As Burning Man’s popularity soars, it also grapples with growing pains. The festival’s community ponders the future, while bringing the culture to a wider public.
In 1986, a small group of friends gathered at Baker Beach, in San Francisco, to celebrate the summer solstice by lighting a 9-foot-tall wooden man on fire. The group, led by Larry Harvey, could not have known the magnitude of what they had set in motion.
Fast-forward almost 10 years, to 1995—the first year that Marian Goodell attended what was by then known as Burning Man. By that time, the week-long annual gathering had situated on a parched lakebed in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. The Man, as he came to be called, was now about 40-feet-tall, and was burned toward the end of the festival in a cathartic marvel of fire. Tickets were $35, and the ephemeral city—which was on its way to becoming “Black Rock City” (BRC)—held 4,000 people.
“When I was there with 4,000 people, I knew there was something very significant about my experience,” says Goodell, who had heard about the festival in a photography class. “But I definitely didn’t imagine it would grow to the proportions it is now and become such a worldwide phenomenon.”
By the end of 1996, Goodell was one of six “owners” of Burning Man, LLC, and has since also become the director of business and communications among other duties. She and the rest of the year-round Burning Man staff have overseen an evolution in the event’s texture and structure as a result of its perpetual growth. In the ’90s, as more people journeyed to BRC, increasing regulations befell the city—dogs, guns, and free-for-all driving were replaced by a meticulously planned city grid, driving ban, and safety rules.
The event, which takes place around Labor Day each year, remained stripped of the trappings of “the default world,” and came to be guided, instead, by 10 Core Principles (including Radical Self-Reliance, Radical Self-Expression, a decommodified gift economy, Leave No Trace, etc.). As thousands more people joined the colorful tribe each year, the breadth of experience flourished in the participant-driven city, fostering an unstoppable kaleidoscope of creative visions that manifest as small- and large-scale art installations, interactive fun, theme camps, performances, decorated bicycles, elaborate costumes, “mutant” vehicles, and a strong sense of community.
But even with a unique recipe like this, organizers and participants, alike, may not have imagined that it would grow to the point it has: a turnout of 53,963 people in 2011 and an expected 58,000 this year, if the Burning Man Project (nicknamed “BMORG,” this is the nonprofit entity that Burning Man, LLC is transitioning to) gets its 2012 permit approved by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which owns the land where the festival is held.
Andie Grace worked as Burning Man’s communications manager for 13 years until stepping down this month. She recalls her visit to “the playa” in 1998, when the population was 15,000.
“I remember someone saying, ‘Wow, someday 50,000 people could be out here,’” Grace recalls. “I almost fell over laughing—that was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard. So be careful what you say.”
But along with growth comes growing pains. What started as a bonfire at the beach is now facing the exciting, if uncertain, consequences of outgrowing itself, leading the community to contemplate some fundamental questions about what’s next.
In a Feb. 9 Burning Man newsletter, Grace wrote, “Now that we’ve reached this point, we absolutely know we have to get this next moment right. We are all about to write the future of Burning Man.”
Weathering the Storm
Last July, with the 25th annual festival still on the horizon, the event sold out for the first time. This marked an important point in Burning Man history—one from which it will most likely never return.
The swelling interest in the festival had gone from consistent to overpowering, aided by social media propagation and growing coverage in mainstream media.
Photographer Kyer Wiltshire, who has been attending and photographing Burning Man for 11 years, says the days are gone when most people he met—even people in nearby Reno, Nev.—had never heard of what he calls “arguably the most amazing party on the planet.”
“When you hear about Jon Stewart joking about Burning Man on the Daily Show, or Fox News talking about the freaks out at Burning Man, you know that Burning Man has reached that point of being known across America,” says Wiltshire, who was a Spanish professor at UC Santa Cruz and Cabrillo College for 12 years before the Burning Man influence took hold and he left his academic life to pursue photography full time.
The sold-out 2011 event reached record attendance (prompting the BLM to put Burning Man on temporary probation), and passed by without any major dust storms—a natural and, in other years, frequent occurrence that whips Black Rock City into momentary blindness. These dust storms are the most unforgiving of the temperamental elements BRC citizens deal with, which also include blazing hot days, frigid nights, an excruciatingly dry and alkaline environment, and, sometimes, rain. The droves who populated the 2011 event were greeted by very few of these problems—most notably, no major dust storms.
