Burning Man: Counter Culture or Social Utopia?

“Well it seems to me, that all real communities grow out of a shared confrontation with survival. Communities are not produced by sentiment or mere goodwill. They grow out of a shared struggle. Our situation in the desert is an incubator for community.”
Larry Harvey (Burning Man Co-founder & Executive Director)

I’m amazed to think that this will be my 6th consecutive year at Burning Man.  I can recall very specific memories of my first year attending as though it were yesterday.  Being a “veteran Burner”, I can assure you of one thing (another memorable quote by Harvey) – “Anyone can go out into the desert and debauch themselves.”

For one week of the year, Black Rock City rises somewhat magically from the Black Rock Desert playa.  Its reputation as Nevada’s other “Sin City” is well deserved.  Burners do become another persona, and in fact, do debauch themselves.

But “The Party on the Playa” is not what Burning Man is truly about at its core.  Consider this year’s theme, “Metropolis”.  As the organization’s website (www.burningman.com) describes it “Great cities are organic, spontaneous, heterogeneous, and untidy. They are, like Burning Man, magnetic hubs of social interaction. This year’s theme will function as a micro and a macro-scope, an instrument through which we will inspect the daily course of city life and the future prospect of civilization.”

Some may choose to believe that statement is hyperbole to cover the event’s core reputation for excess; but if you’ve ever attended Burning Man, you must know the festival is far more than an excuse to get naked, take drugs, and party through the night.  In fact, if that’s all you experience, you’ve actually missed the event entirely.

The lifelong relationships that I have developed help create a sense of anticipation that lasts throughout the year for Labor Day.  We call this sense of community, of participation, “home”.  Ask anyone who has been to Burning Man, and they will likely tell you personal stories about human generosity not influenced by social status, race, income, age or sex.  Black Rock City is much more than an excuse to party – it’s a social experiment that continues to develop in both richness and reach.

From its humble beginnings on the Baker Beach just outside San Francisco in 1986, to largest temporary city in Nevada with nearly 50,000 residents, the social experiment that is Black Rock City continues to be founded on the arts – and not the sophomoric binging of our human condition.

Burning Man is governed by 10 guiding principles, which in combination encapsulate what this culture is truly about: Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-reliance, Radical self-expression, Communal effort, Civic Responsibility, “Leave No Trace”, Participation and Immediacy.  Consider those principles again, and imagine what it might be if they were the foundations of reality – what Burners call the “default world”.

In total, these governing philosophies lay the foundation for a social experiment that continues to flourish.  With each reinvention of the event comes a broader understanding of how we, as a society, can create a more productive system of co-existence without prejudice.  Burning Man is a social experiment where, for just for one short week, Utopia is actually within grasp.

From the humbly generous (and naked) couple in their late 70’s that I was graced to meet my first year, to the circling of friends that will gather once again at our traditional camp location – it’s the people that you meet, and the art that you experience that is Burning Man.  If, however, you do want to simply go to the desert to “party like a rock star” – that’s your choice…but you may actually miss the powerful, lasting personal transformation that Burning Man offers you.

Refried Man

The Green Man

He was supposed to be green, and when we arrived at the gate to receive our usual “welcome home”, you could see him proudly standing in the distance ontop of his canvass mountain. The Green Man of 07 wasn’t green at all…he was black.

On Tuesday, August 28th, Black Rock City was watched over by it’s first black official – the man had been burned unceremoniously early… and we felt a little out of sorts by it all. After all… burning the Man is one of the many reasons we come to the playa…not the only one, of course, but certainly central to our mission.

The day began with the President of the United States…and a flat tire. Not exactly my idea of heading to the Burn on a clear, sunny northern Nevada morning. While I sat at Les Schwab having a nail extracted from my tire, what seemed a small militia of sheriffs and police patrol cars and cycles swarmed into the neighborhood. President Bush was to speak at 10 am across the street at the Reno Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority….and I was directly in his path. Let’s not mention that Hurricane Dean (a category 5 at land fall) had just spent itself in the Pacific waters that week – it seemed like nature was against me this year. Funny thing was…my horoscope that day even told me to be patient because I’d be delayed – and I was on both accounts.

