A decade ago, most people had never heard of Burning Man. Telling someone you were going or had been, would mostly get you blank stares. If you got any other reaction it was probably a very positive one as most people who did know about it found it enthralling and either had been themselves or really wanted to go but hadn’t had the chance for whatever reason.
Fast forward to 2019, and nearly everyone has heard of the now infamous ‘biggest party in the world’ held 90 miles north of Reno, NV in the Black Rock Desert each year during the week before Labor Day. Nowadays, media reports and social media influencers are where most people get their knowledge of the event. Because of this, misconceptions abound as to what Burning Man actually is, and how its culture is spreading throughout society.
In order to counter a lot of this lack of knowledge, misconceptions, and preconceived notions about Burning Man, I’m writing up a three-part series. This first part mostly talks about background information, basic infrastructure, how the event works, and its ethos/culture. Part two will be focused on theme camps and events. Part three will cover art works/emplacements and mutant vehicles.
I’ve been to six burns, most recently in 2016, and have watched it go from a niche counterculture to having mainstream mass appeal. Several friends of mine have been more times than I, stretching many years further back in time, which was how I was introduced to this pseudo-alternate reality world which resembles an odd hybrid of communist central planning and techno-libertarian societies.
It used to be that you only went to this event if you knew someone who had already been and could effectively serve as your mentor. As the Burning Man Organization is fond of saying: this is not a festival. If you are ill prepared, you very well may die. It’s happened. You used to have to sign a waiver back in the days before they had on-site ambulance service, medical tents, and a helicopter at the ready to take you to Reno. It’s an extremely harsh environment with many hazards, be they natural or man-made.
That said, this was always part of the appeal, and many people bring their kids as young as three regardless of these risks. It always felt like a sort of frontier. There wasn’t even cell service until 2014 and no ubiquitous WiFi. Everyone wore a watch, an actual watch, just to tell them the time, and people kept their phones locked up. This is still the case for the early half of the burn, until the dreaded tourists show up around Thursday to stare at their phones and do glamor shoots for their Instagram accounts.
The tourists and narcissists are a relatively new phenomenon though. There were always some ‘weekend warriors’, but ‘sparkle ponies’ were the bigger nuisance for many years. The event first started in 1986 and only sold out for the first time in 2011. You used to be able to get a ticket whenever you wanted, or even at the gate, for as low as $100. Now it’s a mad rush to get one, so it ends up on many people’s bucket list who attend with no prior interest in or knowledge of the event’s culture and history.
The event is held on public land under Bureau of Land Management jurisdiction. They impose strict population limits, which have generally increased each year, and a slew of other restrictions regarding maintaining the natural environment, such as requiring the event’s perimeter be surrounded with a trash fence. It was the first “Leave No Trace” event, and they’ve done a rather good job of making sure you wouldn’t be able to tell it happened if you go beforehand or afterwards. However, ever increasing BLM fees and ever more demands from the 6 police departments with a presence there have driven the cost up to $425 minimum, unless you get a subsidized “low-income” ticket. On the high end, you can spend around $1,400 for one ticket plus another $100 for a vehicle pass.
All this gets you is access to the city, and it is indeed a city. The Burning Man Organization provides “roads”, which are just packed down dust sprayed regularly with water to keep them under control, road signs, a single Center Camp, about a dozen banks of porta potties, and The Man, which is lit on fire with an amazing firework display on Saturday night. Everything else in the city is brought and built by the attendees, although they’ve started placing “Black Rock Ranger” stations and medical tents around as well.
The attendees ARE the event. All the party locations are brought, built, and paid for by attendees, who often pay DJs big bucks to spin there, though the no-names are often better. There’s multiple competing post offices run entirely by burners. (Dis)information centers, “human car washes”, vehicle lockout services, playgrounds and trampoline parks, pretty much everything you’ll find was brought there by someone who thought it would be cool to have X, Y, or Z on ‘the playa’ and just did it out of their own pockets.
