Lessons of Burning Man

Can Reno learn anything from Black Rock City?

Photo by Debra Reid

“White out, 20 minutes. Make sure anything loose is battened down.”

The man dressed in a white, filmy robe walks through the city, stopping at every tent door, a primitive but effective public broadcast system.

Before the winds whip into a stinging frenzy, I look around. The temper of a town can often be divined during moments of elemental adversity. I’ve been on the Black Rock Desert during windstorms more times than I can count. I know the wind can lift large objects like shade structures and spill them over, causing them to roll down the street and across the crusty firmament for miles.

But more important is the small stuff: Kleenex, wads of duct tape, plastic cups. If this detritus gets caught in the wind, it’ll fly up, form irregularly shaped kites and land somewhere outside our borders. There, one of “them” will see it—and leave it, a nexus of judgment that others can point to and say, “Those Burning Man people are trashing the desert.”

As the dust storm arrives out of the north, my expectations are realized. Scurrying around are the be-goggled and dust-masked townies, looking like psychotic Bedouin in a sepia-toned Muybridge photo, collecting Styrofoam bits that are pushed before the 60-mile-per-hour wind. With the roar of the wind, the grasping, stomping and dervishing inhabitants become part of the landscape, a fundamental aspect of the city.

The lid of a soft drink cup flies by, red-striped straw still intact. An internal dialogue ends, and I leap from my chair to join in the Jawas’ dance.


Shoppers Square Mall, Meet the Candidates Day: Aug. 17

There’s an election coming up. A primary comes in early September; the general election will be Nov. 5. All the candidates were invited to attend this Meet the Candidates event, to espouse their views, to differentiate themselves from the other candidates, to educate the public as to the issues. The public was invited as well, to quiz the candidates face-to-face, to participate in the political and educational process.

Photo by Debra Reid

The people who sit behind the foldout tables want to make decisions that will affect the very air we civilians breathe, the water we drink, our ability to travel from Point A to Point B.

It would be an exaggeration to say that nobody shows up, that nobody cares. Let’s put it this way: Washoe County has a population of 353,271. There are about 250 people at the Meet the Candidates Day. That’s less than one-thousandth of 1 percent of the population affected by local law-making. At a similar event earlier that week, only three of the candidates bothered to show up.

Reno City Councilman David Aiazzi is here. While Aiazzi and I often disagree on a political level, he and I have a kind of mutual respect or something. It’s a little hard to explain, except in the context of Burning Man. Aiazzi is a Burning Man fan. I don’t know how many years he’s been going out, and I’ve never run into him out there (though he says he dresses in ordinary khaki shorts, he’s probably running around in a loincloth and impossible to recognize out of context).

I ask him what lessons he believes Reno could learn from Burning Man—community, acceptance of diversity, mutual respect—and his answer surprises me, “Not much.”

The main difference, he says, is that the leadership isn’t elected, and there’s a certain amount of efficiency to be gained from entrenched leadership.

“It’s a benevolent dictatorship,” he says. “Everything is from the top down. Also, it’s only a five- or six-day event; they could never sustain that for a long time. They are forced to band together and survive for those days.”

Aiazzi says that everyone in Black Rock City has a common viewpoint and specialized interests, and the sense of community flows outward from that.

“Think about six or seven years ago,” he says. “They started with no rules, no nothing. Now they have an infrastructure and tax system. Every year there is a move toward more and more regulation. The public demands it.”

Fortunately, David Rigdon, another Reno city councilman, is standing nearby to allow me my illusions.

“We can learn a lot from Burning Man,” he says. “For one, there’s the ‘live and let live’ philosophy. When you try not to meddle in your neighbors’ business, people get along a lot better.”

Photo by Debra Reid

Rigdon’s also amazed by what people can do once they get their minds set on it.

“Somehow they get the infrastructure—roads, signs, plumbing—to come together in a short length of time, and it’s absolutely amazing.”

