From its anarchic early days to its present dreams of world domination, this is the untold story of Burning Man—the most popular, unique, and enduring countercultural event of recent times in which alternative lifestyle enthusiasts erect a giant statue and construct a temporary city to live in for about a week in the Nevada desert. Hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world have made the dusty pilgrimage to Black Rock City to take part in this experiment in participatory art, gift culture, and bacchanalian celebration—and many say their lives were fundamentally changed by the experience. This current look at the expansion of the lifestyle reveals how in recent years Burning Man has taken on a new character, with the frontier becoming a real city and the many tribes of the event—the fire artists, circus freaks, music lovers, do-gooders, grungy builders, and myriad other burner collectives—developing a perennial presence in sister cities all over the world. Chronicling Burning Man’s renaissance years from 2004 to the present, this epic journey features some of the culture’s most inspiring and colorful leaders and is a search for meaning in the most unexpected places.
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About the Author
Steven T. Jones is the city editor for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and is the winner of numerous journalism awards from the National Newspaper Association, California Newspaper Publishers Association, Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, and the American Civil Liberties Union. He lives in San Francisco.
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The Tribes of Burning Man
How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture
By Steven T. Jones
Consortium of Collective ConsciousnessCopyright © 2011 Steven T. Jones
All rights reserved.
Part I — Rebirth (2004-05)
Monday, August 29, 2004
A light breeze rustles our tent, beckoning me from sleep. There's that waking moment when you're sometimes not sure where you are, particularly after a night of partying, when the morning haze is thickest. But between the floating feel of the air mattress that Rosie and I are warmly nestled into and the powdery smell of alkaline dust in the air, I know exactly where I am. I'm at Burning Man, a thought that makes me giddy with anticipation about the day to come.
"Sweetie," I coo to my still slumbering girlfriend. "Wanna get up?"
She grumbles at me to go back to sleep, turning her back to me and pulling me in to spoon up behind her. That's how we sleep, cuddled up, flipping the spoon back and forth throughout the night. Rosie feels warm and good, but I'm buzzing, unable to sleep, like a kid on Christmas morning.
Mmm, her body feels sumptuous, arousing me, and I think about the hot sex that we had yesterday afternoon, our first day at Burning Man 2004, madly making love and then giggling intimately, freshly but deeply in love, as a sound system in a neighboring camp blasted an extended version of the Peaches song "Fuck the Pain Away."
I kiss her neck and begin to caress her thighs, pressing myself against her, but she clearly isn't ready to be awake yet, so I whisper into her ear, "I'm getting up." Rosie sags to the floor as I climb out of our bed and I make a mental note to pump the air mattress up later.
Fishing through my bag for the sarong, I suddenly have to take a piss, so I just grab my dusty Utili-kilt off the floor and hurry out of the tent, naked. Our porch — with Astro-turf for a floor, a large steel carport for a roof, and sun- and wind-shielding walls made of canvas dropcloths decorated with acrylic paint — is cluttered from last night. It's a good thing the wind never picked up or the cans, cigarette and clove packs, ash tins, and other detritus would have been scattered all over the playa, shamefully transformed into MOOP, or Matter Out Of Place, the burner colloquial term for litter.
I toss my kilt onto a chair, creating a small dust cloud, briefly consider going all the way to the Porta-Potties, and opt for a patch of open playa about 15 feet from the tent. After a few steps, I crunch into a perfect little patch of playa, cracked and corn-flaked, a lunar-landscape that was probably untouched by humans since the last Burning Man. Crunch, crunch, a few more steps, and I'm peeing, relieved, utterly content.
Time to make some art. I draw a big circle with my urine, give him a head, try make an eye with a quick flip of my wrist, and then do a zig-zag down his back, and fill in the body until I'm empty. There, a dinosaur. A Playasaurus Rex. Rowrrrrrrr!
Scanning the landscape, I see that lots of people have arrived overnight, filling in the city. The event officially began at midnight and we saw and heard them streaming in all night, yipping and hollering and laughing, honking to their camps as they arrive, both sides greeting the other warmly, the arrivals saying how happy they are to be here and their campmates telling them, "Welcome home."