“Last year created the perfect storm for the event to grow: there were a lot of newbies and there were no dust storms,” Wiltshire says. “The dust storms always kept a certain amount of people away. Last year they thought it was the greatest thing, and it is—but they didn’t realize how harsh it can be.”
But BMORG suspected they were “in for a different kind of ride in 2012” even before the weather proved too good to be true in 2011. “The moment in 2011 that we saw tickets were going to sell out, we knew it would have a major impact on 2012 ticket sales, and we started planning,” Grace wrote in the Feb. 9 newsletter.
In what has since come to been seen as an unsuccessful, if well-intentioned, attempt to address this growing interest, they created a new system for ticketing for the 2012 event: a lottery, in which 40,000 tickets were available in three price tiers.
Three times as many people entered the lottery as there were tickets available, according to Grace. By our calculations, this means that around 120,000 hopefuls vied for 40,000 available tickets. But Grace warns against reading too much into these numbers, as a “scarcity mentality” led many people to enter for more than they needed. (Although there was a two-per-person limit, there was no way to stop people from having friends and relatives enter the lottery for them.)
BMORG is already in talks about ticketing for 2013, drawing on advice and input from game theorists, statisticians, sociologists, ticketing companies, software folks, and the general Burner community.
“We have now gotten tons of feedback that will weigh heavily on how we do ticketing for 2013,” Grace says. But the reality is that no matter how they go about selling tickets, there won’t be enough for everyone who wants one.
“This moment is an inflection point,” Grace says. “We have hit through the capacity here, and it doesn’t mean nobody else will get to come in but maybe it means we won’t all go to the same place together every year. It could be that Black Rock City is where we go every few years, or take turns going, but there will be manifold other ways to access what we mean when we say ‘Burning Man.’”
This year will be the 13th time Geoffrey Nelson, a photographer who lives in the Tannery Arts Center in Santa Cruz, will go to Burning Man, where he heads up a theme camp called Mo’s Mini Martinis and Erotica. As one of three official Santa Cruz Burning Man Regional Contacts, he’s heard a fair share of concerns this year. What’s evident from the firestorm, he says, is how much people care about the event. (Not to mention that the bunch has a natural flare for the dramatic, he says.)
“Burners love panicking about stuff,” Nelson says. “There was that whole sense of ‘Oh my God, oh my God, we’re not going to get out there and this is a disaster!’ Because so many people hold it so close to them, here it is six months before the event and you’re panicking about not being out there. It must mean a lot to you people, because it’s months from now.”
The organization takes this fervor into account.
“We are accustomed to the passion that Burners feel about this event so there is always something every year that requires a lot of PR oversight and response,” Grace says. “So it’s not totally unfamiliar territory but it has been more intense than ever this year. It’s hard for us because we are Burners; we have friends who were affected by it [the ticketing snafu], and for some of us it was our own camps and projects that were affected.” She says the organization has received individual responses in the thousands, many of which were angry. The organization’s reply was comprised of laboriously detailed newsletters and blogs sprinkled with apologies and reality-check pep talks.
“This community just got hit by a massive dust storm,” Grace wrote in the Feb. 9 newsletter, “and it knocked a lot of things down … now it’s time to gather up, assess the damage, and start rebuilding together, just like we would in Black Rock City.”
In a survey of lottery applicants, 40 percent of respondents reported that 2012 would be their first year going to Burning Man—“a higher number than we’ve seen in previous years,” Grace said in the newsletter. However, Grace tells GT that the organizers “aren’t putting a lot of credence” in this figure. “My sense is that every year we have about one-third newbies,” she says.
Still, this news added a fresh layer of indignation to the already fuming faction of Burners who didn’t get a ticket, the concern being that “newbies” tend to bring less to the table, or that, given the event’s catapult into the mainstream zeitgeist, more people were coming out to Black Rock City just to party. This stoked the flames of a fear that the event, which at its very core revolves around participation, might become a spectator event.
Santa Cruz mechanic and five-time Burning Man attendee Joe Wight worried about this when he wasn’t selected to buy a ticket through the lottery. “There was a stressful length of time that was like, ‘Well, what am I going to do? I have $5,000 invested in infrastructure, some of which I just invested last year’”—he built a new art car in 2011—“’and you’re telling me that I’m not a valuable enough member of the community to be able to spend my thousands of dollars in investments out there and do my thing? When a whole group of people doesn’t even know what they’re doing?’ I’m all about equal opportunities, but there is definitely a demographic of the community that contributes heavily, and without that demographic, you’re doing the community an injustice.”
