What is Burning Man: 10 Things You Should Know About This Crazy Festival
With every passing year, Burning Man reinvents and entrenches itself as a modern cultural buzzword. Freedom of creative expression, debauchery, radical inclusivity, problematic exclusivity; all of these things have recently been associated with the increasingly (in)famous festival. But the mammoth into which it’s grown is a far cry from its modest origins.
Burning Man started as an unspectacular, small-scale bonfire on Baker Beach, San Francisco in 1986. It only transformed into something much bigger four years later when it relocated to Nevada’s expansive desert lake – Black Rock City. Since then it’s grown incrementally in terms of size, participation and cost.
In short, Burning Man could be described as an annual festival, bridging the last week in August and the first in September, in which 70,000 people gather in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, assemble and inhabit a giant city throughout the course of a week, and then burn the centerpiece effigy of a wooden Man. With the festival’s conclusion, the playa is left as it was found – devoid of architectural structures, material waste or, in fact, any trace of human activity. In fact such is the commitment of its participants that Burning Man is visibly more than a festival; a societal experiment, an immersive artistic experience, and a participatory cultural ethos.
Each year’s festival takes on a new theme: 2015 played host to the ‘Carnival of Mirrors’, 2016 to ‘Da Vinci’s Workshop’, and 2017 will see the enigmatic ‘Radical Ritual’. Each year is different, but every incarnation of Burning Man shares one unifying feature – volition for expression, participation and non-conformity. For those who want it straight from the horse’s mouth, Burning Man’s organizers have outlined the 10 core principles behind the event. But here we’ve gone beyond the official source to give you a real taste of the brilliantly bizarre and utterly unique experience that is Burning Man.
10 Your money is no good here.
Ticket prices for Burning Man are steep, costing anywhere in excess of $390. But unlike with other festivals, punters can take comfort in the knowledge that they won’t have to spend any more while there. Burning Man is fiercely anti-commodification. The absence of corporate sponsorship in Black Rock City is striking, and even its participants are asked to cover any logos they’re wearing. Moreover, to reinforce this transparency Burning Man annually publishes its expenses to show exactly where your ticket money goes.
There are, however, two necessary exceptions to the prohibition of sales: ice (which is sold by the bag and is stipulated in the festival’s permit), and coffee (the proceeds of which go to Gerlach, the town through which people drive to get to the playa). Those responsible for selling these products are the Black Rock City organizers, and all proceeds are put toward covering costs and funding next year’s Burn.
One of Burning Man’s biggest myths is that it runs on a bartering culture. In fact, the process by which people carry out trades and transactions is actually called ‘gifting’. The principle is simple but effective. Through the circulation of commodities – many of which are necessary to survival in the harsh Nevada desert – gifting cements a sense of community amongst the participants. But although the best gift is something wanted or needed, this doesn’t limit what a gift can be.
Gifting could be giving a personal trinket, extending favor or a donating a sticker. It could mean dedicating your time to servicing your camp’s bikes, or, to those guided by more free-loving principles, being the camp’s bicycle. Gifting is a great principle. But it’s not enough to sustain you, and anyone planning a trip to Burning Man would do well to take time to prepare before setting off.
9 It’s absolutely essential to come prepared.
At the risk of being labeled a sparkle pony (more on this later), it’s vital to make sure that you venture forth onto the playa with enough to keep you going for the duration. The web abounds with essential lists, but here are the most important.
First and foremost, bring appropriate clothing. A costume is an absolute must, and dressing up as a Neolithic shaman in faux-wolf skin pelt, a wool kilt and full-body ochre may seem a good idea while costume shopping at Walmart. But its realization may be significantly less appreciated in the 90 degrees heat of the Nevada desert, so pack something light. Conversely, temperatures on the playa plummet to below the 40s at night, so take a number of layers and a good sleeping back and thank me later. And goggles. Definitely take goggles.
On the subject of comfort, an RV won’t go amiss either. As it’s Labor Day prices will be extortionate, but the air-conditioning will make it well worth it in both terms of the quality of your sleep and social credentials. But don’t expect to drive round the festival once you’ve parked up; bring a beaten-up bike (one that you won’t miss if when it gets stolen) to make the most of your time in the city.
