It's the week before Labor Day, and you're on your way to a party held in the widest expanse of pure nothing in the lower United States--150 square miles of dry, cracked clay in Nevada's Black Rock Desert near the tumbleweed town of Gerlach. Since the event is taking place on land owned by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), your hosts have had to pay for an official environmental assessment that objectively describes your destination: "The environment for the proposed action contains no true soils; surface or ground water; vegetation; wildlife; threatened or endangered species; wild horses; paleontology; solid or hazardous waste material; wilderness; or cultural resources." The most prominent words on your admission ticket read, "You voluntarily assume the risk of seriousinjury or death by attending."
So why are you--and some 24,000 other people--not simply resigned to attending this get-together but positively ecstatic at the prospect of spending the last week of summer in a hot, god-forsaken dry lake bed beset by unpredictable windstorms, flash floods, and bone-chilling drops in temperature after sunset?
It's because the party--perhaps better described as an art happening? an alternative community?--is Burning Man, the week-long festival held annually around Labor Day. Originated 13 years ago in San Francisco--it moved to Nevada in 1990--Burning Man has emerged as the media's favorite countercultural event of the '90s. Wired even dubbed it "the new national holiday" a few years back. Burning Man is a quintessentially freaky West Coast event, appealing mostly to a self-consciously underground group of artists, digerati, and tribally minded hipsters from California, Nevada, and the Pacific Northwest. For a week, these people descend on the desert and create a temporary metropolis--"Black Rock City," the sixth-largest city in Nevada for as long as the party lasts--filled with huge, elaborate, and often consciously absurd art projects, many of which are detonated, toppled, and burned by week's end. In the midst of the circular encampment stands the Burning Man itself, a 40-foot-tall blank neon-lit wooden effigy that will eventually be ignited before a tense, anxious crowd. All week long, say the faithful, there are friendly, fascinating people to meet, bizarrely beautiful and unexpected art to appreciate, all in an environment radically unlike the mundanity of everyday civilization.
There's a lot of cheery nihilism to the art and displays--despite the prevalent drum circles, it is by no means a hippie-dippy love fest. This year, for instance, Bay Area artist Robert Burke mounted a 25-foot-tall working lighthouse on a car, causing many people directional problems when the symbol of stable guidance turned out to be moving all night long. Also present were the likes of the Death Guild, who hosted an arena where people hitched into harnesses flew at each other in Mad Max/Thunderdome-style personal combat.
As the event has grown--attendance has increased about 50 percent each year--its nature has changed and its possible meanings have expanded. To many long-time attendees, the festival has turned away from its promise as what underground social theorist Hakim Bey calls a "temporary autonomous zone"--a place where a chosen few could create a new, free social order outside the purview of dominant authority. Now every step its organizers take embroils them with government, from the federal BLM to the counties of Pershing and Washoe (the festival site straddles the boundaries between the two) to the local Gerlach Community Improvement District. "I never wanted to encourage growth," says John Law, an early organizer who stopped participating in 1996. "By 1992, we were big enough. Three hundred people could have a great time and stay underneath the radar of authorities."
Certainly, Burning Man has changed from a truly anarchistic event--an anything-goes party of pyrotechnics and drive-by shooting ranges done off the grid, with no official approval sought and none granted--into a limited-liability corporation that charges admission and devotes a huge amount of resources to placating government agencies at all levels. These days, it must deal with as many as a dozen authorities before it can open its gates. Instead of existing way, way off in the distance like some punk Brigadoon, Black Rock City is now bounded by Gerlach on one side and a road and railroad tracks on two others. Festival organizers themselves impose a set of rules that make Black Rock City less free than the surrounding playa: no open campfires, no tiki torches, no driving, no guns, no vending, no unregistered video cameras, no fireworks.
But the story is more complicated than a simple tale of unfettered liberty clashing with immovable and hidebound forces of government and social conformity. The agencies that sign off on Burning Man's permits have come to see the festival more as an opportunity than as a problem and have thus forged a relatively easygoing relationship with the openly danger- and drug-filled event. And Burning Man's gradual evolution of rules is more properly seen as an extended experiment in community building than as a case study in the suppression of liberty. To tour Burning Man is to get a sense of the promise of how spontaneous social orders develop and flourish--and how they can wither and die.
