He wore leather boots with his pants tucked in and his gold belt buckle read “Far West.” His shirt resembled the playa at Black Rock Desert, a sandy color with polygonal mud cracks. Michael Mikel, also known as “Danger Ranger,” historian, futurist and co-founder of Burning Man, spoke about “The Five Ages of Burning Man” on April 18 at Sierra Nevada College.
With approximately 100 guests nearly half of the audience members raised their hands to say they had been to the Burning Man festival. Mikel, a Burning Man attendee for 28 years, shared the history of the festival, beginning with Exploration (1986-1989), Rapid Growth (1990-1996), Protectionism (1997-2000), Outreach (2001-2010), and finally, Scarcity (2011-present). The overarching factors that have shaped Burning Man are based on growth rate, supply and demand, and capacity.
Mikel explained that in 1986 the first wooden man was burned on Baker Beach in San Francisco on the summer solstice. The concepts that created the foundation for Burning Man stemmed from the Cacophony Society in San Francisco, a randomly gathered network of individuals united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society. Through subversion, pranks, art, explorations and meaningless madness the society was built upon the words “inclusion, permission, free, responsibility, leave no trace, anonymity, do-ocracy, immediacy, participation, and a-political.” Mikel was a member of this society and editor of the newsletter “Rough Draft” before joining as co-founder of Burning Man in 1988.
The first burning at Black Rock Desert took place in 1990 after the event had been dismissed by law enforcement at Baker Beach due to fire hazard. Mikel was responsible for bringing the event to the playa, becoming a co-founder of Black Rock City LLC in 1999.
Burning Man has gone from a population of 35 to 67,290, from an 8-foot burning man to a 104-foot burning man, and ticket sales from $15 to $425. From underground to mainstream, the identity of this community has changed time and time again.
The festival developed its full culture in the second age of Burning Man, pushing the limits of control. Mikel shared a photo of a line drawn across the road and remembered saying in 1990, “beyond this line everything will be different.” The blank slate of the playa at Black Rock had a “reputation of bold statements.”