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BURN BABY BURN
Let your creative soul find expression at Element 11
By Jerre Wroble
Photos by Rudy Van Bee
By day, Jeff Reese is lead systems developer for City Weekly's sister companies, Avenews Software and Kostizi. But outside of the office, he is Ranger Thermyte, chairman of the Element 11, Utah's regional Burning Man festival, scheduled this year July 9-12 at Stargazer Ranch in Box Elder County. The event attracts determined revelers of all stripes each year—but how can you tell if you belong there? Do you have to be an artistic exhibitionist? Reese says no, because, "everyone is a Burner! One of our most important principles is 'radical inclusion.' We are all about creative expression, having fun—and doing it responsibly. If you like learning new things and stretching your creative muscles, you will fit right in." To learn more about the festival, visit Element11.org, and check out what Reese had to say in the interview that follows:
How did Element 11 come about?
The first Utah Regional Burn was in 1999 and was held at the Sun Tunnels. At first, it was run and coordinated by passionate community members who wanted to bring a piece of Burning Man home with them. Three years ago, we started a nonprofit 501(c)(3) and now have a working board of directors moving things forward.
Why is there a regional Burning Man when Utahns are so close to the real one in Nevada?
There are regional Burning Man events all over the country and world. Burning Man is much more than just a festival, it is a cultural movement. Part of the mission of Burning Man is to fund artists on new projects, and that's what we do locally, too.
How is Element 11 unique or different from Burning Man?
It is the brainchild of our local community. We have the same overall feel, it's just Utah flavored.
Where is Element 11 held, and how many usually attend?
Since 2003, the festival was held at Bonneville Seabase. This year, in 2015, we're moving to a new venue called Stargazer Ranch in Box Elder County. We cap our attendance at 1,200 and have sold out the last few years.
What should newcomers expect to experience and/or be prepared for?
Expect to be blown away by the creativity of our participants. There are theme camps, art cars, performances, music, dancing, and we burn structures that our community builds for the festival. You will also see people wearing some of the craziest and amazing clothing you have ever seen. Radical Self Expression is one of our principles.
What is new this year?
There is always new art. Every year, Element 11 grants money to community artists so that they can create new and amazing things for the festival. You never know what people are going to come up with.
In 2014, Element 11 experienced its first tragedy when a participant died at the festival. Have you changed the way you operate the festival?
With tragedy comes the opportunity for growth. We are closer than ever as a community, and we have learned a lot. We are committed to doing everything we can to make our festival as safe as possible. One thing we have done is start a monthly initiative called Food for Thought, a series of lectures about various issues, including our first one: "Dealing With Trauma." Preventing people from being in the state of mind to harm themselves is key to avoiding tragedy. We are also creating a new mental-health branch of volunteers for 2015's festival to help when people are having a hard time.
As an organizer, you have to be aware of everything going on, all the time. Is it hard to enjoy the festival?
I am an organizer because I love it. I don't experience the festival in the same way that I used to, but I see it as an evolution of my good time. I derive a great deal of pleasure from serving my community and a huge reward in seeing the amazing things they create. When you work closely with people on projects like Element 11, you get to know them better than you would in any other casual hang-out environment, and I value that greatly.
So why are you a Burner?
Because it is a culture of acceptance and creativity. We don't have fights at our events or gatherings. Burners clean up after themselves, and our events are always spotless afterward—even the big ones (seriously!). The growth and learning that comes from being a part of the community is amazing. We have a very large network of other regional events, and each year, Burning Man produces a Global Leadership Conference in San Francisco. Getting to know other leaders around the world and to experience their creativity is inspiring.
How much does it cost to attend?
Tickets are $90 [Editor's note: As of press time, only about 175 tickets were available to purchase at Element11.org]. If you are interested in volunteering, you can talk to one of our volunteer coordinators, and they will fill you in.