Begoggled in the Theatre of Awe: Electronic Dance Music Culture at Burning Man – by Guest Writer Graham St John Phd.

I was at a cocktail party at camp Daguerrodrome—aka Low Expectations—at Faith and Sublime. It was my maiden Burn (2003), and every sound, and word, in any moment, seemed enlarged as through a giant magnifying glass.

Magnified, like the on-the-spot admonishment Larry Harvey dealt me about that evil word “rave.”

In passing, I’d mentioned a book I was then editing with the title Rave Culture and Religion. Dropping the R word in the presence of Burning Man’s founder and chief visionary—who was among the many descending on Newt’s Bar in the Blue Light District to mark the advent of the first scholarly collection on Burning Man (Lee Gilmore and Mark Van Proyen’s then forthcoming AfterBurn: Reflections on Burning Man)—was like flashing a muleta at a fighting bull. The hackles were understandable I knew even then, although my awareness of the issue expanded as I dove into the history and culture of electronic dance music (EDM) at Burning Man over subsequent years. In 2003, we were dancing in the dust clouds of a decade of discord over the presence of EDM and its chief agent: the DJ, a figure loved and loathed in equal measure. “Rave camps” had long been disputed on the playa—a source of antinomy expressed in art skirmishes, desert jousts and heated conflagrations. But this wasn’t just an internal controversy. The legal status of “raves” threatened already tentative arrangements with law enforcement and licensing bodies whose ongoing approvals the city relies upon to function and flourish. After the successful passage of the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act of 2003—formerly known as the “RAVE Act,” Senator Joe Biden’s sponsored effort to “Reduce Americas Vulnerability to Ecstasy”—police were empowered to impose heavy penalties on the organizers of events where “controlled substances” were found to be in use. Having become synonymous with these “substances,” here was a word that literally killed the vibe.

Burning Man has never been a rave, but in 2003 Black Rock City was blanketed with the polyphonic ambiance of electrosonics after dark, and into the day. With my ears still ringing from Larry’s rave, I wandered only a few feet from Daguerrodrome to encounter a euphoric dance party lasting well into the night. At House of Lotus, and various other camps scattered around the clock, burners, in all their blinking absurdity and cognitive dissidence, were exposing themselves to the optimal and yet immeasurable social conditions that enable the conversion of identity and belonging from being, sometimes spectacularly, vulnerable.

And the more I investigated, the more I discovered that dance music was embedded in the soundscape of Black Rock City, especially at its outer conurbations at 10:00 and 2:00, the coordinates for a gathering storm.

Yet there was nothing singular about what I was hearing in this optimal bohemia where at any moment one may be seduced or assaulted by noise filtered from the daily circus. A plucked banjo, a naked black metal outfit, Barry White, Jethro Tull and Peaches competed for attention as I rode through the neighborhood on a Persian carpet. There were other sounds too. A few days in and I’d grown accustomed to the accent of jubilation, a cacophonous poetry that rose from every street corner, and the crack of a whip, repeated as a random leather-chapped shemale unleashed nine of her best across my virgin butt. It’s a common feeling among denizens of BRC that all of one’s senses are smarting, that one feels more alive in this city than at any other time or place in one’s life. Over days, a blizzard of sensory impressions accumulates to form a synesthetic avalanche under which one falls, and from which one may not return without being irrevocably changed. Here I focus specifically on music, and in particular EDM. And while there are multiple styles—i.e. techno, house, trance, drum ‘n’ bass, and dubstep—in 03 I appeared to have accessed an advanced realm of sonic hybridization, organic and technical in nature.

I was perplexed and intrigued. Something unique was going down on this frontier unsettlement. Entire camps dedicated to symbiotic sound soldering the demented mechanics of which saw a variety of styles performed and mixed to assist the process by which one becomes unrecognizable even to one’s self. These playa-identities encounter other altered selves in a city where the performers most capable of mixing diverse styles appear to enjoy considerable cachet. It struck me that this bizarre hipster universe was remarkably similar to other accomplished nadirs of stylistic profusion and influence in the history of EDM, like New York’s Paradise Garage or Ibiza and Goa in the late 1980s.

Only here we find a scene, indeed a city, founded on projects that employ and combine multiple media—from sculpture to mechanical, fire, circus, and the body, to video and sound art—although an ocularcentric aesthetic appears to shape policy effecting the distribution of subsidies for the production of art at Burning Man. Yet fusion and diversity is endogenous to Burning Man, cultivated through “radical inclusion” and “radical self expression,” among the Ten Principals in operation in this “promiscuous carnival of souls, a metaphysical fleamarket, a demolition derby of reality constructs colliding in a parched void.” Burning Man’s resident techgnostic, Erik Davis has offered speculation on what he called the “cults” of Burning Man—“experience,” “intoxicants,” “flicker,” “juxtapose” and “meaningless chaos”—described as “cultural patterns” which are refractions of Californian spiritual counterculture that perform, miscegenate and multiply in Black Rock City. While Davis doesn’t name formations sired from the union of these tendencies, others have surveyed the contours of the communities of “ritual without dogma” arising in BRC, such as the Flaming Lotus Girls, The Fire Conclave, Pepi Ozan’s Operas, and The Temples.

Existing research pays little attention to sound arts, nor the tempestuous career of EDM at Burning Man. This is unsurprising given predominating commitments to document visual art forms. While Burner-sonics has rarely been considered to be among the arts of performance and ritual at Burning Man, in his The Tribes of Burning Man, journalist Steven Jones investigated a network of art tribes that have thrived within and proliferated beyond the trash fence during the 2005–2010 “renaissance.” While there is a tendency to prostrate himself before DJs as godlike objects of worship, Jones offers useful details relative to the ways sonic arts have grown integral to popular projects rippling across the playa, and moreover the synergy of EDM with fire, sculpture, and mutant vehicles.

