In Their Element
There’s something quite extraordinary happening this month out on the salt flats in Grantsville. A festival, produced entirely by unpaid volunteers, is springing up among the pools at Bonneville Seabase, Utah’s unique landlocked saltwater SCUBA location.
Engineers and carpenters have been building fantastic wooden effigies that will be celebrated and then ceremonially burned over the four-day event in mid-July. An army of around 300 volunteers will build, staff, and maintain an extensive infrastructure over an area of some 35 acres. There will be temporary streets with signs and addresses, lampposts to light the night darkness, rangers to keep the peace, and an Emergency Medical Services tent. There will be a kitchen serving up food to hungry campers, and any number of bars ready with libations for those of age. Attendees have been sewing costumes, choreographing performances, creating art, and organizing their camps in preparation for this event for months now.
For four nights, a community will come together in celebration, and then it will disappear for another year, leaving no trace of its existence. This is Element 11, Utah’s regional arm of the Burning Man culture.
Burning Man, the giant festival produced every August out in Nevada’s desolate Black Rock desert, is now in its 26th year. Its recent rise in the media eye has brought changes and disruptions to its culture; the event sold out for the very first time in 2011, and a ticket lottery for 2012 turned into a well-publicized fiasco with many veteran Burners (as attendees are called) left without tickets. Much attention this year has subsequently been focused on the smaller local events known as the Regionals—outposts of Burning Man culture that are officially affiliated with the Burning Man Organization (tenderly known as “The Borg”) and which agree to abide by Burning Man’s 10 principles. These tenets guide the event community, and arguably constitute the soul of the culture and the reason why Burning Man is so different from other festival events of similar size. They are: Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-reliance, Radical Self-expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation, and Immediacy.
Even if a Burner can’t name all 10, he or she understands what makes the community tick: Pick up any litter you see, and pack out all your own trash. Help others in need. Work together, and work hard. Play along and have fun. Take care of yourself. Be friendly and open. Give others permission to be themselves and take the permission you need to express yourself. Many find the experience of being in this alternative society is so compellingly different from that of mainstream American culture that they simply fall in love with it. The Regional network has arisen out of a wish to keep that compassionate, art-driven society active to one extent or another all year. Element 11 is a direct outgrowth of this.
The seed that would germinate into Utah’s regional event was planted by Tom Price, a University of Utah graduate and communications specialist for environmental conservation groups, at a tiny event he hosted on Stansbury Island in the summer of 1998. That year they had some strings of Christmas lights, a screen and a projector, and a few hardy souls ready to venture out into the wasteland and see what kind of a happening they could produce. (See sidebar.)
Utah’s regional has grown up in tandem with Burning Man, 12 years junior to the larger event, but formed from the same fundamental stuff. In 1999 Price moved the event to the Sun Tunnels, the land art piece by Nancy Holt located on the flats 40 miles north of Wendover. That year, Dave Smith (also known as Dave23) became involved in the production. Smith first attended Burning Man in 1996, and helped organize the second occurrence of Utah’s small regional over the summer solstice of 1999. “We had about 50 or 60 people, we had an effigy that we burned, a band that played, and it was pretty much a free-for-all,” Smith says. “The first three years we were at the Sun Tunnels the event was named Zion Playa, and then SynOrgy (for ‘Synergistic Orgy,’ with the intention to create an energetic and permissive space). The owner of the Sun Tunnels wasn’t too happy that we were out there so we started looking for a new location and eventually landed at Bonneville Seabase in 2002. Wanderlust Stephen [Stephen Dean] took a crowd of people out there in early spring of that year, and they exchanged some lawn chairs for some time in the pools, and he later told me about it. I thought wow, that’s a great idea for a location! It has been our home ever since.” (See sidebar.)
Smith became a regional contact for Burning Man along with Adriane Colvin, and the two of them continued to produce SynOrgy at Seabase. “My big focus was on building things, and she liked to work with the fire shows. Our skillsets complemented each other quite well. We made a good team for several years.”
The name was changed in 2004, the year that the event first grew large enough to require a permit from Tooele County: “By 2004 the event had gotten so large that we thought it was in our best interests to get a permit. We realized that the name SynOrgy would look very poor on a permit, so we all sat down and came up with the name Element 11 because the eleventh element on the periodic table is, of course, sodium, one of the main constituents of the salt in the flats all around us out here.”
The first year at Seabase, Element 11 had an attendance of 60 or 70 people. By the time Smith retired from producing the event in 2007, the attendance was up to 700 or 800 people.
His co-producer, Adriane Colvin, had a background in event production. She became the next regional contact. “We have terrain here that looks a lot like the Black Rock Desert, and [the Burning Man organization] could see that we had a lot of potential,” she says.
