From Radical to Routine: Chapter 5

Burning Man: Still Subversive or Sold Out?

2011-2014: A Sold Out Event

Due to environmental and other regulatory concerns, the Federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) dictates how many Burning Man tickets are issued each year. In 2011, these tickets sold out for the first time, with over 55,000 tickets issued at prices ranging from $190-390. Every year since has continued to sell out; the 2015 event sold out in 40 minutes, with many ambitious attendees complaining of missing out on tickets even though they were online and attempting purchase as soon as sales opened. Demand is outstripping supply, and as the Burning Man community grows amidst the event’s federally mandated population constraints, the Burning Man organization is appropriately placing more emphasis on outreach groups and decentralized versions of community gatherings and endeavors. However, the Ten Principles of Burning Man are now being tested as the culture’s stated ideals meet constraints in practice.

‘Radical Inclusion’, one of Burning Man’s Ten Principles, is defined as “Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community”.[1] No prerequisite except a ticket, that is. In 2012, the BLM increased the allowed occupancy for the event to 60,000, and event organizers attempted to remain true to the group’s values by developing a strategy for how to handle the rightly expected onslaught of demand for tickets to that year’s event. Their answer to Radical Inclusion amongst an economy of limited supply and unlimited demand was a lottery.

The announcement of the process of random selection and distribution of tickets sparked a whole lot of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory references, controversy, conversations and media coverage, which all ultimately resulted in a massively inflated increase in demand for tickets. Many suspect much of this apparent demand may have been industrious scalpers and people padding their odds of ‘winning’ tickets with extra entries with family, friends and dogs’ details rather than an actual 250% increase of ‘burners’ or community members wanting to attend the 2012 event.

Two weeks out from the 2012 event, there were a lot of tickets being sold and traded online, but for an event that takes a whole lot of planning even just to attend and survive (let alone put together a few-hundred strong and amazing theme camp or radically modified vehicle or other art to share), it was too late for many to get themselves an their creative, survival and logistical resources together (and time off work etc.) to attend. The lottery system allocated access to only portions of many teams that work together to create immense offerings to the event, putting a great deal of social strain on subgroups and teams and demanding a lot of attention and care from Burning Man organizers as they responded to ticket pleas and tried to keep the city intact.

The inadvertent shredding of the Burning Man community’s social fabric, plus the rampant community backlash to the lottery system resulted in it being scrapped for the 2013 event and tickets have been allocated via the following streams since then:

  • In January, 4,000 Pre-Sale tickets are available for a premium price of $800. This elevated price helps to fund the application-based low-income ticket (4,000 tickets at $190) program, which is evidence of the Burning Man organization’s commitment to Radical Inclusion.
  • In February, a Directed Group Sale offers 20,000 tickets to major theme camps and known groups and entities that bring a great deal of life to Black Rock City for $390.
  • Then 40,000 tickets are sold via the Individual Sale which opens two weeks later as a ‘survival-of-the-quickest’ affair.
  • And finally, 1,000, $390 tickets are sold in August in the OMG Sale.[2]

Burning Man 2011 was my first year at Burning Man and I continued to attend the event for each of the next three years. I had no problem getting tickets; in 2012 I easily purchased a ticket in the Individual Sale, a friend gave me the gift ticket he was allocated as a Burning Man Regional Contact in 2013, and in 2014 I was granted entry as a ‘gift’ ticket in response to the hours of volunteer work I did for the organization’s Centre Camp clean-up crew the year before. In 2014, I volunteered for the Gate and Perimeter crew and earned a ticket for the 2015 event which I did not use.

