Can the nation's premier underground event survive its success?
by Brian Doherty
It's the week before Labor Day, and you're on your way to a party held in the widest expanse of pure nothing in the lower United States--150 square miles of dry, cracked clay in Nevada's Black Rock Desert near the tumbleweed town of Gerlach. Since the event is taking place on land owned by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), your hosts have had to pay for an official environmental assessment that objectively describes your destination: "The environment for the proposed action contains no true soils; surface or ground water; vegetation; wildlife; threatened or endangered species; wild horses; paleontology; solid or hazardous waste material; wilderness; or cultural resources." The most prominent words on your admission ticket read, "You voluntarily assume the risk of seriousinjury or death by attending."
So why are you--and some 24,000 other people--not simply resigned to attending this get-together but positively ecstatic at the prospect of spending the last week of summer in a hot, god-forsaken dry lake bed beset by unpredictable windstorms, flash floods, and bone-chilling drops in temperature after sunset?
It's because the party--perhaps better described as an art happening? an alternative community?--is Burning Man, the week-long festival held annually around Labor Day. Originated 13 years ago in San Francisco--it moved to Nevada in 1990--Burning Man has emerged as the media's favorite countercultural event of the '90s. Wired even dubbed it "the new national holiday" a few years back. Burning Man is a quintessentially freaky West Coast event, appealing mostly to a self-consciously underground group of artists, digerati, and tribally minded hipsters from California, Nevada, and the Pacific Northwest. For a week, these people descend on the desert and create a temporary metropolis--"Black Rock City," the sixth-largest city in Nevada for as long as the party lasts--filled with huge, elaborate, and often consciously absurd art projects, many of which are detonated, toppled, and burned by week's end. In the midst of the circular encampment stands the Burning Man itself, a 40-foot-tall blank neon-lit wooden effigy that will eventually be ignited before a tense, anxious crowd. All week long, say the faithful, there are friendly, fascinating people to meet, bizarrely beautiful and unexpected art to appreciate, all in an environment radically unlike the mundanity of everyday civilization.
There's a lot of cheery nihilism to the art and displays--despite the prevalent drum circles, it is by no means a hippie-dippy love fest. This year, for instance, Bay Area artist Robert Burke mounted a 25-foot-tall working lighthouse on a car, causing many people directional problems when the symbol of stable guidance turned out to be moving all night long. Also present were the likes of the Death Guild, who hosted an arena where people hitched into harnesses flew at each other in Mad Max/Thunderdome-style personal combat.
As the event has grown--attendance has increased about 50 percent each year--its nature has changed and its possible meanings have expanded. To many long-time attendees, the festival has turned away from its promise as what underground social theorist Hakim Bey calls a "temporary autonomous zone"--a place where a chosen few could create a new, free social order outside the purview of dominant authority. Now every step its organizers take embroils them with government, from the federal BLM to the counties of Pershing and Washoe (the festival site straddles the boundaries between the two) to the local Gerlach Community Improvement District. "I never wanted to encourage growth," says John Law, an early organizer who stopped participating in 1996. "By 1992, we were big enough. Three hundred people could have a great time and stay underneath the radar of authorities."
Certainly, Burning Man has changed from a truly anarchistic event--an anything-goes party of pyrotechnics and drive-by shooting ranges done off the grid, with no official approval sought and none granted--into a limited-liability corporation that charges admission and devotes a huge amount of resources to placating government agencies at all levels. These days, it must deal with as many as a dozen authorities before it can open its gates. Instead of existing way, way off in the distance like some punk Brigadoon, Black Rock City is now bounded by Gerlach on one side and a road and railroad tracks on two others. Festival organizers themselves impose a set of rules that make Black Rock City less free than the surrounding playa: no open campfires, no tiki torches, no driving, no guns, no vending, no unregistered video cameras, no fireworks.
But the story is more complicated than a simple tale of unfettered liberty clashing with immovable and hidebound forces of government and social conformity. The agencies that sign off on Burning Man's permits have come to see the festival more as an opportunity than as a problem and have thus forged a relatively easygoing relationship with the openly danger- and drug-filled event. And Burning Man's gradual evolution of rules is more properly seen as an extended experiment in community building than as a case study in the suppression of liberty. To tour Burning Man is to get a sense of the promise of how spontaneous social orders develop and flourish--and how they can wither and die.
