A superlative guest post from Terbo Ted, the first DJ at Burning Man and therefore one of its Unofficial Founders.
Larry Harvey and I were onstage together in 2000 as part of a panel discussion at SOMARTS in San Francisco’s SOMA District. The event was called Webzine. Everyone in the panel was Gen X and some sort of web developer or coder, except for Larry. I was in my early 30s and Larry had to have been in his early 50s. He was there because he was an influencer, a voice of the counterculture. I had worked with Larry from 1992-1996 on the Burning Man Festival (Larry did proudly call it a “Festival” back then) but I had quit working on BM in 1996, when someone died on the playa, multiple others were badly injured and there were numerous arrests. Larry and I remained cordial, he was always a valuable friend and mentor. Larry obviously carried on and the Burning Man legacy continues.
During the panel discussion, we fielded many questions from the audience, largely about the role of early internet corporations such as Yahoo!. This was before google, facebook and today’s internet giants, in an era when much of the internet was still being built by small design firms and ad hoc coalitions of mercenary contractors such as myself. Larry- who didn’t write code- was a brilliant intellectual, cultural engineer and visionary, and he made a statement on that panel that still rings true in my head today. Larry had the audacity to say to a large audience of young, independent creative people in an art gallery in San Francisco that corporations were not bad. In essence, Harvey explained that you didn’t want to be milling the rubber for your own tires, or soldering together circuit boards for your own computer. Words of wisdom.
It was still a few years before Harvey introduced the 10 Principles to the Burner community. “Radical Self-reliance” is one of those principles. Looking back at the context of the mid-90s, San Francisco- which spawned Burning Man- was a beacon for DIY culture. The 1995 film ‘Tank Girl’ felt like it was about my friends.
SOMA was home to young women with nose piercings who’d be chain smoking while fixing their motorcycle, talking about wanting to go to welding classes- and crudely painting things in garish colors with their spiky hair in disarray- while wearing grimy paint-stained coveralls. I miss that nuts and bolts era, years before everyone was glued to their phones. Even at the 2000-era Webzine conference, the community there was hand coding its own web sites, DIY in full effect. But there’s reasonable limits to DIY. For example, we were able to figure out how to rent a generator from a construction supply company, cart it out to the Black Rock Desert with enough fuel to run some lights or sound system or coffee maker or whatever we wanted out there for a few days. For the most part- I can’t speak for everybody, because there were crazy Tesla coils being trucked out there back then- most of us had no interest in building our own generator, or processing our own fuel. Radical self-reliance wasn’t entirely literal. Larry didn’t design or weld together his own Airstream trailer, or hand-stitch his own trademark Guayabera shirts.
It’s important to realize that the 10 Principles are not Burning Man’s actual rules. Rules are things like ‘no dogs’ or ‘no firearms’. There were almost no rules in the early days on the playa, and there are pages and pages of rules now. Without rules, Black Rock City could not exist at today’s scale. In my opinion, Larry drafted the 10 Principles to try and explain- Larry was quite an explainer- shared cultural values that had become common among a good number of- but not necessarily all- Burners, based on years of shared communal experience.
Today’s Burners can be an odd set of internet trolls- myself included- and it’s hard to make sense of all the snarky comments and jokes online about bacon or sparkle ponies and so on. “Radical Self-reliance” has become a weaponized keyboard warrior shout down directed at classes of burners who are perceived to be ‘doing it wrong’ by the “Burnier than thou” types. /eyeroll. When I first went out to the Black Rock Desert, we had no idea that we’d need goggles. People would do stuff like take a nap on the playa surface in the midday sun. There were lots of errors in the trial and error. But the beauty of shared wisdom and interaction helped create this enormous culture. So to all of you zealots who keep repeating “Radical Self-reliance” without thinking it through, do you really want to go to the playa and spend the whole week camping by yourself, without saying a word,
saving all your own fecal and urine waste and dutifully carrying it back home in your vehicle? Of course not. Actually, it would be cool performance art if you did.
But the point I’m making is that it’s okay to realize that in a city of 70,000 people there are folks who are going to highly specialize in what they can offer to the city. It’s okay to eat food prepared and paid for by someone else for example. Or to experience art that you didn’t make yourself. As Larry said, you don’t need to mill the rubber for your own tires or solder your own circuit boards. If you did, that’s great too, go for it.
“Immediacy” has to be my favorite of the ten principles, especially in how it relates to the default world. Harvey used to explain that when people would go out to the void of the Black Rock Desert, people’s true essence would shine out of them, because there were no other reference points, it was an authentic experience, you saw people for what they really were when we were “Out There.” There were no cell phone towers anywhere back then, and certainly not on the playa. Today’s world is this crazed media-fueled monster. Stuff that happens thousands of miles away to people we don’t know and will never meet suddenly becomes instant narrative with cultural battle lines being drawn out over every minor detail, true or
not true, it doesn’t matter. This world we inhabit today can be as far from actual “Immediacy” as possible, it’s not based on our actual individual experience right in front of us.