Eventually, the tire was repaired, and I was ushered out a back alley to avoid the “Bush Rush” going on out front. The officer identified me as a “Burner”, and was really more than kind. Little did he know about the Bush T-shirt I had in my bag with just his face sporting devil horns on it. Should I wear it out in protest? Best not risk any trouble before leaving for the playa….so I kept it tucked away. Trust me, I thought of whipping that shirt on, and strolling down to the police for a polite chat….just to watch the reactions on their face. Fate shouldn’t be tempted on your first day of vacation, and I tucked my silent protest away – although it pained me deeply to do so: I was geared up for some protest to our politics and global antics this week.

After meeting at our usual spot in Sparks, we were off to the playa in a caravan. This is actually my favorite part of the trip…the anticipation of going and getting there. We paused past Nixon as we didn’t find our traditional Indian Taco stand in operation. We headed on, stomachs empty and growling….only to find the BEST stand ahead. The ladies who ran the stand were jewels in the desert. Both native American Paiutes…both as sweet, kind, and gentle as they could be. After more than a satisfying meal…we invited them to our camp..which they said they just might visit. After all…they’d been at this stand serving Burners for 8 years…and this year would be the first they would visit the playa. Honored guests, indeed.

Eventually…the road took us home…to the gate and the greeters awaiting.

Burning Man Gate

At first, we were in shock at the news the Man had been destroyed. The news came to us at the gate, which we met with disbelief – and spread the news to our Greeters and Vehicle Inspection Volunteer (or whatever they’re calling themselves these days). In fact, I had the pleasure of actually informing the gate Greeters that the man would be rebuilt. BMIR (Burning Man’s radio station) made the announcement – the man would be rebuilt. “We have the technology and the resources…the man will burn on Saturday night as scheduled” the rather newsy sounding announcer reported. We all did a little dance at the gate… wondering who and why someone could burn “our” man….and feeling a bit of giddy excitement at the somewhat frightening anarchy that had begun this year’s playa celebrations.

Once in, we headed toward our preferred camping area – 2:30 and J or K streets. On the way, we questioned this year’s “Burma Shave” styled sign messaging. It was…well… a little sarcastic for my tastes (and everyone in our camp noted the odd tone in the communications). It seemed to mock those who felt Burning Man had…well…burnt out.

Speaking of burnt out…you could now see the Man clearly standing above the mountainous green tents in the distance…charred black to the bone, but still standing – his head still untouched. Crews were scrambling around the area, and we were informed the Man’s area had been closed until further notice. There were obvious safety concerns, and the area was promptly cleared of all unecessary folks. The crowds had rushed out yelling “Save The Man”! the night before…. today, he stood like a dark shadow over a tent city. But still…he stood…and we were all amazed at whatever motivation (other than anarchy) there might have been in igniting the man early.

Clearly, there seemed two camps arose – those who embraced Paul Addis‘ actions in burning the Man , and those who thought he was nothing but an arsonist that had little regard for the safety of others. As you can probably tell….I fell into the latter camp eventually, but understand that it did fit within the confines of the original intent of the event. As would be on the playa, rumors of Addis’ return to sign autographs circulated the playa which eventually turned out to be just that…rumors. Although I can’t support his actions, or the actions of the alleged BRI (Black Rock Intelligence) organization, it set a precident for everyone to unite around, rather than divide.

For me, I don’t think he’s crazy or a publicity whore, I just don’t think it was his installation to burn. And he claims to be one of the few left with the original burning man spirit. I don’t think burning others art was ever part of that charter – no matter who attended the event.

