Michael Mikel, a.k.a. Danger Ranger, has been involved with Burning Man since 1988
Michael Mikel, a.k.a. Danger Ranger, founded the Black Rock Rangers, edited Burning Man’s first on-site newspaper, and currently serves on the organization’s board of directors. Since 1988, he’s been centrally involved with Burning Man, the annual arts festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert that now attracts 70,000 people from all around the world. We caught up with him in conjunction with this year’s festival as well as the City of Dust retrospective exhibition currently on display at the Nevada Museum of Art.
Is it Michael Mikel or Danger Ranger?
It’s Michael Mikel, but Danger Ranger is my playa name.
What did you think when you were first approached to do this exhibit?
Well that was two years ago. And David [Walker, executive director of the Nevada Museum of Art], who’s also on the board of directors of the Burning Man nonprofit, he introduced me to Bill Fox who managed the Art + Environment section of the museum. They approached me about the possibility of having an archive of Burning Man materials. And I’ve saved pretty much everything in my history of Burning Man. And this will be my 30th year of attending Burning Man. I’ve burned on the beach in San Francisco with a handful of people, and it’s amazing now we have 70,000 people. And I had an attic full of materials and objects and papers that I’ve saved through the years and was very happy to donate it to the archives so they could be preserved and taken care of, and there’s actually a wealth of research materials [for those] who might be studying Burning Man. So I think it’s very important to have this work up. And now they’ve mounted this exhibit which is really incredible, and it’s going to be at the Smithsonian next year—even larger.
Will it be called City of Dust as well?
They’ve titled their exhibit No Spectators. And they’re going to have an expanded exhibit with lots more Burning Man art. They’ve got a lot more room there, and it’s going to be an incredible exhibit there at the Smithsonian.
That’s a good title too, because isn’t the idea that there are no spectators, only participants?
Yes, and that was one of the slogans we adopted in the early days, was the idea that nobody is a spectator—everybody participates. We even made a giant banner and hung it out in camp for a couple of years.
So then is it kind of strange that it’s an exhibit here with just observers?
Ironic perhaps. But as a scholarly exhibit, I mean that’s important for people to see and understand stories that the objects tell about Burning Man and about Burning Man history. So their participation is educating. So they are learning about Burning Man, and it’s an education aspect that they are participating in.
It’s been, what, 26 years since the first Burning Man?
It’s been 32 years since the first Burning Man. Burning Man started on the beach in San Francisco in 1986. And I started going in 1988. What a long strange trip it’s been!
How many years have to pass for a museum to say, “Yes, we can look back at this event and do a historical exhibit?”
I don’t know that I could state there’s a time. I’m amazed it has been museum-worthy, you know, because I never expected anything like this. But I guess it’s because Burning Man is having so much impact on the world now. In addition to the local area and in Nevada. It’s had a huge effect—all the art that’s come out of Burning Man that’s being installed in Reno in Las Vegas and other places in Nevada, and around the world for that matter. And other projects that Burning Man has started. Burners without Borders started when we heard about Hurricane Katrina hitting the Gulf Coast, and after the event, scores of volunteers loaded trucks with donated materials, camping supplies, food and equipment, and caravanned down to the Gulf Coast and started relief efforts. And because of our Burning Man experience of being able to survive and thrive in a very harsh environment, we could apply the things we learned to help the people down there. We were more effective than FEMA in many cases in what we accomplished. We built a Buddhist temple. Also, in 2007, the theme of Burning Man that year was the Green Man, and there was a focus on looking at aspects of the environment, how we impact it, and there were a bunch of displays under the man, under and around the man, the whole pavilion there was powered by solar panels. And after the event, we used those solar panels to launch Black Rock Solar. Black Rock Solar was the first 501(c)3 nonprofit solar company in the United States. And they’ve installed so many systems all over Nevada. On reservations, schools, hospitals, all over. In fact, there were so many solar installations along Highway 447 at the reservation facilities and schools there that the governor declared Highway 447 the solar highway.
