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My First Time at the Burning Man Festival

Like many people my first glimpse of Burning Man came from the now-famous 1996 article in Wired magazine. It seemed almost too good to be true– a counterculture utopia, a do-it-yourself city in the desert where thousands of visionaries came together to create an experiment in temporary community. A place with no money, no laws, and no spectators. I was always fascinated by Utopian ideas and ways to make a better society, but for once I wanted to see a Utopia that could actually work. People talk endlessly about ways to make the world “better,” but these ideasusually come from the comfort of an armchair. What impressed me about Burning Man is that you have to put your money where your mouth is. It is held in the middle of a barren desert in Nevada 90 miles away from anything, in a truly survivalist setting. Nothing can be bought or sold there so you must bring your own food, water, shelter, and electricity if you want it. Whatever ideal social system you propose has to work even under these harsh conditions. If your group believes “Let’s just show up with love in our hearts and share whatever we bring,” well, what if nobody brings anything? You will be standing in the middle of an empty desert 90 miles from anywhere with no water, no shelter over your head, and no place for Daddy’s ATM card to make it all better. BIG reality check. Of course I just HAD to see what this social experiment had produced, and if possible to film it and document it for Brain Box Television, the public-access show we had going at the time. So in August 1997 I twisted the arm of my long-time friend and co-producer Marilyn “Empress of the Universe,” and we bought our tickets, flew to Vegas, and rented a van. Eight hours later we were in the middle of nowhere, just reaching the turnoff that would take us even further into nowhere… 70 miles up a tiny two-lane highway. About midnight we topped the last rise, and finally saw the city of dreams laid out before us…. Lights. Lights everywhere against a sea of blackness. Huge moving objects, people spinning from the tops of towers. Giant streamers, glowing pavilions, Mad-Max art cars criss-crossing the desert. Laser beams probing here and there. People in unbelievable costumes dancing, performing, laughing. Blasts of weird, unidentifiable sounds rising up here and there. Balls of flame and pillars of flame soaring into the sky from bizarre fire-cannon. Over the week we met and interviewed many people. We learned about Radical Self-Expression. We learned about the Gift Economy, where you bring some sort of display or gift to share, and in return you partake of the gifts of thousands of other participants. We learned about the Leave No Trace rule, where everything, even the tiniest speck, must be picked up and removed after the event. We learned about Theme Camps. These are groups that come from all over the world and have fanciful names like the Artist’s Republic of Fremont, Democratik Republik of Giggsville, Aromatherapy Love Jungle, SmoochDome, Asgard Village, Alternative Energy Zone, Bianca’s Smut Shack, Messiah for a Minute, and Lost Penguin cafe. Each camp is autonomous and hosts its own strange type of entertainment that they freely offer you. In that one week we saw more mind-bending new ideas than in one year in the “real world.” Since then we have worked to connect this event to Milwaukee. In ’98 and ’99 we organized the first Milwaukee Theme Camp. In 2000 we joined with other theme camps to create Snowflake Village, a federation of camps from across the Midwest and Canada. This will be our fifth year as a Village, making it one of the longest-running groups there. Our organizational secret is simple. You are never given responsibility without a corresponding authority, and vice versa. We use a rotating presidency and yes, you are king for a day, but you are a working king (or queen). Any problem that arises on your watch is purely your problem, and if you screw up there is no committee to dilute your responsibility to the 150 people in the Village. Hey, it works for us… More info on Snowflake Village and Burning Man may be found at www.clevian.com.