How The West Was Won: Anarchy Vs. Civic Responsibility

[This post is part of the 10 Principles blog series, an ongoing exploration of the history, philosophy and dynamics of Burning Man’s 10 Principles in Black Rock City and around the world. We welcome your voice in the conversation.]

Legends of America, by James Cole, 2008 (photo by Stewart Harvey)
“Legends of America” by James Cole, 2008 (photo by Stewart Harvey)

During our early history in the desert, in the mid-90s, there was a lot of infighting about what the event was for—that struggle culminated in 1996. It concerned what our city was for, and who the entire event belonged to. We started out on the beach in 1986 as a small group of people that I came to call the Latte Carpenters. These were carpenters with a liberal arts education. I was friends with a builder named Dan Richman, who was an artist, though he didn’t pursue it, a talented painter who played flamenco. He convened a little salon of sorts at his house. He’d play the guitar; we’d drink and joke and talk about philosophy and art. It was a little bohemian scene, and that’s how I met Jerry James, with whom I built and burned the early versions of the Man.

Around 1989, members of the Cacophony Society turned up at our beach burns. Cacophony was somewhat amorphous; a “randomly gathered” network of eccentrics united by a publicly distributed newsletter that always stated, “You may already be a member.” Anyone could do events; these were often pranks, or might appropriate a feature of the urban landscape as a venue for guerrilla theater. For some, this was inspired by Dada, and for others it eventually came to be defined by the writings of Hakim Bey, chiefly a book entitled TAZ [Temporary Autonomous Zone]. In the early 90’s, this was widely adopted as an intellectual framework throughout the San Francisco art underground. It seemed to partially explain what was occurring, and that is why this particular book is so frequently referenced in regard to Burning Man.

Baker Beach Descent, 1989 (photo by Stewart Harvey)
Baker Beach Descent, 1989 (photo by Stewart Harvey)

So at the beach a few Cacophonists now joined the carpenters. This is how I came to know Michael Mikel, John Law, P Segal, Harley Bierman, and many others—and with the coming of Cacophony things began to shift a little. The original group of builders were not particularly interested in transgression. We were not in any way a subculture, but this new group brought with it an underground ethos. This is when it began to be imagined as what Hakim Bey called an “interzone” —a secret caravan oasis, a chink in the armor of society, a place where you can get in and get out, like some artistic Viet Cong, and get away with things. Bey had styled this “poetic terrorism.”

When, in 1990, this newly combined group first arrived in the Black Rock Desert, the Cacophonists brought with them a surrealist culture; radical participation, absurdist humor, and elaborate costuming. They did delightfully fanciful things that seemed very logical in that environment. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, to contradict what we were doing, so with a few simple props you could create your own context and generate a world-ordering gesture—very exciting. Yet, this could also have a somewhat darker side, especially if mated to an underground guerrilla attitude that is deeply suspicious of authority.

Hakim Bey had written interestingly about pirate cultures in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, and multi-racial renegade groups in Florida. It was classic anarchist theory and interesting sociology. Historically, anarchist philosophers had held that all society needs is an ethos with a few simple rules to order the world, and regarded the State as an imposition, essentially a great grindstone that attrites the vitality of society, that parasitizes it. They felt that this could be dispensed with. All that is needed, it was frequently argued, are a few useful customs. They envisioned a society based on voluntary cooperation and free association. And anyone who has been thwarted by bureaucracy knows there is something to this point of view.

Raising the Man, 1990 (photo by Stewart Harvey)
Raising the Man, 1990 (photo by Stewart Harvey)

But these theoretic thinkers seldom held that there should be no rules, that “do what thou wilt” is the whole the law. In contemporary terms, this new wrinkle is a sort of punk corruption of the anarchist idea. If not philosophy, it’s certainly an attitude, a kind of neo-anarchism that rhymes too well with adolescent angst, and this was pretty common in various underground circles. And yet, for those of us who marched out into the Black Rock Desert in 1990, there was an underlying irony awaiting us. You see, because there was no context in the desert apart from the context we created, we actually became the Establishment, as organizers of an event. Slowly, step-by-step, circumstances drove us to invent a government. Without intending to, we’d stumbled onto the principle of Civic Responsibility. And maybe this is the essential genius of Burning Man. Out of nothing, we created everything.

