The Early Years


Reports of a breakdown in talks between Burning Man and HELCO have sent shock waves through world financial markets. HELCO stock, valued at $10,000 per share at the end of yesterdays trading on the New York, Tokyo, and Black Rock exchanges, has plunged to a minus value. Many investors, caught in panic selling, have leapt to their deaths. Danger Ranger has issued a community advisory directing all playa participants to stay clear of the towers at Central Camp.The long expected acquisition of Burning Man by HELCO began to unravel on Saturday night when several thousand playa activists stormed a HELCO stockholders meeting conducted in downtown Black Rock City. Chanting, “Hell Co! Hell No!” the angry mob overturned Satan’s throne, sending HELCO’s board of directors scurrying for cover. The outraged participants proceeded to storm Hell’s Gate. In the ensuing confusion, the City of Dis — Satan’s Citadel — was destroyed, and HELCO Tower, world headquarters of the supranational conglomerate, was burned to the ground. Property damage totals in the billions. There are no reports of injuries.As a result of Saturday’s turmoil, the acquisition of Burning Man by HELCO has been canceled and merger talks with Heaven, scheduled to take place later this year, have been indefinitely postponed. The Archangel Gabriel, Heaven’s chief negotiator, was unavailable for comment. Sources report, however, that Heaven’s higher-ups, alarmed by yesterday’s disturbance, fear a public relations backlash.

“This is only a beginning!” vowed Bishop Joey, a leading Burning Man dissident. Clad only in a soiled burnouse, the disheveled firebrand spoke to a scattered group of supporters early this morning. “Tonight we will celebrate!” he stated, “Tomorrow we will take this fight straight back to the heart of corporate America!” As of this writing, however, it appears that Hell itself will survive the demise of its parent company. HELCO has collapsed into a morass of insolvency, but Hell, enriched by a bumper crop of suicides, seems likely to remain with all of us for a very long time.

The following year, 1997, witnessed our last large indoor performance. We had charged the public for these homemade extravaganzas. They were fundraisers. The talent they employed was volunteered, but the work required to produce them was immense. After this, we ceased producing urban shows of this magnitude. We concentrated on the desert, instead. We no longer needed to publicize ourselves in San Francisco and could now rely on ticket revenue from the Burning Man event. The title of our performance that year was Mysterium. It was subtitled The Secret Rites of Burning Man. This was accompanied by a memorable motto: “Let’s put the cult back into culture!” It focused on the idea of fertility. I’d intended to carry this theme forward onto the playa, but events of that year – chiefly, a pitched battle with authorities in Washoe County – forestalled these plans.

I had been reading literature about the many Mystery religions of the ancient Greco-Roman world. The participatory character of these ancient religious movements intrigued me. Earlier in the year, I’d written an article for Gnosis, a San Francisco-based magazine. Here is a portion of that piece:

Throughout the classical period of Western civilization, there existed a diverse spiritual movement that is known as mystery religion. The mystery cults, as they were called, arose within a new world order. The conquests of Alexander and the subsequent spread of Roman rule throughout the Mediterranean world had greatly expanded the scope of classical civilization. Stretching from the shores of the Atlantic to the Caspian Sea, it occupied a vast cosmopolitan domain, teeming with commerce and housing the ideas of many cultures. Immense allocations of men and monies had displaced entire populations. The citizenry of the empire, uprooted and heterogeneous, now congregated in large urban centers, and within this sophisticated and self-conscious setting, huge societal gaps now separated rich from poor and urban from rural populations. It was a world, in other words, remarkably like our own.Arising from this complex milieu, the mysteries derived from diverse sources. Traditions drawn from many cultures flowed like tributary streams into the great Mediterranean basin, bringing with them the worship of Isis and Osiris of Egypt, Mithra of Persia, and the Anatolian Great Mother. Yet the mystery cults had much in common. All were grafted to the stalk of agrarian fertility festivals — relics of a prehistoric past– yet were essentially urban in character. They typically employed theatrical parades and pageants to attract a pool of individuals who might share little else in common, and they were organized as lodges. Membership within a cult implied a broad equality with fellow mystai or initiates.Ceremonies often took the form of pilgrimages. Participants removed themselves to sacred sites. Mystai sang and danced to flutes and cymbals; others wore masks and sported strange attire. Such celebrations might take many days, and while they lasted, class distinctions were dissolved. “Persons who are being initiated into the mysteries throng together at the outset amid tumult and shouting,” wrote Plutarch of the Eleusinian Mysteries celebrated near Athens, “but when the holy rites are being disclosed and performed, the people are immediately attentive in awe and silence.”