Burning Man began as a solstice celebration in summer 1986, when two best friends, Jerry James and Larry Harvey, a builder and a landscaper, whimsically decided to construct an approximately life-sized human effigy of spare wood scraps, take it to San Francisco's Baker Beach with a handful of friends, douse it with gasoline, and set it on fire. Strangely moved by the experience, they decided to do it again the next year. Word spread, largely through a group of seekers of outré experiences known as the San Francisco Cacophony Society, which discovered the event two years after its founding. By 1990 the Burning Man figure had grown to 40 feet and the crowd to 800 people.
When a couple of cops told James and Harvey that they couldn't burn such a giant structure on a public beach, they dejectedly trudged off with the Burning Man's pieces. The Man was stored in a parking lot, where persons unknown chopped him up and hauled him away. Cacophonist John Law had visions of the strange anti-oasis of Black Rock, which he had previously visited. The Man was frantically rebuilt in the workshop of the sign company where Law worked. On Labor Day weekend, approximately 100 people made a "Cacophony Zone Trip" (the Cacophony Society's term for out-of-town group excursions) to the Nevada desert. The Burning Man had found a new home.
And some new friends. When it came time for the 1991 festival, organizers again made no attempt to discuss their plans with any government entity. "I got a phone call from the BLM a few days before heading out for the event," recalls John Law. "I was horrified. I was all geared up and ready to go, had already rented a truck. I'd already started down the long path of destroying my credit card renting stuff for Burning Man," he laughs. By the end of a two-hour talk, Law had convinced the BLM man to fax him a temporary use permit requiring no fees or government oversight. Afterwards the BLM found, according to its report, "no trace of the burning ceremony or the camp site."
Over time, the event took up more time and money, and the organizers began to charge admission to defray expenses. In 1994 the three men who spent the most money and effort on Burning Man--co-originator Larry Harvey, Cacophony Society member John Law, and another Cacophonist named Michael Michael--formed an LLC to own and operate the event. (With Law gone, a new six-person LLC runs the event.) Out of necessity, things have continued to become more structured, mainly because of all the negotiating with nearly a dozen government entities.
The arduous and sometimes arbitrary process of getting all the necessary permits begins as the previous year's festival ends. The BLM is the ultimate permitter--but they keep all local government entities happy by enforcing their demands. This year organizers didn't yet have a BLM permit two weeks before the event began--which was also two weeks afterBurning Man's "Department of Public Works" had begun grading roads at Black Rock, putting up perimeter fences, and building structures.
"Until we get the permits, they can always keep nudging us," Burning Man's press and government liaison Marian Goodell, a cheery but fiery former Web designer for Ford Motor Co., tells me in a coffee shop in San Francisco's Mission District two weeks before the event. "`Do this, do that, now how about this?' It's hard to comply when they don't give you a list saying, `Here are 10 things you must do before getting a permit.' Instead, we get five sets of two demands [each] along the way. I got really frustrated last week when they called to say they needed another $15,000 check. `So what? What are you gonna do?' I told them. `There are 15,000 people back in the city building these monstrous floats and whatever, and they are coming out here, so just process the permit!' Am I threatening them? No, it's just the facts."
Larry Harvey, the co-founder who is still the event's lead organizer, agrees that Burning Man's very inevitability--the event is advertised around the world on the Internet and tickets are sold long before permits are issued--makes it easier for the government to drag its feet. "They know it'll happen anyway, so why do anything?" Harvey says. "It never pays a bureaucrat to actually do anything. Then he has something to lose. Let's protect ourselves some more, is their attitude. What else can we insure? they wonder. `If I'm working on their paperwork and fall out of bed one night, is that Burning Man's fault?'"
"I'd love to get to the point where there are no more public meetings," Harvey says. He and Goodell spend too much of their lives traveling back and forth to Reno, the Washoe County seat, to attend them. "They are all carbon copies of each other. The same general support, the same plan, and the same five people bitching who never listen to anything you say anyway. We don't need public meetings to talk to Gerlach, because we have a presence there. They are the only people immediately impacted anyway."