Tom Price has strong feelings on the Burning Man organization’s approach to the event’s apparent supply and demand discrepancies, as do many other Burning Man participants. Though he recognizes that he “will never buy another ticket to Burning Man. I will call Marian, or my wife will call Marian, and she will give me one. It’s not an issue for me,” as he puts it, “but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that Burning Man [the organization] has become such an institution it is no longer able to differentiate between its interests and the interests of the community it serves.”[3]

Price sees that the current structure, most especially the Directed Group Sales, is not transparent enough. “The system is structured to incentivize wealthier people attending. Unless you’re tapped on the shoulder and invited to the secret Direct Sale process. You’re fucked. Period,” he says.[4]

The issue is that access is most strictly limited for those who want to attend but do not have either the financial or social capital to be in the echelons of the chosen contributors (Directed Group Sale) or the rich (Pre-Sale and/or hiked up scalper ticket) insiders. “It’s the thousands of people who camp with 30 people but only got five tickets and are having to decide if they’re going to go this year. Or they wait and hope and pray that they might get in later. But even if that happens they don’t have the time nor the emotional commitment [to make a great contribution],” says Price.[5]

Chris Cohen, beer aficionado, San Francisco resident and entrepreneur spoke with me about his frustration with trying to get a ticket to his third Burning Man in 2015. “I didn’t get a ticket during the general sales… I mean, I’m sure I’ll be able to turn up tickets somewhere but it’s pretty frustrating… I feel like a sucker. I feel like I followed their directions and I was on the site at noon on the dot, as soon as tickets went on sale and I still didn’t get a ticket.”[6] More than just limiting people’s access to attending the event, the ticketing scarcity seems to limit people’s contributions to Black Rock City too. “The thing is, I’m supposed to mayor my camp… I’m not going to put effort into that shit if I don’t know I can go,” said Cohen.[7] In our personal interview, I suggested he could volunteer for the Burning Man organization (like I have) to earn a guaranteed ticket each year. “I thought about doing that too. But what I wanted to do was contribute through my camp, not just work for the Org,” replied Cohen, again demonstrating that participants’ commitment to creative contributions to Black Rock City may be sacrificed in order to secure access to the event. However, it may be said that frustrations like Cohen’s may drive more energy into the growing Regional Network of local events. “Since not getting a ticket on Wednesday and it now being Sunday, I have wondered if I could just go to a bunch of other regional events and not fucking worry about Burning Man. I’m definitely into that,” Cohen said.[8]

Nick Martin arranged to bring his parents and partner to Burning Man 2015, but this was not without dissatisfaction with the ticketing process too. Martin and his partner went to KiwiBurn, Blazing Swan (Western Australia Burning Man regional event) and Burning Man in 2015, “We’re going this year, my partner and I, but this should be my last year going to the big one [Burning Man],” said Martin.[9] “It was an emotional rollercoaster just trying to get tickets and that’s fucked up. It feels to me like it’s going away from what it should be. Like people are paying thousands of dollars online for tickets and I think it’s ridiculous. And finding out that programmers were able to buy tickets minutes before everyone else… Like we were there, we were ready and we were in line for 30 seconds since it’s up and we still didn’t get tickets,” Martin echoes Cohen’s experience.[10] Martin was particularly stressed about getting tickets due to the extra expenses and logistics necessary to make it to the event from Australia, plus he was planning to propose to his partner and wanted to share this special experience with his parents too. Again, like Cohen, Martin is considering focusing on the regional events closer to his chosen home, “The real burn [Burning Man] is a big crazy experience and it’s amazing. But I think it’s very, it’s very much impersonal at the same time… Regionals for sure, I’d love to do at least one regional a year.”[11]

Price, Martin and Cohen describe an individually felt social stress of inability to secure access and therefore the capacity to fully participate in the culture and community of the Burning Man event, resulting in possibly less grand or expansive experiences on offer to share at the event. Exacerbating this dilution of shared experience, Price describes the wider social effect of ‘tourism’ that the ticketing situation seems to suggest. “It’s incentivizing evermore participation by the wealthy and the tourists who come and hire camp Sherpas to create their experience for them,” [12] says Price, I would add that the ‘tourists’ Price mentions may also be joined by those who secure tickets late in the game and therefore do not have many resources to put towards their contributions on the playa. “And then they go out and consume the sponsored, official, approved art,” concludes Price, revealing his concern about the sanitization and commodification of the entirety of the event.[13]