Such initiations were performed by firelight at night in enactment of a central myth of death and rebirth. They were often highly theatrical performances and, unlike the tribal traditions from which they sprang, placed unique emphasis on personal choice. Many people probably attended the festivals simply to have fun. Intense, ecstatic, and immediate, these rites did not stress doctrinal belief, but valued outward show and inward feeling. Aristotle states that the mysteries weren’t about a teaching; they were initiations focused on direct experience.

The apparent parallels with our event intrigued me. Burning Man, of course, has never claimed the status of religion. The Man stands alone atop his temple-like pedestal, but no priests or hierophants are there to administer rites or interpret their meaning. When people ask what the Burning Man ultimately represents, we prefer to ask them what it means to them. However, I was most interested in the structure and operation of these ancient religions. They seemed to represent a kind of recipe by which virtually anything could be made to function interactively. Having studied the Mysteries and their rites of initiation, I compressed this idea into five simple rules. Looking through my show notes, I find I gave the following directions to participating artists.

  1. Recruit — Initiates must be actively sought out and recruited. Our approach to participation is proactive. Be prepared to proselytize, seduce or otherwise welcome the public into your cult.
  2. Initiate — Initiates must experience a trial, a test, perform a ritual action or undergo a rite. They must both act and be acted upon in some way that transforms their consciousness and prepares them to witness a mystery.
  3. Witness — Initiates must come before a mystery, access to which will be closely guarded. Mysteries should take the form of both a vision and a ceremonial rite — participants must again perform an action and in some way be acted upon.
  4. Sign — Initiates must be given a token or sign that represents their possession of secret knowledge and marks their separation from the uninitiated.
  5. Pledge — Initiates must take an oath not to reveal their privileged experience to others who do not possess such a sign or token.

Employing these five rules, we constructed a model cult that filled the principle exhibition space at SOMARTS. The following statement is taken from the instructions that I wrote for performers.


The Court of Gaia takes its place with last year’s featured presentation, the Throne of HELCO. Like HELCO, it is farce. It represents one of our time-tested techniques. When people can be made to laugh, they surrender their reservations. With nothing to lose, they suspend disbelief and become more available to experience. The primal and surreal thrive in this environment. Under cover of laughter, profoundly irrational truths can sneak in. Our shows are about immediate experience. We satirize ideology.The premise of the Court is simple. Gaia rules the Earth. She is an all-powerful despot. Her court of cowering fruits, nuts and vegetables tremble before her and, as with any court, this will represent a highly stratified and extremely status conscious social order. Nuts reign atop this hierarchy, followed by the fruits who, in turn, are lords over the many vegetables. Gaia’s underlings exist to please and placate Her. They seek to bask in the appropriated glow of power. She is quick to anger, easily bored, and difficult to amuse. Gaia is a spoiled diva, an unrelenting egoist. The highest honor that can be bestowed on anyone in court — and the surest avenue to preferment — is the coveted privilege of kissing her ass.When Gaia grows vexed, scapegoats must be found. Nuts will blame fruits and fruits will blame vegetables. Ultimately, everyone will blame the Lima Beans. If Gaia favors anyone, they will behave insufferably toward everyone beneath them. Again, the Lima Beans, attired in padded costumes, will suffer most. When Gaia is bored, her courtiers will desperately seek out the court fool (embodied as the Grape). Tense moments will ensue as the Grape attempts to amuse his sovereign. Other potent powers in the court will include the Top Banana [the banana was played by Will Roger], the Maraschino Cherry, the Salted Cashew and his crony, the Beer Nut. Cabbage leaves (whose chore is to fan the Mistress) will be ubiquitous, and Celery Stalks, depressed by disfavor, will be given the opportunity to wilt at appropriate intervals. Gaia Herself will stride about in large green platform boots with foot-high soles.

With the help of my assistant and collaborator on the Temple of Gaia, Dana Albany, much of this burlesque was realized, although Kim Leary, who played Gaia, was too sweet tempered to remain imperious. The Court conducted its hectic life before and upon an enormous temple built according to the proportions of a Mayan pyramid. The point of this ongoing performance was to initiate participants and lure them up the steep steps of this edifice and into a gorgeously appointed chamber. Upon parting a green velvet curtain, they confronted an enormous ass: the pimpled butt of arbitrary power. It loomed at them inside this enclosed space, bristling with fibrous hairs. This grotesque sculpture was fashioned out of fiberglass by Michael Christian. Participants were told to thrust their hands into the apparent anus of this body part, whereupon a concealed dispensing device deposited a chocolate-coated malted milk ball in their palm. This, then, was the mystery they beheld that furnished them their token.