Within a day, T-shirts arose with “Hero” on one version…and “Arse-o-nist” on the other. But more than a dividing call…we found this act as a catalyst to unite the camps in watching, and participating in the rebuilding of the man. Never before had the man been built in plain site of the crowds…and it was truly exciting and bonding to watch.

No matter what you feel about the early burn…the Man returned…and this time, he had a Phoenix on his face. He was truly, risen from the ashes.

Phoenix FaceRefried ManThe Burn

That’s as far as I have the gumption to author about our Burn at this stage. I have amazing stories of generosity…hysterical accounts of naked romps to martini’s (not me!), and weathering white-out conditions together huddled under a plastic tarp together with a bottle of tequila. So many great stories….so many great people. Truly the best of the best.

There’s plenty of time to write about them all…and I plan to.

Stay tuned for more in the weeks ahead!


The Cooling Man

Christmas has come for me, a few weeks later than expected. Like a 6 year old unwrapping the perfect gift, I purchased my ticket for The Green Man in the Black Rock Desert later this year.
Burning Man 2007

It’s a giddy joy confirming your place on the Playa. The online ticket process this year was amazingly easy – and fast. I got my ticket in about 5 minutes online. Kudos to the BM staff for making this process go so well.

This is just the beginning of the experience. Now comes the fun part…just what will we do with our camp to take part in The Cooling Man, and see what we can do to make this year a carbon neutral celebration of art and culture.
The Cooling Man

No matter what we finally do… the anticipation of working with the camp, and seeing friends and acquaintences on the Playa is, for me, as good as Christmas can be at any time of year.

Naked (Burning) Man (& Woman)

I monitor these fledgling posts like a mother hen sitting on her eggs. Call me insecure, but I’m constantly curious as to what people really react and respond to. It’s also part of my profession – measuring results. I’m fanatical about it, and take pride in the fact that I’m maniacle about creating campaigns that can track and measure response. This blog is no different.

Early tracking results have recorded a skewed interest for a previous post about my virgin experience at Burning Man this year. This may be in part due to the timeliness of the topic, but I’m guessing it’s mostly those who know me, and their curiousity about how I adjusted to the extreme camping and self-reliance conditions. As I admitted before, my wussydom is well known. So in the spirit of Ted Turner’s recent comments on the Iraq war, I’ll continue to “give ’em what they want”, in part as an act of diplomacy, but mostly to break the monotony of purely business related postings.

Onto today’s topic – naked people. I’ve said it before, I have no problem with naked people in public. I was sickened and shocked to learn that in today’s world, you can get terminated from your job by exposing images of nakedness in art to children. This is NOT good news for the Venus De Milo, Rodin’s “The Kiss”, or the Sistine Chapel. Leonardo da Vinci is spinning in his tomb.

What does it mean when we can’t accept the human body in any other context than sexual? Why do we prejudge people who are comfortable enough in their skin to dash their togs and run amuck? Secretly, I think many people say it’s “ok”…but underneath that acceptance is a deep seated fear that the majority of nudists and naturists are…well… perverts. Don’t get me wrong… I’m sure there’s more than one naked guy or girl out there who does it for the sexual thrill of seeing others of the opposite (or same) sex naked, but from my admittedly limited experience on the playa, nothing could be further than the truth.

Not everyone would agree with me:
“Whatever Burning Man supporters claim, know this, the event is a 24/7 bacchanal of booze, drugs, nudity, S&M, public sex, and bad art, all done in a scorching flat dry oasis of misery that reminded me of the surface of Mars. This drug orgy is translated by event promoters on the BM website as a “radical experiment in self-expression.” Wasn’t that Jeffery Dahmer’s excuse when asked about the body parts in his fridge?” Whoa…someone has issues.

Personally, I saw a virtual river of booze. Little to no drugs, plenty of nudity, some light S&M (I was the laughing “victim” of three drive-by-one-whack-spankings), not one incident of public sex…and bad art…well…that’s a matter of opinion. I didn’t see one piece of art I’d consider “bad”, and wonder, really, what “bad art” is.

