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R.I.P. Burning Man (1986-2011)

This year's burn is a ghost of festivals past. But deep in the desert, a bastard child rages on.

 

ON JULY FOURTH about a hundred people gathered just before sunset on a barren hillside at a ranch abutting Nevada’s Black Rock Desert to celebrate the birth of our country. It was a familiar-looking crowd: mostly young, mostly scruffy, mostly from the Bay Area. Only this group was armed to the teeth with muzzle loaders,six-shooters, semiautomatics, machine pistols, hand cannons, bolt-action varmint guns, carbines, and an AK-47 machine gun. Packing nothing but my notepad and long past my rebel phase, I clearly didn’t belong.

     Yet I was drawn to the place for the same reason everyone else was. We were there to experience Burning Man—or rather, some remnant of the original anarchic, pyromaniacal, guns-and-ammo-with-a-side-of-performance-art desert fantasia that has lately been overshadowed by tech-millionaire excess and secondhand-ticket gouging. This gathering, known as the Fourth of Juplaya, was taking place on the very same 400-square-mile dry lake bed (the “playa”) as the official Burning Man to be held this Labor Day weekend. But Juplaya, I’ve been told for years, is an insiders-only affair, a Burn for true burners, a scene only accessible to the manifestly hardcore.

     “When I go to festivals, I want to feel like I can do drugs and fuck out in the open,” said Hot Sauce, a pixieish thirtysomething blonde whom I met on the playa. “And I can do that at Juplaya.” Her friend Menkini, 33, demurred, but only slightly: “I just want to drive fast and blow shit up.” (The two activities haven’t been allowed at Burning Man proper for years.)

     Hot Sauce and Menkini’s idealized fever dream of the countercultural festival—rife with public sex and bounteous pills and explosions strafing the open desert—will be familiar to anyone who has been to Burning Man (and a lot of those who haven’t). The jaded-burner refrain is as predictable as it is constant: You should have been here a few years ago when it was really wild. I got the message on the first of many trips to the Black Rock Desert, in 1999, and it made me feel like I had missed the real event even then (the original Burning Man was in 1986). And though I believe this overweening nostalgia for the “real” Burning Man is just that—nostalgia—I’ve often wondered what the festival was like before it was a bucket-list filler, a marker of hipness, a commodity, a brand. What was it like when the freaks first appeared on the playa without tickets, lottery systems, or scalpers; without a governing body; without Porta-Potties; and with a Second Amendment–affirming arsenal of guns and explosives? The answer, according to many old-school burners, is that it was like Juplaya is today. And so I decided to find out what, if anything, I’d been missing all these years.

THE ORCHESTRATOR of the hillside gun show was a man named Otto Von Danger, who, among other things, is responsible for building Burn Wall Street, which will be one of the major art installations at this year’s Burning Man. For Juplaya he erected Frogbat, a 15-foot effigy—half frog, half bat, part worshipful homage to the man who gives Burning Man its name, part knowing parody of same. The execution of Frogbat by firing squad is one of the traditional highlights of the Fourth of Juplaya, which, according to its Facebook page, “is NOT an event” but merely “the nicest little non-event on the playa.”

     Everyone who stood around the Frogbat firing line self-identified as punk, redneck, survivalist, or an outlaw of one sort or another. And yet the atmosphere was more collegiate than militaristic: The beer was flowing, the mood was flirty, the dress was skimpy (though the palette was limited to camouflage, black, and khaki), and the BMOCs were the guys with the largest weaponry. One gentleman shouldered two Soviet-made assault rifles, and two women in his vicinity wanted shooting lessons. “Hold it like so,” he told the bustier of the two, putting the weapon in her hands and placing the stock on her shoulder. “You just pull the trigger and then it does this,” he said, placing his hand on her chest and giving it a little jiggle to simulate the recoil.

     The guns provided the obvious sexual subtext, but also something more: a political rallying cry. Juplaya, it seemed to me, was an antipode of American politics, the point where the more-radical-than-thou left and the über-libertarian right meet each other coming and going. The Burn Wall Street installation, which much of the Frogbat crowd was involved in building, is explicitly designed to unite the nonpartisan (or, more accurately, the antipartisan) fringe. “It may be,” Von Danger is fond of saying, “that we can create a new political party.”

