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Long-form Journalism

Out of the Wilderness: The Future of Burning Man Isn’t in the Desert. It’s Everywhere Else

By June 23, 2013June 23rd, 2017No Comments

(This originally appeared in the SF Weekly)

On the first Tuesday in August, the staff and volunteers of Burning Man’s media team come together to prep for the big event. It is 20 days out, close enough that they are already worried about staying hydrated.

They’ve approved just over 360 media projects from around the world to attend Burning Man this year — significantly fewer than years past. They’ve decided not to approve CNNs’ project this year because CNN ultimately wouldn’t agree to their terms.​

The team can be choosy. Burning Man is a perfect media storm: visually stunning, culturally challenging, and full of explosions. There’s not a media outlet in the world that can resist. This year Sarah Palin’s new TV channel requested 10 complimentary tickets and time to interview Burning Man co-founder Larry Harvey. Palin herself was asking to come in for half a day to be filmed by her crew.

The people sitting around this table and on the phone are the ones who say no. It’s kind of a thrill.

The meeting is headed by Burning Man’s paid media staff, but as with almost everything Burning Man it’s the volunteers who make up the vast majority of the team. They’re a diverse group, ranging from a photographer in Ohio to a government official in Chicago to an academic in remote Canada to a network administrator in Singapore.

Hundreds of reporters, media outlets, and documentarians submit their applications to come and shoot video or photographs each year. When the reporters reach Burning Man, volunteers will give them ID badges identifying them as press (for years the badges have read “This entitles you to absolutely nothing”), tag their cameras, and help them find the story they’re trying to tell.

But this premise is flawed.

Increasingly, “Burning Man” is not happening at Burning Man. Go to the desert and you miss the story. Not because the event is unpopular — more people come every year, forcing a current population cap of 70,000. Not because it’s “jumped the shark,” lost the magic, or any of the other “it’ll never be cool again” things scenesters have been saying ever since the first person who didn’t belong to the San Francisco Cacophony Society showed up with a tent.

Rather, Burning Man culture has left the temporary building: It has crossed the desert and outgrown San Francisco.

If you want know whether Burning Man is a major philosophical movement that will change the world or a boutique system for throwing art parties, you have to look at its frontiers. That’s where Burning Man’s future will be decided.

Every morning at 9, the members of the Morris Burner Hotel in Reno have a staff meeting. “Staff” is a flexible term, though, meaning whoever is a resident right now, or crashing in the space, or volunteering. Paid guests — when they have them — aren’t expected to show up, though they often do, and sometimes end up lending a hand.

“We’ve had guests just start scraping paint off the outside walls because that was a thing we needed to get done,” says James “Jungle Jim” Gibson, who owns the property. “It’s pretty amazing the way everybody helps out.”

The hotel is Gibson’s vision of a year-round Burning Man community. In 2011 he purchased the Morris Hotel, a run-down but still active residential property, with the vision of transforming it into a new kind of home.

Over the next two years Jungle Jim and a group of artists worked to transform the flophouse into a work of art, with each room completely re-created by a different artist. The backyard on the half-acre property was filled up with old statues from Burning Man, tents, and other “playa-esque” elements, turning it, he says, into exactly the kind of space people go to Burning Man to find.

There are “maybe” 14 people living there as permanent residents now — he’s not actually sure — who have traded past and present work on the property for space, and they’re beginning to rent out the remaining rooms to people who need a hotel in Reno. He has a lot of ideas for how this will work: He envisions a membership drive, with Burners around the world paying a small fee in exchange for supporting the community and getting access to the rooms. He hopes to charge rates on a sliding scale, depending on how involved with Burning Man one is. People who have been once will pay maybe $50 per night. People who have managed a theme camp, maybe $30. Someone who worked on temple crews? Maybe free.

What’s he’s sure of is that he and his community have created a place where they can live a Burning Man life 365 days a year. They’re a “do-ocracy.” They follow Burning Man’s 10 Principles. “We work really hard to live by those,” he says. They routinely offer art events and parties to the larger Reno community, and have thrown events specifically to support the neighborhood homeless.