While its status as a rave is disputed, evidence for what was once dubbed “the ultimate metarave” was in ample supply by my second trip to BRC in 2006. It was amplified in the wake of the torching of BRC’s eponymous figure when the city’s inhabitants and hundreds of mutant vehicles—many with their own DJs queuing up the sonic apocalypse—encircled the Man in a scene approximating the Drive-in at the End of Time. Packed with fireworks and mortar-rockets, the figure eventually cascaded with sparks and succumbed to a spectacular series of detonations, its demise willed by the bold and the sumptuous whose paroxysms produced a mushroom cloud of fine white dust observable from space.

It had been suggested by two of my Daguerrodrome comrades that “the burning of the Man opens up opportunities to embody a popular dance orgiasm facilitated by modern technologies.” In the aftermath of the 06 blaze I explored these opportunities, hazarding into a Space Cowboys wagon circle and Hoe Down. Kitted out with a quality sound rig, video projectors, screens, radio transmitters, onboard generators and an orange bomber dome under which a vinyl-playing DJ took position, the Space Cowboys UNIMOG All-Terrain Audio Visual Assault Vehicle (ATAVAV) has been described as “the largest off-road sound system in the world.” As an outrageous accomplishment in sensory technology, bass and breaks propagated across the alkaline desert night, animating multitudes wired-up and el-wired.

But Black Rock City is one mother of distractions, and catching my eye in deep playa there appeared a gigantic haystack winking in green luminescence. As I orbited the mystery, I determined that it was no mirage. An object 200 feet long, 100 feet wide and 50 feet high, Uchronia was an installation funded by Belgian artists and built using rejected timber from a Canadian lumber mill by dozens of volunteers. Used in the title of Charles Renouvier’s 1876 novel Uchronie (L’Utopie dans l’histoire) and replacing topos (from “utopia,” which literally means “no place”) with chronos (time) to generate a word that literally means no time, “uchronic” refers to an “alternate history” that enables its observers to challenge their “reality.” For its creators, Uchronia was a “portal, showing us what the world could be like if creativity ruled supreme” and time is hung differently. What one observer described as a “giant’s haystack twisted into a computer model of a wave with curved entrances on three sides,” was an intentional parallel-world posing the question to its Uchronian occupants in the fashion alternate histories pose for their readers: “what if?” With the desert night a welcome reprieve from the frying sun and whiteouts, and its occupants bathed in neon-green, the Belgian Waffle was a dance club. And, on the final night, it burned.

With its image seared into my retinas for weeks, Uchronia became a cavernous conflagration, an allegory of impermanence, the flaming whispers of which engulfed all who witnessed. In the wake of its desolation, on the celebratory margins of its dissolution, sensual acts of beauty transpired in blinking conclaves upon the playa. In its remarkably short life, surely it was one of the most fabulous clubs ever created.

Techno Ghetto

This on-playa electrosonic proliferation offers quite a contrast to earlier years. EDM was first amplified at Burning Man in 1992 when a small “rave camp” appeared a mile from the main encampment “glomming parasitically onto the Porta-Johns.” The camp was organized by Psychic TV member Craig Ellenwood of the early East Oakland acid party crew Mr Floppy’s Flophouse. The headline act was Goa Gil, who played from Aphex Twin’s “Digeridoo” on digital audio tape to no more than 25 people. Also playing to hardly anybody were Brad Tumbleweed, Dave Synthesis (aka “Dsyn”), Craig and Terbo Ted, who has the mantle of being the first person to play a DJ set at Burning Man. Ted said he played on Friday afternoon to literally no one, with only ten miles of dust in front of him. “It was awesome.” While he didn’t recall precisely, the first track was probably some “spacey stuff” from a Jean Michel Jarre 12 inch from Craig Ellenwood’s record pile, “a record he was willing to sacrifice to the elements.” It was “literally a sound check.”

The set up the following year was equally primitive. Charles Gadeken recalled: “I remember going out to the rave camp, it was five guys, a van, a couple of big speakers, a card board box covered in tin foil, colored lights and a strobe light. It was all cool.”

The general reception, however, was much cooler. Ted recalls that the punk—add your own prefix: anarcho, cyber, steam, neuro, shotgun, etc.—sensibility predominating at Burning Man held DJ culture complicit with “consumer society and a stain on an otherwise anarchistic, art-oriented event.” Ted recalled,

On one morning near sunrise in 1993, a hippy dude came up to me while I was playing music on the sound system and held up a knife towards me and yelled “are you crazy?” And I said “no, you’re the one with a knife.” Then he said he was going to cut me or the speakers. So I turned the music down, ditched the decks and circled far and wide off into the desert. He tried to cut the speaker cones with his knife but they had metal grills on the front, he looked like a fool and gave up and wandered off. I put on a cassette of Squeeze’s “Black Coffee in Bed” as he walked away.

The Organisation insisted that the techno reservationists maintain their isolation a mile from Main Camp between 1992–96 during which time the camp evolved into a kind of outlaw satellite of Black Rock City.

Over the following two years, San Francisco’s DiY music and culture collective SPaZ orchestrated the sounds exclusively. It was extreme, eclectic and haphazard. Cofounder Terbo Ted recalls that at one point in 1993 “we put on a cassette of the Eagles’ Hotel California by request of these two cowboys who rode in from the desert on horseback, they were thrilled.” According to fellow cofounder Aaron, that same year “a wind storm blew down our speaker stacks, but they were still plugged in and we never stopped playing.” Listed as the official “rave” in the Burning Man brochure for 1994, SPaZ would have a great influence on sound system culture at the festival. In these years, SPaZ, members of which later initiated the Autonomous Mutant Festival, were effectively encouraging Burning Man to be “more like the UK festival vibe where anybody could bring their sound, big or small.

