Burning Man Festival

Lee Gilmore

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BURNING MAN TIMELINE

1977:  The Suicide Club was founded by Gary Warne in San Francisco.

1982:  The Suicide Club disbanded.

1986:  The Cacophony Society was founded in San Francisco by former members of the Suicide Club, including John Law.

1986:  Larry Harvey and Jerry James constructed an eight-foot high humanoid wooden effigy and set it on fire with a handful of friends at Baker Beach in San Francisco.

1988:  John Law and other members of the Cacophony Society became involved in what is now an annual event called Burning Man.

1990:  In June, an estimated 800 people converged on Baker Beach for Burning Man, but the event was halted by law enforcement. In September, fewer than 100 people took the Burning Man to the Black Rock desert in Nevada for a Labor Day weekend campout.

1993:  Distinctive artistic and performative elements emerged, including the first “theme camps” and “art cars.”

1996:  John Law departed the organizing team following the aftermath of the first accidental death and other serious injuries.

1997:  Larry Harvey and a handful of close friends formed the Black Rock City LLC to manage and organize the event.

2000:  David Best created a structure called the Temple of the Mind , which led to the development of Burning Man’s annual “Temple” tradition.

2005:  Burners Without Borders formed as a volunteer response to Hurricane Katrina.

2007:  A prankster ignited “the Man” several days early.

2010:  Larry Harvey announced the decision to dissolve the LLC and transition the ownership of the event to a 501(c)3 non-profit structure.

2011:  Burning Man tickets sold out for the first time, leading to scalping of event tickets.

2012:  A ticket lottery held in January sold out quickly, sparking a crisis in the community. However, by the time the event was held several months later, population numbers had stabilized, with a peak attendance of roughly 56,000 participants.

2013:  A new ticket distribution system was developed, in which the initial sale focuses on distributing tickets 10,000 to participants with previous history of contributions to the event. Later that year, the BLM extended the maximum population limit for the event to 68,000. A reported peak population of 69,613 participants attended.

FOUNDER/GROUP HISTORY

In 1977, a man named Gary Warne and a handful of friends formed a group called the Suicide Club as part of San Francisco State University’s experimental “Communiversity.” Drawing loose inspiration from a cultural legacy including Dadaism, Situationism, “happenings,” the Merry Pranksters, and the Yippees, among other predecessors, the group’ activities included ironically modifying commercial billboards, scaling both the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, infiltrating events sponsored by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, and exploring subterranean sewers and passages. Members of the Suicide Club “agreed to get all worldly affairs in order, to enter into the world of Chaos, cacophony & dark saturnalia, to live each day as if it were the last.” (“San Francisco Suicide Club” n.d.; see also Evans, Galbraith and Law 2013) The Suicide Club disbanded by 1982, and Warne died from a heart attack in 1983. In 1986, former Suicide Club members, including a man named John Law, formed the Cacophony Society in a similar spirit. This new group declared itself to be: “a randomly gathered network of individuals united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society through subversion, pranks, art, fringe explorations and meaningless madness. You may already be a member!” (Evans, Galbraith and Law 2013; see also “You May Already Be a Member” n.d.).

Also in 1986 (and initially unrelated to either the Cacophony Society or the Suicide Club), a man named Larry Harvey and his friend Jerry James cobbled together an eight-foot high wooden effigy and burned it on Baker Beach in San Francisco on Summer Solstice eve. Harvey was born in rural community outside of Portland, Oregon in 1948, and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1970s. Intelligent, self-educated, and talkative, Harvey has described himself as a lifelong misfit(Brown 2005). In his young adulthood, he held a succession of odd jobs and was working as a landscape designer in the mid-1980s when he and a fellow tradesman, James, decided to construct and burn the figure that eventually evolved into the “BurningMan” (although neither of them used this term at the time, nor foresaw the elaborate desert festival that their unpremeditated event would become). Harvey later acknowledged that he had been inspired, in part, by art happenings held by an artist named Mary Graubarger at Baker Beach in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and which he had previously attended with a now ex-girlfriend (Doherty 2004: 26-28). However, Harvey has repeatedly stated that neither he nor James had any preconceived meaning in mind when they first erected and burned “the Man.” Approximately twenty people attended this first “burn,” although as Harvey would tell the story in later years, their numbers swelled as the structure caught fire and curious onlookers rushed over. Someone brought a guitar, another a drum, and someone began to dance with the burning effigy. Harvey would later describe this spontaneously gathered group as a “temporary community.”