Back in Black Rock City, standing between two sand-colored, gargantuan, moaning Fiberglass women, I find myself in disagreement with Aiazzi’s remark that Larry Harvey is a benevolent dictator.

Harvey is indeed the boss around here, although I haven’t seen him in a few years. He almost certainly is the head of a cult of personality, and most every attributed quote that you see from him begins with the title “founder” (which always sounds a little Heaven’s Gate to me), but that doesn’t make him a dictator. In fact, “dictator” is about as far from the reality of Black Rock City as could be imagined.

Harvey was unofficially elected by virtue of two things: No. 1, he came up with the idea of burning a human effigy on Baker Beach in 1986. No. 2, when Burning Man reached a state of critical mass in about 1996, too big to exist without an administrative infrastructure, nobody else wanted the responsibility.

Make no mistake, Harvey rules by popular assent. He maintains this position because he gives the people what they want. Should Harvey ever attempt to take Burning Man in directions that are too far from the popular will, the participants will vote with their feet and wallets. Is he the dictator or the dictated? Someday I’ll ask him.

Every member of this Black Rock City community has his or her responsibilities; “leader” is just one of them.

Is there a lesson for Reno in this?

People govern in this country with the consent of the governed, and if leaders are going to rule by strength of personality, they’d best understand enough about the silent majority, not just the vocal special interests, to lead in a direction that people want to go.

An enormous Spanish Galleon floats across the desert on the horizon, cannonball-shot sheets whipping. The thing is 40 feet long if it’s an inch and suits this year’s theme, “The Floating World,” to a T. It follows—or is followed by, depending on the observer’s scale of view—a great, white sperm whale.

Photo by Debra Reid

The ship emphasizes the participatory aspect of Burning Man. While most people can’t afford to do a mega-project like this, everyone is expected to do something. Many wear simple costumes; some wear nothing. It’s all part of the spectacle. While there are many more paid employees than there were in years past, much of the community is dependent upon volunteers.

The secret is giving the people something they want to participate in.

“It’s all about building community,” says Pixie, a young woman from Boston who is pink and bejeweled like a princess. “If you want to participate, you can. You don’t have to worry about what people are going to say about you, or what the government is going to take away from you.”

Actually, that’s not completely true either. I remember how people howled when firearms were no longer welcome at Black Rock City, the same with individual campfires.

The problem with a real, banal city with underground utilities, running water, schools and property taxes is that people have lives to live. They have jobs to go to, children to raise, grass to cut.

Out here on the playa, Burning Man is our job. Going over to the “naked chicks wrestling in fruit cocktail” tent is an unfortunate but necessary part of participation. Back home in Reno, most people simply can’t simply set their beers in the camp-chair drink holders to run over to wherever the noise is. In Reno, the business of government mostly goes on 9 to 5 during the workweek. Perhaps people would participate more if the council met on weekends, but it’s hard to say which group—the governed or the electeds—would be more resistant to the idea.

Still, it’s easy to say that people turn out for events in Reno that they think are cool or important. Unfortunately, it seems that politically motivated “events” often appear to fit better under the umbrella of protest—the “green space not screen space” protests before the construction of the Riverside Theater comes to mind. The council meetings leading up to the destruction of the Mapes also brought people out by the hundreds. The only event that eclipsed those meetings was when the Mapes imploded on Jan. 30, 2000. The railroad-trench debate, while it garnered a lot of acrimony, actually turned out nearly as many supporters as detractors. A few political-speech-type events, like the gay pride parade, are populated almost solely by supporters. It can be done.

I stand outside the Johnny -on-the-Spot port-a-potties. It’s slightly less than 100 degrees, and the breeze is ripe—with portentousness, I guess. A dusty man dressed in a Cat in the Hat hat and a heavy canvas utility kilt pedals up and pulls a sheaf of electric-pink papers from his saddlebags and begins taping one to each door.