What hasn’t been worked out yet is the financials. Their reservation system just went live Aug. 1, and while they have customers, they still haven’t figured out the model to follow — or how to manage ownership. “Right now it’s an LLC that I own with my brother, and we’re trying to understand if it makes sense to turn it into a nonprofit or a co-op,” Gibson says.

But he’s confident it will make money. “It has to,” he says. “It made a few bucks back when it was just a hotel. We can do this.”

Would it work elsewhere?

“It’s possible to clone this thing. It really works extremely well,” he says. But there’s a but. “I had the nest egg to buy it, and it takes a large community of Burners. If we’d taken this building and done what we did with contractors, it wouldn’t be nearly as creatively done, let alone as cheaply. When Burners come and build it, that’s a really critical part of what it is and why it’s successful.”

And that’s Burning Man culture’s dilemma in a nutshell: If you have a source of cash or a ready supply of volunteers willing to put in hard work (or both), you can make amazing things happen for your community — and Burning Man inspires this in people. An extraordinary number of people devote years of their lives and countless dollars to creating theme camps, community events, and art cars just to make other people happy. Though seen as a bacchanal of total freedom, Burning Man is equally an iron shackle of art and culture that ordinary people voluntarily put on — sublimating themselves for the sake of creating extraordinary shared experiences.

But if you don’t have money, connections, or a strong volunteer base, then the barriers for engaging the culture in more than a superficial way are steep — and even more so when trying to live it year-round. That’s a dispiriting message for many Burners to hear, and they haven’t yet found a way around it.

That doesn’t stop them from trying, though.

What exactly is Burning Man, anyway? Books have been written on the subject, but the best way to understand that question is to realize the lengths to which the Burning Man organization has gone to not answer it.

In 1986, Larry Harvey and Jerry James built an 8-foot wooden man at Baker Beach. There are a lot of theories as to why: that Harvey was protesting “the man,” that he was engaging in an act of pagan spirituality, that it was an attempt at catharsis after a bad breakup. But when he was asked, Harvey declined to say. The act — not just of burning the man, but of building him, of taking him to the beach, of getting a group of people to lift him up — spoke for itself. That’s all he’s said about “why” and “what it means” for more than 25 years.

Silence is golden. In 1991, an estimated 250 people made the long trek out of town to go to “Burning Man” in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. In 1992: 600. In 1993: 1,000. Nobody knew where the hell all these people were coming from.

“We could barely keep up,” Burning Man board member and Chief Transition Officer Harley DuBois remembers.

By 2006, cars were waiting in line up to eight hours to get into the event.

In 2004, Harvey was asked to develop a statement for the young Burning Man regional network about just what this “Burning Man” thing was, because the members were having a hard time explaining it to people in their communities. Harvey wrote the 10 Principles of Burning Man, a document that has energized and (to some extent) unified the culture. But many of the principles are contradictory. How does “Radical Self-Expression” fit with “Radical Inclusion?” Doesn’t “Radical Self-Reliance” contradict “Communal Effort”? There aren’t clear answers.

This isn’t an accident: Harvey did it on purpose.

In 2013, Harvey brought a number of leading writers about Burning Man together to discuss launching a new blog series exploring the 10 Principles as a body of thought and practice. At the meeting, it was agreed that rather than laying out a “Bible for the 10 Principles,” the writers would be encouraged to publicly disagree with each other, and even argue, so that Burning Man’s official body of thought about the 10 Principles would not lead to official doctrine.

While today the first few burns are often recalled as full of significance and portent (a Burning Man joke says that there are hundreds of people who remember being among the 30 people who attended the first burn), no one saw it that way at the time. When the San Francisco Cacophony Society sponsored the event and then helped take it out to the desert, it’s because its members thought it was awesome to build and burn a giant man. The first few years in the desert were marked by total anarchy: Nobody was saying that they were engaged in a major spiritual or philosophical movement. That all came in as more and more people crossed the threshold between what Burners call “the Default World” and Burning Man.

Even today, most Burners bristle at the idea that anyone can tell them what Burning Man “is.” And the Org doesn’t try. People come out to the desert because amazing stuff happens there, and you — if you go — get to contribute. It’s an engine of possibility where people (correctly or not) feel like they can live authentically and encourage one another to be authentic. Even if they never agree about what that is. It is the act of deliberately struggling with the issues of what burning the Man “means” and how the 10 Principles should be applied (of what the hell you’re going to do when given the world’s best sandbox) rather than simply accepting a common dogma, that represents the entrance into Burning Man culture.

