter, were past or present Cacophony members.
From the freewheeling days of dangerous mischief to the breaking point of the balance between safety and chaos symbolized by the carnage in and around the event in 1996, Law was involved with the event and was a party to legal frameworks being established around it in the mid 1990's. Issues regarding any sharing of money being generated within any such frameworks, however, seem eclipsed by the central issue of the legal action, in which John Law wants the name 'Burning Man', 'Black Rock City', and other trademarked terms released to the Public Domain. He seems to want the course of the 'movement' to be dictated by general consensus instead of solely by the 6 member Black Rock City L. L. C.
The intricacies of his legal approach need not be detailed here, nor is the outcome of all this likely to affect the annual collective experience. It is part of ongoing behind the scenes legal acrimony between some of the founding individuals addressing philosophical as well as monitory issues of this growing but isolated annual gathering.
A July 2007 web article on the Business 2.0 site 'Burning Man Grows Up' provoked controversy over quotes regarded by some as commodifying the event, announcing that some companies would be deemed appropriate to exhibit 'green technology' items in the tent under the Man in 2007. Marian Goodell was quoted saying "We have kids who work in coffee shops and we have billionaires. To ignore the value of our brand, the buying power it has, is silly. But it's a ritual for these people, which is why it's going to be hard for them seeing businesses out there." To be fair I should point out that I have seen first hand how much even a sympathetic interviewer can botch up a story. No logo displays or marketing of any kind would be allowed by the invited companies, just demonstrations of technologies such as processing waste cumbustion gases with algae and thin solar panels.
The imagined prospect of anything resembling catering to corporate interests alarmed and dismayed a sizable fraction of the on line Burner community, provoking discussions about the article on Tribe.net such as 'John Law was right!', with numerous opinions generally falling into one or the other side of the Great Debate concerning the course and destiny of Burning Man.
Backing away from the madness of one individual
and the acrimony between former business partners to the wider
issues shaping the stage behind the actors invokes soul searching
concerning recent trends. It is in fact too late to have a Burning
Man even as I knew it when I first attended. The mathematical
progression of accommodations for the safety of 40,000 people
as opposed to a few thousand force rules designed to reduce risk,
the perception of which was an actual attraction to early Burning
Man gatherings. In a way Burning Man is like a little simulation
of an evolving civilization, which as a rule can afford to allow
less individual freedom in order to make an increasingly crowded
situation work with minimum risk for all.
Tragically, a lesson in all this is that the earnest spirit of an earlier era can look like dangerous extremism in later more rigid times. For example, during the late 1960's, during an experiment when random people were asked to evaluate the Declaration of Independence being read to them without identifying it as such, the words were often denounced as Communist and dangerously radical. The words of active student radicals of that time often read as virtually unspeakable in today's world.
People could shoot rockets, guns, and blow things up at Burning man prior to 1996, now people doing such things would be treated like terrorists. Like an arms race between nations or establishment of a 'Police State' against contrived crises, every individual step can be justified. However, the bricks of good intentions can sometimes be built up into oppressive edifices. Sadly, also fading into memory are the ethical givens of previous times such as self sufficiency and not burning or stealing other peoples art.