And unless at the end of the week you’re intending to distract attention from the burning man with your very own display of spontaneous self-combustion, bring sun cream and water. Lots of water. In fact, plan on drinking about a galleon of the stuff each day (that is if you don’t want to shrivel up and form an artistic centerpiece at next year’s festival). Take plenty of vinegar to wash your feet with too – the acidity of which neutralizes the alkali in the desert’s dust that’s been known to cause nasty cases of playa foot.
8 Burning Man’s layout is crazy.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that a city temporarily erected in the desert for the purpose of… well, no one entirely knows, would be distinctly lacking in a logical layout. You would however be wrong.
Black Rock City occupies a vast semicircle around the centerpiece the event is named after. Streets running parallel around the semicircle are lettered alphabetically, while those running away from the statue of the Man in the center are named after the positions on a clock face the semicircle resembles (4:00, 4:15 etc.).
But while the city’s layout can be described as having a logical beauty, the monuments and installations that populate it cannot. Not that this is to the festival’s detriment. There may be a unifying theme every year, but this does nothing to lessen the wonderful weirdness of the artworks on display. Lord Snort – a 20-foot tall and 37-foot wide interactive boar made of rusted metal? Check. Two life-size whales – one made from stained glass, the other from meshed metal seemingly suspended from the sky? Of course. Christopher Schardt’s Firmament – a canopy dome with an interior lined by 21,600 LED lights synchronized to classical music? It goes without saying. And these were just the temporary installations from the 2016 incarnation of Burning Man.
One of the only consistencies in an otherwise constantly changing festival is the centerpiece itself, the sculpture of the Man. It’s around this statue that people congregate on the final night for its ceremonial burning, the concluding event of a week of festivities. And it’s a spectacle of converse meaning, for although it symbolizes death and closure, it fits perfectly with Burning Man’s communal ethos in bringing together tens of thousands for a unifying ritual of openness.
7 It preaches radical inclusion.
Burning Man’s first principle is that ‘anyone may be a part… we welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.’ It’s a warm philosophy; comforting, however superficially, in an age in which we’re becoming at once technologically more interconnected yet, paradoxically, culturally disconnected. And every now and again, this core principle is bolstered by a click bait news story boasting of Burning Man reunions or reconciliations: in 2013, for example, Facebook’s Dustin Moskovitz exchanged embraces with his antagonists the Winklevoss twins (or, Winklevii as they were referred to in the 2010 hit The Social Network).
But for all its strengths, we shouldn’t make the mistake of viewing Burning Man as a ticketed utopia. This scathing critique of what the festival has become may be overly cynical, but some of the things it takes issue with regarding radical inclusion certainly hold weight. Firstly, why it has to be labeled ‘radical’, and secondly whether mass inclusion and overpopulation really is the way to go when bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better.
Where this article really hits home, however, is with the intrusion of the club/concert vibe into the festival and the effect this has on isolating those to whom effortless communal participation doesn’t come naturally. For all the glamorous and awe-inspiring snapshots from the festival, there are accounts of isolation, loneliness and the feeling that you don’t quite live up to some unspoken ideal.
Viewing Burning Man as a weeklong societal experiment may be beneficial. But with all such experiments, hierarchies ultimately become established. 2016’s incarnation saw one particular group being singled out and targeted for undermining the core principles of inclusion. But just maybe the problem is more insidious.
6 In recent years it’s been ‘hijacked’.
Mad Max is instructive in showing us that if you gather together thousands of people in the middle of the desert, they will soon form tribes. And while it’s true that tribes are becoming ever more of a thing at Burning Man, you can at least sleep safe in the knowledge that they’re not as dangerous as those of the Fury Road.
Spend enough time walking around and instead you’re bound to come across: preened, dreadlocked and perilously ill-equipped sparkle ponies, a colony of yoga bunnies or a herd of shirt cockers (men who wear shirts and… actually, just shirts). But far from the traditional, if not incongruous, tribes that populate the playa, an all-new breed is gradually making its presence known.