     In any case, electoral matters seemed far from anyone’s mind at Juplaya. After an hour or so of mingling, Von Danger stepped in front of the crowd. He wore his hair long, his beard scraggly, and his boots combat. His wife-beater T-shirt was emblazoned with the words“The Cult of the Frogbat.” “Listen up,” he shouted.“Make sure you are sober enough to fire a gun, and stay behind the firing line.” He barked out more commands,punctuated with the warning “Don’t make me stab you in the neck with my knife!”

     Safety lecture concluded, Von Danger took his place down at the other end of the firing line. “O my God,” he shouted in mock horror, “it’s a fucking frogbat!” And with that, the fusillade began.

     A deafening rain of lead poured into the painted plywood effigy on the far side of the clearing. Encircling Frogbat were a half dozen propane tanks, and within seconds they detonated: boom! boom! boom! An even bigger load of incendiaries stuffed inside the effigy went up in an enormous mushroom cloud. Eventually, the ammo ran out. Frogbat had been summarily executed. The Fourth of Juplaya had unofficially commenced.

THE SHEER FIREPOWER of the Frogbat massacre was both impressive and disturbing, but one thing was certain: It made Burning Man look tame bycomparison. Last year, a sold-out crowd of 53,000 people turned out for the festival’s 25th anniversary, and due to exceptionally good weather, some genuinely laudable art, and a clean safety record a good time was had by virtually all. No lesser personages than the editorial writers of the New York Times called Burning Man “strange and wonderful” and concluded their paean with the pronouncement that “Black Rock City is the place to be” over Labor Day weekend.

     Of course, the Times isn’t the only mainstream passenger on the party bus. Though it’s hard to notice on your first—or even your tenth—visit, the tracks of the capital-E establishment are now everywhere at Burning Man. You can see it at the improvised landing strip/airport set up every year for the jet-in crowd. You can see it in the art, such as the 40-foot-tall sculpture Bliss Dance, which was the star of Burning Man 2010 and has an estimated value of $1.5 million. You can see it in the camps: A decade ago the festival was plastered with prank flyers announcing that Hilton was building a burnable full-service hotel on the playa. Today there is a hotel, and it’s no joke: “Ashram Galactica” comes complete with a concierge and rooms that are doled out each night to lucky plebes. None of this ostentation would pose a problem if it didn’t introduce the one thing that is supposed to be strictly verboten at Burning Man: services—and with them the inevitable servant class to provide them.

     Event officials would still have you believe that there is nothing for sale at Burning Man besides coffee and ice. And technically that’s true. But that doesn’t mean you can’t charter a plane to skip the epic lines in and out of the playa. Or avoid the drudgery of camp building by paying a rental company to pre-position an RV anywhere you choose—its fridge completely packed, its water tank refreshed after use. I’ve even found myself at camps where a waitress came to take my order, and where the community art-building project was outsourced to hired artists. I’ve experienced the festival both ways: as a commoner, sleeping in a pup tent and surviving on gorp and jerky, and as a guest of the new burner elite. And though there’s nothing like arriving by Cessna and sleeping under clean, freshly changed sheets, many fear the effects of too much civilization on an event designed to be anti-all-that.

      For the true believers, the run-up to this year’s Burn has been especially disheartening. The festival’s newfound respectability has created a situation where the demand for tickets has outstripped the capacity of the event, which was recently upped to 60,900 by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the federal agency that manages the Black Rock Desert. The problem started last February when, for the first time ever, Burning Man implemented a lottery system to distribute tickets. The result: Two-thirds of the applicants were denied tickets, and 40 percent of those who did get tickets were first timers. The denunciations from the Burning Man rank and file were immediate and intense. Steven T. Jones, the San Francisco author of The Tribes of Burning Man, publicly voiced “a widespread concern that Burning Man has jumped the shark.” Conspiracy theories and vitriolic condemnations of “the Borg,” as the Burning Man organization is known, flooded the festival’s forums. And at least one online commentator, Ramgoofy, claimed that the screwup was prophesy come true. “The Mayans were right,” he wrote, “2012 is the end of our world.”