It started with the Rangers. What were we to do? People couldn’t find our camp. We were a mere mote in the distance, and participants were getting lost and stranded. We had to help them, so Michael Mikel founded the Black Rock Rangers. The Rangers were our first “police” force. Having acquired CB radios at thrift stores, they patrolled the desert, rescuing hapless stragglers—some of them from certain death—because the BLM [Bureau of Land Management] didn’t have the resources to surveil this enormous area. And there are hilarious stories about clueless urban folks. My favorite is a group of people who were stranded in soft sediment at the edge of the playa. Having mired their rear wheels in the mud, they started wedging things beneath them. The final object they employed was a block of ice from their ice chest. They had also covered themselves with alkaline mud on the theory that this would retard dehydration.

Ranger Station, 1996 (photo by Mickey Sattler)
Ranger Station, 1996 (photo by Mickey Sattler)

Establishing a “police” force was okay with the anarchistically inclined, because if you scratch a neo-anarchist, you’ll often find a rogue policeman. As time went by, it seemed like more of them were sporting guns. But we had originally formed the Rangers because our camp was small and the playa so featureless. For like reasons, we configured this camp as a compass that marked the cardinal directions. In effect, we were dividing the surrounding space into quadrants—this helped people get their bearings in that trackless waste. We also used surveyor’s markers, sturdy wires that attached to plastic flags, to establish rudimentary boundary lines. These seemed to exhibit a sovereign power; people naturally craved orientation.

In some sense these arrangements were de facto rules. The way we organized the space created order. It was the opposite of being lawless. We weren’t rebelling against order. We were responsible for it. The immediate need for this was obvious and existential. But, then it came to the next phase of our evolution toward a government, and this is when the conflicts started. What about the role of guns? It was an interesting test case for romanticized anarchy. The feeling was that this was one great shooting range. And maybe with a small and disciplined group one can do that. But I would never recommend it on the open playa, because it’s an illimitable space. Rising thermals bend the light, and dust obscures the view. People walked and camped at random in our sprawling settlement. Though it may seem unlikely that a bullet that you’ve shot will hit someone, it’s irresponsible to shoot down range.

Eventually, events occurred that brought this issue home. I heard stories about bullets tumbling past tents. They start to tumble when they’ve traveled a long distance, once the trajectory breaks down—it makes an angry buzz. And one day my roommate and friend, Dan Miller, who was in charge of raising and building Burning Man, happened to be standing next to one of the Rangers, and the fellow pulled out his pistol, exclaiming, “Look at this!” and squeezed off a shot. Dan’s head was only inches from the muzzle, and he lost all hearing in one ear for two days. What happened next was quite instructive—I could not help noticing.

The idea among the neo-anarchists might best be expressed as, “We don’t need no stinking badges.” Instead, there was this hipster code of camaraderie, an ethos whose only certain tenet was, “be cool.” I suppose if you belong to a close-knit group, you can hazard being cool as a societal principle. But the problem, in this instance, was that someone had lost his hearing, and no one was talking about it. We were living in a frowsy frontier boomtown, what I came to call, “the vacant heart of the wild west”—I put this phrase on our welcoming signs every year—and in this sort of arena, it is very possible to get away with bad behavior. Underneath it all, you see, there are indeed rules, and these arise from personal alliances. It’s all about who’s got whose back, and you may not want to challenge someone for fear of starting a feud, especially if you’re in a minority; anyone who isn’t popular might be fair game—a regime that’s tantamount to gang rule.

Drive-by Shooting Range, 1995 (photo by Harrod Blank)
Boggmann at the Drive-by Shooting Range, 1995 (photo by Harrod Blank)

I started discussing this with my partners. “Listen, let’s be practical.” I said. I thought that they should take their guns to where they’d be adjacent to a cliff and could control the range—and eventually the famous drive-by shooting range was invented, but this soon got out of hand for very predictable reasons. In its second year, people showed up who had no business even possessing a gun—certainly not in a car driven over a bumpy road—and its organizers called it off. Finally, one of my partners and I got into a heated argument. I was sitting, and he was standing and shouting about a foot away from my face. I said, “Well, why can’t we ban guns?” He said, “You can’t ban guns because, if you ban guns… they will shoot you!”

We eventually agreed to print a statement on our ticket disallowing guns, but even this had to be negotiated. The resulting language was amusing. It said, “Discharging firearms in camp or across the playa is stupid…” It isn’t cool, in other words. It was still couched in the neo-anarchist idiom. This was a kind of advisory, as between one hipster and another. We will never tell you that you can’t do this, but if you want to be one of us, and cool, maybe you shouldn’t do it. However, since we had printed it on the ticket, I knew this gave it the color of an official pronouncement. Oh! You mean someone has the authority to make official statements? It must be those guys who print the tickets. You know, the ones who set up camp. They’re just telling us informally, passing along a cool tip. And after 1996, we just banned firearms altogether.