With what may be considered widespread success of the event, it is clear that Burning Man is grappling with how to sustain/maintain and protect/evolve the culture of the event and community with so many new participants. The event and community’s dedication to decommodification, and valuing experience and interaction as paramount to consumption and transactions, is being particularly challenged. The “commodification of identities and traditions” that, according to Clifford is, “integral to a late-capitalist or post-modern world system of cultures”[14] characterizes the mainstream culture that surrounds this subculture and affecting it. It is certain that the culture of Burning Man cannot be sustained; it must evolve and change, and my personal experiences from within the community over the past four years testify that its culture, and cultural participants, are changing rapidly. As Clifford states, tradition may be “less about preservations than about transformative practice and the selective symbolization of continuity.”[15]

Conversation and consideration of the changing nature of the structure and contents of the Burning Man event are most obviously raised by the aforementioned ticketing issue, however concerns regarding the curation of the experience itself – the people present, the art, the inclusivity of experiences – are valid too. As the event has grown up and social structures have formed within it, examples of the hierarchical and commodified experiences common to everyday life are sneaking into it, and in not so subtle ways.

 

Commodification and Inclusion

In my view, the 2013 “Temple of Wholyness” project brought commodification to the experience of the playa in a few very clear ways.

At the 2013 Temple Burn, I noticed that there were two distinct lines of Black Rock City Rangers (the volunteer non-confrontational community mediators and safety officers) who were holding two distinct burn perimeters, one being roughly 150 feet closer to the Temple. I asked the Ranger who was closest to me to explain the situation. “Oh it’s a very expensive project and they had to do two Kickstarter campaigns,” she said. She rattled off all the numbers of how much the project cost and how much they had raised (over $100,000) and then said, “And these are the people that helped build the Temple,” referring to the major financial contributors and gesturing to the inner circle area I was peering into from the perimeter I was held at. I could not help but think, “Hey wait a minute, I helped build the Temple! I went and worked in Alameda with them!” Instead, I responded to ask, “Oh, so it’s a commodified space?” And the Ranger replied, “Yes, these are people who gave a lot of money.” Flying in the face of the Burning Man community principle of decommodification, the Temple of Wholyness’ Kickstarter page, lists the following experiences as ‘rewards’ for financial contributions to the crowdfunding campaign: Pledges above $1,000 could be rewarded with access to the Temple Builders’ crew area for the Temple Burn, contributions over $500 could receive a “Kitty Cat Car Joy Ride with the Temple artists” and tour of the Temple on Playa, and 21 pledges of $300 or more signed up to receive “an invitation to a soiree with the Temple artists at the Golden Cafe, the oldest camp in the Black Rock French Quarter. You will be treated to a delectable meal paired with fine spirits, as well as a special absinthe tasting, while enjoying wonderful live entertainment. Enjoy conversation and share stories with the Temple builders in an intimate gathering.”[16]

This is an example of what I like to call “pre-commodification”, or the negotiation of the community ideal of decommodification by shifting the capitalist exchange to simply occur earlier, rather than not at all. Pre-commodification at Burning Man was not introduced by the Temple of Wholyness’ fundraising approach – it has been happening since crowdsourcing started – however, the commodification of the experience of such a central element of the event, that the Burning Man organization was very aware of, seems to indicate an institutional acceptance of this type of activity, or at least intentional oversight for certain inner-circle community members.

“Something snapped when it was being able to buy the experience on playa – like an art car ride,” comments Andie Grace, former Burning Man Communications Manager and Regional Network Manager and participant since 1997.[17] “That is a big fat nose in the tent; the camel got his whole head in there at that point,” she says, “because it’s one step away from the whole place being littered with those experiences, and then you and I, walking in brand new who didn’t know about donating to all of things because we’re new here and we just decided to go,[we] are shut out of every place you walk up to.”[18] It is this exclusion that is opposition to the supposed community Principle of Inclusion, and therefore that threatens the sustainability of the culture and the experience of communitas at Burning Man.

