Burning Man is an annual event in the western United States at Black Rock City – a temporary city erected in the Black Rock Desert of northwest Nevada, approximately 100 miles (160 km) north-northeast of Reno. The late summer event is described as an experiment in community and art, influenced by ten main principles: radical inclusion, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, gifting, decommodification, participation, immediacy and leave no trace. The event takes its name from its culmination, the symbolic ritual burning of a large wooden effigy ("The Man") that traditionally occurs on the Saturday evening of the event.
First held 33 years ago in 1986 on Baker Beach in San Francisco as a small function organized by Larry Harvey and Jerry James who built the first "Man", it has since been held annually, spanning from the last Sunday in August to the first Monday in September (Labor Day). The 2019 event will run from August 25 to September 2.
At Burning Man, the community explores various forms of artistic self-expression, which are created to be enjoyed by all participants. "Burning Man is about 'why not' overwhelming 'why'," one "Burner" said. Participation is a key precept for the community – selfless giving of one's unique talents for the enjoyment of all is encouraged and actively reinforced. Some of these generous outpourings of creativity include experimental and interactive sculptures, buildings, performances and art cars, among other media. These contributions are inspired by the yearly theme, which is chosen by the organizers.
Burning Man is organized by the Burning Man Project, a non-profit organization that, in 2014, succeeded a for-profit limited liability company (Black Rock City, LLC) that was formed in 1997 to represent the event's organizers, and is now considered a subsidiary of the non-profit organization. In 2010, 51,515 people attended Burning Man. Attendance in 2011 was capped at 50,000 participants and the event sold out on July 24; the attendance rose to 70,000 in 2015. The Burning Man Project endorses several smaller regional events, inspired by the Burning Man principles both in the United States and internationally.
Because of the variety of goals fostered by participatory attendees, known as "Burners", Burning Man does not have a single focus. Features of the event are subject to the participants and include community, artwork, absurdity, decommodification and revelry. Participation is encouraged.
The Burning Man event and its affiliated communities are guided by 10 principles that are meant to evoke the cultural ethos that has emerged from the event. They were originally written by Larry Harvey in 2004 as guidelines for regional organizing, then later became a universal criterion of the general culture of the multifaceted movement. They are:
radical inclusion gifting decommodification radical self-reliance radical self-expression communal effort civic responsibility leaving no trace participation immediacy
The descriptions in quotes are the actual text:
"Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community." This was written with a broad stroke for general organizing, meaning anyone is welcome to the Burning Man culture. Prerequisites for the Burning Man event are; participants are expected to provide for their own basic needs, follow the guidelines stated in the annually updated event "survival guide", and purchase a ticket to get in.
"Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value." Instead of cash, participants at the Burning Man event in the Black Rock Desert are encouraged to rely on a gift economy, a sort of potlatch. In the earliest days of the event, an underground barter economy also existed, in which burners exchanged "favors" with each other. While this was originally supported by the Burning Man organization, this is now largely discouraged. Instead, burners are encouraged to give gifts to one another unconditionally.
"In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience." No cash transactions are permitted between attendees of the Burning Man event in the Black Rock Desert. Cash can be used for a select few charity, fuel, and sanitation vendors as follows:
Café beverages such as coffee, chai, lemonade, etc., which are sold at Center Camp Café, operated by the organizers of the event.
Ice sales benefit the local Gerlach-Empire school system.
Tickets for the shuttle bus to the nearest Nevada communities of Gerlach and Empire which is operated by a contractor not participating in the event: Green Tortoise.
A re-entry wristband, which allows a person to leave and re-enter the event and may be purchased at the gate upon exit.
An airport use fee, payable at the airport upon first entry.
Diesel and biodiesel sold by third-party contractors.
RV dump service and camp graywater disposal service.
Private portable toilets and servicing, which can be arranged with the official contractor.
Dust storms are common at Burning Man, so many come prepared with appropriate provisions, such as goggles and masks to reduce dust inhalation.
"Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources." The event's harsh environment and remote location requires participants to be responsible for their own subsistence. Since the LLC forbids most commerce, participants must be prepared and bring all their own supplies with the exception of the items stated in Decommodification.
"Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient." Participants at the Burning Man event in the Black Rock Desert are encouraged to express themselves in a number of ways through various art forms and projects. The event is clothing-optional and public nudity is common, though not practiced by the majority.
"Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction." Participants at the Burning Man event in the Black Rock Desert are encouraged to work with and help fellow participants.
"We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws."
Leave No Trace
"Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them."
"Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart." People are encouraged to participate, rather than observe.
"Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience."
Every year since 1995 has had a theme that has guided the ticket artwork, events and artwork on Playa. Prior to 2019 the theme was decided by Larry Harvey and announced in essay form to steer the imagery and participation Larry Harvey passed away in April 2018, leaving the Burning Man organization responsible to name future themes.
1995 – Good and Evil 1996 – The Inferno 1997 – Mysteria 1998 – The Nebulous Entity 1999 – The Wheel of Time 2000 – The Body 2001 – The Seven Ages 2002 – The Floating World 2003 – Beyond Belief 2004 – Vault of Heaven 2005 – Psyche 2006 – Hope & Fear 2007 – The Green Man 2008 – American Dream 2009 – Evolution – A Tangled Bank 2010 – Metropolis – The Life of Cities 2011 – Rites of Passage 2012 – Fertility 2.0 2013 – Cargo Cult 2014 – Caravansary 2015 – Carnival of Mirrors 2016 – Da Vinci's Workshop 2017 – Radical Ritual 2018 – I, Robot 2019 – Metamorphoses
Black Rock City
Black Rock City, often abbreviated to BRC, is the name of the temporary city created by Burning Man participants. Much of the layout and general city infrastructure is constructed by Department of Public Works (DPW) volunteers who often reside in Black Rock City for several weeks before and after the event. The remainder of the city including theme camps, villages, art installations and individual camping are all created by participants.
The developed part of the city is currently arranged as a series of concentric streets in an arc composing, since 1999, two-thirds of a 1.5-mile (2.4-km) diameter circle with the Man Sculpture and his supporting complex at the very center (40.786455°N 119.206701°W in 2017). Radial streets, sometimes called Avenues, extend from the Man to the outermost circle. The outlines of these streets are visible on aerial photographs.
The innermost street is named the Esplanade, and the remaining streets are given names to coincide with the overall theme of the burn, and ordered in ways such as alphabetical order or stem to stern, to make them easier to recall. For example, in 1999, for the "Wheel of Time" theme, and again in 2004 for "The Vault of Heaven" theme, the streets were named after the planets of the solar system. The radial streets are usually given a clock designation, for example, 6:00 or 6:15, in which the Man is at the center of the clock face and 12:00 is in the middle of the third of the arc lacking streets (usually at a bearing of 60° true from the Man). These avenues have been identified in other ways, notably in 2002, in accordance with "The Floating World" theme, as the degrees of a compass, for example 175 degrees, and in 2003 as part of the Beyond Belief theme as adjectives ("Rational, Absurd") that caused every intersection with a concentric street (named after concepts of belief such as "Authority, Creed") to form a phrase such as "Absurd Authority" or "Rational Creed". However, these proved unpopular with participants due to difficulty in navigating the city without the familiar clock layout.
The Black Rock City Airport is constructed adjacent to the city, typically on its southern side. See Transportation section below.
Center Camp is located along the mid line of Black Rock City, facing the Man at the 6:00 position on the Esplanade. This area serves as a central meeting place for the entire city and contains the Center Camp Cafe, Camp Arctica and a number of other city institutions.
Villages and theme camps
Villages and theme camps are located along the innermost streets of Black Rock City, often offering entertainment or services to participants.
Theme camps are usually a collective of people representing themselves under a single identity. Villages are usually a collection of smaller theme camps which have banded together in order to share resources and vie for better placement.
Theme camps and villages often form to create an atmosphere in Black Rock City that their group envisioned. As Burning Man grows every year it attracts an even more diverse crowd. Subcultures form around theme camps at Black Rock City similar to what can be found in other cities.
The Burning Man event is heavily dependent on a large number of volunteers.
Safety, policing and regulations
Black Rock City is patrolled by various local and state law enforcement agencies as well as the Bureau of Land Management Rangers. The local police issue $1,500 fines for drug use and serving alcohol to minors. Burning Man also has its own in-house group of volunteers, the Black Rock Rangers, who act as informal mediators when disputes arise between participants.