Still, Burning Man's relationship with government is in a golden age compared to years past. In 1997, when Burning Man was temporarily moved off federal land to a smaller nearby site on private land in Washoe, the county didn't sign off until mere hours before the event's official opening. Then it stationed sheriffs at the gate to confiscate every penny of ticket money to apply to the more than $300,000 in fees the county charged the organizers (the county returned a little more than $50,000 later, after admitting it had overestimated its costs). But after the 1999 gathering, Washoe County Commissioner Joanne Bond reports, she received almost none of the complaining calls about Burning Man she has become accustomed to. No government official seems willing to criticize the event on the record. That's probably because it's an economic boon for northern Nevada. In addition to the tourist dollars spent by tens of thousands of attendees passing through, about $150,000 goes from Burning Man directly into government coffers in the area.
And if the planned shift from cost-recovery to a $4 per person per day BLM fee comes true next year, the government will be even happier. In that case, the local BLM can expect to collect nearly half a million dollars from Burning Man. "They can build the Larry Harvey Visitors Center," Goodell marvels. "They'll all be drinking the finest Colombian coffee and gold-plating their shoes."
Indeed, the various governments involved seem happy to be getting the money, especially as long as they can report back to their constituents that, no matter how bizarre the event's nude techno-freaks, fire artists, and ravers might seem, it's all really quite innocent fun, no one gets seriously hurt, and the celebrants clean up after themselves. On the last point, in particular, Burning Man and the BLM are completely in sync, each advocating a "leave no trace" philosophy (an official cleanup crew stays behind after the festival's close to make sure nothing remains on the site). Barring any major fatal disaster, Burning Man's future in northern Nevada seems bright. The only cloud on the horizon is a still-inchoate plan from Nevada's senatorial delegation to turn the Black Rock Desert into a national conservation area that might preclude the festival. But, says Harvey, "Everyone's got to understand that we can't float their budget and everyone else's budget. This goose is not gonna lay that many golden eggs."
Burning Man is still in theory dedicated to both "radical self-expression" and "community"--two things that governments and their rules aren't necessarily best at furthering. To Harvey, Burning Man is more than just a party. But he's vague about exactly what it represents. Harvey talks a lot about the meaning of the event--the word sacred comes up often--and he once wrote an article in the neo-mystic magazine Gnosis in which he compared Burning Man to Rome's ancient mystery religions. But it's hard to be sure what he wants to come out of the event. In fact, he's proud that the event's central symbol--the Man--is enigmatic. "We never say what the Man means," he points out. "He's just there to provide a unified focus for the community. It could become a wonderfully coercive tool politically--like, `The Man doesn't like that, the Man says...'" We could make The Man The Man, right? But he stands beyond the social circle, like a god or the prospect of war, something that unifies everyone."
The Burning Man community does have several unambiguous rules, such as "no spectators" (everyone is supposed to be a participant who adds to the event's ambiance, not mindlessly gawking at other people's flesh, flash, or efforts). More important, there's no vending. It's not that Harvey is inherently anti-commerce. He's a committed urbanite and modern who recognizes that exchange is central to human society. "Try to live without commerce," he tells me. "Good luck. You'll be dead in a week."
Indeed, despite its no vending rule, Burning Man survives off the cornucopiac excess of its participants' daily lives. It's precisely the money they make elsewhere that provides them with the time and resources they need to survive their week in the desert, to build a temporary, explosively colorful, and varied Shangri-La far from home. Black Rock City has no flowing water and no plumbing. Its citizens make do with portable toilets (at Black Rock's highest population, 97 people per), a service provided by the organizers and paid for through the $65 to $135 ticket price (tickets are cheaper the earlier you buy them). There's no electricity either, except from personal generators and an official generator that can be tapped only with the organizers' permission.
Black Rock City is perhaps no more dependent on outside sustenance than any other big city, but the "no vending" rule makes all the difference. Everything you need you must bring with you, or convince someone else to share with you--making, as Harvey suggests, one week about the event's realistic limit.
