History of Burning Man

Sven Aarne Serrano, founder of Dragon Burn, shares his personal story of Burning Man’s origins.

Dragon Burn Organisers at Burning Man in 2016
Dragon Burn Organisers at Burning Man 2016

The origins of Burning Man are like theories on the Big Bang. There are conflicting accounts, with corrections hurled in by those who say they were there. This is my story.

I lived in San Francisco for most of the 1980s, enjoying the cheap urban rent, punk rock clubs, and thick remnants of California counter-culture. I participated in performance art events and political demonstrations with several groups. Notably the Artists’ Television Access, and the Church of the SubGenius.

Cacophony Society

One particular group of pranksters known as the Cacophony Society got my attention. These guys pushed the limits of legality. Throwing parties in abandoned nuclear missile base bunkers. Clambering to the top towers of the Golden Gate Bridge dressed up as Santa Claus. Getting drunk then giving away merchandise inside posh department stores – creating chaos and merriment in their wake. I was in for a few manic events including a surreal “Zone Trip #2”, a road trip to Los Angeles. The ‘Zone’ was inspired by a Polish science fiction book (and the film Stalker by Tarkovsky). It was a place visited by aliens where the laws of physics no longer applied.

Around 1987 the Cacophonists headed out to Baker Beach to watch a local artist, one Larry Harvey, burn a wooden effigy in a solemn ceremony fuelled by drinks and laughter. The next year the cops shut it down. One of the Cacophonists, John Law, told Larry of a place in the Nevada desert they knew where you could burn things. This is what we now call the Playa. I had just moved to Japan or I would have been at the first Playa Burn. This is now known to history as “Zone Trip #4.”

Burning Man

While in Japan I heard about the early burns, so in 1996 I flew back to SF with my other wild Bay Area friends. They were ‘Rangers’ involved with setting up the event. After I returned I drove out to the Playa for my first ever Burning Man.

This would turn out to be the last ‘lawless’ Burn before the breakup of the original leadership troika. It was still anything goes: tents everywhere, real firearms on the Playa, you could burn anything anytime and no cops. My friend and I got lost in the desert after mistaking the lights of Empire for Gerlach, but were rescued by a Ranger who guided us to safety. Unfortunately there was a price paid by a foolish Burner on a motorcycle who, while playing ‘chicken’ with his friends driving a truck, hit the mirror and died. Still, the band played on, the man was pulled up by everyone present with ropes, the early theme camps played music and supplied refreshments and people got naked. 

The next year the Revolution was institutionalized but the original energy was kept and stored safely like a genie in a bottle.

Interested in going to Burning Man? Check out our handy guide or find out more on the official site!