In 1995, Wicked sound system, the UK derived outfit that held full moon parties on beaches and parks around the Bay Area between 1991–96, arrived with their turbo rig. Cofounder Garth recalled playing “for 4 days and nights through hail, wind, rain and electrical storms.” North America’s first free party tekno sound system, Pirate Audio, also appeared that year. On the windblown frontiers of EDM, in this nascent vibrant ghetto accommodating the eclectic, experimental and inclusive sounds of SPaZ, the dionysian house sounds of Wicked, and other sounds besides, Burning Man had begun to attract a variety of socio-sonic aesthetics, paving the way for the mega-vibe it would later become.

Besides the sometimes sizable distinctions between habitués and proponents of varying dance music aesthetics and practices—from the inclusive to the more proprietary—a stand-off developed in this period between those who’d fashioned themselves as more or less authentic denizens of the playa and those they held as little more than raving interlopers. Ted remembers, “ravers were always pariahs at Burning Man in my day. . . . It’s like we were the poor people on the wrong side of the tracks and the wrong side of the man.” Ted’s brainchild, the Techno Ghetto, appeared in 1996 as a legitimate outer suburb of BRC. Gaining the support of organizers, Ted designed the Techno Ghetto as a “fractalized imprint” of Main Camp. “We were into pre-planned zoning, using surveying flags to plot out an orbital city with sound systems on the outer ring and encampments in the center.” Ghetto sound systems included SPaZ, CCC, Gateway and Wicked.

But things didn’t go according to plan out in the Ghetto. Ted recalled the Ghetto was an

abysmal failure. . . . DiY gone mad. . . . Music snobbery and cliquishness and DiY anarchist tendencies prevented an orderly camp from forming and the resulting spread-too-thin sprawl proved to be dangerous in an era when cars were still driving at every vector on the playa at high speeds in dust storm white outs.

He alluded to a tragic incident in 1996 when three people were seriously injured sleeping in their tents near the Gateway sound system, one in a coma for months, after their tents were collected by a night driver. Together with an apparent perception that the “rave” was giving Burning Man a bad name in official circles, and how electronic music was perceived as disturbing chatter for many participants, this incident generated an unofficial “anti-rave policy.”

What’s more, the darkening mood was signalled by a “gift” that dropped out of the sky. In the last days of the event, a gyrocopter passed over what remained of the Ghetto, releasing its payload near the dance floor. At his first burn, Simon Ghahary took up the story:

everybody was in party mood and happy, and everyone was waving and all of a sudden the gyrocopter dropped this bag, which really took our imagination.” The delighted ravers rushed over only to find that a fresh bag of shit had exploded at ground zero.

According to Garth, Burning Man had the porta-potties removed from the Techno Ghetto before the festival ended. “When people started crapping on the desert for lack of options, someone carried over a bag to main camp. . . . Burning Man was so enraged by this they flew over and apparently dropped it on one camp.”

Out beyond the Man, deprived of sleep and sanity, denizens of the Ghetto were deep in the playa, and even deeper inside the splatter radius of reassigned fecal discharge.

All’s Fair in Love and Awe

Any decent history of the DJ would recognize his—for typically male—role as an outlaw, a breaker of rules, in defiance of convention, pushing boundaries, including those associated with aesthetics and decibel policies; transgressions innovative for some, threatening to others. Culture hero or serial pest, at Burning Man the cowboy DJ is an ambivalent figure. I can’t give this issue the depth it deserves here, but the scrap between ravers and their adversaries was dramatized in a performance in which Goa Gil came to loggerheads with a giant pedal-powered flamethrowing drill and margarita maker called the Veg-O-Matic of the Apocalypse—or more to the point, anti-rave crusader Jim Mason, who was pedaling the beast. Robert Gelman reported on this scene:

It’s straight out of hell, suggesting engineering from the industrial revolution transported to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Part vehicle, part flame-thrower, part earth drilling device, I envision this machine being used to battle creatures in a 1950s monster movie, or to torture souls of the damned in the realm of satan.

With a pressurized gas-charger blasting flames as far as seventy feet from its barrel, and a gathering mob inciting it to greater acts of destruction, the Veg-O-Matic was known to burn installations in its path following the demise of the Man. On its post-Burn rampage, when the Veg-O-Matic rolled into the first Community Dance in 1997, Mason found Goa Gil directly in his path:

The crew of the machine is tilting the flamethrower’s barrel up at the console. Gil is staring down the 12-foot barrel of this jet powered char-broiler. I had to remind myself that this is theatre, or is it? I’m still not sure. “Burn it!” the mob chants, “Burn THEM!” Like an opposing pacifist army, the ravers are standing their ground, some shouting in defiance of the threat, some in disbelief that this could really be happening. Chicken John, like the demented circus ringmaster that he is, issues his now-familiar warning over the bullhorn [“Stand Aside”]. We seem to have travelled back centuries in time. I don’t remember ever feeling farther from home than this.

Forty-six, a sadhu and legend of the Goa scene, years before the emergence of “darkpsy”, Gil had been selecting from the darkest entries in psychedelic trance, in a ritual that he has characterized as apocalyptic. Loading up from his “divine dozen” arsenal over seven hours, Gil was doubtlessly inciting detractors to acts of symbolic, if not physical, violence. He may well have been playing from Pleiadians’ U.F.O. or Psychopod’s Headlines at the moment the mob arrived to deliver their demand: Led Zeppelin or the flame.

But the scene Mason and his supporters crashed was no glowstick picnic. The champion and his army of Anti-Ravers rode out to slay the dragon at the gates, only to find the Dark Yogi summoning Kali the Destroyer. Little wonder Gelman thought he’d landed amid an epic conflict. It was perhaps in this moment—when Gil stood his ground, even turned the volume up, in the face of obliteration—that ravers gained a foothold at Burning Man. “Stairway to Heaven” was never played. With that said, psychedelic trance maintained minimal credence at Burning Man subsequent to this period. While Space Elevator became the most well known dedicated psytrance camp, that sound was effectively drowned out by a fusion of breaks, dub and electro house.