In certain ways, Black Rock City is the anarcho-capitalism of economist Murray Rothbard's dreams (and, given his thoroughgoing cultural conservatism, nightmares)--only without the capitalism. Burning Man confirms that Rothbard's central notion that we could buy all the government we need on the open market has some validity. Burning Man charges its "citizens" an admission price and provides them, within the limits of the environment, the quasi-governmental amenities of plumbing and power, and the trappings of order and justice. It purchases all its other services, such as fire protection and medical services, from private and public agencies. Sure, the governments have more bargaining power than in a typical market. After all, if Burning Man refuses to pay the prices they demand for the services they insist on providing, they could probably prohibit the event. Still, everything about the infrastructure of Burning Man comes from market transactions, even if skewed by government power.
The real sticking point of most anarchist theorizing is law enforcement, and Burning Man is still working out the details on that score. The festival has a volunteer community of enforcement personnel, known as the Black Rock Rangers. Michael Michael (a.k.a. "Danger Ranger"), an original member of the partnership running Burning Man, is the linchpin and spiritual guide to the Rangers. Certainly, he is not your average beat cop.
As we talk in the front seat of a wrecked '82 Honda two weeks before this year's festival, stacked atop another junked car at Ace Auto Yard (the favorite junkyard for San Francisco machine artists), he tells me that Burning Man is a "cosmic cybernetic pulse engine. We prime it with information and it goes around the planet and people are drawn to it, and come out and build all this stuff within a few days and it explodes in a tremendous frenzy. It's an engine primed by information, fueled by experience, with a deep, annual pulse cycle. Burning Man has the ability to change the world, the ability to teach people a new way of not just surviving but thriving."
The enforcement of law--or "community standards," as the organizers would have it--at Burning Man is different from what you're likely to find elsewhere in the country. But it is not, despite the party atmosphere and the stated ethos of "radical self-expression," anarchy. Real cops--from Washoe County mostly--patrol Black Rock City alongside the Rangers, though the former rarely act without consulting the latter.
That's not to say it's your typical city, either. Consider one incident from this year's festival. A young woman rushes from her camp to challenge two Washoe County cops with a pump-action water rifle. She fails to get a good shot off. A cop taunts her gently, reminding her that she neglected to pump properly. Their authority so mocked, with what looks like a real weapon aimed at them, the police cruise on. In many municipalities such recklessness would get you shot. Here, the cops just keep driving slowly by the parade of nude, body-painted bike riders and the long promenades of elaborately designed and constructed theme camps featuring such compellingly mysterious and silly names as Temple of the Burning Question, the Tactile Portal, and Tic Toc Town.
This year, there were only seven arrests at Burning Man, one for trespassing (a truculent would-be gate crasher), one for assault, one for weapons possession, and the rest for drug sales. Burning Man officials stand by these drug arrests by stressing that they violate the community's "no vending" rule.
Lt. Will McHardy was in charge of Washoe County's police contingent at the festival. He tells me that for a couple of days the medical tent was seeing 80 or 90 drug-related cases a day. "Just because the incidents we became involved in were few, doesn't mean there weren't other problems we don't know about," he says. "There are lots of law violations out here. We're well aware there's an enormous amount of personal drug use taking place. We're concerned with people dealing in large quantities. Keep in mind, we're not out here to invade anyone's privacy."
No one wants to say it flat-out, but a policy of looking the other way--or, as Michael Michael puts it, "respecting Black Rock's community mores"--seems in effect regarding drugs, lewdness, and indecent exposure. That won't sound good to either the media or concerned constituents in the counties, so it is left unsaid. When I begin asking a county sheriff about the possibility of an official "see no evil" policy, he cuts me off before the heresy is even fully out of my lips. All laws of the county are enforced to the fullest, he insists. Drug wars demand not only casualties but hypocrisy. Still, to inculcate relaxed policing in a place overbrimming with illegal drug use is an accomplishment. Perhaps Burning Man is changing the world.
"We are giving people an opportunity to play the role of hero, not the role of policeman," Michael Michael says of his Rangers. "I want them to think whether there's a real reason for telling a person to stop doing something, not just something programmed from outside society. Like if you see someone burning a car...is it their car? Well, you can't burn someone else's car without their permission. But if it is [the person's own car], you need to remind them that they will be responsible for cleaning up the mess. But sure, they can burn their car."
