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Burning Man Re-Embered 2019

Intro to burning man 2019:

It’s almost that time again. As I write this, the ‘man burns’ in 10 days. That’s what they say… you know, “burners”. It’s the best party I’ve ever been to. The best party I will ever go to outside of my own death (I presume). And I just feel lucky to be there. I pray that we will as a collective – burner or not – imbue the concepts of hope and radical togetherness that this event promotes every year – in the middle of nowhere – using nothing but human force and ingenuity – for the past 30 plus years. I’m not convinced that the world is as “fucked up” as we all seem to think it is right now – relative to other worlds – but the temperature is certainly rising. And in times of hopelessness it is the duty of the lucky to spread the cure. Just as hate is contagious so too is hope. – JS

The following is contributed by | Adrienne MacIain, PhD 

Good morning, Black Rock City! 

It’s morning in Black Rock City, Nevada. You might not believe it, because you were up so late last night that you’ve lost track of time, but the sun is up, and the techno music has died down, so it’s a solid bet. Your camp-mates are still sleeping, so you ruffle the beige dust out of your hair, grab your playa bike, and go out exploring. 

Black Rock is a city like no other. Each year, it is constructed from scratch in the Nevada desert. And each year, it’s meticulously broken down and packed up  again by its citizen-participants. At the end of the week-long event, hordes of volunteers comb the “playa” (so-called because in the winter months the entire area transforms into a lake), looking for matter out of place, a.k.a. “MOOP.” This makes Burning Man the world’s largest leave-no-trace event: an ever-evolving experiment in conscious ephemerality.

As you head for center camp, a voice calls out, “You look positively radiant today!” You wave and smile. Riding by Compliment Camp is always a delight. 

You ride for a bit, then look around. This doesn’t seem familiar. You must have taken a wrong turn somewhere. “Welcome to the Inconvenience Store,” chirps a woman in a purple tunic and cat ears. Emerging from a canvas tent, she asks, “How can I inconvenience you?”

“Well,” you tell her, “I’m trying to find center camp.” as you dismount your bike. 

“Ah. In that case, I definitely won’t tell you where it is. Yet. Would you like something to drink?”

Good morning, Burning Man 2019!

You’re starting to catch on to the purpose of this camp, but you’re up for the game.and you’re quite thirsty. “Absolutely!” You reply.

“Okay cool. Do ten jumping jacks while I go find something for you.”

Ten jumping-jacks later, she returns with a can of warm Tab that looks like it expired about a decade ago. You drink it between belly laughs, and she gives you directions to center camp.

Once there, you stop to admire some of this year’s artwork. It too, will only survive the week and that temporarily enhances its poignancy. Even the pieces that are humorous, absurdist, obscene, or downright silly feel meaningful in this context. 

You stop to take a selfie by a mural depicting a sunburnt shirtless tourist with the caption: “I’m just here to see boobs.” The irony speaks to you.

A fellow dressed in a Speedo, coattails, a bow-tie, and a dust-encrusted bowler hat walks up to you with a tray of chipped mugs and offers you hot coffee from a thermos. You accept, and though reciprocation is neither needed nor expected on the playa, you offer him a tube of your homemade lip balm for his cracked lips. He applies it, and gives you a balmy kiss on the hand before moving along. 

You ride out into the deep playa, heading toward The Man. 

Who is The Man?

The Man is not burning just yet. He will burn on Saturday night, the Saturday before Labor Day. But he is already constructed (always of wood) and looms large, the focal point of the semi-circular city. 

The Man is the throughline that has remained constant since the very first burn, back in 1986. On the summer solstice of that year, Larry Harvey, Jerry James, and a few friends met up on Baker Beach in San Francisco. As an act of “radical self expression,” Harvey set fire to an eight foot tall wooden man, as well as a small wooden dog.

Much has changed since that first burn. As illustrated in the interactive timeline on the Burning Man website, the event has grown steadily from less than one thousand to the 2019 population of seventy-five thousand. In 1990, the event grew too large and unruly for its original location on Baker Beach. So, the burners joined forces with dadaist performance art group The Cacophony Society, who were already planning an “autonomous zone” event in the Nevada desert over Labor Day weekend. Thus Black Rock City was born. 

Black Rock City, Burning Man 2019

The Playa

La playa

That’s money honey

That first year, the only admission price was survival. If you could get yourself out to the desert and manage to stay alive for a week, you could participate. Starting in 1991,  a ticket price of $15 was charged to help cover the costs of providing basic safety and sanitation. Ticket prices have risen steadily since. 

