Dr. Yes: What first brought you to the playa?
Syd: Like many, my gate way to Burning Man was the SF underground dance music scene. I had already heard of Burning Man as early as '97 when some friends I worked with at a group home were going. But it wasn't really on my radar until I had started going clubbing in late 98' and heavily into '99 and 2000 when I was volunteering at Red Melon events and helping organize an intentional underground party called Radiance. That party grew from another underground called Gratitude organized by 'The Community' who were all very influenced by Burning Man communities and culture, as well as Landmark and later Arete.
Radiance always invited other communities to participate to create each party, so I got to know many SF crews and playa collectives. In addition, my first involvement in parties always were 'parties with purpose' and that's influenced me to this day. My friends Tamo and Fannie finally convinced me to go in 2001 and I camped with their group of friends called Garage Mahal, organized by Pleasure Sean and others. Great group of friends, amazing first Burn. I dove in head first, it was the first and only year I wasn't involved in a project, had no responsibilities and acted accordingly.
Dr. Yes: What were the sound camps like then? What were the major ones?
Syd: I remember distinctly standing in front of IllumiNaughty in 2001 on the 10:00 corner and being blown away at what they had created and brought out and set up. As if planting a seed to later overcome, I even remember thinking to myself "Wow I could never pull that off..." I also remember the neon maze at Xara, the Wizard of Oz motif at Emerald City and the small domes that made up Space Lounge. That was also the first year I believe the Space Cowboys Unimog had hit the playa for a full mobile party experience.
Dr. Yes: Why’d you found OT? What moved you to say to yourself, “I should definitely sign up to spend a significant portion of my time producing a sound camp?”
Syd: Haha if only I knew...
Well, in the summer of 2002 I had been laid off and used my severance to have time to help build the Garage Mahal Art Car under the direction of Captain Ken at this house & shop in Mill Valley. It was (and still is) a double decker bus built out of an Entemann's bread delivery truck. In '02 (pre-ubiquitous mega art cars), it was impressive! I also founded Opel Productions in 2002 originally as a vehicle to throw benefits for causes I supported around SF, and so also helped fundraise for it. It was early Burning Man project creation and fundraising practice.
Had a blast DJ'ing on the Art Car but wasn't very good at it yet, and was hungry to create my own manifestations of bringing people together, sharing art and music on a bigger scale than what the Art Car afforded. In 2002 I also met Rich Martin and Chris Sia. Chris was the leader (of sorts) of the Infinite Kaos (IK) performance and music collective when they still had their space on Taylor St. Rich, a fabricator and general mad scientist, worked with IK on their camp in 2002 building a huge steel pyramid and doing sound for them. Rich wanted to work on a new and bigger project for 2003 and approached me to get involved on the production and fundraising end to make it a proper sound camp on 10:00 along with Infinite Kaos. The theme of BM in 2003 was 'Beyond Belief', so to reflect the theme and the communities we called it the Opulent Temple (to reflect the spiritual implications of the Beyond Belief Theme) of Kaos (IK). Chris Sia named it, I later regretted the confusion it caused between my party throwing vehicle in SF (Opel Productions), and the Burning Man camp I was a part of (Opulent Temple). I didn't help by trying to help raise money for BM projects using the Opel name in early parties before I figured that needed to be separated better.
We were located at 10:00 and Creed and built a huge open air steel tension dome, as well as other art projects for the camp such as paper mache statues, a stage that never made it up, and fire lanterns that leaked kerosene. The Infinite Kaos crew lived up to their name, and we had a great time. Even in our first year, I was keen to bring in what I considered more interesting and higher tier talent than just SF / Burner locals, so I brought out Sandra Collins and Josh Gabriel (from Gabriel & Dresden), and IK had invited Tipper, Bassnectar, and others. Partly my motivation was just to be sure I got to hear the music I wanted to hear at Burning Man! Nothing worse than being high at Burning Man itching for a dance floor experience and not being able to find good music.
Dr. Yes: Did you know at the time how much work it was going to be?
Syd: The first year in 2003 was ideal cause my job was to fundraise, organize and book talent, things I was good at. The IK guys provided most of the labor to set the camp up and take it down so it was a nice way to ease into the beast that it became.
We've learned the hard way just how much work it can be because when you're full of great ideas and ambition, you have a tendency to to say yes to too many ideas, and every 'yes' is full of action steps, obligations, money promises and execution problems. We usually came out all right but we've also had some major project failures that were painful lessons.
Dr. Yes: Tell us about one of those failures?
Syd: The biggest was what I still call the 'weird year' of 2007, aka the bamboo disaster. Weird because Paul Addis tried to burn the man down on Monday night during the lunar eclipse, among other reasons. We had two projects to choose from to add to the production that year. One was a bigger version of the Synergy Dome we erected in 2003, and the other was an elevated stage that Rich had designed that was supposed to be in the shape of a star, aka the 'Star Stage'. Feeling that we wanted to push ourselves hard this year, and take 2008 off from any projects, we decided to do both. Spoiler alert - bad idea.
The stage was conceived to be a great platform for a large group of performers, as it provides, in many ways, an ultimate performance venue because it sits 10 feet above the crowd. It would be largely self funded by Rich (taking loans from anyone that would help, parents included), with about 25% of the costs shared by the camp. Out on the playa, due to a design snag, Rich decided to 'open' the stage and not enclose the 'star', though it was delayed getting up because of the problems with the Bamboo Synergy Dome..
The dome, this time made out of bamboo instead of steel, was supposed to be about a 100 feet in diameter. Myself and Dutch led the construction following the same design plans Rich devised in 2003, modified for the bigger size, at a warehouse in West Oakland. Simultaneously while one team was working at the Box Shop on the Star Stage, another dedicated team busted ass to get the bamboo dome pieces done, complete with a hellish night of loading the 50 foot truss pieces onto a flat bed semi trailer right before we left for the playa. On playa, lots of build challenges. Just when we thought we'd have to scrap it due to running out of time, we problem solved and were ready to lift. We used 2 patient cranes from Art Services, and our own forklift to bring it in the air. We were almost there.....
The Bamboo Dome is probably one of the all time great failed projects in BM history. During lifting, a rope got caught under a tire, a key truss broke, and the project was still possible but not safe so we chose to scrap it. Flushing $25k and a summer's worth of work down the drain. We kept the bamboo around a few years for a fence, a bar, etc, but we never had the heart to try again.
