Taking Ownership of our own Burning Man Experience
My husband and I quickly learned that you don’t just visit this place called Burning Man, you take ownership. For our first two years, we camped at Anonymous Village, a large group of more than 200 people that provides a place to support a sober burn. We felt comfortable joining them as my husband stopped drinking within the AA support system and I had been the secretary for my Nicotine Anonymous meeting for several years.
In our third year, we camped solo, meaning with no camp. Many people do it this way either alone, in couples, or bigger groups. That year was the loneliest I’d felt at Burning Man. Most people think I am outgoing but with new people, I am awkward and afraid, made worse by my impaired ability to remember faces (prosopagnosia). I wanted to find a way to develop stronger relationships with fellow Burners while contributing more. Volunteering is always an option at Burning Man and there are plenty of opportunities but I wanted something less temporary. Since I had started my own theater company I was naturally drawn to starting my own Burning Man Theme Camp.
Creating the Tribe of Camp DIY
The theme of our camp was easy to find, we wanted something that represented us both, that would attract people with similar interests. Thus, Camp DIY was born and we hoped to attract Makers and Crafters who would be our kind of people and help us offer workshops and lectures. It was very satisfying and has been our contribution to the Burn every year since. More than half of those original campers have returned to camp with us over the years.
Leading Camp DIY with my husband gave me a sense of pride and belonging and cherished moments of group camaraderie. Being a part of our camp has smoothed some of the emotional pitfalls of being at Burning Man. There’s an anagram ‘FOMO’ (fear of missing out) which is often used to describe the anxiety most of us experience during the week. I wish I knew a similar anagram for feeling lonely in a crowd. My wisest self now suspects that the feeling of being left out, of being an outsider is universal and that almost everyone must feel it. I certainly feel it at Burning Man.
Having others to talk to about shared experiences is very comforting. We not only help each other with forgotten items and small and big crises, but we also share information, a valuable commodity on the playa. It’s impossible to know what’s happening everywhere but campmates can help give focus. For instance, knowing there’s wine tasting or grilled cheese sandwiches down the street is a nice bonus.
While being the leader of a camp ensures belonging, there are downsides. Being a camp leader is like being the host of an extended party. I worry that no one will want to be part of our camp or the people I’ve become attached to will stop wanting to camp with us. Then there is dealing with difficult people who are disruptive to the camp or don’t contribute. Of course, there is also the natural resentment when members leave a mess, don’t appreciate the work we do, or take the work we do for granted.
As camp leaders, my husband and I act as a conduit between our camp members and the Burning Man org. It is our responsibility to make sure we are awarded official theme camp placement. When we first became a camp the event had not sold out but the next year, it did.
The Challenges Get Bigger As the Event Grows
In 2011 Burning Man sold all available tickets in July and they faced 2012 with trepidation. Not having enough space posed an existential crisis to a culture that had heretofore been open and welcoming to everyone. Indeed, the first of ten principles of Burning Man states; “No prerequisites exist for participation in our community”. And while they’ve had years to grapple with the problem, it continues to impact the event in obvious and not-so-obvious ways.
Ticket scarcity increased the number of people who placed Burning Man on their “bucket list”. Experience-trophy seekers like these tend to consume rather than contribute. Suddenly the volunteers and participants who made everything happen and built everything couldn’t get tickets. Fearing a flood of newbies and a dearth of builders forced Burning Man to designate a certain amount of tickets to people who they recognized as invaluable contributors.
Choosing who gets designated tickets inevitably increases the hierarchy of value between Burners and pushes the collective towards something that feels more competitive and judgmental. Instead of being free to create what we want, there is an additional need to do what the Burning Man Org deems valuable, whatever that might be. It is now crucial to be approved by the organization since it is very difficult to create a camp, art car, or art installation without your entire group of enthusiastic contributors getting tickets.
My husband and I find Burning Man’s criteria for awarding Camp Placement vague and baffling. Lack of clear information increases our stress and decreases our motivation. Worse, it leaves us trying to decipher motives that include negative possibilities that we can’t dismiss. It is not easy for me to blindly trust in a secret system given how often I’ve witnessed institutions being guided by ego, self-interest, and favoritism. The Vision For Residential Black Rock City aims to achieve transparency because it “… helps educate camps and build trust in the criteria, process, vision, and culture within the community”. I am hoping that Burning Man can step up their efforts to achieve this quickly because opaque decision-making is taking a toll.
Burning Man Sucks, Don’t Go!
I always loved the bumper sticker I saw in Ocean Beach “Surfing Sucks, Don’t Try It” and have often wanted to make one just like it for Burning Man. It’s hard to not feel threatened by the popularity of Burning Man. It’s valid to worry whether the culture can remain strong if its diluted by too many newbies. We rely on the old guard to acculturate new arrivals. As more people clamor to attend Burning Man, there’s a shrinking ratio of old-timers. Some old-timers resent the population growth and the changes this has brought. Certainly, a lot have stopped coming.
