La Vie Boheme: A History of Burning Man, 2000

Now, I want to talk about the most recent phase of Burning Man’s history. We went out to the desert, we created an artistic utopia on Bohemian principles, and maybe it was about 1994 or 95 that what we now call “dot com” people began to show up. And I just couldn’t figure it out. I didn’t have a clue. I’m not good with technology, and I couldn’t see any correspondence between the internet and wilderness camping. I didn’t get it until I began to navigate cyberspace myself and began to talk to these people. And what I discovered is that in their imaginations our desert seemed a lot like cyberspace, and this is a really a compelling analogy when you start to think about it.

We were in this severely abstracted space in which anyone could generate a kind of virtual reality. With a few props and a little imagination, you could create whole worlds, because it was a decontextualized environment. There was nothing there to contradict your vision, and so it was absolutely convincing. Whatever was, was more intensely so, and you could summon up these compelling visions aided by not a lot of resources.

Well, that seemed a lot like the revolution brought about by the internet. You could create a concrete version of a website in the desert. Thousands of people could visit it. You didn’t need much money, just a lot of application and some imagination. It particularly corresponded to what we call a theme camp. I haven’t touched on that so far, but, in addition to all the forms of participation I’ve described, we have what we call theme camps, and these came about spontaneously.

I think it was in our second year in the desert that a fellow out the Cacophony Society, Peter Doty, created this interactive scenario, which was the kind of thing Cacophonists did constantly to entertain themselves. He called it Christmas Camp. The man dressed up in a Santa Claus outfit for about five days in hundred degree temperatures. They hung colored lights and played Christmas carols 24 hours a day, and everybody moved away from them. [laughter] It was the most irritating thing you could imagine.

But it was meant to be cathartic, of course, because Christmas is the most irritating holiday you can imagine. And so, he turned the great consumer holiday on end. If you walked past, they would practically drag you over and offer you eggnog, which had alcohol in it. But to get to the eggnog, you had to eat the fruitcake. [laughter] They had created this whole interactive scenario that was very socially coercive, and it was the greatest, most cathartic, Christmas I’ve ever experienced.

At the end of it, — our town was so small in those days that you could literally interact with everyone in the population — at the end of it, they exchanged gifts at Christmas Camp. And, as it happened, Santa didn’t get a gift. So he went to every single camp on that playa, because he was just relentless, and complained bitterly about it and made everybody feel really guilty. [laughter] He had created a fantasy premise that turned into social interaction. It finally involved everybody. You know, 300-400 people, one way or another.

Well, that’s a little like the internet. As I began to consider it, as ’95 and ’96 came along and our numbers began to swell, I began to see other aspects of comparison. The internet is a radically egalitarian medium. Burning Man is a radically egalitarian society. I remember a woman who came out from LA some years ago and said, “I just love this event. It doesn’t even matter what kind of car you drive!” [laughter] Both the internet and Burning Man are level playing fields. We have dot com millionaires. We have starving artists. We have dot com millionaires meeting starving artists — and this really interests me!

Moreover, we have created a society that has one other crucial thing that the internet conspicuously lacks. Our event is based on radical self-reliance, since, of course, you need to bring everything required to survive. We are accustomed to a consumer society that insulates us from the realities of nature and our own inner needs. We live on this fantasy plane of desire within a vicarious spectacle. But by preparing to actually survive in a place with 100 mile-an-hour winds — and I’m not kidding — you have to commune with your inner needs, you must face immediate outer realities. It will just shock you out of the seance, out of the spell.

You see, the internet is inherently a non-hierarchical medium. It has landmarks and sources and centers, but it is not a top-down system. Information flows through it, but spreads out horizontally through networks of communication. Information no longer travels in only one direction, no longer moves from a controlling center toward a dispersed population of passive consumers. It moves more freely and flows back and forth. It is, in other words, a vastly magnified version of word of mouth, and it’s extremely useful for gathering together dispersed resources. Sometimes, I say that Burning Man is a sort of space station. It’s an outpost in cyberspace, and we use it to precipitate people into a real time and a real space where they can begin to make contact with one another.

Getting back to where I began, I talked about TV. Now, I’ve been talking to my TV for years, but it doesn’t say anything back to me. It doesn’t care about me. It pretends to care about me. It pretends to be my soul, and it pretends to be your soul. But the internet, by contrast, is a much more interesting proposition. Oh sure, it can be a vicarious and anonymous medium, and you can lose yourself in that as you can with any drug or any refuge in this world, but the highest and best use of it, and the most intriguing part of it, is that there is somebody on the other side. And that is where we’ve made our greatest discovery, because more half of our people are now connected to us through the internet.