Dr. Yes: Ouch. Opulent was already legendary when I started coming in 2010, and it seemed to me that you guys and Root Society were the majors that ushered in the modern age of sound camps. How accurate is my perception there?
Syd: I credit Sol System in 2003 (the pyramids) and '04 ('Sol Henge' and sonic runway) and Lush in 2004 (that crazy twisting wood organic structure and all those palm trees) for kicking that off production wise. For the time, what both of them did in those years was huge and inspired the scale that we evolved in the on-going years. We did have the first (as far as I know) raised line array sound system on scaffolding that escalated the size of sound rigs people brought out.
As some of those earlier generation camps stopped coming, and OT and Root Society held down the corners from like 2006-2010 we both continued to elevate our games.
Dr. Yes: Did you know what OT would turn into? How was its first year compared to now?
Syd: Definitely not. I caught the creative bug that Burning Man sparks in so many. You see a costume, an art piece, a theme camp, etc and it inspires one to want to make and create yourself, and you follow that passion. I was really passionate about the SF underground dance music scene even before BM as a vehicle for spreading joy and therefore (if intentionally channeled), perhaps a force for good. And so once I got into BM and its creation and community spheres, I applied that ethos there too. And we just kept going, and as we rolled we added more talent, and with added talent comes added capabilities and ideas to continue to grow, evolve, create, and challenge ourselves. Meanwhile BM became more known to international producers and DJ's who play the world's biggest and best parties and they came to learn BM was an amazing place to play (except for the part where they had to play for free).
So through my efforts and the event's growth, we were able to host some of the biggest names in dance music and for better and for worse (there's definitely 2 sides), that's standard fare now at the event.
We've come so far, as has the event, that a sound camp with the level of production we had in '03/04 wouldn't even get placed now.
Dr. Yes: In 2005 you brought Tiesto, arguably the biggest DJ on the planet at the time, to play OT. You’ve had big names in the years since (Armin Van Burren, Infected Mushroom Skrillex, Diplo, Carl Cox, etc) but 2005 was way before Burning Man had entered the general consciousness. How the did you pull that off?
Syd: The trail blazing distinction of world class DJ's playing Burning Man belongs to Paul Oakenfold, who at the height of his popularity played for IllumiNaughty in 2000. (Rumors of Oakey playing BM again abounded my first year in '01, but he didn't come back until '05, same year as Tiesto). Tiesto has part of his claim to fame owing to Oakey putting his classic 'Silence' remix by Sarah McLachlan on one of his mix CD's, and I'm pretty sure Tijs (real name) knew about BM from Paul having gone. In 2005 he was touring for Gods Kitchen who had partnered with local West Coast promoter Spundae on some dates. I had worked with Spundae on some benefits and knew their team, one of whom was working with Tijs on shows and somehow they got talking about BM and she pointed him to me and Opulent Temple.
We also had Paul Oakenfold that year, who incidentally only came when he heard Tiesto was coming. (For more competitive than friendly reasons I think.) We got major shit from certain segments of the BM community because by virtue of them being popular, they are automatically too commercial for BM. We don't see it in that way. Being popular should not exclude one from participating at BM, as long as that participation is in the spirit of the event. Which -of course- it was, (ie., no one gets paid and they participate in the project in some way.) Given that the OT also exists to be a vehicle for a message, we see things that elevate the platform of the message (within reason) to be in line with our vision. Anyway, most of that comes from trance haters anyway so we take it with a big fat grain of salt. We also owe it to Oakey that it was him who told Infected Mushroom they should come and play for us, and they've returned many times and put on some of the most memorable performances at OT.
Dr. Yes: This might be a touchy subject, but do you get help from the Org in the way other artists do in the form of grants to help defray your costs?
Syd: We wish. We get nothing from the Org. We don't get tickets, we certainly don't get financial help. We aren't allowed to even apply for grants for new art pieces at our camp and be judged on the same merits that art pieces on the open playa can apply for. We don't get a thank you or a visit from any Org higher-ups to acknowledge in any way the massive contribution ours and the other sound camps make to the success of the event. Only Maid Marian [Burning Man's CEO] has ever said thanks, and made any moves to help us, but that was some years ago. We appreciate her for that, but overall the taste in our mouth when it comes to the Org is very bitter. They tolerate sound camps 'cause we drive ticket sales, but Larry in particular had disdain for what we did, wrote us off as 'the ravers', and last we heard, in our entire history had never come up to 10:00 or 2:00 at night to see what was going on and what we did and how many people were enjoying our offering. Too late now of course.
Of course there's awesome people who work for BM. The Governess has been (mostly) awesome, except the year she wouldn't place us cause we weren't interactive enough. That hurt because it took no account of our previous contribution, but was a heartless 'what are you doing for us this year' calculation. They don't want to treat sound camps like they're special, even though it could be argued - they are. Of course we know some Burners hate sound camps and how ubiquitous the 'thumpa-thumpa' has become with roaming art cars and not being able to escape the ever-lasting pounding bass, and I totally empathize with that sentiment too.
You learn to deal with it and remind yourselves the reason we do what we do has nothing to do with the Org. Of course it'd be nice if they tried to make our lives easier instead of harder. It's astounding we're (as in the sound camp community) all still here contributing in the ways that we do year after year. We are a big reason the event now sells out every year, because it is an international destination for dance music enthusiasts. But they just want to have their art festival while enjoying the financial resources the 'ravers' bring them. I also understand we bring them headaches with law enforcement. Overall they take us for granted because they can. If we stopped coming out, some other camp would take our place and while some within the Org might care, overall the 'Org' as a decision making body couldn't care less.
Now that there's an ego-driven millionaire / billionaire pissing contest around sound camps and massive Art Cars, the Org has even less reasons to support community driven camps like ours with limited resources.
Dr. Yes: So, how do you guys fund yourselves?
Syd: We are funded by our supporters who come to our events, camp members that pay dues, and 3 (literally) supporters who've made helpful donations when we've needed it because they believe in our vision. Our camp budget this year (which includes some year round storage costs that are considerable) is $196,664. This year we threw 11 fundraisers in 5 cities that raised $89,232. (Note - almost half of that was raised in one night when the very awesome and generous Seven Lions played for practically nothing at Mezzanine in SF in April). That party was an outlier in our annual fundraiser plan. Most events make $1500-$5000 so it takes a lot of events. We have 225 people paying dues + crew, production staff etc. In 16 years of OT going to BM, we've ended the week in the black on 3 occasions.