During the required training for the all-volunteer force (160-strong this year), the trainees all must yell en masse, "We are not cops!" And mostly, they don't act like them. They patrol, they help people who ask for help, they talk to each other on radios, and only sometimes do they administer frontier justice. For instance, driving within Black Rock City is prohibited, except for official vehicles and registered "art cars." The art cars are the colorfully decorated vehicles that are small enough in number and rich enough in charm --this year, they included a mobile living room and a car topped with a rebar buffalo sculpture--that they are allowed to move around. When Michael found someone driving illegally, he summarily emptied the car's tires of air, leaving the immobilized vehicle sitting in the middle of nowhere. Michael added a sign to strike fear into others who might think of violating community mores: "Air pressure is a privilege, not a right--Danger Ranger."
This year's biggest confrontation involved an entire group of revelers. Calling themselves Capitalist Pig Camp, they tested the limits of what Larry Harvey calls "the place on earth where the First Amendment is most fully exercised." Doing what they insisted was an art project, the campers shouted racial slurs willy-nilly and sexual come-ons to pre-pubescent girls. They were inspiring fellow campers to potential violence, explains Duane Hoover (a.k.a. "Ranger Big Bear"). By Wednesday morning of the week, they had been ejected.
Given the Rangers' general effectiveness, I ask both Michael Michael and Hoover if Black Rock could survive without the official men with guns. "I wish I could answer this question differently, but no," Hoover says. "If someone's attacking someone with a frying pan [an actual occurrence], I don't want to have to get a bigger frying pan to stop them." When violence erupts, he wants pros with guns behind him. The minuscule number of times the cops have to act isn't necessarily a true indication of their use, he figures. Their very presence is a deterrent.
Michael believes fervently in the power of an internalized community ethos and wishes that the Rangers' usually gentle persuasion and advice would suffice to maintain order. But he too grants that there are some even in Black Rock who just don't understand that they can live and let live in harmony without guns coming into play. For such people, he says, the outside authority of the cops, not the authority of right reason and communal harmony, is all they'll recognize.
With all its ever-increasing rules, Burning Man is not the cacophonous event of years gone by, though representatives of the Portland, Oregon, and Los Angeles branches of the Cacophony Society attended in 1999. The L.A. group returned after a two-year absence, bridling at new rules restricting the unsupervised use of pyrotechnics in art projects. The Portland group's anarchic, snarky energy is less suited to the festival than it once was. The real cops quickly put the kibosh on their routine of wandering around in postal uniforms with unloaded, but real, guns as the "Disgruntled Postal Workers."
After that cease-and-desist order, the Portland contingent turned its energy to pranking the festival itself, staging a bogus "Larry Harvey" book signing in center camp. One of their number donned a fedora and stuck a cigarette in his mouth--Harvey's signature accessories--and sat on a couch on the mobile living room art car. Supplicants were forced to kneel at gunpoint before "Larry" as he signed cheap, thrift-store paperbacks with xeroxed cover stickers identifying the book as Mein Camp, by Larry Harvey. "Do not touch Mr. Harvey, do not speak to Mr. Harvey, do not look at Mr. Harvey," a gunman shouted through a megaphone. "Move along."
Are the restrictions to which the dissidents object signs that Black Rock City is becoming too much like the actual hometowns of its citizens? "If it just becomes San Francisco East, why not stay home?" asks co-founder Jerry James, who still attends the event but is not part of the organizing partnership. "It's more like a typical urban experience. It's not the social experiment it used to be. Larry talks about building community--what I see them building is just like the community we live with every day, all these cops and rangers and rules and roads."
Just how much Burning Man can change and still be the vibrant "social experiment" Larry Harvey wants is a question that will be answered over the coming years. The event's evolution takes place via a sort of Lamarckian process. Every year the site is literally wiped clean so that, ideally, no sign of its having been there remains. But each time the city is rebuilt, it seems to have a slightly more complicated set of rules and mores based on some previous experience.