Over the years, we’ve been obsessed with connectivity, and we’ve found that the most connective communications tool ever invented is the internet. If you went to a Springsteen concert, it is not likely you’d go home and build a stage in your backyard and throw a concert in response to that experience, because you would have already consumed the spectacle. But people go to Burning Man and they go home and say, “Gosh, this connected me to myself, and this connected me to other people. It connected me to things even much larger than myself.” And, of course, those are the three things culture is meant to do for us. And, beyond that, suddenly they see all these people working cooperatively and collaboratively together and they don’t want to stop. All their lives they’ve been telling themselves, “I’d realize my heart’s desire if I knew the right people, if I had the right connections, if I had the education, if I had the money”. And it is easy to do that, to blame circumstance, because, really, the system does seem arrayed against you.

But, suddenly, out there in that environment all those excuses just sort of fall away. People see what others achieve and how they achieve it, and suddenly they don’t have an excuse anymore. They go back to their homes and say, “I’m gonna do something!” So, then, we say to them, “By the way, there are a hundred people in your region who have been to Burning Man. Would you like to talk to them?”, and they begin communicating.

We are no longer staging an event, we’re coordinating a global community. People who are beginning to generate their own events in the UK, in America, and in Europe. There are a couple of them that are growing pretty fast, and I guess if we were a normal business we would regard this as competition and we’d sue them. But we’ve come from a Bohemian perspective, an economy of creative abundance, and it’s plain to us that what is more is more. Burning Man is now a movement, a phenomenon that extends itself organically, and it is growing on an exponential scale.

So, I suppose my last thought is this. I started out talking about the TV. I started out talking about the nature of a centralized industrialized economy. Well, I think the long reign of TV as we’ve known it is beginning to end, and I think the inevitability of the centralized industrial economy and the kinds of society that it’s imposed on us is beginning to falter. And when I look at this new medium, I seem to see all these hierarchies that exist in our world as great highrises. But, you know, if they begin to tilt a little, if they just lose a couple degrees, as these waves of change lap steadily at their foundations, many of them are going down.

A new world is being created, a world of networks, and it will alter things profoundly. Now, I don’t want you to kid yourselves. The internet is not some quick substitute for a community. It is a tool for communication. Really, it’s no better than a barroom if you try to find your society on an email list. But as a tool for engineering a communal process in this vast mass Diaspora that we’re all lost in, trapped in our separate little stalls in the consumer feed lot, it is unparalleled. It has delivered into our hands the means generating a new kind of world.

I’ve come to believe there is hope for the future. As you sit before your computer screen, it’s now possible to go into it and through it, and I’ve been through it and out the other side. I’ve been to the Black Rock Desert. I’ve seen a new heaven and earth, and I invite you all to come out and experience what is possible.

Anyway, that is my talk. Does anybody have any questions? [applause]

Question: Burning Man’s supposed to have no spectators and all participators and earlier you showed a video. Wasn’t that video made by a spectator?

Answer: Hell no. Listen, you know I’m glad you brought this up. You know what people have tried to do? There is this growing bigotry in our community, and I’m going to preach about it this year. It’s participation as a lifestyle. “I’m a participant because I painted my butt.” Well great. That’s nice, and we all see it. But you can’t tell me the photographer who is taking a picture, who’s creativity exists in that stop bath back in the studio, isn’t being as creative. That’s a lot of crap. It doesn’t have to take place in real time. The guy at the cafe scribbling away in his journal may be writing the novel of the century that he’s setting among us, that’ll make us famous for lifetimes. You can’t measure participation by cheap sign boards, you know. People in our society are always trying to come up with lifestyles, which aren’t ways of life. It is a form of commodification. It’s all image. So I’m going to recommend a broad tolerance in this department. Frankly, I don’t wear costumes out there. I’ve never worn a costume at Burning Man. But I’m participating. I can guarantee you of that. I’m participating. It is my way. So, there are different ways, that’s all.

Q: Are you going to ride up on the living room car again this year?

Questioner: No, I didn’t.

A: Well, the interesting thing about those art cars is that people think, “Oh, can I get on?”. Well of course you can get on. It’s a public gift. It reminds me of a cartoon I saw in the New Yorker years ago. People are rioting out in the street, and this guy turns to somebody else and says, “You mean I could be one of the rabble?”

Q: What is the theme for this coming year? And what are the bathroom facilities like at Burning Man?

A: Actually, our toilets have improved steadily over the years. There was a year when they were notorious. But actually we have got pretty good service. We call the guy who does it the turd burglar over our radios.. He’s our contractor, and the turd burglar has gained a lot of science. Its interesting. We’re running a city, so we have to look at things as if we were civil engineers. There are peak periods and men and women use hem differently, and we’re doing pretty good, I think.

