From Radical to Routine Chapter 3 – Burning Man From Chaos to Community

Following is the third chapter of my Masters of Cultural Sustainability Thesis, presented to Goucher College in January 2016. Read the first introductory chapter here and the background chapter here. Subsequent chapters will be published to this site each week.

Chapter 3

Burning Man: From Chaos to Community

In 1986, Larry Harvey and Jerry James built an eight-foot statue of a man, took it to Baker Beach in San Francisco, and set it on fire. As Harvey repeated this ritual in subsequent years, it became popular with the Cacophony Society and San Francisco’s network of “culture jammers” and pranksters. By 1990, when Harvey and friends piled down to Baker Beach to burn the effigy to mark the summer solstice for the fifth time, the burn was stopped by authorities due to the large crowd it was gathering and its threat as a fire hazard.

The Golden Gate Park police’s cessation of the event was a unifying event for those gathered, and the first trial of the community that was slowly gathering around Burning Man.[1] In this instance, the community demonstrated a flexible cultural identity as it had not yet fully formed.

When the effigy burn was cut short, Cacophony society founder and Suicide Club member, John Law, and Cacophonist and soon-to-be Burning Man founder, Michael Mikel, invited Harvey to join the Cacophony Society’s Zone Trip #4, a field trip to the Black Rock Desert, to construct, display, and burn outsider art. This seemed to suit the artistic and myth-less tone of the effigy-burning ritual that had no defined meaning or implications. 89 people were there when the effigy was burned in the desert a few weeks later and Harvey has returned every year since to do the same thing – but more people and artworks join the journey each time.


Dorothy Noyes’ article, Group discusses the “impossibility” of a “neat definition” of the title term in a 1995 edition of the Journal of American Folklore.[2] Additionally, Clifford Geertz recognizes that incoherence is necessary for something so complex as a cultural system and the vast restrictions of our understanding of such an intricate entity, ending with the gross and gorgeous admission that “cultural analysis is intrinsically incomplete.”[3] However, in Social Identity, Richard Jenkins states, “People must have something inter-subjectively significant in common – no matter how vague, apparently unimportant or apparently illusory – before we can talk about their membership of a collectivity.” [4]

Noyes’ discussion of the fact “that groups are not homogenous,” is clearly expressed in the dramatically diverse Burning Man community. Since 1990, Burning Man the community and culture has intermittently shied away from and struggled with defining its identity.[5] In a group that practices
‘do-ocracy’ (the idea that if you want something done, you should do it), definitions and communications via actions have been proven to be more effective than long-winded treatises. As Caveat Magister, puts it, “The idea that we’re united by our actions, rather than our motives, ideals, or thoughts, means that when we try to communicate Burning Man to the rest of the world, we do it by doing.”[6]

Burning Man was born out of a group of people that sought to disrupt conventionality and encourage inspired and inspiring experiences beyond the boundaries of reality by practicing ‘culture jamming’. These transgressive ideals and actions led them to explore the vast expanse of the Black Rock Desert with unbound creative expressions and without restrictions. For the first few years, they had the mental and physical space to truly explore the extents of their capabilities, however as more people were drawn to the bright shiny light of authentic self-expression and exploration as an escape from the dominant society of consumption, permission and limitations, the creative chaos became unsustainable.

“In the early days, people used to take drugs, drop acid, drive… at 90 miles per hour in their car with their headlights off while they were drinking wine and shooting guns out the window [laugh], and we just can’t do that anymore,” says Michael Mikel to organizational researcher Katherine Chen, in her book Enabling Creative Chaos: The Organization behind the Burning Man Event.[7] “At the time, it was open frontier. It was freedom basically,” he continues.[8] In the early 1990s, Burning Man was an “intentional community focused on art, creating one giant living piece of art for six days, a very ritualized ultra-uber art experience,” remarks Burning Man artist Charlie Gadeken in Olivier Bonin’s 2009 documentary Dust and Illusions.[9] Steven Raspa, Burning Man’s Lead Community Events Organizer, describes his first experience of Burning Man, “I recognized that it was similar to the magic that I had experienced in New York in the Lower East Side in the 80s… and there was a sense of the potential that you could do anything. It was playful and collaborative and adventurous. And I felt the same feeling when I first went to Burning Man in 1996.”[10]

1996: Fatalities

The chaos of punk-art-anarchy meets vast open desert with little more than self-imposed boundaries that was Burning Man screeched to a halt in 1996. It was made clear that self-regulation was not meeting the mark when a key member of the core group was killed in a motor vehicle accident, and one volunteer was killed and others severely injured when someone driving a car ran over a tent. Suddenly, thousands were not only mourning the loss and injury of close friends but also the naïve innocence of their adolescent community; the group’s identity had to grow up.

Brad Wieners’ 2012 Outside Magazine article, “Hot Mess”, describes the situation via direct quotes from those who were there.

Harley Dubois (Burning Man founder): We were always looking for the tipping point. When does it not work anymore? In ’96, we found it.

Michael Mikel (Burning Man Founder): It started during the setup days. Michael Furey, a neon artist, was in the town of Gerlach, drinking at the bar. Toward dusk he got on his motorcycle to go back to camp, and people tried to convince him to put his bike in a truck, but he declined. There was somebody in a van driving back at the same time, and Michael started doing these runs at the van to see how close he could get.

Vanessa Kuemmerle (Burning Man artist): It was that twilight hour. I had gone into town and was at a gas station where there were a whole bunch of people trying to figure out how to get to Burning Man. There was a caravan of maybe 10, 20 cars. Beautiful sunset. At some point I see a flashing light out on the playa. Is it really far away? Close? And then all of a sudden, whoom!—I see that it’s John [Law]’s white van. A guy called SteveCo was driving. I pull over and stop the car. SteveCo stops the van and just looks at me and goes, “Mike Furey’s dead.” Furey had been playing chicken with the van and was basically decapitated by the side mirror. There wasn’t any ambiguity there.