The BMOrg (often called ‘the borg’) also provides a theme for each year. This year is “metamorphosis”. Previous examples include “fertility”, “metropolis”, “good and evil”, “Da Vinci’s workshop” and many others throughout the years. There’s also “10 principles” the BMOrg tries to enforce on the event but have gotten somewhat lazy about recently. Leave No Trace is one of those, and they keep to it under threat of ruinous fines. Another big one is Decommodification, which basically means nothing can be bought, sold, or traded.
Burning Man runs on a ‘gifting economy’. The only concession they make on this is ice and coffee, which the BMOrg sells around the city. Other than that, everything is free. If you see a restaurant offering pancakes, they’ll be given to you at no charge. If you stop by a clothing store, feel free to grab a shirt and pants, which will likely have been ‘gifted’ to the store itself at some point. My wife and I often gift necklaces.
In the past, anyone could set up a restaurant. Starting in 2013 though, the Nevada Health Department started requiring any restaurants gifting food to the general public to get permits and be inspected. This also applies to large private kitchens serving camps of 125 or more. Never accept gifts of food that aren’t factory sealed though unless you (a) are getting it from a restaurant, (b) know and trust the source, (c) don’t mind the chance of getting drugged, or (d) ask if the food contains drugs. People are usually honest on (d) if you ask, but a camp next door to mine one year took a bunch of Altoids from a stranger without thinking to ask and they turned out to be laced with LSD. Whoops. Welcome to Burning Man.
A lot of this stuff and more is what veteran burners usually tell people right off the bat to weed people out. We also like to toss in factoids like “there’s no showers so be prepared to be sweaty and smelly for a week”, “there’s no dumpsters so you have to pack out all your own trash”, “you need to prepared to bring, store, and cook a week’s worth food”, “you’re likely to run out of gas”, “there’s dubstep playing LITERALLY ALL THE TIME”, “dust storms = whiteout conditions on a moments notice”, “police will arrest you for driving 1mph over the speed limit”, and a few other tropes that boil down to “burning man sucks, don’t go.” Yes, there’s a lot of sex, drugs, and nudity, but we don’t usually talk about or emphasize those parts. They’re just one small part of the greater whole.
That’s all just part of the culture. It’s definitely a harsh climate that most Americans or really anyone ‘civilized’ could go crazy in, and veterans try to keep out too many clueless virgins (the term used for first-time burners) who just want to go to a big exclusive weeklong party. For those virgins who do go, there’s a lot of other rubs and insider false knowledge (paging Not Adahn) spread to mess with them and identify fakers. “Daft Punk is playing at the trash fence” is the biggest of these. Anyone who says they saw Daft Punk at the trash fence is BSing you.
First-timers who don’t have any sort of mentor can generally make do by joining up with a larger camp. Many people in these camps have multiple burns under their belt and will make sure newbies have a pleasant experience. These camps usually cost money to join though, from a few hundred to a few thousand bucks, to pay for all the amenities they bring for their campmates and the general public. Considering most attendees are already looking at several thousand in expenses ($425 ticket +$100 vehicle pass + $200-$500 gas + $500-$1500 airfare/vehicle rental) just to get there and back home, many may not be willing or able to fork over more money to join a camp where they’ll probably also be required to work shifts and help with setup/breakdown before and after the burn. You’ll also need to take more time off work.
If you’re flush with cash, you can usually buy your way out of every issue. This fact really pisses off most veteran burners, because “buying your burn” runs completely counter to the event’s culture in many ways. Radical self-reliance (one of the 10 principles) means “building your burn” and adapting to the harsh climate in your own way, such that you survive the event, thrive, and have a great time doing it. Having to rely on yourself (and/or a small contingent of friends) for the week while having a blast amidst a city that didn’t exist a month before your arrival is what sparks the life changing experiences many people, myself included report after attending.
Next time, we’ll dive into the backbone of Black Rock City: theme camps and the events they offer.