Burning Man’s desert storm
‘Most amazing party on the planet’ faces uncertain future
In 1986, a small group of friends gathered at Baker Beach in San Francisco to celebrate the summer solstice by lighting an 8-foot-tall wooden man on fire. They could not have known the magnitude of what they had set in motion.
Fast-forward to 1995—the first year that Marian Goodell attended what was by then known as Burning Man. By that time, the weeklong annual gathering had situated on a parched lake bed in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. The Man, as he came to be called, now loomed approximately 40 feet tall, and was burned toward the end of the festival in a cathartic marvel of fire. Tickets were $35, and the ephemeral “Black Rock City” held 4,000 people.
“When I was there with 4,000 people, I knew there was something very significant about my experience,” said Goodell. “But I definitely didn’t imagine it would grow to the proportions it is now and become such a worldwide phenomenon.”
In 2011, more than 53,000 people showed up for Burning Man, prompting the organization to request a population-capacity increase from the Bureau of Land Management for this year’s event, which is running this week, from Monday, Aug. 27, to Monday, Sept. 3.
Along with growth come growing pains. What started as a bonfire at the beach is now facing the exciting, if uncertain, consequences of outgrowing itself, with ticketing headaches, among other issues, leading the community to contemplate some fundamental questions about what’s next.
Just as the festival’s grown, so has Goodell’s involvement. By the end of 1996, she was one of six “owners” of Black Rock City LLC, and she has since also become the director of business and communications, among taking on other duties. She and the rest of the year-round Burning Man staff have overseen an evolution in the event’s structure as a result of its perpetual growth.
In the 1990s, as more people journeyed to BRC, increasing regulations befell the city—guns and free-for-all driving were replaced by a meticulously planned city grid, a driving ban and safety rules.
Still, the event 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,” “Decommodification,” “Leaving No Trace”). As thousands more people joined the colorful tribe each year, they fostered an unstoppable kaleidoscope of creative visions that manifest as art installations, theme camps, performances, decorated bicycles, elaborate costumes, “mutant” vehicles and a strong sense of community.
Andie Grace worked as Burning Man’s communications manager for 13 years until stepping down earlier this summer. She recalled 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 said. “I almost fell over laughing—that was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard.”
Photographer Kyer Wiltshire, who’s taken photographs at Burning Man for 11 years, says the days are gone when most people he met—even people in nearby Reno—had never heard of what he calls “arguably the most amazing party on the planet.”
“When Fox News [is] talking about the freaks out at Burning Man, you know that Burning Man has reached that point of being known across America,” said Wiltshire, who documented Burning Man and other festivals in his photography book, Tribal Revival.
The 2011 event sold out (a first), reached record attendance, and passed by without any major dust storms, frequent occurrences that whip Black Rock City into momentary blindness. They 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.
“Last year created the perfect storm for the event to grow: There were a lot of newbies, and there were no dust storms,” Wiltshire said.
But members of BMOrg, as the Burning Man organization is nicknamed, 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 a Feb. 9 newsletter to the Burner community.
In what has since come to be seen as an unsuccessful, if well-intentioned, attempt to address this growing interest, they created a new system for ticketing for this year’s event: a lottery in which 40,000 tickets were available in three tiers, priced from $240 to $390 (presale tickets were also available at $420 a pop). The result: Three times as many people entered the lottery as there were tickets available, about one-third of them newbies.
This news added a fresh layer of indignation to the already fuming faction of Burners who didn’t get tickets, 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 (a notion that’s considered sacrilege in a participant-driven city).
Recognizing this, the organization designated the remaining 10,000 tickets—which were meant 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. Following the BLM’s June approval of Burning Man’s one-year special permit for the 2012 event, which caps attendance at a record 60,900, organizers were able to sell additional tickets in July and August.
Now, BMOrg is already in talks about 2013, drawing on input from game theorists, statisticians, sociologists, ticketing companies, software folks and the Burner community. But the reality, says Grace, is that no matter how they go about selling tickets, there won’t be enough for everyone who wants one.
Ticketing isn’t the only issue. There are other existential matters to contemplate as well. Among them: Will Burning Man have to move? Where and what would that be like? How big can it get and still retain its flavor? Might it someday end altogether?
In a Feb. 15 newsletter, Goodell posited that the culture’s survival might someday be entrusted to the broader community, one embodied by regional chapters in 19 countries across the globe.
“This moment is an inflection point,” said Grace. “We have hit through the capacity here, and … 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.’”