Harvey and James decided to repeat the event the following year, and in 1988 they joined forces with the Cacophony Society, which began to help publicize and organize the event. The effigy had grown to thirty-feet high, was now officially dubbed the Burning Man; it drew somewhere around 150-200 people. By June, 1990, the Man was now 40-feet tall, the gathered crowd had swelled to an estimated 800 participants, and the local Park Police determined that they could no longer burn the figure at that location. At this point, John Law and others suggested the Black Rock Desert in northwestern Nevada as an alternative location, and he, Harvey, and other core organizers determined to take the Man there to be burned a few months later over the Labor Day weekend.

Located approximately 340 miles from San Francisco, and 120 miles north of Reno, the dominant feature of the Black Rock Desert is a 400-square mile prehistoric lakebed called the playa ( a vast, starkly flat, utterly empty, and intensely arid plane of cracked hardpan alkali clay). The weather there can be extreme as temperatures in late summer typically range from below forty overnight to well over one hundred degrees Fahrenheit at midday. Fierce dust storms and white-outs can rage with winds sometimes exceeding seventy-five miles per hour (Goin and Starrs 2005).

Somewhere between eighty and one hundred intrepid adventurers made the first trek to the playa in September of 1990. A prominent Cacophony Society member named Michael Mikel scratched a line across the surface of the playa and invited the gathered attendees to step across the threshold, thus symbolically initiating these first participants into the “Zone.” (The Cacophony Society had held a few other events they called “Zone Trips,” in which they took road trips into strange and exotic territories. See Beale 2007). The event proceeded to grow exponentially over the following years. Jerry James withdrew from the event for personal reasons in 1991. In 1992, Mikel took on the moniker “Danger Ranger” and organized a group he called the “Black Rock Rangers” in order to assist participants who became lost or stuck in the vast, empty playa. The Rangers continue as a vital peacekeeping and safety resource that interfaces with the various federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies that now patrol the event.

By 1993, there were approximately 1,000 attendees, and some of the event’s distinctive artistic and performative elements began to emerge. For example, Cacophonist Peter Doty staged “Christmas Camp” by putting a plastic Christmas tree in front of his tent,dressing up as Santa Claus, and handing out gifts to other participants while singing Christmas Carols, thus instigating what would become the “theme camp” tradition. Other participants began to bring other artistic and ritualistic elements to the event over time, including a contingent of creatively modified automobiles called “art cars.” The encampment eventually came to be called “Black Rock City” and grew more and more elaborate, with a roughly circular layout, designated roadways, a central café, and other civic features.

By 1996, the event had swelled to an estimated 8,000 participants, which began to strain the relatively loose infrastructure the event had developed up to that point. The first accidental death took place a few days before the event had “officially” begun, when participant Michael Fury died while riding his motorcycle (apparently drunk and without headlights) en route back to his encampment on the playa from the nearby town of Gerlach. A few days later, during the main event, two other participants were critically wounded, and one never fully recovered, after their tent was run over by another exceedingly intoxicated participant. In the aftermath of these crises, John Law wanted to stop holding future Burning Man events altogether and departed from the organizing team. He has not returned to the event since, although he remains a prominent figure in the Bay Area arts and alternative culture communities (Law 2013; see also Evans, Galbraith and Law 2013). Harvey and other friends, however, wanted to continue doing Burning Man and so began to develop a more tightly organized infrastructure. The event perimeter and gate became much more carefully controlled, and driving within the event site would henceforth be banned with the exception of art cars. Even these would be limited to five miles per hour and would also eventually be carefully regulated and permitted. Harvey also formed the Black Rock City LLC as business structure for the event with a few trusted friends.

From 1997-2007, the event grew from 10,000 to nearly 50,000 participants, and also developed many of artistic, ritualistic, and other cultural elements that have come to characterize the event. (More on these features will be discussed below under Doctrines/Beliefs and Rituals.) The late 1990s in particular were an exciting but challenging time for Burning Man, as organizers learned to manage tremendous growth and create a fiscally stable organization, while also coming to agreeable terms with local and federal governmental agencies, as well as local landowners and residents in the nearby community of Gerlach, Nevada. By the 2000s, the process of building the annual infrastructure for Black Rock City began to achieve some stability, allowing organizers to turn some of their energies outward. For example, a noteworthy moment in the event’s history occurred in 2005, when Burning Man organizers helped to support and build a volunteer response to the Hurricane Katrina Crisis on the Gulf Coast. This group, which came to be called Burners Without Borders, helped to rebuild a Vietnamese Buddhist Temple in Biloxi, Mississippi, demolished scores of damaged homes at no cost to owners, and also rebuilt a private home in Pearlington, Mississippi. This spin-off organization continues to help organize grassroots disaster response efforts and other initiatives, including in New Jersey following Hurricane Sandy in 2012 (see “Burners Without Borders” n.d.).

