PBR: How did you first become interested in Burning Man?
Scribe: Burning Man first caught my attention in the mid-‘90s when I heard about it from some friends in San Luis Obispo. I was intrigued by it, but I’d been covering the counterculture for my alternative-newsweekly and I didn’t think I needed to attend to get what it was about. I thought I got it. But when I finally went for the first time in 2001, I was just astounded by the scale and intensity of it, a reaction that most people have. There really is nothing like a visit to Black Rock City.
PBR: What is the most significant way Burning May has changed your life?
Scribe: On an immediate level, it restores my faith in humans and their capacity for creativity and cooperation, every time I go. I’m a progressive political journalist and I’ve been pretty disgusted by the direction of this country since 1980, particularly with the greed and selfishness our economic system has instilled in people. But Burning Man is the antidote for that, a place in which people organize and work hard to create these amazing gifts for their community. It has reinforced my basic belief in progressivism and the notion that it’s possible for society to become more cooperative and selfless, if we can just reform our political and economic systems.
PBR: Burners Without Borders played a critical role in helping victims of Hurricane Katrina rebuild parts of their lives. Are you aware of any plans that BWB has to travel to the areas of the South hit hardest by the tornadoes?
Scribe: Yes, Burners Without Borders responded to the tornados in the South very quickly and teams are there now working on cleanup. That’s one of the great things about BWB is how nimble it is, and how it’s basically an organizing, logistical, and promotional tool that individuals or small groups of burners can tap into to help them accomplish a task. So when disaster hits and someone is moved enough to want to help, BWB will help them connect with others who feel the same way, and then they can use the organization’s history, contacts, and name to set up a work encampment and start gathering the resources they need to be effective.
PBR: Members of the various Burning Man tribes form a tight knit community. How can a first timer (aka “newbie”) become involved in a tribe?
Scribe: Each major U.S. city has a network of regional burners that newbies can access through the Burning Man website, and they all have monthly mixers where people can tap into the scene, make friends, and join a camp. In cities like San Francisco that have big Burning Man communities, there are camp fundraisers pretty much every weekend, so it’s pretty easy to start meeting people that you may want to camp with. The largest camps with the biggest budgets are generally the easiest to get into because they’re always looking for fresh blood, but once people get into the scene and start making friends, then they can start thinking about creating a camp of their own design. Of course, the other way is to just decide to go with a bunch of friends who are also newbies and follow the Survival Guide and input from veterans and start from scratch in the beginning.
PBR: What is new and different about this year’s Burning Man?
Scribe: Burning Man is new and different every year because it’s created entirely by those who go, so it’s really a fresh city every time you go. But this is actually a very big year for Burning Man because it is beginning the transition of turning over control over the event from Black Rock City LLC to a new nonprofit called The Burning Man Project. To represent that and this year’s Rites of Passage art theme, the Man will be in a slightly different position this year, striding across a chasm instead of standing still. But the change in leadership will be a gradual process over the next six years, and it will probably never be discernible to the average burner. If you want to read more about this transition, read this post and the two others it links to: http://www.sfbg.com/politics/2011/04/06/burning-man-going-communal-or-selling-out
PBR: If you could choose one day that symbolizes the best of Burning Man, what would it be?
Scribe: I don’t think that’s really possible because the moments that symbolize the best of Burning Man often follow moments when you’re truly tested by adverse weather, challenges in setting something up, or other hardships. So I guess I’d say that the days that really symbolize Burning Man for me are those days early in the week, say a Monday after you show up with your early arrival pass on a Saturday to build a big camp, when you work your ass off all day and see the completion of your camp. And then you wash up in your newly completed showers with other naked friends, have a great dinner, don a new costume and maybe get into your party supplies, and then set out as a group to explore what the city has to offer that year.
PBR: Say 15 years from now you write another book about the culture of Burning Man. What changes, advancements or additions would you hope to see in the story?
Scribe: I hope that The Burning Man Project is running the event as a trusted nonprofit entity with true representation from this culture’s major component groups, and that it has stayed true to the basic principles that guide the event today. The one thing Burning Man lacks now is a democratic structure that encourages community participation in the decisions that affect the event, from decisions on art grants and whether to cap the population to what kinds of ancillary organizations to pursue. It’s a point that I and others make throughout the book, that for an event that is very participatory and collaborative, the corporation that stages the event is actually a very top-down hierarchy. And I think it would help this experiment if that changed and there was new life, energies, and ideas brought into its core management team.