FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 1ST, WAS THE DAY when Burning Man Y2K threatened to turn into a New Age Altamont. Friday was the third day of high winds – gusts up to fifty miles per hour – and “whiteouts,” desert dust storms that reduced visibility to about as far as your hand could claw in front of your face. All over the moonlike surface of the playa – a dried lake bed – tents ripped apart, domes collapsed, shade structures snapped and sailed away. Caught in the blurring, stinging dust, lines of worried campers grew ever longer at the green Porta-Potties, many of which were flooded with waste. In the center cafe, hundreds danced with desperate fervor to a raucous drum-improv group. Rumors flew about local sheriffs making pot busts and undercover agents checking pupil dilation, and about an insane coprophiliac running wild between storms, taking dumps on people napping out on the playa.
For a few hours, it was unclear whether Burning Man – which in ten years has exploded from a small-scale gathering of Bay Area artists and fringe dwellers into an annual week-long ritual 26,ooo strong – could survive the elements, as well as the chaotic impact of its own success. Black Rock City, seven square miles of the 400-square-mile Black Rock Desert zoo miles northeast of Reno, Nevada, is now an institution requiring weeks of construction before the community arrives in force. Once a gathering of naked freaks burning shit down and tripping in the desert, Burning Man is now an enormous gathering of dot-com CEOs and cutting-edge artists building a high-tech but incredibly temporary fantasia in the desert while getting naked, burning shit down and tripping.
As the storm turned harsh, the members of the Church of Mez kicked back on cushy couches in a canopied shelter, surrounded by bottles of Veuve Cliquot and books by the famed psychedelic chemist Alexander Shulgin. They cuddled each other playfully and ambisexually as they waited for their chef – formerly of Seattle’s Four Seasons – to serve up yet another gourmet meal. “Tonight we’re having prawn risotto and tiramisu,” a church member said cheerfully.
The Church of Mez featured a sixstory-tall tower of flashing lights, a drum-and-bass DJ platform, a semi converted into a full-service kitchen, and a costume workshop with electroluminescent lights used to create glowing and pulsing effects. The Mezbians had descended on Black Rock desert from Seattle, where many of them are Microsofties, working in the upper echelons of the Church of Bill.
“This is our fourth year here,” said namesake Mez, a program manager for Internet Explorer, as he gave a tour of the premises. “We’ve been refining stuff ever since the beginning.” He proudly fanned a twenty-page project guide, featuring scale maps of the campsite and itemized rosters of everything they brought.
A twenty-seven-year-old in a sparkling jacket with long hair and a beard, Mez described his church as “Smart, fun, open-minded people interested in personal growth and progressive social change. We want individuals to have more choice in their lives. You see a lot of polyamory here, a lot of public sex. Most people are not violating any rules of their relationships by partaking. I’ve started a relationship with a very beautiful woman, but it allows me to do what I want.”
How did the Church of Mez come about? “Mez is more generous than most in supporting his friends,” joked Beverly Sobelman, 36, a development manager in the office division of Microsoft. “One year, on his birthday, his friends asked, `What do we give a guy who can give himself anything?’ We decided to give him his own cult.” Earlier that week, Sobelman had married co-worker Stuart Updegrave, 33 – one of a number of weddings that took place at Burning Man 2000. They unrolled a green lawn on the baked desert, and their chef made a huge ice cream cake to mark the occasion. “I would say that more than half the men at our wedding were wearing dresses,” said Sobelman.
“And looking wonderful,” Updegrave added, as the couple settled into a warm, polyamorous newlywed embrace.
BURNING MAN BEGAN IN 1986, WHEN Larry Harvey, a barely employed landscape architect, built an eight-foot-tall wooden effigy and torched it on Baker Beach in San Francisco. Harvey intended the Man as a free-floating symbol: an image of transience or spiritual regeneration, a signaling beacon for a new post-humanism, or a reigniting point for the spent energies of a suppressed and depressed counterculture. He returned the next year with more friends to burn it again. In Iggo, Harvey relocated the growing event to the Nevada desert.
“That first year in the desert, we didn’t know anything,” recalled Michael Michael, a.k.a Danger Ranger, the gray-bearded founder of the Black Rock Rangers, which is now a corps of more than 300 volunteers trained to mediate and problem-solve. “It was so hot, we crawled under our cars like lizards.”
Ten years on, Harvey and a fulltime staff of twelve run the festival, which pays the Bureau of Land Management about $500,000 to use the site each year. Ticket sales – from %85 for early birds to more than $200 for latecomers – and donations from wellheeled Burners cover those costs.
