Critical Tits

Critical Tits after ride group photo, 1998

Female Critical Mass

The first Critical Tits ride was at Burning Man 1996. One story is that the women in a camp decided to continue their tradition of participating in the Critical Mass bike rides. Critical Mass rides are held in many cities around the world, usually on the last Friday of the month. They're a way for cyclists to raise awareness of their right to the road and draw attention to the need to get out of cars. The women of this camp, made mostly of friends that play Ultimate Frisbee, decided to have a women's critical mass ride on the last Friday of the month. After all, being at Burning Man shouldn't stop them from the last Friday of the month ritual. The ride would also be a statement of women's independence. More than anything it was a statement of women expressing their power to do what they want, and ride bikes together. The first ride had five women with playa names like Miss Attitude, Sparkle Kitty, Space Cowgirl, and Saint Caprice. Everyone has his or her own perception of the ride and what it means. This is the story of my experience with Critical Tits. I'm not a woman and I've never participated in the ride. It bothers me that a few men usually join in the ride, but what can you do?

The first ride was also the year of my first burn. I didn't see the ride though. My first burn was only for the weekend and the Friday ride started about the time I finished setting up camp. I heard about it, but wasn't sure I wanted to see it anyway, I expected there to be a hostile attitude toward men. In 1997 I was too busy with being a Lamp Lighter to see the ride, although I think I heard some cheering. In 1998 Yonder Camp, which called itself Be-Yonder and had a somewhat steam punk looking rocket, was right next to another camp that liked to be away from the city, that called themselves Ho Scouts. Ho Scouts was a great camp, and I got to know a lot of the people. One gave me a scout badge for good citizenship. On Friday afternoon I was relaxing when someone said, "Hey, the women are coming back from the ride." What? Seems that Ho Scouts was also the camp that organized the Critical Tits ride, or "CT Camp" if you will. As soon as the women arrived from their ride they posed for a group photo. I just had to get a shot of that in 3D! Unfortunately I had used up all my slide film. Yes that's right, I was out of film by Friday afternoon, except for two rolls of film that I had already loaded into my twin Pentax SLRs that I planned to use to shoot the burn of the man. Nobody had any spare slide film (no surprise). Bruce Wismer was part of Ho Scouts and also did stereo photography, but he used two single use print film cameras. He offered to let me use his pair of cameras to take the photo you see above, and in the 1998 gallery.

The party was a lot of fun and I didn't feel any gender hostility. The after ride and party would be a major part of my burn every year after that. In 1999, the last year of Yonder Camp, we were again out at the edge of the city and adjacent to the CT camp, which was called Kal Tramps. Their theme that year was a spoof on Caltrans (California Department of Transportation) and they would go out with orange vest and traffic cones to re-route traffic. It was hilarious. One of the great things about CT camp was that every year it created a new creative concept, and a new name, that fit with the theme of Burning Man for that year. So it was never "Critical Tits" camp. I got to know the people of CT camp better, and also a few of them joined a bunch of us in the Black Rock desert around the fourth of July for something we called "Noman." Starting in 2001 I attended the after party as Silver Man, which was well received. From 2000 through 2002 I would try to be at the Man when the race started to get a group shot there, then head to the party to get a group shot again.

After Yonder dissolved in 1999, a few of us (Lexie, Bob, Daryl, myself) continued on but not as "Yonder." In 2003 we were suppose to camp in an area near center camp. When I got to the playa I couldn't find our camp. After a few hours of frustration I remembered one place where I had friends, and they always camped at the same place, 3:15 and outer drive, near walk in camping. The same general location that Yonder uses to camp. I went and found someone I knew and asked if I could camp with them. After some discussion, they said "sure." I had joined the CT camp. Being part of the camp meant spending all of Friday, and part of Saturday, working on the party. There was a lot of preparation. Most men in the camp set up things up for the party. That also meant not seeing the ride itself. In 2005 the Burning Man theme was Psyche so the name of CT camp was Roar Shack (get it?). I created nine large rainbow colored "ink blots" to decorate our camp (see the photo in the 2005 gallery of CT camp chillin' the day before the ride).