Performance was already a big part of the festival when she arrived on the scene. “A group called Street Legal Theater had been doing performances at SynOrgy and other festivals, and that tradition has continued.
Adriane is now known as an aerialist and fire dancer. She was first drawn to fire performance when she started helping produce the event. “The first year, we did a fire show with Stephen Dean, and shortly after that I started getting into fire dancing myself. Two other members of the community, Breeze and Aspen, began a fire conclave [a formal performance troupe] for us, and passed that on to me after a couple of years. I gave directorship of that to someone else a few years ago. I look at my involvement with this event like nurturing a baby, making it strong and independent, and then sending it out into the world. It’s been my life’s joy, creating a space where people can feel part of this potent and creative community.”
Burning effigies, whether simply constructed or designed and refined, has always been an integral part of Element 11 and its precursors. (See sidebar.) Dave Smith was part of effigy building from the very beginning: “One thing I enjoy the most about Burning Man culture is that it allows one an opportunity to experience the joy of building art, and none of the responsibilities of storing it or maintaining it. You get to burn it, share it with your community, and release it.” They started with pallets. The first pallet man was 20 ft. tall with a light illuminating it. In 2003 they built a 25-ft.-tall rabbit, and in 2004, a 40-ft.-tall gingerbread man. “After that the effigies stopped being anthropomorphic,” says Smith. “We had a Neverland Island built out of pallets in 2005, and in 2006 we built a 45-ft.-tall oil derrick that had a bit of a fire at the very top. Bobby Gittins became involved in 2006 with the oil derrick, and in 2007 Bobby became our full time engineer for the main effigy.”
Bobby Gittins is a local woodworker and cabinet maker, 36 years old, and has been part of the Burning Man culture for nine years now. “I went to Element 11 for three years before I went to Burning Man for my first time, and fell in love with it all my first moment, and that’s what’s brought me to where I am currently: being a regional contact and building effigies.” Bobby’s experience as a carpenter and professional mold-maker and model-builder has been integral to his work with Element 11. “I had done a lot of model making for the Luxor hotel down in Vegas.” He, along with his dad and brother, also did all the molds for the onion domes, entrances and fancy ornate topwork for the Spanish Fork Krishna temple when it was constructed eight years ago.
He says that the Element 11 effigies, like the Man, bear different meanings for different people. “I’ve seen people crying, using the effigy as a temple and a place of sorrow and letting go, and I’ve seen people really having a good time and partying there, and also people using it as a place of quiet enjoyment and meditation throughout the day. Everyone has a different use for it—what it means depends on the person. What it means for me is a sense of the temporariness of life; you put your heart and soul into something that will eventually go away.”
Gittins has made effigies representing the Hindu elephant god Ganesh, a Mayan step temple, and a pagoda, among others. The effigies are a community effort, and are always constructed mainly from recycled materials. “Every year it’s been mostly pallets from my work,” he says. “I have to start collecting in February or March and start taking it out to Seabase and building at the end of April.” The pagoda he constructed for 2011 was made mostly of World War II blasting cap ammo boxes salvaged from a local Grantsville collector, Jack Tomlin, who died just before the 2011 event. Gittins and a small dedicated crew of volunteers will put in hours every weekend all spring and summer before the event, creating art out of whatever clean, burnable wood they can find. This is their gift to their community.
That strong sense of community cohesion, even among community-minded Burners, is really unique, according to Tom Price. “Growing up in a place like Utah, which has historically been a monoculture, any environment which is permissive is almost by definition transgressive and very intriguing and very attractive to certain people. Utah has become more polyglot in recent years but back when we started doing this there were very few places and spaces where you could go and be whatever came out of you. And because of that, Burning Man was enormously attractive to people. Not everyone can handle it. Not everyone can handle that much permission—they’re just not wired for it. But what I found in Utah was that when we said we were going to have this event at this time and place and you can do anything you want as long as you’re not going to hurt anyone else, the most wonderful mosaic of people came out of the woodwork. Burning Man is a ‘permission engine.’ All most people want in life is permission to be themselves, and the event gives that to them. I think that it’s actually the best of all possible worlds, because Utahns are people who are deeply enthusiastic about the chance to find people like themselves, but they’re also people who come from a culture that is very civic minded, so in Utah when you come up with a good idea and need volunteers, there are volunteers. ‘I’ll work hard for free!’ I love it.