 

Commodification, Participation and Communitas

Practices of exclusion and VIP areas undermine the experience of equality and namelessness that is inherent to the experience of communitas. Similarly, a focus on consumption of experience, over creation of experience and common endeavor, may also be eroding the prevalence of this potentially transformative experience of deep connections with others.

“In the early years of Burning Man, a lot of the fun was the building of the projects in the desert – it wasn’t a showcase. The administration now tries to make sure the show is good when the gate drops on Monday,” said Mason.[19] “Burning Man was a possibility engine. It wasn’t about who makes great art, it was that everyone is making art. That’s the greatest thing,” concurred Rinaldi.[20] And discussing what worked in the counterculture groups he was a part of, Law said, “In the Suicide Club and in later groups, we were agreeing with a group of people to do something, often that we were not supposed to do, or that has some danger involved in it. So… [we were] doing something in concert with a group of people that depend[ed] entirely on one another.”[21] This sense of interdependence, coupled with the shared commitment to a co-created alternate reality is communitas.

 

For an emerging social movement, a primary challenge is letting those who are looking for this alternative narrative know that it exists. Well, the Burning Man cat is well out of the bag. Somewhat ironically, a subsequent difficulty is the incorporation issue of ‘free riders’; people following along and consuming the contributions of others rather than making offerings of their own to the collective experience. “There is concern that rich people form insular communities [in Black Rock City] that block others out and go against what Burning Man is all about,” Doherty told me.[22] While this is not new, the prevalence of this attitude and its effects on the cultural experience of Black Rock City is growing. Doherty notes, “The confluence of the event and tech money is an old story… instead of someone coming in with their own stuff, these people who are really rich, pay other people to show up with a nice trailer and cook their food for them, it does happen. What is new though is these guys are so rich now, they’re realizing they don’t have to rough it at Burning Man.”[23] This demand is rapidly being met by supply. The market for on-playa experiences has been tapped by entrepreneurs such as companies that deliver and set up yurts with swamp coolers, deliver fresh fruit and vegetables, pump septic tanks, and of course, the ‘turn-key’ camps.[24]

For some time, Burning Man community members have been wary of the sense that the experience of Burning Man and the community itself are being sold for the entertainment or consumptive participation of others. In 2014, a Change.org petition to “End the commodification of Burning Man by for-profit camps” was launched in response to the proliferation of ‘turn-key camps’ (camps that provide all your Burning Man needs, for a fee).[25] In September 2014, it was revealed that a Burning Man board member was the head of Caravancicle, a now notorious Burning Man 2014 camp that was outed for providing paid ‘Sherpa’ staff ($180/day), full-camp set up with privately shared areas, food, drink, beautiful company, transportation and costumes to paying ($16,500/person) camp members while shutting out others.[26] The fact that a Burning Man board member apparently skirted the community’s defining principles in favor of providing a most excellent ‘pay to play’ party, calls the organization’s commitment to these defining principles into question, along with the rationale for appointments of board members.

As an experiment in social and cultural creation, it is disappointing to see evidence of Burning Man capitulating towards the conventional value systems that herald the rich and powerful.[27] Are these paying players members of the community too, or do they define the initial territorial claims of capitalist consumer culture within Black Rock City? In either scenario, it is metaphorically and culturally appropriate that the known ‘turn-key’ camps are given official placement at the edges of the city.

In 2000, Brad Wieners of Wired Magazine said,

Here’s where I think commerce will play in, [it] will be the package holiday. Stuart Brand [founder of the Global Business Network and the Long Now Foundation, and associate of Ken Kesey], I sent him a note, because he and the Global Business Network were looking at bringing executives out [to Burning Man] to ‘rock the zeitgeist’, by which I mean bring people who want to understand the mindset of young people today. ‘Where are their minds at? Well here’s your chance to find out. Come out to Burning Man.’ It’s almost a reverse of Ken Kesey’s bus, instead of taking the freaks to the suburbs in the bus, this would be going to the suburbs, loading up the bus, bringing them to the freak out.[28]

 

Others are interested in attending Burning Man to learn from the culture on display, so what of these researchers, gawkers, tourists? As a participant who has taken field notes each year, I am mindful of this edge.

