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All The News That's Fit To Burn : 2004 Summer Newsletter

A Spreading Fire

Wherever Burning Man communities arise they tend to embody the unique characteristics of their organizers and their region. The motto of Burning Beach, the Santa Cruz Burning Man regional group, is "Include yourself, include others", and regional contacts Roxanne and Jim Graham have been practicing what they preach for more than three years. "We've got some amazingly creative people in the Santa Cruz area. Fostering a community that showcases their talents is a lot of what motivates us," Jim said. "A lot of Burners, here and elsewhere, do amazing things, and one thing we do is help them get visibility for their work."

Burning Beach's first community event was showing a film at a local community center. 100 Burners and non-Burners showed up, some driving more than 100 miles to attend. That film showing has evolved into a daylong Burning Man film festival that drew 400 attendees in 2003. The event included art installations, miniature theme camps, and a talk by Burning Man Director Larry Harvey.

"It's hard enough being an independent filmmaker, let alone doing a film about Burning Man," Jim said. "We view the festival as a way for filmmakers to get visibility for their art while at the same time building community among Burners and people interested in learning more about Burning Man's culture. We always schedule it about a month after the desert event when everyone is jonesing for a taste of the playa."

The festival was so well received that it's now packaged as the Film Festival in a Box. This do-it-yourself kit includes a menu of short and feature length films, complete with instructions concerning promotion and event management. The festival recently premiered in London and is about to begin touring other regional communities. The goal, Jim and Roxanne say, is to publicize the work of filmmakers while providing regional communities with a way to raise funds for local projects. This year, in addition to raising funds to support regional activities, their regional group also donated $800 to the Second Harvest Food Bank in the name of local Burners.

"One thing that's important to us, in addition to building bonds within the Burner community, is connecting with other community groups," Roxanne explains. "That was the genesis of the quilting project." Santa Cruz County is building a women and children's shelter. After talking with local Burners, Roxanne approached the shelter organizers and offered to make quilts to decorate the shelter when it opens at the end of this year. "We've got some remarkably talented sewers and costume makers in our community. They've all pulled together to contribute to the shelter," Roxanne said. "We've even got people who don't know how to sew but who want to help. Considering how much fabric there is to cut into squares, that's a godsend."

Other projects Jim and Roxanne have been involved in include developing a website for the local fire performance troupe, Nocturnal Sunshine, helping Scott "P.T. Nemo" Laurie find a home for the Ark of the Nautilus, the former San Francisco city bus nee submarine that has plied the playa for the past two years.

Some of the most popular regional projects are those that reside on the Burning Beach website (www.burningbeach.com). Local photographer Richard Jones donates a CD of his annual photographs of Black Rock City, and Jim and Roxanne post these as computer desktop images for people to download. Roxanne has also compiled a 50-page book of recipes for the playa that is housed on the website. "The recipes are surprisingly popular," Roxanne said. "Most of them are great tasting meals you prepare in advance of the event and reheat on the playa. Seriously, who wants to cook out there?"

Over five years of growth and evolution, British Columbia's Burning Man Vancouver (BMV) has embraced a diverse range of individuals, groups and activities. Town hall meetings, arts and crafts bees, film screenings, fire spin jams and parties are just some of the happenings that keep the fires of the Black Rock Desert burning. This community now boasts two large annual regional Burn events, Recompression and Shine in the Forest.

Recompression was the first large-scale event created by BMV. After two years of being hosted at urban indoor venues, Recompression moved to a rural children's camp on the Sunshine Coast in 2003. "We needed more diversity," said reps collective member Jody Franklin. "This environment allowed us to expand beyond offering just theme spaces and music." Access to several buildings situated on a beautiful, forested ocean side property allowed a fuller blossoming of the community's potential. Workshops, fire performance, friendly "cabin crawls," an open mic stage, group rituals, communal meals and the burning of a large wooden art structure added more depth, intimacy and variety to the experience. "It is an amazing show of community participation, just like on the playa, except effortless and lush," enthused Squishelle, a key organizer.

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Shine in the Forest (SiTF), BMV's annual family campout, takes place deep in a coastal rain forest valley, alongside a glacial river, under snow-capped peaks. This rustic gathering is under the visionary direction of Diana Krebs. The site is home to a sacred Squamish totem circle, a congregation point for shared experience. The EmoDome and a homemade wood-fired hot tub are two popular temporary additions to the campsite. Ecological sensitivity means that Leave No Trace principles are paramount at SiTF. In the interests of conservation, BMV clean-up crews visit the site in the weeks and months before and after the event, to ensure the integrity of the land is maintained.