That lack of a centralized definition meant that as Burning Man grew it came to symbolize a number of otherwise independent movements that were emerging into mass consciousness — and became the tissue that connected and inspired them.

Mike Zuckerman, the executive director of Freespace — a global movement launched in 2013 to provide unused commercial areas to communities without dictating their use — says that his is one of the many movements to be symbolized and supported by Burning Man.

“It’s interesting, there’s a lot of these trends: There’s Maker spaces, hacker spaces, the sharing economy, the DIY movement — so many related things are trying to manifest themselves,” Zuckerman says. “And Burning Man provides a lot of the metaphors and references that we all use: People say things are ‘playa-esque,’ or ‘like the 10 Principles.’ I think in part that’s because Burning Man is the largest experiment of a place where people’s goal is to enhance their own and other’s experiences instead of what they can get out of it. Of course that’s inspiring. It creates agency for people.”

Carmen Mauk, the director of Burners Without Borders (BwB), agrees that Burning Man began representing a number of related cultural movements.

“I remember when we got back from [disaster relief after Hurricane] Katrina, I thought we were on the leading edge [of communal problem-solving] — but it turned out that everybody else was thinking it too,” she says. The “sharing economy” and open-source movements and Maker movements that all emerged into public consciousness in the last 20 years are part of the same wave that made Burning Man culture so attractive to so many.

“People stopped saying ‘Let’s look to the government’ and started saying ‘We need to know our neighbors and pull together. Otherwise nothing will happen,’” Mauk says. “Kickstarter, Indigogo were emerging; people were looking for ways to take their energy and their resources to solve problems themselves.”

And Burning Man came to symbolize all that.

The Burning Man organization (which became official in 1996) was creating a space where all this could thrive, but it wasn’t leading it. “We were running alongside it, and we still are,” Burning Man co-founder and board member Marian Goodell says. “We’re fortunate in that, unlike other movements, we value self-governance and individuality and could let this happen, rather than trying to mandate and over-prescribe. That was crucial.”

Chip Conley, a member of the Burning Man Project’s board, offers another reason Burning Man had such immediate appeal to so many people: During the time Burning Man took off, he says, we were increasingly living in a “URL-based culture.”

“Burning Man is a unique opportunity to connect with others in a human way, without gadgets or devices or a screen,” Conley says. “The more digital we get the more ritual we need — and when I say ritual I mean something face to face, connecting in person.”

That’s an element that many of the movements that spun out of Burning Man, or that look to Burning Man for their metaphors and inspiration, generally have in common: Freespace is about meeting in person. The Maker Movement is about building things with your hands. There’s nothing in Burning Man’s philosophy or 10 Principles that specifically eschews the digital, but in practice its call to live direct, unmediated lives of self-expression, inclusion, and community pulls people away from their screens. For all that the tech industry has passionately embraced Burning Man, it has an uneasy relationship with Burning Man’s culture, which is happy to use the latest tech to find new ways to get people to relate to each other without tech.

But don’t we live in a digital world? Yes, says Mauk — and it’s become a problem for these movements.

“When crowdsourcing first hit the mainstream, people were using it for disaster relief and community projects, and it was an incredible way for people to come together to accomplish common goals,” she says. But when was the last time you saw that? Now crowdsourcing is swamped with cool-but-useless inventions and celebrities with movies.

Far from leading to an era of mass empowerment, Mauk says, “this world on the internet has distracted people, and many of the movements that really inspired me have become lifestyle vehicles for first-world problems, rather than a way to solve global problems. I see fewer game-changing ideas.”

There are new ideas about Burning Man and its place in the world. They’re just not happening at Burning Man, which while it remains incredibly unpredictable at the micro-level — in the desert, you have no idea what you’re going to encounter when you cross the street or go around the corner — has become predictable at the macro-level: The city’s shape is set, the rules are established, the Man always burns on Saturday and the Temple always burns on Sunday.

But as Burning Man culture attempts to take root in the world, surprising things happen.