The most intriguing aspect of this show, however, was probably not the spectacle that we created. Having posited five simple rules that served to frame interaction, it became apparent that these could be applied to any kind of content. The artists and performers who became the Court of Gaia were recruited from a group of people whom we knew. Now, we invited other people to produce their own cults in an adjoining hall. This, indeed, was very Burning Man-like; these were virtual theme camps, and some of them were quite elaborate. Harley Dubois coordinated this effort, just as she does in the desert today. We had invented a veritable engine by which a formal set of rules could generate unique and spontaneous interactions.

Marian Goodell, destined to become a Burning Man board member, participated by producing one ambitious cult. Her installation was The Cult of Barbie. It formed a maze hung with dozens of mirrors. A giant Barbie statue loomed above it. This environment was collaboratively created by at least forty women, painted an alarming shade of pink, and guarded by men who chose to play the role of Barbie’s ever-faithful boyfriend, Ken. Upon arriving at the center of the maze, participants encountered an 8-foot square cubicle. Access to this secret chamber was obtained by inserting one’s face into an oval aperture. The other side of each partition was elaborately painted and decorated, framing the countenances of participants – much like an old-fashioned carnival attraction.

Now, however, instead of the Strong Man, the Pirate or the Southern Belle, participants beheld various aspects of their inner Barbie. These images included the Black Pope Barbie, the Hispanic Lion Tamer Barbie, and the Indian Kali Barbie. Upon exiting the maze, participants were confronted by Sister Dana and Sister Kitty, two members of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence — a renowned all-gay performance troupe. Perennially clad in nun’s habits, they were a San Francisco institution. Their role was to accost participants and ask them, “What does Barbie mean to you?” If people could supply an answer to this probing question, they were awarded a conventional Barbie necklace and stamped with a temporary tattoo. This image merged the features of a Neolithic fertility goddess with her blonder, blander and incredibly thin-waisted Yankee counterpart. As silly as this might appear, The Temple of Barbie actually induced strong, even primal reactions among participants, especially women. It seemed to tap into a vein of pre-pubescent angst.

The evening ended with a performance of the Burning Man Mythos. We had hung Burning Man high up among the rafters in a side hall of the SOMARTS complex, positioning it horizontally. At one end of this long gallery, we suspended a performer, Marlo Riley, in an enormous 18-foot high hoop skirt. She looked for all the world like a Minoan fertility goddess. A zip line attached to a concealed harness allowed her to glide smoothly forward as she and another singer, Steffanos Xantudakis, performed a love duet. When she arrived beneath the Man, we lowered her to the floor, her skirt billowing forward. Then, aided by hydraulics, we slowly lowered Burning Man in what is best described as the missionary position. As I recall, we raised and lowered him several times. The song she now sang was ecstatic.

The next phase of performance began when the flexible hoop of her capacious skirt, composed of PVC, was transformed into the arch of a curtained proscenium. Throughout the night, leotard-clad performers wearing papier maché sperm helmets had milled about amid the audience. Now, by a prearranged signal, they excitedly gathered in a group in front of this impromptu stage as an Afro-American Blues singer, Stephanie, emerged from behind the curtain. She was the Egg and undoubtedly the most talented performer in the entire ensemble. Soulfully, she belted out a song concerning her pursuit of one good man. Everything about Stephanie was huge. She was big bodied and equipped with an enormous voice (she had also played Aunt Jemima as part of the desert HELCO performance). As her ballad concluded, the troupe of sperm became more agitated. They darted toward the curtain, but were repelled by a group of Vestal Virgins attired in cheerful polka dot summer dresses.

Finally, one of the sperm cells, Marty Walker — certainly the scrawniest, but by far the most enthusiastic member of the troupe — decisively stepped forward. He was clad in a blue robe and sported boxing gloves. As the theme music from the movie Rocky suddenly issued from the sound system, he made a desperate dash, flinging himself into Stephanie’s outstretched arms. She cradled him like a baby as he joyfully twiddled his arms and legs. Then, hoisting him over her shoulder like a sack of bran, she disappeared behind the curtain. All of this was choreographed by Crimson Rose (she even served as seamstress and constructed Margo’s outsized skirt). Harley Dubois, another Burning Man board member, was the general stage manager for this show and the HELCO performance at SOMARTS in 1996.