Other noteworthy occurrences (including the Man’s premature burn in 2007, the formation of The Burning Man Project 501c(3) in 2011, and a ticket crisis in 2011 and 2012) will be discussed below under Organization/Leadership and Issues and Challenges.

DOCTRINES/BELIEFS

The topic of Burning Man’s doctrines and beliefs is complex. Neither participants nor organizers characterize Burning Man as a “religion,” nor do they profess any shared narratives concerning an unseen or ultimate realm. At the same time, event organizers state a desire to “produce positive spiritual change in the world,” through the experience of Burning Man (“Mission Statement” n.d.). Organizers have also developed a core ideology, encapsulated by “Ten Principles” which organizers and participants alike strive to live out through the event and its surrounding sub-cultures. These principles are: “radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation, and immediacy” (Gilmore 2010:38; see also “Ten Principles” n.d.). Participants (often collectively called “Burners”) bring a wide range of distinct concepts and belief structures concerning the meaning of the event and spirituality in general. My 2004 survey of Burning Man participants found that roughly half described their personal outlooks as “spiritual” or “spiritual but not religious,” while over a quarter described their outlooks as atheist, agnostic, or simply ambivalent (Gilmore 2010:48-49). These general tendencies are also supported by the Burning Man organization’s own annual surveys (“AfterBurn Reports” n.d.). Despite the significant differences between these various points of view, it is likely that most of these individuals would register as “nones” in surveys such as the Pew Forum’s 2008 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey (“Pew Forum” 2008). Relatively few Burning Man participants affiliate with a specific religious tradition. In my survey, those who did name recognizable traditions claimed a wide range of affiliations, including both progressive and conservative forms of Christianity, secular and reconstructionist Judaisms, various strands of Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as varieties of contemporary Paganism.

Although Burning Man is often called a “pagan” event, it has never been organizationally nor theologically connected with contemporary Paganism (a.k.a. Neo-Paganism), Wicca, or other modern “earth-based” religions. My 2004 survey turned up fewer self-professed Pagans than I had anticipated (Gilmore 2010:49-52). However, I argue that Burning Man be understood as a “lower-case” pagan event, in that its ritualizing and artwork draws on a range of symbolic resources, often including indigenous and other polytheistic imagery. Furthermore, given the shared experience and physical intensity of camping on the Black Rock playa, combined with the event’s ritual rhythms, Burning Man affects many participants on a visceral, embodied level that is often associated with “pagan” religions. In these regards, Burning Man resonates with what Michael York has called the “root religious” aspect of Pagan religions (York 2005). Burning Man also displays elements of what Bron Taylor calls “dark green religion” (Taylor 2009). Participants tend to share a general interest in and support for ecological sustainability, which is facilitated in part by the raw physical challenge and harsh experience of nature necessitated by the desert location. Although in some ways the festival itself is not the most ecologically friendly event (as participants consume a large number of resources for a short and somewhat wasteful week of “potlatch”) organizers and participants make a concerted effort to “leave no trace” by effectively and scrupulously cleaning up the event site following each annual event, and also began purchasing carbon offsets in 2006.

In general, Burners display a wide disparity of views as to the nature and meaning of the event itself. In my survey, over half stated quite clearly that they viewed or experienced the event as in some way “spiritual” or “spiritual, but not religious.” What they meant by that varied a great deal, and their views were not necessarily mutually exclusive. Many described a desire for both individual and collective connections with a nebulous “something more,” and many (nearly 40 percent) also acknowledged the clear yet complicated parallels between Burning Man and “religion.” But they often saw these connections as problematic, stemming in part from their own general discomfort with “religion.” Another large share (roughly 15%) disavowed either “religion” or “spirituality” as legitimate frameworks for of the event, and insisted that any such resemblances between Burning Man and religion were either illusory, offensive, or both. In the end, many (over 40%) were most comfortable simply acknowledging that the event could “be whatever you want it to be,” and this outlook is indicative of the event’s malleability, as well as the extent to which it reflects deeply embedded patterns of Protestant American individualism (Gilmore 2010:57-62).