That was some years off, for in the late 1990s, the battle of the boombox was just beginning. Veteran of the frontier shit-storm, Ghahary was vaguely declarative after his first burn. “After that, you’d want to put the Burning Man out wouldn’t you.”

The playa appears to have been an ideal laboratory for Ghahary, designer of the Pod speaker system and founder of label-house Blue Room Released. Ghahary was drawn to Burning Man since, like the psychedelic parties he’d been hosting in the UK and elsewhere since c1992, the space “defies reason” because there, one’s experience is not proscribed. Offering background on his design praxis, Ghahary explained “the vessels that emit sound are just as important as the sound experience,” weighing in against detractors: “people thought we just turned up partied and played music. But everything was orchestrated as an art project, its just that it has sound. . . . Sometimes people argue that sound is not as dramatic as sculpture or paint. It simply just hasn’t got the history. But sound is a complete sensory experience.”

In 1998, with the assistance of Nick Crayson, Adam Antennae Ohana, Cyril Noir, among others, including crew from the Russ Street Warehouse, Ghahary designed the geodesic Blue Room Molecule dome.

We imagined the Molecule to be highly charged. We wanted to create a space within the Molecule to reflect the kinetic and creative energy that the property of the Blue Room Molecule might contain. Because we could not build a complete sphere, we built a submerged sphere, so half we imagined was underground and one half overground. So we executed that by creating a geodesic dome. So this idea of a molecule was manifested.

That year, Ghahary arrived with a San Francisco style fire engine that he acquired with Crayson. Sprayed blue with intricate decals and motifs like “play loud” and “CAUTION! HEAVY TECHNO,” it was a vehicle of protest. Filled with water, the engine was used to create a mud bath on the open playa near the Molecule. But the engine had another purpose. Ghahary and Crayson trucked around the playa recruiting burners to their newly established 420 Division, practicing fire drill procedures. Unfortunately for them, on the night of the burn, the team dwindled down to Ghahary and Crayson, who were left with their hoses dangling. En route to douse the Man, they “were intercepted by two security cars that didn’t take it at all in good humor.” Chuckling at the absurdity of the moment, Ghahary admits “in hindsight, it probably wasn’t the cleverest idea, but it was quite funny.” Still laughing, he added, “we got banned from Burning Man after that.”

Credibility is hard won on the frontiers of art. A cultural war continued to rage over the validity of arrant loudsters, “monotonous computer loop music,” and the presence of some of the highest paid EDM brand names like Paul Oakenfold, Tiesto, Carl Cox and Infected Mushroom, many flying in on the rockstar-junket, and departing quick smart to maintain touring schedules.

For many acts, appearances at Burning Man serve to boost credence and brand energy. When the biggest names in commercial dance music perform “45-minute showcase sets to massive crowds at MTV-Beach-Party-style setups” before racing off to their next venue, we may very well have arrived at “the EDM equivalent of putting a Starbucks or H&M on the Esplanade.”  Writer and musician ST Frequency—aka Stephen C. Thomas—went on to state that he’d prefer “something a little more eclectic and unexpected, like funky industrial bluegrass, or ambient dub-zydeco. . . [to] a cacophony of 22 different epic trance records ‘blowing up’ from every imaginable direction.”

Observing that which flickers in the shadows in the “High Desert Carnival Realm,” Jonathan Zap meditates upon how a successful journey through Burning Man requires hard work, or perhaps hard play in the form of intentional self-incendiary actions. For Zap, this requires more than simply burning one’s self up to yet “another of the golden oldies of the Babylon Matrix phonograph, that . . . combo of blasting music and intoxication in a socially dense environment.” With equal parts Jung and Crowley, he claims that this “is the zone on the planet that comes closest to being a Logos Beheld—a place where our psychic intentions become realized as communal dreamscapes. . . . As in a communal telepathic dreamscape, where those with the most focused psychic intentions create the most mutation.”

But sound camps are themselves mutations, undergoing constant adaptations in accordance with the social axioms of this incendiary realm. The # 1 rule among these camps appears to be that DJs, as with other artists, are never paid for their performances. Not unlike commercial dance festivals, camps like Opulent Temple have announced line-ups in advance on websites and Facebook pages, effectively promoting headline acts like Infected Mushroom, who have drawn some of the most adulatory and sycophantic crowds. Such patronage has fed the ire of those who’ve long railed against the advent of the spectacle, where participants grow to behave more like audiences, whose division from artists is consequential to an apparatus that lifts celebrities onto stages that expand in size and height.

The growing presence of party monsters and itinerant gawkers was a problem raised by art critic Mark Van Proyen concerned about the “Ibiza set” and other “tourists” swamping the city—i.e., those who behave like flâneurs of the playa, are more like visitors than locals, observers than participants. It has been noted that Larry Harvey has never been to Opulent Temple. But when entertainers like Infected Mushroom, who once appeared on a cover story in Vogue Italia wearing suits, boast of their appearances at Burning Man alongside their sell-out headline shows at Miami’s Ultra Music Festival, as they do on their website, is it any wonder?

Where Black Rock City serves as a prestige-building export zone for some EDM artists whose agendas compete with the noncommodified social art agenda of Burning Man, we might begin to understand why Peter Lamborn Wilson—aka Hakim Bey, scribe of the Temporary Autonomous Zone—has been reproachful of electronic music. Actually, Bey dislikes most recorded music. The Opulent Temple et al. would be anathema to his “insurrectionary” agenda—just further evidence of the immiserating world of mediation from which one is entreated to disappear. In Bey’s screed, a turntablist does not preside over the festal, i.e., the social grounds of that which is characterized as “Immediatism,” an outsider art project with strong Situationist influences aimed to dissolve “the gulf between the production and consumption of art.”