Recognizing this, the organization designated the remaining 10,000 tickets—which were supposed to go up for open sale after the lottery—for key theme camps, artists, mutant vehicle creators, musicians and other key contributors to the sensory playground that is Black Rock City. (For those who still don’t have tickets, Grace expects things to shake out over summer as people’s plans change; as long as those tickets are re-sold at face value, ticket-less folks may not be out of luck just yet, she says.)
“As eager as we are to welcome our newest citizens into our community, it’s crucially important that we have a solid foundation of veteran Burners in Black Rock City to meet, greet and acculturate these eager new participants, ensuring that they not only survive the elements but also fully participate in the Burning Man culture,” wrote Goodell in a Feb. 15 newsletter.
Now that so many more people want to go than actually can, Burning Man has to reckon with one of its 10 core principles—“Radical Inclusion”—in a new way. “We will always welcome the stranger,” wrote Goodell, “and all are welcome to participate in the culture of Burning Man. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we can all fit in one place at one time.”
However the attendance pans out this year, the event promises to be as much of a spectacle as ever: Burning Man awarded a record amount in art grants for 2012, doling out $700,000 (taken from ticket revenues) to 47 promising projects.
David Best, the California sculptor known for building many of Burning Man’s sacred temples, received partial funding for this year’s temple from the organization. (See the sidebar on page 19 for a glimpse at Best’s 2012 temple, the Temple of Juno.) Best hopes veterans will remember that they, too, were once a Black Rock City virgin.
“The thing about the community being up in arms because new people are coming in—since when? Everyone was a first time person once,” Best says. “Who are we to discriminate and think we are more entitled to go to Burning Man because we’ve gone 10 times?”
As for the event at large, he says, “It’s changing, but it’s supposed to change.”
How to handle ticket sales in the future isn’t the only question Burning Man is wrestling with; there are several more existential matters being contemplated by the community, too. Among them: Will Burning Man have to move? If so, where would it go and what would that be like? Is the population going to grow? By how much? How big can it get and still retain its flavor? Might it someday end altogether? What would happen then?
Goodell addressed some of the growth theories in the Feb. 15 newsletter: “We’re also exploring a number of options to increase the event’s capacity in the future, including ongoing negotiations with the BLM, extending the event timeframe, alternative event sites, and more,” she wrote.
The organization is currently awaiting the verdict on their five-year event permit application to the BLM, which proposes raising the population from 50,000 to 70,000 by 2016.
As previously mentioned, the BLM placed Burning Man on temporary probation this year for exceeding the city’s population cap in 2011. The organization expects to hear about their permit for this year’s event, which is tied up in negotiations over their 2012-2016 permit, this month. Grace could not comment on the pending permit, except to say that their target population for this year is 58,000 (nearly the size of the City of Santa Cruz). The BLM’s decision had not been made as of press time. (UPDATE: The BLM approved the event’s 2012 Special Recreation Permit on June 12 and announced that the maximum population will be 60,900. For more details, click here.)
BMORG remained fairly tight lipped when GT asked about various future scenarios. Is moving locations being explored for the long term? “It’s always something that is on the table, but there are a lot of factors to it,” says Grace.
To this point, Goodell says, “The amount of infrastructure we rely on that is connected to that place, and the connections we have with the towns and law [enforcements] … it would take years to rebuild that at another location.”
Might the timeframe be extended? “The temporary nature of the event is part of its charm, and there is also the amount of stress it would cause on the environment, staff, and [egress and ingress],” Goodell says. (No matter how big the population of BRC gets, there is still only one two-lane road in and out of the place, which keeps the issues of arrival and “exodus” at the forefront of the conversation.)
Burners have plenty of ideas and visions for how things should unfold, and BMORG says they are listening.
As much as Ted Altenberg loves the event, the Santa Cruz County educator and 13-time Burner likes to entertain thoughts about stark alternatives. “Often my friends and I have talked about how it’s hedonistic, and kind of selfish,” says Altenberg. “If you look at the totality: 50,000 people and so many of them are spending huge amounts of money, energy and resources all going into this one week of self indulgent fun. It’s great, but imagine if all of that time, money, energy and resources were instead put into rebuilding New Orleans or something.”
Yet, despite this, there is something about that hedonistic week in the desert that keeps him coming back. He hopes it continues. “I hope it can grow so that more people can enjoy it but that it stays organized,” he says. “How will the city itself, the feeling and vibe and experience, change as the city gets to 70, 80, 100,000? How big can it get before it starts losing some of what it is? Would it? I don’t know.”
