No matter how much helium Lawrence Phipps pumped into his inflatable sheep, he could not get the damn thing to levitate.
It was 1997. Phipps was making his first voyage to the Burning Man Festival, and he had absolutely no idea what he was doing. He'd flown from Denver to Reno to meet up with six friends from San Francisco, then driven 100 miles north, deep into the Nevada desert, armed with a huge helium tank, two inflatable sex dolls (one sheep, one girl), two giant weather balloons and about fifty latex gloves. The plan was to create a floating world, but the dolls were too heavy. So Phipps attached them to the weather balloons and tethered them with rope. For a moment, he and his friends sat and enjoyed the splendor of their suspended garden, satisfied with their bouquet of floating curiosities.
Suddenly, wicked winds whipped off the mountains that lay to the west, kicking up dust on the ashen-colored stretch of cracked, primordial bedrock known as the Playa. With one mighty gust -- whoosh! -- nearly everything in Phipps's camp blew away: The weather balloons, the sheep and the girl spiraled skyward and were gone. The few remaining latex gloves quickly deflated and sank limply back to the desert floor.
"It lasted for about fifteen minutes," Phipps says, laughing. "We knew almost nothing about Burning Man at that point. I'd read an article about it in Wired, and we'd heard by word of mouth that you were supposed to do something interactive and artful. We had no clue about our environment. It was a disaster, but our neighbors thought we were pretty hilarious."
Two years later, the group returned to Black Rock City, the "mondolopolis" that the Playa transforms into every year over Labor Day weekend. The Burning Man population had swelled to more than 10,000 souls, and the city had become awfully, well, city-like, with street names and a circular, organized layout that linked villages and thematic camps -- temporary, art-ridden habitats with names like Oceania and the Esoteric Order of the Yumi Yoni. Phipps and his crew erected their own theme camp: the Dingo Parlor. This time, they staked it to the earth.
The huge interactive bingo board adorned with papier-mâché sculptures of wild Australian dogs with glowing red eyes was a hit. All week long, people stopped by the parlor to play a few rounds, win prizes and drink beers. Phipps saw every type of specimen in the Burning Man diaspora come through his camp: people caked in dirt and mud, people wearing wigs and costumes, people wearing nothing at all.
"It was a really popular camp," Phipps says, a proud smile on his face. "People really love to play bingo. I had no idea that deviant bingo would appeal to so many people."
When it was all over, the Dingo Parlor burned. Along with the forty-foot-tall Man (the event's namesake) and numerous other art installations, the wild-eyed dogs were set ablaze, creating a huge pyrotechnic display in the black desert sky. In a widely distributed video of the wooden effigy burning, one of the dingoes can be seen in the background, disintegrating amid a sea of flames, drummers and naked flesh.
Phipps is known as the Milkman by his friends, not because of his alabaster hair, but because, as he says, "I'm proud to be a mammal." In Denver, the Milkman is a DJ, a sound-installation artist and a well-known Burning Man veteran, a bona fide Burner. But it took a couple of years for him to really ramp up to the Burning Man experience. Since its beginnings on a small beach in San Francisco in 1985, Burning Man has become the most extravagant, outrageous and dangerous art festival in the world. Nearly everything about the event is hard. Temperatures lick the 100s in the day and drop to the 40s at night. Dust storms and cloudbursts demolish dreams and art projects -- not to mention camping tents and shade structures -- in an instant. There's no running water, no electricity and nothing for sale, just a collective belief in making cool shit and, maybe, torching it.
"People come, and they have these grand notions of what they want to build. When they get out there, the elements always surprise them," Phipps says. "Burning Man, for me, is a dangerous lifestyle obsession; I've been every year since that first year. So I feel like I have a pretty good sense after all these years of what is and is not feasible. But it takes practice."
In Denver, Burners who share Phipps's obsession are a veritable tribe of self-described oddballs and art weirdos -- a community whose creative connective thread radiates all the way from Colorado to the Playa. Though artists from San Francisco dominate the Burning Man community, Colorado Burners make up one of the largest contingents in Black Rock City. In the early days, it was a fire spinner with Denver's longstanding Colorado Fire Tribe who lit the Man. The massive theme village of Disturbia was a Denver hub before it dissolved a few years ago. Now, more than 200 Burners camp with Denver's HeeBeeGeeBee Healers in a sprawling network of tents, where weary desert dwellers show up for yoga, massage and other holistic arts. Every morning, lines 150 deep form in front of the Healers' realm.
"A lot of Denver Burners consider Burning Man a sort of home," says Jesse Thompson who, like Phipps, has participated in the revelry for the past eight years. "When you arrive at the gate, they even say 'Welcome home.' Afterwards, there is a bit of an adjustment period coming back. Some people get depressed when they get back.
"For me, I find it difficult to get back into the groove of the daily grind, of work and real life and all that fun stuff," he continues. "People started to find ways to bring the Playa dust with them."