Every step away from pure anarchy is defended by Harvey in sensible terms. Guns were banned, he explains, as a pure matter of public safety. They might be fun among a few dozen friends, but with thousands all around you, there's no safe recreational use for them. Same for cars, he says. Pure survival at stake. Dogs weren't banned, but he decided that if someone thought his dog just had to be there, he should pay full ticket price for it. "We just couldn't handle a thousand dogs with kerchiefs running around being groovy," says Harvey. Building roads and giving campers addresses? Well, emergency services need to know how to find someone. With so many people, "You can't just say, `It's the yellow tent behind the red car behind the giant dog head.'" The tiki torch ban was the result of an incident in which a Burning Man staffer set his camp on fire before the gates opened in 1998. Campfires? Their prohibition is certainly a loss to community--what is more inviting to camaraderie among strangers than a warm fire to circle around on a cold night? But with such a dense population, unrestricted open flames are just not prudent.
Typically, changes and new rules are pragmatic reactions to size, circumstances, and sometimes official demands. This year, for instance, the organizers were being pressured by county health officials to institute daily garbage collection, perhaps the final urban amenity. "You have no idea how fucked up that would be," Goodell, the Burning Man government liaison, moans. "It would no longer be a radical camping experience. We might as well stay home and put the recycling in front. Larry says, `Over my dead body will we do garbage service.'" As a compromise, however, the organizers did place giant dumpsters at the exit for attendees to put garbage in--a turn away from past years' policy that each camper must take responsibility for "leaving no trace." Perhaps daily garbage collection is only a year or so away.
While granting that things have changed, Harvey is weary of talk of the good old days--that the event is too big, that it's no fun any more because of all the rules, that it was better when it was more exclusive and anyone could do anything they wanted. "The exercise of liberty in Black Rock is remarkable, but we don't accept anti-social activity and we never have," he says.
"I do agree with the basic anarchist idea that culture is self-regulating and spontaneously would provide society with useful customs to regulate the relationship of the individual to the collective," Harvey says. "But I don't like nouveau anarchists who are basically selfish hooligans whose creed is, `I do whatever I want, whenever I want, and I don't care, and I hang out with cool people who do anything they want to, and there are only a few of us, and fuck you.' How charming."
"It's a funny thing about small communities," Harvey tells me, mulling over arguments about whether the early days of Burning Man were better. "When it's smaller it's easier to keep order without outside authority, right? Maybe. But I remember one early year a guy shot off his gun without warning right next to [Burning Man's construction supervisor], who then couldn't hear for two days. If a stranger did that, you'd consider stringing him up. But in a small group, it's `one of your own' and you don't do anything. Things fall between the cracks when you rely on coolness and implicit convention."
There is an almost cult-like aspect to Burning Man, though the event's vibe is such an amalgam of earnestness and silliness that it's hard to know how seriously even the seemingly serious ones take it. Inside Burning Man's office in Gerlach--steady, friendly contact with the locals is seen as key to the event's political survival--images of Larry Harvey as the Christian/Darwin fish can be seen. The 23rd Psalm is parodied with Larry as the Lord.
Harvey, like his partner Michael Michael, has declared that his intention is to change the world. But change it to what? A giant party filled with postmodern art projects? Something that gets destroyed, cleaned up, and rebuilt every month?
Whether he's an enthusiastic booster of radical inclusivity for a beautiful, life-changing experience or an egomaniac trying to build the largest event he can--both opinions circulate--Harvey remains dedicated to making Burning Man bigger and bigger. He seems to think 1 million people could enjoy the Burning Man experience; Michael, more visionary yet, sees 2 million as a good number to shoot for. The more down-to-earth Marian Goodell suggests 50,000--and only if she can get 10 reliable assistants.
If and when any of those figures are reached, perhaps it will be clear whether the festival amounts to something more than proof that people with enough disposable income can recreate the more bohemian neighborhoods of their big-city homes in the middle of a desert. Clearly the trend in Black Rock City over the past several years has been to make it more like the civilization left behind.
But this much is certain: Burning Man can never be like a "real" city unless the ban on commerce is lifted. That is the law that the organizers seem most adamant about maintaining--even though it is violated by their own Center Camp café (the proceeds go to various causes in Gerlach). At this point, Black Rock is a city dedicated to pure play, a prototype for the society Michael Michael speculates will exist when we've solved the problem of production and have nothing to do but enjoy leisure. If science-fictional nanotechnology dreams come true, then Burning Man's 24-hour Mardi Gras-like atmosphere of sensuality and creativity may have more relevance to more lives than we could ever guess.
