Transformation and Community at Burning Man

thanks to Simon Yugler from Travel Alchemy for this guest post. Other Burners, if you have something to say, please follow suit. Share your perspective with the rest of our community.

In my opinion, you guys hold down the most relevant and thought-provoking media and information circulating about Burning Man. Thanks for all the work that you do, and for your devotion to the Burning Man community. It is truly appreciated. Recently, I’ve noticed that the majority of Burning Man-centric content I’ve read has highlighted either the many problems associated with the festival’s growth, its significance to Silicon Valley “tech elite” culture, or the torrential rain that closed the gate. That, or the untimely death that has already occurred this year, and related incidents in the past. All of this information is relevant and appreciated. And, as a contrast, I’d like to offer you an article I recently wrote regarding my take on the Burn, and how the event was essential in helping me discover my larger community through personal transformation.

Transformation and Community at Burning Man


Beneath the flashy displays of art and technology, the massive sound systems, and the scantily clad attendees, Burning Man is a visceral rite of passage that beckons participants to embrace the mythic journey that is their life. 

In traveling to Burning Man, one leaves behind the realm of social norms and linear time (forget what you know about sleep,) and enters into a world of transformation where, for just over a week, anything is possible.

For many, Burning Man is the greatest party on earth. While this may be true, this physically, emotionally and psychologically grueling event is also the closest thing American culture has to acollective ritual of death, transformation, and rebirth.

I attended Burning Man in 2011, after spending much of my final college semester writing about the festival and its significance as a modern day ritual for my studies in anthropology and religion. In deep synchronicity with the timing and focus of my own life, the theme of the Burn that year was Rites of Passage.

Freshly graduated, I applied for a scholarship ticket, was invited through some miracle to camp with a group called Fractal Nation, and prepared to fully immerse myself into the transformational journeythat is Burning Man.

I danced harder then I ever had, partied on a Golden Dragon with internationally renowned musicians, helped manage one of the biggest stages on the playa, and didn’t sleep for nearly four days. I also had the pleasant experience of being left in the desert, only to find a better, more exciting way home.

Burning Man influenced my life in countless ways, many of which I am still discovering. Experiencing a devoted gift economy (the playa is a cash-free zone,) dancing to some world class DJ’s, and witnessing the cutting edge of American art culture was just the tip of this hot and dusty ice burg.

Yet perhaps the biggest gift given to me by that that massive expanse of sweltering, alkaline desert, the one that continues to effect my life every day, was the discovery of my community.

Today, three years after my first burn, my everyday life is a reminder of the Burning Man ethos and community. I currently live in an intentional community household with people I met, in one way or another, through Burning Man. Most of my friends and collaborators throughout the West Coast festival community stem from my involvement with the initial Fractal Nation camp, and many artists who I had previously only know through their music I now consider dear friends.

Fractal Nation Community, Burning Man 2011

Burning Man catalyzed many relationships in my life that were key to helping me discover an inspiring, deep, and meaningful community of like minded souls.

When you meet people on the playa, you share a deep bond with them, one that cannot be simulated or recreated through any other means. Just the sheer intensity of the environment alone, creates a space where the superficial formalities and concerns of daily life simply melt away, and allow for a rapid rate of human connection.

It doesn’t matter who someone is in the “default world.” If you meet at Burning Man, you share a genuine and profound kinship. What happens next is up to you.

Recently, the festival has gotten a lot of media attention, mostly focusing on the negative aspects of its growth, its popularity in certain “Tech Elite” circles, and how much it has changed over its nearly three-decades of existence. Like it or not, either through fashion, popular media, or sheer word of mouth, Burning Man is now a mainstream fixture in the American cultural imagination.

No, “it’s not like it used to be,” as many veteran Burners continue to mourn. But then again, nothing is. Nothing as dynamic, creative, and iconoclastic as Burning Man could ever stay the same.

I have not returned to that mystical expanse of flame and sound since I first set foot on its soft, powdery soil three years ago.

Whether or not I ever go back (I plan to,) the spirit of Burning Man transformed my life, deeply empowered me, and was essential in helping me discover my community, my family, and my tribe. 

What has Burning Man given you?


First Grover, then The Kook

Last year former Presidential candidate General Wesley Clark attended Burning Man. This year, former Presidential Candidate Dennis Kucinich is there. And he loves it!