Many in the community complain about the increasingly apparent class divide in Black Rock City, and some, including Harvey, see it as simple “jealousy” of those who can afford to have these luxuries as part of their ‘radical’ Burning Man experience.[29] This faction suggests that there have always been all kinds of people at Burning Man, doing all kinds of things their own way, and that the growing reality of class on the playa should not be a big deal; “Just because somewhere there’s this wall of trailers with rich people, if you’re there to criticize and judge how other people are doing Burning Man, you’re missing it,” says Doherty.[30]

However, others point to the effect this dilution of communal experience has on the transformative potential of the experience; which is essentially the weakening of communitas.

Bob Putnam volunteered and worked to clean up Pearlington, MS after Hurricane Katrina January – April 2006 with Burners without Borders, a group of self-organized disaster relief workers that was born out of their shared experiences with having been to Burning Man. Regarding the turn key camps he says, “From my perspective of it anyway, the majority of the experience is to go out there and survive with no rules among a whole group of people… originally when it started you did the sweat equity, y’know that means you appreciated it. But now all of these people want to go in their RVs, with their personal cooks and everything else, and I can see how it can take away from someone [else]’s experience,” says Putnam. [31] These comments made me realize that it is not just the ‘tourist’ that is affected by this participation via consumption, but that even though I can choose to ignore, or may not even notice, the experiences of exclusion or elitism on the playa, the fact that it is there at all erodes our shared sense that we are all in this together; having others not playing along diminishes communitas.

 

Defining the Community

The difficulty in securing tickets, growth of attendance of regional events, and the debatable ‘participation’ of some who attend Burning Man, increasingly add up to mean that attending Burning Man does not it itself constitute community membership, and therefore begs the question of, what does?

Caveat Magister’s blog post is the best attempt to come to a clear description of what is means to call oneself a member of the Burning Man community that I have found. Caveat states that answering the question, ‘“What are the core beliefs that unite us?’ has now become one of some urgency [as] more new burners are coming in, fewer veteran burners can attend, and the nature of our community is at a crossroads.”[32] Referencing incomplete adherence to the Principles and examples of the radically different people, camps and activities one may find at the Burning Man event (i.e. Barbie Death Camp, hula hooping, Thunderdome) Caveat presents a community definition stating that the group is made up of action and personal experience, not words and descriptions, and is inherently independent, creative and messy. “First of all,” Caveat proposes, “we didn’t study up on the 10 Principles, or any other philosophy, and then say ‘Yes, this is for me’… We came because we heard people were doing amazing shit: and when we saw it we thought, ‘I could do amazing shit too,’ and then we changed our lives.”[33] Caveat goes on to say that this process of actions-followed-by-explanations is consistent with the way Burning Man evolved too.

It was only after Burning Man formalized and organized that the 10 Principles were developed as a way of trying to explain what the hell this is. They were supposed to be explanations, but in fact they are aspirations: the 10 Principles, loosely speaking, are our goals, not our commonality or raison d’etre. They’re things we strive to be, and admire when we see in others… but the Burn came first.  With Burning Man, the experience always comes first.”[34]

 

Despite having never been to Black Rock City, Putnam comments on what makes one a part of the Burning Man community, “It’s not about the fire and everything else, I mean that’s all small parts of it, but it’s about the survivalist [exercise] and the sweat equity and camaraderie.” It seems that even though Putnam did not share the experience and memories of Black Rock City with his fellow Burners in Mississippi, they shared a bond based on the extremity of their shared experience, their communal effort to not just survive, but thrive and their intense generosity and giving to others in a harsh environment that they sought to improve. Asking Putnam about his association with the term “Burner”, he responded, “I’m not into fire ritual and stuff like that… it burns more within me than I show, I guess.”[35]

 

“We’re united by our actions, rather than our motives, ideals, or thoughts,” Caveat continues, adding that a ‘Burner’ occupies a space of transformation that it invites but does not impose anything upon anyone else. Finally, the conclusion is: “To Burn is to act as an agent of possibility: creating a space where something amazing can happen, letting anyone join, and then cleaning up after it when it’s done.”[36] Following Caveat’s definition, it can be said that those who merely place themselves at Burning Man, but allow others to facilitate their actions and clean up after them, are not ‘burners’, but cultural tourists.

