In 1986, a small group of friends gathered on Baker Beach in San Francisco to burn an eight-foot high wooden man. Little did they know at the time that this single, unique act would become the centerpiece, the rallying point, the primary symbol, of a movement that would affect the lives of tens of thousands of people in North America and around the world. The annual gathering of artists and iconoclasts eventually took on the name “Burning Man”, and moved to the Black Rock Desert of Nevada in 1990.
At first, the growth of the Burning Man phenomenon was small and localized, as networks of friends spread the news by word of mouth. They traveled in caravan from San Francisco. The Approximately one hundred people attended this first gathering in the desert. The Cacophony Society, an informal group of Bay Area artists and culture-jammers, helped to publicize the event in newsletters and at their meetings.
The first Burners explored and mapped out a cultural territory heretofore uncharted. As each year passed, they invested more and more energy into constructing an extraordinary city of swirling alkali dust and creative ideas and transformed it into a magical attractor of human potential.
The population spiked sharply in 1996, as eight thousand people showed up to participate, twice the number of people as the previous year. Part of this growth was due to increased exposure on the Internet, as the first Burning Man websites and email discussion groups – which began appearing two years before – drew attendees from across the continent. They were attracted to this strange and wonderful mass of human creativity, and embarked upon what became veritable pilgrimages. This was, after all, a home for the wayward creative soul, the cultural outsider, the rugged individual. The principle of radical self-expression, as voiced in a tolerant and free environment, drew seekers who found ways to liberate their personal Eros, a possibility often absent in the communities they normally inhabited. Over the years, Burning Man has become a fully participatory festival of the arts, an experimental intentional community, a celebration, and a cultural playground for adults and children.
Following the conclusion of Burning Man each year, Burners returned to their home cities, and often reported trouble reintegrating into “normal” society after experiencing an event that had profoundly transformed them in so many ways. They felt the urge to stay connected to other Burners, and to bring the creativity and freedom they discovered there back to their own hometowns year-round. The seed was planted for the Burning Man Regional Contacts network, as small communities began to coalesce, and people bonded by the shared experience of Burning Man.
Following the 1997 Burn, the pilot Regional program began, though modestly, as with all things at Burning Man. Initially, only a handful of regions were represented: Austin, the North Bay, and, believe it or not, the entire country of Canada. As Zac Bolan, from Calgary, Alberta, puts it: “After returning from the playa in 1997 I felt an intense loneliness caused by my alienation from the people in my community. I began showing slides (of Burning Man) to friends. Soon word got out and I was doing slideshows for friends of friends, (even) out of town. Maid Marian asked me if I would be interested in becoming the Regional Contact for Canada shortly thereafter. Acting as a Regional Contact kept me sane during these early days. I was able to form my own support network until a regional community came into being.”
The initial function of the first Regional Contacts was to act as a sort of information provider on behalf of Burning Man. “Burning Man was far more under the radar at that time. Most people I encountered knew nothing about it, so I was in a position of having to explain the culture behind the event,” said Bolan. “The Burning Man organization was going through some financial hardship. I purchased a box full of t-shirts, videos and hats and resold them at the slide shows to help raise money. It was very nearly a year before I met another Burner in Calgary, although I knew there had to be more than just myself.”
In the late 90s, Burner communities continued to blossom in ever more diverse locales. As the number of people that traveled to the Black Rock Desert increased, so did the connections between people. Large-scale Burning Man-inspired events were organized, far from Black Rock City and the Bay Area. The first of these was Burning Flipside and the temporary city of Pyropolis, organized by the Austin Burn group in 1998. It is now an alternative destination, a place for people to invest their creative energy, for those who don’t necessarily have the resources to make the annual trek to Nevada. A rich and diverse community thrives around Flipside, as it does in many other regions. From Burning Mooseman in the Ontario backwoods, to Burning Toast in the Arizona desert, Burners are creating their own unique gatherings everywhere.
Burning Man has become a social movement, a cultural force whose octopoid memetic reach is immeasurable. In the past few years, the Regionals program expanded to encompass over 120 communities in 32 countries, spread out over four continents. The role of each Regional Representative has also changed. In many places, the Reps are no longer simply information providers on behalf of Burning Man. Most often, they are brought into the program as regionals because they are seen as community builders, Burners who are active in bringing together people on a local level. Through a self-nomination process, Burning Man is introduced to these candidates, who are qualified into the network and provided with resources to help them organize their communities. Often the Reps are also guiding participants in the creation of local Burn events.
And, as Burning Man grew into a city that in 2002 topped 29,000 participants, the role of Regional communities themselves, in relation to the main event, continued to evolve. Attending a local event offers potential Burning Man participants a taste, an introduction, to the core philosophies and modes of social organization that are at the heart of this burgeoning international cultural movement.
The gift economy, radical self-expression, radical self-reliance, fully participatory activities, “leave no trace” principles, self-governance by consensus, experimental intentional community, ritual without dogma and other ideas are explored and practiced at myriad happenings like Playa Del Fuego (Washington-Baltimore), Rebirth (Hawaii), Burn in the Forest and Recompression (Vancouver-Victoria), and the Phoenix Festival (Oregon).
As these and other events continue to flourish, we may find that they take the pressure off the rapid annual population expansion of Black Rock City, as Burning Man veterans choose to stay home and develop their local communities, and newbies decide to forgo traveling to the desert to unite as one altogether. Also, Black Rock City virgins, already somewhat acculturated and prepared by participation in regional communities, may have an easier time integrating into the radical culture of Burning Man when they do experience it for the first time.
It is clear that Burning Man is no longer confined to the Black Rock Desert. Dozens of satellites orbit the Mother ship; each and every one possesses a unique flavor and character. Burning Man as a cultural movement is in motion. The seeds have fallen to the ground, taken root and sprouted. How we nurture this new growth will define the future evolution of the Burning Man movement.