Tickets for the 2019 event cost $425. They sell out so quickly, (this year all 23,000 main sale tickets sold out in half an hour), that purchase is limited to two per person. They’ve also added a second sale the week prior to the event, appropriately titled the “OMG Sale,” for $550 apiece, as well as a pre-sale “FOMO” price for those who want to be absolutely sure they’ll get in. That price? $1,400 apiece. 

But that’s just the price of admission. Burners also need to provide for all their own basic necessities: shelter, water, food, and so on (and yes, they WILL turn you away at the gate if you appear unprepared). 

If you want to drive your car to Burning Man, you’ll need to pay another $100 for a vehicle permit, but you’ll have to park it at the gate. The only motorized vehicles allowed in Black Rock City are mobile art installations known as “mutant vehicles” (formerly called “art cars”). So you’ll also need to bring a bicycle–the ubiquitous “playa bikes”–in order to get around. And of course, you’ll want to decorate it– And yourself. And your camp… 

All told, the actual cost to attend Burning Man is upwards of two thousand dollars plus. 

Burning Man Version 32.0?

Inevitably, the increases in population and price have induced significant cultural shifts over the years. The organizers, however, work hard each year to ensure that the ten principles which form the core philosophy of the event–are at the heart of every iteration. 

As long-time burner James G. puts it, the ten principles are like the operating system of Burning Man, and each year’s event is a new version. Like the Google Doodle, which is always evolving and adapting to fit its cultural context, the basic functionality of Burning Man remains the same, but the user experience is constantly changing. Some consider those changes to be upgrades. Others not so much.

G’s first burn was in 1997, when you could still drive up to the gate and buy a ticket, and there was very little in the way of infrastructure. His most recent burn was last year, in 2018. He’ll attend this year as well. 

“Every year, people complain that it’s not as good as it used to be,” says G. “But they were saying the same thing even back in ‘97! ‘Oh! It’s terrible this was so much better ten years ago.’ I think there’s always that sense of nostalgia, that it was better in the old days. But the reality is that it’s alive and well. And that’s what’s fascinating about it. It’s a completely self-perpetuating event, and yet, even at this scale, it still works.” 

Karen Stewart, who wrote her award-winning dissertation as a non-fiction novel about her experience at Burning Man, says she definitely noticed a shift in 2007. 

Karen Stewart

“That year,” says Stewart, “it was obvious BM was going through changes. Awareness of the event was clearly mainstream. Still experienced amazing art, and loved the people we camped with. But the place felt like it was losing its edge. For example, people were dressing ‘as burners’ (buying prepackaged costumes online vs. creating looks themselves), and the BM Org was implementing more rules and regulations about what art could be created, where it could be shown, and how people could interact with it in the name of public safety. 

“2007 was also the year Paul Addis snuck onto the man and set it on fire the opening Monday of the event, as a protest against the commodification of the BM experience. It was fascinating watching how that action rippled through the community as he was both loathed by people who felt he ‘ruined things’ and loved by those who thought he embraced the ‘true spirit’ of BM.”

One of the most controversial shifts has been the introduction of so-called “plug and play” camps. These all-inclusive luxury camps are created by and for the Silicon Valley tech elite, allowing busy jet-setters to attend in relative comfort. Though they are not technically in violation of the Burning Man code of conduct, the air-conditioned trailers, catered meals, and exclusive, invite-only parties of the billionaire camps have become the target of much scorn. Many burners feel that such camps betray two of the Ten Principles: radical inclusion, and radical self-reliance.

Ryan Welliver had been burning for six years when, in 2013, his interest was “starting to flag,” largely due to the rise of plug-and-play culture. But the next year, Arctica, the camp that maintains the all-important ice stations at the event, tagged him to come on for production.He’s been with them ever since. “They’re an amazing crew,” he says of Artica. “We put a lot of hours in during the day managing the logistics of getting three ice houses stocked and staffed.” 

“The P&P camps,” says Welliver, “tend to present as a group interested in consuming the event rather than contributing to it. These people are paying thousands of dollars for a curated experience. But I’d be thrilled if those same people realized, ‘Hey, I have ample resources, and this is a cool thing I want to do. Next year I’ll strike out and make my own camp’.” 

Welliver admits, though, that Burning Man isn’t exactly “accessible” for the general public either. Though every year a set number of low-income tickets are made available (this year it’s 4,500), they still cost $210, and you still have to get yourself there, and survive. 

