Has Burning Man jumped the shark? Attendance was down on last year, despite a 20% increase in population size and the organizers’ claims that it was a sold out event. Major sound camp Opulent Temple are not coming back next year – or, maybe, ever. Meanwhile rumor has it the BMOrg plan on implementing the disastrous ticket lottery system again next year, or even worse, “curating the audience” – an extension of the “world’s biggest guest list” approach they tried this year.
In the context of all this, it seems like the knives are coming out for Burning Man. Recently San Francisco magazine proclaimed “RIP Burning Man“. Now online opinion site Salon.com has taken up the BM bashing stick:
So what is Burning Man like? It’s not special. It’s simply what happens when gearhead artists, new agers, and frat types get together to build resilience tech in the desert together. Badly. It is easy enough to describe in principle, but harder in practice.
The experience of going to Burning Man is summed in either the ease or the difficulty of figuring out how to talk about whatever the hell it was that happened to you there. It would be easiest to talk about if you died on the playa. Your Burner epitaph would tell the entire story: “Fell off an art car, broke spine.” That narrative would be the easiest to read. Second easiest would be by those who claim a spiritual transformation. “I injected DMT into all my chakra points, and discovered an art car that vibrated at the same basic frequency as the entire Enochian Key.” Gotcha. But for those of us unlucky enough to make it back to society without a punctured kidney or a journey via sky chariots have a harder time in finding the archetype that explains that week. You have been staring into the sun for over a week, and now you look down and try to explain to the purple splotches exactly why. Asceticism topped off by a cold cooler of PBR, and a entire rented box truck full of Schedule 40 metal pipe. There is little revelatory or concluding text to be found here.
The best way I can think to describe the experience is that people who went to Burning Man changed color. You can see them, crawling back over the nation’s roadways on Labor Day weekend. It is not the vehicles that they drive or the things strapped on the roof, but the univocal shade of muted grey. There are no real generalities that can be made about a group of 50,000 people that are not tautologies. To say that Burning Man is for the rich, or for the privileged, or for those with free time, is all about as meaningful as to say that 50,000 automobile owners can afford gasoline. But the one meaningful thing that we could really say about Burners is that they all come back grey. When we get into the shower, finally back at home, the water all runs the same opaque color into the drain.
The author, Adam Rothstein, claims to love Burning Man, but he is not backwards in being forward when it comes to his (well-written) criticism:
This sort of DIY zen is by no means natural to the playa, and while we might have our own drama more or less rigged well, we’re pretty lucky in that regard. You hear stories on the playa, of grudges, of politicking by the Org and by artists and groups of artists, of threats made and carried out. The Burn Wall Street art piece, for example, had some pretty wild stories attached to it. I can’t verify any of this, and so it is only rumor. But disputes about the construction quality and schedule allegedly caused the leader of the project (who as far as I can tell, had nothing to do with Occupy) to be fired from the task by the Org. This was the culmination of a longer dispute involving the previous year’s temple crew, a project that apparently violated design parameters. Burn Wall Street still ended up built and burnt, but after hearing some wacky tales about the designer’s love of guns and his habit of blowing up piles of propane tanks with rifle fire, there was speculation that the burn might not go off without a hitch. And yet, it did. You can never really tell about rumors. Drama on the playa, at Occupy, or at any intense build project is by definition just as real as it sounds. And yet, most drama, like the Burn Wall Street city, is really just an empty shell. So you never know.
Burn Wall Street ended up covered in graffiti of all kinds before it burned, and I couldn’t help but wonder about that paint-soaked empty shell. It was only a few months ago that I watched police officers punch and club the heads of my friends in the streets of major US cities. Trauma feels different than drama. The banks built on the playa were hollow, and so was the gesture, and so was the anarchist graffiti on the outside. Burning Man is often called a Temporary Autonomous Zone, but the bureaucracy behind the building of a monument to an anarchist movement is altogether so far from anarchism that it mostly makes me confused. It’s not that I can’t take criticisms, parodies, or copycats, it’s that it just seemed so obvious. A “Bank of Un-America,” spraypainted with the phrase “Let’s Burn the Real One.” Like learning history through a shoebox diorama
Why is Burning Man over? Because he heard so from some hippies on the Playa…
Every year there are rumors that this will be the last year. The reasons I heard this year that sounded reasonable included: conflicts with the BLM over the costs of those coming early to set up (the BLM wants $10 per person per day); the fact that the Org has burned through every porta-pottie company in existence as they each in turn decide that dealing with the plumbing problems from trash in the pots is simply not worth the contract; and that the influx of newbies not picking up their trash will finally reach a tipping point, and that will end the BLM’s approval of the event.
I think we’re still a long way from the death of Burning Man. But, the event faces some real challenges, as the new non-profit “volunteer” BMorg takes over from the old “founder” BMorg. Will the hippies win the day, squeeze all the rich people out, and leave us with an event with very limited art cars, art projects, or DJs? Will the kids take over, forcing out the nudity and drugs? Will the ravers take over with ever-louder sound systems? Will
bureaucracy ineptocracy take over, and overwhelm the thing with rules? Or, will the experienced crowd of veteran Burners choose to go to other events like Lightning in a Bottle, Free Form Festival, or Tomorrowland – instead of joining the Jersey Shore mooping wannabe newbies in this increasingly-mainstream event?
We eagerly await the presence of some leadership, to take Burning Man and the Burner community through this time of transition and lead us into a glowing, golden, Burning future.