Co-founder preaches the importance of Burning Man

BLACK ROCK DESERT — At his camp, called “The Outback,” at the outer edge of Black Rock City, Michael Mikel cradles his plastic yellow mug on an overcast morning at this year’s festival and reflects on how it all began.

One of the founding members of Burning Man, he joined the Burn in 1988, when the festival was still just a group of free spirits gathering on Baker Beach in San Francisco on the summer solstice.

In the years since then, Mikel — better known as Danger Ranger on the playa — has had a hand in many of the facets that now define Burning Man. He fueled the festival’s growth by advertising the event in the freewheeling Cacophony Society’s newsletter. At the time, the group was, Mikel says, a “randomly gathered network of free spirits united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society.”

They hosted a variety of events in abandoned places — warehouses, bridges, railroad tunnels — and, because many society members became Burners, much of that group’s ethos resurfaced as Mikel started the Black Rock Rangers, the city’s mediation team. He helped institute the Department of Mutant Vehicles to regulate the use of art cars. After 1994, he instituted a perimeter around the event and established a sophisticated radar system to detect both attendees who have strayed too far and those who attempt to break in.

Twenty-eight years later, his loose-fitting Western-style shirt tucked into saffron-hued slacks, tufts of white hair peek out from beneath his moss green top hat, aviator goggles propped on top in to be ready for the dust storms that whip up at a moment’s notice.

His camp setup is equally stylish, having been carefully curated. Under a wide swath of camo netting sits an oasis of wicker benches and chairs, faded throw pillows and ornate magenta rugs, all of which has been procured from street corners or thrift stores over the years. In the back corner, a bar is set up.

Today, Mikel is Burning Man’s director of genetic programming. The title doesn’t come with a list of concrete responsibilities. He’s a futurist, he says, who envisions what Burning Man could become.

“If you view Burning Man as kind of an entity, almost biological, I can make small changes in the DNA if you will, which multiply and have larger effects in the future,” Mikel says.

As someone with roots in several Silicon Valley tech companies in the 1970s, Mikel is particularly interested in how technology can enhance the Burning Man experience.

“Our technology will reach a point where it’s so pervasive where you’ll be wearing special sunglasses and you’ll walk out here, and you will see a piece of art on the playa. If you take your sunglasses off, it will go away.”

His take on present-day Silicon Valley’s infiltration of the event? “Burning Man is very important in what we have to teach the world,” he says. “And if we are to teach the world how to get along with each other and how to live on this planet without destroying it, we need to reach everyone. We need to reach these people, we need to reach people of means, we need to reach community and world leaders. And so we welcome it.”

When asked what message he would send to his former Burner self from the future, knowing what he knows now and knowing what Burning Man has become, Mikel takes a moment and then begins vigorously digging around in the front pockets of his shirt.

He comes up empty but settles on one thing: “It will be OK.”

He smiles and takes a sip of from his mug. Then, he goes back to his left front pocket and roots around again. This time, he pulls out a tiny slip of paper with white font on a black background. It says, “It will be OK.”

“It’s a message from the future,” Mikel says. “I find them out here all the time.”

Read more from Sarah Corsa at Contact her at and follow @sarahcorsa on Twitter.

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