This looks like activism to me, so I glide over.

He is posting bills that say: “Pee, yes, poo, yes, one-ply toilet paper, yes; everything else, NO.”

Photo by Debra Reid

“If people don’t quit putting bottles in, we aren’t going to have a Burning Man next year,” he says.

I’m not sure I completely buy into this theory, but there’s not really any talking about it. I glide around to the Easter Island-decorated port-a-potties on the other side of the row. This is the second time I’ve heard warnings about putting foreign matter into the outhouses; the first was at the gate. I’ve noticed that the warnings have been mostly heeded. The only obvious instance of scofflaw behavior I noticed was that somebody had tossed a magenta shimmering glowstick in one of the toilets the night before. (I won’t be any more descriptive. This is probably more than a person needs to imagine.)

It’s all about communication. Burning Man organizers are diligent, year-round, about getting their message out. The virtual Black Rock City exists 365 days a year. During that time, it seems like you can’t open your inbox without seeing a new version of the Jack Rabbit Speaks, Burning Man’s e-mail updates. There is little that can’t be discovered on the Burning Man Web site, www.burningman.com, up to and including some financial information, which usually gets disseminated about December.

In Reno, government angst almost always boils down to a lack of communication and information. People who are, for example, against the train trench, or even those who are undecided, can’t get behind it, because there is little solid fact to wrap their fists around. The information that comes from the city is often viewed as propaganda. Some appears as advertising in the newspaper, propounding things that people don’t care about, or making reactionary arguments that would be unnecessary if the primary data had been made available. The public believes that decisions are made before all the facts are in, and many complain that communication flows only in one direction—out. That’s why there’s a freak-out any time the city increases its communications budget.

One thing that Reno could learn from Burning Man’s communication structure is to go directly to the people for input and with output. The Burning Man organizers literally encourage dissent. Black Rock City has two newspapers, the more staid (relatively speaking) Black Rock Gazette and the alternative paper, Piss Clear. The information that organizers need to pass around doesn’t appear in advertisements because it’s news, it’s information that may help the event and participants survive.

Some information is passed directly to individuals via individuals, like the human public broadcast system before the windstorm. Some information also flows up, network-like. If there is a bike thief in Black Rock City, the reports start at the individual level, and before very long the organizers are sending it to the masses. Information is passed along at the message board downtown. It’s passed by word of mouth. It’s passed through fliers and town criers.

Perhaps town criers would be a bit much for Reno, which has at least 10 times the population of Black Rock City during Burning Man. But could the city of Reno add an e-mail newsletter signup on its Web site, www.cityofreno.com? That was the first thing that Granite Construction did when they put up their ReTRAC site. I’m with the media, and I’ve been trying to get regular press releases from the city for nine years.

And how difficult would it be to send out periodic questionnaires to Reno citizens, the results of which could be electronically parsed to keep special interests from gumming up the works? This, obviously, would only be a facet of a communication system, since no one wants to further disenfranchise the technological have-nots, like some seniors, minorities and single moms.

Saturday, the Man stands, arms raised in supplication. The neon tubes in one arm flicker and die. People around the perimeter of the enormous safety circle do something I’ve never seen before. When someone in the back calls, “Down in front,” people sit. Some 27,000 people dressed in neon wire, newspapers, paint, overalls, shorts and T-shirts, burning tassles, Roman legionnaire costumes made from duct tape, Superman costumes, loincloths, pirate outfits, papier-mâché, steel piercings and nighties docilely put their butts on the ground.

The night is coal black; stars glimmer like rime in the sky. You couldn’t pass a needle though an empty spot on the Milky Way. For one shining moment, 27,000 people, just people, with differing dreams, backgrounds and interests, sit there while drums beat in the distance and engines hum, balanced in perfection, harmony and respect.

And if Reno can learn nothing from that, then all this talk about people picking up their own and others’ trash and taking pride in their city is just smoke on the desert wind.