Burning Man is perhaps the world’s greatest circuit party, but Burning Man’s 10 Principles include more community-minded entries like “Civic Responsibility,” “Communal Effort,” and “Gifting,” than they do self-gratifying items like “Radical Self-Expression.” To understand what “Burning Man” means as a culture, here are some things you should know:

In Los Angeles, the regional Burner community planted a community garden at a South Central Los Angeles middle school, and is proposing to partner with the school district to fund and develop a new model of high-tech urban farming in collaboration with a South Central high school.

In Singapore, the regional Burner community is planning an event on the site of recent ethnic riots in a minority neighborhood; the intention is to restore the sense of community that was lost in the violence.

In South Africa, the Burner community is repairing and sponsoring schools, community centers, and roads, as well as a local employment program.

In Nicaragua, BwB helped construct and equip the first independently operated midwifery clinic in the nation’s third-largest city. Its volunteers provide thousands of treatments annually.

In Kenya, a BwB spin-off project has created a “complimentary currency” to help impoverished villagers better use their resources, potentially creating a new model for addressing systemic poverty.

In Haiti and the Philippines, Communitaire — a disaster relief agency that emerged out of BwB — is helping create community centers in disaster areas to help local populations create the recovery programs that they need.

This doesn’t include the thousands of free solar panels installed in schools and community buildings by Burning Man offshoot Black Rock Solar, or the hundreds of art projects supported around the world by the Black Rock Arts Foundation. The list goes on — and virtually every one of these initiatives is led and supported by volunteers. There are as many charitable efforts emerging from Burning Man as there are official Burning Man parties.

“I wish we’d started a tree that mapped everything that grew from Burning Man from the very first year on,” says DuBois. “We’ve had a huge impact on a lot of businesses, a lot of technology, a lot of innovation, a lot of different groups.” Elon Musk has said that to understand Silicon Valley you have to go to Burning Man — although this might just be another instance of the tech industry flattering itself, which it manages to do with twice the narcissism every two years.

In total, Burning Man has 248 official representatives, known as “Regional Contacts” (RCs), in 123 different locations. In addition to the kind of efforts listed above, the regional groups put on about 56-60 officially sanctioned Burning Man events (the parties) each year across 13 different countries. As of this year, about 30 percent of “Burning Man” events are held outside the United States.

All of them, to some extent, are trying to do what Gibson did: live Burning Man off the playa, in the Default World. But context counts. Burning Man is not a homogenous community where everyone is doing the same thing, but rather a global population inspired by similar things.

Nobody’s “cloning” the Morris Burner Hotel. In fact, no two attempts to implement Burning Man culture look alike.

According to reports, the first regional Burning Man event in Japan had a problem: They couldn’t get their “Man” effigy to light on fire. So the crowd stoned it instead.

The lesson: What Burning Man is may depend on where you are.

Every official regional group is supposed to adopt Burning Man’s 10 Principles. That’s a big part of what makes it a Burning Man event and links the culture together across the world.

“We encourage people to look at the 10 principles as a complete body of work,” says Goodell. “We don’t let events be affiliated events unless they pretty much hit all 10 of them.”

The Los Angeles regional Burning Man community has all 10 — and then some. But they’ve also added an 11th principle that Burning Man doesn’t have (“Gratitude”).

The North Carolina regional also has 11 principles, too — but its 11th principle is different from L.A.’s (“Consent”). And they’ve considered adding a 12th (“Volunteerism”).

NoWhere, the major pan-European Burning Man event, had only five principles until two years ago. They’ve added more since then (they’re up to 10) but that’s a result of “learning from our experience more than copying [Burning Man],” says Dario Battini, a Regional Contact for Italy.

Sam Bloch, director of Communitaire, the group offering a new disaster relief model in Haiti and the Philippines, is emphatic that his organization emerged out of Burning Man and is a part of the culture. But when asked about the 10 Principles, Bloch admits, “I’m actually trying to think of what they are.”

When given a list, Bloch identifies four that he says are crucial to his organization’s work: Radical Inclusion, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, and Participation.

A clear theme emerges from all these conversations: People at the “frontier” of Burning Man culture are taking what they find most relevant, using that, and putting the rest on the back … um … burner.