Other issues we confronted related to our city’s lack of boundaries. Throughout the early 1990’s our attendance doubled every year. Our settlement began to leapfrog outward, forming a dispersed archipelago of separate campsites—a sort of gold rush in pursuit of individual autonomy. This may have seemed romantic, but it meant that drivers would come rolling into this indecipherable scatter at reckless speeds, particularly at night, and this became a public safety concern.

Burning Man 1995 Ticket
Burning Man 1995 Ticket

In many ways, this secret pirate “interzone” had run amok. Just as we had hidden our city away in the depths of the desert, we had also hidden our gate. It was, in fact, a gate without a fence; sort of a conceptual gate, like an art installation. If you were lucky enough to find it, you would be instructed to drive so many miles north, and then turn east and drive five or six miles more. Along with a trickle of advance ticket sales, and proceeds gained from benefits we staged in San Francisco, the gate was an essential source of revenue. Its ticket office was a small ramshackle trailer labeled “Trauma Unit” in big red lettering, but people often drove around it, or didn’t even know that it was there. I know of one 6-hour mid-day shift that netted 30-dollars, one cigarette, and a sandwich. However, in 1997, we were able to establish a real gate and securable borders.This ensured that everyone would pay their share. Just as importantly, it also meant that we could meet and greet participants as they arrived. It was a way to acculturate people. We were deliberately fashioning a vessel that would contain a community.

Another source of conflict in these early years involved disputes about who should be allowed to attend the event. On the beach we had always been radically inclusive. As I’ve indicated, it wasn’t a subculture. No one was saying, “Hey, check out that straight guy over there.” In some circles of the San Francisco underground, however, this was a common attitude, and there were many debates about this. As early as 1992 certain people were saying, “We don’t want a lot of jerks out here.” And, for reasons that I’ve never fully understood, they focused on a group they called “fat frat boys”.

I found the prospect of fat frat boys very interesting, because I’d never seen a fat frat boy on the playa. I had yet to see a plover or a porcupine, or a fat frat boy. These were exotic species in that alkaline moonscape. Finally, in order to combat this fictitious threat, they advanced the idea of installing a sign by the freeway that said, “Playa Closed”. Of course, the only people that could possibly deter would be the well behaved. So finally, I suggested that we make this surgically precise, because we wanted to identify the real “outsider”, didn’t we? Let’s install a sign that says, “No Frat Boys. This means you, Fatty.” Put that up by the freeway. Then they’ll realize that their love handles disqualify them, and they’ll go back to the frat-house.

Black Rock City, 1996 (photo by Kevin Kelly)
Black Rock City, 1996 (photo by Kevin Kelly)

A similar proposal aimed at eliminating the nominally uncool involved locating Burning Man much further north and setting up sentries—with radios and guns. “We won’t tell anyone where we are”, it was said, “and we’ll see them coming.” I don’t know what they thought they would do once they saw them coming. Shoot their tires? The very notion was puerile. None of this could possibly work because, if you’re a certain sort of hipster, your greatest pleasure comes from people’s admiration of your exploits. You are very proud of not “selling out,” though no one is making you offers, and yet you’re a fabulous figure. The stories of your prowess echo through the underground. So, naturally, they bragged to all their friends, and those friends told their other friends, and there was no way on earth to keep more people from coming. By 1996 the population reached 8,000.

I organized a new executive committee in preparation for that year’s event, and served as its chairman. This wasn’t done for love of power, but because as organizers we were drowning in confusion. Things that had been done informally now had to be coordinated. One proposal put before us was to convert the center of our city’s central plaza into the headquarters of the Black Rock Rangers. The original mission of the Rangers was to serve our community by rescuing castaways and furnishing participants with survival advice. Later, in 1997, once our borders were secure, this mission was re-focused on providing our community with non-confrontational mediation. However, this plan would have turned the heart of Black Rock City into a sort of paramilitary compound. I could imagine Rangers toting weapons in and out of it. It was a choice between this arrangement, and surrounding our plaza with other civic institutions, such as the Lamplighters, and establishing a communal gathering place at its center. We chose the latter; that’s what you will encounter there today.