It's great to have an early arrival pass for setting up our big sound camp, Opulent Temple of Venus. We only had about 20 passes and they were claimed by the informally named OT A-team, the core group that had done most of the work planning the camp, throwing the fundraisers, and loading all our shit into the huge rental truck that we partially unloaded yesterday. The other 60 or so people in our camp would be rolling in all week.
I breathe in the thick, warm air, filling my lungs as far as they'll go, exhaling, enjoying the feel of sun and a gentle breeze on my exposed body. A beautiful young woman, tan and nude, emerges from a tent in the next camp, maybe 100 feet away, shakes her long braided hair, stretches her arms to the sky, sees me looking at her, and gives me a sly smile and little flutter-finger wave.
And for that moment, we connect, two naked strangers, neighbors in a weird and wonderful city in the process of being born. She disappears behind a dome, I glance at my fading Playasaurus, smiling to myself as I head over to finally put my kilt on and get this day underway.
My large pockets are still filled from yesterday: work gloves, pocketknife, several zip-ties, goggles. I grab my green plastic bottle, empty the last of a 2.5-gallon water jug into it, and head back to the tent to get another one. Rosie seems to be stirring a little so I cuddle up next to her.
"It's a beautiful day out there," I tell her, almost singing it.
She smiles and pulls out her earplugs. "Okay, I'm up," she says, feigning grumpiness but still smiling.
"Great. I'll make us breakfast. Oatmeal?" I offer.
She nods, we kiss, I grab one of 15 rectangular water containers stacked in the corner of our six-person nylon tent and head out to make breakfast. In the tent next ours along the very back of the camp's property line, Syd and Kelly seemed to be sleeping still.
There also doesn't seem to be any activity around "The Lawn," the shaded common area for Dash, Blue, and Geeno, who each had their own tents on the edge of the green turf. And in front of me are scattered dome tents belonging to people that I'm not sure if I know, several that went up overnight. I really only know about half the people I've met, and of those, I only know about half of their names.
As I boil water on our camp stove and putter around the porch, signs of life begin to emerge. Rosie steps out of the tent wearing a shiny silver outfit that she bought a couple weeks ago at Piedmont Boutique on Haight Street, a ridiculously expensive store that caters to strippers and burners and where Rosie spent hundreds of dollars.
"Mimosas?" She offers brightly.
"Hmm," I ponder. "Is that a good idea? We have a big work day in front of us."
It's Rosie's first Burning Man and I feel a need to watch out for her. In 2001, I watched people go down hard from drinking and I know how important it is to drink a lot of water, limit the booze, and stay hydrated out here in this moisture-sucking environment.
"We're on vacation," she says with a smile and I really can't argue with that.
"Absolutely," I say. "I'll open the bottle."
"I'll get the cups and OJ."
After we finish our oatmeal, Rosie offers to do the dishes, but our plastic wash basin has some nasty water in it from last night, so I take it over the big evaporation pond next to the shower stalls that I helped build yesterday. The pond is simply a black plastic tarp, maybe 10 by 20 feet, with the edges wrapped around two-by-fours and stapled on.
I survey the camp. The kitchen next to the shower stalls seems mostly up, a walled carport with tables for food preparation and a sink setup for doing dishes. Mmm, camp dinners start tonight. Two more large carports create the nearby shade structure and chill area, filled with old carpet, couches, and cushions.
Next to that is a large, white geodesic chill dome, and behind that is the nascent dance area, the focus of today's work, and beyond that is the open playa, spreading across the horizon as far as I can see. I can't wait for tomorrow night when we turn on the sound, bringing the dance parties that we've been throwing as fundraisers in San Francisco to this exotic location.
What really sealed the deal for Rosie and me to join Opulent Temple was the party Syd threw early that summer out at Kelly's Mission Rock. Four rooms, two indoor and two out, just thumping infectious beats all night long on the edge of the San Francisco Bay, everyone looking scrumptious in their burner finery — shiny skimpy tops, short skirts topped by elaborate utility belts, shirts embroidered with tribal touches, fake fur shoulder shrugs, frills and feathers inserted here and there, stomper boots still with traces of playa dust — smiling, high, grooving.