More comfortable with glamping than camping, an ilk of wealthy jetsetters are becoming an increasing presence at Burning Man. In fact one camp, White Ocean, became the focal point of some of the more traditional (or revolutionary) burners’ anger in 2016. Those that took part in the attack burst Burning Man’s utopian bubble by cutting the camp’s power lines, flooding parts of it with 200 galleons of water, and gluing shut a number of trailer doors during a techno set.
The response was mixed. A Burning Man official allegedly justified the attack on the grounds that those in the White Ocean camp were closed and unwelcoming. Others treated it as something of a call to arms; a rallying cry for common burners to overthrow the parasitic jet-setting class who were undermining what Burning Man is all about. However the majority of reactions were either condemnatory or incredulous, especially given Burning Man’s number one principle: the acceptance of absolutely anyone into the community.
5 There’s a lot to be said for the sex.
Sex may be an integral part of every festival, but at Burning Man it’s catered for more than most. For a start there’s the Slut Garden camp. Host to the Slut Olympics – in which events transcend the traditional 100m sprint or 200m breaststroke to include ‘Deep Throat’, ‘Guess-A-Willy’ and the ever-popular and self-explanatory ‘Best Balls’ beauty contest.
Then there’s the famous Orgy Dome – one of the few structures on the playa that’s air-conditioned for the participants’ pleasure. It’s certainly more strictly monitored than any orgy from antiquity, with copious queuing, talks on consent and interviews for sobriety separating the wheat from the chaff. But couples who aren’t chafing too much from cycling around the burning desert are free to get down to the business of dirt in full view of everyone, with free access to lubrication and contraception, and to a soundtrack of ambient sensuality and moaning.
While the Orgy Dome is incredibly popular, with 5,000 attendees said to have come through its doors in 2015, it’s by no means the only option on the playa. Punters not tied up at a BDSM show are free to try their hand at group masturbation sessions, hit up one or two spanking classes or frolic around at naked foam parties. French-kissing booths offer a more continental option, while penis-measuring stations are a good place to get sized up before entering an erection contest (a popular event, despite apparently being quite hard). These are just a few of the more steamy events put on at Burning Man over the years. So why not give them all a go? Or at least the ones you can fit it.
4And for the drugs.
Drug consumption is one of the aspects of Burning Man that people wax lyrical about the most. In a recent New York Times article Nick Bilton – someone who’s actually attended the festival – wrote that our preconceptions of Burning Man as 50,000 stoned and scantily clad hippies worshipping the sun to a backdrop of techno music were actually pretty accurate, at least until a couple of years ago. Some have taken issue with this, however, calling it out as sensationalist, oversimplified claptrap. For a start, Burning Man’s attendants are better characterized as forward-looking tech-driven steam punks than backward looking hippies. And besides, getting baked and worshipping the sun is far from what’s really happening at the festival.
This isn’t to say that drugs aren’t a thing. They’re just not on tap. In all honesty, the level of drug consumption isn’t all that different from inner city LA. During the daytime hours, most folk are generally quite sober. The pungent smell of weed is pretty much everywhere, and those who are predisposed to drop pills and other substances to enhance the party will certainly do so, just as they would at any other rave back home. But in general, it’s not the asylum for acid-dropping hippies or preserve of pill-dropping techno-heads that it’s been made out to be.
There is one particularly interesting issue. Photographers who intend to publish their work from Black Rock City are required to sign a lengthy document consenting to censorship should they capture illegal or incriminating activity. This seems at odds with Burning Man’s self-professed core philosophical principle of freedom of expression and interaction. It might be a vain attempt to preserve an image of the festival at odds with reality. If so, it’s sure to be short-lived.
3 And for the rock ‘n’ roll.
Well, EDM. Or tech. Or, technically, playa-tech – a subgenre characterized by a combination of house, spiritual, tribal and world music. There are many exponents of this type of music, some of who return to play the playa each year: Atish, Lee Burridge, Damian Lazarus and Robot Heart, to name a few. But, surprising as this may seem, there are actually no bands at Burning Man, at least that are officially endorsed.