For some of the Burners, a few handfuls of Playa dust wasn't enough; they wanted to bring Black Rock City home. Enter Apogaea, Colorado's very own Burning Man.
During the last weekend in June, between 200 and 300 people will make a two-hour trek south for a freaks' fete in the forest featuring theme camps, art installations, interactive workshops, costumes, dancing, music, absurdist theater and maybe even fire -- barring any bans. It is an adaptation of the Burning Man model on a small, localized scale. A party created on site by and for those who participate, open to everyone with something to contribute. No spectators.
"We have this amazing, cool community here, and the spirit and the fire originates from Burning Man," Phipps says. "People bring it back from the desert and do totally cool things here."
"This whole scene is a chance to be around really intelligent, creative and very motivated people and seeing what they're doing, to get some of your own ideas," Thompson adds. "Eventually you gotta take action on some of them, or you feel like you're just standing by, watching."
But wrestling a wild vision into the bold light of reality is easier said than done, and Apogaea isn't the first attempt at a regional burn in Colorado. From 2000 to 2003, a group of Burners organized an event called Geodesica on Lake Wellington. Each year, about a hundred people showed up and mounted angular artworks around the campsite; in the parking lot, art cars festooned with geodesic domes were parked among the RVs and camping trucks. But the action was limited by fire bans and noise restrictions.
"We were basically on a public campground, with parking spaces and numbered spots and everything," says Julie Mahoney, who helped organize Geodesica and is now the main architect of Apogaea. "We had a lot of noise complaints. If someone's living out there in that environment, and in the middle of the night they hear some DJ spinning" -- she makes a sound that approximates a techno beat, like boom-ch-boom-ch-boom-ch -- "then you're going to have a problem.
"I was on the radio a lot during that event," she continues. "I'd have to go to the DJs and be the bad guy, like, 'Sorry, guys. Gotta turn it down.'"
Last year, Apogaea piggybacked onto another alternative-arts festival, Dreamtime, which was held on a private stretch of land outside the Western Slope town of Paonia. The coupling drew more than 600 people, but it felt a tad schizophrenic. The Dreamtime organizers were interested in pursuing conventional avenues, like sponsorship, a notion that didn't jell with the Burning Man commitment to autonomy and a barter economy.
"Apogaea symbolizes a more expandable system or model for what Burning Man started, which is just basically a huge artists' community of gifting," says Thompson, who is a member of Metameme, an artistic DJ collective known for throwing multimedia parties in warehouses and art spaces around the city. "It's a chance to demonstrate that philosophy among new people who otherwise wouldn't be able to go to Burning Man, to inspire other people and get excited about that kind of thing. That's a whole other aspect of community than you see demonstrated at Apogaea and Burning Man events, one you don't see on Capitol Hill. People normally aren't encouraged to give anything away, but that's the attitude at these events."
Committed to that philosophy, Apogaea's organizers decided to strike out on their own.
Julie Mahoney first attended Burning Man in 1998. The experience gave shape to her social life and even challenged her professional vision: That year, she left her job as an engineer to devote more time to creative pursuits.
"Before Burning Man, my husband and I had like six or seven friends through co-workers, just people that we knew," says Mahoney, who has the ready-for-anything toughness of a seasoned outdoorswoman. "Suddenly, we tap into this crowd and we've got 300 best friends. The biggest problem that I've got now is that I can't always go out and do this fun thing, because I've got to go home."
She and her husband no longer just attend Burning Man; they help build it. A week before the party, the Mahoneys join in the construction of Black Rock City, hanging out with the Black Rock Rangers, a volunteer group that helps erect the city and run it peacefully, and members of the Borg, the official entity that oversees the foundational aspects of Burning Man.
Mahoney studied what she saw out there, and she's applying it to Apogaea.
"The success of the event is all dictated by whatever you have to work with -- who shows up, who participates, who contributes in some way and what they bring to it," she says. "Everyone has a need to be creative, to celebrate and to express themselves in a free environment."
As the president of Apogaea LLC, a corporation created last year to support the event, she's responsible for organizing that freedom in combination with what is arguably the most eclectic board of directors in the state. That board, which includes Thompson and Phipps, is made up of artists, DJs, business owners, tech heads, scientists and iconoclasts with names like Mayor McCheese and Schmid-E. Although Apogaea is designed as a primitive playground for wild adults, it's realized through spreadsheets and meeting minutes, according to bylaws and protocols, like any corporation.
"I'm a member of a union, and I swear we have more bylaws for Apogaea than we do for the union," says Travis Roberts, a boardmember who works as a lieutenant with Littleton Fire and Rescue. "We've got a book that's like a foot tall. But that's what it takes to cover all of the bases, to be as legitimate and responsible as possible."