The three-person Regional Contact group, formed in 2001, plans events that encourage community participation. Several other groups provide important contributions to each event. The Parallels collective throws parties to raise funds and support for community projects. Fire performers from the Wet Rock Fireflies conclave host regular spin sessions and workshops that attract participants from all over the Northwest. Local theme camp groups like Camp Orange, Fallopia and Xara are devoted to providing artful, ambient space design at gatherings. The EmoMen create "temporary autonomous zones for experiential communication," within their warm, inviting EmoDome. As EmoMan Eric Ansley puts it, "the whole experience of any Burning Man event is a gift, and we like to gift in return."

From the outset, people in the community exhibited an organic tendency toward working collectively on projects and making decisions by consensus. "The outward appearance is that we don't have a structure," says IRony, a member of the regional reps collective. "But everything we do always comes together." Part of this success, adds IRony, is attributable to the fact that "We keep letting fresh people come in and take things in new directions." This informal, radically inclusive approach derives from Burning Man's essential ethos.

In many ways, core elements of the Burning Man experience have merged with local culture. The First Nations peoples of the Northwest Coast had a tradition known as the potlatch. The sharing of gifts and celebratory activities, such as music, dancing, costume, performance and ritual, were at the heart of this ceremony. British Columbia's Burning Man Vancouver community is reviving these practices in a postmodern setting. Indeed, some of the earliest BMV gatherings were potluck feasts.

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Seattle approaches community building in a slightly different way. The area has long sent a strong presence to the playa each year, with groups such as Flight to Mars, Space Virgins, AlienMonkeyLoveNest, Johnny and the Playa Cruizers, and Arson Island Resort, along with a couple thousand other participants with varying affiliations. But even this exceptionally strong showing in Black Rock City almost pales in comparison to what this community does the other 51 weeks of the year.

Critical Massive followed its debut in 2003 with a return engagement June 25 through 27 this year. This Washington state regional burn takes place on the gorgeous 80-acre property of the Lake Bronson Family Nudist Resort, with guidance from Dave Martinez, co-regional contact since November 2003. Then, after this year's Burning Man event, SeaCompression will bring back the region's own take on the traditional decompression party for its third installment. This event is genuinely a community undertaking, rather than a project of any one group or theme camp. The 900 attendees in 2003 helped generate a donation to the Black Rock Arts Foundation of over $6,000 in thanks for the work BRAF has done benefiting artists from Seattle and around the world.

Beyond Critical Massive and SeaCompression, many major theme camps conduct year-round fund-raising activities, so the community rarely waits more than a couple weeks for an excuse to gather. David Peterman, a regional contact since April 2002, has focused his organizing on events and activities that draw out and educate new participants, such as Burning Man 101, an informal information-sharing workshop, and the annual Newbie Picnic. In addition to all this activity, every Monday is Burn Night at the Lower Level, a local watering hole owned and operated by a group of veteran participants.

In sponsoring events over the last two years, the Seattle community has steadily grown. This movement seems destined to become even stronger in the coming months and years. For example, Massive is morphing into a fully structured LLC that will provide support for local talent while working to keep the burning spirit alive throughout the year.

Although every Burning Man community is unique, successful communities appear to exhibit certain characteristics. The regional contact groups who help to organize and coordinate community activities are typically composed of individuals with different and complimentary talents. These are people who enjoy working cooperatively with others. Like the organizers of the Burning Man event, they see themselves as facilitators of a culture that derives from the efforts of every community member. Their approach is radically inclusive. They form alliances with other Burning Man communities, as well as preexisting local groups whose members may have no direct relationship with Burning Man. Their mission is to cultivate the here and the now in which they find themselves. They understand that Burning Man exists wherever it's created and that its ethos can be translated into many different types of activity and experience. More than a party, more than a one-time peak experience, the culture that is generated on the playa has become the fabric of way of life.

This year, at the Burning Man event, Burning Man's regional contacts will host a camp in Black Rock City's civic center, Center Camp. Participants are invited to stop by and learn about the more than 75 regional contacts and their communities. Although it's often said that Burning Man arises out of emptiness, a year-round network of affiliated contacts now connects a majority of Black Rock City's theme camps, artist groups and public service projects. This ever-growing world of Burning Man could change your life.