As a slight aside, tourists tend to visit places with good weather, and the surprisingly mild weather that Burning Man participants have enjoyed since 2011 may have something to do with the event’s popularity. Building upon Putnam’s discussion of the importance of “sweat equity” and common basic endeavor to define the experience of being a ‘burner’, Davis commented on the importance of the harshness of the playa environment for the creation of community. “One of the great things about Burning Man were these things you couldn’t control, like terrible weather… that meant you were going to confront things that were going to be challenging and that was part of it… this whole last period [Burning Man 2011-2014], you guys have not experienced the hard-ass motherfucking weather. It got nasty out there! And dangerous. It’s been weirdly clement,” Davis said.[37] In a personal interview, Burning Man satirist and long-term participant, Simon of the Playa, agreed that the effects of the physical environment provide an important intensity to the Burning Man experience, “That’s part of the experience; getting out of your comfort zone… the insecurity, the uncertainty of the desert and how it can just whip up and fuck your shit up really quick and you’ve got to be prepared for it. And then you have to deal with it afterwards and go on. I’ve had some of the best times during the middle of the shittiest weather at Burning Man.”[38] Finally John Law has expressed a similar sentiment on numerous occasions (while seamlessly including a commentary on today’s participants) with the quip, “It’s hard to be a poseur when all of your shit’s just been blown all down the playa.”[39]

 

Positionality

As Turner states, “Anthropology has historically developed as a discipline concerned with other peoples’ realities – the more different from our own, the better. It has been less interested, and less successful, in dealing with the ways its own reality – its activities, values and ideas – is affected by the contemporary world of which it is part,” indicating where the complementary field of Cultural Sustainability can add to cultural analysis.[40] Reflecting upon this scholarly and historical perspective, this exercise has been difficult for me as I have been dealing with a reality that is not at all different from mine, but only become more and more mine through the practice. I recognize the effect of nostalgia on my perceptions, while also reflecting upon very real changes in both the culture of Burning Man and my own positionality as I have become more familiar with the culture. To this point, Doherty says, “I’ve seen it grow from 4,000 to 70,000 and no matter how much it’s grown and changed, the core idea is very powerful and when it brings people in, I see it change people. It’s like Christmas; if you think Christmas sucks now, maybe it’s because Christmas when you were seven is different from Christmas when you’re 27. The magic is still there, and people who are new still feel it, if you feel like it’s not what it was, it’s more you than the event.[41] Building upon this apparently common metaphor for the magic and wonder of Burning Man, Simon dela Playa said,

When you’re a kid, that first Christmas, it’s phenomenal. It’s the best shit ever and then you get older and you realize there might be something up. Somebody is not telling you the whole story. And you see ribbons in the closet and possibly some wrappings… And then, you’re actually in on a joke. You’re telling your little brother, ‘Yo, Santa is coming down, you got to leave the cookies for this guy,’ and then it becomes almost like a ritual until you become disillusioned and you realize it’s full of shit, it’s for fourth-quarter sales. And then you became a parent and you have to put on a show. And when you watch your kid ripping at the paper –  that’s the moment you get it. So that’s why I bring virgins [to Burning Man] every year.[42]

So that’s why I purposefully interviewed participants who have recently joined the Burning Man community to round out my analysis of the current state of Burning Man culture.

Celanie Polanick attended Burning Man in 2014 and 2015 and we spoke in January 2015, before she had secured a ticket for that year’s event. She spoke of how her attendance the previous year was a result of the confluence of a surprise opportunity, impulsive decision making and lack of responsibilities. “Going to Burning Man [for the first time] was this last minute choice– it psychologically about taking a risk, to have faith in something being worth it even when that completely went against any values or ideas about what I should be doing with my time that I had been taught by authority figures,” Polanick said.[43] She continues to describe the impressions and affects this event had on her:

When I first got there, I thought the idea of being like, “welcome home” was really stupid. When I left, I thought about it and it made me cry. I understand completely now what this means.

