Burning Man is an arts event like no other. During the week prior to Labor Day, thousands of people collectively produce an alternative society in the Nevada desert, one driven by ten principles, such as radical inclusion of all attendees and their lifestyles, anti-corporate decommodification, and participation in cultural production. Thousands of artists spend much of the year producing interactive performances, fire art, and large-scale sculptural projects for their theme camps, the creative communities at the heart of the event. The all-volunteer Department of Public Works (DPW) arrives on the desert playa weeks in advance to implement the Black Rock City plan, complete with roads, lighting, sanitation systems, and an airport. The DPW also builds the wooden Man, which stands 50 to 100 feet tall at the center of the camp before it is ritually burned on the second-to-last night of the event. Repeat attendees—also known as “burners”—return time and again to have life-changing, inspirational experiences and otherwise participate in the community.
Burning Man has seen growth that would make many arts nonprofits green with envy: attendance more than doubled from 25,400 in 2000 to nearly 54,000 in 2011, and last year, for the first time in its 25-year history, the event sold out. (The U.S. Bureau of Land Management limits attendance each year as part of its permitting process, and the limits change.) Cultural and structural changes arrived with Burning Man’s popularity, reflected in its evolution into a favorite retreat for Silicon Valley techies, transition to official nonprofit status, and switch to a controversial ticket lottery. It’s easy to see Burning Man’s growth as evidence of its success, but its conversion from grassroots art community to arts institution has led many to ask a familiar question: can Burning Man go mainstream with its values intact?
Arguably, the answer is no. Burning Man’s overwhelming success has, at the very least, challenged its principles of radical inclusion and decommodification. The most recent controversy erupted when the sold-out 2011 event forced a change in the ticketing structure for 2012. Burning Man replaced its first-come, first-serve system with enough space for all with a lottery system that limited attendance to the lucky or cunning. Scalpers who put in multiple lottery entries quickly popped up selling tickets for up to $5,000, and organizers were left scrambling to find a solution that inhibited those who would profit from the event. In an attempt to help preserve Burning Man’s unique art theme camps, extra post-lottery tickets were distributed to key members who weren’t fortunate enough to receive tickets in the early rounds. Despite the Bureau of Land Management’s allowance of an extra 10,000 attendees in June, the fact that the ticketing debacle created a hierarchical attendance system has left the community scarred, and wondering what will happen in 2013. The news that Krug Champagne staged a marketing photo shoot at the 2011 event just made matters worse, and points ominously to the potential for further corporate exploitation.
In another sense, though, Burning Man is stronger than ever, with attendees taking its participation principle to new heights beyond the boundaries of Black Rock City. Like Occupy Wall Street, Burning Man encourages creative participation in all its forms, and attendees are free to remix its governing principles in their daily lives. Aside from the massive number of self-organized, regional Burning Man gatherings that take place each year, a cursory scan of cultural events strongly influenced by Burning Man include: FIGMENT, a participatory arts festival in six U.S. cities; the Lost Horizon Night Market, a one night-only presentation of installations in rented trucks; the Post-Yule Pyre, a massive, annual fire fueled by discarded Christmas trees; Balsa Man, a tongue-in-cheek, tiny version of Burning Man created as an independent homage to the original; and countless other events large and small.
What sets Burning Man’s evolution apart from other parables of expansion is the strength of its community even as it moves into the mainstream. Though scattered throughout the world, burners seem to place a premium on remaining connected to one another, and it is in this communal space that Burning Man really lives. In this way, the decentralization of the Burning Man community and their independently-run projects reinforce the relevance of its core ideas and the central event even as it evolves. Interestingly, this potency seems at least partly based in the same combination of hyper-local, temporary space and globalized Internet communications that powered Occupy Wall Street in its early days. (It’s no accident that several live streams of Burning Man exist, and that volunteers often provide their own wi-fi, despite the event’s other emphases on disconnecting from mainstream culture.) Without a similar risk of eviction from Black Rock City, attendees can continue to use Burning Man itself as a touchstone for continued expansion beyond the reach of any single event.