Like Grover Norquist, he is giving a speech:

From the Huffington Post:

Kucinich once saw a UFO near Shirley MacLaine's house

Kucinich once saw a UFO near Shirley MacLaine’s house

Former Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) announced on Tuesday that he will be speaking at Burning Man.

“Just landed in Reno. On my way to #BurningMan. Speaking Thursday,” he wrote on Twitter.

The weeklong festival, which began Monday, culminates in the communal burning of a wooden effigy. The festival takes place in the Black Rock Desert, about 100 miles outside Reno, Nevada.

It is unclear why Kucinich, who ran for president in 2004 and 2008, is appearing at the festival, though he joins an eclectic group of speakers, including activists, musicians and gurus.

Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist is set to take the stage on Friday. Norquist explained to National Journal that he was drawn to Burning Man because he feels the festival’s values align with his libertarian views.

“There’s no government that organizes this,” he said. “That’s what happens when nobody tells you what to do. You just figure it out. So Burning Man is a refutation of the argument that the state has a place in nature.”

Luckily for both Kucinich and Norquist, Burning Man welcomes people of all political stripes.



BREAKING: Woman Dies at Burning Man [Updates]


This just in, we will update the story if we get more details.

From the SF Chronicle:

embrace and man and sun08-28) 08:49 PDT BLACK ROCK DESERT, NEV. — A woman died at Burning Man in northern Nevada early Thursday after she was run over by a bus carrying participants, authorities said.

Details of the crash were not immediately released, but Burning Man co-founder Marian Goodell described it as “a terrible accident.”

The victim’s name has not been released pending notification of her family.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with her family, friends and campmates,” Goodell said. “Black Rock rangers and emergency services department staff are providing support to those affected.”

The 500 rangers managed by organizer Black Rock City LLC are patrolling the art and entertainment event in addition to 95 federal and local law enforcement officers. Burning Man officials said they were working with the Pershing County sheriff’s office in its investigation of the death.

In 2003, Katherine Lampman of Belmont died at the event when she fell from an “art car” and was run over by its wheels. Lampman, 21, was a student at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco and an aspiring photographer.

Some 68,000 people are arriving in the Black Rock Desert about 120 miles north of Reno for the annual weeklong event. The gates opened Tuesday after a rainstorm hit the region, closing the festival Monday on its opening day.

The Shagadelica Bus

The Shagadelica Bus

The Art Car involved was Shagadelica, a double decker bus covered in fur. The incident appears to have happened just after midnight Thursday morning, in front of Center Camp and the keyhole. Burning Man updated their Facebook group with the news around 5am.

Fox47 News has a video story here. They are reporting that the woman fell under the bus and was run over.

From Reuters:

The woman, whose name and age was not immediately released, may have been riding on the bus before she fell under the wheels and was run over by it, said Sheila Reitz, dispatch supervisor for the Pershing County Sheriff’s Office.

Looking at the photo of bus, it’s easy to see how someone might fall off the top, but harder to see how they would then get run over. Perhaps she fell from the doorway?

[Update] 8/28/14 12:06pm

The 29-year old woman from Wyoming has been identified, From KRNV news Reno:

PERSHING COUNTY, Nev. ( & KRNV) — Pershing County officials have identified the victim of Thursday morning’s deadly bus incident at Burning Man.
According to a press release from Pershing County authorities, Alicia Louise Cipicchio — a 29-year-old resident of Jackson, Wyoming — suffered fatal injuries early Thursday morning after falling under a large vehicle at the annual Burning Man event in the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada.

Event officials, including representatives of Black Rock City, the Bureau of Land Management, and Pershing County Sheriff’s Office express their condolences and sympathies to the family, friends and campmates of the victim. Support is being provided to those affected by the tragedy.

Organizers are working with investigators from Pershing County Sheriff’s Office to determine the series of events leading to the incident. Anyone with information that may assist in the investigations is asked to contact (775) 273-2641.

 [Update 8/28/14 4:42pm] 5 Time Burner has shared a better photo of the Shagadelica. It pulls a trailer, which sheds some light on how a tragedy like this could occur:

shagadelic art car sand-ship

This is not the first time someone has been run over at the festival. There have been at least 2 other deaths there since 2011 – a fact that is news to me. The number of police sounds lower than previous years. From the Reno Gazette-Journal:

Humboldt General Hospital CEO Jim Parrish said earlier this week that deaths do happen at Burning Man. He said at least two other people have died there since the hospital began providing medical response in 2011.

This is the first reported Burning Man death this year.

