The Queen Bee: An Interview with Ill Vill

Photos of Illumination Village fundraiser Love That ‘Stache by Ryan Montgomery 

Going on its 26th year in the desert, most burners that you’ll find blissfully wandering the dusty crags have not been attending Burning Man since its conception. Instead you’ll meet pontificators and storytellers who pass tales of drive-by shooting ranges and flame throwing parties that are undoubtedly not first-hand. With so much speculation and the magic of the playa contorting even the most mundane of events, who really knows what the early days of playa life were like? The former mayor and current co-leader of the oldest (possibly sharing the title with a few other camps) Burning Man camp is someone who’s perspective this lady would love to get. Read my interview with Gina, the Queen Bee of Illumination Village and let the nostalgia wash over you.

How did you get involved with Illumination Village?

My first year at burning man in ’98, I walked by a village that had a bunch of heads on sticks, and a sign that said “Paint a head.” I stopped and painted a head and met these people that were from what was then Head-Onia and found out they were a part of this bigger group of people called Illumination Village and since then I’ve never camped anywhere else.

So you camped with Ill Vill before becoming the mayor?

Oh yes, for many years. The last mayor got burnt out and since I am a nurse of patients with HIV and mental illness and substance abuse in the Tenderloin (SF), I figured if I can do that, I can certainly figure this out.  [Laughs]

So were you able to figure it out?

It’s definite a hard job. It’s a working Burning Man, it’s not a fun Burning Man….I mean, I have fun every year, I make time for myself  to have fun but you definitely have responsibilities while you’re there. So after last year, I had so many things go wrong with the water trucks, fuel delivery and I had no art car for transportation so I was on my bike the whole time and had been hit by a car earlier in the year so getting around was really difficult for me. I got so burnt out so we decided to form a counsel this year. So instead of having one person responsible, we now have six people taking on the various tasks, so that one person isn’t doing everything all the time. My task is working with the Org and working with the various different camps just making sure they are happy in where they are placed and placement is correct and that type of stuff.

Do you feel confident in the change of leadership after so many years of doing it one way?

I still feel like I’m the mayor because everybody always calls me for everything. I think it will take 2-3 years for people to get a hang of the fact that we’re going to do it a different way. Its been done the same way for so many years that having a collaborative experience will be very challenging but very rewarding for people once they get into it. Once they realize, “Oh, I’ve got all these other people to go to, to get what I need.”

What has been the greatest evolution within the oldest camp, Ill Vill?

I think the greatest evolution is that we now always require everyone in the village to bring art. That’s a requirement to be in the village hands down. I also personally started an art grant-funding program over the last three years so that people who wanted to bring a bigger piece have some money out of the dues we collect so they can do that.  I think it’s so important. That’s what we’re there for. Why are we so worried about if we’re going to have a shower or port-a-potty when were there for the art?

If I were walking by Ill Vill at the burn this year, what would my experience be?

You would see a gigantic neon head with flames coming off of it. The idiot head, that’s our village mascot, the village idiot. You’d probably see a couch swing; you‘d probably see a lot of fire art because most of the people in our village are fire artists. The Flaming Lotus Girls(insert link to FLG stuff?) were born in Illumination Village. Many huge [Playa] pieces over the years have come from Ill Vill, which you may not know but they’re coming from us. And what you would see when you walk by is a lot of excitement and action and color and you’d see a walkway that invites you in to see more fire and more color and more people interacting with each other because we like to welcome people the best we can, to not only come in and see what we’ve done, but we also like to do a lot of interactive stuff.

What comes with the title of the oldest Burning Man camp?

I feel like we need to put on a big, good show and make great art and have a lot of people be happy and welcome in our village. I don’t feel like we are more entitled than any other burner, that’s not fair, but in order to do that we need to have access to things like tickets. Only 15 percent of our village got tickets this year…

Currently, how many Illumination Villagers have tickets?

They allotted us 96 tickets which was great and we have a lot of people with art cars so those people were allotted tickets too. So anybody who bought a lotto ticket then passed it off to another Ill Villager. So we’ve been doing our own Ill Vill step program so we can make the village happen again.

So do you think it’s more important for new camps to be erected or old camps to thrive?

I think they are of equal importance, I think there’s no way to say one’s more important than the other. What we’ve done is absorbed new camps into our village because we felt like they were equally important and we wanted to give them a really good experience and they have new and fresh ideas to offer. Were old and jaded we need so me new blood coming in.

What was your most epic playa moment?

It’s so hard to say…you’re making me think back so many years. Every burn is so different and so special. I treat every burn as a brand new experience. So for me everything can be an epic moment. But, I think the first year that you go, seeing all of it and what it is and everything culminating in the Man burning, you can’t get more epic than that. I do have to say when they did the fuel explosion of the Man[in 2011], that was pretty fuckin’ epic. I mean I was way, way back and I could feel the heat from that thing. But honestly one of the most special things that happened to me at Burning Man is that I fell in love with my boyfriend there. And that’s special and I’ll always remember that and the time we had together there.


Having many years of trial and error, Illumination Village undoubtedly has their shit together; and what awesome shit that seems to be. Speaking with Gina, I have the uncharacteristic desire to build and sustain a large theme camp rather that hop freely about playa sans commitment. She has invested so much of her time and life to this vibrant community and it has surely brought her joy that surpasses the strife. It seems her story is not one touting the mysteries of Burning Man or revealing some secret we have yet to discover, Gina shows us that you get out what you put into every Burn. Some of us are lucky enough to find the love of our lives on Playa and others find themselves, but neither is predicated on tenure. Support Illumination Village and their fiery vision by donating to their newest project, MomaFire ( or joining their facebook page to stay updated on their newest adventure.

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