Bey’s “ontological anarchy” had an indubitable impact among burners. It provided the poetic architecture for many ravers in the 1990s, despite the incompatibility of the techno rave’s artifice with what Bey has held as appropriate responses to mediation. Consistent with an apparent desire to return to pre-WWI technology, Wilson maintains his contempt for recorded music that he characterizes as “a tombstone for live performance.” In his “Back to 1911 Movement Manifesto,” he complains

if we have to hear a recording let it be a 1911-style shellac disc or even wax cylinder, cranked up by hand, not electricity—a magic music box to baffle the dog with its master’s voice—a cabinet of aural marvels.

In a jeremiad launched against “headphones & computers,” he claimed that “we let stars sing for us—we let machines come between us & the divine musician within us. . . . Music now lacks all sociality except the ersatz of mass consumption to hear live music sometimes.” Surely those EDM enthusiasts who’ve replayed and remixed the poetry of the TAZ—a sizable population of his readers—deserve a more nuanced critique, and yet for Bey no distinction is drawn between styles of recorded music. Bey makes not acknowledgment of independent music and event-industries, no attention to cultures of the remix, the visionary depth of multimedia assemblages, nor an understanding of how EDM technologies have been redirected from the purposes of control and command. Bey’s approach may warrant an equal measure of reproach since the effort to understand what protagonists have long been raving about is entirely absent from writings subsequent to the TAZ. Just as Harvey has apparently never visited OT, Bey has apparently never been to a rave. With his head in the sands of 1911, he consigns himself to history, claiming that the “full play of Imagination becomes possible only without modern technology, because tech has become the heartless operation of Capital, which hates all forms of sharing.” I doubt this would be an acceptable, or even possible, position for the habitués of the open source laboratory for ontological anarchism that is BRC, regardless of their attitudes towards EDM.

An implicit myth of authenticity comes into view as the whiteouts lift. In electronic dance music liveness is a hotly debated issue especially since production and performance practices are inseparable and skilled DJs provide performances that are unique to each occasion. This is not the place to revisit such debates, but these conversations are not irrelevant to Burning Man where communities of volunteers collaborate to facilitate these performances.

It appears that long held views about immediatism, community and interactivity have informed logics by which “dance camps” are adjudicated illegitimate candidates for BRC arts funding. These views are doubtlessly fuelled by the rising presence of rock star electrotainment, whose audiences are anathema to the “inclusive, community logic” of artistic “prosumption” that has been intentionally encouraged by Burning Man since 2000. This is a complicated topic since the democratisation of musicianship enabled by technics, DJ performance techniques, the internet and optimised dancefloor “vibes” have augmented prosumer environments unparalleled in popular music.

Defenders of policy might indicate that dance camps do not compare favorably with intentionally interactive work like that of Peter Hudson, such as his 2007 Homouroboros, a zoetrope of monkeys powered by drum beating and bike pedaling participants. Dance camps hosting artists who are feted, elevated and inflated are held to contravene what are more than often implicit working models of anarcho-folk community—communities that work under the tacit assumption that, as expressed by Ananda Coomraswamy in Transformation of Nature in Art, and cribbed by Bey, the artist is not a special kind of person, but each person is a special kind of artist. And yet protagonists might well contend that in these interstices where occupants are animate in dance and altered together in wide-grinned abandon, the scene holds a carnivalesque and improvisational logic of it its own. There appears to be something universally artful about that.

A Rhythm Remorseless

In the last gasp of the 20th century, a host of EDM-oriented outfits with different agendas and styles descended on the playa. The momentum picked up in 1998. Several hardcore outfits, including New York’s Blackkat, The Army of Love, SPaZ and Arcane—outfits who would subsequently head to the AMF—collaborated on a community sound system that year. With its series of geodesic domes and bars, including a large dance dome and a bar dome made of CDs, SpaceLounge also appeared in 1998—a haven for funky SF house and new school breaks. Holding free Full Moon Gatherings in the Mojave since 1993, LA’s Moontribe also threw down, with Moontribe artists performing for three consecutive nights next to The Temple of Rudra, with the final party drawing 2,000 people following Pepe Ozan’s opera.

Through this period, Michael Gosney resolved to fuse disparate sound outfits in a united front called Community Dance, a compromise promoted on Gosney’s Radio-V as a “techno tribal ritual celebration.” Over three years (1997–99) these pre-millennial rituals saw the collaboration of CCC, Anon Salon, Koinonea, Sacred Dance Society, Dimension 7, LA’s Tonka sound system, Blue Room and other techno tribes hosting decidedly psychedelic line-ups. After the incident with Gil, the 1998 Community Dance featured a Flying Saucer installation. In 1999, the final Community Dance staged a recreation of the Banbury Crop Circle. The camp was a concerted response to claims that “rave camps” were bereft of the artistic vision and principled behavior that characterized Burning Man. According to designer Landon Elmore, the camp was a full size replica of the original Banbury Crop Circle.

We painted the circle onto the playa floor using earth-based pigments mixed with water and a plant-based glue. . . . The idea was to have the Community Dance on top of the painted crop circle, so that all of the dancers would ‘erase’ the markings from the playa floor. ‘Leaving no trace’, which worked perfectly!”

Rave camps had transitioned to large scale sound-art camps in all but name.

The amplification of electronic dance music was afforded legitimacy as a result of the innocuously titled Community Dance, but the pranks did not let-up at the turn of the Millennium. In 2000, probably harboring memories of Blue Room’s forlorn attempt to “put the man out”, as some kind of aesthetic reprisal, the Burning Scouts of America decided to perform their community service at Radio-V’s Flying Saucer, where they threatened to douse the sound equipment. The Burning Scouts enlisted among their number those who were “too cool, dumb, weak, punk or gay to have made it in the Boy or Girl Scouts.”

