War at Burning Man! Part I: Cannons, and Artillery, and Blood

It was pretty much like this ...

At approximately 10:30 p.m. on the night of Monday, Aug. 29, the double-decker art boat “Dodo” drove up before BMIR, Burning Man’s official radio station, and was fired upon by a mounted cannon on the roof.

It wasn’t the bloodiest battle they would fight that week:  just the first.

Author’s Note:   The following is an account of the events of The War of the Rites, an epic conflict at Burning Man 2011 between the camps of BMIR and Monticello.  Unlike previous playa stories I’ve told here, no part of the story has been fictionalized.  All details are accurate to the best of my recollection.

BMIR and Monticello had never fought before, and weren’t even arguing until just two hours earlier.  But when the call to war came, they were ready.  Eager.

The two camps had been united in five years of friendship by Zeus.  A key founder and long-standing director of BMIR, Zeus is close friends with “Guv’nor,” the Governor of Monticello (a theme camp based upon Thomas Jefferson’s ancestral home.)   Guv’nor had even been the de facto best man at Zeus’ wedding two months earlier.

Had Zeus been present, many combatants agree, the War of the Rites probably never would have been fought.  He would have made peace.  But he wasn’t there this year.  I was.

I’d never started a war before.  But, everybody needs an art project, right?

Early that afternoon, J. Kannizle, one of BMIR’s two station managers on-site, asked Guv’nor to send the Dodo to BMIR that night and give the station’s hard-working crew a tour of the playa and its art.  The Governor said yes:  they’d done this several times before over the previous few years.  Everyone was happy with the arrangement.

Everyone, that is, except Kenneth Griswak, the brilliant, mad, artist-in-residence at BMIR.  (more…)

Lost? Found.

Lost and Found HQ

While we don’t know for sure, since we don’t actually track these things, we’ll venture to say that Burning Man has one of the more labor-intensive Lost and Found systems among events of its size and ilk. Ours is done by hand, and is supported by a small team of dedicated volunteers who work during, as well as long after the event ends to reunite lost stuff with the … um … losers. Wait, that came out wrong.

If you’ve lost something on playa, and it was turned in to Playa Info, it’s now sharing a small office on Burning Man HQ’s 8th floor with Lauren, Lois, Bobalou, Phil, Carolyn or Matty, who are busy sorting, cataloging, and finding YOU, its rightful owner (let’s use that term, shall we?). (more…)

Reverend Billy & The Stop Shopping Gospel Choir Occupy Wall Street

[Editor’s Note: It’s been interesting to watch the Occupy Wall Street movement take shape and gain momentum. Along with many other Burners, the Reverend Billy Talen is there on the ground, preaching his gospel.]

WATCH: Anti-Consumerist Preacher Reverend Billy Talen serves up a fiery sermon against the global economic machine at the ongoing Occupy Wall Street demonstration in downtown Manhattan.

There’s a term for the present American system: “Totalizing.” That means that consumerism/militarism comes all the way across the landscape – into every nook and cranny. It kills all the smaller systems, like the neighborhood economies, the gift-economies. This system is self-propelled to come into the arts, into medicine, into libraries, into our intimacy – and into our children’s lives at the beginning of identity.

At the Occupation of Wall Street you really feel this. Liberty Plaza is a small park where we say we’re free of that system. The difference is so dramatic. We are starting a culture here – a way of life from scratch. It is clumsy and beautiful and frustrating. But no-one regrets being here and everyone knows what leaving this small island means. Go back into America and our freedom is portable, hidden near our hearts.

Decompression and beyond

Sunday was the day to strut your dusty playa duds one more time before putting all those summer outfits away for the season. It’s getting chilly and wet now, and sparkle shorts and bikini tops won’t work so well when the days get short and the temperatures dip.

Sunday was the day of Decompression in San Francisco, and this gathering of the clan will have to do until the next time we get together in the desert.

That is, if  there is a next time.

Oh, we’re not saying that there WON’T be a Burning Man in Black Rock City next year (even if the 2012 theme is still an enigma wrapped in a mystery.) And we’re not trying to be all melodramatic and end-of-times.

But there does seem to be an inordinate amount of self-examination and Burning Man examination going on, and we can’t say that it hasn’t made us thoughtful.

There were so many good and amazing things this year. By many accounts, it was maybe the best year ever — great weather, great playa, more and better art, one of the most amazing Temples ever, the Regionals stepped up … lots of stuff to like and to feel optimistic about.

But then, the grumbles: My friends didn’t go because they couldn’t buy a ticket. Or … the city has gotten too big! The Esplanade was so crowded! Or … there were soooo many art cars, I felt like I was missing out if I didn’t have one or wasn’t on one.  …  And  the RVs! Everybody was in an RV! They were having their own good time and not  being part of the community! That’s not Burning Man! Air conditioning is not Burning Man!

Sigh. It almost makes you want to wash out the playa dust and be done with it once and for all.

And that’s exactly what some folks are going to do. They’ve been to their last Burning Man. They won’t be going back. And you know what else? We honestly and sincerely think they’re doing exactly the right thing. And we wish them nothing but the best.

Because here’s the truth about Burning Man: it has changed. And here’s another truth: it will continue to change. It won’t ever be the same as it was  in the ’90s, or five years ago, or six weeks ago.

And that’s good. It’s not a museum piece, or a stage play. It’s jazz. It changes. It’s not the same every time. It’ll never be like that again.