Unlike many Burners, who believe the “blank canvas” playa is an essential component of Burning Man, local mechanic Joe Wight isn’t tied to the Black Rock location. He would prefer to see Burning Man become “a more permaculture-based event that isn’t limited to everyone coming and everyone going in a set time.”
Whatever happens, he believes it can only get better from here. “This is the year that everything went to shit,” Wight says. “And I have faith that in the future this year will be remembered as that. It has to get bad enough in order for things to get better. That’s what 2012 is in a broad sense. But there is enough of a community vision that no matter where it went, it’d be a step forward from where it is now.”
Regional Contact Nelson believes the Burning Man community will increasingly be kept alive through local chapters and events, but says the main event will remain an essential ingredient.
“I still think that the event in the Black Rock is critical to the community,” he says. “I call it the Super Bowl of Creativity—it’s the place where everyone comes together after working on their projects, their outfits, their camps, their cars, and says, ‘Here they are, and isn’t this cool?’ You have to have that, because it is what it all leads to.” (Visit gtweekly.com for a conversation with Nelson about the art of Burning Man costuming.)
Rupert Hart feels otherwise. He has been attending Burning Man for 12 years, a ritual that he began soon after moving to the United States from his native England. This year he is mayor of Silicon Village, a 220-person Burning Man parish made up of 15 smaller camps. The backyard of his 19th century Soquel home is strewn with Burning Man projects, old and new, and is where his purple-and-yellow art car rests for most of the year. When only 40 percent of Silicon Villagers got tickets for this year’s event, Hart appealed to BMORG, which allotted them 89 for-sale tickets. He ponders the event’s future with lighthearted unconcern.
“Well, something as special as this has to end sometime,” he says with a smile and a shrug. “It could happen at any moment. It’s absolutely amazing—I’m sure Larry [Harvey] is astonished that 25 years later his baby still exists. Very few things exist forever.”
Until then, however, Hart will continue to spend summer evenings working on “a project, or two, or three” for Burning Man.
Across the county, in a warehouse on Santa Cruz’s Westside, engineer Lucy Hosking also tinkers tirelessly on her Burning Man projects, the most elaborate of which are Satan’s Calliope (a rather famous fire-breathing pipe organ) and an enormous, seven-headed beast on wheels called the Dragon of Eden (which also spews fire). If the event ever does have to move, she’d like to see it wind up on private land and/or another dry lakebed—someplace where “fire is only limited by sensible physics.” Seated in the spacious cockpit of her mutant vehicle, she adds that it is futile to consider these theories too deeply. “Don’t get too lost in speculation about the future,” she says. “It’ll be different when we get there.”
But there is one thing that is certain, Hosking says: “This is a movement. It is something that has this profoundly positive impact on people’s lives. If this is what Burning Man does, America wants more of it.”
Here, There & Everywhere
Despite some regulating over the years, Wiltshire says that “Burning Man does still stand for radical self expression, anti-commercialism, art, and freedom”—a combination that has struck a chord with many people in today’s go-go-go, economically depressed world. “I think they have tapped into something that we really desire in our modern culture where everything is so commercial, so 9 to 5, so mainstream,” he says. “And it’s not just hippie freaks who like Burning Man.” (He once stumbled upon some naked women doing cartwheels at Burning Man who turned out to be investment bankers.)
When Wiltshire spoke to GT, he was en route from Symbiosis, a music and art festival that was held at Pyramid Lake, Nev., in May, to Lightning in a Bottle, another music and art festival that took place the following weekend in Silverado, Calif. He photographs around 11 festivals each year, an effort that was documented in his 2009 photography book, “Tribal Revival,” and was first inspired by his experiences at Burning Man.
“What Burning Man has done is provided the container for a culture that has spawned,” he says. “It’s not the only festival that has helped create the culture, but through Burning Man it is gaining strength and growing in numbers … I think that desire will always exist, and Burning Man as a culture and a concept will only continue to grow, even if it’s not in the Black Rock Desert.”
In her Feb. 15 newsletter, Goodell posited that the culture’s survival might someday be entrusted to the broader community, which is embodied by regional chapters in 19 countries across the globe. One hundred and seventy-five regional contacts serve as the liaisons for these groups.