Apparently they also included those who weren’t into loud raves all night long. The CCC’s Brad “Santosh” Olsen—founder of San Francisco’s annual How Weird Street Faire—remembers the scene on Sunday morning:

They appeared walking around our camp, coming at us banging on pots and pans, no expressions on their faces, as they slowly made their way over to our RV. They must have thought: Sunday morning, we’re all crashed out and they were going to teach us what making a racket was all about! We looked on in amazement. When [one assailant] attempted to come into the RV, someone threw old bath water at him and we closed the door. After they left we came out and noticed that they pulled down our art and banners and vandalized the camp. We broke our camp and slowly drove over to the CCC system on the other side where DJ Perez (Perry Ferrel from Jane’s Addiction) was just coming on (& so were we).

With the indubitable ubiquity of amplified electrosonics, the BORG had to find solutions with concessions to all parties. Bass travels multi-directionally and carries easily across the playa where it cannot be contained effectively. As is stated on Burning Man’s “Sound Policy” page, this physical situation “gives sound as an art form an unfair advantage over other art forms.” In recognition, in the early 2000s, the Organisation began implementing a policy restricting large sound installations to the Large-Scale Sound Art Zone at the city’s limits on both sides where “a maximum power amplification of 300 watts is permitted, producing sound amplification not to exceed 90 decibels, when measured at 20 feet from the source.”

What was once a source of absolute contempt—ghettoized one mile from Main Camp—was eventually accommodated via zoning guidelines. Excessive sound remains a persistent source of disturbance among BRC residents, however. While Burning Man’s # 1 rule is that “Neighbors should talk to one another when sound becomes a problem and try to resolve the issue through direct communication,” Black Rock Rangers are frequently called in to perform volume checks and mediate disputes, and they will disable sound equipment should their warnings go unheeded.

With names like Lush, Sol System, Sound of Mind, House of Lotus, Oacious, Green Gorilla Lounge, and Pink Mammoth, Large-Scale Sound Art camps became permanent fixtures of BRC. The audio-visual aesthetics, style and duration of venues have varied considerably. From Emerald City 2000, the one-time extravaganza funded by eccentric inventor Patrick Flanagan with Joegh Bullock and Michael Gosney providing the entertainment, to the long running Root Society. From performance and fire art troupes like El Circo with their post-apocalyptic “dreamtime imagery” and Bag End sound system to the afternoon groovement at the Deep End. From salacious theme camps like Bianca’s Smut Shack and Illuminaughty, to the Rhythm Society’s Blyss Abyss, Lemuria and Area 51.

The Opulent Temple is among BRC’s longest operating and largest dance camps on the playa. Steered by Syd Gris with help from dozens of core volunteers, the camp started in 2003, and moved to the corner of 2:00 and Esplanade by 2005. The OT was built on the perennial shores of tension and release, and I surfed those waters in 2008 when English DJ Lee Coombs was coming on. It was only Thursday night, but thousands had turned out to be turned inside out. A master of the build, Coombs was aggregating immeasurable tension, like a pressure cooker, before the floodgates finally opened and the playa-massive erupted. At the OT, you know that moment has arrived as DJ-controlled flames blast out from the O-pod, a special chamber that is part steampunk time machine and alchemist’s laboratory.

Opulent Temple emerged in the year of the theme Beyond Belief and has maintained its role as a “sacred dance” camp. Other large-scale art and music camps with similar spiritual pretences were encountered on the playa that year, including the Church of WOW, the Sacred Water Temple, and Connexus Cathedral where weddings and parties were held inside a neon cathedral. In his outline of the 2003 art theme, Harvey inquired: “How does the sacred exist, and where might it be found?” Habitués of the night were answering with their feet, as the Opulent Temple grew to be among the most popular venues on the playa. Paraphrasing Erik Erikson, cited in Harvey’s 2003 art theme explanation, those gravitating to these temples in which one could worship one’s own body and that of others were being “lifted up to the very bosom of the divine.” Sound art camps flourished in this period, their success a combination of ingenuity, shared vision, independent funding sources, and dedication to a collective project operating on burner principles year round.

The Space Cowboys predate the Opulent Temple by several years. Founded in 1997, the SC had allies in the SpaceLounge, with whom they merged by the end of 2002. By 2012 SC had become sought after proponents of breaks, house and nu-funk. Cofounder Peter Kimelman (aka pk) offers insight on the way SC operate distinct from other outfits:

The Space Cowboys, like SpaceLounge and other early camps, threw parties that were much more than just a large sound system, they had bars, artworks and tried to have a “vibe” that got people to stay for hours on end (Distrikt and Disco Knights still follow that model). We didn’t publish line-ups as the focus was on the crew, even when international celebrity djs played it was kept quiet as they were just friends we knew. We still follow that tradition today.

A week on the playa used to pan out rather differently than it does today. In the late 1990s and early 2000s it was not uncommon for camps to focus their energy on one night. SpaceLounge did Thursdays, the Cowboys did Fridays, FalseProfit eventually took Tuesday etc… Camps focused on a particular sound/vibe and tried not to compete with each other. Plug 3 did hip-hop and the Church of Funk did funk, Space Lounge did a funkier side of house/breaks and Space Cowboys had a slightly harder style.

pk further stated that the Space Cowboys are “proud in our role as a strong element of the community that continues to provide support to artists and is able to self-fund our activities through the hard work of our collective members.” SC would become an exemplary sound art organization that has successfully raised funds for its playa time operations through year-round events in the Bay Area, hosting Breakfast of Champions on New Year’s Day since 1999, and running SnowFest at Squaw Valley, GhostShip (the annual Halloween party on Treasure Island) and their annual Cinco de Mayo fundraiser.

