“Imagine a hallucinogenic fair,” journalist Rick Marin wrote of Burning Man in The New York Times in 2000.
The article described an environment of counter-cultural revelry, where hippies and Silicon Valley types went wild in an environment reminiscent of both “Mad Max” and Cirque du Soleil.
But this year’s festival, held in a remote Nevada desert, was a very different scene. The event was hit by rain which started on Friday evening, leaving thousands of participants trapped and facing thick mud. As access to the site is limited, participants were asked to conserve food and water. Police are investigating the death of a participant.
The extreme conditions challenged the free-spirited atmosphere that has long been central to Burning Man’s appeal. Below is an overview of the origins and development of the festival.
What is Burning Man?
Burning Man is a nine-day celebration of art and self-expression held in Black Rock City, a temporary community about 120 miles north of Reno, Nevada. The festival, which has attracted around 70,000 people in recent years, takes place at the end of each summer and culminates in the burning of a massive wooden sculpture in the shape of a man – hence its name.
How is the festival usually held?
The participants, who call themselves Burners, describe the festival as an exercise in creativity and community building. Organizers also described it as “an excuse to party in the desert”.
The event takes place on the playa, a dusty mini-town whose streets spread out like a clock face with the wooden figurine at its center. Unlike Coachella, Burning Man doesn’t have a headliner or lineup of artists scheduled. Burners do their own construction, including housing and colossal art installations. They use a system based on gifts rather than money to exchange goods.
“It’s an experiment in participatory, decommodified, self-expressive culture,” said Benjamin Wachs, who wrote “The Scene That Became Cities: What Burning Man’s Philosophy Can Teach Us About Building Better Communities under the pseudonym of Caveat Magister. “All booze is free, except maybe you have to sing a song or gift a poem or something.”
The free spirit of the festival is also associated with nudity, sex and drug use. Most of the 16 arrests at last year’s event were for drug possession, according to the Reno Gazette Journal.
How did Burning Man start?
Burning Man began as a smaller gathering in June 1986, when founders Larry Harvey and Jerry James hosted a bonfire with friends on Baker Beach in San Francisco. They burned an eight-foot-tall wooden figurine, according to legend, to mark the end of a romantic relationship. A crowd of around 35 people gathered to watch the fire.
The event was held annually in Baker Beach until firefighters intervened in 1990. That year it moved to Black Rock Desert, where 350 revelers gathered to burn a 40-foot effigy, according to the Burning Man Project, the non-profit organization that organizes the festival. By the 2000s, the event had grown into a one-day desert rave that regularly drew over 50,000 attendees, including tech moguls and celebrities.
The modern festival is organized around the “10 Principles”, a set of guidelines introduced by Mr. Harvey in 2004. Among them are “Radical Inclusion”, which states that there are no prerequisites for joining the community and “leave no trace,” which requires participants to leave the desert clean.
Who participates ?
The festival attracts a mix of dedicated Burners and new revelers each year, with a curious mix of tech moguls, influencers and celebrities.
Paris Hilton was a DJ there in 2017. Mark Zuckerberg was there, as was Elon Musk, who has turned up almost every year for the past two decades (even though there was no record of him at the festival this year). Music producer Diplo posted on Xformerly known as Twitter, that he escaped this year’s festival by walking eight kilometers through mud.
How much does it cost?
Tickets to Burning Man cost $575, though CNBC estimates the entire experience can cost around $1,500, including accommodation, travel, and attire.
How has the festival evolved over time?
According to a survey conducted annually by festival volunteers, the average Burner is getting older (last year the average age was 37, up from 32 in 2013) and getting richer. Attendees are still overwhelmingly white, according to the survey, with 13 percent identifying as people of color.
The influx of wealthy attendees — some of whom have called on chefs and air conditioning — has caused some longtime Burners to lament the loss of the festival’s DIY ethos.
The festival had encountered obstacles before this year. It was held virtually in 2020 and 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Last year the festival was held in extreme heat and dust, and environmental activists blocked the entrance to this year’s gathering.
Burners are usually prepared for harsh conditions, Wachs said, but not to this degree. “I think climate change is creating an environment where it’s going to become unpredictably more difficult,” he added.