John Law: Furey killed himself, but it was Larry’s response that made me certain I was done after that year.

Kuemmerle: We’re waiting for a coroner and the sheriff. An SUV comes up, or a minivan, and Larry and a few other people get out. Larry bursts onto the scene and he says—I swear to fucking God—four times in a row: “There’s no blood on our hands!” My jaw was on the playa. It was one of those moments of looking into someone’s mind and not being too excited about what I saw.

Joe Fenton (member of the Black Rock Rangers, Burning Man’s internal response and security team): Larry’s way of dealing with 1996 was to try and control what was getting to the media. When Furey died, the first thing Larry did was look at his watch. He made sure to say it happened at 11:30 the night before the event officially began. So it didn’t happen at the festival but before the festival, as if Furey’s death was somehow not related. It was a stupid, alcoholic, moronic death. But you couldn’t deny that he chose this event to die at.

Chris Radcliffe (Cacophonist and Burning Man artist): Burning Man had become Larry’s whole life, so for John to say it’s over—that was a problem.

Larry Harvey (Burning Man Founder): What finally occurred in ’96 was a question about two different visions of what Burning Man should be. Should it be civilized? Or should it be, essentially, a repudiation of order? If it’s a repudiation of order and authority, and you’re the organizer and it involves thousands of people, what does that mean for you? What kind of a moral position is that to be in?

Law: Of course it had to change. We knew better than anyone, because we worked hard to keep everyone safe. But there was an opportunity there to say, Don’t make it bigger. Why does it need to be thousands? Keep it to a size where you know who you’re dealing with.

Mikel: There was a second serious accident in ’96, the morning after the burn. Someone drove over a tent with a couple in it and then crashed into another car, scalding a third woman with radiator fluid.

Law: No one who goes to Burning Man today is going to care about a bunch of old farts who are mad at each other because the band broke up. But they should know who they’re dealing with. Larry’s no saint. He’s also no visionary.[11]


In the wake of these extreme reality checks, the people organizing the event divided into two factions, but all agreed that the current characteristics of the previously uncontrolled event could not be sustained. Some felt the happening itself was the point of the group and the under-organization of the event was critical to its identity and purpose, while others believed the unique group formation had become the paramount point of the desert retreat and the happening was the medium for this community development. The faction in favor of a pure experiment in chaos and ending the event at this critical juncture left the group (including John Law, the man who first invited Harvey to bring the Man to the desert with the Cacophony Society) and those who remained formed the Burning Man organization and transitioned the free-for-all into an inclusive and creative community and event.

“A lot of that desire for growth came out of my philosophy with Cacophony; the more people you have with creative ideas, the more things you can come up with, the more wonderful art [and] ideas will happen,” says Mikel.[12] “We needed to impose some kind of structure, some kind of regulations,” remarks Mikel.[13] “John [Law] came out of the tightknit group of The Suicide Club, where everyone felt responsible for each other, so he felt responsible for everyone at Burning Man. That [1996] was the year John left – he felt that it had become too big.”[14] And indeed, in our personal interview, Law states, “At some point it simply became impossible to do what we were doing. I think 5000 was the cut-off point, maybe even less than that, to maintain the experiment that we were doing.”[15]

It was at this time that the liberty-fueled, hyper-adolescent and individually-focused nature of the event changed. Guns, dogs and driving were banned, an urban plan for Black Rock City was instituted and guidelines were formed and disseminated for the event that emphasized creativity and community. And “the wild chaotic energy of the first years would be channeled toward creativity and art,” reports Bonin.[16] “They come for the art, but stay for the community,” said Harvey. [17]

“It would make it irresponsible to make it large and not make it civil. We proceeded to create Black Rock City as it does exist,” testifies Harvey, “I don’t think those things exterminate freedom – only if your freedom is the desire to shoot your gun anytime anywhere, [and/or] drive at 120 miles per hour regardless of what’s in your path,” he continues.[18]

Mikel tells Chen, “We’ve become a community, there now is a responsibility to other members in the community. There are limits to what you can do, and we’ve made changes, but there’s still a tremendous amount of tolerance.”[19]

But this evolution of the experiment wasn’t endorsed by everyone. “Sure they had to get rid of the guns and slow the cars down and other things that were necessary for a city of 40,000 people, but what they didn’t have to do was micromanage every angle of the organization,” asserts Rinaldi.[20] The dichotomous rub between chaos and control was the foundation for the early cultural concerns within the community.


1997: Corporate Structure

Now that the effects of this event were reaching beyond the ephemeral ‘Zone’ into very concrete realities like hospital bills and loss of life, those who wanted to ensure Burning Man continued to exist as an event needed to create a legal entity. They chose to form a Limited Liability Corporation so that the responsibility and risk of the event, and any potential lawsuit could be shifted to an abstract entity.[21]

Despite Harvey proclaiming, “Burning Man doesn’t belong to me… it belongs to you!” in a particularly dramatic demonic performance spectacle at the 1996 event, Paper Man LLC was formed in 1997 between the three original founders (Harvey, Law and Mikel) in order to own and control the name and service mark of “Burning Man”.[22]

“If we’re going to survive, we’re going to have to take some stuff seriously,” comments Burning Man co-founder, then-PR maven and now CEO of the Burning Man Project, Marian Goodell.[23] Bedoya describes an intrinsic “tension between administrative culture and creativity; the rub between efficacy and risk,” that sounds like what Goodell had to contend with.[24] “We just have to face some realities,” Goodell continues, “Our hearts might be somewhere else, but we are necessarily a business because actually that’s a pretty powerful vehicle to be utilizing in order to navigate and be heard,”[25]she said in 2009, seeming to suggest the principles, ideals and ‘hearts’ of Burning Man were already necessarily distanced from its organization’s actions.