To me, Burning Man is a temporary experimental society in which every factor that stops people from participating or being authentic is taken away, and every factor that causes greatly or exponentially encourages participation is exponentially increased. It is just built for people to come and do, not just ‘be’ but ‘do’. And, all they did was make a space where there were no rules stopping this from happening, and this is what, you know, happened…

I think that Burning Man takes the things you were afraid to know about yourself, the things you were afraid to want, the things you were afraid to do with your own life, and it gives you a week where that person is all you have. You don’t have to be somebody who has to do all the things that you’re already doing. All you have to do is explore and that experience is so freeing that a lot of people never look back. And I would say that I’m one of them because I haven’t. I’m a really different person, but I’m more me…

I think Burning Man is the most powerful medicine for people who are on the brink of doing something cool with their lives and aren’t doing it.[44]

 

Chris Cohen, another recent Burning Man enthusiast, attended Burning Man in 2013 and 2014. Cohen was involved in the electronic dance music scene in the early 1990s in Florida, and the community that is formed around immediate experience and expression that he has found within Burning Man is what attracts him to the culture. He told me that, “It [Burning Man]replicates the kind of fun stuff we used to do when we were a lot younger… I had a community like this and I did a thing like this once upon a time. And so, going to Burning Man felt like a mind blowing version of what I had experienced before, like taking it to a level so far beyond what I had dealt before but, in a way, feeling like I was coming home.”[45]

Cohen describes his impressions of Burning Man and comparisons with other festivals:

I definitely will never forget the first time I went on the Playa. It was just like ‘Holy Christ, what is happening here?!’And that moment blows away every festival I’ve ever been to, for sure.

You can go to any of these other big festival events but you pay a shitload for this experience and you will be entertained. And Burning Man is one of the only things I’ve ever been to where when I walked out there and I just looked around and I already understood how the economics of Burning Man worked. And I was just like, ‘Wow, all of this shit was made by these people? That is really ridiculous.’

The thing that blows me away the most is knowing that all that stuff is just made by the community; just people taking it upon themselves to do something that they thought would be fun, as opposed to being like, ‘I need to entertain a bunch of people. How do I do that?’

My immediate response to all that [commentary that Burning Man is not what it used to be] is just like, you know what, I went for the first time two years ago and it’s amazing. Yeah, it changes because it is an intense experience and it’s a time consumptive experience and a lot of people can’t do it every year and so the contributions naturally change.[46]

 

Nick Martin reflects Cohen’s comparative comments comparing Burning Man events to other festivals saying, “One thing I love about burns is that they’re so spontaneous. It’s not as like a music festival, [where] there’s no community. Everyone is out for their own, everyone is just getting drunk, or wants to see the show and they don’t even really realize there is 4,000 people around them.”[47]

Jamie McIver has participated in Burning Man annually since 2008 and has brought Burning Man virgins or newbies (including his stepfather in 2014) for most of those years. McIver talked to me about on his continuing commitment to being a part of Burning Man:

I actually remember arriving and the first time getting out on to the open playa. It was like ten thirty in the morning and I was with my best friend. We had driven all night to get there. We got our stuff sorted and went to look around and this giant silver spaceship passes us, and it’s blasting Biggie, and there are people dancing their faces off, and it’s heading out of the city, and I just looked and I was like, ‘What the fuck is going on here? This is fantastic!’

After that first year it [Burning Man] totally changed my perspective and I understood having been there, how valuable it was [to be there] and it became a priority. It became “Okay, I’m doing this and I’m going to build around it [Burning Man].” It’s continued to be that every year – I put it on my resume that it’s {Burning Man] something that I do so that any employer that I have knows that it’s something I am really planning to go and do.