The internal diversity of opinion about Burning Man is, I argue, among the driving engines of the event. As participants both debate and perform the event’s values, ideals, and rituals, its nature, meanings, and contexts continue to evolve. (More on this will be discussed below under Issues/Challenges.) Rather than constituting a discrete NRM, Burning Man is instead a venue for acting out, and otherwise ritualizing, a variety of spiritual impulses often described as alternative, esoteric, new age, or “spiritual, but not religious.” In this regard, Burning Man troubles the boundaries around what can be readily designated or defined as “religion,” according to normative Western standards.

RITUALS/PRACTICES

Beginning with the semi-spontaneous inaugural events on Baker Beach in 1986, the burning of a humanoid figure has served as the event’s central, definitive rite. By 1989, the sculpture had assumed what became its characteristic appearance (with occasional minor variations) for the next two decades (a wooden lattice-work figure, reminiscent of a garden trellis or electrical tower, topped with a diamond-shaped shoji screen), although the rite of the Burn has changed in several ways over time. In the early years, nearly all attendees participated in raising the Man to a standing position using a winch and pulley. However, since 2001 the Man has stood atop an elaborate platform (which reflects a particular annual theme) and is put in place by a crane days before most participants arrive. There is no particular liturgy or prescribed manner with which to participate in the Burn, but almost all of the several thousand in attendance at the event converge around the Man for this climactic event. The Burn is preceded by an extensive fire dance performance (intended to lend some gravitas and drama), but most of the several thousand participants are too far back in the crowd to observe these activities.

Other ritualistic events were held at the event from its earliest days. For example, in 1991 a group of women baked fertility goddess-shaped loaves of bread in an earthen oven (Harvey 1991). The “theme camp” tradition that began with Peter Doty’s 1993 Christmas Camp, contains performative and ritualistic elements that pull from a global range of cultural, artistic, and symbolic elements that inspire a range of often idiosyncratic themes (For examples, see “Theme Camps & Villages” n.d.). In 1994, artist Pepe Ozan began to sculpt ten to twenty foot-high hollow towers made of wire mesh and playa-mud that he called “lingams,” which would be stoked with wood and set on fire. Beginning in 1996, these sculptures evolved into the stages for elaborate “operas.” Scripted and rehearsed, these performances each drew on religious and spiritual themes including Dante’s Inferno, Ishtar’s Marriage and Descent, Vedic Hinduism, Vodou, and the Atlantis mythos (“Burning Man Opera” n.d.). These operas ceased to be prominent aspects of Burning Man after 2000, but the community of artists and performers that had produced them would continue to engage in a variety of collaborative endeavors, including an opera about Burning Man (called How to Survive the Apocalypse ) that was staged in San Francisco in 2009, Los Angeles in 2011, and Las Vegas in 2012 (“How to Survive the Apocalypse” n.d.).

Since 2001, a second central ritual known as The Temples has emerged. These are ornate temporary structures in which participants are invited to leave inscriptions and small objects for their beloved dead, as well as other occasional messages concerning burdens from which participants wish to free themselves. The Temples are then burned on Sunday night, the night following the burning of the Man. The Temple tradition was founded by an artist named David Best, who transformed a structure he built for the event in 2000 (constructed out of leftover dinosaur puzzle pieces and called the “ Temple of the Mind”) into a temporary memorial for a recently deceased friend. He then decided to repeat the event the following year, with a much larger structure called the “ Temple of Tears.” Organized by various artists, including Best, every year since, the Temples have become an integral and much beloved feature of the event. In a stark contrast to the atmosphere on the night that the Man burns, the Temple burns tend to be observed with silence and solemnity. (Pike 2001, 2005, 2010, and 2011)

Aside from these large-scale examples, numerous smaller rituals and ritual-like activities take place at Burning Man. In any given year, a perusal through the list of activities and events submitted by participants includes: Yoga classes, Kabbalah classes, Reiki attunement, Vipassana, Zen and other mediation sessions, contemporary Pagan and ceremonial magick rites, Balinese kechack, and sundown Shabbat services (among numerous more clearly “secular” types of events). I have met conservative evangelical Christians distributing bottles of water as a “gesture of prophetic witness” from a theme camp intended designed to represent the biblical Ein Gedi oasis. I once sought out the leader of the “Black Rock City JCC” theme camp, who would not let me tape-record our Saturday morning interview in observance of Sabbath requirements. And Burning Man has also hosted numerous performances by New York performance artist and social justice activist Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping (also sometimes known as the Church of Life After Shopping, and the Church of Earth-a-lujuah) (Talen and D. 2010; see “Church of Stop Shopping” n.d.).