Flashing lights and sonorous rumblings now issued from the swathings of the womb-like chamber, and a lone Child, the issue of this mating dance, emerged. It was Melissa, a diminutive singer with a carrying voice. She sidled shyly forward, sang her short and plaintive song and was then hoisted atop a litter and carried out of the room. This created a procession that drew the audience with it. It wound its way along an alley that led back to the main exhibition space of the building. The evening finally ended with a solo delivered by Melissa from atop the crest of Gaia’s pyramid. Meanwhile, Flash and I were busy underneath this structure wrangling great bunches of white balloons that trailed silvery streamers. We were accompanied in this effort by a pig, the companion of a volunteer. The pig’s name now eludes me, but I remember that she wore a bright blue ribbon. As the Child finished singing, we released these balloons, watching them swim upward into the rafters.

This show was a summary of all that we had learned. We were attempting to find ways to bring the desert home. We pushed the envelope of ordinary space, we invented interactive strategies, we worked at an extraordinary scale, we used mobile and processional elements, and we tried to create a compelling story that engaged our audience in role playing. When people speak about the good old days of Burning Man, they are often referring to renegade antics with guns and speeding vehicles – pranks they may have heard of second hand. But when we, Burning Man’s board members, reminisce, we are far more likely to talk about the shows we did at home and the intense sense of camaraderie these amateur theatricals awakened in us. Harley, Crimson, Will and I were personally involved in nearly every aspect of their creation. Crimson Rose and myself, I suppose, are the lucky ones and still do art. She orchestrates the burn and directs its fire performers, and I author and create our annual art theme, closely collaborating with Rod Garrett, our chief architectural designer, and with many other folks who help to engineer and build the Man’s pavilion.

Since then, several annual art themes have been orchestrated in the Black Rock Desert using many of the methods we invented in the early years. The Wheel of Time, produced in 1999, traced cardinal points upon the face of an imaginary clock. In one night of performance, participants progressed around it. The Body, in 2000, convened a processional space along a mile-long spine bracketed by elevated laser beams, created by Russell Wilcox. These limned the outline of our logo overhead. The Floating World, a maritime theme in 2002, employed a citywide treasure hunt for doubloons. This was a variant of the tokens that I’d first employed in our city performances. The dialogue between the country and the town had come full circle. What we’d discovered in the wilderness, we’d recreated in the city; what we invented for our urban shows, now helped supply the story of a desert theme.

The interactive story of The Floating World involved two props: thick bronze coins with finely bezeled edges and a prepossessing lighthouse. The latter was the pedestal of Burning Man. The text I wrote to introduce this seafaring theme stated, “Our theme is about how we find our way through the world and what we seek and value in it.” Rod Garrett and I designed the coins I dubbed doubloons. One side featured Burning Man positioned at the center of a compass. This was Rod’s idea. On the opposite side, I asked him to draw an archetypical sea chest. Its lid ajar, it overflowed with gold. I wanted to evoke a child’s crude idea of wealth: a hidden stash, a secret treasure, a mythic source of unconditional value. In truth, these freshly minted coins were a McGuffin. This is Alfred Hitchcock’s term for the otherwise meaningless motivator of a plot: the ticking bomb or secret code that urges on the actors as they plummet through a story. In this particular instance, however, the many stories that fleshed out our plot were authored by the actions of participants. Below is a portion of the theme text that introduced this idea.

A Quest For Treasure

Spirits of good and evil hover near every concealed treasure of the earth.— Joseph Conrad
The treasure to be sought in the Unknown will take the form of gold doubloons imprinted with the likeness of the Burning Man. The possession of this treasure will entitle you to enter the Lighthouse and climb to its top [chamber]… immediately beneath the Burning Man. Here you’ll witness the created chaos of our city as it swirls around you. To be admitted to the Lighthouse, you will be asked by its Keepers to surrender your treasure. You must determine the true value of the coin that you possess. You may retain this object as a piece of property, release it for a passage upward to the Burning Man, or give it to another person as a gift. Under no circumstances, however, is it permissible to barter or sell this coin, nor is it acceptable to collect more than one. This would be unfair to other voyagers who seek treasure. One coin per person is the rule. Each coin should represent an effort by an individual. All who enter into the Lighthouse must solemnly swear to the Keepers that they’ve discovered treasure through their unique efforts or received it as a gift.

