This is the story of a City. An ephemeral city, built in the dust. A place that gives people permission. A chance to experience the extraordinary. To explore, express, or experiment.
It’s a fascinating phenomenon, unique in human history. If we want to understand it, we need to go back to a stormy night in San Francisco, on January 2, 1977.
Four friends wanted a thrill. A wild storm was lashing the bay, waves were crashing into the rocks and over the path that ran below the Golden Gate Bridge. So these folk, Gary Warne, Adrienne Burk, David Warren, and Nancy Prussia, headed out to brave the elements. They ran on to the path with the seas surging around them, holding on to the handrail for dear life, as the waves tried to wash them out to the bay. They survived. They were exhilarated. They were hungry for more. So they formed a group, called the Suicide Club.
A few weeks later they held the first initiation. A bus full of people were blindfolded and taken to some abandoned tunnels, where they had to make their way out. It took a few frightening hours, and when they emerged, they felt fantastically alive. This was the foundation for what would go on to become Burning Man.
Consumerist culture had created a lifestyle which was comfortable and complacent. Stagnant. It didn’t feel natural. There was no excitement. The idea was to jolt people out of it by presenting them with the unexpected. Inject some fun and frivolity. So they rode the cable cars naked, ‘liberated’ billboards, explored abandoned buildings, and infiltrated other groups, such as the National Speleological Society, who they joined on an extended expedition to the deepest free pit cave in the world. Gary Warne was the ring leader of sorts, and activities were generally led out of his book store, appropriately named “The Circus of the Soul”.
Because they were doing risky things, they felt they had to be secretive. So people who may have loved the idea and wanted to join, couldn’t find them. And in 1983 they petered out. Gary himself passed away shortly after.
But the seed had been planted. And a few years later, a shoot emerged. Some surviving members got thirsty again. They wanted more spice in their life. So they formed another club: the Cacophony Society. And where the Suicide Club was exclusive, the Cacophony Society was inclusive, radically so. They described themselves as “a randomly gathered network of free spirits united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society. You may already be a member”
They did similar things to the Suicide Club, but with a bit more of a creative bent and a “Merry Prankster” feel. Taking inspiration from the Dadaist artistic movement, and the American Indian tradition of coyote tricksters, they revelled in the surreal and absurd. They would stage plays in disused spaces, or fancy dress parties on the Golden Gate Bridge. Events were typically conceived at and led out of a sprawling Edwardian Townhouse called 1907, the welcoming residence of P Segal. They would be written up in a newsletter they created called “Rough Draft”.
Around the same time (the mid 80’s), a 38-year-old landscaper called Larry Harvey felt like having a fire. His friend Mary Grauberger used to do this thing on Baker Beach, where she would make sculptures out of driftwood and burn them on the shore.
In 1986, she’d decided to give it a miss for some reason. Larry was in a bit of a funk, and still wanted a fire. So he called up his carpenter friend Jerry James and, as the legend goes, said “let’s burn a man on the beach”. They built a simple 8ft effigy, invited a few friends and family, and had a picnic around the burning man. Strangers on the beach were drawn to the flames, a tambourine and a guitar appeared. It was moving.
The next year they did it again. The man was twice as big, and twice as many people came.
You can see how this sort of thing would catch the attention of the Cacophonists. At the third fire, in 1988, a man named Michael Mikel came along. Arguably the understated genius of the story, he’d designed intelligent freeway systems for California, and developed the first robotic assembly system for a nascent Apple Computers. He was a key Cacophonist. And he dug the fire thing. The next year, he put a notice for the event in Rough Draft, and a few hundred more people came.
By 1990, the fifth time they brought a man to the beach to burn, it was 40 ft high, and thanks to Rough Draft, the word was well and truly out. A thousand odd people turned up, including the local police, who said “guys, you can’t burn that thing”. They reached a compromise where they could have their (massive, unauthorised) party, just as long as they didn’t burn the man. The crowd had come for a fire, and bayed to blaze it. But Larry understood by now that there was something special about the occasion, and he wasn’t going to risk ruining it by breaking his word.
Now we need to take a step diagonally backwards for a second.
A Cacophonist by the name of Carrie Galbraith had the idea for these things called “Zone Trips”. Essentially, they involved going into a particular environment for a unique experience. She was inspired by Andrei Tarkovksy’s 1979 film “Stalker”. The Zone is a place where strange stuff happens… A colour place in a monochrome world. Neither its precise characteristics nor the reasons for its existence are clear. She announced the event with a simple write up in Rough Draft: “We’re going to the Zone. Meet at my place at 11 p.m. on Friday night. We’ll be back on Sunday.”