Captain Erotica

The Critical Tits ride started out as only a few women in 1996, but like Burning Man, it kept expanding every year, reaching into the thousands of riders. As the ride grew, so did the party, and it required organization. It became arguably, the biggest party at Burning Man. A man who joined the camp about the same time as myself, stepped up and took on the task. His playa name was Captain Erotica. His vision for the after party was one of men serving the goddesses. There was also a problem of too many men showing up for the party, so the decision was to keep men out for a period of time, so the "goddesses" could be served by the men. Then the party would be open to all. The party became the focal point of the camp. A large area was reserved for the camp, and all vehicles were parked at the perimeter, leaving a large open space inside for the party. The captain also organized a more exclusive "erotic" sub-party, with very restricted access.

The logistics of this required laminates to identify who was allowed in what area, and which men were permitted to be servants to the goddesses. Captain Erotica enlisted the help of some rather burly men to enforce access to the party. If you were a man and didn't have a laminate, you were bounced out. Men servants were suppose to wear black bow ties. I refused to wear one because I was Silver Man, and Silver Man is nothing but silver! I also objected to using the term "goddess." It seemed silly and illogical to me. Nonetheless, to keep in the spirit of being a server, I got a silver serving tray so I could serve the women fruit. I didn't serve for very long because I found that the women were more interested in posing for pictures with Silver Man than having him serve them fruit.

Silver Man serving fruit at Critical Tits party

Divorce

Captain Erotica organized the party very well, and he and the men who volunteered, gave the goddesses a great party. The party was a great contribution. At the same time there were aspects of this party that were very troubling. Several women did not agree that the party should have a primarily erotic focus because this was out of keeping with the ride itself. Then there was the fact that a man was in charge. You had the rather unsettling reality that a group of men were keeping other men from a party that was supposed to be about empowering women. This was a logical contradiction that would not go away. An unflattering way of looking at it was that guy had set himself up as the alpha male controlling who had access to an exclusive party of topless women. Then there was the oddity of having someone who was not part of your camp tell you that you can't come into your camp because you don't have a laminate (even if you were silver).

These concerns came to a head during the 2005 party when one of the women who organized the ride felt disrespected by the Captain. The women decided that things would have to change. Opinions were expressed through the camp email list. A meeting was held in San Francisco a few months later, at the home of one of the women organizers. I drove down from Chico to attend. There were about 30 camp members there, but Captain Erotica participated via a conference call. Many opinions were expressed and various ideas were put forth, but in the end it was decided that the women who organize the ride would not "deliver" the riders to an erotic party, and if there was to be an after-party to the ride that the women must be in leadership. The group of women who organized the ride put out a statement to that effect under the name "Founding Mothers." I use the term divorce because this tore the camp apart, forcing members to affiliate with either Captain Erotica or the Founding Mothers. Many felt very conflicted.

The Bra

The shake up produced a lot of confusion, but also a lot of creativity. The decision was made that the party would be on the open playa, not in a camp, and that it would be open to anyone. A big part of healing and moving on was supplied by creating an art piece. Amy Stabler took the lead by designing and organizing the construction of a giant bra. I liked to say it would fit a 50 foot tall woman. It was perfect in many ways. It held a lot of symbolic significance, the bra as both a functional garment and as oppression. It would have to burn, even though it is a myth that feminists burned bras in the late 60's and early 70's. The expression "bra burning" was a metaphor used by a journalist to describe a feminist protest of the Miss America pageant in 1968, to draw a similarity to anti-war protesters burning draft cards. The feminist protesters didn't burn anything. In a sense, almost 40 years later, the women of critical tits would actualize the metaphor, and in grand style! It would also serve as a focal point for the after party in the open playa. I came down from Chico to the Bay Area on three weekends to help build it. I brought along my friend and co-worker Trea. We had a good time making it. There was an attempt to coordinate participation of mutant vehicles in the party, which was somewhat successful. The party was fun, but some women missed being served by men. The burning of the bra was a major highlight for many that year. The photo below is the group effort to build the bra, in El Cerrito California, with Trea, Panna, Amy, and Tami.