Thankfully, I’ve never witnessed animosity towards the newcomer. However, I’ve seen a lot of animosity towards certain behaviors and have felt it myself. To put it bluntly, the popularity of Burning Man is attracting our share of assholes and the friends of assholes. Entitled rich jerks really can ruin everything. Not only can they litter our skies with their metallic sky junk but their money can buy them everything (but actual humanity) including Burning Man. The list of visible celebrities that blithely feast on all that Burning Man offers while contributing nothing certainly makes me feel angry. These are the types of people that don’t arrive dusty, hot, tired, or insecure like the rest of us. Instead, they hire sherpas to haul their carefully curated costumes and serve them canapes on silver platters while they take a nap after their second shower of the day in their hermetically sealed RVs. I try to ignore the worst of the shiny entitled people. It is a waste of headspace and there are so many more wonderful, interesting people everywhere but I can’t always.
If we have too many people at Burning Man who place themselves and their self-interest before everyone else, there is a risk the culture will be irretrievably altered, and not in a good way. Mitigating the chances of this happening is a delicate task because Burning Man recognizes that just because you look like an asshole doesn’t mean you are one (or at least not an irredeemable one). Burning Man says it much better, they say they want to rely on: “…behaviors and our interaction with them, rather than relying on generalizations, labels, and assumptions.”
One way Burning Man hopes to address the issue is through the camps that breed and support ignorant Burners; “We focus on potential challenges with camp size by acculturating and engaging all camp members, addressing camp leadership challenges, and ensuring group culture is not diluted.” This year’s rule changes were implemented including making it more difficult for vendors to profit off of rich people.
Expanding The Burner Community
Popularity might present challenges but in one way, Burning Man is trying to be more popular. Burning Man has focused a huge amount of attention and effort on becoming more diverse. It has changed its principle of being merely “Radical Inclusion” into “Radical Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity”:
R.I.D.E. Anti-Racism Pledge (August 2021)
At our collective best, Burning Man is a multicultural, open, inviting, and inclusive community. By bringing an anti-racist and anti-discriminatory lens into our strategies and work, we are strengthening these values, and helping to build the future we want to live in. We are inspired by the vision of the Beloved Community, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. We are building new pathways to make sure more people have the opportunity to participate in this community and can see themselves in Burning Man. We are working to expand the participation of BIPOC communities, and to foster diversity in our policies, programs, and processes within our organization and our events.
I’m not sure if my observation is correct but I would like to think that “Radical Inclusion, Diversity and Equity” is working.
The Burning Man Organization
When we first journeyed to Burning Man (my husband had put aside his concerns, lured by the creative opportunities and the challenge of creating a cool way to camp in a desert) we didn’t know nor care about the governance of the Burning Man organization. I wanted to be open to the experience. I wanted to embrace what I liked and ignore the rest. Of course, you can’t attend Burning Man without hearing the grumblings of the old-timers but I didn’t care, it all seemed wonderful to me.
Now that I’m starting to become a crusty old-timer myself, I find myself criticizing the decisions of the Burning Man organization and generally fanning my discontent (it was better next year). Change is often hard to accept, especially unwanted change. My identification as a “Burner” means I feel I have ownership of the event. Participants as owners is a two-edged sword. We participate and volunteer readily but we are angered and hurt when it goes in a way we don’t like. When decisions are made that I don’t think are reflective of core Burning Man values or are in the best interest of Burning Man, I get upset. Of course, I admit it’s a desire for MY Burning Man to be THE Burning Man.
There can’t be many organizations that have to deal with tens of thousands of people who feel they have ownership. As Burners, many of us have passionate opinions and they are all different passionate opinions. While many of our complaints are valid and represent real frustrations, it’s impossible to address all of our issues in the context of running a non-profit as unique and complex as Burning Man.
Every year I complain about how difficult it is to figure out what the hell is going on at Burning Man. Surely, I think that the Organization is in the best position to communicate information to us in a streamlined way. We are well into the electronic age after all.
Some of my frustrations with the Burning Man Organization have been quelled by the book published in 2008 called “Enabling Creative Chaos – the Organization Behind the Burning Man Event” by Katherine K. Chen. She writes :
“Although members of the Burning Man organization produce an unusual output of a temporary arts community, the challenges that they have faced are shared with many organizations: how to integrate different perspectives on organizing, how to recruit, retain, and motivate members, and how to deal with external entities. In addressing these challenges, Burning Man members sought to maintain responsiveness, and flexibility while still allowing for stability, fairness, and efficiency.”
She believes that other organizations could learn a lot from Burning Man. . Chen writes “Like any collectivity, the Burning Man organization has had its share of flaws…” which doesn’t seem surprising considering how many challenges they juggle. Understanding that they are forging new paths in collective organization inspires me to give Burning Man more leeway to make mistakes and take more time.
In 2019, Burning Man began an inspiring project called: Cultural Direction Setting – A Vision for Residential Black Rock City. The result is a shining success. To create it they held surveys, conversations, and online responses with the community and had a group of 19 individuals from all aspects of Burning Man compose it. The goal of this project was to create
“… a clear, actionable vision that would give us guideposts without being too prescriptive. We needed a vision that would inspire us as individuals, leaders, citizens, and members of groups. We needed a vision that was not the brainchild of a select few but would come from the wisdom of our community.”