When Burning Man started, did you have all of this social and global change in mind?
Not really. We got involved with a very small group of people, and it kept growing. Every year, particularly in the early ’90s, the number of people who would come to Burning Man would double. It was crazy. And it was about 1993 that I looked out across the playa and there were several thousand people, and I realized that this means something, something is happening here. It’s important what we’re doing, and then I really began to focus on that. And it’s grown and become an amazing thing.
What do you feel like other cities or other organizational efforts can learn from Black Rock City?
I started calling our camp Black Rock City in 1995. At that time, there were 4,000 people there, and we were the seventh largest populous place in Nevada at that time. And we were, in my mind, a city. I thought it was important for people to view this as a city even though it’s only temporary. But it should have equal rights and privileges as a city anywhere on the planet should have. And that’s how Black Rock City came into being. And, you know, Burning Man has a lot to teach other cities—and the world, for that matter. Bringing together such a diverse group of people and have them get along. Also to have them be responsible for their environment, everybody takes everything they bring—trash and debris. So, Burning Man has become the largest leave-no-trace event in the country. And we’ve actually set the standards for clean-up that the federal government has adopted for large scale events. So I think we can teach cities a lot about protecting the environment, cleaning up, taking care of trash, and having the citizens of the city be more responsible for taking care of their own environment. We also teach cities, other communities, about how to create art—gathering large groups of people together to create amazing works of art. And having them installed as temporary exhibits which exist for a period of time and then they’re replaced by another exhibit. So you have this change—it’s not static—and that’s really great, I think, for a city environment to have a changing facade of artworks.
It seems like there are a lot of differences between a traditional city and Black Rock City—the gift economy versus capitalism for instance—can you talk about that?
We’ve grown up in a system of capitalism, of commerce, where almost every transaction you have with someone is based on you either buying something from them, or selling something, or trying to sell you something. And once you remove that, it enables people to connect more directly and more honestly, and that’s really an amazing thing. And just teaching people that that’s a possibility is an amazing thing. You know, Burning Man is not against capitalism, the sale of goods and services, but teaching people that that’s not the only thing that can exist within a community, that you can have true relationships with each other is an important thing. Another thing that we’ve done at Burning Man is, in 1992, I started an organization called the Black Rock Rangers, which is a group of people assigned to look after the community. There were six of us that first year. And our main mission at that time was search and rescue. Because our camp was so far out in the desert and people would try to find it and miss it by a few degrees and would go off for miles in the desert. So we’d go out a couple times a day and make big search runs, looking for people who got lost trying to find Burning Man. And as the city grew, the role of Black Rock Rangers became mediators and caretakers solving disputes, assisting people, and it’s kind of—it’s not like a police force. These are people that are part of the community, and I think we can teach communities to have an organization, or even policing authorities, a way of dealing with communities that’s not so heavy handed and so authoritarian. And it’s been very successful in Black Rock City. There are now more than 800 Black Rock Rangers each year in our city, and they do a wonderful job.
I’ve never been to Burning Man, but I always hear people complain about how it’s so big and different now from how it used to be. Do the changes bother you?
I’ve seen it small and tiny. I could pretty much talk to everybody without yelling, and now we have a massive communication system and very large organization. But what is happening now, it’s still the most amazing thing on the planet. And so for all the shifts from that small group out in the desert, we now have these communities within the city. We have neighborhoods, so there’s still that sense of connection that happens in all of these neat community areas and neighborhoods within Black Rock City. The roots of Burning Man were actually in the ’60s and ’70s counterculture of the Bay Area. And there were some groups that heavily influenced the character and identity of Burning Man. And one of the earliest ones was the San Francisco Suicide Club, which came out of a free school called Communiversity where anyone could teach a class on any subject. And out of that, this group of people was formed called the Suicide Club, and they went on adventures that challenged people. They went into different places, abandoned buildings.They climbed the Golden Gate Bridge in the middle of the night and had a lot of experiences. A man named Gary Horn was the person who founded the Suicide Club, and they lasted from 1976 to, I believe, 1982, and out of some of the members of the Suicide Club, a few years later, formed a group called the Cacophony Society. And the Cacophony Society, I think, was a randomly gathered network of free spirits united in the pursuit of beyond the pale mainstream society. So we put out a newsletter each month with a list of things that you could attend or participate. So I was a member of the Cacophony Society, and I’d heard about the Suicide Club, but they were so far underground that I couldn’t find them, so when Cacophony got started, I got involved with that, and I helped it become a much more open and inclusive organization.