Finally, to a limited extent, Burning Man is shaped by a series of annual themes, such as The Wheel of Time (1999), Beyond Belief (2002), The Green Man (2007), Rites of Passage (2011), and Cargo Cult (2013) to name just a few. These provide a degree of thematic coherence for the artworks, performances, and rituals developed for the event by participants. Finally, there is also a sense in which the entire event can be viewed as a ritual of pilgrimage, with attendant preparations and austerities, travel to a remote and marginal site, threshold crossing, communal activities, culminating rites, and transformative reintegrations back into normative, day-to-day society (Gilmore 2010).

ORGANIZATION/LEADERSHIP

In the early 1990s, Burning Man was owned via a legal partnership between Larry Harvey, John Law, Michael Mikel that was informally called “the Temple of the Three Guys,” and the event itself was organized primarily by those three, with varying degrees of assistance from and collaboration with a variety of other friends and volunteers. Starting in 1996, Larry Harvey formed a Limited Liability Corporation through which to own and manage the event with a group of trusted friends. The first iteration was called the Burning Man LLC, though this entity would be supplanted by the Black Rock City LLC in 1997. The membership of the LLC shifted a bit in the early years, but eventually settled into a core of six individuals who also held key management positions in organizing the event. Larry Harvey serves as Executive Director and chief visionary of the event. As previously stated, Michael Mikel founded the Black Rock Rangers, and now serves as an enigmatic “Ambassador” and “Director of Genetic Programming.” Crimson Rose became Managing Art Director, and her long-time partner, Will Roger serves as Director of Nevada Relations & Special Projects, although his active management role has waxed and waned over the years. Harley Dubois fills a key role as Director of Community Services and Playa Safety Council. Finally, Marian Goodell (a relative newcomer who was not involved until after the 1996 event) quickly became indispensable as the Director of Business and Communications.

In 2010, Harvey announced that Burning Man would begin transitioning from an LLC to a 501c(3) non-profit called The Burning Man Project (Curley 2010). In 2011, a seventeen-member board of directors for this new organization was formed, which included the six long-time members of the LLC along with a dozen other individuals from San Francisco and the West Coast’s arts and business communities.

As outlined briefly in the timeline above, the peak population of Black Rock City has increased from under 100 participants in 1990 to nearly 70,000 in 2013. (“Black Rock City 2013 Population” 2013) It is difficult to measure the size of the global community of Burners (that is, individuals who have at some point since the early 1990s attended the event at least once), although the number is likely in the hundreds of thousands. As of early 2014, the organization’s primary e-mail newsletter, called the Jackrabbit Speaks, has over 170,000 subscribers and Burning Man’s Facebook page has over 530,000 “likes.”

Geographically, the Burning Man community is centered in the San Francisco Bay Area, although there are significant presences in numerous other U.S. cities, especially Reno, Austin, Los Angeles, and Portland, among others. In addition to these being the urban centers closest to the event location, these cities are also home to large artistic and “alternative” sub-cultures. Organizers have sought to foster a “Regional Network” of Burning Man participants in these and other cities, several of which organize and host Burning Man-esque events in their own area. These “regional events” are as far flung as Canada, the U.K., Ireland, Australia, and South Africa (“Regional Network” n.d). It is not unheard of for some participants to attend only their own regional events, but never the main event in Nevada, and still consider themselves to fully be a Burner.

ISSUES/CHALLENGES

The primary issues and challenges faced by Burning Man stem from the event’s rapid growth, related issues concerning financing and commercialization, as well as broader community disputes about the meaning and nature of the event. Burning Man organizers have long espoused decommodification as one of their Ten Principles, saying: “our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience” (“Ten Principles” n.d.). Accusations of Burning Man’s having “sold out” have been an issue since at least the mid-1990s, when the first annual theme (The Inferno in 1996) proposed an imagined and satirical take-over of Burning Man by a satanic multinational conglomeration called “HelCo.” In response to accusations of commodification, Harvey gave a speech at the event in 1998 in which he postulated a distinction between “commerce” and “commodification” (Harvey 1998). The organization would eventually state on their website: “We have drawn a dividing line around our desert event in order to separate direct, immediate experience from the commercial world of manufactured desire. It’s not that we are against commerce, but we are against commerce without community, consumption without purpose and profit without value.” (“Marketplace” n.d.; also see Gilmore 2010). Based on this ideal, they attempt to control the commercial use of the Burning Man name, image, and logo, in order to keep others from cashing in on the Burning Man brand (for a relatively recent example, see Pippi 2012).

