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

Dec 26, 2023, 10:26 PM | Updated: Jan 2, 2024, 4:28 pm

RENO, Nev. (AP) — The blank canvas of desert wilderness in northern Nevada seemed the perfect place in 1992 for artistic anarchists to relocate their annual burning of a towering, anonymous effigy. It was goodbye to San Francisco’s Baker Beach, hello to the Nevada playa, the long-ago floor of an inland sea.

The tiny gathering became Burning Man’s surrealistic circus, fueled by acts of kindness and avant-garde theatrics, sometimes with a dose of hallucinogens or nudity. The spectacle flourished as the festival ballooned over the next three decades.

Some say it grew too much, too fast.

Things came to a head in 2011 when tickets sold out for the first time. Organizers responded with a short-lived lottery system that left people out of what was supposed to be a radically inclusive event. As Burning Man matured, luxurious accommodations proliferated, as did the population of billionaires and celebrities.

Katherine Chen, a sociology professor in New York City who wrote a 2009 book about the event’s “creative chaos,” was among those who wondered whether Burning Man “would be a victim of its own success.”

Exponential growth led to increasing questions about whether organizers had veered too far from the core principles of radical inclusion, expression, participation and the pledge to “leave no trace.”

That last hurdle was never harder to clear than this year as “Burners” tried to leave over Labor Day weekend after torching the 80-foot (24-meter) wooden sculpture that is “the Man.”

A rare rainstorm turned the Black Rock Desert into a muddy quagmire 110 miles (175 kilometers) north of Reno, delaying the departure of 80,000 revelers. Once out, organizers had six weeks to clean up under terms of a federal permit.

By the smallest of margins, they passed the test last month, with a few adjustments recommended for the future. The verdict from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management means Burning Man is in line to use federal land again next year.

Debate over the event’s future, however, is sure to continue as divisions grow between the aging hippie types and wealthier, more technologically inclined newcomers. Veteran participants fear the newer set is losing touch with Burning Man’s roots.

The event has made a quantum leap from a gathering of hundreds to one that temporarily becomes Nevada’s third largest city after metropolitan Las Vegas and Reno. The festival drew 4,000 in 1995 and topped 50,000 in 2010.

It’s no wonder seasoned Burners sound a bit like griping cribbage players on a rural town square when they mutter: “It ain’t like it used to be.”

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

“There are more (people) who come out to party and don’t participate. We call them spectators,” he said.

Senior organizers long have wrestled with whether to become more civilized or remain what co-founder Larry Harvey described as a “repudiation of order and authority.”

Ron Halbert, a 71-year-old from San Francisco, has worked support for Burning Man’s 90-piece orchestra for 20 years and remains optimistic.

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

The event is permitted tentatively for the same 80,000 attendance cap next year. Organizers are considering some minor changes, though generally resist making new rules, said Marian Goodell, Burning Man Project’s chief executive officer.

Critics on social media howled at the mayhem left behind this year, posting photos of garbage piles, abandoned vehicles and overflowing portable toilets while ridiculing the “hippies” and their leave-no-trace mantra.

But that mayhem may have actually helped bring Burning Man back to its roots.

Katrina Cook of Toronto said it forced people to be true to the founding principles of participation and radical self-reliance.

“The rain weeded out the people who didn’t want to be there for the right reason,” Cook said.

Mark Fromson, 54, was staying in an RV, but the rains forced him to find shelter at another camp where fellow burners provided food and cover. Another principle of Burning Man, he said, centers on unconditional gift giving with no expectation of something in return.

After sunset, Fromson set off barefoot through the muck for a long trek back to his vehicle, slogging through thick clay that clung to his feet and legs. The challenge, he said, was the mark of a “good burn.”

Nevertheless, Jeffery Longoria of San Francisco, who marked his fifth consecutive voyage to Burning Man last summer, said its core principles are going to evolve no matter what as a new generation takes over.

“The people that created this community, a lot of them are getting older and retiring and there’s a lot of new young people coming in, the kind that have, you know, a couple $100,000 RVs and are kind of just careless about the environment.”

Soren Michael, a Los Angeles technology worker who made his 11th trip this year, said the biggest change has been the ability to communicate with the outside world from the desert.

“It was almost part of the appeal to be disconnected,” he said.

Twenty years ago, the psychedelic celebration like none other already was attracting academic scholars — anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, economists and communications professors — curious about how the makeshift civilization functioned without real-world rules.

Burning Man references started popping up in TV episodes and talk show punchlines. The rich and famous began venturing to Black Rock City, as the festival’s temporary metropolis is called.

A full-blown exhibit about the phenomenon debuted in 2018 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington. Even then, veteran Burners complained about the event becoming as much a curiosity to see as to do.

That’s in part the problem veterans have with the advent of glamor camping, or glamping, in which private companies provide packaged trips to concierge camps with luxury RVs and lavish meals under chandeliers. Some believe the camps violate Burning Man principles.

The growing number of billionaires and celebrities who fly in on private jets to Black Rock City’s temporary airstrip “seems to be everyone’s favorite thing to hate,” Goodell said. But wealth shouldn’t be a cause for shame, she said.

“The question is not about glamping,” she said. “Comfort doesn’t assume lack of engagement. It’s whether you have a glamping camp and you’re not really engaging.”

Burning Man’s purpose remains the same: building a creative, stimulating environment, the essence of which people can take back to their own communities.

“We thought that from the beginning,” Goodell said. “We just didn’t know it would be 80,000 people.”

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