Dr. Yes: What do you think about the sound systems on the playa? What do you guys use?
Syd: I'm amazed (though by now I shouldn't be), at the quality of sound systems people bring out there because sound systems get pulverized in the dust and weather. Concert-level quantity and quality, on the big flat desert. We really have it so good for an incredible music experience to take place. OT's system this year is 20 L'acoustics V-DOSC tops and 24 L'acoustics SB218 subs. We pay a lot for our sound guys to bring it out (from Texas!), but we certainly don't pay close to market rate because they are awesome and believe in what we do and why we do it. (We've used the same sound company since 2006 every year).
Dr. Yes: One last question - you said your first year on the playa was the first and only year you weren't involved in a project. Would you ever like another year like that at Burning Man?
Syd: Not at all. In some respects I'm textbook Jaded Burner guy, and it's a wonder I've gone what will be 18 years in a row. It's the group of friends / community co-creating the annual project and the joy of that process that keeps me coming back. Everything else is diminishing returns.
I can’t emphasize enough that Opulent temple exists and continues to show up because of the awesome people on the core team. Great people, diverse skills and in it for the right reasons.
Dr. Yes: Thanks so much for this, Syd. See you in the dust!
I wanted to get a real expert's opinion here, and so I set up an interview with renowned Burner and mini-submarine fail guy Elon Musk. He describes how he likes to burn below.
"I like to start doing lines of coke while flying in, and then as soon as I get to camp obviously I start downing sizzurp non-stop, because hydration is important out there. That usually puts me in a good place to start assembling my camp [Dr. Yes's note: He means unlocking his RV.] though I'll typically break out a six foot bong to do a few rips in the middle, to keep things on an even keel.
Now, once camp is done, I'm going one of two typical routes my first night out there: Crystal or bath salts. It just depends on my mood, you know? Do I want to go pick a fight with Russian gangsters at White Ocean, or am I in more of a "I'll go rave at Camp Walter, which turned out to be Kidsville..." kind of mood?
Usually by 2 am or so though, I'm going to need something more, so I swing back by camp, smoke a couple packs of cigarettes, beer bong at least one bottle of Mad Dog, and go through a couple boxes of whippits. I'll pop 6 or 7 stems and caps (something I try to do every 12 hours out there, just to keep things weird) and now I'm all sorted out and ready to go back out again!
By 8 am I'm typically back in camp again, huffing some butane, or possibly just gasoline if I'm feeling more Mazda than Telsa. Really takes the edge off. A couple hours later I'm ready to start the day, and after a breakfast of shatter-laced cereal in more sizzurp, it's time to have some real fun.
So, first, I thumb in a methadone suppository and then, as tradition dictates, day 2 out there is always a heavy acid trip day, I'll pop a baker's dozen hits and head out to deep playa, bringing nothing with me, knowing that the playa will provide. One time, it provided not-so-friendly BLM types after I saw what I swear to god was a giant replica of the Sydney Opera House doing the Danube river doggy style out past the trash fence. I, obviously, went towards it to see about participating. [Dr. Yes's note: Ask first folks! #consent]
Acid being a bit of a commitment, that will usually carry me through to dinner time, at which point my body is often feeling a bit tired, as if I'd just squashed another effort at unionization, so I'll head back to camp and hit myself with a couple ampules of adrenaline. You can really do a proper howl at the sunset with that shit racing through your veins, and it's also great prep for a night of heavy, heavy flakka use. I know people say it can cause permanent psychological damage, but at Burning Man, would you even know? Nah man. Plus, I'm Elon fucking Musk. I do what I want. Sometimes that's blowing my mind out on flakka, and sometimes that's building a mini-submarine that is literally useless.
Now, flakka makes you feel like the Falcon Heavy, or maybe the Incredible Hulk - full of rage and power - and you just want to grrrrrr fight someone!
There's only one place on the playa to go when that mood hits you, and that is the Temple, so this is usually the night I dedicate to loudly and angrily appreciating the Temple. "FUCK YOUR FEELINGS!" I have been known to shout in there (also on investor calls...oops), but I hope people understand that's not me talking - it's the drug cocktail I'm marinating in. The other Temple denizens and I have a good time that night. They're usually all around me, clamoring very loudly and angrily at me about how you're not supposed to do this or that or whatever, but it's ok, I'm so off my face they usually morph into something much more pleasant, like clones of Alvin the Chipmunk or maybe the small of Kylie Minogue's back.
Usually, after my flakka night, I need a little sleep, so I'll do a heroic dose of ketamine, drift into the blissful k-hole, and just sit there (wherever there may be....once it turned out to be the floor of Grover Norquist's RV) for awhile, recovering.
After a couple hours of that, I'm back, baby, and I'm ready to go! Few shots of bourbon and a couple grams of molly wake me right up and then it's fucking ON. I'll run around all day while my body temp slowly creeps up to brain damage range, laughing at all the pussies expressing concern for my condition. I'm rolling hard, bitches! Nobody escapes my hugs. (Or the Tesla manufacturing line. Seriously, we make people pee in a bottle so they can keep working without leaving their station. )
I'll typically redose six or seven times, consuming maybe 10 grams total throughout the next 18-20 hours, after which I'm usually feeling like things are getting stale, and it's time to up my game a bit lest I get bored.
That's usually when I'll decide it's time for my own version of a Jeffrey, and I'll combine all the synthetic designer drugs I have into one big dose and just do them all at once. Last year I think I mixed together 3-MPM, homomazindol, some variety of cathinone (there are so many, who can keep track), a little Benzo Fury, and of course some tetrahydrofuranylfentanyl, to keep things in equilibrium. Science, bros!!
I usually try to grab a few hours of real sleep after all that wears off, typically using penothal, though sometimes just a lot of opium, to make sure I fall asleep, because it's important to take care of yourself out there.
At this point, I'm rarely aware what day it is, but I usually just figure that as long as there are still people there, I can continue to judiciously self-medicate, so I tend to devote this entire day (whatever day that is) to krokodil. It comes out of Russia, which is how you know it's good, and strong! Like Putin. It's cool to watch your skin get all scaly. Reminds me of that guy in Game of Thrones, who could really swing a sword!