I could not have been more proud and impressed by the document. It shows how well the Burning Man Organization balances the needs of the community with the many external forces and is an example of how they go about protecting the vitality and core of Black Rock City. That said, the document was created and written just before Covid so we will see if Burning Man still can pursue their vision.
If I was sensing a lack of care towards those of us who built the city, it might have been the aftermath of Covid. In 2020 we were told that they needed to reduce staff salaries, lay off year-round and seasonal staff, cancel seasonal and temporary contracts, and defer 1,100 seasonal staff hires. Yet Burning Man was more popular than ever and somehow Burning man had to start up the rusty gears for another season despite a loss of core people. I continue to wonder if they were able to hold on to the people who understand the unique nature of Burning Man. If the past is any indication, the answer is yes. Burning Man has proven itself to be a versatile organization able to meet many challenges and I hope it can continue. Time will tell.
Every year, social media sites fly with arguments with many critics and many passionate defenders about how the Burning Man Org is doing. Unsurprisingly, I am unable to get a consensus from social media sites. There is one idea shared by many, Burning Man 2022 was very tough, indeed it has been dubbed “Brutal Burn”.
For my husband and me, it was more brutal than any we can remember. Covid hurt us and our campmates. We’d gotten rusty, out of practice, and out of shape. The conditions on the playa were mostly as challenging as always except for one; the road conditions. These were the worst I’d ever experienced and, for me, brutal.
Biking on the playa is usually pretty easy and the freedom I feel biking fills me with joy. Normally I can bike anywhere I like, in any direction, and no matter which way I go, I’m sure I’ll see the fun and interesting things. I might see a man doing acrobatic tricks, children cooking and serving pancakes, be offered a cold pickle and a shot of Jameson (if I have my ID of course), I might have an opportunity to get my “License to Chill” if I pass a few tests like raking in a Zen Garden while wearing the provided beer goggles, or someone will offer me their homebrewed Kambucha. At night, thousands of brightly lit decorated bikes travel on the streets and move across the desert in every which way. They move so haphazardly that I have often wondered how there aren’t piles of bikes and bodies everywhere. Yet usually everyone manages to miss each other.
This year many sections of the playa was extremely bumpy or covered in a foot of dust or both. I had my first bike accident and then someone ran over me with their bike and fell on top of me. The physical damage turned out to be minor but the trauma was harder to get over. Since it can be more than a mile to a destination, walking was a safer choice except I’d just acquired plantar fasciitis on both feet. for the first time, physical challenges kept me close to camp. I had company though because the more than usual heat had others staying under our misting system in the afternoon.
It was indeed an extra hot year also. Burning Man will always throw surprises at you and along with the worst biking conditions ever, no one needed coats. Of course, never expect anything for sure. In 2015, the year my 82-year-old Mom joined us, we had some of the coldest weather ever and, although I could not confirm this, some say it got down to freezing.
Early on I said it was too good to be true and that there had to be a catch. There is of course. Burning Man isn’t all good; it has given me joy, camaraderie, and connection but also sorrow, loss, and loneliness. I have seen things that are so delightful that they will be with me forever and I saw one thing so sad and terrible I will also have that forever. I have gained special friends and lost them to time and distance. I have seen the possibilities and have been unable to reproduce them in the default world. Burning Man is perhaps one of the greatest events and experiences I will ever get to be a part of, the catch is it must end. I hate endings. Change is inevitable and Burning Man somehow makes that sharply real. Especially because the fate of the event has always felt precarious.
Because of this, Burning Man offers me a precious gift, the demand that I live in the moment. It is the way to get the most out of it. I am forced to live in the moment because everything is constantly changing. Accepting and embracing the present allows me to deal with too many choices, too much happening, too much open desert, too many people to meet, and too little time to experience it all. I just need to relax into the moment I am in.
Every year I tell myself I will allow myself to be in the moment and every year I pretty much fail. I find I am overcome with the sadness of all I am missing, of how brief an experience this is, and how fleeting and superficial my interactions are with other people.
Every year Burning Man ends with two collective goodbyes. Together we burn an effigy of a man on Saturday night. We burn the object we’ve been using as our central guidepost throughout the week. It’s the big party to end the party.
By Sunday many of us have packed our stuff and are preparing for the long journey home. All week the Temple has stood out in deep playa, offering a quiet non-denominational place of sanctuary and contemplation. It begins as just a beautiful building, unique every year, made of untreated pine. During the week, it becomes so much more as people leave mementos and offerings there. At dusk, we quietly gather to collectively watch the temple burn. Here we are free to mourn losses and endings. As the fire grows. you might hear people call out over the silence; “I love you Mom” or “I miss you so!” There are tears. It is a precious moment in a precious week of our precious lives. I will always be grateful I was there to share it with my fellow Burners.
ABOUT BRENDA MCFARLANE
Brenda McFarlane was born in Canada and grew up in Toronto. She lived in Ocean Beach for several wonderful years and presently lives in Silver City. She owns a company Ziryab’s Body Brew making deodorant, lotion, soap and other bath and beauty products. She began the business in Ocean Beach and sold her products at the Farmers’ Market.