Chorus from audience: The theme? The theme?

Oh, the theme! [laughter] Well, every year the notion is to create a theme that has a certain primal aspect, that is so close that it’s closer than close, that has an immediacy to it that everyone can spontaneously embrace, because it’s meant to be a source of community. So this year… actually when I first told somebody about our new theme, they were embarrassed for me. They said, “Well, what is it going to be, Larry?”, and I said, “I want to make this big man”, and they said, “Well, okay, old duffer, you’re the man! Whatever you want to do!” [laughter] But this is a really big man. This is one will be about a mile long.

You’ve seen our logo with the inverted arch and the figure standing in the cusp of it, and that’s literally what it’s going to be, except that inverted arch is our city. What I did is, and this is interesting, I just said we’re gonna do this thing. Which is fun. I get to say things like that. And I didn’t know a lot about lasers, frankly, except I knew it was a dusty environment, you could probably throw them that far, and you’d have to use a tower, I guessed. And suddenly, at one of our events in San Francisco, this fellow named Russell Wilcox glides up to me and says, “So, you’re gonna use lasers, are you?” It turns out he is an engineer at Lawrence Livermore, and he gave me an art proposal such as I’ve never seen before. It’s got decision-making flow charts. It’s got go/no-go dates. It’s rocket science! [laughter] It’s this thick! I’ve never seen anything like it, every part scheduled, analyzed and costed out. I’m gonna show this to the other artists just to intimidate the hell out of them. You know, “This is the kind of proposal that…” They’re not going to know what to do! [laughter]

It’s going to be a very grand project. It’s going to be quite beautiful. If you go to our website you’ll see the computer graphics he did. It being such an abstract space, these drawings actually register the visual impact of what it will be like. And then, we will make the spine of this giant figure into an art gallery. We’ll populate the interior of this body with themed art. It will extend from the groin to the top of the head. I’ve actually told artists, “If you want know what’s appropriate for any part of the figure, just touch your body and then walk around for a few minutes living in that spot and just do ordinary things and it’ll suddenly become apparent to you.” That’s an old method acting technique, and it works.

Burning Man will be the solar plexus of this figure. And, from the air, it will be magnificent. I think it will be the most immediate and engaging theme we’ve ever produced. It’s so available and people will be able to do endless riffs off this thing. There is no limit to the way you can conceive and conceptualize it.

Q: Speaking of what to do next, are there problems with the growth?

A: Growth? Well, it’s interesting. Certain things change with growth. Certain things change inevitably. There was a day in the life of Black Rock City when you knew everyone. Those days are gone. In fact, I can walk around the city for two hours and not see anybody I know, and I know a lot of people. That’s just size, and it’s true of any big city. I personally love big cities, but people have said to me, “Well, that’s alienating.” What I say to them is, “If you want the cocoon of a smaller community, if you want a closer group around you, I would suggest you do a project. If you organize a group to do something ambitious, you’ll soon find yourself surrounded by a close community. But you have to put effort into it. If you’re just a scenester, you’re outta luck, pal!” You see, the thing about Burning Man is people go the first year, and they’re just ravished by it. It seems to be provided mystically for them. It’s just absolute narcissistic gratification, and it’s wonderful and very affirming. But as you keep going, you have to invest more effort to get a return. This is a kind of moral law.

Other people tell me, “It’s not cool anymore!” These are the hipsters. You know, I preach the virtues of Bohemia, but I know the vices. The vices, the two greatest fears that motivate the arch hipster, are, one, that they won’t get invited to the party, and, two, that they’ll get lost in the crowd. And, if that’s your issue, I can’t help you there. I think when anyone participates they’re cool. Any other standard is a form of affectation. We’re radically inclusive. Far too much time is wasted in subcultures feeling superior to outsiders. I’ve never felt comfortable with in-groups or with the secret totems and subtle signs that are used to exclude people.

But our city is bigger, it’s true. And people are afraid that when things get big, they’ll be denatured. Because, in a mass society, whenever anything gets big it becomes commodified, right? It’s taken away, and then it’s not real anymore. So we have this superstitious dread that it’s gonna happen to us again. That’s what the punks thought. That’s why they were so emphatic, so angry about that. But I don’t agree with their anger, and I don’t agree with Hakim Bey’s paranoia about the system.

I think that can be overcome. Listen, in the history of mankind, there have been vibrant, living cities and networks of culture that connected people and things on a grand scale. It’s called civilization! We’ve just been living in a mass culture so long that we can’t believe in civilization anymore. And I frankly confess to you it’s one of my goals to prove to people that civilization is possible.

