By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
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By Melanie Asmar
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
Burning Man today is so civilized that the United States Army sent specialists in 2002 to study Black Rock City as a model for wartime or refugee habitats. Festival organizers enjoy a relationship with the Bureau of Land Management and city and county governments in Nevada, who've come to realized that an influx of 35,000 people into the empty desert represents a relatively painless injection into the local economy. Nowadays, Black Rock City has mail delivery, multiple radio stations and two competing daily newspapers. The San Francisco Bay Guardian covers Black Rock City the way it does any foreign country.
"It's a huge city now -- a very exotic city, but a city -- and it's got city bureaucracy," says Phipps. "The way that I think of it now is not that I'm going to this bizarre experience, but just that I'm going on vacation. I'm going 'off world' to some exotic destination that's difficult to reach."
But the city is getting a tad crowded. The 2005 map of Black Rock City depicts many sub-communities that have splintered off from the city's core; even Burning Man, it seems, cannot resist the onslaught of suburbia. When in full swing, Black Rock City is the fourth-largest municipality in Nevada, with its own services for mental health, law enforcement and firefighting. The Black Rock Emergency Services crew, a volunteer firefighting and management crew, works alongside the Black Rock Rangers and other support agencies to keep the peace -- and reduce the danger. In typical Burning Man fashion, the team has its own theme camp, modeled on an old-fashioned rural fire station, complete with its own firefighter bar.
"Black Rock City is a big city, with all of the normal city problems," says Travis Roberts, the Littleton firefighter, who is also a four-year member of the Black Rock City Emergency Services crew. "You get fuel spills from people who fill up their RVs in Reno. Propane leaks. People setting fires in places where they're not supposed to. We've got fire protection going seven days a week while the event is up and running."
For Burning Man philosophers and sociologists, the question is how far the experiment can be pushed within the confines of Black Rock City while remaining true to the original vision. Twenty years in, the freewheeling notions of radical self-expression within an inclusive and democratic community seem at odds with some of the realities of the default world. As its successes grow, so do concerns over that growth -- just as they do in the real world.
"Going back to the roots of Burning Man, the idea was to create a temporary autonomous zone," says Ms. Terious. "It's an experiment in society, and the question is how far we can take it. How much of the default world do we need to let in in order to subsist? The more the event begins to resemble the cities we come from, it becomes even more of a creative challenge to work against those precepts."
Apogaea can be seen as the evolution of that experiment -- an effort to push the thing outward and into communities where Burners live during the 51 weeks they're not on the Playa. Apogaea is one of several regional Burning Man happenings scattered around the world. Every state has some BM-related event, and major regionals have recently sprouted in Spain, Korea and Canada. Flipside, held each spring outside of Austin, Texas, is so popular that organizers now cap attendance. This network has even birthed a new, nomadic kind of Burner: People follow the events around the country like Deadheads, making the circuit from other big regionals such as Toast, in the Four Corners area of Arizona, and Synergy, in Utah.
Today the Burning Man leadership in San Francisco oversees all events officially sanctioned as Burning Man subsets. Ms. Terious is the regional director for the Denver Burner Community, responsible for coordinating communication among the 700 members of the Colorado Burning Man group on Yahoo; a typical communiqué from Ms. Terious might include information about a swap meet where Burners can exchange costumes or building supplies; another might provide directions to a pajama party or a fire-spinning event by the Colorado Fire Tribe, which meets each week at Confluence Park to drum and play with fire toys. She is also a member of the Apogaea board and the one who reports back on the event's progress to the Borg. Part of her job is to be sure that the Burning Man name isn't weakened by people who don't get it.
"The Borg wants to be sure that some guy isn't throwing a rave or some illegal party and calling it a Burning Man event," Ms. Terious says. "And we want to keep it pure, in a way. Black Rock City will continue to evolve, and the regionals are a big part of that. We'll see how different we are going to become when we spread this out to smaller places, in different places. How would it be different in a place with flat land? On an island in the South Pacific? In a forest?
"The regionals keep it small and more manageable and more spontaneous, and give people something to work on together throughout the year," she adds. "I don't like the idea that people save everything from their creative side for that one week. The point is to try and create that sense of our own universe in one location. People don't feel safe or fulfilled if they don't otherwise have that experience. It gives them a way to show up and give undiluted love and affection in a platonic, creative way."