Another example of how this distinction is practiced is in the fact that Burning Man has never accepted corporate sponsorship, instead relying almost exclusively on ticket sales to cover the event’s considerable production costs. These costs include the annual construction and clean up of Black Rock City’s infrastructure, a hefty per person/per day fee charged by the BLM, insurance, payroll, emergency health and other public safety services during the event, grants for select sponsored art projects, as well as numerous other miscellaneous and administrative costs. As of 2012, Burning Man reported over twenty-two million dollars in annual expenditures (“AfterBurn Report 2012” 2012). However, participants have continuously complained about the
event’s high ticket prices, which have risen from $35 in 1995 to $380 in 2014. In an attempt to address the cost and make the event more accessible to people with lower incomes, from 1999-2012 organizers offered tickets on a sliding scale depending on time of year purchased. They also continue to make a limited number of low-income tickets available every year, available by application, and tickets are often compensated for reliable volunteers.

In 2011 and 2012, Burning Man faced a crisis over cost and accessibility when tickets to the event sold out for the first time in its history. This resulted in ticket scalpers listing them for sale at hundreds or even thousands more than the already pricey face value ($210-$360 in 2011 and $240-$420 in 2012). A ticket lottery held in January, 2012 backfired when numerous longtime participants found themselves without tickets, and a significant number of tickets once again fell into the hands of scalpers. In response, organizers decided to selectively distribute their remaining tickets to known artistic and theme camp groups. This represented a key policy change for an organization that touted “radical inclusivity” as one of its core principles (Grace 2012). Then, in June 2012, organizers received permission from the BLM to raise their attendance cap to 60,900, and by mid-August there appeared to be a glut of available tickets. In the end, the total peak population for 2012 was reported by the Associated Press to be 52,385, which was actually slightly down from 2011’s reported total peak population of 53,735 (Griffith 2012). In 2013, Burning Man announced a new, simplified scheme in which all tickets would be priced at $380 and the first 10,000 tickets would be available only by applying via a known theme camp or art project group, with the rest being made available in stages (Chase 2013). Although some tickets still wound up with scalpers in early 2013, by the time the event took place in late August supply and demand levels appeared to be relatively stable. Organizers announced a similar scheme for 2014, with the new addition of a $40 vehicle pass, intended to reduce the number of vehicles at the event (“Burning Man 2014 Ticket Information” 2014).

Despite these efforts to stabilize the ticket sale process, and despite the fact that the organization has for many years made some tickets available to select low income applicants at a discounted price, some participants have long complained that costs are exorbitantly high. The situation reflects long-simmering external, and internal, social class pressures within the event and its surrounding communities. On one hand, Burning Man’s cultural roots are squarely in artistic, bohemian, and working class communities. Yet since the mid-2000s, the event has increasingly attracted a wealthy, glamorous, international partying set, who can easily afford the high-ticket costs, and who travel in extravagance and luxury. There is also a growing phenomenon of so-called “plug-and-play” camps that plan, cook, and otherwise organize camps for those willing and able to pay a high premium, sometimes in the $1000s. And the event has long drawn numerous wealthy participants from the San Francisco Bay Area’s Silicon Valley tech sector (Turner 2009). Rank and file participants, in the meantime, are vociferous in their dislike of these trends, as reflected in online dialogues and forums about Burning Man (for example, see “Burners.Me” 2012).

Burning Man has faced various other challenges and criticism concerning artistic and cultural authenticity over the years. For example, in 2004 and 2005 a group of artists who were long time contributors to Burning Man (led by Jim Mason) formed an alliance they called “Borg2” that challenged the Burning Man organizers to increase funding for art at the event, and to democratize the way art grants were selected. Although no significant changes in Burning Man’s art grant process or policy resulted from the ensuing controversy, Borg2 demonstrated the extent to which participants are often critical of the increasingly bureaucratic entity that the Burning Man organization has become.