Now, this will only work if it is in the context of community, because community is the crucible that creates culture, and a civilization only works if it’s ordered by culture. So what we’ve done is focus on ways of creating social structures that foster connection. You see, it’s not really a quantitative problem, it’s about the quality of relationship between people. We’ve found if you can just create such context for this interconnection, people will begin to self-organize. And once they do that, you’ve got social fabric. And it can get really big, and it doesn’t have to be alienating.

Q: How much does it cost, and what’s that money go for exactly?

A: It costs a lot. This year [2000}, we’ll spend over 3 million dollars before it’s over. The BLM, our federal landlord, has just raised our rent by about 450 percent! Now, I live in San Francisco, and I’m used to rent increases, but this one shocked me. So this may go from about $67,000 to, you know, a half to two-thirds of a million dollars. Our monthly overhead is also going up. The last time I checked it was nearly $60,000 a month. We rent an office in San Francisco and we have 12 full-time employees, and many more part-time people. We have hundreds of volunteers, but we have employees, and that’s always where a lot of money goes, because it’s expensive to keep a human being alive. We also invest in an entire urban infrastructure at our site. People come out there and say, “Well, you’ve got toilets, but what else?”. They notice the toilets because the toilets mean something to them. The two most meaningful things at that festival are Burning Man and those toilets. In fact the toilets are there before the Man’s there, and they’re there after he’s gone. So the toilets are a big deal to people and they notice them. They don’t notice the miles of fencing, because we have a perimeter, and we can’t let people drive in and run over other people. Like any community, we have a boundary. Nor do people notice that we have an 80 acre ranch. We don’t own much, we rent things, because we don’t have the money to buy. But we rent 80 acres where we run shops and store materials and service the equipment that we use build the city.

What else does the money go for? Well, we pay for insurance and we pay a lot for fire protection, which may seem ironic, but we don’t want the city catching on fire. We also hire an emergency medical service. We have got response times that are better than a normal city. We also partially fund theme art, and this year we’re contributing a quarter of a million dollars to artists. You have to remember, we’re building a city! It has monuments and avenues and public works, and, after it’s over, we do what no other city does. We remove everything, every last hairpin, every bottle cap, every ash, every trace of our presence. Most of these efforts go entirely unseen. They’re eclipsed by all the creativity, but they cost a lot of money.

In fact, we are building both a city — an urban entity — and a year-round community. So we spend a lot of time communicating with people, and that takes a lot of management, a lot of time and labor. Somebody recently emailed me and said, “Now that you’re bigger, aren’t there economies of scale? Why isn’t it cheaper?” I said that if we were making widgets, this would probably be true. But such economies of scale are an industrial concept. As our community grows, social interactions increase exponentially, and we spend more and more time facilitating this, and this requires people, and many will have to be paid. It’s what we work at most throughout the year.

Q: With the growth in size, do you have much of a problem with violence and things like that?

A: Well, you know the interesting thing is, when we came out there we were dubbed a bunch of hippie hooligans by the local politicians. And this is by Reno, you know. It’s kind of hard being called immoral in Nevada. It’s hard. No, the incidence of violent acts is way below any urban norm. That’s because… but it’s obvious isn’t it? Crime occurs when people are anonymous. If you have a lively neighborhood and there are eyes on the street, then crime doesn’t happen because someone’s there to say, “We don’t do that!” As anonymity is created, as alienation sets in, then obviously the crime rate goes up.

This is a city in which people have immediately invested themselves to such an intense degree that there is remarkably little crime. Our one big problem is stolen bikes. That’s our number one crime problem. Because people will get out there, and they’ll say, “Oh cool, Burning Man!” And they’re used to jumping on these motorized art things, and they lose perspective. I’m gonna try to lecture them about that.

My solution is this. If everybody had the sense, and they should, because this is a vast city in a very taxing place, they would bring a bike. We won’t allow people to use their cars, so you’re crazy if you don’t bring a bike. You’ll get sunstroke if you don’t bring a bike. So, if everybody had a bike, we can all steal each other’s bikes, and it would be okay. [laughter, applause] Just don’t bring a good bike! Bring a beater, and that’ll pretty much solve the problem.

Q: How do you join Burning Man? How do you get a say in what’s done?