And now, here we are, weeks of work about to give way to the greatest party on the planet. Walking back to my camp, I notice that Syd is up and puttering around his porch, so I give him a little smile-nod and go to drop off the wash basin with Rosie.
"Bacon?" offers a young woman walking through camp with a tray of piggy goodness.
"Yes, thanks," I say, taking a piece, giving her a warm hug, and letting her proceed to serve others.
I hand Rosie the tub, she freshens my mimosa, and I tell her that I'm going to go chat with Syd. "Oh, I'll come with you," she replies, "but first, sunscreen." And we slather ourselves with lotion from face to toe, doing each other's backs, filling our waters, completing our morning ritual before walking over to Syd's camp, hand in hand.
"Good morning," Syd says, with his understated gusto. "It's a beautiful day here in Black Rock City."
"Indeed it is, my friend," I say, suddenly filled with joy at the declaration. Rosie heads into the tent to chat with Kelly, and Syd and I discuss the work ahead of us today: place the DJ booth and stabilize the decks, set up the four shadow boxes and eight glowing columns that will form the edges of the dance area, finish the flaming archway and get our fire permit to operate it, decorate the chill areas with the bags full of fabric and frills, and help Temple of Venus raise their temple and tower.
"And then tonight," Syd says, "A-team prowls the playa."
~ Editor's Note: This day continues, in the next year, in the next Part ~
* * *
Bush Pushes as the Playa Pulls
It was a gloomy day in San Francisco, like the whole town was hung over. Most of us probably were. What else could you really do but drink as the Fall 2004 election returns rolled in? We woke up achingly aware that Americans had actually validated this naked emperor, George W. Bush, as our president, and rewarded him with a second term.
After washing the stink of several dour campaign parties off of me, I headed into work at the Bay Guardian. This was an independent, progressive newspaper that openly scorned Bush and we had fought hard before the election, pushing on the boundary between journalism and activism with our cover story "Ten things you can do to help defeat Bush and save the country."
We didn't feel bad for so aggressively singling out one politician, or even the de facto backing of a Democrat we didn't much like. Our assessments were backed by years of solid reporting on how Bush had plundered the country and made the world hate us. After giving the rich a huge tax break and placing capitalists in charge of regulating their industries, the Bush Administration used 9/11 as a pretext for extrajudicial killings and kidnappings, torture and other gross human rights violations, and two disastrous wars sold with calculated lies.
With a record like that, I didn't understand how he might actually be reelected, a possibility we labored mightily to prevent. But now, it was over.
I thought about "Ten things ...," a project that I had conceived and executed with help from others on staff. It ran in early August, even before the traditional political season began, a clarion call to oust Bush on the grounds that he was a war criminal, a pawn for powerful oligarchs, and a proven liar and incompetent.
Yet personally, I was feeling a little guilty at the time as I prepared for my second trip to Burning Man, that annual festival of countercultural creativity and glee. There were good arguments being made all year that we ought to be putting the time, energy, and resources that we were using on this weeklong art party in the Black Rock Desert into defeating Bush.
The most poignant call came from John Perry Barlow, the former Grateful Dead lyricist and founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who circulated an essay calling for people not to go to Burning Man: "If someone like Karl Rove had wanted to neutralize the most creative, intelligent, and passionate members of the opposition, he'd have a hard time coming up with a better tool than Burning Man. Exile them to the wilderness, give them a culture in which alpha status requires months of focus and resource-consumptive preparation, provide them with metric tons of psychotropic confusicants, and then ... ignore them. It's a pretty safe bet that they won't be out registering voters, or doing anything that might actually threaten electoral change, when they have an art car to build."
In the case of my camp, Opulent Temple, instead of an art car it was a huge steel DJ booth, along with several big fundraiser dance parties in San Francisco to generate the $20,000 we needed to rock the desert with a wall of sound. But the point was the same and it was a good one that also bothered our camp founder, DJ/promoter Syd Gris.
