By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
In many ways, the members of the Apogaea board are trying to put on an event that's fraught with contradictions: to follow an established template while allowing, and encouraging, spontaneous happenings and extemporaneous expressions of creativity; to run a corporation run by artists who reject the concept of profit; to try to live a code while dogging dogma. To create Burning Man without re-creating Burning Man.
That conflict is especially evident now, as this is the first time a Colorado burn has proceeded with the full blessing of the Borg. Being sanctioned requires a commitment to construct the event around ten fundamental precepts that have evolved over Burning Man's twenty-year history, including the notions of "leave no trace" and personal responsibility.
"We realized that the idea of going underground was so risky," Mahoney says. "It's all of us on the line, especially when you've got things like the Rave Act, which holds event organizers accountable for all kinds of things. So we got insurance, we've got liability waivers that people have to sign. We've covered the bases. We come totally aboveboard.
"There are some people who don't understand it," Mahoney continues. "They think we're being paranoid. They think it goes against the whole ethos of the thing to have rules or follow the Burning Man leadership. But we're not trying to franchise or dilute things. We're trying to be as responsible as we can to ourselves and to the future of the event."
That's precisely why Mahoney and the board actually found a place to throw it. Open, undeveloped land on which to construct -- and burn -- art installations and a noisy, temporary community is hard to find in Colorado, and most people were closed to the idea. But because the board had covered its bases so well, the owner of Happy Ass Ranch is welcoming them to his private, forested outpost in the mountains west of Colorado Springs. At 9,200 feet, in the middle of bear country, it's beautiful but challenging land.
But the notion of Burning Man as a brand name doesn't sit well with artist types who compose the heart, soul and mind of the event. Some of the Apogaea boardmembers like the idea of implementing a system that's known to work and seeing how it responds in new environments. Others, like Phipps, would prefer to keep the framework as free as possible.
"We all want it to grow and succeed, but there are those of us who would like to step out of the shadow -- not because we want to be bigger and better than Burning Man, but because we want to do our own thing and have some originality," Phipps says. "We'd like it to take on a life of its own that isn't dominated by a group of other people with their imprint on it.
"Burning Man today has very much taken on a life of its own," he continues. "It's certainly not what was in people's heads when it first started. Definitely not."
It's been twenty years since San Francisco artist Larry Harvey hauled a small statue of a man, designed to symbolize the new object of his lover's affection, onto Baker Beach, just north of San Francisco, and set it on fire. It was a simple emotional purging for Harvey, but it ignited some grand creative visions that have spread as widely, and unpredictably, as a wildfire. In 1985, there were only about eighty people on hand to watch the effigy burn. By 1987, several hundred joined Harvey and the San Francisco Cacophony Society when they went to Nevada in search of more space. Last year, 35,000 made the sojourn to the inhospitable Black Rock desert to create works of art, freak out and set fires in a self-created, futuristic Brigadoon.
Though Burning Man is often described in apocalyptic language, many Burners deflect the misconception that their event is bedlam. At least, that it is still bedlam. The early days were characterized by their utter lack of definition or structure -- just a couple thousand people running around in the desert making and torching works of art. But the concept of self-reliance within a challenging environment has always been one of the philosophical pillars of Burning Man. In its contemporary manifestation, the festival is as much an experiment in community planning, urban development and getting along as it is an art happening.
"The Playa is created as a utopian dream for outsiders," says Ms. Terious. "It's a whole city created by artist types. But it's not utopia: It is, in a very real sense, a city that can kill you. So you're forced to work together, and that brings out the best in people. It's like, 'Where can we find a place that's big enough and vacant enough to accommodate this idea that I have? Where we can go make this thing? Where can we go burn this thing?' It's a city that's created to accommodate those kinds of needs.
"The whole idea is this: We don't like the way things are in the default world, and we want to be different, but we're going to do it by example," she continues. "It's our chance to create this alternative world. It's the outsiders' turn."