The woman…sustained fatal injuries after she was struck and died at the scene. (Daily Mail)

No foul play is suspected, the Pershing County Sheriff’s Office said. (Raw Story)

Burners commenting online have shared details on some other incidents:

Tristan: another year i saw someone also get rolled over by a (smaller) art-car (only minor injuries). they learned it is a really bad idea to sleep under an art-car parked on the playa.  

…a few years ago a random guy was mugged by a guy dressed-up as a clown, it was pretty serious (broken arm).

Marco: the last time i was there we were in line and person got ran over by the family that was in their trailer

Leja: We had someone in our camp years ago who happened to die from his congenital heart defect just after setting his tent up. His family was contacted immediately. We were amazed by the rangers and other staff in how organized, thorough, solid and kind their response was.

Cameron: Remember the woman we found sleeping on the playa in the middle of the night last year and took back to her camp – no lights, no neon. Scary. Temple Burn.

Partick: At least we know what happened now…. All night we heard things like stab or massive gunshot……

El Chingdon: lets not forget the people who died in a burning airstream in 2003 because they left candles burning

Mr Fang: No one died in a burning airstream in 2003, but someone did die that year from injuries sustained when a small plane crashed

Laurie: We found a girl last year passed out face down in the middle of everything and had to call the rangers. She was in the dark and this could have happened then, it’s very hard to see out there in the in between spots

The Sheriff JD: may the clouds of your own heaven hold you gently and rest your soul in peace

from the UStream feed

screen cap from the UStream feed – definitely looks like Shagadelica

2014 shagadelica fatality

Photo of the victim from Facebook. Our condolences to her family and friends, and all the Burners who witnessed this tragedy. May she rest in peace.

alicia cipicchio


What Dreams May Come – Part I

Mutant Vehicle at Afrika Burn

Mutant Vehicle at Afrika Burn

When superstar DJ Paul Oakenfold announced the 2014 lineup at White Ocean, I was over the moon – even though I’m not at Burning Man this year. We declared it “victory for ravers”. It seems Burnier-Than-Thous didn’t see it the same way, and White Ocean got slammed. Why? Because they made a flyer with the acts listed, and it looked a little too commercial. Never mind that most of the other sound camps also made flyers, and have been doing that for years. White Ocean had to issue an apology.

From the SF Bay Guardian:

white-ocean-burning-man-2014-lineup“As you know, a few weeks ago the entire White Ocean line up went public, in a relatively big way. To add insult to injury, it also listed ‘Presenting’ parties in the most un-Burner like fashion! We know that this greatly upset each and everyone of you, and for good reason! We agree this is a huge failure, on our part! There’s no excuse!!!”

The post went on to say the camp had hired a mainstream promoter, who “proceeded to create and implement a full promotions campaign, as if he was working for some music festival in Europe. That was his perception of Burning Man, an elaborately modified festival in the desert that doesn’t sell beer.”

I mean, really – they bring Dave Seaman AND Juno Reactor to the Playa – FOR FREE – and they have to APOLOGIZE?

This shit is getting ridiculous.

Hot-Chicks-at-Burning-Man-18burners were forced to confront the question, “Are we actually becoming just a music festival in the desert that doesn’t sell beer?” As a nightlife writer, I’ve been getting emails for years touting different pre-BM fundraisers, innovative theme camp designs, and dance performances. But it’s only been in the past couple that I’ve been getting press releases from record labels announcing artists “appearing one night only!” at Burning Man. DJs routinely brag about multiple BM experiences. (One PR person even accidentally offered me press tickets!)

“It’s true that the current generation does see Burning Man mostly through the prism of music,” Syd Gris of the music-powerhouse Opulent Temple camp told me over the phone. “Most of the draw now may be not for the original communal experience, but the mind-blowing spectacle of seeing so many of the world’s biggest DJs playing on giant fire sculptures.

“Ever since the music festival circuit became such a huge thing in the past decade, there’s been the possibility that Burning Man may end up just another stop on it.”

Even Maid Marian seems to realize it. She goes to festivals all around the world, she knows what’s going on. Her words in the BRC Weekly look like back-pedalling to me.

sound camp lineup ban

They’re “blaming” White Ocean for interest in the OMG sale? That doesn’t even make sense.

Rockstar Librarian’s music guide this year runs to 34 pages. Music is a huge reason why people come to Burning Man. Is Larry really going to “un-welcome” all of those camps? The event is not sold out because of TED talks and the Souk.

