Burning Man 2010. Photo by Robert Scales.

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?

Black Rock City from above in 2011. Photo by Simone Paddock.

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.

A Burning Man ticket from 2010. Photo by Flickr user Stargazer 95050.

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.

The tiny Balsa Man burns in 2011. Photo by Flickr user foxgrrl.

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.

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  • Jean Simenon

    Aha good title. You got us all there! Actually to understand the event better, I recommend to check out the history of the event first. And for that I highly recommend to watch Dust & Illusions (http://dustandillusions.com) and “This is Burning Man” the book! Very much worth it, and of course the documentary is a must with all its archival footage! :)

  • So Rachel Cain

    As you noted, Jackie, Burning Man is an annual event with many regionally sanctioned events happening around the year. It is important to consider that Burningman is a set of principles and a way of life that extends long past an event. In fact, the Burning Man Project (http://www.burningmanproject.org/) “provides infrastructural tools and frameworks to support local communities in applying the Ten Principles in the following program areas: 1. Arts, 2. Civic Involvement, 3. Culture, 4. Education, 5. Philosophical Center and 6. Social Enterprise.”

    Just recently, the Black Rock Arts Foundation (fiscal sponsor for The Burning Man Project) has received an NEA Our Town grant. In addition, the “Central Market Arts Activation,” a collaboration between the Burning Man Project, Black Rock Arts Foundation, Gray Area Foundation for the Arts and the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development has been named as a finalist for support from ArtPlace.” These are both major achievements for any non profit organization and it seems that they may have been overlooked by the more traditional arts field because of their affiliation with what may be considered a “fringe” culture.

    As an active participant in the Burningman culture, I would encourage the established arts field to pay attention to this type of radical creativity. For me, it is a refreshing alternative to the status-quo.

    )*(

    • Jackie Hasa

      Thanks for adding these notes–the Black Rock Arts Foundation does great work, and anyone walking around San Francisco is likely to see something they’ve helped create. I would have loved to include something on them, but that could be a post all on its own!

      Certainly one of the reasons I find Burning Man so fascinating is that it has permeated our culture pretty thoroughly (via street games, DIY/maker culture, OWS, and who knows what else), and yet many people still seem to think of it as “fringe.” It would be really interesting to try to map its worldwide reach and all of the artists, organizations, and events it influences.

  • http://www JessieX

    The 10 Principles, baby. The secret is in living the 10 Principles. That and the magic of the playa dust, the we’re-all-different-but-united-in-dust magic that inexplicably makes being at Burning Man both the most humane and human, and alien and adverse situation at once.

    Hey, you write, “Scalpers who put in multiple lottery entries quickly popped up selling tickets for up to $5,000.” Did you know that BM sold 60,900 and — at the end of the day — had about 52,300 show up? Did you know that the week before the event, people were trying to offload $400 tix for $170 and less? Attending Burning Man is an adventure in and of itself: the prep, getting there, being there, contributing, staying alive, and decompressing. Shared adversity and the greatest joy (and sweetest vibe) are what make it, for me, addictive, awesome and absolute.

    • Jackie Hasa

      Thanks for your comments–I wasn’t aware that fewer people attended than tickets sold, though I certainly heard my fair share of cheap ticket offers just before this year’s event. It’s an interesting development, one that I’m sure will be taken into account as the organizers try to map out a new ticketing structure for 2013. Curious to see what they do!