“Burning Man, because [it is] a top-down hierarchy, is totally sustainable, but it [Cacophony] wasn’t a top down hierarchy,” Law told me.[26] “What it is now is totally different from what we were doing. That’s why I get along with Marian, I don’t have any heart connection or any sense of ownership to it. I can just look at it as an interesting phenomenon.”[27]

The inherent and implied nature of cultural policies mean one can look to other aspects of policy and a group’s cultural expressions to find the social structures that go on to form cultural norms. However, in the article, “Cultural Policy: What Is It? Who Makes It? Why Does It Matter?”, Caron Atlas says, “The power of creativity and the dynamic nature of culture often defy the coherence and consistency expected of policymaking.”[28] Hence the paradoxical entanglement of the role of public policies for cultural sustainability: public policies provide social definitions for group definitions and cohesion, but also a point of departure for rebellious ingenuity. And in a social environment like Burning Man’s, that was seemingly created as a place for transgressive and transformative actions and behavior, an appropriate and/or widely accepted role for public policies is a confusing concept, that guaranteed to not be unanimous.

In Chen’s Enabling Creative Chaos, an intense discussion of the benefits and pitfalls of bureaucratic and collectivist approaches to organization, an analysis of the distinctive and hybridized approach to business, volunteer/community building and the expression of responsibility and expectations that the Burning Man organization has taken in order to sustain the unique culture of this society is presented. Highlighting the organization’s delicate dance of balancing the two social organizational frameworks, Chen discusses how the fringe, marginal or unorthodox character of the community has been protected while interacting with conservative and conformist entities (e.g. the federal authorities that issue the annual permit for the Burning Man event). Burning Man is not alone in this hybridized form of social and commercial organization. Entities of all kinds, community and commercial, are increasingly adopting both bureaucratic and collectivist practices in order to maintain relevance, member participation and cultural sustainability.[29]

In this period of cultural questioning and shift, those who stayed on to become the event’s organizers “viewed formal organizing as a crucial step in enabling a creative community to develop and thrive,” says Chen.[30] From their perspective, “under-organizing contributed to the debilitating chaos of past events where people were too preoccupied with their survival to engage in creative activities,” according to Chen.[31] However, community leaders did not want to form a traditional and over-organized bureaucratic model with strict top-down control and the potential for “mission fanaticism.”[32] Chen says, “Members sought conditions that enabled creative chaos without debilitating chaos and totalitarianism.”[33] Reflecting the question of cultural sustainability that faced event goers in 1996, and Victor Turner’s work regarding the inter-reliant relationship between structure/anti-structure, the two extremes that continue to threaten the Burning Man event are: not providing enough structure for the event and allowing chaos to overwhelm participants; and choking the creativity and vitality of the event with too much structure.[34]

Bureaucratic practices such as a chain of authority, standardization and specialization are included in Burning Man‘s organizational structure to enhance fairness, efficiency and stability, while collectivist practices such as having a mission, decision making by consensus (of top level organization members) and the practice of individual role creation support flexibility responsiveness and meaning within the group while also amplifying the organization’s financial transparency and accountability to its members.[35] These collectivist practices that often marry members’ interests with the needs and goals of the group, enable members to be united by shared missions and goals that are meaningful to them individually too; what Weber calls ‘value rationality’.[36] Chen quotes Burning Man organization board member Harley Dubois as saying, “It’s not about being efficient, it’s about making people a part of something.”[37] By endeavoring together, individuals create relationships of trust and reciprocity that form a larger collective identity, or “social capital”.[38] Contrary to the common form of the dominant populations’ regulation of subordinates and calling to mind Turner’s notion of ‘communitas’, Noyes states that “acting in common makes community.”[39] And to that end, Burning Man founder, Larry Harvey is quoted as saying, “Communities are not produced by sentiment. They grow out of a shared struggle.”[40]

Chen calls for attention to be paid to organizations such as Burning Man which create forms of legitimizing outputs, activities and practices that do not conform to prevailing standards, in order to support the sustainability of that values-based culture because, “if an organization does not have sufficient legitimacy, it may be pressured to adopt existing standards or practices that are inapplicable or incongruent with its enterprise.”[41] This reads as saying that entities operating within this space of hybridity and organizational experimentation are susceptible to incorporation into the prevailing patterns they seek to discover alternatives to. The particular point of danger is when the organization’s focus is on surviving as an entity, rather than meeting a particular current need or goal, or continuing the experiment. If the focus is on the experiment, rather than the existence of the entity, the failure or demise of the happening should be just as valid a result as continuing circumstances of success.


Concerns over Conventionality

With the creation of a sustainable structure after 1996 and a growing event population, early participants noticed an infiltration of familiarity at the event.

Notable Burning Man Artist, Pepe Ozan directed many elaborate performance art operas at Burning Man. In Bonin’s documentary Ozan reflects, “Burning Man is supposed to be the opposite of civilization, it’s supposed to be where you let go. But the amount of people, and the [presence of the] Nevada Police is bringing the rules of civilization within Burning Man.”[42] “With that surging population, suddenly what has been a rather anarchic, unstructured community begins to become more like the city we thought we had left behind, a place where there are speed limits, parking restrictions, traffic considerations,” comments D.S. Black Silver.[43] Brian Doherty has been going to Burning Man annually since 1997 and has regularly written pieces for Reason Magazine about the event and its cultural implications. Doherty notes this growing sentiment among Burning Man artists too. Quoting the man who built the first beachside effigy, Jerry James, Doherty reports, “‘If it just becomes San Francisco East, why not stay home? … 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.”[44]

This cultural blending was not just about what is happening within the physical and temporal boundaries of the event and its participants, but also due to increased interactions with the governmental and regulatory forces of the state. Doherty reports, “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.”[45] It is important to recognize that Burning Man organizers did not capitulate to all of the demands of the dominating authorities. in response to the pressure from county health officials to organize garbage collection for the event and its participants, Goodell, then speaking as Burning Man’s government liaison, told Doherty, “You have no idea how fucked up that would be. It would no longer be a radical camping experience. We might as well stay home and put the recycling in front.”[46]

“Taking everything you have in the city and taking that out into the desert is not what I wanted. I wanted to be constantly experiencing new things that kept me on my toes,” says Law in Dust and Illusions.[47] And maybe that’s why he has spent a lot of time in Detroit in the last decade.