Is this why Robot Heart published their yoga schedule, but not their music one?

2014robot heart

2014 robot heart

Why is this allowed, but the DJ lineup isn’t? What fucking “harm” comes from a DJ lineup? Surely “40% Virgins” and a $40 tax is more harmful than knowing where and when the world’s best DJs are playing.

Billionaire Burner (and BMP Director) Chris Bently spent more than $25,000 just on the door to his Nautilus

Billionaire Burner (and BMP Director) Chris Bently spent more than $25,000 just on the door to his Nautilus art car. Did he ruin Burning Man?

Meanwhile we have this “rich people are ruining Burning Man” meme. Where the fuck did this come from? Rich people have always been going to Burning Man. How do you think major camps can hand out free drinks to thousands of people? People spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on Art Cars that only get used for one week out of the year. These aren’t poor people. You know all those flames you see? Every time one goes off, that’s costing someone money. What about the really big flames, shooting high into the sky? They’re costing more money.

Where does this money come from? It’s certainly not from BMOrg, I hope by now we’ve demonstrated that clearly to our readers. Burners fund Burning Man, not BMOrg. Sure, there are Kickstarters for camps and art projects, and people contribute to them. What kind of people give money to a Burning Man Kickstarter art project? People so rich that they can afford to just give their money away, for art and entertainment. They never get thanks or credit for this, and they’re not seeking it. Most of the world does not have enough money to piss away on a party – so how rich is rich?

diddy robot heart insideMore than half of Black Rock City’s citizens make more than US$50,000 per year. That’s enough to put them in the top 0.3% of wealth in the entire world. By definition, Burners are rich – rich enough to affored a ticket, provisions for a week in the desert, shelter and transportation costs, plus drugs. The main thing being burned at this event is money.

What’s really ruining Burning Man is the “Me” generation, and these Burnier-Than-Thou rule enforcers. Larry Harvey is quick to dismiss the anarchists and punks. He and his partner Jerry James brought their kids to the very first Burning Man. The kids radically participated by building an effigy of a dog, which they also burned. It’s clear that Larry is more interested in creating a family-friendly event than throwing the world’s best rave.

Which is a shame, because he’s throwing the world’s best rave.

Can Burning Man continue on its current trajectory? Absolutely. CBS News anchors want to come, now that they’ve heard about the gourmet chefs and sherpas. It’s very succcessful, it’s world famous, and there’s no end in sight. Ticket prices can keep increasing. Now vehicle pass prices can keep increasing too. The secondary market will continue to thrive, and all of the OMGSTEP tomfoolery just fuels it.

Will it continue to be awesome? Probably. There are some fundamental elements to this spectacle that will always make it entertaining. There are also some fundamental elements that mean it will always be a pain in the ass, as the poor souls who took 29 hours to get in from Gerlach can attest.

robot heart speakersWill Black Rock City continue to be populated by the Burners who built it? Unlikely. The population is ageing, and maybe being deliberately disinvited. This year it’s not just me taking a break, many veteran Burners I know are sitting it out. Sure, most of us will return, repeatedly. But some of the spark has gone. The urge to create a cool camp and share it with everyone, is tempered by the Broners and the Takers and the MOOPers and the Haters. The more rules you add, the more creativity you stifle.

Paul Oakenfold said that he first attended Burning Man in the 90’s, and he’s been looking for other Burning Mans ever since. Me too! As one of the world’s biggest DJs, a triple Grammy-nominated music producer who used to be the A & R guy for a major record label, Oakey has been so big on the scene for so long he has a solid claim for being the creator of it. If there are other Burning Mans in the world, he’s someone who would be in a position to know. Being one of the Founders of EDM is quite a bit higher up the totem pole than being one of the Founders of Burning Man, a 70,000 person week-long, three decades old American event. Facebook lists half a billion people who Like Electronic (Dance) Music.

“The Regionals!”, cry the Burnier-Than-Thous and the Kool Aid drinkers. “The future is in the Regionals, they are like Burning Man used to be!” And perhaps that might become true. The event has been going for almost 30 years. Regional burns have been going on for almost 20 years. What will be different about the next 10 years for Regionals, compared to the last 10?