Usually on the way out, I try to keep things low-key. Hop on my flight out of the playa, snort a little DMT, and if I have a headache, I'll put a morphine drip in and maybe pop a few ambien.
And I mean, that's it really. Pretty basic. You'll note that there's at least one major drug I don't do out there: Heroin. You have to have your limits, and that's where I draw the line. The only dragon I'm riding on the playa is in the form of an art car. Besides, krokodil is way better anyway. You heard it from me, Elon Musk, submarine fail-guy: Heroin is the novice's krokodil."
"So in 1992 I picked up a flyer from The Cacophony Society which was this underground org in San Francisco that did flash mob type things and weird art prank projects. At the bottom was a blurb about an event they were doing called Burning Man. I was part of an underground rave called Mr. Floppy’s Flophouse in Oakland and was a DJ and VJ. I thought what a cool thing to marry up with!
I arranged a meeting with Larry Harvey and he invited me over to his kitchen and I pitched him the idea of bringing a sound camp out to the playa. He thought it was a great prank and that things had gotten a bit complacent at Burning Man. He warned me that a lot of the people may rebel against amplified music but that we should set up exactly one mile from center camp and do our thing. He gave me a stack of tickets to sell for $20 each and I sold about 30 of them. Honestly, we couldn’t give them away - it was too far for people, nobody had heard of Burning Man and the self-reliance part of it was something new to people.
Anyway, I was living with Terbo Ted in an artist warehouse and he and I made the flyer, got a sound system together, made some decorations and promoted it on Haight Street and at underground raves. Again, we only sold 30 tickets. We rented a Ryder Truck that Paradise Visuals projected Tripp’s computer graphics on and Ted did a sound check, forever giving him the title of first DJ at Burning Man. I played under the moniker DJ Niles and also on the bill was Synthesis Dave, B.R.A.D, and Goa Gil. Burning Man back then was only a few days over the Labor Day weekend and there were less than 500 people there total. We played day and night for the whole thing.
So, I took a 20-year break and went back in 2016 by myself. I’d recently battled colon cancer and wanted to go back and ritually rid myself of all the emotions that I carried and celebrate being alive. It was mind blowing to see how it had grown. The vibe was the same but exponentially bigger on every scale. The art, the sound camps, the size of the thing... I met up with Ted and we had lunch with Larry Harvey at First Camp and reminisced about the old days and talked about the future, the Fly Ranch and a permanent presence on the playa. It didn’t feel like 20 years had gone by sitting there with those guys!
Then in 2017 I went back with my spouse and I DJ’d a set near the trash fence. For a spontaneous set we had many more times the people than at those early year parties. I met so many people of all ages that thanked me for our contribution and told me stories about how they in turn were inspired to create and told me what they’re up to. It’s amazing beyond words to think that a seed that I planted has inspired thousands of people to carry it forth."
I don't know about you, but I love the fact that the first EDM camp at Burning Man was partly there because Larry thought it'd be a funny prank to pull on burners. It's funny in and of itself, and funny in an ironic way because of how dominant EDM is on the playa now.
As I mentioned above, I followed up with some questions, to which Craig generously provided his thoughts.
Dr. Yes: What'd you think when you first got to the playa back in 1992?
Craig: In 1992 when Ted and I arrived on the playa it was about 11pm at night. There was no gate road. No gate. We were told to pull off the highway at around a certain mile marker and head east until we saw a lightbulb on a tower. We drove around for about two hours trying to find that tower.
In contrast, coming back in 2016, I could see cars heading to and coming from Burning Man about 100 miles out on a county highway in Oregon so the first thoughts were about the gate, entry and thinking about how long the line may be. I'd read horror stories over the years but I wasn't there on the first day so it was very streamlined.
That leads me to infrastructure differences. Night and day here compared to the early years and like any community that grows, the infrastructure has to be built to support it. I was 100% impressed with the efforts that Burning Man Org and all the volunteers do out there each year. I took some time to find where I was going to pitch my tent (I've never and never will rent an RV to go to Burning Man, just not my thing.) I found some friendly neighbors and set up, and introduced myself. I immediately thought that while more mainstream people may be there these days it's still people that want to be there and for the most part people are there to share, to learn, and to come away with something whether it's an experience, a new love, or shedding some baggage and in those core ways I found it's remained the same. Then the sheer fucking scale of the thing blew my mind. As far as sound camps go, Mayan Warrior was extremely impressive.
Dr. Yes: I thought it was interesting to learn that Larry had invited you guys to come as the first sound camp partly as a prank. Did you view it mostly as a prank, or did you guys just like DJing and thought it'd be a great place to turn it up to 11?
Craig: We were mostly in it for the music but I have to admit I'm a huge fan of pranks. I grew up listening to punk rock and am a DIY sort of person. I was in a psychedelic techno band at the time called Psychic TV and one of the Cacophony Society members was trying to arrange for the whole band to play - that was the initial lead in to the meeting with Larry Harvey, but the whole band couldn't be there so I pitched Larry on having a rave camp (I've never liked the term rave but that's the nomenclature). We called it a sound camp or party. I'm an adventurer and outdoorsperson also so remote places interest me. Shortly after Burning Man in 1992 I left for India and lived and DJ'd in Goa India for 6 months which was amazing. 1992 was a very inspiring year and full of personal growth and change for me.
Dr. Yes: Did you pay much attention to Burning Man and its evolution in the 20 year gap where you weren't going? (Congrats on beating cancer! Fuck cancer!)
Craig: Until the year 2003 I was still living in the Bay Area. I stopped attending in 1996 but still knew many many people going each year and they'd come back and regale me with stories. I also watched the online stream in most years, watching technology grow and get better which interestingly enough is a core of Burning Man now. Burning Man could have only ever have evolved out of the Bay Area. It's a strong hub for the arts, technology, and counterculture. In 2003 I moved to Hawaii for 12 years and logistically to do Burning Man how I like to it it was too difficult. I didn't want to leave the ocean for that long is the short answer!
In 2016 I moved to Vancouver B.C. and looked on a Google map and figured it's only a 22 hour drive. I'd just battled colon cancer and had a lot of appreciation for being alive and also wanted to go out there and breathe any remaining anxiety, and negative stuff out and leave it there. So while 1992 was an amazing year for me, 2016 was a difficult one. I figured go back and if you I could connect the two I can create a change. Synchronicity or coincidence is a huge thing I pay attention to. In 1992 Ted and I turned on the radio after it was all over when we were driving off the playa and this song came on. It's by Marty Stuart and it's call Burn Me Down. The lyrics sounded like they were tailor made for us to hear at that moment. Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=59Hih1d5T24 I found the song on youtube last year and had a laugh.
