Burning Man culture clash

Is the National Geographic Society trying to wipe out an already-extinct tribe of revelers?

Published May 31, 2000 7:05PM (EDT)

The National Geographic Society, revered for its tweedy sensitivity to all creatures great and small, has finally met a culture it just can't understand -- Burning Man, the annual freaky bacchanal in Nevada's Black Rock Desert.

In a May 12 letter, National Geographic sent a stern warning to Black Rock City LLC, the legal entity formed to organize the Burning Man festival, which is a Labor Day weekend mecca for pyromaniacs, artists, tweakers, misfits, survivalists and revelers of all stripes. The Society's lawyers object to a Web site describing a village of theme camps at the 1998 Burning Man called the Irrational Geographic Society. It's not just the name that National Geographic is upset about: The Irrational logo is the Burning Man stick figure in a yellow box, reminiscent of National Geographic's own yellow box logo.

But the similarities between the societies would seem to end there. Among the theme camps that were part of the Irrational Geographic Society village: the Barbarella Camp ("Hot pants and fur!"), Stoner Camp ("Sit around, smoke, and try and talk about what you might actually do if you could only get motivated.") and San Francisco Sex Information Camp ("Get down in the dirt, just keep it clean!"). The Society's mission, as stated on the site, is "to expand explorations of the worlds we've created with our minds."

It seems like National Geographic could stand to engage in some exploration of those worlds themselves. The letter from National Geographic Society addressed to Larry Harvey, "managing member of Black Rock City LLC," demands that the organization "cease and desist all use of the Yellow Border Design and the name, 'Irrational Geographic,' on the Internet and in any other medium."

The demand is a total misfire; not only is Burning Man not host of the Irrational Web site, but the organizers of Burning Man, of course, exercise no central control over the anarchic creations of participants at the delightfully loopy event. That's the point.

"The theme camps are interactive art and self-expression. We certainly don't monitor any of the self-expressions of the theme camps," says Maid Marian, one of six longtime organizers of Burning Man. "I think somebody in the legal department at National Geographic clearly has a lot of time on their hands if they're running around seeking out conflicts on the Internet ... I'm a member of the National Geographic Society and I'm insulted that the money that I contribute goes to pay for this lawyer in her hot little office in Washington, D.C."

Apparently, the legal team at National Geographic -- which couldn't be reached for comment -- doesn't grasp the decentralized nature of Burning Man, or even who controls a given Web site. After all, the Irrational Geographic Society page is part of the Superdeluxe site, which is in no way affiliated with Black Rock City.

The joke is that the Irrational Geographic Society, such as it was, doesn't really exist anymore. James Home, a San Francisco interface designer who operates Superdeluxe, says: "The most amusing part is that the mailing list and the Burning Man community that this is all about have been idle since 1998. I can only assume since the site isn't really linked in that many places that they did a search on 'Geographic' and looked for things to be upset about."

Home has no plans to take down the site, even though that community is no longer active. "I think that's one of the things that the Web is really powerful for -- a repository of human memory." And Home is convinced that if National Geographic should figure out that it's barking up the wrong tree in going after Burning Man, and decide to pursue legal action against that memory site that "they won't have a leg to stand on ... I can't imagine that the site wouldn't be protected by parody law."

Still, there is precedent for companies going after the kind of corporate spoofs that inspire many theme camps at Burning Man. Maid Marian says that the organizer of the Costco Soulmate Outlet made the Web site for his campers password-protected when the discount giant made noise about it.

But you'd think that National Geographic would be more attuned to the unique native customs of Burning Man.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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