In Seattle, a spark of Burning Man

The fourth-annual Critical Massive in the forest north of Seattle is that community's regional burn. Photos: The yearn to burn

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
5 min read
MOUNT VERNON, Wash.--From inside my tent, the sounds outside are typical of Burning Man: constant laughing, art cars driving by and the steady beat of techno music.

But this is not Burning Man, the annual counterculture art bacchanalia held in Nevada's Black Rock desert. Instead, this is Critical Massive, the Seattle Burning Man community's yearly four-day festival.

Critical Mass yearns to burn

And while for many Burning Man attendees there is little that can top that event, a growing number of people all around the United States and the world are finding that events like Critical Massive are a fantastic way to approach, if not actually repeat, the experience of being at Burning Man.

The events, organized along the lines of the general principles of Burning Man--participants only, leave no trace, radical self-expression and radical self-reliance, and no commerce--have been quietly taking place for a few years in cities like Austin, Texas; Las Vegas; and in rural areas of Delaware, Arizona, and several other states and countries.

As an eight-time Burning Man attendee myself, I'd always wanted to see what one of the so-called "regional burns" was like. Could they feel like time spent in Black Rock City--Burning Man's temporary city--or would they be a cheap alternative?

That's why I found myself this weekend, during my Road Trip around the Pacific Northwest, in the forest near this town about an hour north of Seattle for the fourth annual Critical Massive.

And I have to say, after 48 hours of fire art, gourmet cooking, terrific costumes, improbable and creative shelters, a small collection of art cars and time with this branch of the community I have spent so much of my time with for the last eight years, that while Critical Massive is not and could never be Burning Man itself, it is one hell of a lot of fun.

For some time, Burning Man founder Larry Harvey has been touting the idea of small, do-it-yourself festivals. That's because, he often says, people are always coming up to him and saying they wish Burning Man could happen more than once a year, or that they just can't figure out how to survive an entire year before returning to the event.

As a result, events like Austin's Burning Flipside, Arizona's Toast, Las Vegas' Dark Skies Arts Festival and of course, Critical Massive.

Road Trip 2006

And these are not gatherings of a few dozen unprepared campers. Rather, Burning Flipside attracts more than 1,000 attendees, and this weekend Critical Massive topped out at at least 550, many of whom arrived with what looked like their full Burning Man setups.

For example, there were 17 theme camps at the event, including the Seattle group Flight to Mars' huge sound system, a very large dance floor setup and even a small version of the Martian-theme maze it erects each year at Burning Man.

Another group, the Alien Monkey Love Nest--which is famous in Burning Man circles for the medallions it creates each year and gives to participants who perform on its stage--was on hand at Critical Massive and had set up a 60-foot parachute shade structure that was connected to a similar parachute belonging to another group.

The result was a giant shaded area under which dozens of people could regularly be found listening to music, talking, cooking and drinking. And it was exactly the kind of large structure that can be found at Burning Man and which I was not prepared to find at a regional event.

Part of the Burning Man community
In fact, several camps at Critical Massive had set up the kind of infrastructure that I would have expected only people to bring to Burning Man, and that is testament to the idea that many people now look at regional events as a piece of their larger Burning Man experience.

"If you give them the opportunity and the opportunity presents itself," said Dave Martinez, aka Diem, the lead Critical Massive organizer, "the community will come forth and they will make it happen."

Martinez said that as an official Burning Man-blessed regional event, Critical Massive has grown to include many of the same departmental organizations as its parent event: a Department of Public Works, Black Rock Rangers (nonconfrontational, uniformed mediators) and others.

And similar to Burning Man, a significant number of Critical Massive attendees volunteered in some fashion to help put on the event. Martinez said that out of about 550 in attendance, at least 125 had put in some of their own time to help.

Although Burning Man keeps a close eye on the many regional communities and their events, Martinez said it mostly stays hands-off when it comes to Critical Massive and other regional events.

"They just support us if we have questions," he said, adding that the Burning Man organization mandates that official regional events must be "by and for the community and have transparent accounting."

But the advantages of being an official regional are many, he said. For one, the Burning Man community responds in much greater numbers. And just as important, regional organizers like Martinez are able to turn to the parent organization and ask for advice gleaned from years of putting on other events.

Also like Burning Man, Critical Massive used some of the money from ticket sales--participants paid at least $50 to attend--to fund art. This year, Martinez said, Critical Massive handed out $6,000 in art grants.

One project benefiting from the grants was Assimilator. The creation of 28-year-old Seattle software engineer Peter Brown and two partners, Shelly Farnham and "Juice Box," the Assimilator is a weather balloon from which hangs a video camera that feeds live video of the nearby surroundings wirelessly to a screen inside a nearby art car, as well as onto a pair of virtual-reality goggles.

"We wanted to be able to give the some perspective to three or four different people as we're driving around," Brown said, adding that his team was testing Assimilator at Critical Massive in advance of bringing it to Burning Man this year.

And because the art car can drive around, Assimilator will be able to continually project a moving image.

Another Critical Massive recipient of art funding, though from last year, is fire artist Wally Glenn.

His twin pieces, the "Flaming Zen Garden" and the "Propane Fountain" were big hits at Critical Massive.

The Flaming Zen Garden is a project in which burning propane is fed slowly into a sand pit. The result is an elegant and peaceful swirling of gentle flames throughout the sand. Further, participants can rake through the sand, changing the patterns of the fire.

His Propane Fountain involves flames burning on top of a pool of water, an impressive display.

Glenn, who currently lives in Oakland, Calif., joked that he came to Critical Massive this year to ensure that the event could hold its head up in comparison to other regionals.

"The reason I'm telling people I came is that I heard that (Burning) Flipside had less fire," Glenn said, "so I wanted to make sure that Critical Massive had more fire than Flipside."

He also said he was gratified at Critical Massive participants' response to his art.

"I hear the same story over and over again, that people are blown away by it, and they don't know how to think about it," he said. "That's worth driving 20 hours to get here."