That’s the one with the tagline, “You might already be a member?”
“You might already be a member” was the quotation I came up with. So that was formed in 1986, about the same time Burning Man was starting, and more and more energy from the Cacophony Society got put into Burning Man. In 1990, we were on Baker Beach in San Francisco, and we showed up with several hundred people and a four-story-tall wooden man. And the authorities arrived before we could strike a match to it, and they said, “You can’t do this—you don’t have a permit.” So we said, “OK, we won’t burn it down.” So we took the man apart, and put it in storage and two months later we brought it out to the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. Because we had seen this video of people in this strange, dry, desert place. They were playing a game of croquet, only the croquet ball was 8 feet in diameter, and for mallets, they were using pickup trucks. And we thought, “We could burn a man out there,” and that’s when we first came to the Black Rock Desert. And I arrived there with the first group of participants. There were about 80 of us, and a large wooden man in a rental truck. And we pulled down off the highway onto this flat plane, and I had everyone get out of their cars and trucks, and I drew a line in the ground, and I said, “On the other side of this line, everything will be different.” We then all stepped across that line together, and my, how things have been different.
Do you say that every year or did that just happen that first year?
That only happened the first year. However, it’s become a tradition with the Black Rock Rangers. The Rangers go through a period of training, and then after they receive their graduation, they do a ceremony that relives that moment of my first line in the ground. They draw a line in the ground, and the graduating class of rangers step across that line. And there’s about a hundred rangers that graduate each year now. So that’s become a part of the tradition in Black Rock City.
Can you tell me about the Rangers?
We started in 1992 with six people. Our approach is different than the heavy-handed police tactics. That’s what’s so important. We are respected by our community so much. The rangers have to set aside their own ego and listen to people and hear what they have to say. There’s a lot of negotiation in working with people and finding solutions to problems. So instead of coming out with a heavy handed authority—“You will do this!”—you try to understand the underlying causes of things and where people are coming from and what their needs are. I think police could benefit a lot from our training program.
Can you tell me about Fly Ranch?
Yes, recently Burning Man acquired a place called Fly Ranch. It’s a little over 300 acres in the Hualapai, Valley which is just over the mountain ridge from the Black Rock Desert. And what we want to do is to facilitate Burning Man culture into the future.
What does that mean?
You know, Black Rock City, we build it, and then we erase it, but with this place we will have a permanent place on the planet in which to develop and grow and enhance our culture. Right now, we’re doing a lot of research on the land. It’s a beautiful place, and we want to protect the environment, so we’re doing an assessment of all of the wildlife and vegetation, the hydrological features, the geology of it, and we’re going to find out how we can use it. There’s a lot of ideas … artists in residence, places to study, a possible art park, places where you can have salons and gatherings to think about the future of the Earth and where Burning Man could go to help the planet.
But nothing’s set yet?
No, it’s just in the planning. It has a beautiful geyser on it that was created when a well was drilled, and it was used largely as cattle ranching in its history for the most part. And we want to find out ways of using it and enhancing it to promote Burning Man culture.
So this exhibit at the Nevada Museum of Art—it’s not a replacement for going to Burning Man, right?
Oh, no. You have to experience Burning Man. You can see so much of it here, and people will talk and talk, but you can’t really know what Burning Man is until you experience it.
“Black Rock Rangers became mediators and caretakers solving disputes.”