Burning Man survived a muddy quagmire. Will the experiment last 30 more years?

by Chloe Baker
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Burning Man Evolution

The empty expanse of desert wilderness in northern Nevada presented an ideal backdrop in 1992 for the annual ritual of incendiary artistry known as Burning Man. A farewell to San Francisco’s Baker Beach led to a new beginning on the Nevada playa, once submerged beneath an ancient inland sea.

What began as a modest gathering evolved into Burning Man’s surrealistic carnival, fueled by acts of benevolence and avant-garde performances, sometimes intertwined with hallucinogenic experiences or a liberal embrace of nudity. The spectacle thrived as the festival swelled over the subsequent three decades.

However, some contend that it expanded too rapidly, too extensively.

In 2011, the turning point arrived when tickets sold out for the first time. Organizers responded with a short-lived lottery system, straying from the festival’s original ethos of radical inclusion. As Burning Man matured, opulent accommodations proliferated, alongside an influx of billionaires and celebrities.

Katherine Chen, a sociology professor in New York City, who penned a 2009 book about the event’s “creative chaos,” was among those who questioned whether Burning Man might fall victim to its own success.

Exponential growth raised concerns about whether organizers had departed too far from the core tenets of radical inclusion, expression, participation, and the commitment to “leave no trace.”

This year, the challenge of maintaining these principles was particularly daunting as “Burners” attempted to depart after setting the 80-foot wooden sculpture known as “the Man” ablaze. A rare rainstorm transformed the Black Rock Desert, located 110 miles north of Reno, into a muddy quagmire, delaying the exodus of 80,000 revelers. Organizers, under the conditions of a federal permit, had just six weeks to restore the site.

By the slimmest of margins, they succeeded in this endeavor last month, with only a few recommended adjustments for the future. The verdict from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management paves the way for Burning Man to utilize federal land once more next year.

Yet the debate concerning the event’s future is far from settled, as divisions deepen between the original hippie contingent and the newer, more technologically inclined attendees. Seasoned participants worry that the newer generation is losing touch with Burning Man’s foundational ideals.

The event has undergone a remarkable transformation, evolving from a gathering of a few hundred to a temporary metropolis that ranks as Nevada’s third-largest city, trailing only Las Vegas and Reno. The festival drew 4,000 attendees in 1995 and surpassed 50,000 in 2010.

It’s no surprise that long-time Burners occasionally sound like discontented card players on a small-town square, lamenting, “It’s not like it used to be.”

“Back then, it was much more unrefined,” remarked Mike “Festie” Malecki, a 63-year-old retired Chicago mortician turned California sculptor who made his 13th pilgrimage this year to the land of vibrant theme camps, towering sculptures, drum circles, and art cars.

“There are more individuals who come solely to revel and not to engage. We call them spectators,” he observed.

Organizers have long grappled with the dilemma of whether to embrace greater civility or to uphold co-founder Larry Harvey’s vision of a “repudiation of order and authority.”

Ron Halbert, a 71-year-old from San Francisco, has supported Burning Man’s 90-piece orchestra for two decades and remains hopeful.

“It’s still the gathering of the tribe,” he affirmed.

The event is provisionally permitted for the same 80,000 attendance cap next year. Organizers are considering minor alterations but generally resist the imposition of new regulations, according to Executive Director Marian Goodell.

Critics on social media decried the chaos left behind this year, sharing images of trash heaps, abandoned vehicles, and overflowing portable toilets while mocking the “hippies” and their “leave-no-trace” mantra.

Ironically, this chaos may have helped refocus Burning Man on its foundational principles.

Katrina Cook of Toronto asserted that it compelled attendees to adhere to the founding principles of participation and radical self-reliance.

“The rain sifted out those who weren’t there for the right reasons,” Cook remarked.

Mark Fromson, 54, sought refuge in an RV but was forced by the rains to seek shelter at another camp where fellow Burners provided sustenance and protection. He emphasized another Burning Man principle: unconditional gift-giving without any expectation of reciprocity.

After nightfall, Fromson traversed the mud barefoot on a lengthy trek back to his vehicle, trudging through thick clay that clung to his feet and legs. He viewed the challenge as a mark of a “good burn.”

Nonetheless, Jeffery Longoria of San Francisco, attending his fifth consecutive Burning Man last summer, acknowledged that the core principles will inevitably evolve as a new generation assumes leadership.

“The individuals who established this community, many of them are aging and retiring, and there’s an influx of young individuals, some of whom own $100,000 RVs and appear indifferent to the environment,” he noted.

Soren Michael, a Los Angeles technology worker who made his 11th journey this year, highlighted the most significant change: the ability to communicate with the outside world from the desert.

“It was almost part of the allure to be disconnected,” he reflected.

Twenty years ago, this psychedelic celebration unlike any other had already attracted academic scholars, including anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, economists, and communications professors, eager to explore how this makeshift civilization functioned without conventional rules.

References to Burning Man began appearing in TV episodes and talk show humor. The festival’s temporary metropolis, Black Rock City, drew visits from the rich and famous.

In 2018, the phenomenon was featured in a full-fledged exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington. Nevertheless, veteran Burners lamented that the event had become more of a spectacle to witness than to participate in.

This sentiment is partly fueled by the rise of “glamor camping” or glamping, where private companies offer all-inclusive trips to opulent camps with luxury RVs and extravagant meals beneath chandeliers. Some argue that these camps violate Burning Man’s principles.

The increasing number of billionaires and celebrities arriving in Black Rock City via private jets to the festival’s temporary airstrip has drawn criticism, but Marian Goodell contends that wealth should not be a source of shame.

“The issue isn’t glamping,” she contends. “Comfort doesn’t imply a lack of engagement. The question is whether you have a glamping camp and aren’t truly engaging.”

Burning Man’s mission remains unchanged: to construct a creative, stimulating environment that attendees can carry back to their own communities.

“We believed that from the outset,” Goodell affirmed. “We simply didn’t anticipate that it would involve 80,000 people.”

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Burning Man Evolution

What is Burning Man?

Burning Man is an annual event held in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, known for its radical artistic expression and community participation.

How did Burning Man begin?

It started in 1992 as a small gathering of artistic anarchists who burned a wooden effigy on San Francisco’s Baker Beach before moving to the Nevada desert.

What are the core principles of Burning Man?

The core principles include radical inclusion, expression, participation, and the commitment to “leave no trace” by cleaning up after the event.

How has Burning Man evolved over the years?

Burning Man has grown exponentially, from a few hundred attendees to a temporary metropolis of 80,000 people. It has attracted academic scholars, celebrities, and faced challenges of maintaining its original ethos.

What challenges has Burning Man faced recently?

Challenges include ticket shortages, growing luxury accommodations, and divisions between older participants and wealthier newcomers.

How did a rare rainstorm affect Burning Man?

A rainstorm in the Black Rock Desert turned it into a muddy quagmire, delaying the departure of attendees and posing cleanup challenges.

What is the future of Burning Man?

The event’s future remains uncertain, with ongoing debates over its identity and principles as a new generation takes over.

What is the purpose of Burning Man?

Burning Man aims to create a creative and stimulating environment, allowing participants to take back inspiration to their own communities.

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