“This Is Burning Man”

Brian Doherty, Larry Harvey and Michael Mikel at Z Space on Thursday night in San Francisco
Brian Doherty, Larry Harvey and Michael Mikel at Z Space on Thursday night in San Francisco.
(All photos by Erica Bartel)

Larry Harvey his own self got us in a desert mood the other night, talking about the beginnings of Burning Man even as we beat the playa out of our rugs and dodge all the Indiegogo campaigns and get ready to head out to Black Rock City again.

You probably know the story of how Burning Man began. Maybe you’ve read some magazine articles or a book or two. Ok, maybe you’ve only read a bunch of Facebook posts, but you know it all began when Larry was upset about breaking up with a girlfriend, so he burned a wooden effigy on Baker Beach to ease his troubled mind, and things took off from there.

Well, that’s not quite right, but that’s ok. An event that’s stretched its wings so far beyond the desert (twenty-three countries! fifty-five events!) is going to have some myth-making attached to it, and the bad-breakup-with-the-girlfriend story is one of them.

News came this week that the Bureau of Land Management has given the Burning Man organization official permission to hold the event for the next four years, with a maximum population of 68,000 wandering souls in 2013. That’s a big number; bigger than ever, and who could have envisioned that a spontaneous, just-for-the-hell of it Baker Beach bonfire in 1986 would grow into something that has changed the popular culture in unprecedented ways. And that’s not just hyperbole. Burning Man IS different – different than the Summer of Love, different than Woodstock, and way different than Altamont. It has endured, it has changed, and it continues to grow. And as the Burning Man Project pushes outward into the world, there has been an accompanying movement to pull back – a get-back-to-basics effort to remember the beginnings and try, as the Ten Principles do, to describe what happens out there, so that it might be replicated and extended.

So that’s what brought us to Z Space in San Francisco the other night. Harvey was there, and so was Michael Mikel, another of the founders, and Brian Doherty, the author of “This Is Burning Man,” really one of the best things you can read if you’d like to understand the underpinnings of the event. Harley DuBois, another one of the founders, said in her introduction to the evening that while she read the book, “I could almost smell the playa dust again.”

mr blue
Mr. Blue gets a portable Man ready for the setting

In four years, from 1986 to 1990, the burning of the Man got too big to stage at Baker Beach. One of the defining moments of the organization’s relationship with the Powers That Be was the non-burning of the Man in 1990. When hundreds of people showed up at Baker Beach, the cops decided they’d had enough and shut everything down. But rather than chase everyone away, they extracted a promise from Harvey not to burn the Man. He held true to his word, and did not, as he put it the other night, “poke a finger in the eye” of the authorities, so when it came time to negotiate permissions and approvals, like they do now with the BLM, the organization didn’t have a rap sheet.

But telling the gathered crowd that the Man would not burn was not an easy thing. “It really wasn’t very nice out there,” Harvey said. One guy tried to set the thing on fire three times, and when Harvey moved to stop him, “he got me in a jugular death grip.” But Harvey was able to keep true to his word.

The Man That Did Not Burn was the first to be taken to the Nevada desert outside Gerlach. The S.F. Cacophony Society spread word of the outing through their newsletter, which read, “On this particular expedition, we shall travel to a vast, desolate, white expanse stretching onward to the horizon in all directions … a place where you could gain nothing or lose everything and no one would ever know. A place well beyond that which you think you understand. …

“This excursion is an opportunity to leave your old self and be reborn through the cleansing fires of the trackless, pure desert.”

And maybe those are not very different ideas from your goals for this year, yes?

But the move to the desert meant hardship and danger. It could no longer be just a casual outing. “Now it required a commitment,” Harvey said, which tended to “sort people out a bit.” And Micheal Mikel added, “It separated people from a safe, easy escape. You had to want to be there.” And, Doherty said, “I was scared to death. I thought, ‘I’m going to die.'”

And as we know, people CAN die out there. It says so right on your ticket. And it was this knowledge that led Mikel to found the Black Rock Rangers, and it was the reason that eventually a shape was invented for the city, one that would allow for free expression, and yet keep people from hurting each other. Because although you are free to singe yourself in the fires and bake in the midday sun, it is a different thing entirely when random mayhem causes harm to others, as it did in 1996 when a speeding car hurtled through a campground and hit a person resting inside a tent.