The rapid-fire growth of the festival and its beautifully self-organizing structure are direct products of the Internet. Not only does a massive conclave of Silicon Valley’s best and brightest swab themselves with SPF 45 and gather at Black Rock City annually (“One-half to one-third of the heads of all the dot-coms come to Burning Man” was an estimate I heard), but the infinitely dispersive experience of the festival is strangely like surfing a living version of the Web. Wandering Black Rock City felt like touring an endless series of four-dimensional chat rooms and eccentric Web sites. Like strangers who met on the Internet, many if not most of the Burners were playing with their personas, picking up and discarding new identities, new friends, new ideas, at hyperspeed.
“During the day, I’m Aladdin riding a magic carpet – at night I’m a manta ray,” said Russell Brown, a creative director of Adobe’s Photoshop, wrapped in a turban and Arabian tunic. “I’m a pretty amazing closet exhibitionist. This event feeds my desire for people to say, `You’re wonderful, you’re great.'”
Black Rock City consists of a semicircle of rings, divided into streets with thematic names – this year’s theme was the Body, so the first street, facing the playa, was Head, followed by Brain, Throat, Heart, Gut, Sex Drive, Anal Avenue, Knee Lane and Feet. From the center of the city, a main lamp-lit avenue led out to the glowing fifty-twofoot-tall Man himself. Along this street, there was a giant head with three faces: a metal face weeping burning tears, a face made from driftwood, and a clay face weeping water. There was a giant clay phallus and a yoni with lit-up clit. There was a three-story-high interactive asshole – you climbed stairs up and pushed your way through glowing rectal tissue to slide down a steep chute on the other side. These were all commissioned pieces made by veteran Black Rock artists who received grants from Harvey’s Burning Man organization, which gave away $250,000 this year for artist projects. (Harvey is justifiably proud of the fact that Burning Man is now one of the largest financial supporters of artists in the Bay Area.) In a week, there will be no sign that any of this has been here.
Besides the masses of walkers and people on their glowing or furry bicycles, zealously decorated art cars and wiggy transport trains also promenaded across the desert night. The art cars included the Chromozoom, with its spinning DNA coil; a pirate ship featuring a raucous crowd of drunken sailors; a variety of moving couches and living rooms; and a mobile lobster. Most impressive of all was a long Dragon Train, with a full bar inside one of its alwayscrowded compartments. At night, the festival turned into a phantasmagoria of glow sticks and electro-luminescent-lit outfits, generator-powered video projectors and DJ sound systems, while flamethrowers and multihued lasers arched across the star-saturated desert sky. The Y2K Bum was like “going to the best club in Manhattan where everyone is beautiful, except there is no door policy in the desert and the drinks are free and everybody is incredibly friendly and you can step away and find yourself in the middle of a dust storm,” said Adam Fisher, a thirty-one-year-old associate editor at Wired magazine.
BY EARLY FRIDAY EVENING, THE storm had passed. Burners crept from their RVs and tents to dust off and decorate themselves for the night ahead.
“Calamity binds a community together,” said John Perry Barlow, the fifty-three-year-old former Grateful Dead lyricist and founder of the Electronic Freedom Foundation. A crusty veteran of the counterculture, Barlow had parked his rented RV – painted psychedelic colors and sporting a large penis with the word “Furthermore” across it – at the theme camp called Spiral Oasis. “Today was a crucial moment in the history of this event. We hunkered down. We didn’t flee.”
Spiral Oasis was one of the first Silicon Valley groups to colonize the festival, opening the way for massive camps like the Church of Mez. In six years, Spiral has grown from a handful of pioneers to 130 people from around the world – California, Australia, Europe, Zimbabwe, New York – with a budget of more than $150,000. The camp included a cross section of high-level Web developers, digital theorists and fast-tracking yuppies, as well as a French chef and a hairdresser.
Spiral was described by a slightly bitter artist from the more boho Happy Lands camp as “among the most successful, richest people you could possibly meet at Burning Man.” Featuring a popular trampoline and an open-air sun shower in its courtyard, and a hypermodern fetish bar called Alien Sex Club, Spiral boasts a brain trust that includes, besides Barlow, VRML creator Mark Pesce, robotics expert Ken Goldberg and his wife, Tiffany Shlain. There was also Coco Conn, a special-effects expert turned information architect; one supermodel; several Hollywood hotshots; and a few corporate lawyers from two recently merged firms on a paid vacation to make some soul connection away from the cube farm.