Living outside of the Burn

“Radical inclusion is a tricky thing,” explains Welliver. “In the same way that the P&P camps represent a sort of 1% at the burn, the general population has a lot of privilege to be able to attend. Getting time off from work, kids, travel costs… especially for anyone coming from another country. That’s where I’m seeing regional burns as a good example of what I think the spirit of the event should be. Recreating the thing in your home, and making a way for more people to experience it. I think we want to bring people to the event to experience this thing we do, take a measure of that home, and reseed the principals.” 

This attitude was echoed by burner vet Christian Jacobsen. “For me, today, I don’t go to the burn anymore,” says Jacobsen. “It’s EASY to be a burner and live the Ten Principles when you are AT BURNINGMAN. But that’s not the point of the event. The point is to bring your expanded mind and learning out into the world and change it.”

Today, Jacobsen is a community Burner. “Building engagement in my local community. Creating community and events. Bringing the Burningman culture to my neighborhood, town, city, county, state, and country. 

“THAT,” says Jacobsen, “is the real test for any burner: can you build a life and community off-playa that is based on the same principles? Can you make a difference in the world? That’s the difference between a Tourist and a Participant. A tourist leaves it all in the desert. It’s a vacation for them. For a Participant, it’s a milestone for a change in their life.”

Is the future of Burning Man local?

There are now regional Burning Man events all over the world. Will these community gatherings eventually eclipse the main event? After all, the diasporic versions of the pre-Lenten feast of Carnival have certainly given the original Venetian Carnival a run for its money. And if Burning Man continues to grow at this rate, eventually it will outgrow even the playa.

There is certainly evidence that Burning Man is becoming increasingly divided into sub-groups. Which stands to reason, as in any enterprise involving large numbers of humans, the natural tendency is for subtribes to develop.

At this scale, every camp at Burning Man becomes its own neighborhood within Black Rock City, and each neighborhood has its own character, its own values, and its own aesthetic. Some are very welcoming and civic-minded, pooling resources into public amenities for all to enjoy. Some are gated communities that focus on maintaining the safety, security, and comfort of their residents. Some are busy, some are sleepy, and some are downright funky. Together, they make a vibrant, living city. 

As in any city–actually, any community–the trick is to find those pockets where we feel most at home, and offer our unique contribution. The bottom line is, Burning Man is only, and exactly, what participants make of it. No more, no less. 

That’s part of what makes the burn so fascinating, and frustrating. It is a blank slate on which a messy masterpiece is created and consumed each year by waaayyyy too many cooks. Those who choose to collaborate can accomplish incredible feats. Those who prefer to focus on radical self-expression remind us of our innate freedom, and that we all have a unique and precious gift to offer the world. Even those who are just there for the feast offer an important element to this performative ecosystem: an audience. 

The result is a kind of funhouse mirror reflection of society in the moment, a concentrated echo chamber for the perpetual struggle between autonomy and cooperation, creation and consumption, the self and the other. 

I’ll end with an anecdote James G. shared that perfectly sums up Burning Man’s embodiment of this human paradox. 

One night, when he was out walking on the playa, he realized he was quite far from camp and it was getting uncomfortably cold. A mutant vehicle came by, a fabulous Victorian-style carriage. 

mutant vehicle art car, a fabulous Victorian-style carriage.
Mutant vehicles art cars come in all shapes and sizes

Mutant vehicles come in all shapes and sizes

“There were all these people inside [the carriage], wearing steampunk outfits with top hats… very fancy. I remember hailing it down and saying, ‘Hey, can you give me a ride?’ But they said, ‘Sorry. Private party.’ And I remember feeling pissed off and rejected and grumbling to myself that that’s not what Burning Man is supposed to be as I’m walking home in the cold. 

“But then about ten minutes later, just as I’m feeling the most sorry for myself, this massive, Hong-Kong style junk shows up with a bar, and all these stools on poles all the way around it, and a giant hammock strung up on the front. And the driver says, ‘hop on!’ So I slide onto one of the stools and proceed to get driven around in this giant boat, chatting with the guy behind the bar with this great Brooklyn accent while he made me a killer drink. And then I get to talking to the guy next to me, who says he’s been shirt-cockin’ it all day, and his girlfriend chimes in that she’s “free-vaging” too, and in the midst of this delightfully crazy conversation I realize, yeah, some people are going to be pricks. But there are still good people here.”

That’s the beauty of radical inclusion: the darkness brings us to the light.

Is the future of Burning Man local?

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