Syd and I bonded over progressive politics probably even more than we did the great parties that he threw in San Francisco. Just about everyone we knew hated Bush, but Syd was the only DJ I knew who so directly infused politics into his nightlife schtick, opening his gig-plugging e-mails with socialist rants and often doing consciousness-raising midnight rituals at his parties. It actually really bothers some of our fellow partiers and DJs, but I'm a radicalized political junkie, so I've always admired and connected with it.
"Bush was in office, the country was at war, things were fucked up and our community of smart, awesome people were putting their resources into Burning Man rather than social action," Syd told me later, recalling that pivotal, poignant year. He had also read Barlow's essay and addressed it directly in his missives at the time.
"That was sobering and it definitely got me thinking. And where I came through, in that little thing I wrote, is we do this because this one event feeds the human spirit in ways, well, I don't know any other way to be that. It fuels you up to get through the rest of the year and have a little hope in mankind. And that was certainly one of my first reactions to Burning Man is it renewed my faith in people."
It's the reaction that many people have to the event. We are awed by the seemingly limitless creativity and goodwill that Burning Man puts on display every August, which is such a marked contrast to the real world, particularly under the criminally overreaching Bush Administration. Yes, we should fight them, but we did fight them in great numbers during his march to the ill-fated Iraq War, and it didn't matter. So, for many people, it was tough to devote our lives to helping Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry report for duty.
We knew Barlow was presenting a false choice. If we could trade Burning Man for Bush's downfall, most of us would have done so willingly. But would that have happened if we'd gone to New York City to protest the Republican National Convention instead of spending that week on the playa? Doubtful.
Still, maybe that's why I pushed this cover story so hard. Was I trying to assuage my own guilt or maybe urging our readers to pick up my slack while I was partying on the playa? All I know is that I desperately wanted Bush gone and I was aghast it was even a close contest. All fall, the Guardian unloaded at his regime with both barrels — and I probably wrote more words in that quest than anyone.
And still Bush won. Sitting in my messy office, ignoring the periodically ringing telephone, looking over the detritus of a busy few months — desk piled with press releases and stories marked up with my edits, manila folders labeled "the case for impeachment" or "corporate crimes" filled with documents, long checked-off-to-do lists — the words rang in my head: and still Bush won. Never had an incumbent president presented such an easy target, never had so many millions of Americans mobilized so passionately to push for electoral change, and still Bush won. It was depressing, maddening, dispiriting, unbelievable.
But there was one thing I was thankful for: that I'd gone to Burning Man anyway. At least I had that, those beautiful memories and intimate connections with good, interesting, life-affirming people. Lost in a moment of blissful reverie, I studied the Opulent Temple photo montage that was the screen saver on my computer: Rosie and I in front of The Man, Syd spinning records in the DJ booth, people feeling their musical bliss, smiling faces, crazy costumes, inspired artworks, fire. Ah. Then I snapped back to the present reality. Bush. Us against the world. A rainy day. Of course it was raining, but I still needed to attend the late afternoon anti-war rally.
My arrival in San Francisco had been tightly intertwined with peace marches. I first saw the Guardian ad for a city editor on a packed Muni train en route to the massive march in January 2003, when about 100,000 people filled Market Street for miles. Two months later, during my second week on the job, Bush invaded Iraq and mine was one of 2,000 arrests on a massive day of protest. I fell instantly in love with my new city and its creative expressions of people power. But this was still Bush's country, even if we voted for Kerry and protested the war.
Excerpted from The Tribes of Burning Man by Steven T. Jones. Copyright © 2011 Steven T. Jones. Excerpted by permission of Consortium of Collective Consciousness.
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Table of Contents
Prologue: Setting Our Intention 7
Introduction: Welcome Home 10
Foreword: Defining My Terms 14
Part I Rebirth (2004-05) 19
Part II Baptism (2005-06) 81
Part III Renewal (2006-07) 125
Part IV Striving (2007-08) 165
Part V Evolving (2008-09) 199
Part VI Metropolis (2010-The Future) 245
List of Contributors 306