In 2016 coming back home a song by Band Of Horses came on the radio (big fan of just listening to the radio on roadtrips) and it was called The Funeral. In a way and in that moment that song rang true to me. I felt like I'd had a bit of a funeral for myself.
Dr. Yes: It's interesting that you say you felt like the vibe is the same, just on a different scale. There's a lot of cynicism out there about Burning Man among veteran attendees, and it's refreshing to hear your point of view there. Was there anything you didn't care for about the brighter, bigger Burning Man of today vs the mid-90s?
Craig: I dig it all, even the sparkleponies.
Dr. Yes: The first Temple wasn't there until 2000. Did you visit the Temple the last two years upon returning to the playa at all? What'd you think?
Craig: I know, that's something I was curious about for sure. My dad had died a couple years before in an accident and he was always very involved with Burning Man. He loved hearing the stories each year. I wrote his name on the wall. He would have liked that I think.
My first trip to the Temple was intense. I wasn't prepared for the heavy grief that was being expressed and took a while to understand and appreciate what is happening there. Terbo Ted has a directive to take some of my ashes and mementos to the Temple after I pass on. I think it's a beautiful place to let go and remember people.
Dr. Yes: This is a potentially controversial question, but since you DJ'd at least partly as a prank, how would you feel about people 'trolling' the Temple burn via music? (Famously, this happened several years ago, though it was ostensibly to honor someone. It upset a lot of people, and made some people go 'fuck yeah.')
Craig: I wouldn't have done that. While the event is about radical self-expression, people should have empathy to understand grief and silence. There's plenty of other nights to make as much noise as you want.
Dr. Yes: All-time favorite experience at Burning Man in the mid-90s?
Craig: Going to the Fly hotsprings in 1992 after the event to wash the dust off . We were chased off at rifle point by a rancher. We were only a handful of people with the pools to ourselves. In 1996 there were hundreds of people in the pools after the owner found he could profit off letting people in. Now that Burning Man bought The Fly Ranch I really look forward to see what happens out there. It's part of Larry's legacy and vision.
Dr. Yes: All-time favorite experience at Burning Man 2016-2017?
Craig: Taking my virgin wife to experience Burning Man for herself. She's heard me tell so many stories that she wanted to go check it out. Also in 2017 this synchronicity happened. We were biking in the deep playa and there was an art installation of the golden record that was on the Voyager Spacecraft. I biked right up to it and realized I had the same symbol on my shirt. This surprised tons of people that came at the same time. One woman proclaimed loudly, "This is the magical Burning Man shit I was trying to tell you about!"
Dr. Yes: It sounds like you knew Larry at least somewhat well for awhile. Any thoughts on how his passing might affect the future course of Burning Man?
Craig: I imagine this will be a special year out there with lots of tributes. I think The Man should have a Stetson on. I believe Burning Man will carry on fine as long as the Trump administration doesn't start getting too scared of 70k people all gifting, learning, and enjoying themselves. We should understand that this administration isn't a friend to free thinkers. [Dr. Yes: A-fucking-men to that.]
Dr. Yes: Will you be on-playa again this year?
Craig: You never know. I'm going back to my mid-1990's plan that if I'm meant to to go I'll be there! I'll be in Southern Oregon camping and looking for rare gems so I'm not far away. Anyone have a spare ticket?
Thanks for taking the time to reminisce and give us your thoughts on Burning Man generally, Craig. See you in the dust!
A two part set from 4 am on Labor Day that Craig performed as DJ Niles in 1996 on the playa can be found here as part 1 and part 2.
Craig's trash fence set from 2017 is here.
If you want to learn more about the history of Burning Man, start here.
What we don't know is why he did it. Period.
We don't know if he intentionally committed suicide in front of a large crowd, or if he had a spontaneous psychotic breakdown.
We don't know if he was on drugs, and if he was, we don't know if they contributed to this event, or whether he took said drugs intentionally. It's not like nobody's ever been dosed without consent, right?
Nobody knows, and anyone asserting they do is full of shit. All I see is utterly baseless speculation, depressingly frequently used to attack a dead man, sometimes even in venues where his family is reading what's written.
Because I know that at least one of his immediate family members will read this, I'm not going to quote anything attacking Mr. Mitchell. In summary though, I've seen many people in the community posting things accusing him of being a selfish jerk for doing this in view of others (including the rangers and firefighters who tried and failed to stop him) and traumatizing them, and/or accusing him of damaging their burn and future burns.
If you're traumatized by watching a man run into a raging fire, I think that's understandable. I'm glad I didn't witness it. However, lashing out at him is really not ok. You have no idea why he did it. You have no idea if he was of sound mind at the time. Unless you know otherwise (and you don't), the only appropriate response is empathy, for him and the terrible way in which he died, and most of all, for his family. And frankly, if he was of sound mind, I think I feel even worse for him. What kind of pain and suffering must he have endured to be willing to run into a fire and try to burn to death?
And imagine what it must feel like to have your husband or brother or son cross an ocean and a continent to get to an event that he, like nearly all birgins, was eagerly anticipating. You give him a hug and send him on his way, looking forward to the stories he'll have to tell.
And then you get a call that you never want to get. A voice on the line tells you that your husband, your brother, your son is dead. Not just that, but you see pictures of him just as he was running into the raging fire that would kill him spread all over the internet.
Then it only gets worse, when people on the internet start attacking your brother, your son, your husband. Talk about driving the knife home.
Think about that before you decide to throw empathy to the wind and convict the man based on nothing but speculation. Please. Let's be better.
I want to include these words from his sibling, Micah, who said this about Mr. Mitchell on a reddit thread I had posted:
"Joel was my brother. I don't want to share to much at the moment but I do want to let the world know how much he cared and loved every single person on this planet. He was the kind of man who would give you the shirt off his back, his meal before he had taken a bite, or the last dollar in his wallet (these are actually things I saw him do first hand). He was truly selfless, humble, compassionate, and cared about everyone. He only knew love and nothing else."