The Space Cowboys’ UNIMOG was the first large-scale sound vehicle on the playa (2001). With the UNIMOG, SC began their practice of building sound installations on the open playa. Playing vinyl in these conditions while mobile requires an enclosed area to protect equipment from dust and a suspension system to prevent skipping. Since “the Mog” featured these elements the SC held a design advantage over other art cars with DJs. Over the next decade, with the advent of CDJs, mutant disco vehicles had grown ubiquitous, from the Garage Mahal, a double-decker bus with DJ booth, dance floor and crows nest, to the shape and location shifting vehicles of the DI5ORIENT EXPRESS, to the massive bass of Robot Heart. Some vehicles feature stadium sized sound systems, and their reception is mixed and not necessarily welcome, especially when rogue units maraud quiet areas of BRC. To deal with this, the DMV implemented sound level ordinance for mutant vehicles with a100db limit at the top end, and limit performance to areas beyond 10:00 and 2:00.

Instant Disco: Rolling in Deep Playa

The Space Cowboys UNIMOG was not only the first mutant sound vehicle on the playa, it was the first to use an FM transmitter, syncing its rig with that of other mobile units. The transmitter was first used in 2003, when the Hoe Down was transported out to Zach Coffin’s Temple of Gravity. This development allowed for radically versatile operations and mobilized immediacy. Today, some of the most adored outfits on the playa are mobile mutants. Each year the outlandish character of these moving multimedia installations exceeds that experienced in previous years. These sound art armadas hump their thump into deep playa, out past 10:00 and 2:00.

Years after the demise of the Techno Ghetto, the deep has again become the canvas for alliances sounder than before. Ranging out to drum up the sun, these mutant motorcades feature vehicles with varying purposes. Some provide the sound, others lights and screens, others are engines of fire, and yet others hold purposes left only to the imagination. In recent times, many of the thousands who are moved to experience this itinerant disco inferno gravitate to Robot Heart, a mobile cabinet of aural marvels whose crystal clear bass blankets the deep; a sound attracting a blush of mutant vehicles.

In 2012, Robot Heart was linking up with the DeepSbass sound system of the Dancetronauts, the Disco Space Shuttle and others. Some of these dalliances maybe as tasteless as easycheese squeezed onto a stale crumpet. Australian burner Ben Dixon offered me tales of such obnoxious interventions that year, which he said were “not helped by the fact that the smaller systems on some cars were being pushed way into distortion in a stupid DJ look-at-me loud-off.” He was, however, impressed by the “instant party” like that starring El Pulpo Mecanico, a giant motorized octopus belching flame in time to the beating of the Heart Deco Express.

Riding into the deep, waves of BRC occupants capitulate to multisensory broadsides to which a legion of decorated mutants have conspired. In collaborative mobilisations, sound armadas have gathered strength at the city limits, a theatre for frontier art as interactive as it is intercorporeal. Military metaphors offer ebullient weight to this allied objective—not so much to conquer the other, but to vanquish one’s fear of others, and indeed otherness. Launching a barrage of sonic and visual transmissions from its inception in 2001, it is no small detail that the Space Cowboy’s ATAVAV was modified from a 1973 Mercedes-Benz NATO communications vehicle.

Modified and re-enlisted for service in this new theatre of awe, the Unimog does not roll alone. I’m thinking of the astounding and audacious Disco Duck, a marvel I first encountered in 2008 at sunrise out beyond 10:00. A mobile three level club in the form of a yellow bath-time duck had unloaded its cargo of weird humanity to greet the rising sun. During the night, with green laser eyes, fire-spitting Mohawk, and a blinking fur-lined double-decker auxiliary bus, the Duck became a fabulous mobile beacon. But now, with morning sunlight refracted off its golden glitter-ball head, the Duck was exposed in all of its splendor.

What wasn’t so apparent was that this marvel was built on the chassis of an armored amphibious assault vehicle. Instruments of warfare transmuted into pleasure machines, the UNIMOG and the Disco Duck reminded me of the work of legendary industrial-sculpture collective Mutoid Waste Co, renowned for recruiting war machines for radical assaults on the senses. Throwing the first acid house warehouse raves in London at the old Coach Station and mutating the refuse of modern culture into the marvelous, these salvage-situationists had been instrumental conspirators in London’s reclamational sensibility. Throughout the mid to late 1980s, and into the 1990s, the Mutoids had been busy revivifying obsolescence and transforming forgotten landscapes into objects and sites of beauty, stirring those who came to witness, and dance, with a passion to make some noise. In London and across Europe, furnishing squatted buildings with anthropomorphic engines, mutated bike parts, and transmuted Russian MiG 21s, and raising subterranean spaces of difference where all became a spectacle to each other, they incited fellowship and inspired the imagination.

I felt something of this energy in both the ATAVAV and the Duck, but 2008 also saw the arrival of Mutoid Waste Co artists themselves, including co-founder Joe Rush. It was an auspicious occasion, especially since MWCo had been mutating cars, trucks and tanks since the early 1980s, including a series of Car Henge projects that started at Glastonbury and reached as far as Australia, in the work of Robin Mutoid Cook. At Burning Man, their motorized animatronic fire-breathing horse and covered wagon Spaghetti West 10, and a pair of dinosaur-like mechanical beasts—the Dino-Dumper and the Clamp-O-Saurus—were imports described as “one-third Little House On The Prairie and two-thirds Horseman Of The Apocalypse.”

Residual Burn

Finally, I’m drawn to discuss the quintessentially liminal sensibility of Burning Man. DJ Spooky once referred to Burning Man as a context for “the prolonged present.” Out there, he claimed,

the demarcation lines we’ve all been conditioned to accept dissolve. . . . Time blurs, you lose all of these strictures of New York, waking up, or going back to sleep, people, parties, events, blur, scenes blur, camps blur.