At the time, this scramble for imaginary wealth provoked a modicum of controversy. Some bad actors even broke into the lighthouse and absconded with a bag of coins. However, the multifarious search for doubloons produced thousands of dramatic interactions. After the event, hundreds of serendipitous stories filtered back to us. I was gratified to hear that many folks had gifted their doubloon to someone else. We had created what amounted to a fetishized commodity, then posed the underlying moral question: What is of ultimate value? To my delight, a lot of people seemed to sense the answer.

Two of my more memorable experiences occurred in that year. I and a friend, Randy Bohlender, a Christian pastor, ventured out one night to hide doubloons among the artworks on the playa. I remember placing coins on photographs of mushroom clouds. These belonged to an installation by the photographer Michael Light entitled 100 Suns. He had obtained government photographs of above ground nuclear tests, some of them conducted in Nevada, and laid them out along an LED lit ribbon on the desert floor. I positioned each of my coins precisely at the molten core of these explosions. Finally, I suggested that we hide the treasure in plain sight, calling this the Purloined Letter plan. Nothing in the desert was more visible or trafficked than the lighthouse.

Seen in plan, this lighthouse formed a perfect compass: triangular benches had been stationed around its perimeter like compass points. In proper nautical fashion, each of these was divided into bilaterally symmetric black and white fields whose juncture demarcated an exact vector. This pattern of contrasting color bands continued on the railings of the two-tiered structure: wherever facets met, black and white adjoined. Thus, with the aid of a map, one could employ the lighthouse as a compass that would locate artworks on the open playa. I now proposed that we center our coins on each of these dividing lines so that they would blend in with the overall pattern.

Randy started on one side of the lighthouse, and I attended to the other. My technique, I thought, was pretty devious. I’d palm a doubloon, and then, with studied nonchalance, I’d put my hand upon a railing. Arriving at the topmost tier, I was about to situate my final coin, gently edging it into position, when suddenly I heard someone shouting, “Balloons! Balloons! I wanna balloon!” I was immediately confronted by a very large and very loud woman. She goggled at me, shouting, “Where do I find a balloon? They said you had to have one to get into the lighthouse!” “Madame,” I addressed her, “I believe you mean doubloons.” “Doubloons?” she exclaimed, “What’re doubloons?”. “They are coins, a kind of treasure,” I responded.

Leaning forward, I addressed her in a confidential tone, “Treasure is a funny thing, you know. It might be hidden far away and lost in space. But, on the other hand, it could be very close to you.” Staring straight into her eyes, I inconspicuously withdrew my hand. “Huh! ” she barked back, the treasure now glinting between us. Then she stalked away, passing in her progress every one of the 32 coins that we had placed in her path. I waited there for quite some time, hoping that some person in the throng around me would discover treasure and cry out, but all I could hear was her voice, now drifting back to me out of the darkness: “Doubloons! Doubloons! Whose got those damn doubloons?” Nowthat, I thought, is interaction.

Three nights later, I gathered up a cache of treasure I’d withheld and headed out to witness the climactic burning of David Best’s masterpiece, The Temple of Joy. By the time I arrived, a dense crowd had gathered along its safety perimeter. I proceeded to traverse the outer portion of this circle with my bag of coins. Approaching strangers, I’d enquire, “May I offer you a gift?” As I recall, only two or three people rebuffed me that night, but many others asked, “What is it?”, and I’d gently reproach them, “I’m only asking if I can offer it to you.” When they nodded, I’d produce the coin and watch their eyes light up in recognition. I’d hold it out, they’d reach for it, and then I’d quickly take the person’s hand. Pressing the doubloon into an upturned palm, I would explain, “It’s treasure.” Then, I’d squeeze it twice again. This time I would impress the coin a bit more deeply in their flesh and say, “It is a gift!”

So intent was I upon this self-appointed mission that I almost missed the Temple burn. At some point, however, my cache of coins dwindled down, and I heard a vast intake of breath all around me. A flock of wild birds had suddenly appeared. Attracted by the light, they circled the huge gout of boiling flame — then circled it a second time and disappeared into the night. This, I think, is one of the most beautiful things that I have witnessed in the Black Rock Desert, and I will never forget it. It felt, beyond all reason, as if nature had conspired to give me a gift. This escapade is probably the closest I have come to explicitly expressing the inherent moral of a theme. A certain reticence constrains me, and it goes to the heart of the ethos that Burning Man has generated. This is communicated by the last of the Ten Principles that I originally wrote in a little zocalo in Mazatlan: “Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.” No better rubric could convey what interactive art can do.