Now, for those whose petty complaint is that he 'ruined' the Temple burn the next night, or that the burns will be different going forward because there may be a fence or a wider perimeter or whatever, I have this for you:
Charlie opened by talking about how things they'd been seeing the last few years really came to a head last year, including:
Now, none of this is new to anyone paying attention - it's pretty obvious the culture is in trouble. Charlie (the BM Operations Manager) said that when they came back from Burning Man this year they realized that what their #1 focus this year has to be isn't anything to do with improving gate operations, or whatever: It has to be addressing the slow dissolution of the culture that made Burning Man what it is, or was. I was really shocked - pleasantly - to hear this, as it was the first time I'd heard the Org so forthrightly admit that there's something slowly going rotten in the culture.
Ultimately, the worst case scenario is that we end up with an event dominated by idiots like this (not sure where this was taken or who took it, but it's not at BM....yet.)
What is the Org going to do to combat this?
The good news is the Org has clearly put a lot of thought into this, and correctly, I believe, it's a diverse, multi-faceted approach.
To begin with, they've got four high-level areas of focus:
Ultimately, most of what they're going to do boils down to communication and education, focusing on about 75 different ways they have to reach individuals, and getting better at boiling down their messages into short, digestible chunks.
Individually, all these (and they're just some of the tactics that will be used) probably don't seem that impressive, but there's no silver bullet here. This has to be a communication and education war waged on as many fronts as possible, because we're ultimately talking about influencing peoples' attitudes. We can't force people to give a shit about our culture, but I do think that most birgins would, if they understood what the culture is, enthusiastically participate. There'll always be some we can't reach, but we shouldn't let perfect by the enemy of good. Let's do what we can!
What Can We Do?
Correctly, Charlie and Jim also pointed out that this isn't just the Org's problem. It's the problem of everyone who doesn't want to see Burning Man's culture further deteriorate, meaning we veterans. How can we help? Some ideas from the session included:
I'm hoping the Org provides some suggested action items for individual Burners to take too, as I think there's a not-insignificant population that would respond to that with passionate action.
I'm really happy to see the Org taking this growing threat to the culture of Burning Man seriously, and I hope that as they start to get the message out to the veteran Burner community, we respond by, collectively, enthusiastically joining in the fight to save our culture. I also hope this is only the beginning of action by the Org, because this will not be enough.
So...are you with us?
Finally got around to updating it! Check it out here!
As I wrote about a month ago, I had the chance to visit a small portion of Fly Ranch during Burning Man this year. In that same post I asked the community to comment on what they'd like to see the property used for, gathering feedback from this blog, Facebook, the ePlaya forums, private messages, and on Reddit.
I got quite a bit of feedback, organized into 10 rough categories. One of those categories is what I'd categorize as 'cynical', though I make no judgment as to whether rightly or wrongly cynical. Those responses generally expressed the belief that Fly Ranch will be for friends of the Org, VIPs, and those with money. Personally, I hope they're wrong, and I've been repeatedly assured by those in the Org that they are, but only time will tell.
It's also worth noting that a number of responses spoke to the need to preserve the land of Fly Ranch, not trash it, and act as responsible stewards for it.
Onto the responses, without comment from me, along with a sample quote for each category:
As you can see, there was quite a variety of responses! It'll be pretty interesting to see what comes out of Fly Ranch, but I wouldn't hold my breath on them moving quickly. My understanding is they intend to move in a slow and considered fashion on this, which I think is wise.
What is Fly Ranch?
It's a 3800 acre property near the playa that hosted Burning Man in 1997 (just a few miles past the turn-off you make every year into Black Rock City), though only for that year, and back when the event was 10,000 people. You can read more about the event in 1997 here if you'd like.
The Burning Man organization has tried to acquire it four times-ish over the past 20 years, finally succeeding this year, with $6.5m in funding completely gifted by wealthy Burners.
The ranch has a diverse ecosystem, with one part of it dominated by swimmable hot springs that are pretty amazing. They're huge! The first thing we did on getting there was to strip off our dusty clothes and hop into the water, which is, I'd guess, between 99 and 101 degrees F. The bottom is delightfully muddy in a good way, and my god it was a pleasure to be there, soaking with other Burners.
Why did they take us out to the ranch?
Our group of 14 (out of about 200 they took out to the Ranch in total during the week) included the regional contact for Burning Japan, artists like Bryan Tedrick who has built things like the giant boar sculpture on the playa this year, a meta-regional coordinator for the Midwestern regionals, someone leading a theme camp whose name I can't recall, me, and so on. It was a pretty diverse group of people in terms of what we do at and around Burning Man.
They explained that though they'd love to invite everyone, it's just not possible, which was clearly evident. There's simply no infrastructure there. There was one temporary shade structure, a couple porta-potties on a trailer, and a wooden pathway/viewing structure around the Fly Geyser. That's it. Plus, there are ecological concerns around the health of the pools and the surrounding grasslands. It's just not set up to deal with a flood of people.
While we were there, they just wanted us to get a feel for the surroundings, in order to get an idea of the kind of property it is, and start the creative juices flowing as regards what we might do with Fly Ranch.
We were also told a few things about their intentions for developing a plan for the ranch...
Why did Burning Man buy Fly Ranch?
Well, interestingly or recklessly (take your pick!), what was driven home to us while there, and what's been further emphasized in private conversations with people in the Org since then is that they do not have a plan for the land yet because they don't feel it'd be in keeping with Burning Man's mission to dictate a plan. Instead, they want to involve the community - us - in figuring out what should happen with it.
There are, however, some concrete reasons to have purchased it. Two, in particular, stand out:
How Can You Help?
Think about all the questions and potential Fly Ranch brings up. We now have a 3800 acre permanent home very close to the Mecca of Burning Man - the Black Rock Desert. Literally, just down the road.
The BMORG plans to take this slowly, and is taking inspiration and advice from multiple groups, like Esalen and the Long Now Foundation, with a focus on long-term thinking, but ultimately, the answers will come from all of us - the Burning Man community.
I have my own thoughts, but I'd really love to hear what you think. The Org seems serious about doing this with heavy community involvement, so let's take put that to the test. I'll funnel your feedback to them and do another post talking about the feedback I got, so please, share what you think.
I don't ask these rhetorically. Please, think about them and leave feedback either in the comments below, or in the reddit thread about it:
Below are some videos and photos I made of the landscape there, to give you a sense of what the portion of the property I visited feels like.
Those white dust clouds across the low mountains in the distance? Yep, that's Burning Man!
