LOTS of people think that going to Burning Man for the art is like reading Playboy for the articles.
But an art experience is exactly what I had in mind 10 years ago, when I was 23 and first visited Nevada’s Black Rock Desert for the festival, which is often mistaken for a no-holds-barred bacchanal.
I was excited but also terrified by the event’s credo: “No spectators, participants only.” I was no artist, just a writer. How could I participate if I didn’t know how?
My answer wasn’t very clever. I showed up with a bicycle and 40 Chinese kites that resembled red fish. Every time I managed to get a kite airborne, I pedaled away with it and handed the string off to a stranger.
I’d be lying if I said that particular act changed my life. What felt transformative was this: I spent a week outside my comfort zone, with thousands of people who were also exploring their boundaries, and whose artistic efforts succeeded or failed magnificently.
In the following years, I learned how to cut and weld steel. I helped install some of the event’s large sculptures, including a 168-foot-long skeletal serpent with 41 flamethrowers along its spine, a project designed by a Bay Area arts collective called The Flaming Lotus Girls. But if Burning Man hadn’t set the bar low enough to trip over in the first place, I never would have made it out there.
Today the barriers to attending Burning Man are staggeringly high. The festival is still five months away, but no tickets remain for sale to the general public except through scalpers. (At one secondhand ticket Web site this week, the cheapest of more than 80 available passes cost $1,225; one likely prankster was asking a cool $999,999. The aficionados who call themselves “Burners” are petitioning the site’s owners to discontinue all Burning Man-related sales.) Serendipitous trips to Burning Man, like the one I took in 2002, are a thing of the past.
How did this happen? Last year, the festival sold out for the first time, creating a market for scalpers. This year, some 40,000 tickets were distributed in February using an untested lottery method; it apparently attracted buyers who were willing to beat the system by using multiple credit cards and hoarding passes. A large portion of “winners” appeared to be first-time attendees and scalpers, which sparked a panic among the Burning Man faithful and, according to an announcement from the event’s organizers, “created holes in our social fabric.”
More than 10,000 tickets still remain for Burning Man, which culminates over Labor Day weekend. They were originally allotted for a public sale starting Mar. 28. Now, however, they will go only to handpicked attendees who “already have a relationship and contact points within the organization” of Burning Man.
In other words, Burning Man is building its own kind of caste system, choosing insiders and outsiders, curating the community’s most valuable members. Why does this matter?
We live in tremendously creative times. Thanks to the Internet, the tools to make and share art have proliferated. Offline, however, we’re still largely stuck in a culture where some people make art and other people consume it. There’s a dividing line between celebrities and fans, performers and spectators. How often do people get to co-create culture in the physical world?
For more than two decades, Burning Man has been the antithesis of the art establishment, avoiding the social stratifications created by fame and pedigree, embracing a credo of egalitarianism and “radical inclusion.” If you wanted to show your art there — even if your art was stale Twinkies stacked to look like Stonehenge, which I saw my first year — no curator would turn you away. Burning Man is the only American event of its scale that actively attempts a democratic system for face-to-face artistic exchange.
Though the festival’s organizers have moved quickly to solicit feedback and hope to roll out a better ticketing system next year, they’re up against a hard truth: it’s unlikely that supply will ever exceed demand again. “We’ve long been aware that the event in the desert would reach its limit,” conceded one of many announcements addressing the situation on the festival’s Web site.
That kind of scarcity, however, is the enemy of serendipity. What that will mean for future Burners — and the longstanding festival community ready to receive them — is unclear.
I’m glad I got to be the well-meaning misfit with the kites that first year. I don’t need to attempt that project again. But I’d like to think someone else could.