But I was challenged on my perspective on public nudity. On one occassion, a more-than-middle aged couple pulled up next to our camp in their very clean, tidy trailer. Once stopped, they immediately began claiming their plot of playa by staking a small area in front of their encampment with colorful pinwheels and twinkling mini-lights. Folding armchairs were placed outside their door, and you could immediately tell they were “open for business”.

Within an hour of getting settled in, they came over to introduce themselves. At first, like anyone, they were a bit tentative…but more than curious as to who their neighbors were, and how we were faring against the elements. As first timers, I think we might have looked like we were struggling a little. They seemed nice enough, and we talked about how many times they’d attended, and why they were here again. Throughout this time, they looked like any truly regular neighbor from any midwest hood. Average folk…nice, “conservative” couple.

Within an hour of introducing themselves, they’d tossed their togs, and begin exploring in the buff together. And this time, she (“Breezy”…her poignant playa moniker) came back with a welcoming gift of beaded necklaces. Beautiful long strands of beads lovingly made by hand… presented in the spirt of giving and friendship. And naked from the waist up, sporting merely a pair of sandals, and a sarong.

My first reaction was to ask what it was like…how do you discard your insecurities and jump into daylight without a thought of being ridiculed or ogled? Should I talk about it? Should I constantly maintain eye contact? What are the rules to seeing someone nearly your Mother’s age standing in front of you, acting completely without care, but without a top on?

Within the first two minutes of conversation, the novelty had worn off for me. Breezy (it finally dawned on me why she chose that name) was just our generous neighbor, and although I’d never guess it from our initial encounters – she and her husband were up for exploring wearing nothing but a shady hat, a covering of sunscreen, and a welcoming smile.

Throughout the week, we spoke many times. On the night of the burning ceremonies, they came to visit to show us their “costumes”. Breezy was deep red. Her husband was navy blue. We discussed the challenges of dying one’s body impermanently with a rich color that could be removed. “It’s all about good food coloring” they’d say….and you can get it all off with vegetable oil. OK….too much information…but if I ever did try it, it’s good to know where others have succeeded.

And they were just the beginning. Many of our neighbors would come to visit us clothed initially… largely to see what kind of people we were. Our camp was cool. Clothed…but cool. You could easily tell we weren’t judgemental, or uncomfortable (openly)…and within a meeting or two, they’d rejoin us in various states of “disclothier”. At first, you’re surprised…but within a short period of time, I lost all sense of their nudity, my coveredness, or anything other than our communication. To me, that was a personal breakthrough of ideology.

One other related event on the Playa occurs on Friday afternoon: “Critical Tits”. The organized mass bike ride is modelled after the Critical Mass bike ride in San Francisco. In SF, thousands of bikes join for the Friday evening commute, taking over the road and obviously feeling safe in numbers. On the Playa, women who want to enjoy the freedom to not wear a top (a freedom men enjoy in ordinary society) ride together in a massive chain of bikes. There are thousands of them. But even at Burning Man, topless women will get enough unwanted attention to scare them away from the event.

I was warned before going not to stare or take pictures. “There are butch lesbians out there that will kick your ass” was my warning. So I left the camera at camp, and headed out with Tom The Enchanter to take this event in.

Yes…there was apparent ogling by men in the crowd. Get over it. Thousands of naked breasts are going to draw testosterone laden gazes. The women rode with pride, in various states of dress and undress…some painted, many with very clever clevage coverings. There were crashes, a few bumps, but overall a sea of women expressing the freedom of naked upper torso expression we men have always enjoyed.

For me, the moral of my experience confirmed some feelings and attitudes. If you’ve got a problem with nudity ~ check your reasons. I’m not being judgemental, but I do wonder why we puritanical Americans can’t adopt a more liberal European attitude about public nudity (and nudity in art). After all, we enter the world without clothing…why do we often care so much about what we’re wearing after we’ve died?