For the first trip, they went to an unremarkable town called Covina in LA, where Carrie and another fellow Cacophonist happened to grow up. Original Suicide Club inductee John Law was there. He says “Carrie used a bent up piece of auto body metal to draw a line in the dirt which we all stepped across, ritually and metaphysically stepping into the Zone. On the surface […] most of what we did was not spectacular. What made the event, and the reason we repeated it a few months later, was the collective mind space we agreed to join into […] a Zone where anything could happen.” It was an idea with limitless potential.
Here we need to take one more diagonal step sideways. Just over the Sierra Nevada Mountains was a vast expanse of nothing but flat dust called Black Rock Desert. A one-eyed, 34-year-old arborist named Mel Lyons had begun to use the space for surreal experiences.
Playing croquet with cars, for example. Wind festivals too, where people would build interactive sculptures that took advantage of the air moving over the open space. Again, you can see how this would be up the Cacophonists’ alley. So a handful of them, including a young man called Kevin Evans, built a canopy bed on wheels, took it out to sail around the playa, and had an absolutely amazing time.
Kevin wanted that to be the next Zone Trip. Zone Trip number 4 by that point. Take a bunch of friends to Black Rock Desert, indulge in some shenanigans, and use the alien environment as an explorational experience in itself.
So. Back to Baker Beach in 1990, with a thousand odd people who’ve gathered to burn a giant man. The Cacophonists were all there. They saw Larry having his issues with the Police. So they said “Hey, how about we take this thing out to the desert, and burn it there.”
And a few months later, that’s exactly what they did. A hundred or so folk made the 6-hour trek to what may as well have been Mars, drew a line in the ground, and crossed into the Zone. They made camp in the dust, drove around, had some drinks, ate pot-luck and granola bars, and were generally somewhat whimsical. It was an absurd cocktail party in a ridiculous place. And of course, they burned a man.
It wasn’t easy. The playa was a totally inhospitable landscape. No water, no plants, no life of any kind. Just endless emptiness. And what they found is that it brought people much closer together. The event today is brutal by design. Larry says:
“You’re not going to create community unless you struggle with other people […] Because only when you struggle with people, for survival, do you see their soul. One of the reasons we grew is that we took people out in the desert and we made them face survival together. And that took a whole lot of nonsense out of it.”
The desert was essentially an extraordinary blank canvas. Here another character enters from stage left: William Binzen. He organised a collective called “Desert Site Works”. Inspired, in part, by Rosalind Kraus’s 1979 essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” they used the desert space to create big, beautiful, interactive art. Not for money, not for an audience, just for the joy of it. Their events happened at similar times (and with similar people) to Burning Man.
Word began to spread of this wonderland in the desert. A place where almost anything can happen. Naturally, it attracted more and more wild and free spirits, who all brought their own sparks and flames.
If the question is, how far can you take something like this with what is basically anarchy, the answer is about 8,000 people. That’s how many people showed up in 1996, and the wheels began to fall off. The organisers were faced with a choice: Spiral out of control, or implement some basic organisation?
It was too important to just throw away. So they came back in 1997 with some civic infrastructure. A man named Rod Garret designed a city. Maps were drawn. Rules were made. Guns were banned, as was unrestricted driving. It was still wild, but they had some kind of a handle on it.
Navigating that balance between freedom and responsibility is like riding a rocket ship. The million tonnes of explosive fuel propelling the thing forward (often literally) is the creative spirit of everyone who comes, and the leadership team has to point it somewhere great, make sure it keeps going with that same brilliant intensity, and doesn’t explode.
Marian Goodall, Harley Dubois, Crimson Rose, and Will Roger (along with everyone already mentioned and countless others) helped steer the event from the early 90s. They don’t build stages, they don’t play music, they don’t book bands or DJs. They just provide people with a platform* and the permission to be themselves. They believe if you give people the chance, they will do incredible, kind, daring, beautiful, generous, profound things. What they have created is a truly remarkable accomplishment.
And so we come to Burning Man today. 70,000 people, of all ages, from all over the world, having the time of their lives for a week or two. Sharing everything with each other. 100 km of streets. A truly herculean undertaking. Its principles were enshrined in 2004, and frankly should be on the walls of every school: Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-reliance, Radical Self-expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation, and Immediacy.