Follow me on this parallel: The lack of regulation in Detroit not only allows creativity and action, it demands it. “The people in Detroit know that they are on their own and if they want something done they have to do it themselves,” comments urban analyst Aaron Renn, who goes on to say that this has led to the development of very creative enterprises, art and ways to deal with challenges.[48] The creative and entrepreneurial culture that is blossoming in Detroit (and other cities in economic decline) as a result of a lack of regulation may be surprising. But Renn’s conclusion that, “There’s not much chance a strong city government could really turn [Detroit] around, but it could stop the grassroots revival in its tracks,”[49] is an important warning for Burning Man. Though the imposition of comparatively gentle controls at Burning Man may seem a far cry from the excessively bureaucratic and permission-seeking society of the establishmed dominant American culture, once can see how those taking to Burning Man for the radical experiment of rampant liberty may cringe at the creation of policies, permits and procedures.

Doherty voices this in an early 2000 Reason Magazine article, noting that, “Every step away from pure anarchy is defended by Harvey in sensible terms,” yet the journalist asks, “Is it appropriate for administrative governing bodies to manage or direct culture, especially one of inventive ambition? Can creativity be authorized?”[50]


As the experience of Burning Man became more civilized, it cannot be sad that it was not still creative. Artist Rebecca Anders tells Bonin, “I went [to Burning Man] in 1997 looking for the wild, crazy, impassioned experiment… apparently there was a new aspect of Burning Man that year – there was more organization, more rules… but what I saw was people making large strange impossible art.”[51] And as Doherty told Wieners, “While it definitely changed after 1996—it was way more planned—that didn’t keep it from being amazing. Before then, a lot of the art was discards. Stuff cobbled together, old doors or signs, or Steve Heck’s surreal collection of junk pianos. As it went on, the art was commissioned. It may have become more of a theme park, but people were still making the theme park as they went along.”[52]

We have to take a responsibility for our own fun, and for the fact that our subjective gauges of possibility must be recalibrated after each iteration of experiencing life beyond the pale. Anders kept going to Burning Man, and describes how she has made the event “impassioned” for herself, saying, “The festival itself has become very predictable to me… I’ve more become involved in making the art work happen. You can only go to the same party so many times, making the large scale artwork has become the adventure.”[53]

In 2000, a group of Burning Man participants from Portland got meta and decided to prank the event itself. Doherty reports, “[They] staged 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.’”[54]

Though this kind of rabbithole-diving meta-prank play may alleviate a touch of cultural pressure within the experiment, the sense of hypocrisy remains.


Apollo vs. Dionysus: Smiley and the Symbol

It could be said that Burning Man’s core intra-cultural debate is that of Apollo vs. Dionysus. Friedrich Nietzsche asserted that human nature is made up of the rational, orderly and predictable Apollonian aspect, and the irrational, passionate, creative and chaotic Dionysian aspect, and that a balanced existence is ideal.[55] While Nietzsche sought to inject the reasoned sensibilities of his time with more spirited Dionysian traits, it may be argued that the initially adolescent and chaotic energy of Burning Man is simply growing into a mature balance to include elements of rationality and predictability.

In 1996, the event’s last anarchic year, pranksters flashed a smiley face on the Man, the focus of the event, for just seconds at a time. “We put a neon smiley face on it with an intermittent timer so it would flash on and off at intermittent times. Larry was incensed that the symbol was being made fun of, he would deny that now, but he was definitely pissed off. It was really funny. And that’s what people should do, they should make fun of the stupid thing,” Law says.[56] Rinaldi told Jones, “It was a defacing of the icon,” and a challenge to the event’s control.[57] The anti-establishment exercise, commonly referred to as “Smiley”, was symbolic of the split between those who were serious about creating a new kind of community open to all and those who were wary of such highfaluting goals and just wanted to have fun and make radical art, like Law and Rinaldi. Supposedly, Harvey had the Smiley removed and destroyed after just one showing.[58]

“I just find it annoying that something I put so much energy toward has become a religion for some people,” Law continues.[59] Indicating the level of standardization and lack of innovative impetus he sees in Burning Man today, Law says, “It’s like a Star Trek convention.”[60] Law’s exact and cutting phrasing is purposeful.


In 2007, as a public response to the early burning of the Man, Scott Beale, a longstanding Burning Man participant and the founder of Laughing Squid, a blog and web-hosting organization with many links to the San Francisco absurdist-art scene, (and others) received an anonymous email, apparently from Smiley himself. The message included the following account of the 1996 event and Smiley’s short life on the playa:

Burning Man season 1996. The theme? Hell.

The idea is, everything in society is owned and operated by Helco. The supra-national conglomerate that recently has also successfully purchased Hell for an undisclosed record amount of cash and stock options. People really seem to be taking it all a bit too seriously. Hell is on everybody’s mind and lots of art projects reflect the preoccupation.

About June sometime, after a talk with Larry to glean some insight on how serious he was about it all, a plan was hatched to secretly install a neon smiley face in the Man’s head, which would be switched on just as his immolation began.