Big Art at Afrika Burn

Big Art at Afrika Burn

It seems like Afrika Burn could be a contender for “another Burning Man”. They have been going for 8 years, and their population has yet to exceed 10,000. Africa is a long way to go for most of the world, all manner of shots are required, and many international visitors are going to be scared off by Ebola now. The Burning Man Australia facebook group is growing rapidly, since many Americans have always wanted to go to Australia, and this could be an excuse for their long dreamed of vacation. Australia already has some well established, awesome parties, that it will have to compete with, like Earthcore and Rainbow Serpent. The promoters who are successful in Australia have been so for a long time, and their talent is at a globally competitive level. It would take a lot for a new festival to usurp them on their home turf. There are logistical and economic challenges in getting art cars to Burning Seed, or to these much larger events, not to mention the extreme climate and deadly fauna. It is not a culture given to excessive volunteering. Australians would rather have a barbecue and go surfing than build a big man in their garage just to burn it. I’m generalizing, of course.

The main problem I see with “the future is in the Regionals” is BMOrg themselves. They are not the world’s most organized organization! Their efficiency, professionalism, and consistency are not up to the standards of, say, Google. The founders are finally getting the chance to cash in on their decades of work, hooray for them. They all seem to be ageing remarkably well, but none of them are dewy-eyed Millenials any more. How much fire and drive do they have left for this new, global start-up? It’s an order of magnitude increase in the complexity and stress of their Project. When their big payday finally comes, will they still be motivated to manage this venture? Maybe they’ll want to kick back and enjoy the fruits of their labors.

burning_man suitsSure, the corporate structure is transitioning, with some of their non-profits merging and new for-profit private companies being formed. New revenue streams like royalties, merchandise and gasoline are being developed. New talent is being brought in. Will the new suits be suit-ier than the old suits? And how does any of this help the Regionals – or, indeed, Burners?

Their web site lists only 20 or so official Regional events. One commenter here said this is an indication of how little most of the Regionals actually depend on BMOrg for.

To put Burning Man’s challenge for the next stage in Silicon Valley terms: can this business model scale?

From the core of this thing, emanates a desire to control. Control seems to trump personal financial gain, or Gifting, in BMOrg’s decision making. Can they grow from 70,000 people contained inside a pentagon in an American desert, to 700,000 people in more than 100 events? Maybe. Can they still maintain the control they’ve become accustomed to, with the organizational structure that got them to where we are today? Unlikely. Will volunteers continue to be motivated to work for free, as the Founders start to pile up the millions, and the media continues to harp on about all the wealth that’s there? That remains to be seen. Maybe there will be a new career path for low-income Burners, in becoming Sherpas to the rich.

Even if you upgrade the entire management team, you’re not guaranteed scaleability. What is it, exactly, that they’re trying to replicate? The Ten Principles were only ever meant as guidelines, and most Burners probably couldn’t list all 10. Their inherent contradictions are confusing even for people who speak English as their first language. If it’s Radical Inclusion, why can’t you wear logos if you want? Why all the hating on successful people and celebrities? If it’s Gifting and Decommodification, how come we keep getting asked to donate more money to them? Is there a point where they Gift something back to us? If it’s Civic Responsibility and Communal Effort, how come so many Broners contribute nothing and have more time to party?

So…what if there were something else? Is the world big enough for more than one Burning Man?

What if there was a party full of art cars, where people could build whatever camps they wanted, but it didn’t have the cult-like 10 Principles? What if “acculturation” and a 20-page survival guide were not required? What if there were trash cans and recycling? What if you could get water if you needed it? What if the layout was different?

I’m not saying that Black Rock City needs to have those things. It’s on its course, it’s changing as it grows, and the bigger it gets the more mainstream it’s going to get.

Next thing we know, Hillary Clinton will be there. Bieber will be live on the Esplanade, all tatted up and ready to rumble.

Burners create Black Rock City. Black Rock City is Burning Man, not BMOrg. If there was another city created by Burners, that had many of the core elements, but was also a bit different, would you want to check that out?

I’m talking something major, with lots of art cars that you can ride around on, not events like EDC or Ultra or Decompression where you might see a couple of art cars, but you can’t ride around on them until you see the sunrise over the mountains in some random location. Something environmentally sustainable, artistic, built on kindness and gratitude – and cool as fuck.

Burners are some of the smartest, raddest, sexiest, most creative, AND richest people on the planet. BMOrg might not be able to scale their organization and their business model to ten times its current size, but there is no doubt in my mind that Burners can. There are far more of us than there are BMOrg volunteers, or indoctrinated Burnier-Than-Thous.

The question is, do people want that? If they build it, will you come?