Firefighting, emergency medical services (EMS), mental health, and communications support is provided by the volunteer Black Rock City Emergency Services Department (ESD). Three "MASH"-like stations are set up in the city: station 3, 6 and 9. Station 6 is staffed by physicians and nurses working with a contracted state licensed ALS Medical provider, while Stations 3 and 9 are staffed by Black Rock City ESD personnel. While Station 3 and 9 provide emergency services and basic life support, the volunteers are generally doctors, nurses, EMTs/paramedics, and firefighters. Both station 3 and 9 have a small fire engines available in addition to a Hazardous material/ Rescue truck and Quick response vehicle for medical emergencies.
In documents from February 2013 first made public on August 29, 2015, it was revealed that in August 2010, the FBI had sent a memo to its field offices in Nevada stating that it would patrol Burning Man to "aid in the prevention of terrorist activities and intelligence collection." Although a threat assessment performed by the FBI in consort with Burning Man's contracted security determined that drug usage and crowd control were the only major threats to Burning Man, the Bureau still sent an unspecified number of undercover officers to the event, with "no adverse threats or reactions."
Negative effects on the environment
Burning Man's carbon footprint is primarily from transportation to the remote area. The CoolingMan organization has estimated that the 2006 Burning Man was responsible for the generation of 27,000 tons of carbon dioxide, with 87% being from transportation to and from the remote location. The Sierra Club has criticized Burning Man for the "hundreds of thousands" of plastic water bottles that end up in landfills, as well as ostentatious displays of flames and explosions.
Burning Man's 2007 theme, "Green Man", received criticism for the artwork Crude Awakening, a 99-foot oil derrick that consumed 900 gallons of jet fuel and 2,000 gallons of liquid propane to blast a mushroom cloud 300 feet high into the sky.
In an attempt to offset some of the event's carbon footprint, 30- and 50-kilowatt solar arrays were constructed in 2007 as permanent artifacts, providing an estimated annual carbon offset of 559 tons. The Burn Clean Project is a volunteer organization that has helped replace the use of fossil fuel with biodiesel.
Burning Man has attracted a number of billionaires and celebrities, many of them from Silicon Valley and Hollywood. It has become a networking event for them, with Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk once stating that Burning Man "is Silicon Valley".
These billionaires have paid for more luxurious camps to be set up in recent years. Derisively nicknamed "plug-n-play" or "turnkey" camps, they in general consist of lavish RV's and luxury restroom trailers that are driven into the city and connected together to form de facto gated areas. These billionaires then fly in to the airport on private planes, are driven to their camps, served by hired help (nicknamed "sherpas"), and sleep in air-conditioned beds. One venture capitalist billionaire threw a $16,500-per-head party at his camp.
Despite allowing the rich to participate in Burning Man per the "radical inclusion" principle, many traditional Burners have spoken out against their exclusive practices. Larry Harvey wrote that they also conflict with the "radical self-reliance" and other principles, but has also stated that permitting the wealthy to attend is still beneficial for Burning Man. Vandalism that occurred at the White Ocean sound camp in 2016 was said to have been a "revolution" against these attendees, describing them as being a "parasite class" or "rich parasites".
Meanwhile, the regular admission price has increased over the years. In addition, Nevada lawmakers have modified the state's entertainment and sales tax code to include such nonprofit organizations like Burning Man that sell more than 15,000 tickets. As a result, an individual ticket (including taxes) cost $424 in 2016. Even tickets sold under Burning Man's low income program are subject to these taxes. Including transportation, food, camp fees, clothing and costumes, and gifts, CNBC estimated in 2016 that the total cost of attending could range from $1,300 up to $20,000. In 2017, Money magazine estimated an average total cost of $2,348 to attend.
According to the racial makeup of Burning Man attendees in 2014, about 87 percent of them identified themselves as white, 6 percent as Hispanic/Latino, 6 percent as Asian, and 1 percent as black. When interviewed by The Guardian about these figures, Harvey replied, "I don't think black folks like to camp as much as white folks ... We're not going to set racial quotas ... This has never been, imagined by us, as a utopian society".