The plan was to put a sublime or whimsical spin on the all too serious darkness of the whole ordeal at that point. The idea that we could mock society and its foibles even to take a swipe at western religion while simultaneously exalting and in fact elevating our own Icon in our own Image was an obvious disturbing hypocrisy to many of the Cacophonists. Yes, we saw it coming, even in June.

On Saturday evening before the burn (we burned the figure on Sunday back then) we had ourselves a little playa theatre.

With the Burning Man Project in its sights, Helco’s lawyers maneuver themselves for a hostile takeover. A board meeting is held at Helco tower. Satan himself appears along with Mr. Clean, the Michelin man, Ronald Mc Donald, Ken and Barbie et all. They vote unanimously to buy the Burning Man Project at any cost.

Just in the nick-of-time Ted “Unibomber” Kaczynski detonates flammables in the tower, which immediately explode in a ball of fire. The Unibomber zips out of a top floor window down a cable into a wall of neon lights sending a shower of sparks sufficient enough to allow a swift getaway.

The SEEMEN robots and machines set about destroying a mock strip mall to the shock and awe of all present.

Hell is upon us. Sometime after midnight, Smiley was switched On for about 1 minute. A curious murmur made its way around camp.

The next morning Larry came out to the Man and stood there for nearly an hour staring at the head. When the sun rose up behind it, the shadow of the smiley neon revealed itself.

Larry was outraged, incensed, indeed furious at the sight. He screamed at Dan Miller to “get that god damned thing out of MY man!” At which time Dan needlessly risked his safety and the rest of the neon installed on the figure to climb up the structure and remove the offending smiley face.

What was revealed at this point is that Larry wasn’t interested in the idea of the “community” having any input in “his” project. He knew as we all did the “theatre” of Hell was affecting the dynamic out there. In fact, we had “sacrificed” one of our own (Michael Fury RIP died in a motorcycle crash) the previous Tuesday. And in fact the carnage from Saturday the night before was just becoming more apparent. Still he was determined to fulfill whatever his vision was no matter what the costs were on the rest of us. It’s clear now he was positioning himself for his own version of a hostile takeover.

So while Larry pontificates ceaselessly on how the Man belongs to everybody at the event, reality is quite opposite.

The moral of the story?

Don’t worship false idols.

Bring your art home![61]


Expressing the intense idolatry Law is critical of, some four years after Smiley’s brief visit to Black Rock City, Harvey says, “Every road in the city in some sense leads to the man. He hovers like a vision at the end of all of these spoked streets in the arc of the city. To know where you are, you reference the Man. Finally, it seems like knowing who you are includes that final or ultimate reference.”[62] This interplay between sacred and profane is imperative to the carnivalesque, topsy-turvy world of the absurd. As this example illustrates, those leading Burning Man may have lost sight of the play that underpins the social experimentation and started to take the event, and themselves, too seriously.


Rinaldi describes Burning Man as he saw it at the start, “C’mon you know, ‘Let’s go to the desert and get naked and get stupid and do drugs and drink beer. And build stupid shit and light it on fire. The person that builds the stupidest thing wins – that’s the energy that went to Burning Man. The foundation that that was built on was stupidity and chaos and they’re trying to switch that around now and say ‘legitimate stupidity and chaos.'”[63] Rinaldi continues, “They took the event and bent it over a barrel and inserted all this meaning up its ass and it kind of stayed up there and now that it’s all diluted with shit and grime and all that stuff that’s in your intestines, now it’s ready to come out ‘Here you go, MEANING.’”[64]

“It had two choices in 96 – either blow up and stop, or eventually become a larger scale controlled commercial event which is where it’s going right now,” comments Law.[65] Reiterating his intention to create an experimental space for the exploration of experience beyond perceived possibility, rather than a popular and controlled event Law says, “It [Burning Man] is not a bad thing, it’s still the best party in town, but not at all what I would be interested in working on. I want to encourage people to do what they want to do, not what we’ve decided they need to do.”[66]

Thirteen years later, at the 2013 San Francisco Commonwealth Club session “Creating Culture from Mayhem”, Law was joined onstage by Cacophonists Carrie Galbraith and Chuck Palahniuk and asked for his sixty-second idea to change the world. Demonstrating his commitment to the unconventional, Law’s succinct and unswerving response was, “Find out what you’re supposed to do and do something else.”[67]

And as Rinaldi puts it, “You’re either a friend of Smiley, or a friend of Larry.”[68]


2000: The Burning Man Regional Network

As the event continued to grow, Burners started discussing having difficulties reintegrating into their geographical homes cities and “normal” communities after returning from experiencing such a divergent and free atmosphere at Burning Man. A common desire to stay connected to other Burners and to bring the identity, lessons, creativity and inspiration home from the desert coalesced. This resonates with Noyes presentation of the sociological idea of ‘group’ as proposed by Ben-Amos that does not depend on shared identity, but on regular interaction.[69] In 2000, the Burning Man Regional Contacts network blossomed; veteran Burning Man community members led localized gatherings and started sharing information about the event and community with their year-round neighbors.

According to Carmen Mauk, founder of Burners Without Borders, a non-profit emergency and social assistance offshoot organization of Burning Man, as the Regional Network developed, “People [were] seeing Burning Man as a celebration, but they [felt] compelled and accountable to this larger idea and [felt that we] had to be doing something else other than putting on parties. And [the] Burning Man [organization] saw that and changed the regional coordinators contracts… there have to be civic projects now.”[70]

Event founder, Larry Harvey explains that this expansion is not just geographic but paradigmatic in his August 2011 Reality Sandwich online magazine submission, “I Am, We Are, It Is.” Harvey expands upon the title of the piece, explaining that “I Am” is the sense of inner reality and authenticity that Burning Man provides a space for, “We Are” refers to a sense of unity and bonding through endeavor with others out there and “It Is” completes this progression to create a culture in which a “feeling that outside this circle there exists some greater gift that everyone is joined together by as they give to it.”[71] With the organic budding, organizational support and subsequent ripple effect of community events and the Burning Man Regional Network, the culture of Burning Man expanded in its scope and reach with multiplied opportunities for group entry and participation in 2000.


