Burning women
The guys make a lot of noise – but women are increasingly making Burning Man happen

By Steven T. Jones

At the Commonwealth Club of California Dec. 14, a panel on the "Impact of Counterculture" featured four men – and moderator and journalist Laura Fraser, who took the group to task for giving short shrift to the role women have played in rebellious cultural movements.

After Mondo 2000 founder Ken Goffman, a.k.a. R.U. Sirius, fumbled to explain why so few women appear in his new book, Counterculture Through the Ages, Burning Man founder Larry Harvey took a stab at the topic.

It's true, he said, that men have often led counterculture movements like his through their early transgressive phases, when they argue loudly over the vision, rail against the status quo, and blow things up. But by the time Burning Man moved from Baker Beach to the inhospitable Black Rock Desert a few years into its existence, it was the women who ensured its survival and sustainability.

"Once we got into the desert," Harvey told the crowd, "the women took over."

A similar dynamic seems to be shaping up in the wake of the recent male-led struggle for control over how art gets selected and funded at Burning Man (see "State of the Art," 12/8/04).

The whole thing started out as a chest-thumping battle between Harvey and Odeon Bar owner Chicken John. But as the Burning Man organization (a.k.a. the Borg) prepares for its 20th burn (for which tickets were set to go on sale Jan. 5) – and as the artist revolt that spawned Borg2 begins to take shape – women are assuming the leadership roles that will make or break this grand experiment.

Chicken John and artist Jim Mason may have led the uprising, but during the first Borg2 meeting Dec. 15 at the Odeon, they called on others to take over. Experiments in the "radical democracy" Borg2 was created to push can't be cults of personality. So they urged attendees to run for the nine-member arts council that'll lead the effort to raise $250,000 and use it to facilitate a mind-blowing art oasis in their corner of the larger Burning Man event.

"We want to make it work, and we want to make it work in a form they can steal from us," Mason explained to the group.

About a dozen people answered the call and planned to take part in a candidates' forum at the Odeon Jan. 5, after which they'll stand for election Jan. 15. The council will then be in charge of converting the big ideas and rambling statements of discontent that have fueled the controversy into a plan of action.

About half the candidates are women, and local art benefactor Tracy Feldstein has been designated Borg2's treasurer. Already there are signs that the new leaders won't be content to just follow the playbooks of Chicken John and Mason, with some candidates pushing for ensuring that the category of "women's art" gets emphasized in Borg2 funding decisions.

Substantially less than half of Burning Man attendees are women, Harvey told the Bay Guardian, but women have always played key leadership roles. Art curator LadyBee, a.k.a. Christine Kristen, is on the original Borg, which is split evenly between the genders. Unlike those long-timers, many Borg2 candidates are relative newcomers to Burning Man.

Natalie Schumacher, a.k.a. Nat the Bat, has been among the most prolific on the online discussion boards that gave birth to Borg2. She's a 24-year-old sculptor for an erotic bakery in Denver who's flying to San Francisco for the Jan. 5 forum.

"It's something I feel like I need to do because I've been so vocal," said Nat, who attended Burning Man for the first time last year. "I'm not exactly sure how to make it all happen, but I want to help."

Candidate Angela Knowles, a 23-year-old art student, also attended the event for the first time last year after moving to San Francisco in April. "I really want to be a part of making Burning Man a better event for the artists," she told us.

Both women have only vague ideas of how they'll accomplish their goals, but they share an idealistic passion for using the forum to pump up the event's artistic offerings. Knowles said, "Because this is fresh and new, there is a refurbishing of people's minds to create new and fresh ideas."

They and many other candidates profess the desire to bring more notable outside artists to Burning Man and to break what they see as the stranglehold Harvey and LadyBee have on the event. "We have the opportunity to vote and participate," Nat told us, "whereas before it was just Larry Harvey's thing."

Statements like this – which imply that Burning Man limits the artistic expressions of attendees – are what Stephanie Selig has been spending lots of time online trying to correct. "I've just been trying to get the basic information out and to clear up some of these misconceptions," said Selig, a volunteer with the Artery, which facilitates placement of art on behalf of the Borg.

She is supportive of Borg2 but said much of its backing is derived from misunderstandings and personality clashes. Her message has been that anyone can bring art to the playa and that the Borg is simply enforcing rules for reasons of safety (lighting art at night so nobody runs into it), environmental stewardship (preventing fire art from creating burn scars), logistics (scheduling common use of cranes and backhoes), and acclimation to harsh surroundings.

"We just try to get people to think about what will happen to their sculptures in 80-mile-per-hour winds," she said.

LadyBee agrees with Selig and questions Borg2's goal of bringing more big-name artists to the playa.

"We aren't just about bringing high-profile art to the playa. It's not for everyone," LadyBee said. "The weird thing about our funding decisions is it's about building community through the art."

Statements about using art to create community drove the recent art rebellion, during which many artists pointed to LadyBee as epitomizing the problem. She acknowledges being a bit of a lightning rod for the mostly male industrial artists of the Bay Area, which she attributes to being an authority figure.

"They need me to exist in a way. They have to have someone to rebel against because they're a rebellion-based community," LadyBee said.

LadyBee said she's happy to see women playing such an active role in Borg2 and believes they can heal some of the divisiveness that last month's conflict spawned. But when it comes to raising lots of money and dealing with often-temperamental artists, she thinks Borg2 leaders have their work cut out for them.

"Frankly, I think they have no clue what they're getting themselves into," LadyBee said. "But I do hope they raise some money and have some good art."

The battle of the Borgs has been fashioned by their respective alpha males as a competition, with Harvey and Chicken even wagering on which would produce the better art. And if indeed it's about choosing art teams, then one early action doesn't look good for Borg2.

Many members of the Flaming Lotus Girls – a high-profile group of mostly female industrial artists based at the Box Shop in Hunters Point – signed the petition that led to the creation of Borg2. The group was talked about as a potential guest curator for Borg2 and featured prominently on its list of artists.

Yet after a lively internal debate last month, the Flaming Lotus Girls decided to apply for an art grant from the original Borg.

"We talked about it and decided that the only thing that mattered was getting more art at Burning Man. It wasn't that tricky of a decision in the end," said longtime member Pouneh Mortazavi. "We are planning to apply to both people, even though we know we can't be funded by both people."

And with the Borg awarding its art grants by March 1 – and Borg2 not even closing its application process until April – the Flaming Lotus Girls are likely to remain where they've always been. Yet Mortazavi said they may try to do a second project for Borg2 or participate with it in some way.

Like many of the women involved in Burning Man, she rejects the notion that the desire to shake things up and rejuvenate the art means having to choose sides in the grand debate over what Burning Man should be about and how it should be led.

"Change is always good, but the Borg is not the evil that Jim and Chicken portray it to be," Mortazavi said.

It's this sort of nuanced, community-based dialogue that many feel has been overshadowed by the bravado that has been at the heart of the recent conflict and most of the highest-profile battles during Burning Man's 20-year history.

"Jim and Chicken are really invested in it being a battle, and frankly, we don't see it that way," LadyBee said. "We're all in this together."

E-mail Steven T. Jones, a.k.a. Scribe.