“If you have any heart, or moral sense, you had to do something about it,” Harvey said. “We decided (in 1997) to build a vessel to contain the community. … It was a moral decision. … If we’re inviting people here, we shouldn’t create hazards that people couldn’t anticipate.” Or, to put it in the language of one of the principles, “Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare …” That’s different than saying that you won’t encounter danger or be free to subject yourself to it. “You can hurt yourself, and that’s fine,” Harvey said. Or as Mikel put it, “There’s a chance you might die at Burning Man, but you’ll never be more alive.”

But now what? As the event spreads and grows, it becomes even more vital that the core values be communicated and promulgated. Because even as the limits on the size of the city increase, there are more and more Burners in the world who have never been and are not likely to go to Black Rock City.

There was a gathering of the clan at Z Space
There was a gathering of the clan at Z Space

The Burning Man Project was formed a little more than two years ago to be a device for continuity. After twenty-seven years, the founders had come to understand that this thing was likely to outlive them, but how would it be passed on? “To our heirs and assigns?” Harvey asked. “Oh, I don’t think so.” In 2004, when Harvey wrote the Ten Principles as a way of describing what was happening in the desert so that the nascent Regionals Network could use them as a guide for their own events, “I went back to the beach” for inspiration, he said. Were the aspirations and ideals of Black Rock City present at Baker Beach? “They were,” he said. “Of course, none were premeditated. … (the Principles) were a document to describe the values of the community.”

Now there are Regional events all over the country, and all over the world, from Austin to Maine, from Spain to South Africa. Harvey said he’d love to see an event take place in Antarctica, in an even more harsh environment than the Black Rock Desert, so that Nevada would become the place for wimps.

“There will always be something special about the existential context” of the brutal desert environment, Harvey said. “But I think it’s portable.”

So pack it up with you when you head to the desert, or when you head to Flipside or Beyond. And we’ll have it in our back pocket this weekend when we head to the Spike. See you then.

Brian Doherty read excerpts from his "This Is Burning Man"
Brian Doherty read excerpts from his “This Is Burning Man”
Michael Mikel noted that you'll never feel more alive than at Black Rock City
Michael Mikel noted that you’ll never feel more alive than at Black Rock City
A big crowd filled the seats at Z Space for the event
A big crowd filled the seats at Z Space for the event

Here’s a video of the entire event:

About the author: John Curley

John Curley (that's me) has been Burning since the relatively late date of 2004, and in 2008 I spent the better part of a month on the playa, documenting the building and burning of Black Rock City in words and pictures. I loved it, and I've been doing it ever since. I was a newspaper person in a previous life, and I spent many years at the San Francisco Chronicle. At the time I left, in 2007, I was the deputy managing editor in charge of Page One and the news sections of the paper. Since then, I've turned a passion for photography into a second career. I shoot for editorial, commercial and private clients. I've also taught a little bit, including two years at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and a year at San Francisco State University. I live on the San Mateo coast, just south of San Francisco in California.

8 Comments on ““This Is Burning Man”

  • 1996 was a pivotal year for the event, one that could have been the last year for the big burn in the desert. (1997 was, apparently, a disaster as well.)


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  • Jon Alexandr or Jonny Zandr says:

    In space there will be no burn. Or will there be? Will we eventually take our oxygen off-planet into space in order to consume it? Or will the effigy of a man someday be engulfed with nuclear fire? Fuel for thought.

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  • BrotherMichael says:

    Looking forward to your documenting the rise of our city in 2013, Mr. Curley.

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  • AKlein says:

    Who cares?

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  • Tiahaar says:

    I do! =^.^=

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  • Felicia says:

    A good friend of mine just posted this today!! “Burning Man is cancelled and people in charge aren’t telling anyone because they don’t want to have to deal with all madness that may unleash! I’m so disappointed! I’ve had my tickets since the day they were released!!! If you don’t have a ticket already don’t try to buy them off of someone, no use!! Save your money. I don’t know what excuse is going to be used when you’re there but just a warning for my fellow burners!” Information was leaked to her by someone in the inner circle. Obviously I cannot name names :\
    I posted this to Burning Man but already people are skeptical of me. I’m not hear to convince anyone just thought I’d spread the news. According the the person who told my friend it may be about issues with the authorities. Post-event suicides reported, drug usage and reports of rape. All of this is horrible!

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  • Will Chase says:

    @Felicia: That’s simply not true … you’ve fallen for a classic Burning Man prank. Your first hint might have been that the liability we’d incur by encouraging 60,000+ people to come to the remote Nevada desert in the middle of summer only to turn them away as they arrived would be astronomical … way more so than the “madness that may unleash” by just canceling the event before it started. Which isn’t happening.

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