Building the giant bra in El Cerrito CA Bra Burns on the playa

The experiment was a success. However CT camp, which that year was named TCNKCT (The Camp Never Known as Critical Tits), had lost most of its members. We went from over 100 people to less than 25. The men who stayed to support the women were keenly aware that they were not leaders. We sometimes referred to ourselves as "bras" because we were critical tit supporters. Two "bras" that have helped a lot are Hugh, who coordinates placing flags for the bicycle parking, and Christopher who always brings his Soul Train mutant vehicle to the after party. Meanwhile, Captain Erotica continued to organize an erotic party to serve the goddesses. It was held somewhere in Black Rock City. Many people took it as an unfriendly gesture that he scheduled his goddess party at the same time as the traditional starting time of the CT ride. Needless to say it wasn't as successful without the women of CT. I don't know how many years he continued his party.

Wow. Let me repeat for emphasis, wow. The party after the 2007 ride was EPIC even if in obnoxious full caps. The party was organized primarily by three women with the help of a few men. The original location was planned to be at a water themed art piece. Unfortunately that art piece turned out to be the Burning Man equivalent of "vapor ware." No art. No location. The Founding Mothers then went for a bike ride to find another location. This new location would need to be communicated to the half dozen mutant vehicles that agreed to arrive at the spot to provide refreshments and/or music. A spot was identified and communicated to participating mutant vehicles. The most significant of which was A Cavallo, a large mobile stage in the shape of a ship with carousel-like horses. The afrobeat-funk band Albino played. The party was going strong when an intense dust storm hit making white out conditions. You couldn't see at all and the dust hurt your eyes and made breathing difficult. The band kept playing.

The dust storm was so intense that I decided I should sit down and wait for it to die down. I sat down next to a woman who seemed very upset about something, so I asked her what was wrong. She told me about men along the ride that had insulted her and said hateful things, she felt very bad about herself. It is one of the changes in Burning Man over the years, as it has grown, that there are people who don't seem to understand that we're a community. It isn't the close family atmosphere that it was in the 1990's. In the years that I saw the bike ride I never witnessed men degrading the women or even making cat calls. They were always encouraging and supportive, but in more recent times I had heard complaints about the negativity of some men toward the women, both in the form of sexist degrading language and tasteless insults. We talked for a long time and I think I helped her to see that the jerks that hurt her were only a few idiots. That they have no power to define who she is or pass judgement on her worth as a person. Our talk got her emotions turned around and she felt much better about herself. Then the dust storm abruptly stopped and we were treated to a brief splatter of rain, in huge raindrops widely dispersed. It lasted only a minute or two and was followed by a huge double rainbow against a dark sky. I looked around for my FED Stereo camera and found it completely buried in dust. It was a memorable party.

New Mothers, New Age

Around 2008 the three core founding mothers of the CT ride were ready to call it quits because of the significant effort to organize and produce the after party. The founding mothers were actively seeking new burners to continue the ride. Someone else would need to take over if the tradition was going to continue. Volunteers spontaneously appeared from some of the members of the camp Deep Heaven. The end of the ride would not be a party, but instead a ritual. The ritual was a display of women's solidarity and strength, an opportunity to connect with each other. Rituals are not unusual at Burning Man, the burn itself is a ritual, but there is no philosophical or religious meaning attached to it. The end-of-ride ritual was led for 2 years by the combined effort of Founding Mothers and Deep Heaven. After this neither group were compelled to continue this effort. CT in its 16th year was declared by the Founding Mothers as being old enough to determine her own future.

I was not a fan of the rituals, I thought there could be both a party and a ritual at the same time. Let people decide what they want to do. More than a few women asked me why there wasn't a party. Some wanted the party where the men served them, not a ritual. When I attended the practice of the first ritual, I did not like it at all. I'm a hard core science based skeptic and what I was hearing was an odd mix of Native American spiritualism with New Age nonsense. It was just too close to religion for me. The ritual has become much shorter in recent years. Mutant vehicles arrive at the end of the ride and supply a party to follow the brief ritual. So both continue to happen and it's all good.

Critical Tits is a strong tradition and one of the wonderful and unique things about Burning Man. It will continue as long as there is a woman willing to lead the ride. More power to them.

See my yearly blog for the story of the intense wind and dust that hampered Citical Tits in 2015.

The Critical Tits ride starts at the Man, 4:00pm on Friday.

Thank you to Sparkle Kitty and Panna for their comments and corrections.