HENCE THE APPEAL to more and more dedicated burners of an event (sorry, nonevent) like the Fourth of Juplaya: unadulterated, unsanctioned, unloosed from the dictates of the BLM-backed Borg. Then again, Juplaya has its drawbacks—the principal one being that you’re on your own out there. “Lonely Man”: That’s how my photographer friend Brendan described the playa that Independence Day evening, as we cruised around looking for something—anything—that could reasonably be called a happening. Pancake flat, with a hard crust of alkali dirt, the playa is as featureless as the moon, and it was marked only by the tracks of 4x4s leading in every possible direction. There was nothing to do but pick a light on the horizon and step on the gas. At 60 miles per hour, the first light was 20 minutes away and led to nothing but a primitive encampment. We chose another light, and then another, and then another, each separated by a 15- or 20-minute drive. Each cluster of tents and trailers looked more abandoned than the last. “Where is everybody?” we asked each other.

     Finally, after rolling down the window to catch the warm desert breezes, I thought I heard something: It was just a thump carried on a gust of wind, but unquestionably a techno beat. “Ghost bass,” my buddy proclaimed. We chased after it, and this time we hit pay dirt. The bass emanated from a giant fish—really an art car called Fish Tank, a piece of rolling sculpture in the shape of a toothy anglerfish, complete with tank treads, a wraparound couch, blinking lights, a booming sound system, and a rotating disco ball. Jumping out of our SUV, we joined the party. The crowd was all we were hoping for: attractive, scantily clad, and clearly enjoying themselves. Whether their high was natural or chemical I could not say, but it was infectious.

     Soon I found myself in the midst of a passionate conversation about (what else) Burning Man. “The burner tail is eating itself; it’s imploding,” said my new friend Hot Sauce, recently transplanted to San Francisco by way of London. An eight-time Burning Man veteran, Hot Sauce is a stalwart of one of the biggest, flashiest, most high-profile camps on the playa—the New York City–centric Disorient. But after not getting her ticket in the lottery this year, she was having second thoughts about her allegiances (she eventually caved and bought a ticket). “Last year at Burning Man, I had the overwhelming feeling that I was being watched,” she told me. “There were police spotters everywhere, scanning the crowd. We’ve been at Juplaya for days, and I haven’t seen a cop yet.”

      Not 20 minutes later, two Pershing County sheriffs rolled up in a police truck to check on us. They displayed a surprisingly tolerant attitude about the Juplaya hijinks there and elsewhere. “I haven’t seen anyone really be a jerk,” said Officer Nathan Carmichael, “although there have been some education issues.” He cited the risk of fireworks setting nearby pastures ablaze, and of skinny-dippers inadvertently fouling the local hot springs.

     “Everybody is here because they don’t like authority,” said Officer Thom Bjerke. “I don’t want to arrest anyone, but my job is to get them to comply with at least the spirit of the law.” His main concern, he emphasized, was the health and safety of those who were on the playa. “It’s not Burning Man—there’s no safety net, and no medical staff out here,” he added, registering the massive fireworks being set off in the distance. “And it’s so easy to blow off a hand.”

AFTER A FEW DAYS spent cruising from camp to camp, I thought I had nailed the Juplaya type: They were polyamorously perverse hardcore hellions to a one, as prone to emptying machine gun clips into propane tanks as they were to tweaking out to techno beats blasting from an art car. Then I stumbled across Tim Elverston, a 35-year-old Floridian, more courtly philosopher than modern-day Mad Max, yet equally at home here. His temporary dwelling was an encampment called DoTA, an acronym for the Department of Tethered Aviation. Like the others, the camp was marked only by a blinking light on the horizon, but instead of arriving at the usual forlornlooking tent city, I found a desert Shangri-la. The centerpiece was an illuminated chill-out dome filled with colorful pillows and lounge cushions. Behind it was a shade structure as big as a circus tent, which housed enough supplies to provision a small army. Scores of flags arranged in colorful phalanxes radiated from either side of the dome. And wafting above it all was an absolutely huge box kite, flying from a 50-foot aerial at the center of camp—to the sound of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21.