2004: Burning Man’s Ten Principles

As communications and events were led outside of Black Rock City and the core organizational structure, it became clear that a uniform explanation of the cultural forms, practice and values of the community should be developed.

The Ten Principles are heralded by many (mostly newer) members of the Burning Man community as holy tenets; even though they were brought back from a big sandy place by a guy, the principles are not commandments for acceptable behavior for community members, but are the closest thing to a clear, widespread description of what Burning Man is. The Principles were created in 2004, to guide the development of the Regional Network of Burning Man events and are the result of one member of the Burning Man organization’s attempt to describe the commonly underlying elements of a ridiculously diverse group of people and what may be essential to creating a space that would attract Burning Man participants.

Geertz quotes Goodenough, stating that, “A society’s culture consists of whatever it is one has to know or believe in order to operate in a manner acceptable to its members,” [72] therefore despite the regular grumbling and distrust of doctrines that is imperative to conversations amongst Burning Man Community members, the Ten Principles are both, the best, and roughest, definition of Burning Man culture and the mission of the Burning Man Project available.

Burning Man staff member, artist, community leader, long-time participant and devotee, Steven Raspa, explains, “The Ten Principles are descriptive, they were never prescriptive, they didn’t come first. They were written down to describe what was important about the culture and experience at a time when we needed the tools and ways of talking about it. We had Regional Contacts coming to us and saying ‘How can we talk about this culture? What do we say?’ And very begrudgingly, [Harvey] wrote some things down, summarized elements, and surprisingly they worked really well. It’s about creating the conditions for people to bring human expression; it’s not about having it look exactly the same everywhere in the world.”[73]


Burning Man’s Ten Principles

  1. Radical Inclusion

Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.“ 

The principles of participation and inclusion, regardless of past experience or expertise, encourage participants to expand their skills and explore their creative potential. Burning Man’s collectivist practices include having volunteers create roles based on their interests, rather than organizational needs. “It’s not about being efficient, it’s about making people a part of something,” [75] says Burning Man organization board member Harley Dubois. Shared endeavor breeds social capital. The explicit policy of radical inclusion formalizes the openness, extreme inclusivity and welcoming community attributes that can form entrepreneurial communities and also propagates a culture of innovation and creativity.

However, inclusion does not extend to those who commit crimes, cause harm or harass another or threaten the continuation of the event with irresponsible behavior.


  1. Gifting

Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.”

At a Burning Man event, it is normal for someone to offer you things, experiences, and hugs with no expectation for anything in return. Gifts are not necessarily tangible. Theme camp parties, sound camp dance beats, smiles and friendly support for the stranger are common gifts found on the playa. The act of simply being truly present and open, willing to connect with and help others, share resources and time constitute giving the gift of oneself.


  1. Decommodification

In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.”

Having determined that the buying and selling of goods is a distraction to connecting and creating relationships, Burning Man is a commerce-free event. Nothing is bought or sold (except for ice for health and safety reasons, and coffee for unknown reasons, from the Burning Man-run Centre Camp), and those found to be trading at Burning Man Regional Events are given a warning and then evicted.

Decommodification extends to mean the removal of the reminders of the default world’s constant barrage of corporate advertising and influence. Burning Man participants are encouraged to cover or decorate prominent logos (e.g. rental trucks) in order to keep it a non-consumer event.


  1. Radical Self-Reliance

Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.”

Burning Man is an exercise in radical self-sufficiency; you must bring all you need to survive, be comfortable or thrive depending on your carrying capacity. At the gate, volunteers check that participants have adequate food, water and shelter (and ticketing) before granting entry. Furthermore, participants are responsible for their own experience too. This starts to play with radical self-expression to create an area of potential conflict. In my experience, self-reliance usually trumps. For example, not everyone will want to sleep at the same time and so the answer to this is including earplugs on the recommended packing list (while reasonable noise levels are also dictated, but rarely enforced).


  1. Radical Self-Expression

Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.”

Radical self-expression forms the content of the event. Black Rock City is an open canvas with room for the interpretation, play and creative expression of everyone. Identities and ideas are welcome to be expressed and experimented with abandon here.[80]


  1. Communal Effort

Our community promotes social interaction through collective acts of gifting. We value creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.”

“Commerce defines us on the basis of deficiency and need,” says the Survival Guide for KiwiBurn.[82] In a space that denies this function, the collective wealth and abundance of collective efforts and capacities are unlocked. Principles such as immediacy, radical self-expression and radical self-reliance, ask participants to mine their inner resources to realize that their skills, talents and capabilities can be much more plentiful when they are asked to be, which, when combined through communal effort, form community.

Cooperation and active collective efforts are what make Burning Man happen. At KiwiBurn 2013, the main effigy, The Man, was larger than it had ever been before and was built and placed on a high hill near a forest plantation. Midway through the event, local authorities’ fire safety concerns determined the effigy was too close to the forest and it was dismantled and moved to another location. As The Man was being lifted once again, the spine snapped. The huge sculpture sat in a mangled mess of wooden skeleton and form for two days. Medics attached an oxygen mask to the head, an IV drip to the arm and a coroner tag to the foot. The lead builder was devastated (having also endured the death and funeral of a loved one during the event) and walked away, leaving The Man to hands of the community. A revolving group of enthusiasts and builders constructed a large sacred heart from broken bits and offcuts and augmented the effigy’s chest to erect the heart so it rose from the fallen man, ready to burn brighter and higher than his broken body. As far as I know, The Man has never burned lying down, but this effigy burn was one of the most profound I have experienced because it demonstrated the Burning Man community’s collective effort, unwillingness to relent, denial of failure, and determination to burn.


