Does Burning Man work?

Conner Smith/Staff

Dragging myself out of the Nevada desert after a week of aimless exploration at Burning Man, I hungered for a receptacle for my reflections. I was confident clicking through a few reviews and photo essays would make sense of my mystical, dust-filled dreams. I was surprised to find, though, that instead of nostalgic refuge from the doldrums of dark classrooms, the majority of media reviews only offered  information on a particular conflict between an elite camp and a group of “hooligans” accused of vandalizing their space. This clash of civilizations, far removed from my personal experience, inspired deeper excavation in hopes of revealing a piece of the “bigger picture.”

Burning Man — a temporary settlement in the Black Rock Desert (or “playa”) of Northern Nevada — is a radical experiment in human organization. It boasts a 30-year history originating at Baker Beach in San Francisco. Growing from a mere 35 attendees, this year’s 30th anniversary brought in an estimated 70,000 burners. Everything you see on the playa was brought, built and managed by an extensive brigade of organizers and volunteers. Larger-than-life art installations are scattered throughout the open spaces, beyond the ring of camps. In accordance with the regulations of the Bureau of Land Management, Burning Man leads an ambitious “leave no trace” agenda in its environmental impact control and holds all burners accountable for packing out all their waste. I had to break the bad news to several individuals that the nearest municipally managed trash cans were beyond the city limits.  

The elements are unforgiving. A breathtaking sunset bike ride beneath flaming skies can be overtaken by a dust tsunami in moments. Swirling sand cyclones leap out of flaming structures and tear through unexpecting crowds. Lungs grow heavy and fingernails ache incessantly. Blistering sun fades to cold night, leaving no trace or heat signature.

At the end of the week, a giant effigy of a man burns. The structure is made almost entirely of wood, with minimal metal or otherwise nonflammable parts. The burn is a celebration that is rife with music blaring from the sound systems of mutant vehicles, all while an unimaginable volley of fireworks rages on until the man falls. Some say this burn represents the destruction of everything that’s holding you back. For others, it represents the revelation of the impermanence of structures and constructs we take as static and fixed. The final day, the temple burns, a beacon and receptacle of sacred energy for the offering of intentions and for the release of suffering throughout the week. The temple burn is a sombre and near-silent affair, in which the emotional density of offerings left by individuals from around the world sustains a heat that smolders into sunrise.

Many other explanations exist for both burns, but most seem to resonate around a reflection on the impermanence of the walls and barriers that purport to define what is thinkable and possible for us to achieve. This spirit is obvious in the primary principles of the festival. The 10 commandments include “radical inclusion,” “radical self-expression” and “gifting.” These principles — as well as five others — seek to challenge the multidimensional inequalities that exist within society at large, illusions that are made concrete through normalized ritual.

The elements are unforgiving. A breathtaking sunset bike ride beneath flaming skies can be overtaken by a dust tsunami in moments. Swirling sand cyclones leap out of flaming structures and tear through unexpecting crowds.

But the sheer scope of the Burning Man project renders it vulnerable to a host of limitations that are often emblemized in critiques. Because of the financial requirements to get to the playa, Burning Man remains relatively exclusive of low-income populations, despite a critical low-income ticket program. Estimates of the financial sacrifices vary, but less analysis has been devoted to the time sacrifices that are often not available to marginalized groups. The census reflects these constraints, indicating that, in 2015, 71.5 percent of attendees had either a bachelor’s or master’s degree and 80.2 percent were white.

As the popularity of Burning Man as a social spectacle of unmatched possibility swells, there is more and more attention paid to the shifting demographics. Thanks to a thorough census compiled and analyzed yearly, we have highly accurate information. In 2015, 39.1 percent of the attendees came from California (almost 80 percent from the U.S. in total).  With the Bay Area roots of this event in mind, the mushrooming of wealth in the tech industry has been reflected in certain facets of the event. From 2010 to 2015, the majority reported income bracket has shifted from “$10,000 to $20,000” to “$50,000 to $75,000.” In line with standard practice, early bird tickets are offered at more than double price and are quickly snatched up by Silicon Valley elites who finance and organize luxury camps closed to outsiders.

What few media outlets are exploring, though — and what some attendees cloistered away in air-conditioned pavilions choose to ignore — are the ways in which Burning Man provides the opportunity for the temporary erasure of class difference. “Gifting” — a one-word encapsulation of a complex and interconnected sharing economy in practice at the event — provides anything from hot bacon to body work (and often both) completely free of charge. Gifts are supposed to be given without expectation of return although, inevitably, the giver quickly becomes the receiver as it is impossible to traverse two city blocks without encountering, for example, a kindly unicorn distributing popsicles.