     Elverston approached me as I was standing out front, gawking at the surreal accommodations. The music, he explained, was to repel the party crowd. “On the Fourth,” he said, “there were a lot of kids from Reno and Tahoe” cruising about the playa looking for a good time. Elverston came to Juplaya for something else: “the big sky and the mountains,” the beauty and the solitude. His idea of a good time was hanging out at sunset, when the dancers in his camp would perform an ode to the wind, and the kite makers would loft their latest experiments. “We are artists,” he said. “We do this for ourselves.”

     This was Elverston’s first year at Juplaya, and like many of the others I talked to, he thought it might be all the Burning Man he needed. The turning point was this year’s ticketing debacle. “This would have been our eighth year,” he said, “but we didn’t get the tickets we needed, and we just didn’t want to climb over the bodies of our friends to get them.”

     Inspired by Elverston and DoTA’s utopian vision for Juplaya—a wellspring of the sublime rather than a dusty shooting gallery—I went off looking for more of the same. Word on the playa grapevine was that some folks were planning an amazing fireworks-cum-performance on the Friday after the Fourth of July that would be the highlight of the week. Soon we had discovered the location. It was called Dismal, and it was an ersatz ghost town that a troop of artists had built deep in the desert, miles and miles from any other encampment. It was purposely remote, even by the standards of the Black Rock Desert. But come Friday, that was where Juplaya would blow up.

OF THE GROUPS that come to Juplaya, Dismal is probably the largest and best organized. The troupe traces its roots back to the earliest days of Burning Man, though it permanently bailed out of the festival in 2003. “We were old school: papier-mâché, fire performance, pyrotechnics,” said Fred Rinne, a San Francisco artist long associated with the collective. If any group can be said to have “founded” a spontaneous nonevent like Juplaya, it’s Dismal. “There is no fire at Burning Man anymore,” said Rinne. “It has just become something else.”

     In the pyrotechnics world, the Dismal crew—and especially its pyrotechnics guy, Jackalope Billy—is famous for bridging the chasm that separates the standard fireworks show from something that could more properly be called theater, or even art. This year’s Juplaya would feature Dismal’s newest creation: an unnamed 34-foot-tall hand-cranked Ferris wheel packed with “zombies”—fireworks-stuffed human effigies.

     But on Friday, not long before the show was about to begin, an officer from the BLM pulled up in a white truck and started barking out orders. The show, he said, was canceled. This despite the fact that Billy had a valid Nevada pyrotechnician’s license, and the tacit blessing (or at least the blind eye) of the Pershing County Sheriff’s Department. The officer gave Dismal two hours to dismantle the installation.

     Officially, the explanation was that Dismal’s fireworks show, like Juplaya as a whole, needed an event permit to be legal. “It seems to be organized at some level: word of mouth, flyers, email, social media,” said Gene Seidliz, the BLM district manager. Thus, the authorities deemed the Fourth of Juplaya “an unpermitted, unapproved event on the playa,” and the Dismal show could not go on.

     Rinne had his doubts about the official line. “We’ve had a good relationship with the BLM for years, but now it’s a crackdown,” he said. “My feeling is that someone upstairs laid down the law: ‘Get tough on burners.’”

     It certainly felt like a crackdown. I was en route to Dismal when I got word of the cancellation, and it was a low moment of my week on the playa. Yet after the frenzied dismantling of a show that had taken almost a week to set up, and the requisite gnashing of teeth, the evening turned into an impromptu five hour drown-your-sorrows cocktail party to the languorous sounds of country and western. Campers of all stripes showed up at Dismal to pay their respects and have a drink. “We are out here in a place we like, with people we like,” Rinne told me philosophically, “so it’s hard to get too bummed.”

     Maybe I was still pissed about the BLM’s seemingly arbitrary incursion, or maybe I was just sleep deprived, but I left Nevada thinking that my search for the lost soul of Burning Man had failed. But by the time I got back home to San Francisco, I had realized that I was wrong. I found myself latching on to something that Elverston, the kite-flying Floridian with the DoTA camp, had told me. The ticket fiasco earlier in the year had made him wake up to the fact that “someday Burning Man will come to an end.” But it had also given him the impetus he needed to break away from a festival that is less and less about art and more and more about Vegas-style spectacle. “What I always liked best about Burning Man was the playa,” he said, gesturing to the monolithic emptiness encircling his camp. “And what I realized is that the playa is never going away.”