Michael Mikel: Burning Man Founder

Michael Mikel was raised outside of San Antonio, Texas. His family was loving and his grandfather, a pioneer from the Cumberland Gap who first bought a ranch in Kansas in the 1890s, had a 20-acre ranch about an hour away.

"I grew up riding horses. I love going out to the pasture, grabbing a horse by the mane and throwing myself on the back and taking off at full gallop barefooted. I was much younger then," Mikel said.

In the 1960s, amid the Vietnam War, Mikel joined the U.S. Navy. He did a couple of tours, was briefly in Vietnam, where he earned a combat medal, he said, adding that he was was honorably discharged after five years. When Mikel returned from the service, he moved to San Francisco in the early 1970s..

"I came in at the tail end of the beat movement. I went to the City Lights bookstore one time and I discovered the book of poems ‘Howl’ by Allen Ginsburg and reading that completely changed the way that I thought. One of the high points was when I met met Allen Ginsburg on a sidewalk in San Francisco – we spoke briefly," he said.

Mikel became involved in technology in Silicon Valley working as an electromechanical systems engineer during the 1970s, the early days of the personal computer. In the early 80s, he advised Caltrans on intelligent freeway systems in Los Angeles, developed the first robotic assembly line for Apple Computer’s Fremont assembly plant in 1986, and in 1987, was a co-founder of San Francisco’s first tech startup, Jasmine Technology.

During that period, he was stuck in offices and meetings during the day, but he was renegade in his off hours, or at least he was trying to be. He heard of a group called the Suicide Club that was made up of professional pranksters, but they were "so far underground" that he could not find them. After the Club dissolved in the early 1980s, he and some friends started the "Cacophony Society," an absurdist prankster creative group inspired by the Suicide Club. Some of the group members were straight from the Club. The Cacophony Society would become the foundation for the world's first Burners.

The members would have dinners in Edwardian wear. They would dress as a stampede of brides, men and women, for the 'Brides of March.' They would dress as salmon and run counter to the crowd in the Bay to Breakers marathon in San Francisco. "One time we dressed up as clowns and we lined ourselves up at this bus stop, and the bus would pull up and there would be a clown and the clown would get on the bus, and the bus would pull up to the next stop and there would be two clowns, and they would get on the bus and they would be carrying a briefcase and reading newspapers and they would pretend that they didn’t know each other. This went on until there were about 30 clowns on a bus, and finally this went on and there were more clowns at the next bus stop and (the bus driver) roared through the stop and said, 'I’m not picking up anymore g**damn clowns,'" Mikel said.

The Cacophony Society never pulled pranks aimed at an individual. The pranks instead were "aimed at a way of thinking," Mikel said.

"We wanted to challenge the way that people thought. We got a lot of our ideas from the dadaists and surrealists, and even before that. The Native American ideas of the coyote, the trickster, the prankster. We took a lot of those ideas," Mikel said. Dadaism and surrealism are both art movements that strive to alter the audience's reality.

Mikel would play a vital role in the growth of Burning Man. He was the one who published the first notice about the burn in the Cacophony Society's 1989 newsletter permanently entitled "Rough Draft." He also drew a line in the dust in 1990 when the event first ventured out to the Black Rock Desert as an official "Zone Trip," or alien field trip, organized by the Cacophony Society.

He was responsible for a number of Burning Man "firsts." In 1991, he established the first art car, the “5:04 PM”, a dented up, but still operable, vehicle that had been crushed by a fallen piece of structure during the Bay Area's 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

In 1992 he edited the first on-site newspaper, and also founded the Black Rock Rangers, Burning Man's crew of savvy "desert rats" charged with assisting distressed Burners. In 1995, he developed the logo design, which has become the symbol of the Burning Man community. He introduced containerized storage and transport in 1997, and instituted the first perimeter radar system for Black Rock City in 2000.

Mikel even created a version of Burning Man on Second Life, an online virtual world.

An avid futurist with an interest in technology and social communities, Michael Mikel joined Burning Man in 1988 and initialized much of Burning Man’s progress over the years. In 1992 he drove the first art car to Burning Man (the 5:04 Special), founded the Black Rock Rangers, and edited the first on-site newspaper. In 1995, he developed the logo design which has become the symbol of the Burning Man community.

In 1997, he launched containerized storage and transport for the Burning Man festival with the acquisition of the first shipping container. In 2001 he visited Regional communities across the US during his Tour of America as an ambassador for Burning Man. In 2008, he managed the development of Burning Man’s presence in the virtual world of Second Life.

Michael has also been involved with many San Francisco social, cultural and technology institutions. Michael was a founding member of San Francisco’s Cacophony Society, and also a crew member of the machine performance group, Survival Research Labs. During the 1970′s his Silicon Valley career began in the early days of the personal computer as an electro-mechanical systems engineer for Fairchild Semiconductor.

During the early 1980s Michael was a consultant to Caltrans, doing research on intelligent freeway systems in Los Angeles. Branching into automated systems in the mid-1980s, he developed the first robotic assembly line for Apple Computer’s Fremont plant in 1986.

In 1988 Michael was a co-founder of Jasmine Technology, the first technology company to be located within San Francisco’s city limits. As a content contributor and social catalyst, he was influential to many local technology startups, including Wired, Laughing Squid, Boing Boing and the Internet Archive.