December 7, 2021

robertlpham

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The Secret Sci-Fi Origins of Burning Man

It happened one night, sometime between 2000 and 2005. She swears it happened, but she can’t be more specific about the timing than that.

What Summer Burkes does remember is what she saw. She was deep in the desert with a few friends, wandering deeper—no life in sight. Then, at some point, some dark and indeterminate hour, she came upon an abandoned camp. There were cargo tents. And a lookout tower, which she climbed. At the top was a small platform; on it a TV set, glitching, and some dusty old comms equipment. Burkes listened to a transmission playing on loop. It told her where she was: the planet Arrakis. It also told her the reason nobody was there: They’d all been eaten by a sandworm. “That one made my hair stand on end,” Burkes says. She ran back down, scanning the area, frantic, for signs of the worm.

The danger was not, strictly speaking, real. Burkes was at Burning Man, the conflagrant annual confab in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. And the ghost camp, she now believes, sitting in the present-day comfort of her home in Northern California, was an art installation designed to transport nerdy Gen Xers like herself to Arrakis, the setting of Frank Herbert’s Dune. It’s a planet covered in a scorching desert-sea, its tidal sands undulating with the subterranean squirmings of giant, sightless worms. Walk across its surface in too even, too lifelike a pitter-patter and the creatures will hear you, surge skyward, and strike.

Is that what Burning Man is all about? Role-playing scenes from your favorite fantasies, with a frightening dash of Herbertian horror? You’d be forgiven for thinking not. Over the years, the event—expected to return to the desert in 2022 after a two-year Covid hiatus—has come to represent a kind of countercultural city on a hill, founded on druggy West Coast woozeries and lovey-dovey principles of living, a radical weeklong social experiment bolstered by a gift economy. “A load of hogwash,” says John Law, one of its founders. He’s a little peeved, because the bigger Burning Man gets, the more its most ardent devotees seem to misrepresent its geeky beginnings. “In reality,” he says, “pop culture was a much larger influence.” Though almost nobody talks about it, the origin of Burning Man was Mad Max. It was Lawrence of Arabia. And it was, very crucially and in a way that has never been properly acknowledged, Dune.

But Burning Man began on a beach, you say. Very good: In 1986, Larry Harvey and co. set fire to an 8-foot-tall wooden doll on San Francisco’s Baker Beach and made such memorable merriment that they were compelled to do it all over again the next year. Then the year after that, and the next, until the party got so rowdy the police shut them down. So Harvey called up Law, whose punkish, sci-fi-obsessed prankster buddies at the Cacophony Society had an idea: Let’s take it to the desert. The year was 1990, the beginning of Burning Man proper. “We drew a line in the dirt and stepped across it, and it was entirely transformational,” Law recounts in Spark, one of many Burning Man documentaries.

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As early as that first year “on the playa”—Burner-speak for Black Rock—the Dune obsessives in the crew suggested everyone build mock stillsuits, a reference to the form-­fitting bodywear that recycles precious fluids and keeps Arrakis’ desert-­dwelling Fremen alive when they venture beyond the safety of their mountain villages, known as sietches. “They ended up with a bit of a compromise requiring less costuming work, and covered their entire bodies in playa mud,” Law says. In later years, attendees would bring their own Duneries to the proceedings. “I want to get together a group that would be interested in building a Fremen sietch on the playa,” one announced on the ePlaya message board in 2007. Another Burner, in 2005, called the decommissioned ambulance he rode in “the worm.” For years, Burkes and an artist ex-boyfriend fantasized about building a giant worm bursting out of the playa sand.

Burkes started going to Burning Man in 1998, back when there were no LEDs and everything looked just a little grungier, a little more Arrakeen. “All fire and dust and metal,” she says. She was a music and nightlife writer for the SF Bay Guardian at the time; after reporting a story about Burning Man’s Department of Public Works, she immediately joined it. They’re the crew responsible for building up, and then tearing down, the event’s physical infrastructure each year, so for them, some of the most meaningful parts of Burning Man take place when the desert is mostly empty. On the team, Burkes eventually settled into the role of dispatcher—“the MC of everyone’s radio traffic, the all-seeing eye,” as she puts it. One of her first innovations on the job was to come up with a way of identifying the precise moment when the public phase of each Burning Man’s life cycle had really begun. “Before the event, it’s so nice and quiet and dark,” she says. “Then all the loud, bright, blinky people get there, and the first sign is the techno vibrating the floor of the desert. You can feel it in your sternum.” That was her cue. She’d click on her walkie-talkie and announce to the staff: “WE HAVE WORMSIGN.”

For the members of her crew, that moment was always a bit of a letdown, and only became more so as Burning Man got brighter and blinkier over time. “We love the desert because of its transformative properties,” she says. “It’s so quiet it presses on your ears—until there’s wormsign.” Plus, Burkes adds, there’s an underground river that courses beneath Black Rock, and she imagines that the critters in it probably resent that four-on-the-floor beat. “There’s something that makes sense in the desert about walking with uneven steps and not alerting the sandworms to your location,” she says.