Don’t get me wrong…I’m not jumping around the playa in the buff anytime soon. I’m just not comfortable being naked in public…and probably never will be. (I can hear the sighs of relief going up out there among friends). But judging those that do there, or on a public beach, or private resort seems a waste of time, and says something to me about those who are so vehement about criticizing those who do.

The Burning Man Inside

I admit it… I’m a wimp. And everyone I know knows it. I’m legendary in my wimpiness.

As part of my wussydom, I hate camping. I cringe at the very concept of camping. Been there, tried that, done it – no thanks. My wife and kids have suffered for my lack of accepting that camping is a good thing for our family…but they’ve managed to roll their eyes at me, and understand. God love them.

Don’t get me wrong…I’m not a wallflower. I get out there to ski, mountain bike, hike. I’ve been jet skiing, parachuting, surfing, sailing, waterskiing, rock climbing, cross country skiing – all manner of manly things. As long as I’m in control, and the duration is what I decide it to be… I’m good.

My strong, stoic, Superman of a grandfather used to say “Anyone can go out into the wilderness and be uncomfortable”. This is a guy that used to scrub railroad cars with lye – inside the cars. Once he fell into a railroad car filled with lye, only to survive being eaten alive by a last second grip of a co-worker. If this man of men didn’t like camping…something MUST be wrong with it. My 6’2 “Nonu” was always chided for bringing “everything but the kitchen sink” when he went camping and hunting with family and friends. They made fun of him… but he was always comfortable and overly prepared. Screw the critics…this guy believed in being comfortable at all costs. And I have his DNA deep in my blood.

As another example of my wimpiness/wussydom – I don’t haul. The thought of losing a trailer while sailing down the highway at 65mph makes me want to bungee cord the trailer to the car and duct tape the ball hitch to the hood. OK… I know they’re safe, and I know they work. But that doesn’t stop me from sweating the entire time I’m hauling anything down the road. I imagine the trailer sailing into the back of my cranium when we slam on the brakes. All that weight headed directly for my shallow Italian head.

My idea of “roughing it” is a Hilton without a bar. I am a self-acknowledged pussy. And there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.

But this year, I discovered one major exception – Burning Man.

I’ve always dreamed from afar…the virtual freedom, the self expression, and most importantly…the legendary art that blooms in the desert just a couple of hours from my comfortable home in Reno. People come from all over the world, and yet, I won’t drive 120 miles to see or experience it. Why? Well… it’s camping, of course. And it ain’t easy camping, either.

But this past year, against all odds, I was inspired by my brother-in-law – Tom. Tom the Enchanter was headed to the Playa. Master of camping. Man of the wilderness – with a family who has expounded the virtues of fresh coffee in the morning, and waking to the smell of the woods for years. I’d grunt everytime they spoke of it…and used my grandfather’s position as superior and just above any possible grounded experience with nature.

My disdain for camping is only psychologically outmatched by my love for art. And I mean love of art in every form. I love bad art…good art…offensive art… overly safe art. You name it…I dig it to the bone. I have strong feelings about it…but I also have great respect for anyone’s art – no matter what I personally think of the art, or the artist. Art is subjective. And if you can’t be subjective… what’s to judge?

As any shrink will contest, for nearly every man, there is a “mid-life crisis” at some point. A bad excuse for not accepting reality, and becoming comfortable in your aging skin.

Some buy cars…others get hair implants. Some just freak out, run amuck, divorce their wives, marry someone half their age, and try to recapture what must only fade anyway. Well… I love my wife way too much for that…and I seriously doubt anyone half my age would have the slightest bit of interest in me anyway.

SO…what to do? Buy a Porsche? Go skydiving? Ride a Harley? None of them seemed to really fit the bill personally.

Then it came to me, like some inspiration while you’re looking at a blank canvas.

Burning Man. The freedom of expression. The beauty of art. All in a freak festival just north of town. Hell…sounded like pretty good option to being REALLY stupid.

