In 1994 I watched an episode of Equinox, the science documentary show on Channel 4, called ‘Rave New World’. It was about club culture and featured artists such as Orbital and The Future Sound of London. The final few minutes of the programme observed ‘techno-hippies’ at Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert. Images of the festivalgoer’s dancing at sunrise were voiced over by a droll British broadcaster saying: ‘dawn and the brave rave on’. I remember these exact words because I recorded the show on VCR and watched it repeatedly. These shots captivated my impressionable teenage self and I made a promise that I would go to Burning Man one day.
Three years later I was there. Not quite the sun kissed hippie I’d dreamed of being; more like a pale self-conscious Irish J1 student who was overwhelmed by the reality that I found myself in. I was so enamored by the event and the community surrounded it that I traveled to Nevada from Ireland for three consecutive years in the 90s.
In 2014 I returned to Burning Man after a 15-year hiatus. I’d heard of jaded ‘burners’ who had stopped going because they felt it had become too big and mainstream. But in 1997 it was just the same. There were stories of the ‘glory days’ when there were no rules, and car races and shooting ranges were the norm. But then again every scene has tiresome old timers who lament about how things ‘aren’t what they used to be’.
In 2004, the founder of Burning Man, Larry Harvey, set out ten principles that are intended to evoke the cultural ethos that has emerged from the event. They now act as guiding principles for Burning Man and its affiliated movements. These are radical inclusion, gifting, decommodificaton, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation and immediacy. With these principles guiding the event I was hopeful that the festival hadn’t deviated from its original spirit.
There is a saying at Burning Man that ‘the playa provides’ and it started to do so for me long before I arrived in the US. I had been traveling in India when I booked my flight to San Francisco. I had no ticket to the sold-out event and no camp. Thankfully I bumped into, Yoshi, a fellow traveler in India who was a Californian eight-time Burner. True to the ethos of the festival he created community by connecting me with his mates at the camp called 7 Sirens Cove.
Through them I got a ticket and a ready-made group of playa buddies. To further the gifting ethos, Jenna, the lady who manages the camp offered me to stay in her home in San Francisco for the week running up to the event. Their generosity demonstrated ‘radical inclusion’ and ‘gifting’ to a total stranger. I was off to a good start.
At the entrance gate a quirky dressed greeter gave me a long hug and warmly said ‘welcome home’. It felt good. I was a part of the 7 Sirens Cove ‘early entry team’, which meant that I was one of 12 camp members who were responsible for building our theme camp. It was tough, but rewarding, work and we put in 12-hour days for four days leading up to the festival. Armed with hammers and power drills we assembled shade structures, domes, yurts, a trampoline, a communal camp kitchen, shower, bar and erected a eight meter high crows nest which acted as a look-out point from our pirate bay.
It was fascinating to see the playa transform from its near-empty vastness into a busy pop-up metropol; a city where money is outlawed and populated by mutant vehicles, a post office and numerous outdoor art galleries.
The biggest learning I gained from the early-entry experience was in really appreciating how much work that people put into making this festival happen. It never ceased to amaze me throughout my 12 days on the playa the lengths that people go to create, to give, to share. That’s what makes Burning Man so special and incomparable to any other event in the world.
The most obvious change that Burning Man has gone through over the years is the increase in size of the event. At my first Burn in 1997 there were 10,000 attendees. In 2014 I was one of 68,000. The surface area of Black Rock City has also increased to the point that walking around the metropolis is exhausting.
The fence surrounding Black Rock City is nearly 5 kilometers across, and contains 3.650 acres. Most people bike or hail a passing art car to get around. The ‘man’ has also grown throughout the years. He was at his tallest in 2014: 103 meters high, compared to 15 meters in 1997.
What really took me by surprise was the scale of some of the theme camps. Some of the large-scale sound camps have cutting edge production, feature ‘big name’ DJ talent and draw in crowds of 7,000 – 8,000 per night. Despite the huge cost behind these big sound camps they receive no money from the festival organisers and engage in ‘radical self reliance’ through year- round fundraising events, including donations from wealthy benefactors.
Another recent phenomenon in Black Rock City is the emergence of ‘turnkey camps’, where rich people pay handsomely for the privilege of having a luxury camp set up for them on the playa. A recent article in The New York Times detailed how over the last two years Burning Man has become an annual getaway for Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.
These include Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin; Jeff Bezos of Amazon; and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. These multimillionaires, and in some cases billionaires, fly to the playa by private plane, sleep in air-conditioned accommodation, and have chefs who cook gourmet meals for them. While the average punter pays a camp fee of around $200, some of the teckkie elite spend $25,000 to have their home comforts in the desert
Many people’s experience of Burning Man involves portaloos, and surviving on a diet of super noodles and energy bars. Many feel that these rich elite are ruining it for others, and taking Burning Man away from its hippie origins. But to be true to the 10 Principles we must remember ‘radical inclusion’, and how can we discriminate against the rich for ‘radical self-reliance’ on their wallets?
Another difference I noted was fewer naked people. Maybe this is because of the rise of digital photography and social media. Electronic dance music is everywhere and you need to look a little harder for the drumming sessions and live musicians, but it’s all still there. There are more strobe lights and where I didn’t think the playa could get any sparkly at night the rise in LED lighting has meant that it really does resemble an absurd Las Vegas.
The gift economy seemed even more present than I had experienced in the past. While working on setting up our camp a random girl arrived announcing she had a delivery before presenting us with a box of piping hot stone oven cooked pizza. She disappeared before we could even thank her. Other gifts I received included lights, meals, jewelry and cocktails. The extent of the gifting was overwhelming.
So, yes Burning Man has changed; it’s bigger and there are more rules but despite the changes I still had many moments of childlike awe and wide-eyed amazement. I’d agree with commentators who have said that Burning Man used to be an experiment in counter culture and now its more a reflection of real life society.
With this mirroring comes changes that happen in the ‘default world’ such as population increases, cultural changes and even gentrification. But once you accept and surrender to that, you can get to a place of rejoicing in all that this magical community had to offer. Spending time in Black Rock City reminds me of our extraordinary ability to create, to play and to love.
Really, isn’t it great that the festival sells out and that Burner culture has spread world wide? Official Burning Man events that adhere to the 10 principles take place in 28 countries across five continents. These people are all delighting in diversity, generosity, playfulness and creativity. Now, that’s something to celebrate.
For more information on Burning Man visit www.burningman.com