It was also suggested that we sponsor the construction of “art forts”. Redoubts would be built upon the open playa, and each would form a sort of armory. Issuing out of these entrenchments, artists would launch unexpected sorties, engaging other factions in improvised battles. In terms of urban planning, this would have transformed an already chaotic space into a virtual combat zone. This, I think, was largely inspired by the Mad Max movies. These films, of course, were carefully choreographed illusions. But, given what I knew about the players who proposed this, I thought this version of “capture the flag” would only result in actual mayhem. It was an all too literal rendition of Bey’s poetic terrorism, so we rejected the idea.

Helco Tower by Flynn Mauthe, 1996 (photo by Maya Hayuk)
Helco Tower by Flynn Mauthe, 1996 (photo by Maya Hayuk)

Instead, our extended group decided to collaborate on an interactive art pageant, our first formal art theme. It was an adaption of The Inferno, Dante Alighieri’s masterpiece, and it came to be known as the Helco theme. I’d learned quite early on that it was possible to tell a story on the playa by siting artworks on an axis. As participants proceed along a path, their progress can be turned into a scenic narrative. In this instance, the story was about an attempt by Helco, a supra-national conglomerate, to take over Black Rock City. It substituted corporate-induced consumerism for metaphysical evil, and I thought that this subversive farce was a success; it was very funny, it spawned much collaboration, and nobody was hurt—Kal Spelletich created Cerberus, the fire breathing three-headed hound of Hell, Pepe Ozan staged the City of Dis, and Flynn Mauthe built the famous Helco Tower.

In designating Helco as a common enemy, I’d hoped to somehow sublimate our conflicts, but this didn’t mend our deep political divisions. Some key players ceased to speak to each other, relationships unraveled, and within our little group, events propelled us toward a crisis. Even as I worked with artists to produce a coordinated art theme, a T-shirt circulated in the underground; it read, “Burning Man: Woodstock or Altamont? You be the judge.” Many seemed to yearn for an apocalyptic confrontation. I still remember lines I wrote to introduce the theme, “Throughout successive ages Hell has been a place of banishment. Whatever we wish to cast out of our world or out of ourselves is here destined to reappear and confront us. Unlike Heaven, the home of the perfect, Hell is, and will always be, a supremely ironic place.”

Out in the desert, before Burning Man officially opened, a motorcyclist collided with a van. It happened on a playa track that led to Black Rock City. When I arrived at the scene of the accident, I was told that the cyclist had been playing chicken with the larger vehicle, and that he had died upon impact. The victim was a daredevil who had been heard to say, “I heard someone’s going to die out there this year.” I didn’t know him, but many people in the underground did, and it shocked them profoundly. After talking to the police and the people involved in the accident, I said, “There’s no blood on our hands.” —meaning there was nothing that we could have done to prevent it; it was purely the result of reckless personal behavior. But the remark was like a lighted match dropped into tinder. Taken up and repeated, it ignited a wildfire of recrimination. In certain circles, this was considered to be proof that I cared only about liability.

Center Camp Café, 1996 (photo by Ladybee)
Center Camp Café, 1996 (photo by Ladybee)

I spent a significant amount of time that year in Center Camp. Often I would catch myself gazing up at the lampposts stationed there; their presence helped define the place. I had designed these spires in 1994. They are slender, well proportioned, and evoke a sense of grandeur; their purpose is to mark our public space. Even after the Man is gone, the Temple has disappeared, and all of our participants have returned to their homes, these landmarks linger on—the span of spires leading to the Man is one of the last things disassembled, like the remnant of some lost civilization. In a very real and immediate way, these lampposts signify the presence of a higher civic order. And I vividly remember what I saw one night, while watching people move among them. Participants walking bikes would actually apologize when blocking the way of pedestrians. Many people stopped to talk with strangers. Everyone, it seemed to me, was well behaved, as if each person felt they shared a greater home. After I went to bed that night, just before I drifted off to sleep, I remember thinking, “The center is holding.”

I awoke the next morning to the sound of someone pounding on my trailer door. An accident had occurred about two miles from the center of our city—this was in an area we’d set aside for rave music. I had talked with the organizer before the event. He was earnest and idealistic, and proposed that music groups would form a giant circle, in emulation of our Center Camp. This arrangement, he told me, would allow them to broadcast amplified music without interfering with one another He said that he and his girlfriend would organize a communal area at the center. Early on, I cycled out to check-up on their progress. Camped at the center of this great circle, they’d created a small garden golf course, and were setting up a breakfast nook. When I returned a couple days later, however, they were nowhere to be found. Not only had the rave camps failed to interact with one another, no one had paid any attention to the community-gathering place. After a night in which cars had hurtled past their campsite, the organizer and his girlfriend disappeared—the spot that they had occupied was blank.