A: Burning Man started out with me and my friend Jerry James, and then it was me and a little band, and then it was me and a little band and a group underneath them, and then it’s a group underneath them. You have to have hierarchy, because someone always has to get up and look down at the big picture. But at every level we operate by consensus. Now, everyone in Black Rock City is thought of as a citizen, and when you arrive you gain certain rights that you don’t get in a normal place, and you assume certain responsibilities, because we have some rules. There are only ten official rules. That was enough for Moses, and that’s enough for us. But then sometimes people say, “Well, I bought a ticket, and I’m a citizen, and I’m gonna tell you how to run this!” Well, it’s not that easy. No one ever bought a decision-making voice in Burning Man. It’s not for sale.

You have to do something. If you see a civic need, and begin doing something to supply it, you get incorporated into the project — the project is different from the event — you get incorporated into our organization. We absorb resources that way. And when that happens, at every level of this endeavor, we work by consensus. That means you have a voice, and if you know what you’re talking about, and you actually do something, then you will acquire an authentic voice. If you accomplish much, then you’ll gain a greater voice. That’s how it works in communities.

Q: Have you had corporations that wanted to capitalize on it unfairly, and also have you had people that honestly were genuine donors to it?

A: Well, normally, an enterprise like ours would fund itself through corporate sponsorships or investments or advertising or vending. But we don’t do any of those things. Everything comes out of the ticket price, from what participants directly contribute. And we have had emergencies. One year, when local sheriffs took all our money at the gate, people gave us $50,000 going out. Now, I’ve never seen an event where people paid going out, but they did, and it was very touching. Beyond that, we’ve had individuals come forward and make donations of 10 and 20,000 dollars, yes. And there’s a fellow right now, who just loaned us $60,000 interest free, and said, “Are you sure you don’t want a hundred?”

Wasn’t there another half to that question? Oh, yeah, commercial exploitation. Every once in a while it comes up, but, of course, we go back to our old ethic about not selling out. I can tell you that MTV cost us $10,000 recently, because they’re sleazeballs, and they came to us and said, “We want to do a show”. Now we’re not anti-media, but what we’ve learned to do is create a lot of context for them. And they actually write intelligent stories anymore. They used to write terrible stories. Now we make them go to our website, and we test them on it, and we talk to them for weeks and weeks to establish a connection. And then we make them come and live there for several days. They can’t just come in and, you know, do their thing. And, after they go through this process, they’re okay.

But MTV didn’t want to do that. They said, “Oh yeah, we got a top guy, good stuff, don’t worry, the youth market, you’re gonna like this!”. And we said, “There’s no time, we can’t talk to you, and maybe next year”.

So, they went down the hall and they found this guy they knew who’d worked for them and sent him out as an independent. And then they started hyping it on the air. You know, what these people never understand is that we’re everywhere, that we usually have somebody in their office. Because this is a populist phenomenon, and that means it’s really diverse and inspires immense enthusiasm. So, somebody called us and said, “My sleazeball bosses are doing this.” And so, $10,000 later, with threat of law, we stopped them. And I think Jim Beam wanted to do an ad once. Liquor companies tend to think that we’re their demographic. You know, it looks like a frat party to them. But, really, we’ve seen surprisingly little of that.

Q: Was cleanup a problem last year [1999]?

A: Cleanup was a problem, but like a lot of adversities, it actually ended up being rather inspiring.

A new guy came into the district office of the BLM and decided to hold us to our word: “No Trace”. And so he was looking at it with a finer comb, and we found out that at a macro level it looked real empty, but when you really focused on smaller portions at a time, there was stuff. So we engaged in an archaeological effort. We gridded that environment, walked it at seven-foot intervals with plastic bags. We inventoried pistachio shells, cigarette butts, flip top rings, everything. You know those little clips they use for tents? People were cutting them when they left and letting them fly. Because, I mean, in our normal environment, who thinks? We live in a consumer society. Mounds of waste everywhere.

But this is interesting to me, because it forces you to confront the implications of being a consumer. Doing that grid was lot of labor, but it was also kind of fascinating. This year, we’re going to organize a cleanup effort ahead of time. We will encourage people to grid their own camps, and by that act they’ll claim their space. You know, when you’ve gone over every inch of it, like a lover’s body, you know it, it’s intimately yours. And then, once you’ve invested yourself in this territorial way, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to regard your block in the same fashion.

So we’re going to turn it around. When communities are motivated they can do things with great efficiency. This is how we’ll solve the problem. If we had to hire everyone to do it it would cost too much. Really, I welcome the challenge. This year there were people there a month until it was over, but I think we can compress that into two weeks. In fact, we have a display that will allow you to find out what you left at your campsite, because we GPS’d the entire area. We are getting very serious about this, and you may get a phone call from us, “…and what about those pistachio nuts, pal?” We know where you live!

I guess that’s the end of our time tonight. I’d like to thank all of you for coming. [applause]

This lecture was delivered at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis on February 24, 2000.