- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 21, 2003

Navigating an isolated, dust-riddled Nevada highway through suffocating 107-degree heat to spend a week on a prehistoric lake bed in the middle of the Black Rock Desert might not sound like an event many people would eagerly anticipate.

But this is exactly what more than 30,000 participants do each year when they converge from around the world for Burning Man, an experimental community that gathers for the week before Labor Day.

It’s a countercultural event with a budget of more than $5 million.

The shared challenge of survival in this harsh desert environment creates the foundation for the event’s unique and unmistakable vibe: a gift economy that employs social capital as currency.

With no commercial vendors on hand, people arrive overprepared and eager to create an immediate experience through sharing and themed participation in events of “radical self-expression.”

Musical rhythms pulsate from powerful, towering sound systems, and partakers buzz in and out of 450 theme camps and art installations with names such as “Flatulence Amplification Research Team,” “Barbie Death Camp & Wine Bistro” and “You Are That Pig.” Each year, the most successful art installations return bigger and better, and gain more moving parts.

“Burning Man definitely changes your idea of what art is,” says Josh McHugh, a San Franciscan who has attended the event since 1999. “It also brings out an innate human competitiveness.”

This year’s art theme, “Beyond Belief,” promises not to disappoint.

Yet it was just a dozen years ago that the event drew a mere 250 close-knit participants after relocating to the Black Rock Desert from San Francisco’s Baker Beach, where the event originated as a gathering of 16 friends in 1986. Now, each Labor Day, Burning Man’s continued growth raises the question: Does its sheer size dilute or enhance its avant-garde essence?

Event founder Larry Harvey, a grizzled 53-year-old former landscaper and Oregon native, said Burning Man never had a defined ideological basis. “We weren’t that self-aware,” he said. “We discovered by doing.”

The seminal 1986 Baker Beach gathering, which climaxed with the spontaneous and incidental burning of an ornamental 8-foot-tall wooden man, lent inspiration to what is now the world’s largest temporary municipality: Black Rock City, USA.

The event has grown incrementally and organically, consistent with an all-inclusive philosophy that has provided organizers their fair share of growing pains.

It is this notion of inclusion, says Mr. Harvey, that separates Burning Man from most definitions of counterculture.

“There exists a remarkable range of political opinions, ages and income differences at Burning Man,” said Mr. Harvey. “Countercultures historically form enclaves and go to great lengths to distinguish themselves. We went to being civic and welcomed strangers of any kind.”

Maintaining open arms was much easier said than done. Organizers were forced to turn a corner after 1996 when the unexpected arrival of 8,000 participants effectively raised serious safety and environmental issues at the Nevada site known as the “playa.”

With no rules or boundaries, auto accidents, theft and waste issues forced a decision of whether to keep the event open or closed to the public. To the consternation of fellow founders John Law, Jerry James and William Binzen, Mr. Harvey and other organizers chose the former.

“After 1996, Larry said, ‘It’s got to be for everybody,’” said Vicki Olds, a seven-year veteran of Burning Man who served as editor and publisher of the Black Rock Gazette, the temporary city’s daily newspaper, from to 1999 to 2001.

In 1997, Burning Man established boundaries: neighborhoods, rules and regulations. The festival also went corporate, forming a limited corporation with an executive committee, fiscal policy, management philosophy — and even its own political lobby.

“Then we started to communicate an ethos of a society,” said Mr. Harvey, citing the festival’s Radio Free Burning Man, its Black Rock Gazette, various year-round newsletters and most notably its Web site, www.burningman.com.

The event now operates on a $5.6 million annual budget, keeps its headquarters in San Francisco’s SoMa district, allots $860,000 to its staff payroll and donates $270,000 to theme art grants. Income derives mostly from ticket sales, ranging from $125 in advance to $300 at the gate.

The ticket price is enough to turn some away.

“It has become the world’s largest gated community,” said Diane Whitmore, a theme camp co-creator who decided not to attend Burning Man in 2001 after seven years of participation. “It’s exclusive. I think a lot of people are priced out. And with police around it feels restrictive.”

Burning Man’s finances remained in the red for its first few years, but it has since stabilized to establish a break-even status. “We do not work like ordinary business,” said Mr. Harvey. “Our bottom line has never been dictated by profit.”

Burning Man also has turned down requests for licensing and sponsorship of its name and logo; the staff has tracked more than 150 trademark violations in the past 10 months. The event also has rejected media projects that “weren’t true to the spirit of Burning Man,” said public affairs liaison Rae Richman.

Consistent with the original gathering, the event ends the Saturday night before Labor Day with the ritual burning of the wooden man — now 80 feet tall and mounted on a 40-foot podium — at the geometric center of the semicircular Black Rock City.

Mr. Harvey always thought it important that the burn “takes place in a public environment in the middle of nature,” but offers no opinion of what the burn should symbolize for the individual.

Ironically, Mr. Harvey acknowledges that his routine on the playa fails to capture the “immediate experience” participants seek. Recalling last year’s Burning Man, his actions mirrored those of a mayor. “I had a guilty conscience about not looking like I was working. I hardly spent time in the city.”

One of the major reasons for Burning Man’s ability to grow to its current size is what Miss Olds refers to as “a huge political presence in Nevada.”

The Nevada Bureau of Land Management (BLM), for instance, collects $4 on each ticket and monitors the Burning Man’s year-round cleanup efforts. Dave Cooper of the BLM’s Winnemucca Field Office calls the event “the largest leave-no-trace event in the world.”

The volunteerism and gift economy of Burning Man, although temporary, does leave a cultural imprint among participants once they leave the playa, Mr. Harvey said. He bemoans “the nature of our marketplace,” which makes Americans “less connected to our inner resources, the society around us, and certainly any vision of a greater world.”

Burning Man participants have begun banding together in regional networks, putting on their own events in an attempt rekindle the event’s feeling of community.

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