A lot of drama coming out of the Gerlach Regional (aka Burning Man) this past week. If you missed it, a larger, more funded camp was the victim of vandalism. A lot of finger pointing has been made, but the truth is there isn’t any. No arrests have been made, no motive has been released. Everything you hear is speculation.
What isn’t speculation is a vocal portion the burnersphere has jumped on the opportunity to point the finger at those who have more of the one thing that doesn’t buy anything in Black Rock City (except iced
lattes, of course). I’ve seen richer celebrities blamed for everything from ruining the burn to avoiding the exodus. (I’d also like to point out for you that haven’t been to an airport lately that planes wait in line, too.)
I also sat with a guy on the bus coming in from the airport who wouldn’t have been able to experience the burn (his first) any other way. He lived in South Bay five years, had immediately drunk the Kool-Aid and was finally making the journey.
If you’re sitting at home talking about whether Burning Man is inhabited by the proper ratio of rich and poor people – the have and have nots as I’ve heard them called plenty in the last few days – then you’ve completely missed the point.
Burning Man (and burner culture, which I’ll use synonymously from here out) isn’t about what you have, it’s about what you bring. I’ve seen huge contributions this year from those with very little, and clever, subtler conversations from those who had quite a bit more. Both of which we among my favorite additions to the burn.
Much of the art comes from smaller groups, and even a lot of the bigger art is volunteer based – the majority of those building volunteering. From deep playing pieces to the temple itself, it’s a labor of love.
Many of the biggest camps are out there to create the party. To bring something bigger and better to the burn. One of my favorite things about theme camps, art cars and art pieces is competition to out clever and out do the next piece. To bring the biggest plane, or the lighthouse with the most character.
Burners need only look to their neighbors to set the next bar, which is what we should be doing. This world spends too much time focusing on what we have and what we don’t, lets leave that out of the place where we’re all much closer to equal.
In Black Rock City, or whatever regional you may reside on a given weekend, we’re rich in so many ways that matter so much more – in cleverness, in ideas, in inspiration, in happiness, in love. Remember these are the things that are invaluable even in the places where money exists.
Update: Literally minutes after publishing this, someone got in touch saying he is in touch with the folks who did this, and that they'd be willing to answer questions of mine they felt were worth answering. I've sent the questions over.
Update #2: I was put in touch with someone who claims to have been involved in committing the vandalism, but his brief answers provided me with no assurance that he did it, and no way to confirm it. He claims he was part of the build crew for White Ocean in the past, and he and the others who did what they did were angry at the WO management, as I theorized when writing this post in the first place.
Update #3: White Ocean confirms this article was essentially correct. It was an inside job, not some kind of class warfare.
I put out a widespread call for help (from reddit to eplaya to facebook and more) in figuring this out and getting in touch with the folks that did this so understand why and not just infer their reasons. So far, the closest I've come is someone saying he thinks he knows one of the people that did it, and was going to see if he could get that person to talk to me. I've not heard back yet, and will certainly update this or write a new article if I do.
As a side effect of this though, I've discovered a long list of people who feel aggrieved at White Ocean and its organizers. Some of those people I talked to directly, some I only heard about from others in the know. More about that below.
As a result of hearing about the string of disgruntled people they've left in their wake, my operating theory, which is not unique, is that the breathless media reports of 'class warfare' are nothing but kind of lazy attempts to fit the actions into a narrative they want to write about.
I haven't seen or heard a single bit of evidence that would point to burners targeting WO because it's a plug n' play. Further, if they wanted to send a message, why not make it clear? This was an organized attack that was clearly thought out ahead of time, and making their message less opaque was as easy as bringing a can of spray paint along. That's like protest vandalism 101.
Beyond that, I just don't think it likely that the kind of, say, black hat Oakland anarchist that may have once felt compelled to go to these lengths to defend Burning Man's culture is still going, by and large, or would consider 2016 edging-towards-mainstream Burning Man particularly worth defending.
I believe that this was an attack by either contractors (many of whom are/were hardcore burners) that feel jilted by WO or by former campmates upset with either the management of the camp or a another faction in camp.
Let me give you some examples. (I don't think anyone I talked to had anything to do with it - I'm just illustrating a pattern. I should also note that even people who had bad things to say about White Ocean almost always had good things to say too.)
Presumably not his real name, he's a guy who camped with White Ocean in 2015, which was his first burn, but he did so because he had been involved in a VR project that helped White Ocean plan the camp. He volunteered to arrive early and help setup, because good Burner. He posted publicly about his experience. You can read the whole thing a couple comments down in thisreddit thread, but here are some quotes:
"We arrived days early and volunteered to set up. We made immediate friends with those setting up, cleaning, setting up food. They have hired awesome crews." [My note: That includes Thorproductions.com doing at least the soundstage design - which was epic - that year.]
"Then guests started arriving. There was just an evil vibe as soon as that happened. When I found out the place was organized by Russian mafia, I wasn't surprised......We were told to hug anyone we didn't recognize and show them the door."
"We moved onto our next speaker who was a woman that is an artist and a full time employee of the org. She attempted to talk about the 10 principles of burning man and by this time the group wasn't having it. "What can you do at burning man?" "You can be a sex slave!" It was embarrassing to witness."
"There were great people at the camp. Ya, this was the place the San Francisco tech guys bought into, but some were great guys who really wanted to make a connection. I met a Welsh boxer and club owner from New York who was about the most interesting guy I've ever met. We helped a crew of 8 bucketlisters from Texas who were overwhelmed make the event theirs."
"At the same time, there were people who pushed at the food line and getting in line first usually meant waiting a half hour while the goons got their food, drank handles of vodka, and had conversations while the food line was completely stopped. There was bullying(giving out nasty playa names) threats, and fights. The center camp lounge the attendees would toss butts, roaches, or food right on the ground. There were people hired to clean it up."
"A few days in, we were either at other camps or if we were at our camp, we didn't socialize. The crew that assembled the sound camp [Thor Productions] walled themselves in their own camp separate from the white ocean group. I didn't witness fights, but I would have not been surprised had one broken out there, there was a lot of hostility in the camp. I think on Thursday or Friday night, the generator was attacked, diesel was syphoned out and hundreds of gallons drained onto the playa."