That wasn’t originally the plan. “I don’t think, organizationally, that we have an answer for that,” Goodell says. How “Burning Man” the organization feels about it depends on who you ask.

DuBois says, “That’s what any intelligent person would do. You take what’s relevant for you and meaningful for you, and focus on that. Of course.”

Goodell is less certain. “I wouldn’t tell somebody that they can’t be part of our community just because they want to focus on “Leave No Trace” and the rest don’t do anything for them. But they’ll probably be less engaged if that’s what they’re doing.”

Athena Demos, an R.C. for Los Angeles, says engaging with all 10 Principles is vital for her group’s work. “When you start feeling like a project’s not working, pull out the principles and ask ‘What’s missing?’ Are we not giving people a chance to express themselves? Is this not community based? Are we not focusing on the moment? Are we not being inclusive? When we’ve got all the principles covered, the project works and people are happy. They’re kind of a road map.”

By this logic, if L.A. has added “Gratitude” as an 11th principle, perhaps it’s because in status-conscious Los Angeles they need to aspire to “gratitude” to make their community work, in a way that perhaps Idaho, or Argentina, or Burning Man as a whole don’t. Adding a principle isn’t like adding a law of physics: You’re not saying “We’ve figured something out that needs to be added to our collective body of knowledge.” It’s an admission of a deficit, saying “Our community really needs to put this front and center to make ‘Burning Man’ happen here.”

That’s how Travis Lyle, head of communication for AfrikaBurn, describes the way its 11th principle, “Each One Teach One,” came about.

“We’ve been faced with the runaway popularity of the event and it being viewed as a ‘party in the desert,’ whilst culture has to an extent lagged behind,” he says by email. “That motivated us to look for a way in which we could raise awareness and encourage ownership of the culture, principles, and practical information-sharing. We looked at existing cultural maxims and found ‘Each One Teach One’ to be a neat fit.”

As Burning Man culture grows around the world, as event attendance threatens to burst population caps, as the Burning Man organization transitions to a nonprofit specifically intended to support “Burning Man”-style community projects wherever they emerge, a good case can be made that Burning Man culture has never been stronger or more engaging.

But with that growth has come institutionalization, bureaucracy, and hierarchy, making Burning Man a kind of paradox: The world’s biggest symbol of radical self-expression, self-reliance, and decommodification also has a human resources department and a team of intellectual-property lawyers.

This paradox has been pointed out and vigorously criticized at every stage of the organization’s development. Its most recent change, into a nonprofit entity called “The Burning Man Project,” is no exception.

One prominent member of the Burning Man community, who asked not to be named, was witheringly critical of the new organization. The change has served, this person with knowledge of the organization says, only to confuse and frustrate the people looking to it for leadership.

“Nobody knows what the fuck is going on,” the person says. “With the Black Rock Arts Foundation, until recently, or with Burners Without Borders, if you contributed, you knew what you were getting — it’s going to go to this. This is what they do. This is how they make the world better. Nobody has any idea what contributing to The Burning Man Project accomplishes. What do they do with it? How do they help?”

“To be honest, I don’t know what The Burning Man Project is,” says Miriam Fathalla, an academic studying new cultural movements who was inspired by Burning Man to start an arts-based economic development effort in Jelong, Australia. “I read the website, I read the mission statement, but I don’t know what they’re doing — and it’s been three years! I’m not loyal to Burning Man, I’ve been inspired by it. And that distinction really seems to be an issue right now.”

Indeed, outside of people directly involved in some way with The Burning Man Project, not one person contacted for this article said they understood what The Burning Man Project does, or how it’s supposed to advance the culture. Many admit to being demoralized, and fear that this confusion hurts Burning Man’s ability to inspire others.

Told this, Burning Man Project leadership admit they have a problem.

“I’m not exactly surprised,” says Goodell.

“There’s a lot of gray,” says DuBois. “The vision is clear to myself and a handful of other people, but no one has ever done this before, so it’s difficult.”

Here is their vision for The Burning Man Project: In addition to producing the Burning Man event, it will serve as a facilitator for the activities that Burner communities and Burning Man-inspired movements undertake. It will offer everything from expertise and promotion to resources and networking for emerging projects and communities around the world.