In fact, music was never meant to be an integral part of Burning Man, and over the last 20 years has had an uncharacteristic if not uneasy relationship with the festival organizers. From 1993 to 1997 there was the officially endorsed Techno Ghetto, but inebriated acts of criminality, mounting casualties and the death of a participant resulted in it eventually being shut down. Since then, EDM has been in the organizer’s black books. In 1997, sound systems exceeding 100 watts were banned and mutant vehicles bearing EDM artists asked to limit their activity to a ‘deep playa music zone’.
Any contemporary burner who wants a break from the incessant pounding techno has many other options on hand. The Black Rock Roller Disco is a common favorite, with the resident DJ Godfather spinning a mix of soul, 80s hits and R&B. Or there’s the San Francisco arts community export Pink Mammoth, a wonderfully scenic venue whose soundtrack transcends EDM. And although the dusty conditions and imminent sandstorm threat generally discourages musicians from bringing along their beloved instruments, for those looking to get there fix of traditional live music there’s the brilliant Jazz Cafe.
2 Almost everything breathes fire.
Whether in homage to the concluding spectacle of the burning Man or to the pyro-happy cinematography of Mad Max, a remarkable number of installations and mutant vehicles at Burning Man spew flames. In 2008 and 2015 there were gigantic fire breathing dragons; the latter of which was called Akle and stood at a mighty 50-foot. In 2011 there was El Pulpo Mecanico, a south-of-the-border steampunk octopus constructed from scrap and salvage that spewed flames from its tentacles and head.
Phenomenal fire breathing sets gifted by the festival’s revelers feature regularly on the playa. In fact, such is the apparent desire amongst attendants to artistically set things ablaze (or just to watch the world burn) that the Hellfire Society put on a hotly participated fire breathing class in 2016. And then there’s the name given to every participant of Burning Man: burners.
Anything that doesn’t naturally (or mechanically) breathe fire will ultimately combust anyway. At the end of the week, it’s not just the Man that burns; all sculptures erected in the desert are made to undergo the same process, returning to the ashes from whence they came.
1 And at the end, all returns to dust.
There are few intersections at which Burning Man crosses with the Bible. At a push, you could overlap Black Rock City’s 10 foundational principles with the 10 commandments (no doubt, they’re as religiously adhered to). Scratch around in the dust, however, and the allusions come pouring forth.
‘All came from dust and all return to the dust.’ ‘From the dust you came and to dust you shall return.’ ‘Shall we together go down into the dust?’ All of these may be biblical quotes, but they wouldn’t seem out of place hammered to a piece of plywood atop the Burning Man sculpture on the final night. But they don’t prophecy any future festival as much as allude to the hopeless transience of man’s life. And transience is a theme close to the heart of Burning Man’s organizers.
Leaving no trace – as embodied in the ceremonial burning of the Man – is crucial to the festival’s ethos and, in truth, offers a lesson we’d all do well to take from. That isn’t to say it’s totally environmentally friendly. Transporting around 70,000 people to the middle of the Nevada desert does leave something of a carbon footprint, none more so than the 2,000 or so arrivals and departures that annually grace Burning Man airport. But when it comes to the festival itself, its green credentials are certainly impressive. As the world’s biggest Leave No Trace (LNT) event it constantly outdoes itself through mass participation of all attendants in a titanic cleanup operation.
Is Burning Man totally green? Of course not. But, as the festival organizers acknowledge, transferring 70,000 people who would normally be commuting, showering or blasting air conditioning for a week can only do more good than harm.
There’s no doubt that Burning Man is gathering momentum as a festival, an experience and – amongst all of the world’s burner community – as an ethos. And a considerable part of this must be attributed to the multiplicity of meaning that Burning Man conveys.
You could call it a festival (though, owing to the lack of musical endorsement, not in any conventional way). You could call it an evolving social experiment revolving around a philosophy of unconditional acceptance, mass participation and immediate experience. You also could call it the world’s largest open-air art exhibition, or just a week of sex, drugs and debauchery in the desert. And the thing about Burning Man is that each of these descriptions would be as valid as the other.
The only way you can know is to get your hands on a ticket and see for yourself. After all, as the organizers have enshrined as the last of the 10 principles, participation and immediacy are essential to the Burning Man experience.