One obvious problem…you have to camp there. Well…not really just camp. You have to SURVIVE beyond camping in a place not set for anything like what camping is supposed to offer. So I could justify it that way. Being comfortable camping in the great outdoors is one thing…survival in the middle of the Black Rock desert playa is another. And hell…the art is supposedly unbelievable out there, right? I’m not one to get naked in public, but I don’t have a problem with people who do…and I’ve known many great people who kept saying “you’ve GOT to go”…year after year. And this was the year.

Tom the Enchanter, and Lawrence of Arugula set their virgin plans. Weeks of plans, not knowing what to expect, but thankfully having the support of Tom’s workmates that had been there many times before in years past. Seasoned Burners they are…and they were our security blanket – although I really didn’t know any of them. We read the online accounts of what to bring, how to prepare, and what to expect. But nothing really prepared us other than the real basics.

At first we counted the weeks. Then the days…then the hours. Just like Christmas morning when we were 7. And like Christmas morning…it finally came. We set off in a caravan of new friends to the unknown – hoping we were prepared.

Nothing could ever prepare us. Thank God. It’s the discovery of what your virgin experience that makes it all work. If you knew what to expect…going wouldn’t be worth trying. And I hear it just gets better year after year…. hopefully…like getting older itself. There’s the analogy… you have to let go of your expectations, and live. Live today, and with all the love and wonder you can muster. Buying a new car, or plugging up your bald spots won’t fix the emptiness – but learning to experience life and art like a child again does.

Needless to say… we not only survived (and boy, do we have stories)…we thrived. Our camp mates were the anchor to our sail boats. And thank God we had them…they taught us so much, and were so generous – as were everyone we encountered.

I’ll post stories here in the weeks ahead of some of the incredible encounters with strangers, friends and art. Each a vivid, and lasting memory in every way.

On the way out of the encampment, there were a series of “Burma Shave” like signs. Poetic in their style and content, one I remember said in its series “What happens in Vegas”….”Stays in Vegas”….”What happens in Burning Man”…”Stays In You”.

The best wrap-up I’ve ever had to one of the most intensely satisfying, uncomfortable, expanding, enriching experience of my life.

I’m counting the days until the 2007 tickets go on sale…and find myself plotting what I will bring to the Playa to share…and to present. So thanks to my camp mates (you know who you are)…for your guidance, your generosity…and for putting up with a bonafide crappy camper.

Next year… having lost our “virginity”… we’ll be ready in a new way.

Let’s get to it.

Daunting, isn’t it? The blank page. A flat canvas. Nothing but white space.

In a world of possibilities, it’s always hard to know where to begin. No matter where you start, it’s at least a start…and from there, who knows what grows.

So what’s the purpose of this blog site, anyway? Blatant promotionalism of our most excellent little company SmartBrand? Well…duh…yes. Of course.

But hopefully more. Much more.

Ahead we’ll find some insighful commentary on the current state-of-the-marketing/advertising community here in northern Nevada and the west coast. A handful of interesting tips and tricks that we’ll leak to unsuspecting world from our bag of knowledge. Perhaps even some interesting photos of cultural phenomena like Burning Man… innovations, trade shows, hot designers like Tony DeVincenzi (yes…he’s related) … or whatever marketing and business related interests we stumble on.

More importantly…we’re going to light a fire or two (not literally…but it is getting cold outside!).

We’ll provide interesting links to passionate sites like www.downtownmakeover.com and whaever else we happen to feel is worthy of your time… and your comment.

So.. what are you hunting for? Pictures of naked kittens? (you know who you are) Political debate on the upcoming elections? (turn off the telly and get involved) Venting on the lack or real professionalism and business creativity in our community? (once again, my inside voice escapes outside) Let it out…and give us a spin on the topic. I’m hoping someone starts a fight that’s worth fighting.

Let’s just do it. (with no apologies to Nike, whatsoever).

Blog on.

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