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Burning Spin 

Organizers of the Burning Man festival pull out all the stops to control the press -- and it's a good thing they do

Wednesday, Aug 28 2002
San Francisco attorney Terry Gross is dressed in all-black, a small metal pin of a bounding greyhound clipped to his lapel. His Maritime Plaza office is nearly barren, the only splashes of color provided by a carelessly hung mobile of wooden tropical fish and a couple of porn tapes, stacked next to his computer. The top one reads, Babes Gone Crazy -- Desert Heat.

Gross, who, with his swept-back blond hair and thin, tan features, shares more than a passing resemblance to Don Johnson, is the lawyer for Black Rock City LLC -- the organizers of Burning Man. After attending the weeklong festival in 1997, he offered his services to the organizers at a reduced rate. Now, he likes to say, his job is to "make sure nobody takes Burning Man's name in vain." Around the Burning Man offices, he sometimes goes by the handle he chose for himself, "Lightning."

Today, Lightning is so burnt from working past midnight all week he can barely speak above a whisper. Gross glances at the porn tapes with an uninterested, slightly impatient expression.

"I think the human body is beautiful," he says softly, leaning forward, confidentially. "But this stuff is just ... I don't see the appeal."

Whatever Gross' personal opinions are about porn, he's been watching a lot of it recently on his client's behalf; he is representing Burning Man in its high-profile lawsuit against L.A.-based porn purveyor Voyeur Video. Voyeur Video makes and sells videotapes of nude women, shot on Spring Break, at public festivals like Mardi Gras, and in other party situations. A typical title for sale is XXX Lake Havasu -- College Girls Suck Dicks, Masturbate, 100s of Girls. Sand Bar ... The Best. Explanatory text for the videos is self-contradictory and unclear as to whether or not the women in the tapes knew they were being filmed. Clearly, given the company's name, the possibility of covert taping is part of the appeal.

Burning Man is suing Voyeur over two videotapes shot at the event by Voyeur's owner and sole employee, James O'Brien. The tapes, which show nude women engaged in a variety of activities, from the mundane to the sexual, have been up for sale on Voyeur Video's Web site since 1999. O'Brien responded to cease-and-desist letters from Burning Man by changing the name of the tapes from Burning Man to Rainbow Fire Festival. But Voyeur Video is still selling the tapes.

"They're a bad apple," says Gross.

Black Rock City LLC has filed a lawsuit that contends O'Brien has breached the contract printed on his admission ticket to the festival, which read, "Commercial use of images taken at Burning Man is prohibited without the prior written consent of Burning Man." Moreover, the suit claims, O'Brien invaded participants' privacy by filming the women in the videos without their knowledge or consent. A hearing on Burning Man's request that O'Brien and Voyeur Video be barred from selling the tapes is set for next week.

The Voyeur Video case is no Burning Man anomaly; it reveals the great lengths to which a small group, which began the event as a yearly performance art piece on Baker Beach, will go to maintain control of the Burning Man image. Indeed, anyone familiar with the let-it-all-hang-out nature of the festival might be surprised to learn just how little freedom the media have -- specifically, media with cameras -- in covering it.

Using tactics that would be right at home with the public relations machines controlling press access to Disneyland or the Olympics, Burning Man imposes strict conditions on camera-based media and tries to shape the story of every reporter. Journalists must register and go through a detailed screening process to cover the event. Those with cameras must sign away many of their rights to the videotape, film, and photos they shoot, or be barred from covering Burning Man. Some journalists see this process as troubling: In playing by Burning Man's rules, the media seem to be willingly knuckling under to the type of controls they would vehemently oppose in other situations.

But when viewed in context, the controls make sense. Burning Man has a lot to lose -- its credibility as a noncommercial event, its customers' rights to protect themselves from pornographers, even its very existence in the conservative state of Nevada -- if it allows sensationalized images of the event to spread. Organizers believe Burning Man's survival as a countercultural, independent, private event depends on their ability to make the media play by their rules. And Burning Man has been very effective at instituting and enforcing those rules.

As most people know by now, Burning Man began in 1986 as a small performance art piece in which founder Larry Harvey and two friends built and burned a wooden man on Baker Beach. It wasn't until the event moved in 1990 to the Black Rock Desert, north of Reno, Nev., that it began to attract the media -- in droves. Safe from the scrutiny of law enforcement (at first) in its remote location, the festival began drawing thousands of people, most San Franciscans with countercultural leanings. Each year, for the last week of August, they built a temporary town called Black Rock City, in which nothing (save ice and coffee) was to be bought or sold. In addition to the rule against vending, the event allowed no sponsors or advertisers. Despite inevitable comparisons, it was no wannabe Woodstock or Grateful Dead show. There was no main act, no main stage, no main attraction.

Instead, participants were encouraged to create their own things to do and see. So people brought entire living room sets out to the desert on flatbed trucks. They sometimes went nude, or, more often, wore costumes. The first interactive theme camp sprouted up -- Christmas Camp, where Santa forced visitors to eat fruitcake, with rum-laced eggnog as their reward. Other camps followed. Art grew larger, and came to include public fountains, massive flaming heads, warring robots, and giant Tesla coils. The event was photographically interesting -- its concentrated freakishness was set against the blank, white desert. That it happened in the middle of a desolate and inhospitable environment, where blinding sandstorms and freezing rain could suddenly kick up out of nowhere, gave it added drama and suspense. All in all, it made a great story.

About The Author

Lessley Anderson


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