“This is the center of everything that’s going on right now, all of the progress,” said Goldberg in the awestruck tones you hear from many Burners, who clearly feel they have created a yearly utopia. “You are seeing the best form of it here.” Like many of the denizens of Spiral, Goldberg has a book out – that archaic technology remains a status object for the digerati. The Robot in the Garden, a coltection on telerobotics and telepistemology that he edited, is out from MIT Press.
“It is amazing to see virgins arrive at Black Rock,” said Mark Pesce, who also has a new book, The Playful World: Interactive Toys and the Future of Imagination, which is out this fall from Ballantine. “After five or ten minutes, they say, `Oh, my God, I’ve been looking for this all my life.'”
WHILE ARTISTS ACCESS THE EVENT’S technical experts to achieve ambitious projects, scientists are using the Burn as a creative outlet from dull corporate jobs or government labs. Pesce spent four months rehearsing a performance of DJ Christ Superstar for the ’99 Burn.
“Black Rock City shows it is possible to create a society based on play,” said Russel Wilcox, a laser engineer for Lawrence Livermore Laboratories. Wilcox created the green crisscrossing laser display that formed a Burning Man insignia visible from outer space. Wilcox’s laser show was upstaged by another laser, however – a brand-new white-light laser set up by the camp Emerald City. Beamed from a truck and using a 6,700-gallon tank of spring water as a coolant, the laser shot solid rooms of light into the atmosphere, sent swirling patterns over the euphorically dancing multitudes and caused general amazement.
There was fun technology, there was amazing technology, and then there was Doctor MegaVolt: a pair of two-story-tall rattle-shaped Tesla coils resembling Bride of Frankenstein props, twin electrical generators mounted on a raised, mobile platform, with a space between them. Charge up the Tesla coils with i million volts of electricity, and violet-edged lightning shoots in all directions, crackling into the black night in instantly vanishing zigzags. Put a man in a metal suit between the Tesla coils, and he conducts lightning through his fingers and smashes bolts against his helmet, to the intense delight of a huge crowd of the naked, the barely clad and the fully costumed, screaming, “MegaVolt! MegaVolt!”
MegaVolt embodied the essence of Burning Man. If the multidimensional spectacle can be reduced to one single concept, it is transformation: transformation of consciousness, transformation of artistic creativity into ecstatic communion, of sculptures into flames and ash, of visible fields of electricity into a death-defying game, of all kinds of energy into new forces.
And transformation of the self: After the event, many Burners change jobs, start new relationships or end old ones, or begin anew in other ways. “After last year, when my boyfriend and I got back to Calgary, we said, `What are we doing with our lives?”‘ a young Canadian told me in the cafe one day. “We quit our jobs and went to Central America for four months.” Unfortunately, for many people, self-transformation can be a double-edged sword: “We’re back in Calgary now, trying to pay off our debts. Reality stepped in front of us like a brick wall.” She is currently working as a secretary.
Strangest emergency handled by the Black Rock City medical clinic: a glow stick trapped in a vagina.
1996 WAS A WATERSHED FOR BURNing Man: the year one Burner died in a motorcycle accident and a Pontiac Grand Am plowed through two tents, putting three campers in the hospital. In the aftermath, the Black Rock City fathers had to make a choice. Did they want their event to remain a lawless rodeo for freaks, or did they want to change in order to grow? Harvey chose the path of evolution, which has involved ever more rules – banning firearms, keeping unauthorized cars off the playa, discouraging public sex, raising ticket prices and so on. The most vocal group of dissenters seems to be the artists and anarchists, who feel they have surrendered the purity of their event to make the dot-commers more comfortable and increase Harvey’s profit margin. But the dot-commers don’t care about amounts that they see as piddling. They are psyched to access a free environment where physical reality overwhelms the virtual kind, where they can explore their own fantasies.
“Burning Man brought art into my life,” said Wayne Correia, 34, a former developer of Mac-system software. Three years ago, Correia co-founded Critical Path, “a postal service for the Internet,” which now has 900 employees, nearly $1 billion in invested capital and 120 million customers worldwide.
“The company plan was like an artistic statement for me,” said Correia. “The boundless enthusiasm I got from the DIY culture of Burning Man was part of my inspiration.” Indeed, the company delayed launching in 1997 so that its employees could go to the event. For Burn-2K, Correia bought a vintage aluminum Gulf Stream trailer on e-Bay and got DJ Paul Oakenfold to make a special appearance at Illuminaughty, one of the rave camps. “No one will trample on the rights of myself or my friends ever again,” Correia said. “I am part of the largest vehicle for wealth creation anyone has seen in two lifetimes, and if this is how I want to spend my weekend, you better leave me alone.”
DANIEL PINCHBECK is an editor at “Open City” magazine.