In the early hours of the morning, a car had plummeted through a tent; one of its wheels rolled over the head of a man, who was sleeping, and a woman was seriously scalded— a boiling froth of water mixed with antifreeze had spewed all over her. It was an absolute horror—in one way, even worse than the fatality: the people that this happened to were absolutely innocent. I remembered that in planning the event, it had occurred to me that we might somehow segregate the cars in parking lots at compass points around our central circle. But our organization, such as it was, could never have accomplished this; we had neither the resources nor the organizational infrastructure. Without roads, a gate, or any proper boundaries, my notion seemed entirely bootless, and I hadn’t even bothered to propose it—but now I had to face the moral consequence of our inaction. I vowed that we would find a way to stop such things from ever happening again.

We conducted a debriefing with Pershing County law enforcement officers at the close of the event. I hadn’t been informed of this meeting, but showed up anyway, having learned about it only minutes beforehand. When I entered the tent, I spotted three or four Black Rock Rangers sitting to one side. They looked distraught—clearly, they’d been shaken up by their experience. During our discussion, one announced that Burning Man was uncontrollable. Another stood and said that it should never be allowed to occur again. In retrospect, this now reminds me of how the kids, in the rural neighborhood where I grew up, conducted dirt clod fights. Rival groups would line up on either side of a field, heaving chunks of untilled earth at one another. This would continue until someone took a dirt clod in the head. Everyone would then run home, and no one seemed inclined to take responsibility.

Black Rock City, 2012 (photo credit unknown)
Black Rock City, 2012 (photo credit unknown)

And yet, I also noticed that the deputies, gathered at one end of the tent, remained remarkably calm. They had witnessed deaths in the desert before, and they had conducted emergency evacuations—they were professionals. As people filed out, I stopped to talk with the Sheriff. I said that in the future we’d create an ordered world. I told him, “We will build a real city next year.” Suddenly, a Ranger interposed himself between us, saying, “There should never have been more than 70 people here.” —then skittered away. Sheriff Skinner fixed his eyes on me and shook my hand. Not without some irony, he wished me luck.

Back in San Francisco, in the immediate aftermath of the event, four or five people elected to leave the group, but in the following year our staff doubled, and now featured at least four tiers of organization —we moved on. As a result of the reforms we put into place in 1997, our city grew more civilized. Instead of driving cars, as was the fashion, at 100 miles-per-hour with the lights turned off, people began to encounter one another. Once we eliminated firearms, invented the Greeters, repurposed and reorganized the Rangers, created a street grid, regulated traffic, increased population densities, and gave everyone an address, people could more freely interact; theme camps tripled, villages thrived, entire neighborhoods began to come alive.

Perhaps, that is the final irony. We ended up creating a world defined by free association and communal aid—rather like that dream of social harmony envisioned by the original anarchists. This was the beginning of the modern phase of Burning Man. We actually published ten rules that year [as distinct from the Ten Principles, first published in 2004], very simple ones, in our newsletter. The nascent institutions we’d invented, sometimes half in jest, became realities. Our city, many of us felt, had acquired a soul.

Postscript: for eons, in almost every civilization, the bards have sung of legends, and this is true for Burning Man as well. A tip of the hat to Mark Silverman for this gem:

Portions of this essay are edited and revised versions of an interview with Larry conducted by Jeremy Hockett.

About the author: Larry Harvey

Larry Harvey

Born in 1948, Larry Harvey grew up on a small farm on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon. In the late 1970s he moved to San Francisco, and soon discovered the city's thriving underground art scene. In 1986 he founded Burning Man at a local beach, and guided its progress from that moment until his death in 2018. Larry was Founding Board Member and Chief Philosophic Officer of Burning Man Project. He scripted and co-curated Burning Man's annual art theme and collaborated with artists in creating aspects of the art theme and the design of Black Rock City. Larry also wrote articles and essays for the Project's website. As spokesperson for Burning Man, he was frequently interviewed by reporters, and lectured on subjects as diverse as art, religion, civic planning and the rise of cyber-culture in the era of the Internet. Larry was also a political planner, supervising the organization's lobbying efforts and frequently attending meetings with state, county and federal agencies.

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