People generally stay in ‘camps’, and each camp contributes something to the playa. Massage, bike repair, bars, cocktails, an art piece, a music stage, coffee, pancakes, misinformation, trampolines, rollerskating, circus swings, bars, sobriety, a newspaper, whatever. Every camp will welcome you in, and offer you a drink from their bar, or whatever their contribution is. It’s all interactive. There are lots of pranks. Pretty much everything there is a joke of some kind, people being silly. And it’s hilarious. It’s more punk than hippy.
You spend most of the day riding around, saying “holy shit”. You see some art on the horizon, you head towards it. You climb it.
Elaborate Art Cars prowl the playa with giant sound systems, you hear music, you dance.
The site consists of the city, the centre, and ‘deep playa’. The straight streets going out are named like a clock, going from 2:00 to 10:00, in 15 minute increments, with 6:00 running down the middle. The inside round street is called Esplanade, and then they’re name alphabetically outwards: A to J. So an address might be 9:45 and J, and that would be towards the top left of the photo above. The Man is in the centre of the clock, the temple a bit above him, on the 1200 line. Beyond that, at the top of picture above, is the deep playa. That’s where a lot of the magic happens. The whole thing is like a giant playground. Often literally, with huge swings and circus equipment, for anyone to use. At their own risk of course. A dust storm inevitably comes, you put your googles and mask on, and either bunker down or ride blind.
The Art is outstanding. The size of the installations, their interactivity, the philosophical impetus, their technical proficiency in pulling them off, how they are all built to withstand the conditions, the sheer beauty of them. Art is better when it’s interactive. Here it is liberated.
Music was never really a part of it until the early to mid 90s. There was just a guy playing the drums at the first one. The first amplified techno camps were literally placed a mile away from everyone else. But it’s definitely a party now.
The production is astonishing. It’s basically a few dozen of the best clubs in the world for that week. Huge pyrotechnic setups, soul shaking sound systems. Lazers out the wazoo. There’s a flavour for most tastes: Piano, punk, afro, funk, swing, rock, garage, classics, jazz, but it’s dominated by electro. The playa seems to have evolved a sound of its own, drawing on ambient dubstep-y acid house and the like. It fits the environment.
Amongst the fun and games, lies one of the most solemn places on Earth. The Temple. A special structure built for people to release any grief. To remember, to mourn, to cherish. People leave whatever they want — a message, a memento. It is phenomenal outpouring of emotion and feels a privilege to experience. Entering it is instantly overwhelming.
“As our population increased, so did our community grow up, and mature. And as you mature, your mothers and fathers die. And we didn’t have place to reflect on that.[…] In the outside world we used to use churches, and now churches are being replaced by theme parks or shopping centres. So it kind of fills that need.” — David Best
Galaxia, in 2018, was architecturally astonishing. They’re all architecturally astonishing, but this one was particularly exquisite. So much so that Jerry James, who built the first few Mans, but hadn’t spoken to Larry for 12 years, reached out to the designer asking to be involved. He joined the project, and called up Larry as well. They agreed to get their families together for a meal. Two days later, Larry passed away from a stroke.
Arguably the most radical thing about the city is that no money changes hands. You see art elsewhere. You see music elsewhere. But what you don’t see, pretty much ever, is a complete absence of currency.
Larry says: “Burning Man is like a big family picnic. Would you sell things to one another at a family picnic? No, you’d share things. […] So we said, ‘let’s say everything is a gift, and you can’t buy or sell anything in our city, and see what that feels like’. And lo and behold, we discovered that people began to have experiences that were revelatory. It creates a world which is saturated with meaningful encounters, free from the commercial obligations of the default world, where almost every action has a profit motive hanging over it.”
Money is handy, but it is all pervasive and we get caught up in it. Taking a break for a bit is extremely healthy.
2 things you can buy: Ice and coffee. Ice is a health thing. You need it to keep your food cold. And for cocktails. Remember, this is essentially an elaborate cocktail party. And coffee, well that came out of a need for a central gathering point. So at Centre Camp, they have a cafe. It’s just a nice thing to do. Because going for a coffee, like saying hello and shaking hands, is a thing humans do to share space together.
When people point to the inconsistency of selling things at a place that doesn’t sell anything else, Larry quotes Emerson: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”.
While we’re talking money, if you’re wondering about the cost and expenditure of it all, it’s all public. In 2018 they took in about $40 million, and spent about $39 million. Most of the money goes on payroll, contracts, permits and fees, fuel, etc. But of course, the vast majority of the production costs come from the pockets of the participants.
At the end it’s all gone. They literally Leave No Trace. An entire city, vanished in the dust. Waste is considered MOOP: Matter out of place. Personal responsibility for your Matters is institutionalised into the DNA of the event . It has a lot to teach about how to govern.
