The Evolution of Burning Man

Michael Mikel, a.k.a., ‘Danger Ranger,’ speaks about the Five Ages of Burning Man at Sierra Nevada College

Burner poses on the playa at Black Rock Desert; Burning Man encourages radical self reliance.

Eleanor Preger

Burner poses on the playa at Black Rock Desert; Burning Man encourages radical self reliance.

Kyly Clark, Photo and Design Editor

He wore leather boots with his pants tucked in and his gold belt buckle read “Far West.” His shirt resembled the playa at Black Rock Desert, a sandy color with polygonal mud cracks. Michael Mikel, also known as “Danger Ranger,” historian, futurist and co-founder of Burning Man, spoke about “The Five Ages of Burning Man” on April 18 at Sierra Nevada College.

With approximately 100 guests, nearly half of the audience members raised their hands to say they had been to the Burning Man festival. Mikel, a Burning Man attendee for 28 years, shared the history of the festival, beginning with Exploration (1986-1989), Rapid Growth (1990-1996), Protectionism (1997-2000), Outreach (2001-2010), and finally, Scarcity (2011-present). The overarching factors that have shaped Burning Man are based on growth rate, supply and demand, and capacity.

Mikel explained that in 1986, the first wooden man was burned on Baker Beach in San Francisco on the summer solstice. The concepts that created the foundation for Burning Man stemmed from the Cacophony Society in San Francisco, a randomly gathered network of individuals united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society. Through subversion, pranks, art, explorations and meaningless madness the society was built upon the words “inclusion, permission, free, responsibility, leave no trace, anonymity, do-ocracy, immediacy, participation, and a-political.” Mikel was a member of this society and editor of the newsletter “Rough Draft” before joining as co-founder of Burning Man in 1988.

The first burning at Black Rock Desert took place in 1990 after the event had been dismissed by law enforcement at Baker Beach due to fire hazard. Mikel was responsible for bringing the event to the playa, becoming a co-founder of Black Rock City LLC in 1999.

Burning Man has gone from a population of 35 to 67,290, from an 8-foot burning man to a 104-foot burning man, and ticket sales from $15 to $425. From underground to mainstream, the identity of this community has changed time and time again.

The festival developed its full culture in the second age of Burning Man, pushing the limits of control. Mikel shared a photo of a line drawn across the road and remembered saying in 1990, “beyond this line everything will be different.” The blank slate of the playa at Black Rock had a “reputation of bold statements.”

In 1993, it was the year of the “drive-by shooting gallery,” where Burners shot at stuffed animals from the bed of a moving pickup truck. The first ever theme camp was born “Christmas” style, a visually stimulating communal space for Burners to interact. In the same age, Mikel brought the first ever “art car” to the gathering, named “5:04 PM” after the Loma Prieta earthquake that caused a brick wall to collapse on the rear half of an Olds Cutlass parked in the San Francisco Bay Area. It served as a conceptual art piece representative of the powerful forces of nature. Mikel also published the first onsite newspaper, and developed a search and rescue team of volunteers called the Black Rock Rangers that began at six members and now has more than 800 members.

In the third age, Burning Man moved to Fly Ranch, trying a new approach of private land and controlled access. A test to the organization, it resulted in bad public relations and 100 percent of tickets were impounded by the Washoe County Sheriff’s office. Back on Black Rock in 1998, the first website was launched, an airport was built on site, the first temple was created, and “moop” was founded, a mantra for cleaning that meant “matter out of place” which later led to “moop maps,” a playa restoration initiative.

In the years to come, the event functioned on autopilot. Thriving with mega camps, art installations that began to travel the world, and a road trip across the country to invite new cultures. This led to the first sold-out event in 2011 at 53,963 people, exceeding the population limit set by the BLM.

With concern from an audience member about preserving the culture at Burning Man in the future, Mikel responded, “Our charter is extremely well written and designed to carry Burning Man into the future beyond our lifetime,” he said. “We’ve also been very careful about the people we’ve selected to be on the board to make sure that the philosophy and the principles of Burning Man are carried into the future.”

In 2011, Burning Man became a 501c3 non-profit, and in the summer of 2016 the Burning Man Project purchased the Fly Ranch property, 3,800 acres of land, for $6.5 million sourced from donors. It is located 21 miles North of Gerlach in Washoe County, Nev.

In the fifth age, Mikel said the seed principles of Burning Man translated into radical inclusion, gifting, radical self-alliance and self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation, and immediacy. “We have a government that wants to protect us from ourselves,” said Mikel. “Making more rules, more laws, don’t do this, don’t do that, this is for your own good, they don’t allow people to experiment, to find out, and I think that’s one of the things that Burning Man is teaching people is that we need to have more freedom.”

On July 1, The Nevada Museum of Art will mount a Burning Man exhibit of history and art, and in 2018 the exhibit will go to the Smithsonian in Washington D.C.

Danger Ranger ended his two-hour presentation with hope for future generations of Burners. “I believe the next generations will make us proud,” he said. “There’s no us and them, we’re all the same community.”