Burning Man began as a solstice celebration in summer 1986, when two best friends, Jerry James and Larry Harvey, a builder and a landscaper, whimsically decided to construct an approximately life-sized human effigy of spare wood scraps, take it to San Francisco's Baker Beach with a handful of friends, douse it with gasoline, and set it on fire. Strangely moved by the experience, they decided to do it again the next year. Word spread, largely through a group of seekers of outré experiences known as the San Francisco Cacophony Society, which discovered the event two years after its founding. By 1990 the Burning Man figure had grown to 40 feet and the crowd to 800 people.
When a couple of cops told James and Harvey that they couldn't burn such a giant structure on a public beach, they dejectedly trudged off with the Burning Man's pieces. The Man was stored in a parking lot, where persons unknown chopped him up and hauled him away. Cacophonist John Law had visions of the strange anti-oasis of Black Rock, which he had previously visited. The Man was frantically rebuilt in the workshop of the sign company where Law worked. On Labor Day weekend, approximately 100 people made a "Cacophony Zone Trip" (the Cacophony Society's term for out-of-town group excursions) to the Nevada desert. The Burning Man had found a new home.
And some new friends. When it came time for the 1991 festival, organizers again made no attempt to discuss their plans with any government entity. "I got a phone call from the BLM a few days before heading out for the event," recalls John Law. "I was horrified. I was all geared up and ready to go, had already rented a truck. I'd already started down the long path of destroying my credit card renting stuff for Burning Man," he laughs. By the end of a two-hour talk, Law had convinced the BLM man to fax him a temporary use permit requiring no fees or government oversight. Afterwards the BLM found, according to its report, "no trace of the burning ceremony or the camp site."
Over time, the event took up more time and money, and the organizers began to charge admission to defray expenses. In 1994 the three men who spent the most money and effort on Burning Man--co-originator Larry Harvey, Cacophony Society member John Law, and another Cacophonist named Michael Michael--formed an LLC to own and operate the event. (With Law gone, a new six-person LLC runs the event.) Out of necessity, things have continued to become more structured, mainly because of all the negotiating with nearly a dozen government entities.
The arduous and sometimes arbitrary process of getting all the necessary permits begins as the previous year's festival ends. The BLM is the ultimate permitter--but they keep all local government entities happy by enforcing their demands. This year organizers didn't yet have a BLM permit two weeks before the event began--which was also two weeks after Burning Man's "Department of Public Works" had begun grading roads at Black Rock, putting up perimeter fences, and building structures.
"Until we get the permits, they can always keep nudging us," Burning Man's press and government liaison Marian Goodell, a cheery but fiery former Web designer for Ford Motor Co., tells me in a coffee shop in San Francisco's Mission District two weeks before the event. "`Do this, do that, now how about this?' It's hard to comply when they don't give you a list saying, `Here are 10 things you must do before getting a permit.' Instead, we get five sets of two demands [each] along the way. I got really frustrated last week when they called to say they needed another $15,000 check. `So what? What are you gonna do?' I told them. `There are 15,000 people back in the city building these monstrous floats and whatever, and they are coming out here, so just process the permit!' Am I threatening them? No, it's just the facts."
Larry Harvey, the co-founder who is still the event's lead organizer, agrees that Burning Man's very inevitability--the event is advertised around the world on the Internet and tickets are sold long before permits are issued--makes it easier for the government to drag its feet. "They know it'll happen anyway, so why do anything?" Harvey says. "It never pays a bureaucrat to actually do anything. Then he has something to lose. Let's protect ourselves some more, is their attitude. What else can we insure? they wonder. `If I'm working on their paperwork and fall out of bed one night, is that Burning Man's fault?'"
"I'd love to get to the point where there are no more public meetings," Harvey says. He and Goodell spend too much of their lives traveling back and forth to Reno, the Washoe County seat, to attend them. "They are all carbon copies of each other. The same general support, the same plan, and the same five people bitching who never listen to anything you say anyway. We don't need public meetings to talk to Gerlach, because we have a presence there. They are the only people immediately impacted anyway."