Legitimate, responsible -- and affordable. Apogaea is structured to be accessible to anyone who wants to go, regardless of cost: Tickets are sold according to a pricing pyramid, with a tier of $15 tickets for truly starving artists. (Tickets at that level have already sold out.) Apogaea LLC does turn a small profit from the entrance fees, but Mahoney and the boardmembers are not compensated for their efforts. Instead, any money left after expenses is funneled into an artists' grant program, which allocates money to help individuals create art and environments for Apogaea. The program is modeled on the Black Rock Arts Council, which supplies more than half a million dollars to Burning Man artists each year. This year, the Apogaea board awarded more than $1,500.
"The whole grant program is less designed around giving people money to make some really fab art than with giving someone a tool to try out their art," says Ms. Terious, an Apogaea boardmember who works with the Burning Man Borg. "We want it to be good, of course, but it's more of a way of saying 'We appreciate your ideas, and we don't want you to be overly stifled by the constraint of not having the money to make it happen.'"
The grant program also gives artists a chance to test out their creations before making the 1,200-mile trek to the main event at Burning Man. Michele Reeverts, a Denver schoolteacher and artist who leads the Colorado Fire Tribe, used Apogaea grant money to perfect a four-foot kaleidoscope that she placed at the entrance of the HeeBeeGeeBee Healers habitat at Burning Man last year.
"I probably would not have been able to create it on my own, without the help from the grant. And without having a venue to show it, I probably would not have created it as well," Reeverts says. "It's hard enough to produce large pieces, not to mention finding some place that will put it up or is willing to show it. Apogaea gives us that opportunity to create anything fantastic and to not have to deal with any gallery or studio space.
"The regional burns are a great way to tap into your local community," she continues, "to see who does what, see what ideas they have and what they've created, how it works, how it hangs, how it's fastened to the ground. They're really a launching pad for ideas."
Last year, Jesse Thompson and Razor Dave built a huge lasso made of spools of black-light-sensitive rope, a quarter-horsepower motor and a rudimentary pulley system that revolved around Rollerblade wheels. They spent several months tinkering with the thing before they perfected its simple mechanics. The result was a gyroscopic structure -- called the Electric Lasso Boogaloo -- that moved with music and sent undulating whips of light fifteen feet into the air. At night, beneath a starry sky, the Lasso danced alongside 600 people wearing costumes and wigs, body paint and feather boas.
"We were inspired by a little toy that Dave bought at the Wizard's Chest -- this multi-colored shoelace-like string that responds to light and seems to have a life of its own," Thompson says. "So we took this thing that we thought was really neat in a small scale, and we made a large-scale version of it.
"Pulling it off was fun," he continues. "When people see it, they say they've never seen anything like it before. They're mesmerized."
The Lasso was just one of many wonderfully odd attractions at Apogaea, including a full-scale saloon and bicycles fashioned to look like animals. There were art cars, people spinning fire, a rumble between a corral full of cowboys and a bunch of mad clowns. Even the natural world got in on the action: On the last day, a double rainbow lit a cosmic halo over the strange, temporary village. This was Burning Man at a high elevation, a little piece of the Playa in the Rockies.
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."
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."
"Apogaea will never be as bling-bling as Burning Man," Mahoney adds. "You won't get the scale. But the feeling is the same. It's nice to let people know that if you can't get to Burning Man, it's okay. Just come here."
Scott Perlman had never been to Burning Man when he constructed his first art installation, "American Cheese," for Geodesica in 2003. He bedecked his campsite with Astroturf, pink flamingos and a white picket fence, kicked back and entertained visitors. For the next couple of days, Perlman connected with people from all over Colorado, each with their own creative project to share and talk about.
"It was wonderful and eye-opening and mind-blowing," says Perlman. "As a young person, I'd had that experience of being told you're either an artist or you're not, and I believed that," he says. "But suddenly there's this community where your creativity is validated, and it makes you want to explore it. After that weekend, I started going on every art bus there was, just throwing myself into this scene."
Perlman is an entrepreneur who worked as an investment banker for many years, but he never fit in with the business types he encountered in the working world. The Burners gave him a jolt, and a creative outlet: Last year, he presided over Apogaea as Mayor McCheese, mayor of Dome on the Range, a theme camp complete with Wild West storefronts, gun-totin' cowboys and a functional saloon. Dome on the Range hosted dance parties and shootouts and the aforementioned scrap between the Rangers and a group of wayward clowns from another camp.
Perlman spent fifteen to twenty hours a week for months working on Dome on the Range before Apogaea. And asked why he went to all the trouble, he gives a little cockeyed look.
"On a base level, to participate in something like this is an affirmation of who you are and things you believe in," he says. "After discovering this scene, I'd much rather hang out with someone who's artistic and creative than a community of people who are just interested in money.
"And," he adds, "it's just fun to play, like when you were a little kid. Burning Man people live in a creative zone. We can still play."
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.