I’m going to argue that Larry missed a few principles. “Gifting” probably could be interpreted to include the Burner slogan “The Playa Provides.” But “The Playa Provides” would be a great 11th principle. The last time I was on the playa in 2017, my favorite incident was as follows: I had befriended a Cigar Camp and was sitting in the shade smoking one of their fine gifted cigars, watching people walk and ride by. It’s got to be 105 out in the sun. A young, slight woman trudges by, her skin burning hot, she’s out of breath, on the edge of tears, dragging her playa bike behind her with considerable effort. “Hey hey hey” I yell at her, “you need to get out of the sun! Did you ride your bike behind the water truck?” She nodded yes and looks like she’s about to cry in frustration. Sure enough- a burgin- she rode her playa bike behind a water truck, and as the wet playa mud dried and hardened, her bike seized up and was unrideable. We get her into the shade, tell
her she should rest a bit, get her some water or a beer or soda or something.
Communicating to the camp mates there, we are able to retrieve a screwdriver, a chisel, some water, some WD-40. We show the young woman how to remove the hardened playa from her bike. Eventually and with considerable effort on her part, it’s in fine running order, she’s cooled off and happily rides away. I can’t remember her name, Australian. Anyway, that vignette sums up ‘gifting’ and ‘the Playa Provides.’ It wasn’t some pre-meditated intention, it was a spontaneous episode that showed how great people can be when we truly need some help to get by. Immediacy.
Let’s go back to Webzine in SOMA in 2000. I was booked to DJ the end of the
event, and a reporter from a TV station in Holland was out to see me play. But my set was cancelled, as Survival Research Labs set off a jet engine in the adjacent parking lot next to SOMARTS, shaking the geiger counter, it was like a terrorist attack, event immediately over. This sort of hazing from older artists was normal back in the day. SRL I think was quite pleased to deliberately show up all these young web coder kids and shut down a ‘rave’. SRL to this day is amazing and awesome, and their vibe very much corresponds to the early SF Burner ethos- hardcore industrial anarchist pranksters- all the respect possible to this tribe.
Connecting this to the Burner timeline, I was part of the first DJ camps at Burning Man from 1992-1996, and I would say that other than the main trio of BM organizers then, namely: Larry Harvey, John Law and Michael Mikel, the other older Burners as a whole typically hated our musical contribution, treated us like pariahs and blamed us ‘ravers’ for just about everything possible that went wrong.
This is well documented. [link]
Let’s go back to the concept of immediacy. If you’ve followed the Burner culture this offseason, news stories have been published as far and wide as the New York Times and BBC talking about official new Burning Man policies against a certain camp- friends of mine- who were singled out and named by name by the official CEO of the org itself, who is also my friend. No one was killed or injured or arrested, as happens now every year at Burning Man. And then hundreds if not thousands of people starting chiming in online in gleeful accord against the new ‘bad’ guys camp because of the news articles flying around. We’re half way around the sun from the burn, and people are openly dissing a camp they’ve never visited or experienced, spewing random heresay, speculation, falsehoods and slander, based on their own biases, prejudices and tilted belief systems. This is as far from immediacy as possible you people, get a freaking clue.
This one camp has been blamed for just about every crime possible against core Burner values, despite their insisting on adherence to the 10 Principles and putting their blood, sweat and tears into their inspired and meticulously planned camps like everyone else. Reading comments from people online who claim to hate this camp after allegedly camping near them, I can’t help but think, why couldn’t you befriend this camp and enjoy the burn with them? I certainly did when they were my burgin neighbors back in 2016! Or if things were going bad for them, why didn’t you help your neighbors in the moment instead of heaping scorn on them on the internet half a year later? WTF. Even worse, I can’t help but take this whole episode of hating on one camp personally, as BM has a long history of blaming people for “ruining” Burning Man. [link]
I am- with my early 90s campmates- very high up on this list of ruining the early years and subsequent trajectory of the ‘festival’ which is no longer officially called a ‘festival’ anymore. To be clear, the org doesn’t owe anyone anything and they can determine whichever camps they choose to work with or not work with, that’s up to them, right or wrong, good or bad, arbitrary or not. If it was up to me, the org would never publicly shame a group by name for failure or errors, myriad or minor, deliberate or accidental. But that’s not my decision to make. We’ve just witnessed the ferocious power of the mainstream news media permanently destroying the reputation of a specific Burning Man camp. We’ve come so far… but for this?
I somehow feel like Emmanuel Goldstein from Orwell’s 1984 as I type, a historical early adopter turned outcast dooming themselves to eternal damnation for speaking up against the controlling regime. I’m not sure I’m ever welcome again in Black Rock City, home to 70,000 people. I would be scared to show my face in First Camp now that Larry has passed, as they are well known to aggressively boot interlopers, random wanderers and unescorted guests out of their space, where guest chefs prepare amazing gourmet meals with the finest ingredients for the anointed hand-picked intelligentsia. The real missing 11th Principle is “Conform or be Cast Out.” Toe the line or else! You will be ostracized! All you Instagram models better dress exactly like all the other Instagram models in perfect Burner costume, or you’ll get singled out and attacked for doing it wrong!
Conform or die! Hmpf.
About the storyteller:
Terbo Ted first visited the Black Rock Desert in 1992 when there was no gate, no perimeter, no road, no trash fence and you could drive your car as fast as you wanted in any direction. Terbo was the first DJ to play in Black Rock City, with no one there to hear his set on a dusty Friday afternoon. Later, in the early years he was the only one ever to be called “Mayor of the Techno Ghetto.” His playa self and default world self can be remarkably similar these days.