The experience is typical. Playa life is an altered reality in which day and night, waking consciousness and dream states, domestic space and public thoroughfares, wicked laughter and familiar faces, merge in a disorienting carnivalesque. Dwelling inside this cauldron for a week one can feel the atmosphere, taste color, see sound. On the playa, now is an extended experience lasting longer than most other moments in the lives of participants, generating a powerful compulsion among the devoted to replay the playa, time and again, year after year, often sculpting, modifying and optimizing this liminality to suit their personal pleasures, dreams and visions.

In making the return journey, pilgrims are not only revisiting the same place but are re-accessing the same time. But it is a “time” that is not so much a duration as a “time out of time,” an “eternal presence” reminiscent of that explored by Roy Rappaport in those intensive ritual phases in which one experiences “the sheer successionless duration of the absolute changelessness of what recurs, the successionless duration of what is neither preceded nor succeeded, which is ‘neither coming nor passing away,’ but always was and always will be.” Awash with synchronized melodies and off-beat rhythms, under the rule of the sun and the heat of controlled burns, in the ambience of electroluminescent wire, playing chicken with a fleet of motorized tarts, in the cool stare of an indigenous androgyne, in this “successionless duration,” one returns, to revisit Rappaport, “ever again to what never changes”: playa time.

In Black Rock City, one grows acutely aware that what never changes is change itself. But what happens when banana time sneaks out at carnival’s end? When elements of “the quick and the changeless” steal back to the “default” world? When impermanence gets an encore? Burning Man clearly leaves a compelling impression on its inhabitants, many of whom reboot eternity the year round in a proliferation of Burn-inspired intercalary events. The event is at the center of a burgeoning creative counter-cultural industry whose mission is to make now last longer, to facilitate the distribution of playa time across time and space. As the commitment to extending artistic practices, ethos and identity beyond Burning Man possesses a reverse correspondence to that of “leaving no trace” on the playa, fundraisers, fêtes, spores and other residual burns immolate and mutate the present across the continent and further afield. Bay Area dance clubs are integral to prolonging the sounds and styles of BRC, from venues like 1015 Folsom, Sublounge and Mighty in SOMISSPRO, EndUp, The Independent and Kelly’s Mission Rock, to art spaces like SomArts Cultural Center and CELLspace, the Sand by Ton parties at the American Steel warehouse in Oakland, along with parties in countless warehouse spaces.

Drunk on playa time, wrapped in glow fur under dusty lampshade hats, the burn’d—think learn’d—parade the streets of San Francisco, from the How Weird Street Faire in May to the Heat the Street Faire (Decompression) in October, a begoggled masquerade where the “second life” of Mikhail Bakhtin’s carnivalesque floods the thoroughfares and habitats of the first. As this strange pedagogy revivifies local lifestyle it seems reasonable to assume that one’s “social time,” to again cite Rappaport, becomes enchanted by the ecstatic theater of “cosmic time.” Details have begun emerging on the dissemination of Burning Man’s inclusive community logic beyond its geographic boundaries about how the neotribal jouissance ebbs back into its progenitor, a city revivified by social art projects that are ecstatic, utopian, gnostic, geek, queer, punk and much much more.

While “post-Burnum Depression” is a common feature of re-entry, “a fragile rainbow covenant still lingers in the Burner’s imagination.” As burner-tribes have cultivated variant socio-aesthetics re/optimized annually for more than a quarter of a century, and as burner sensibilities proliferate beyond an event horizon charted and scaled repeatedly over this period, a great deal more can be articulated about the expanding liminal horizons of Burning Man. The name of Vancouver’s regional event, Recompression, or Recom, the OT’s after party, might reveal something of the protracted liminality sought and lived. New York’s Freak Factory, Santa Barbara’s Clan Destino, Montreal’s taBURNak!, and collectives like Space Cowboys, regional events like Australia’s Burning Seed, Spain’s Nowhere, AkfrikaBurn and more nascent initiatives in an increasingly crowded regionals calendar such as Sweden’s The Borderland, Israel’s Midburn, and Japan’s Burninja might illustrate what post-burn liminalisation looks, sounds and feels like.

Behind this efflorescence, in torrents of blogged data and on networked social media the Ten Principles and its codes for living are translated regionally through optimised processes orchestrated by the Burning Man Project and illuminating, perhaps, how Burner culture persists through its mutations. Amidst this expanding mutant presence, this acceleration of the prolonged present, this vexatious virtualization of the vibe, what becomes of Burning Man, whose spirit is its own ephemerality?


Now published in Playa Dust: Collected Stories from Burning Man (Edited by Samantha Krukowski). Black Dog Publishing (2014).



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Published in Playa Dust: Collected Stories from Burning Man (Edited by Samantha Krukowski)

See also Playa Dust Facebook page

About Playa Dust:

Burning Man’s in-your-face, counterculture vibe has meant that the festival has always been something of a media darling. But when the event sold out for the first time in 2011, there was a marked increase in the commentary about its history, current status and future. When, in 2012, a new random lottery system for tickets left so many long-time attendees ticketless, that commentary deepened. Questions about the evolution, meaning and value of Burning Man as an experiment in community, self-sufficiency and anti-capitalism are being raised, and Playa Dust seeks to answer them.

Playa Dust is a compilation of essays by authors who are part of the universe of Burning Man or who envisage the many ideas and landscapes on its periphery. By juxtaposing an unusually array of voices and stories, the volume reveals the complex nature and range of this annual pilgrimage to the desert, now in its 27th year.

Contributors include those who built the first wooden effigies on San Francisco’s Baker Beach from 1986 to 1990, in the gatherings that would later become Burning Man; artists who have installed works at the festival; musicologists, photographers and filmmakers who have made work there; writers who have written about their Burning Man experience; architects who have built there, sociologists who have studied Burning Man’s experimental nature and even lawyers who have brokered Burning Man’s controversial existence.

Posted 2nd October by Graham St John



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