The skills and equipment needed to survive out there also happen to be the skills and equipment needed after a natural disaster. So “Burners Without Borders” travel to places in need of help, to give what they can.
To run the event, the founders incorporated a company - Black Rock City LLC - in 1997. In 2013, they founded a non-profit named the Burning Man Project, steered by a board of directors, and in an extraordinary act of generosity, transferred full ownership of the event to that.
Millions of people have gone to Black Rock City, but billions more haven’t. So a big part of the mission is now to spread the magic. The Black Rock Arts Foundation sponsors art projects around the globe.
The event itself has now spread beyond the dusty playa and flown around the world, and you can find regional events all over the planet: AfrikaBurn, Burning Seed, KiwiBurn, Mid Burn, Kiez Burn, etc. They all have their own local flavour, but operate on the same principles.
This may indeed prove to be how the event survives, as in 2019, after 30 years of successful operation, the federal government has finally begun to meddle. It remains to be seen what the outcome will be.
And so we come back to that stormy night in 1977, when four friends wanted a thrill. Black Rock City honours that impulse. If that was a book, then Burning Man is like a whole library.
It’s interesting to wonder whether we would have something similar without Burning Man as it is. If it didn’t exist, would it have been invented? Telephones and aeroplanes would have happened without Bell and the Wrights. Their emergence was inevitable. But Burning Man is such a specific combination of odd circumstances and characters — Gary, Mary, Larry, Jerry, Carrie, Mel, Kevin, John, Michael, Flash, Crimson, Will, William, Marion, Harley, and the whole Cacophony Crew — that it’s hard to imagine anything like it could have happened otherwise. We’re very lucky it did.
* Things the Event does provide: the Man, the Temple, toilets, emergency services including medics, rangers, ticketing and gate infrastructure, street signs, centre camp. And they give out a few million dollars in art grants.
Timeline | Burning Man
Larry Harvey and his friend Jerry James knock together an improvised wooden figure and drag it down to Baker beach on…
1) The Monaco Art Car - Curtis Simmons
2) BRC from Above - Keith Owens
3) Golden Gate Bridge - Cacophony Archives
4) SC initiation, not sure who took it, but let’s say John Law, even though I think he’s in it
5) Cable Car - unknown
6) Gary Warne - Unknown
7) SF Cacophony Society Annual Golden Gate Bridge Dinner - Unknown
8) Cacophony Society tours the sewers in formal wear - Unknown
9) Early Burn - Stewart Harvey
10) First Man - Jerry James
11) Baker Beach - Stewart Harvey
12) Baker Beach - Stewart Harvey
13) Zone trip - I’m gonna guess Lucija Kordic
14) Terra - Mel Lyons
15) Croquet X Machina - Mel Lyons
16) Kevin Evans - Unknown, probably Danger Ranger
17) Raising the first man - not sure, probably Stewart Harvey
18) Erect Man on Playa - Stewart Harvey
19) Java Cow - Carvermom
20) Desert Site Works - William Binzen
21) Neon Key - Not sure, possibly John Law, it’s almost certainly his neon
22) Helco (Flash as Satan)- Chuck Cirino
23) BRC from above - Jim Urquhart
24) Man burning - Jim Urquhart
25) Founders of BRC, 2013 - Courtesy of BMP, photo by Karen Kuehn
26) Christna - PRE Presents fundraising youtube video, http://igg.me/at/christina2014/x/282031
27) Car Kebab - not sure, possibly Jennifer Kane
29) BRC from above - Not sure, possible Will Roger
30) Riders in the mist - Galen Oakes
31) Balloon Chain - Photo by Wolfram Burner
32) Opulent Temple -
33) Mayan Warrior - Galen Oakes
34) Galaxia - Will Roger
35) Burning Galaxia - John Curley
36) Larry, Crimson and the Man - Stewart Harvey
37) The Sanctuary - Trevor Hughes-USA
38) Robot Heart and Mayan Warrior - Uncredited from MW website
39) Cyclist - Bil Boyd
40) Centre Camp - Rent me RVs
41) Stereo Yoga - Unknown (free wallpaper)
42) Totem of Confessions - Michael Holden
43) BRC during and after - Daily Overview / Digital Globe
44) Art Car - Thomas Loewy
45) Art Bridge - Andrew Wyatt
46) Burning Japan - Burning Japan
47) Light Tunnel - Will Roger
48) Suicide Club - Greg Mancuso
49) P Segal and Man - Image from Broke Ass Stuart