Gather round the campfire now, and let me tell you tales of the olden days, when there were only a few hundred people out there in the wilds, and they built and lifted the Man into place themselves, and they had to follow a map to get to the site, and they huddled in the shadow of their vehicles to escape to the heat. They weren’t quite outlaws, but they were definitely fringe players — jokesters, pranksters and artists and musicians.

But here’s another thing: Not all of the old timers had the experience of a lifetime. Some of them were miserable and out of sorts and felt disconnected from the other people there, who all seemed to be loving everything and were  being fabulous. They didn’t know if they fit in, they didn’t know if they were doing it right, and they weren’t exactly sure of just how to act under the circumstances. And yes, there were even a few people who were just along for the ride.

Does that sound familiar? Did you have moments like that this year? Of course you did. That part hasn’t changed. It was always better last year.  And it’s always been crappy for all the people some of the time.

Burning Man always has been an event for the people who have the time and money to be there. Are there more trust-fund babies in the population now, proportionally speaking? Maybe. Maybe not. But there are still people there who have to scratch and claw to come up with the dough to make it happen.

So what’s to be done?


Burning Man is not “like Occupy Wall Street.”

Photo by David Shankbone (Creative Commons license)

I’ve heard Occupy Wall Street described as being “like Burning Man” several times now.  Sometimes that’s just by the jackasses at Fox News, but sometimes it’s by people who might know enough about at least one of them to have a point.  Occasionally it’s meant as a compliment.

But is it right?

Occupy Wall Street is certainly an experiment in socially relevant communal living that involves camping and picking up after yourselves … and to the extent that any anybody doing that is “like Burning Man,” they’re like Burning Man.

And they’ve both apparently got a lot of people offering to lead yoga.  So, there’s that.

The more I think about it, though, the more the comparison seems inaccurate – and even unfavorable to both groups.  People say Occupy Wall Street is “like Burning Man” as a means of deflecting attention away from its political relevance.  “Oh those kids,” they’re saying.  “You know how they like to get together and camp and do crazy things.  I bet there’s a guy on stilts!  Like Burning Man!”  The implicit suggestion is that because Burning Man is a spectacle, that’s all Occupy Wall Street is.

On the other side, suggesting that Occupy Wall Street is like Burning Man implies that all Burning Man has to offer a political cause is style.  Bring in the camping!  The DJs!  Wear crazy costumes!  Have a positive attitude!  That’s SO Burning Man!

Like Hell that’s all we are.  It’s true that Burning Man has no particular political goals and nothing remotely like a 5 point plan to save society – but I think that the values that Burning Man brings to the table and the process by which it gets things done have a lot more to offer society-and-its-discontented than just art cars and midnight bacon parties.

Although, for the record, every presidential nominating convention should have a midnight bacon party.  It’s democralicious! (more…)

MOOP MAP LIVE: BLM Inspection!

Hey there sports fans, MOOP maniacs and line sweepers extraordinaire! The Hun here, ecstatic to report that Burning Man has PASSED its site inspection with the Bureau of Land Management. 2012 here we come!

The 2011 inspection crew

Yes, it was an exciting morning for the few remaining members of the DPW Playa Restoration team. Braving freezing winds and a muddy playa, the team gathered at the place once known as Center Camp. There we met our BLM referees, Roger Farschon and Cory Roegner of the BLM. Roger, now retired, has led this inspection many times before — in fact, he helped develop the method along with Will Roger. Cory’s in his second year as Outdoor Recreation Planner, which means he works with all the permitted events on the playa and gives them all the same type of inspection. Ours, of course, is the largest, but we’re held to the same strict standard of Leaving No Trace.

Cory holds up the square used to measure MOOP. Each 1/10 acre site must contain less MOOP than will fit into that square.

What does “Leave No Trace” mean to the BLM? It means that for every acre of land, we can’t leave behind more than one square foot of MOOP on average.



Hey there sports fans, MOOP maniacs and line sweepers extraordinaire! The Hun here, reporting from Gerlach where the Playa Restoration season is coming to a nail-biting finish. The BLM is in town, and we’ve scheduled our site inspection for tomorrow morning. Will the weather hold? Will the playa be passable? Will Burning Man happen next year? It all comes down to tomorrow!

The last of the summer colors will fade within days.

Today, I’ve got the last scores from the 2011 MOOP Map. In Day Nine, your DPW Playa Restoration team swept through Center Camp, then began systematically cleaning some of Black Rock City’s busiest and MOOPiest spots. We covered the inner playa and the art sites, work camps and roads, and kept working until this Tuesday when the weather closed in, and we had to leave the desert behind.

Today’s score is a mixed bag, and the results may surprise you:


MOOP MAP LIVE, Day 8: D.A. and the Origins of Restoration

Hey there sports fans, MOOP maniacs and line sweepers extraordinaire! The Hun here, reporting from Gerlach where the weather has just dealt us a swift kick in the you-know-what. A cold, wet storm front has descended upon us, dusting the mountains with snow and deluging the desert with rain. The BLM inspection is planned for tomorrow! Will we make it, or will we be rained out again? The atmosphere is tense, and cold, and windy.

Denise Nuts keeps warm in the arms of a friendly dinosaur.

Luckily, I’ve got good news for you. In Day 8 of line sweeps, our DPW Playa Restoration team covered the final blocks of the city grid, leaving only Center Camp, the Man Base and the Temple of Transition to be MOOPed. Working from opposite ends, the two Line Sweeps teams met at 6:00 between Graduation and Hajj for a celebratory shade break. Then they turned their sights to the open playa, while the Scribes inspected Center Camp to carefully document visible hot spots.

We’ll have the results from Center Camp soon, but for now, here’s your big green city: