Burning Man Critics Miss The Point

Image: Peter Ruprecht

Image: Peter Ruprecht

A guest post from Daniel Souweine. What do you think, Burners?


It’s been a week since Labor Day, so if you live in the Bay Area, that means your Burner friends are still giving extra long hugs, there are still dusty cars on the streets, and you just watched your colleagues give four days of wide-eyed looks like they don’t totally understand this world you’re co-inhabiting.

It also means that we’ve just gotten another round of pronouncements that Burning Man has, indeed, jumped the shark, ruined by too much money, too many celebrities, or just too many of “these people.” Whatever the cause, it’s just not the same as it was [fill in the year when the writer started going to the playa]. Even Quiznos has gotten in on the act, which is funny until you taste their sandwiches.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion. But for me, the problem with these jeremiads is not that they are wrong about the gestalt of the festival — which I think they are. It’s that they are missing the interesting story about Burning Man’s evolution, which is how much the community has maintained its core principles while being buffeted by the totally predictable and completely unavoidable influx of money, people, and attention.

Before I make my case, a brief admission. I didn’t go this year, not because I think Burning Man is “over,” but because I went last year and I usually don’t go two years in a row because it takes so much time and money. Also my camp kind of fell apart. But I went last year and I sincerely doubt that has much has changed since 2014. I have also gone four other times, starting in 2004. I’m not obsessed with Burning Man, I don’t spend my whole year planning for it, I don’t have a playa name, and I don’t think of it as my “home.” But I do think the culture it has created is amazing and impressive, and I’m bothered by how much people are missing the forest of values preservation for the trees of commercial intrusion.

The principal evidence for how and why Burning Man has sold its soul are the so-called “turnkey” camps where rich people drop thousands of dollars for a hosted and catered Burning Man “experience.” Here’s a particularly unhinged account of how the plug and play camps show that Burning Man’s principle of radical self-expression is really a right-wing Ayn Randian ideal, indistinguishable from the mottos of Silicon Valley social media giants. *Deep exhale*

There are certainly more of these camps than before. But they are hardly a new creation. People have been paying other people to set up their camps for year. They are just paying them more now, the camps are snazzier, and they have gotten a ton of media attention. I know some of the people who run one of these camps, and I hung out there for a few hours last year. The design was amazing but the vibe was off, as you would expect. Not much soul.

Now, I personally think these camps are wack, and they obviously run afoul of Burning Man’s 10 principles, particularly radical self-reliance and radical inclusion. Which is why Burning Man is taking some actions to try to minimize their impact.

But even before this crackdown, I don’t think these camps had much of an effect on the average person’s experience at the festival. They are relatively closed off and so most people won’t interact with them. Which leaves people to visit, oh, 98 percent of the rest of the camps that are building their own structures, making their own art, cooking their own food, fixing their own art cars, inviting in friends and neighbors, and generally creating community. The people in the plug and play camps may not “get” it, and I sincerely believe they are missing out, but I’ve yet to hear a convincing argument about how their marginal existence fundamentally detracts from the overall vibe of the city. If anything, it serves as a useful counterpoint for newbies to see what it looks like to depart from the 10 principles.

Another, perhaps deeper critique is that Burning Man is out of step with our political moment, a world on the verge of ecological collapse. I am sympathetic to this viewpoint, but the thing is, Burning Man, in my experience, has never been particularly political. It has always been a fossil fuel powered orgy of creative expression that doesn’t have much to say about politics or political engagement.

Don’t get me wrong, I think that’s far from ideal. Burning Man should think much harder about how to promote ecological sustainability, and I can imagine a future in which everyone turns their art cars electric and figures out how to do fire art with bio-gas. But the truth is, the festival has always been more escapist and utopian than it is serious about overturning the dominant political and economic paradigm. Indeed, Burning Man seems only possible in a late capitalist society where technologically-adept elites have leisure time and excess capital available to throw the most amazing, creative, and difficult-to-organize party in the world.

And the creativity continues to be off the charts. It’s not worth wasting words here describing the unimaginable creations that dot every inch of the playa. If you have any doubts, just check out the pictures.

But if Burning Man was just about cool sculptures, impressive art cars, and amazing outfits, then it wouldn’t be that interesting to me. It’s also about building a city with a different set of norms, where giving is the currency, creativity the common bond, and openness the expectation. I’m sorry, but if people who have been in the last few years think that is no longer the case, I don’t know what city they were hanging out in. For my money, the Playa still provides.

Here’s one small story about what that looked like last year. On the day of the burn, I headed out on my bike to give a message to a friend. Coated with a week of dust, my creaky bike started to give out half way, the chain had fallen off and I couldn’t fix it. But I would not be deterred! So I found a random camp of people I didn’t know and asked if I could borrow one of their bikes. They said sure, and off I went. I came back 30 minutes later, message delivered. In the time I was gone, someone in the camp had taken the time to fix my bike. And I wasn’t even surprised. Because that is the culture of Black Rock City.

Here’s another story from last year. That same day, while I was biking cross playa, my camp mate spent the afternoon baking dozens of chocolate chip cookies (yes, we had a solar-powered oven). When I came back to camp and saw them, I thought to myself — that is way too many cookies, we don’t need all of those. Fast forward 10 hours. The sun is rising. We are at the far edge of the festival in our art car. A girl from our camp is playing piano and singing a haunting cover of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” through our huge speakers with a voice that would make you melt even if you hadn’t been up all night. My camp mate saw her moment. She grabbed the cookies, walked off the car, and started handing them out to the dozens of people listening to this impromptu concert. I don’t know if she planned it or not, but it sure felt right. That is the culture of Black Rock City.

Because I can’t resist, here’s one last one. Friday afternoon last year. I head out in a dust storm with two camp mates because one of them thinks that would be a fun time (it’s not). We seek shelter behind a small sculpture where I find a girl with a knapsack. In it is a plastic ukelele and melodica. We get to talking and she explains that she carries these instruments around because they are cheap and hard to break, and pretty much everyone can play one or the other. It becomes clear that what she wants is to have a little jam and that this is basically what she does at Burning Man. I ask her to remind me of a few chords on the ukelele, I begin to strum, and she plays a haunting little melodica melody along. We play for a few minutes, she thanks me, and heads on her way. I will almost certainly never see that girl again. But I will never forget our little duet. Because that is the culture of Black Rock City.

I could assail you with dozens of other stories like this, and so could other attendees. Each of them on their own is a thread of goodness. But together they form a tapestry that is unmistakable, it depicts a city that continues to live by a different set of rules, where giving is the currency, creativity the common bond, and openness the expectation.

It may be that this whole argument comes down to a question of viewpoint, and where you fall says more about who you are and your history than what’s actually going on. But I think the right way to think about this is the martian test (h/t to Dan Carlin, my favorite podcast host, for this one). If you took a martian, dropped them in Black Rock City, and asked them for a report back, what would they recount. Would they tell you about how Turnkey camps have robbed the spirit of the place, or how there are too many frat bros, or how the celebrities have turned the place into Times Square? Or would they tell you stories like mine?

People have been writing Burning Man’s obituary since it began. A friend who has never been told me he was offered tickets in 2001, but had heard that it was “so over” by then, so he didn’t go. He’s still never been, and every year I tell him, it’s not too late. The city may have changed, but its core stays the same.


42 comments on “Burning Man Critics Miss The Point

  1. For all of the “good” stories that happens on the playa, there are plenty of “bad” ones too; doesn’t really proof anything either way. Sexual attacks, violence, theft; like even this year where a vehicle was stolen in one camp and driven a few blocks where it was crashed into parked vehicles in another camp and even flipped upside down. How does that even happen with such a strict speed limit? In 2011, I witnessed a guy choke and beat his girlfriend across the way in another camp. He only stopped when his camp mates interceded on her behalf and she took off running for safety. It’s not all flowers and rainbows out there on the playa.

    These kinds of things are going to happen in a city of 70,000 people that are cracked out from a week of partying too much and not sleeping and eating enough. Of course, it is also easy to bury one’s head in the sands of the playa and pretend that nothing bad happens; but that’s really doing a disservice to fellow Burners who may need to recover from one of these negative situations. Conversely, plenty of good things happen in actual cities too; just the other day I was gifted a free car wash. Also doesn’t prove that I live in a city that is any better than any other city or BRC.

    Regardless, the question was asked “I don’t think these camps had much of an effect on the average person’s experience at the festival”. Perhaps not, however, there is certainly an indirect effect on the experience of those Burners which are being employed as paid staff to serve their guests for defined work shifts vs those which are openly gifting of their time and energy; interactions with people coming from those different perspectives will have a very different feel. And there are definitely more cargo-short wearing, photo taking Disneyesque spectators roaming around the playa than I had seen in years past.

    But I think there is an even greater effect on the average person’s experience from the higher percentage of virgins than in years past since virgins are less capable of providing those Burner experiences that were more prevelant when there were mostly veteran Burners and camps in attendance. I think this explains why there is more of a focus on the larger brand camps ( much like big corporations in the real world ) which have a larger word of mouth following vs the more unique smaller camp experiences which seem harder to find each year.

    • Good points, particularly the collateral impact.

      The Borg seems to think that having more virgins will “spread the word,” or maybe just expand their market. That is just further evidence of their missing the point as far as the burn experience. When I was going, I learned a lot from the veteran burners, and spent a lot of time teaching the virgins. (No, walking into my camp and offering to trade me a warm beer for a cold beer is not cool.) At some point you lose the critical mass of veterans, and the virgins move the spiritual center of the event. I would say that point has clearly passed. Unfortunately, the virgins, one the whole, are not people I would care to spend time with.

      Some time ago the Borg, faced with a ticket sellout, could have grandfathered previous ticket buyers, and let the veterans define the event by being there or choosing who should have their ticket. That was not to be. Instead, they figured they knew who should come to BRC. Just like choosing a BoD that does not represent the burners. The NV burn has turned into what the Borg created, which is not what the burners created years ago – something they refuse to acknowledge. It is something I would not attend even with a free ticket. I now feel safer at my default world home.

      I have learned a lot from my Burning Man experience, but it was from the burners, not the Borg.

      • Just imagine how cool it would be if you had to find a burner to get a ticket!! It would follow the pre-sellout model, which was largely under the radar, attended by people who were invited by other burners. At least that’s how it was for me. The “secret” was to use the web to type in “burningman.com,” and you could get the cheaper first-tier tickets if you logged in early. …Those were the days.

          • The airfare to “walk down Haight Street” to buy a ticket would be about the price of a VIP ticket this year. One year I was in SF and stopped by a hat shop (for a BRC hat) – they had tickets but were sold out. We joked about how the organization would never run out of tickets to sell with all that space.

      • In the view of Burners, the event is the point. A temporary city we all make together, at our expense.

        From the point of view of BM founders, the “transformative experience” is the point. A self service cult, wash your own brain (Larry). A machine that has hardware and software and they tweak it and people go through it and emerge with a different personality (Danger Ranger). They’re not about money – they’re about transforming people into a Changing Image of Man, aligned with their collectivist goals. “Think with the group, don’t question authority”

  2. Thanks to everyone for your thoughtful comments and nice compliments on the article I wrote. And thanks again to Burners.me for reposting it. I’ve learned a bunch hearing what folks have to say. I am less knowledgable than many in this community about the various political issues with the structure and decision making of BMORG (I’m studying up now). My point in writing this article was to give credit to the strength of the Burning Man community’s values and to reject what I see as some of the less thoughtful critiques. But I also applaud people that are pushing (constructively) for changes that preserve those values. I work in politics for a living and I firmly believe in speaking truth to power. I liked this quote from master sodium above: Those of us who speak out, and criticize the org, do so because we see what can come in the future if the current trends continue. So thanks again for the responses and dialogue. Hope to see you on the playa next year!

  3. Awesome comment, below, master sodium. And, kudos in regards of your post, Daniel, I am in agreement the heart of Burning Man, and the Burning Man community, is awesome.

    ‘Personally, I think those who say critics are missing the point of burning man, are missing the point of most critics. Sure, there are those who flat out attest burning man sucks now, but the majority of critics agree the community is awesome, and it is the org who has forgotton and/or stopped caring about the heart of burning man.’

    Most critics of the decisions of the three, or four, in near to total control of the BMOrg, whom make the decisions in a most top down manner, over a bottoms up crowd sourced event and community, care, very much, about the awesome heart of Burning Man. That is the rationale of why we are making attempts for decisions to be done for the benefit of the awesome Burner community, in the place of for the benefit of the desires of the three, or four, in near to total control. I have never criticized Burners whom contribute, or the Burning Man event, all Burners whom contribute are awesome, DPW, Gate, BRC Rangers, artists, mutant vehicle owners, theme camps whom contribute, and numerous others, and most of the ones labouring within the BMOrg, except of their rubbish social media pr crew.

    At present, there is an awesome opportunity for change. The rubbish Burning Man Project bylaws permits near to total control to the three, or four, in control of the Project, and of the BRC LLC, dba Burning Man, the Burning Man event. The Project bylaws, upon the Burning Man site, within 7:15 & Decommodification, state

    10. The Senior Executive Committee shall review and reassess the adequacy of these Bylaws every two years and propose changes, if any are needed, to the Board for approval.

    This is of the meaning of Larry, Marian, Harley, Danger Ranger, Will, and Crimson, are proposing changes, of the Project bylaws, towards the Project board at the next annual meeting of the Project board, of which, I am of the belief it is near to the Artuminal, within November. Larry desires numerous changes to the 10 Principles, within the bylaws, view the Burning Man Wikipedia page in regards of his desired changes, purposed to embrace Concierge camps within the event, and within their desired retreat.

    The difficulties are in regards of the awesome Burner community has no representation in the direction of Burning Man, or upon the decisions of the three, or four. Even the Project board does not possess proper oversight upon their decisions. This must change, purposed for the benefit of the Project, and of the awesome Burner community. Assimilation without proper representation is tyranny.

    My belief is the Project board must require changes, in this manner, within the Project bylaws. The few whom are doing the decisions know there are problems, and know changes must occur. The proper manner to do these changes is to permit the awesome Burner community proper representation within the Project bylaws, and, permit the Project board proper oversight upon the decisions of the few, and, proper input towards the decisions. And, no, solely an advisory committee of arse lickers is not proper representation.

      • I am incorrect in regards of the desired changes to the Ten Principles were priorly in the Wikipedia page, and the Ten Principles are solely Attachment A to the Project bylaws, I did not verify in a proper manner. ‘This Principles contains content that is written like an advertisement’ by their PR crew.

  4. What do I think? I think Burners.me has become a worthless pile of shit, accept for this article, which was spot on, and well written.

  5. Great post. Totally agree about the turnkey camps having no effect on our burn. If anything they always provide for a good chuckle when you see the group of kooks riding segways with similar outfits on and iPhones in hand.

  6. Personally, I think those who say critics are missing the point of burning man, are missing the point of most critics. Sure, there are those who flat out attest burning man sucks now, but the majority of critics agree the community is awesome, and it is the org who has forgotton and/or stopped caring about the heart of burning man.

    Unfortunately, the Org does very little to support the countless numbers of people who dedicate so much time and money to make the event as desirable as it is. Little money, if any, is given to artists (except for the chosen few who always get decent grants) while artists are giving up their intellectual property rights to the org just to display their creations. Long time, massively popular camps/art cars are thrown to the curb at the whim of the org, dpw deals with increasingly deplorable and dangerous working conditions, and dedicated burners have more and more difficulty obtaining the coveted golden tickets to bring the very things which make the event what it is. While all that is going on, it seemingly becomes easier for the rich and affluent to obtain high cost tickets, come in with little contribution, and popularize radical spectation of this week in the desert, all in the name of doing the hip thing.

    Sadly, when these complaints are voiced to the org, little to no action is taken to support the most important contributors. In the best scenarios, we receive silence, followed by lies regarding action, followed by restatement of rules disguised as action, quickly followed by the latest propaganda piece to show how cool the event still is. In the worst case scenarios, those who speak up are slandered, doxed, outed, and ridiculed, then blamed for the problems they speak of, not just by the org, but by the community as well. Time and time again we are shown the org is only concerned with problems which affect their bottom line, their street cred, and their intellectual property.

    I see the org is trying to build the non-profit burning man project. Granted, I don’t see much actually happening other than taking credit for others hard work, but I do know they need money. Honestly, from a business standpoint, it makes sense to attract those with large amounts of money, looking for tax deductible donations to make. I’d rather focus on gaining donations from wealthy investors rather than broke-ass hippies, ravers, and others like myself. Invitations for high profile speakers, no visible action taken to stop the entitlement vacation packages (with included ticket), and never ending press coverage by fashion and business outlets all point to a possible attempt to attract a higher tax bracket attendee.

    Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with anyone attending, regardless of their wealth, or lack thereof. I only want their attendance to be accompanied by a desire to understand and participate in our culture. I see so many pictures of celebrities and such, happy to show off their desert-chic outfits, but not of them working on their contributions. These people are obviously vanity driven enough to post many times about themselves, so why so few posts about pitching in, working hard to create the absurdly improbable? Likely because they were more concerned with looking cool, than participation.

    I do understand the entitlement campers are still a small minority of the event, for now. Those of us who speak out, and criticize the org, do so because we see what can come in the future if the current trends continue. We love this event, this community, this creative mecca so much, it pains us to watch our counter-culture become slowly diluted into pop-culture, while the org does so little to support what they claim to be about. Sure, burning man was fun last year, this year, next year. When, though, will it be, where the majority of the contributing burners have been weeded out because they can’t afford the high price pre sale tickets and even higher priced entitlement camp fees, and what’s left is an event full of tourists taking their glamour selfies to post on instagram with miles of hashtags? Do you want to cry foul after the event has lost its heart, or should we all raise our voices now, before the magic is gone?

    • very well said. Particularly:

      “In the best scenarios, we receive silence, followed by lies regarding action, followed by restatement of rules disguised as action, quickly followed by the latest propaganda piece to show how cool the event still is. In the worst case scenarios, those who speak up are slandered, doxed, outed, and ridiculed, then blamed for the problems they speak of, not just by the org, but by the community as well.”

      In just the past 24 hours, I have been blamed for promoting plug-n-plays and blamed for criticizing plug-n-plays. One needs to look no further than the comments here from “kmpy” and “NotRich” – I get attacked for not posting enough positive articles; and then, when I do post a positive article, I get attacked again. Don’t these people realize that the decision makers are the ones creating the problems in our community, not those who question the decisions?

      • Screw positive. WTF is that for? Where is the obligation to be positive? That’s what the Borg boards are for. They have a Minister of Propaganda for chrissake.

        What you do is reporting what you know, and providing HELPFUL posts. Examples are the posts on dealing with LE, tickets, and such. If those were spun into “positive” posts, pushing that stance, why be here? …Gunning the Will Chase’s job?

        Look at the comments. They are what they are. The Borg cult sycophants and shills can come here, but their pot shots don’t have legs. Stay and discuss. Give conflicting information, with citations and links. Absent that, they only look like shallow unthinking fools.

      • Yeah, people sure love to hate you, don’t they Burnersxxx? You could probably hand them all tickets and they would find something wrong with it. I think you do a fantastic service to our community, and always enjoy your articles. Lots of time and research you put in for us.

        I knew the statement you quoted would resonate with you, since I see it happen time and again to you. Sad there are those in all levels of the burning man community who would rather attack others than just move on, or even better, do something to help the community in the direction they think is beneficial.

    • Thanks for this comment. Very thoughtful. Totally hear you on speaking out now about structural issues. I do think the community has such strong values that it will be hard to overcome. But I also know that nothing is constant and it’s important to be vigilant.

      • Thanks for your article as well. There is lots of good in the community, and it is nice to hear about good things, and remind ourselves why we enjoy the event. I certainly enjoy positive articles, as well as hearing ideas for improvement.

  7. Politics are the same the world over. They generally mean fuck all to a majority of citizens in every day life. People just… get on with life.

    You can be an activist, you can be an earnest mother fucker who knows best, you can be any of the myriad of politically inclined folk who want to imagine their opinion matters, but a majority of people just want to live.

    Burningman is just as effected by this totally scientific reasoning. {/genuine face emoticon}

    And to my eye at least, Daniel is writing something along those lines.

    Yes Burningman changes, yes the politics of organisation will be disagreed with, yes the cops acting like cursed earth judges is a bore, but the citizens of BRC will continue to have their own burn. And that’s what still makes it fun.

    Down with pants.

  8. I fucking love BM critics. More critics = less people going, less demand for tickets. Also – it always rains in Vancouver so don’t even think about moving here 😉

  9. tis but a small view but me thinks that it is alot more like this than not. Shit has changed for sure but it’s still full of similar stories.

  10. ‘Stasis’ is a form of evolution. The event is repetitive and ritualized. The Man burns on Saturday night or people go to real world jail. Burning Man 3.0 (make as much money as you can) is what it is. The time to cash-out in any way you can is here, and has been here for many years, since about 2005. It’s gone from a Temporary Autonomous Zone to simply a Temporary Zone.

    Your participation is de facto cooperation with the corporation that has done so much shit to so many people. When talking about principles, forget about the event’s so-called principles – what about your own personal principles? You should question your participation, and how that participation contributes to what is effectively the exploitation of the creative energy (time, money, blood sweat and tears) of the Bay Area and beyond.

    Basically, do something else, FFS! And I don’t mean the regionals.

    • That’s not what he is saying… he said the experience is fundamentally the same as it used to be and I have to agree. The purpose of the 10 principles was not to create a rigid system of dos and donts, but to set the stage for the completely random awesome creative things that seem to happen at burning man, an attempt to intellectualize the overall vibe of the event. Now perhaps they failed in that respect, perhaps the Borg and some rich folks have tread all over it all, but who the fuck cares… the event is still awesome and fun and most of the people that go “get it” without having to have the principles, much the way most people get the “dont kill eachother” thing without requiring the 10 commandments.

      • So then define a “burner”…And if you dont abide by the 10 principles (I am not saying they are the end all be all), isnt BM just another rave in the desert?

        • I don’t have a definition for burner or burning man. I just go there and I experience cool stuff that inspires me to do similarly cool stuff for others. I’ve never referenced the 10 principles to guide me, I just reference the experiences Ive had.

          • Exactly. But when other preach the principles and constantly break them, that is what I have an issue with. Not “burners” or “BM” itself. It is the hippocracy of it all…

            Go have fun and party in the desert. That is all that BM represents now, a party in the desert. Whether that is good or bad is subjective. Sure many good people/artists get exposure and wonderful ideas are shared but that happens all the time, BM just happens to be one of the largest parties.

            I am not saying BM is a bad thing, I just call it what it is. A rave in the desert

          • That is the problem. The 10 principles used to be the heart of BM and the fact that you just said you never referenced the 10 principles to guide you proves my point.

          • The principles were not the basis for the culture, it was just Larry penning what he saw were the themes of the culture in 2004 (like 15+ years after BM started). He did so only in an effort to support the regional network expansion, not to start a religion or help guide the NV event. It didn’t need guidance, it was doing just fine. What do you think people did before the magical principles were laid down? They just went and partied with their friends and made new friends and had these spontaneous, really creative experiences that inspired them all to come back the next year and co-create the experience with everyone else. This is exactly what happens now.

            To be clear, I don’t go there to just party and listen to EDM, nor does anyone I know… that’s not what I reference from my experiences. I reference the cool people I met, the creative things they did, and the random awesome crazy spontaneity of the whole thing. So I’d appreciate it if you read my comments and respond to their points rather than making assumptions about me and going in for a personal attack.

            As far as the Borgs actions these past few years, I see it as more of 3 stooges style tomfoolery rather than a conspiracy. Lost in the winds of sudden popularity and increasing political visibility, the Borg have chosen to focus on painting a pretty picture of the event rather than listening to and developing the community. This has led to a variety of actions and inactions that have made us all shake our heads in wonderment. Does it need to change? Absolutely. But I think it has had limited impact on the overall culture of BRC which still retains its magic.

          • I just re-read Brian Doherty’s excellent book “This Is Burning Man”. It was first published just before Larry came up with the principles. It kind of builds the case for them, even suggests a few. Even “immediacy”, the 10th element that Lazza supposedly came up with overnight when the rest of BMOrg thought 9 wasn’t enough. Recommended reading for any students of this culture.

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