Eight days in the desert under harsh conditions with no permanent infrastructure, including a stable water source, sounds like a test of the human spirit worthy of a cable channel reality show. At the annual Burning Man, a gathering that began on a San Francisco beach 32 years ago and is now set in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, the extreme geography serves as the foundation for an event that’s become a utopian model for social principles and creative placemaking.
“Burning Man is the largest outdoor art museum, and it’s also a city for one week,” says co-founder Michael Mikel, who will speak at the Tom Tom Festival on April 11. “It becomes the third largest metropolitan area in Nevada.”
What began with a group of experimental creatives collecting driftwood to build sculptures and burning them as a way to build community, has exploded into a festival that attracts more than 80,000 people who drive or fly to the remote location where they make art around a theme, build a city, and burn stuff—mostly art.
“Burning Man teaches people about their place on the planet, and the impact that they have there both physically, environmentally, and socially,” Mikel says.
With astonishingly efficient levels of cooperation and interdependence, all of the burners are involved in making the event a success.
Early on, the founders devised a set of 10 guiding principles for Burning Man: radical inclusion, gifting, radical self-reliance, decommodification, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leave no trace, participation, and immediacy. Everyone in attendance brings their own food, shelter, and water, and no money changes hands on the playa, with the exception of a coffee shop and ice supply stations run by the organizers.
“It’s the largest leave-no-trace event in the world,” says Mikel. And if someone is an asshole and leaves a pile of trash behind? “Larger members of our community, if they see it they will call them out on it,” he says. “Someone else will take the initiative to take that trash away. It’s a matter of social pressure.”
A Texas native, Mikel arrived in Northern California in the earliest days of Silicon Valley’s tech boom. With a background in electro-mechanical systems engineering, he says he “got involved in that whole phenomenon which turned out to be quite amazing.” He also mingled with the creative minds of the time and found his way into an underground group that centered around performance art and pranks called the Cacophony Society. The group’s motto defined them as “a randomly gathered network of free spirits united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society, and you may already be a member.”
Cacophony took what Mikel calls “zone trips,” journeys to faraway places and tourist destinations where a spontaneous art event would be conducted, usually with costuming involved.
These formative activities came into play as the beach gatherings reached critical mass in 1990. “We showed up on the beach in San Francisco with about 1,000 people and a four-story-tall wooden man,” says Mikel. But the authorities stopped the sculpture from being lit. Shortly after, he and some friends were watching a video of a “surreal” croquet game played with a ball 8 feet in diameter and pickup trucks in the Nevada desert. Always ready for some artistic high jinks, they loaded up the wooden man and headed to Black Rock to make history by holding the first burn at the site.
Mikel says the gathering relies on 10,000 volunteers, and employs a staff of about 100 people year-round, adding another 500 as the start date approaches. The site now has public works, a complete hospital, an FAA-approved airport, and a fire department. He is the founder of a community support and mediation organization, the Black Rock Rangers, that he started as a search and rescue team and which earned him his playa name, Danger Ranger.
“It’s a unique structure and it’s not very hierarchical,” says Mikel. “We give people opportunities and turn ’em loose and that works out very well for us.”
Despite its functionality and minimal conflict (in 2018 there were 44 arrests reported, versus 234 at Coachella), the growth of Burning Man and its hip factor is beginning to push the limits of its egalitarian promise—tech leaders, influencers, and celebrities now jet set into the festival and set up luxury camps.
With prankster spirit, the org poked fun at the issue in a recent April Fool’s story declaring Google as a major stakeholder, but Mikel says it’s something that’s being taken seriously. “There’s a lot of discussion…we are looking at that right now with our cultural direction-setting committee. Looking at ways that we can integrate that part of the culture into our community and make them really be a part of who we are, what we do. You’ve always got the old-time burners who are jaded and used to go out there and camp lying in the dust, and ate power bars three times a day, but the city itself has evolved.”
And that evolution began with the simple act of starting a fire. The festival holds two iconic burns each year—on Saturday night the effigy of the event goes up in flames in a raucous celebration, then a solemn closing ceremony honoring lost friends and family is held on the final night when the playa’s temple ignites.
“I really think that fire goes back to our earliest roots as human beings,” says Mikel. “It’s a social place, a place where people tell stories. …I’ve always been interested in people and community. How our community exists and functions out there in the desert is really fascinating, and we have a lot to teach the world about how to get along.”