  1. Civic Responsibility

We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. Organizers must also assume responsibility for abiding by national law and district bylaws.”

How organizers navigate the extensive territory of insurance and litigation, especially considering the extent of the absurdity of some of the artworks and environmental elements at Burning Man events (e.g. Human Operation Game, live electric fences, flame throwers, Mad Max-styled Thunderdome, flying bicycles, 3-storey teeter-totter) remains unclear. However, combined with radical self-reliance, the principle of civic responsibility places accountability for personal experience and the creation of works or opportunities for the experiences of others, with each individual. At Burning Man, experiences that are obviously dangerous are often accompanied by hand-scrawled signs reading, “You read the back of your ticket, right?”, referring to the legal waiver that covers the reverse of the ticket stating that by using the ticket, one takes full and complete responsibility for themselves and their life (while at Burning Man).


  1. Leave No Trace

Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better condition than when we found them.”

Evading another possible terrible element of event production, Burning Man is a leave no trace event, meaning that responsibility for rubbish and refuse is decentralized to the individuals who attend the event. No garbage receptacles are present at the week-long event of 70,000 participants; everyone is expected to pack out what they pack in and think carefully about what they bring so as to reduce waste and litter (i.e. no feathers!). Matter-Out-Of-Place (MOOP) is a term referring to anything that would not be found the environment if the event was not held there – bottles, cigarette butts, sequins, feathers, paper scraps, building materials, no matter how small must all be collected and participants are encouraged to pick things up as they go, no matter who dropped them, to keep the task manageable. Campers are responsible for clearing their campsite and spending one hour “moop-ing” the wider event site before leaving the event.


  1. Participation

Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation in experience. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.”

Participation accentuates the principle of inclusion, articulating that the only way to experience an environment of invitation is to get involved and contribute to the collective experience. The idea is that Burning Man is made up of a society of activists, volunteers and do-ers who believe there is no ‘they’, only ‘us’.

There are beautiful artworks, spectacular performers, killer sound systems and wondrous community burn events at Burning Man; there are no spectators, everyone contributes in their own way to create the collective experience. As Hippie Tim said, “You cannot attend KiwiBurn, but you can be a part of it.”[86]


  1. Immediacy

We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, appreciation of 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.”

Immediacy underpins all of the principles, moving them from lofty ideals for academic debate to demands for action in the here and now. Immediacy also leads to the notion of ‘do-ocracy’ and appreciation of learning through action that is prevalent at Burning Man. Immediacy is most obvious in the burning of the Man and the Temple, gorgeous temporary artworks that represent the labor and love of many. The Temple is the site of the most reverence (though it may also house a trashy dance party) at a Burning Man event as it is often the cathartic repository for thoughts, memories, associations and relationships that participants want to let loose, or burn away. The symbolism of the fire, dancing flame and resulting ash is beyond the scope of this paper and surely appreciated by the reader.


Much like the central effigy figure of the event, the creation and distribution of the Ten Principles was a clear step towards describing the culture of Burning Man to others while also giving insiders a central reference point. The construction of the Ten Principles, much like the establishment of the Regional Network and in fact the institution of regulations in 1996 and even ticketing in 1992, were all steps in the transformation of Zone Trip #4 from a once radical and subversive experiment to a structured and incorporated institution of routine at the edge of popular culture. Though Burning Man still offered a version of a vacation from the insatiable reach of dominant and capitalist culture, a liminal “time and place of withdrawal from normal modes of social action” and potentially “a period of scrutinization of the central values and axioms of the culture in which it occurs,”[88] the increasing seriousness with which the organization’s leadership administered the exercise cannot be overlooked; the materialization of a dominant culture of Burning Man itself has become obvious. This has in turn set the scene for that ever-emergent quest to “be new and unrestricted”[89] to solicit yet another level of absurdity and chaos to emerge from within.

Is this working for you? Post a comment below to share your thoughts or click through to PayPal to show your support!

Next in Chapter 4… Burning Man: From Transgressive to Traditional

In 2007, the interpretation of what was traditional to the culture of Burning Man was debated via direct action. Paul Addis, a San Francisco artist and performer who had been a part of the Burning Man community since 1995, set the event’s effigy on fire on Monday, the first night of the event. (The effigy had always burned on Saturday night.) Though there was no acceptance of destroying someone else’s property or art in the Cacophony Society or Burning Man, Addis referred to the radical and transgressive roots of the event and claimed to be acting in the ‘true spirit’ of Burning Man. Many others, including the Burning Man organization’s board, considered Addis’ actions an affront to the community, and its traditions and safety. Filing arson charges resulted in Addis’ two year stay in prison, and some would argue, his suicide in 2012.

The definition and concept of ‘tradition’ is made up of necessarily dichotomous demands; to reflect and define a community through recognized definitions, and to also be a consistently reinterpreted performance of that culture within its contemporary circumstances. The 2007 incident and the Burning Man organization’s response highlights the apparent boundary between transgression and tradition, while also questioning how transgression may function as a form of tradition at the Burning Man event.


References and notes:

[1] The organization’s (Harvey’s) willingness to work with authority is still obvious in the cooperative manner the Burning Man organization works with various levels of government and other regulatory bodies

[2] Dorothy Noyes. “Group”, The Journal of American Folklore Vol. 108 (1995), 449-478.

[3] Clifford Geertz. The Interpretation of Cultures (Basic Books, 1993), 3-4.

[4] Richard Jenkins. Social Identity (New York: Routledge, 2008), 102.