Darren and I also chatted briefly privately, and he had this to say about the staff he again highlighted how good the hired help was:
"Second, the staff was top notch. The people that staffed the camp were the best at what they did, from hooking up toilets, keeping it clean, to preparing the food. They did their jobs."
I didn't get a chance to talk to the folks at Thor Productions (had a call set, got cancelled, and we never managed to reconnect), but my understanding from someone who runs a soundcamp and knows Thor & crew well is that Thor Productions is still owed money from White Ocean for that work. (I'm not accusing or even suggesting anyone with Thor's reputable crew was involved, just using it as a datapoint in establishing a pattern.)
Michael "Sweatshop" Eakin
Michael runs, with his crews, kitchens for different camps on the playa, ranging from 50-200 people. The TL;DR is that he says he never got paid what he was owed, and it drove him out of his small business.
"I was hired by White Ocean in 2014 to provide kitchen services for their setup and breakdown crew, as well as all the camp attendees. I budgeted out $32,000 for our time, travel food and rental fees. everything but 5,000 was paid up front and the rest being promised at the end after services rendered."
"First off, I was promised yurts for me an my crew. That was not delivered, we all slept in our tents that we luckily brought as back up. "no complaints" but right from the get go they were not providing what was promised."
"In the end, my crew and I provided all the services promised to a smashing degree of success. Even had Paul Oakenfold [big DJ that is part of White Ocean] raving about the quality of food provided and asking to have me come hang out for the night to talk shop."
"Even after all the success and good times, they were still unable to pay me the last $5,000. I had Timur Sardarov [one of the owners - son of a Russian billionaire] on the phone telling me he would put the money directly into my bank.. sent him my account info.. nothing.. still 2 years later.. nothing... I had rental fees go to collections.. workers not paid and still angry. And when all was said and done that amount put my catering company out of business.. When the dust had settled, I am now in debt over $9,000 with late fees, interest rates etc. and I had to sell my company just to re-coup that money."
"Oh and they won best soundstage and art installation.. got a big medal from Burning man... for real... but the people who built the camp and stage... are not white ocean.. they are hired help.. SO white ocean doesn't feed a bunch of burners or bring this awesome state of the art stage.. they just throw money at people who can bring those things....then they throw their label on it and call it their own."
"Also in regards to disgruntled workers.. I know the year I was there, at least 10-15 people were very unhappy with what was happening.. "
"Promises were made by middle management.. the people that were hired to run things and hire workers. But once upper management arrived everything changed the way they wanted... so the people that had been onsite for a week building all of this all of a sudden were getting kicked out of yurts and being put on the bottom rung of things."
"There were 2 people in particular that left the camp mid week because of the amount of social abuse they felt they were taking."
"Shit on Monday and Tuesday beginning of the week I was so upset that I was considering jumping in my box truck and taking all the food to a different camp and giving it all away."
"And its all really disappointing in all honesty, cause I really liked Oliver Ripley [with Timur, the co-owner] and Timur didn't seem like a bad guy... it's just that they are on such a different level of living that these are all small time problems to them... they wipe their ass with 5,000 but to me that shut my business down. They just don't understand that."
"That doesn't change the fact that I still believe that they deserved what happened to their camp this year. cause they obviously have not gotten any better since I was there 2 years ago."
I talked to a couple other people as well - one who camped with White Ocean this year and one who worked for it as part of a crew he asked me not to name. Neither wanted to be identified. The former cited the belief that the Russian mob is involved and the latter just didn't want to be known as someone who might talk badly about those who hire him.
"The jerk factor in this camp was through the roof. Also, lots of people seemed to have barely even heard of Burning Man before coming, they knew so little about it." - the camper.
"The food was incredible though and I found some other burners on my wavelength to hang out with." - the camper
I unfortunately managed to delete the email I was writing to myself when taking notes with the former worker, but his feedback boiled down to being a multiple-year burner who felt he was treated very poorly by some of the management (don't know which ones) and some of the guests, though he did say that he ended up having a great time in off-hours with other of the guests. Like I said, everybody I talked to had at least something positive to say about their time at White Ocean.
There were a lot of people to potentially talk to, but without any evidence to the contrary, I don't think it's hard to take an educated guess about what happened.
Look, I'll be honest: I don't really like White Ocean as a camp (I don't know the management at all - they might be wonderful people, I have no idea). I don't like plug n' play camps that make it easier for bucket listers who don't give a crap about our community and culture to show up, because every one of those that comes means someone who may be more invested in it can't come. I don't care how rich you are, or how luxuriously you burn. Knock yourself out, though I also don't care how big a soundstage you bring - it doesn't get you a pass from me, at least, on trying to participate in our culture. It is very possible to put on a big, awesome show without resorting to running a hotel for Burners. Look at Opulent Temple for an excellent example there.
Anyway, for the love of dust, act like you give a shit about where you are (hint: it's not a music festival with a VIP section). Put a little work in. Sweat a little. That struggle to get to and live in the Black Rock Desert temporarily is part of the anvil on which our culture was forged and continues to be shaped. Burning Man wouldn't be Burning Man if it was held at a hypothetical Four Seasons resort capable of accommodating 70,000 people. It might be something else wonderful, but it would be something else.
Finally, with my bias out of the way, I think this story is actually pretty boring. Like many people, my first thought on hearing of it was framed by the narrative I kind of want: A community willing to defend its culture, even if I can't condone the specific actions taken here.
But that's just sensationalism unless there's some kind of confirmation. The people I talked to above all said they are aware of many others who are upset with White Ocean.
What's more likely, in light of the trail of upset people WO has left behind: Burners making an amorphous political statement (without even leaving an explicit statement behind), or some pissed off Burners taking personal revenge on people they had a falling out with? Between the upset contractors, the fights within the camp, the bullying, etc it just seems like a camp primed to have a bit of an implosion.
In other words, it's almost certainly just an intra-camp dispute writ large due to the scale of the camp. Mildly interesting, but that's about it, and barring dramatic new info, I'm done thinking about it.
P.S. Is the Russian mafia involved in their camp? I don't know, and I don't really care. Maybe? Just because one of the owner's father may be involved in said mob doesn't mean the camp is. Certainly, a lot of people tell me it is, but it seems to be mostly hearsay. I doubt they go around wearing, "I M Russian Mob" nametags.
I'm Dr. Yes. I run this site, lead a theme camp called Friendgasm, and make Burning Man videos. Just say yes, folks, and help keep Burning Man weird!