In a society where economic growth is taken as a quasi-spiritual doctrine, many interactions with unknown persons take the form of financial transactions. You cannot survive at Burning Man without interacting with strangers and, because there is no money to be exchanged, these encounters take on an entirely different form. The absurdity of it all and the acceptance of self-expression materialize in beautiful, arcing conversations that subsume perceptions of time. Your attitude and your energy are your currency where exuberance and acceptance are met with unprovoked and profound kindness.

The towering structures — manifestations of a year’s planning, investment and labor intentionally incinerated in a glorious exhale of embers and smoke — stand and fall in defiance of a capitalistic creed, in a reclamation of what constitutes value. Like the Tibetan monks laboring over intricate mandalas eventually smoothed over and syphoned into streams, the fire burns away illusions of permanence and creates the space for something stronger to emerge.

Four years into its status as a non-profit organization, Burning Man is looking ever further beyond Black Rock City and imagining new outlets for the development and practice of these principles. Years of planning led to the purchase of the Fly Ranch property adjacent to the playa floor, where there is to be a year-round hub for collaborative learning and experimentation. Gleaning what little information about this space has been presented thus far, it will serve as a node of integration for all of the satellite networks and projects working in and through the organization. The establishment of a permanent headquarters will augment parts of the romantic temporality of the event, introducing a new level of intentional community-building in its wake where the brilliant minds of Burning Man can communicate, experiment and innovate on solid ground.

In an email correspondence with large-scale art builder Swig Miller, he said, “I look around the world in which I live and realize that everything I am seeing started with an idea. Everything was born from imagination, and this leads me to believe that the world of tomorrow will be created from the dreams of today.” This concept is as true on the playa as it is in the conventional world. Both the invention of the 747 passenger superjet and its conversion at this year’s Burn into an art gallery and club grew into their respective form and function from ideas. Projects such as Fly Ranch, as well as the similar extension project of Burners Without Borders, work to channel the incredible vortex of energy that collects each year at Burning Man and use its creative power to generate real impact on the world and its systems.

Burning Man reimagines the foundations of our interactions with strangers and forces us to face our interconnectedness with individuals who orbit worlds apart from our own realities. It is calling upon the days when stingy, European economists such as Adam Smith and Karl Marx deliberated over issues of class relations and postulated alternative understandings of social organization in an anxious search for ultimate freedom. Rather than theorizing these concepts, Burning Man offers a space for the exploration of this infinite possibility.

My thoughts and reflections are sifting through my brain like a cloud of dust destined to roam the desert in perpetual motion. Submerged in numbing Bon Iver tracks and problem sets, memories become mantras like skipping records burning their broken sounds into my subconscious. Is this a side effect of entering a space where an impossibly universalizing theory fuses with practice? Academia calls this “praxis” — and I am hesitant to believe that a complete model of this has really been built out in the desert given all the obvious limitations.

Gifts are supposed to be given without expectation of return although, inevitably, the giver quickly becomes the receiver as it is impossible to traverse two city blocks without encountering, for example, a kindly unicorn distributing popsicles.

As a participant, I want to believe in the potential of this phenomenon. As an academic, I am trained to criticize, deconstruct and evaluate. Burning Man provides the stage to perform as a character from our most private imagination, the edge required to cut through layers of separation and truly see someone, the voice to share our stories without expectation of gratification, the call to be still and silent, an open ear. Alternatively, the freedom experienced can manipulate our perceptions of ourselves, test the limits of our mental health, force us to face demons normally locked away and forget about the privileges that allow us to dance across the sand.

Asking, “Does Burning Man work?” is missing the point entirely. We don’t have answers to these abstract universals, and we surely won’t find them deep in the playa collecting dust. We can test what works and what doesn’t work and cooperate to imagine how we can grow together. What would be the point of conducting an experiment if we already knew the results? At the end, all we are left with is estimation, faith and chance.

It would take every day between now and the next Burn to document even a fraction of the facets of this shared experience, to scratch the surface of the limitations and transformative potential of this space as a revolutionary experiment. For my fellow Burners who feel I’ve missed the point, please forgive me. After all, I’m an economist.


Conner Smith is a writer for the Weekender. Contact him at [email protected]