As it is, people do work at Burning Man, and work remarkably hard, building ephemeral things for the joy of creation, for the fulfillment of teaming with others to pull off the grand gesture, for status and bragging rights in a temporary community. It's a pre-individualist vision of the good life, which in Black Rock is found only in working with and contributing to the polis. No one does anything in Black Rock for money, although the Burning Man organization does give thousands of dollars in grants to artists. "Jesse Helms should love us," Harvey declares. "We don't drink at the public trough, and we support artists with our own, non-tax-deductible money. In fact, we fill the public trough with tens of thousands of dollars."
Of course, most of the art probably wouldn't be to Senator Helms' taste. Consider, for example, Jim Mason's fire symphony, performed in the wee hours of Sunday morning--3 a.m. or so--this year. Mason has five tanks that shoot kerosene jets in the air, arranged in a four-tank circle 100 feet in diameter with one in the center. He has composed a three-movement symphony with musical notes represented by flames of different height and intensity bursting in planned rhythms and patterns from the five tanks. It is a perfect example of an art project that could only be pulled off in the space and emptiness of Black Rock. He conducts, speaking through headphone radio to the five tank operators and their spotters, one of whom is me, who all bear fire extinguishers.
"The Impotence Compensation Symphony will now begin," Mason jokes. It goes off impressively for the first two movements, though falling kerosene starts small fires on the tanks, the empty cracked playa, and a shirt left near a tank. A couple of the ground fires seem threatening, and I'm dashing from my spot on the center tank to help others with my water-pressure extinguisher. I slip in a sheet of kerosene; I right myself frantically. The 100-foot flame jets 10 feet from me are a hot weight crushing down on my skull, palpable, like a brick of fire balanced on my head. I keep patting my hair, certain it's on fire.
Streaks of flame pour down the tank 50 feet behind me. I rush to empty my extinguisher on it, futilely. Someone grabs the extinguisher from my hand. "Run, run, run, it might blow!" Mason is shouting. Performers and crowd form a circle 100 yards wide around the tank, perhaps secretly hoping for one more colorful explosion. Luckily--or alas--the tank, with its nozzle left open, runs out of kerosene before the pressurized liquid explodes.
One act of apparent violence shook the order of Black Rock City this year. A person or persons unknown detonated a small propane container underground outside the city perimeter, but close to the Washoe policemen's camp. Immediately, rumors flew that the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms had been called in, that undercover agents were roaming the city seeking loose lips, that military helicopters deposited men with Dr. Seuss hats and colorfully decorated bikes to blend in. A BLM officer solemnly (and mistakenly) informed a group of Burning Man participants that the explosive was ammonium nitrate, the stuff used in Oklahoma City. That started questions about militia activity and terrorist attacks.
The mention of the BATF brings to mind parallels between the ironic nihilism of Black Rock City and the earnest millenarianism of another social experiment, the Branch Davidian "compound" outside Waco, Texas: communities separated from the rest of the world, united by outré beliefs, with lots of dangerous explosives, charismatic leaders, possibly exposing children to lewdness. If the BATF got involved, could Burning Man become another Waco? Local politicians certainly don't think that way. As Washoe County Commissioner Jim Shaw tells me, "People like to gather here who maybe believe in weird things, but they aren't bothering anybody, and I don't see why anyone should bother them."
Such words are a reminder that conflicts between alternative communities and the outside world don't have to end in fire--or at least not in hostile conflagration. After Burning Man '99 is just a memory I ask Lt. McHardy about the propane tank explosion. Whatever rumors I've heard, he says, the cops aren't taking it that seriously. McHardy's comments on that explosion could be read as a healthy attitude toward Burning Man as a whole. "The way I see it, someone wanted to see something go boom," he says. "They went out to an area they presumed to be vacant and less hazardous. I might be interested in meeting with the individual, but it wasn't that big of a deal."
It's far from clear that, as Larry Harvey and Michael Michael clearly hope, Burning Man is showing the world a new, better way to live (on an alkali salt flat with no water or electricity?). But the event demonstrates that there's still liberty in America. There are still frontiers--even if you need to endure a complicated permitting process to explore them. Hell, at least in the end they give you the permit.