“I live in Berkeley, now, where you can literally walk down the street naked in the middle of the day smoking a joint, right past a police officer, and nothing will happen at all—I’m not exaggerating! But part of me misses Utah where the threshold wasn’t set so high. It still strikes me when I go back to Utah and I see people that I met at an event there. There’s a great deal of warmth there. People in Utah are some of the most open minded, pleasant, and interesting that I meet. The central narrative trope of Utah is that it’s a place inhabited by people who are okay with the idea of someone defining large aspects of how their lives should be lived. And I don’t judge that in any way, but there are consequences of that, and one of them is the mainstream folk are not as interested in thinking outside of the box that has been prescribed for them. Which is part of what makes meeting people who are outside the box so delightful, because the contrast is so interesting.”
2012 is a momentous year for Element 11 as an event. The organization that produces it is now an incorporated entity with provisional nonprofit status granted by the IRS. The community was tapped to form a board of directors last summer, and the LLC was registered in October of last year. Board members come from all walks of life; one is a project manager for a half billion dollar company, another is a senior research scientist and engineer for a medical devices and therapeutics development corporation, and one works as a planner with a company that contracts for the Utah Department of Transportation. Yet another is a restaurant manager and event producer and promoter, and another is a bookkeeper and payroll specialist for a local CPA.
It’s important to note that in common with the leadership, most event attendees also hold down day jobs and look after their families. Jared Gallardo, a website design and marketing specialist, will be bringing his art car to the festival this year. The Jellyfish from the Year 12,000 is a giant steel cnidarian, bedecked with LED lights and a sound system, that Gallardo and a dedicated troop of volunteers created in their spare time over a hectic two-year period in 2007 and 2008. “Last year Element 11 began to gain a new level, and I think this year is the tipping point where it will go through its most radical change,” he says. “It’s already undergone that change in the structure and organization of the people planning the event, and the energy going into it is very different from anything in the past.”
Dave Church, a volunteer organizer who runs the department overseeing Gallardo’s vehicle and others like it, is also excited for 2012. “It’s a complete change in culture this year. Nobody does a festival this large, run by 100% volunteers. All the money we have left over will go into art granting for next year’s festival, and that’s really unique.”
Del Hargis, a motivational speaker, is chairman of the Element 11 board of directors, and is clear in his role propagating and defending the values that participants bring to Element 11. “Burning Man culture really changed my life and helped me find myself, and that’s something that’s just so valuable to me. I don’t know who’s going to turn up to our event on a Saturday night and have a major epiphany that will take their lives in a totally different direction, but I would do everything I’m doing just for that one person. For me it’s all about learning and growing. Sometimes I bump up against my own fears and insecurities, but I always learn from that. As an organization we are all about providing a container for this kind of life work. We are creating opportunities for people. We are funding three times the amount of art that we have ever funded before, and there will be more talent at the event this year than ever before. Every aspect is just exploding for us. I wouldn’t like to know what my life would be like without having the opportunity to play inside a community like this. To have access to people with this kind of openness and love is totally life changing.”
Chris Cline, the chair of the Elemental Public Works committee, is also a wildlife biologist and environmental toxicologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Her volunteer work with Element 11 encompasses event infrastructure, community services, and public safety. She has been part of the Burning Man and Element 11 culture here in Utah for 12 years now, and the inspiration she draws from her community has not flagged. ”‘Look what we made!!’ is, I think, the boil-down, bottom line reason that I’ve stayed involved in the Utah Burning Man scene for so many years. It’s that feeling I get early on in the event as the excitement is building and the lights are coming on and the music is playing and everybody’s happy faces and amazingly creative costumes and gifts start appearing. I take a look around at all the people I’ve been working with over the last weeks and months, and all the things that have appeared out of the ether of creative energy that didn’t exist before, and I think ‘wow, look at what we all did!’ It’s a simultaneously humbling and empowering moment. Every time.”
Seabase is a quirkily unique Utah attraction: a series of saltwater pools fed by warm springs, thousands of miles from the nearest ocean but stocked and maintained by owners George Sanders and Linda Nelson with a variety of tropical reef fish, which thrive and even reproduce in this unlikely location. The water temperature does not dip below 67°F in the winter and parts of the pools reach 90°F in the dead of summer. The on-site dive shop provides classes and equipment rentals to snorkelers and SCUBA students who can swim with nurse sharks, angelfish, groupers, and more.
The Seabase property extends out onto the salt flats between Grantsville and I-80, and it’s upon this crusty white canvas that Element 11 has been produced for the past 11 years.
Dave Smith notes, “When we discovered Seabase and met George and Linda, we definitely lucked out. They have been so patient and so accommodating of our event and some of our more unusual requests. Not everybody would let us build a 40-ft. gingerbread man on their property and then burn it—that’s a lot to be asking of any property owner. Not only have they been very accommodating but they seem to have enjoyed our event very much as well.”
Alice Bain is an editor at CATALYST and a Salt Lake-based artist. She is also on the board of directors of Element 11.
Photos by Jared Gallardo.