[5] “Festival” as a celebration of commonality. I don’t believe the four annual ‘burns’ prior to 1990 could be called ‘festivals’

[6] Caveat Magister, Who the Hell Are Burners

[7] Katherine K. Chen, Enabling Creative Chaos; The Organization Behind the Burning Man Event. (University of Chicago Press, 2009), 32

[8] Chen, Enabling Creative Chaos.

[9] Dust and Illusions

[10] Raspa, Personal Interview

[11] Wieners, Hot Mess

[12] Dust and Illusions

[13] Dust and Illusions

[14] Dust and Illusions.

[15] Law, Personal Interview

[16] Dust and Illusions

[17] Larry Harvey quoted in Stephen T. Jones. The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture (San Francisco: Consortium of Collective Consciousness, 2011), 251.

[18] Jones. Tribes.

[19] Chen, Enabling Creative Chaos, 32.

[20] Dust and Illusions

[21] Dust and Illusions,

[22] Larry Harvey, Burning Man 1996. Produced by Puzzling Evidence TV. YouTube. August 1996. Accessed 24 November 2015

[23] Dust and Illusions

[24] Robert. Bedoya, US Cultural Policy: Its Politics of Participation, Its Creative Potential. (New Orleans: National Performance Network, 2004)

[25] Dust and Illusions

[26] Law, Personal Interview

[27] Law, Personal Interview.

[28] Caron Atlas, “Cultural Policy: What Is It? Who Makes It? Why Does It Matter?” in Culture Counts: Strategies for a More Vibrant Cultural Life for New York City. (New York: New York Foundation for the Arts, 2001), 65-68. Accessed 24 November 2015

[29] Chen, Enabling Creative Chaos, 8

[30] Chen, Enabling Creative Chaos, 5

[31] Chen, Enabling Creative Chaos, 5

[32] Chen, Enabling Creative Chaos, 6

[33] Chen, Enabling Creative Chaos, 6

[34] Chen, Enabling Creative Chaos, 3

[35] Chen, Enabling Creative Chaos, 19 and 155

[36] Chen, Enabling Creative Chaos, 9

[37] Chen, Enabling Creative Chaos, 71

[38] Putnam quoted in Chen, Enabling Creative Chaos, 22

[39] Noyes, Group, 468.

[40] Jim Goad. Burning Man for Dummies: Everything You Need to Know About the Festival in The Desert Where Rich Kids Play Hippie. 29 September 2015. Accessed 24 November 2015

[41] Rothschild and Whit (1986) quoted in Chen, Enabling Creative Chaos, 117

[42] Dust and Illusions

[43] Burning Man: Community of Chaos? Produced by Mark Silver. Channel 4. 2000. Accessed 24 November 2015

[44] Brian Doherty, “Burning Man Grows Up: Can the nations’ premier underground event survive its success?”, Reason Magazine. February 2000.

[45] Brian Doherty, Burning Man Grows Up

[46] Brian Doherty, Burning Man Grows Up

[47] Dust and Illusions

[48] Aaron Renn, “Detroit: Urban Laboratory and the New American Frontier”, New Geography. 4 November 2009. Accessed 24 November 2015

[49] Renn, Detroit:

[50] Doherty, Burning Man Grows Up

[51] Dust and Illusions

[52] Wiener, Hot Mess

[53] Dust and Illusions

[54] Doherty, Burning Man Grows Up

[55] Athabasca University. Apollonian Aspect of Human Nature. 8 May 2009, Accessed 24 November 2015

[56] Dust and Illusions

[57] Jones. The Tribes of Burning Man

[58] Rinaldi,

[59] Dust and Illusions

[60] Dust and Illusions

[61] Scott Beale, “The Neon Smiley Face and Burning Man 1996”. Laughing Squid. 31 August 2007. Accessed 24 November 2015

[62] Silver, Burning Man: Community of Chaos?

[63] Silver, Burning Man: Community of Chaos?

[64] Silver, Burning Man: Community of Chaos?

[65] Silver, Burning Man: Community of Chaos?

[66] Silver, Burning Man: Community of Chaos?

[67] John Law, Chuck Palahniuk and the SF Cacophony Society

[68] Rinaldi,

[69] Noyes, Group, 453

[70] Jones, Tribes, 222

[71] Larry Harvey. “I Am, We Are, It Is”. Reality Sandwich. 22 August 2011. Accessed 15 August 2012.

[72] Geertz, Interpretation, 11

[73] Raspa, Personal Interview

[74] Burning Man Project, 10 Principles

[75] Chen, Enabling Creative Chaos

[76] Burning Man Project, 10 Principles

[77] Burning Man Project, 10 Principles.

[78] Burning Man Project, 10 Principles.

[79] Burning Man Project, 10 Principles

[80] Radical self-expression can go too far and threaten the continuation of the community or violate other principles. At KiwiBurn 2013, a “loveable troublemaker” threw fireworks into the Man burn, contravening the stipulations of the fire permit and causing local officials to instantly cancel the burn permit for the next night’s Temple burn. Though a member of the core crew, the person was evicted from the event and was possibly banned from the next year’s event as a result of threatening the safety of the community, but more importantly the good relations with local authorities and the continuation of an important community ritual. There is an intersection between the cowboy-culture of do-ocracy that blatantly ignores regulations and has traditionally been a part of this community, but most, including KiwiBurn’s ruling Executive Committee, now that the event is growing larger and becoming well-known understand that the demands of the local authorities must be respected in order to secure the sustainability of the event.

[81] Burning Man Project, 10 Principles

[82] KiwiBurn. Survival Guide. (2012) Accessed 15 August 2012.

[83] Burning Man Project, 10 Principles

[84] Burning Man Project, 10 Principles.

[85] Burning Man Project, 10 Principles.

[86] Hippie Tim. Personal Interview.

[87] Burning Man Project, 10 Principles

[88] Turner, Ritual, 167

[89] Glazova, Dada and Constructivism

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.