Another incident that spoke to these tensions occurred in 2007, when a man named Paul Addis climbed the support structure for the Man and set it on fire several days ahead of schedule. The community response to and dialogue around this event was extensive. Many participants felt that it had been a criminally disruptive, dangerous, and selfish act, while others felt that it made a much needed and humorous statement in attempting to revive some of the chaos and unpredictability that had characterized Burning Man in the Cacophony Society era. Suffering from bipolar disorder but beloved by a large community of fellow artists and pranksters in the San Francisco Bay Area, Addis was eventually fined $25,000 in restitution and sentenced to 12-48 months in prison for arson. In pursuing charges against Addis, Burning Man organizers emphasized that Addis’s actions had potentially endangered other participants who had been sleeping in the tent-like structure that supported the Man that year. Addis was released in 2009 and attempted to pick up his life as a former attorney turned playwright and monologist, but, tragically, he took his own life in late 2012 (Jones 2012).

Each of these incidents indicates the extent to which participants hold conflicting views about Burning Man. For some, it is spiritual event and an opportunity to recreate themselves through ritual and community; for others, it is simply an extravagant and expensive party. Yet, for many the spiritual and hedonistic aspects of Burning Man are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Participants have found various ways to critique the organizers whenever they appear to fail to live up to Burning Man’s ideals and stated Principles, whether concerning costs, commercialization, or artistic authenticity. In doing so, they contribute to the larger dialogue surrounding the event, and thereby shape it by refining and expanding its possibilities.

Given changes in infrastructure, and the eventual retirement of key players, it remains to be seen how the event will change in the future and what further challenges might be faced. Many core participants from the 1990s have stopped attending Burning Man, in part because of the event’s growth and changes, but also because they have simply outgrown the festival or otherwise moved on in their lives. The next generation is bringing its own unique aesthetic and concerns to Burning Man, and, as of this writing, there appears to be no shortage of new participants ready to give considerable time and energy to bring this event to life every year.

IMAGES 
Image #1: Cacophony Society. Source: http://www.lastgasp.com/d/38983/.
Image #2: Larry Harvey, photo by Tony Deifell. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Larry_Harvey_wdydwyd.jpg.
Image #3: Black Rock Desert, photo by Patrice Mackey.
Image #4: Art Car 2007, (artist unknown), photo by Patrice Mackey, Source: http://www.chefjuke.com/burnman/2007/slides/BMAN07-020.html Image #5: Black Rock City, photo by Kyle Harmon Harmon. Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Burning_Man_aerial.jpg.
Image #6: “DIY Prophet,” 2003 (artist unknown), photo by Lee Gilmore.  Source: http://www.sjsu.edu/people/lee.gilmore/burningman/Gilmore_DIYProphet2003.jpg.
Image #7: Raising the Man, 1994, photo by Patrice Mackey. Source: http://chefjuke.com/LEE2014/slides/1994-BMAN06-004.html.
Image #8: Fire Lingam, 1995, by Pepe Ozan, photo by Patrice Mackey. Source: http://chefjuke.com/LEE2014/slides/1995-BMANB-004.htm.
Image #9: Temple of Tears, 2002, by David Best, photo by Patrice Mackey. http://chefjuke.com/LEE2014/slides/1995-BMANB-005.html.
Image #10: “Ronald McBuddha,” 2002, (artist unknown), photo by Lee Gilmore. http://www.sjsu.edu/people/lee.gilmore/burningman/Gilmore_Mcbuddha2002.jpg.

REFERENCES

“Afterburn Reports.” n.d. Accessed from http://afterburn.burningman.com on 30 January 2014.

“AfterBurn Report 2012: Financial Chart.” 2012. Accessed from http://afterburn.burningman.com/12/financial_chart.html on 30 January 2014.

Beale, Scott. 2007. “Bad Day at Black Rock (Cacophony Society Zone Trip #4).” Laughing Squid Blog , January 18, 2007. Accessed from: http://laughingsquid.com/bad-day-at-black-rock-cacophony-society-zone-trip-4/ on 30 January 2014.

Bey, Hakim. 1991. T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism . Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia.

“Black Rock City 2013 Population.” 2013. Burning Man Blog, 13 September 2013. Accessed from http://blog.burningman.com/2013/09/news/black-rock-city-2013-population/ on 30 January 2014.

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“You may already be a member!” n.d. Accessed from http://www.cacophony.org/sample-page/ 30 January 2014.

Post Date:
6 February 2014

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