“We’ve long been aware that the event in the desert would reach its limit,” Goodell wrote. “It’s part of why we have nurtured the Regional Network for more than 10 years, and why we’ve created the Burning Man Project, a global effort with year-round avenues to connect and support this cultural community. We expect they will play a very significant role in our future.”
Regionals are as big or small, strong or weak, as the local community makes them. Although Santa Cruz has several hundred people on its announce list (which can be joined at regionals.burningman.com), the town’s three new regional contacts hope to bolster the group’s visibility and activity.
“Burning Man isn’t an event in the desert anymore,” says Amanda Whiting, who, along with Nelson and Bryan Manternach, became Santa Cruz’s regional contacts earlier this year. “It’s called the Burning Man Project—it’s a project, it’s an experiment in radical expression and creativity. Radical acceptance of yourself and others. That’s really what it is. And that doesn’t need to just be in the desert; it can be anywhere. I think the world needs it. People who have never been really need it.”
She and Nelson attended the Regionals Leadership Summit in March at Burning Man’s San Francisco headquarters, where they talked about “how important regionals are going to be and are,” and how “it’s finally time to bring it to the real world.”
They walked away with a vision for promoting a lively regional community in Santa Cruz, rife with events, parties, workshops, networking, and more. “The Burner spirit is alive and well here, and we can make it whatever we want to make it,” Whiting says. “It’s just a matter of getting a little inspiration.” The contacts launched a new website, santacruzburners.org, to serve as an online hub and event calendar for the community. In May, they hosted a Town Hall meeting at which more than 30 local Burners gathered to get the creative juices flowing. The next Santa Cruz Burners Meet and Greet will be held on June 23 (time and location to be announced; stay tuned to the Santa Cruz Burners Facebook page, website or announce list for more details), followed by a series of planning meetings for the local Burning Man decompression event in the fall, called “UnScruz.”
One of the group’s main efforts in upcoming months will be reaching out to and educating newcomers via workshops and events. Another mission of Burners worldwide is to harness the Burning Man energy and bring it to a wider population in a user-friendly way. “I think the regional network is the future,” Grace tells GT. “People who will never set foot in the Black Rock Desert will experience Burning Man.”
Goodell adds, “The vision is a collaborative one—the culture of the world right now needs what Burning Man has. So we are facilitating people’s access to it.”
Hosking points to the Glow Festival, an event held at Santa Cruz’s Museum of Art & History in March that celebrated Burning Man’s token mad scientist art, including her own. “The Glow Festival was a coup,” she says. “That was bringing Burning Man off the playa to Cooper Street. People loved it. We legitimized it in Santa Cruz—finally. Now we’re appreciated. We’re going to do it again. And bigger. That’s a huge deal. And that’s the future of Burning Man. Some of the big sculptures like Bliss Dance [which is pictured on page 16, and now lives on Treasure Island in San Francisco] are coming out in the world. You can’t keep it down.”
Whiting hopes that she and the other local contacts can help to bring forth whatever Burners want to make happen. “There is no top down thing,” she says. “If you like Burning Man and want to see more of it in the world, you have to do more. Be more. And then it will be there.” She adds that anyone interested in hosting, planning, or volunteering at events can utilize the Santa Cruz Burners website.
With the sold-out event in mind, thriving regional burns as far flung as Johannesburg, South Africa, and Burning Man art appearing in mainstream settings seem to demonstrate how Burning Man is pouring out of the desert and into the “default world.” What is billed as a “leave no trace” event is actually leaving quite a noticeable trace, culturally, across the world.
“It’s an evolution,” Whiting says. “People say Burning Man is over—[but] it’s just starting. So many people are excited about it and want to be a part of it that it’s spilling out into the real world. How awesome is that? Who would have ever thought, when they started this? We have unleashed a monster.”
Read about this year’s temple: The Temple of Juno.
What does Burning Man mean to you? Where do you see it heading?
We want to hear your two cents. Comment below, or visit this week’s Local Talk column, where we ask community members these questions. You can also email us at [email protected], and don’t forget to stop by the Good Times Santa Cruz Facebook page to weigh in there, too.
Want more? From now until the gates to Black Rock City open in late August, Good Times will be periodically spotlighting various local Burning Man projects online at gtweekly.com. Click here to read tips on costuming from Geoffrey Nelson, who teaches Burning Man costume workshops. If you have something in the works (i.e. art cars, sculptures, performances, fire spectacles, costumes extraordinaire) that you’d like to share with the community, email news editor Elizabeth Limbach at [email protected]