But how does that function on a nuts-and-bolts level? They don’t actually know. Where other Burners say “It’s already been three years, how can you not have a plan?” leaders of The Burning Man Project say “It’s only been three years, how can we have a clear plan?”

Says Dubois: “We’re still learning as we go. There are a lot of best practices that we have to learn. How contracts should be designed, how we can work with other groups in such a way that everyone keeps their autonomy, when to partner with and when to share resources and when to just offer advice. Every time we take a step, we learn more.”

The idea that the Burning Man organization has hypocritically crossed a line and alienated the population is one they’ve heard before: When Burning Man added roads, when firearms were banned, when a speed limit was imposed … each time, people screamed that the Man was falling, and each time the culture only grew bigger.

But critics say this time is different: The Burning Man Project’s goals are less concrete than simply building roads. Meanwhile, the organization has made several decisions that have been especially controversial. Offering Burning Man-branded scarves as premiums to $150 donors and offering Burning Man tickets to high-level donors strike a sour note among people who have long defended the principle of decommodification.

Critics warn that, if this keeps up, a substantial number of Burners might form their own organizations, inspired by what Burning Man was rather than what it is, and try to change the world on their own.

Burning Man’s leadership has consistently responded: “That would be great! How can we help? Do you need support from our new nonprofit?”

Because the truth is that they haven’t yet figured out how, outside of San Francisco, ordinary people can fully live their lives as Burners. But they fully believe it’s possible. Their idea, their hope, is that someone out on the frontier of Burning Man will figure out ways to make this culture sustainable and scaleable that they haven’t thought of yet. They believe that the next generation of big ideas in Burning Man culture that are most relevant to people in Arkansas and Lithuania and China are most likely to come from Arkansas, Lithuania, and China, not San Francisco.

They say that what looks like a lack of leadership is, in fact, an attempt to make San Francisco less dominant and more supportive. And if they actually can help — if they have the organizational clout, know-how, and resources to offer support that people in Indianapolis, Japan, and New Zealand need — then they’ll be right.

But they have yet to demonstrate it to much of their community’s satisfaction.

If that effort doesn’t work — if Burning Man culture doesn’t take root in sustainable ways around the world — then Burning Man will likely be remembered as an influential art-party movement. But if it does happen, if Burning Man culture starts to blossom in ways that allow people around the world to live the lives they want, then what happens to Burning Man the event, and its San Francisco organization?

From the Philippines, San Bloch suggests that the party in the desert still has a role to play in the world Burning Man is trying to create.

It will continue to inspire people as a symbol of what is possible, it will serve as a networking and idea-generating opportunity for people who want to live in a “do-ocracy,” and — perhaps most importantly — he says it will continue to serve as the ultimate boot camp for world-changers.

“Individuals who can build a whole city and survive have a lot of applicable skills for a post-disaster zone, where you have to rebuild a whole city infrastructure,” he says. “Half of our international staff have attended Burning Man, and we actively look for people who have attended Burning Man, because they immediately get what we’re doing. They don’t come to a disaster area and say ‘What can I possibly do?’ They immediately start developing the resources we have, and sharing them.”

Miriam Fathalla agrees. The hardest part of her economic development work, she says, was the first year, when she was the only person in the local community who had been to Burning Man or a regional event. “The essence of this culture is experiential. It was very challenging to get people who hadn’t had that experience to understand the vision.”

Burning Man is trying to become an incubator for its own culture, rather than its center. If Burning Man is to continue to grow, to continue to be relevant, its center of gravity will have to move to its frontier.

“The frontier for Burning Man is to help people get more connected to their communities,” Goodell says. “Not ‘our community,’ but their communities: their neighborhoods and their towns and their organizations. The idea is that people will say ‘I feel inspired, I feel connected, I feel empowered. Now I want to go and do something in my community.’ We know that if people are inspired, they can replicate what happens in the desert out in the world.”

At Burning Man’s 2014 Global Leadership Conference (yes, they have those), “$teven Ra$pa,” a member of the special events team, asked hundreds of Burning Man R.C.s and community leaders from around the world to stop using the term “Default World” to describe the world outside of the Burning Man community. That distinction served a purpose once, he said, but now is pointlessly divisive.

“There is no ‘Default World,’” Raspa said, “unless we default.”