Before I go every year I think to myself, ‘Well maybe, maybe after this one, I’ll take a break,” and then after each one, it’s like, ‘Oh I’m going back next year, that was so great.’ Every year I feel like it’s [Burning Man] just evolved for me so much.

To me, it’s a celebration of things that I value… I think it [Burning Man] is an extreme expression or celebration of a way of seeing the world, and of interacting with people and other cultures and forming community. I feel like I am really lucky to be able to be part of something that creates so much joy, learning, expression and connection. That’s kind of what it’s all about; getting to be a part of creating that and doing that with other people.[48]

 

According to Wagner, the fieldworker’s invention is “a kind of metamorphosis, an effort of continuous, ongoing change in our culture’s forms and possibilities… the culture we live is threated, criticized, counter-exemplified by the culture we create.” [49] This supports the common Burning Man participant’s experience of personal questioning and redefinition and performance of and addition to the culture of the Burning Man community; it seems to me that most Burning Man participants practice fieldwork, knowingly or not.

[1] Burning Man, Ten Principles

[2] Burning Man Project. Tickets. http://tickets.burningman.org/ Accessed 15 September 2015.

[3] Price, Personal Interview

[4] Price, Personal Interview.

[5] Price, Personal Interview.

[6] Chris Cohen, Personal Interview, 22 February 2015

[7] Cohen, Personal Interview.

[8] Cohen, Personal Interview.

[9] Nick Martin, Personal Interview, 23 February 2015

[10] Martin, Personal Interview

[11] Martin, Personal Interview.

[12] Price, Personal Interview

[13] Price, Personal Interview.

[14] Clifford, Taking Identity Politics Seriously, 101

[15] Clifford, Taking Identity Politics Seriously, 100

[16] The Connection Crew, The Temple 2013 – Burning Man. 13 April 2013,  https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/oticoasis2011/the-temple-2013-burning-man-0/description Accessed 24 December 2015.

[17] Andie Grace, Personal Interview, 6 September 2013

[18] Grace, Personal Interview

[19] Dust and Illusions

[20] Wieners, Hot Mess

[21] Law, Personal Interview

[22] Doherty, Personal Interview.

[23] Doherty, Personal Interview.

[24] In 2012 -2014, I was involved with a camp that received fresh fruit and vegetable delivery. In 2014, I camped with a couple who had a yurt and cooler delivered, set up and packed up and taken away for them. That year I also camped next to a group that had a personal chef/cleaner who set up their camp and decorated their bikes before they arrived, after which he prepared and cleaned up after all of their meals.

[25] Benjamin Kloetser, End the Commodification of Burning Man by For-Profit Camps, Change.org. (2014). https://www.change.org/p/black-rock-city-llc-end-the-commodification-of-burning-man-by-for-profit-camps?javascript=false

[26] Felix Gilette, “The Billionaires at Burning Man”, Bloomberg Business. 6 February 2015. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-02-05/occupy-burning-man-class-warfare-comes-to-desert-festival

[27] Questioning the value of the ‘inclusion’ and ‘participation’ that these groups bring to the shared Burning Man experience, and discussing the various ways in which people may participate in the experiment is an important conversation and could make up an entire thesis, thus this is all I will say in this piece of work.

[28] Brad Wieners quoted in Silver, Burning Man: Community of Chaos?

[29] Larry Harvey, Personal Conversation, A Night at Burning Man event, 23 July 2013

[30] Doherty, Personal Interview

[31] Putnam, Personal Interview.

[32] Caveat Magister, Who the Hell Are Burners

[33] Caveat Magister, Who the Hell Are Burners.

[34] Caveat Magister, Who the Hell Are Burners.

[35] Robert Putnam, Personal Interview

[36] Robert Putnam, Personal Interview.

[37] Erik Davis, Personal Interview

[38] Simon of the Playa, Personal Interview, 26 February 2015

[39] Law, Personal Interview

[40] Terry Turner, Anthropology as Reality Show, 15

[41] Brian Doherty, Hack, Triple J (ABC Radio)27 August 2014, http://mpegmedia.abc.net.au/triplej/hack/daily/hack_wed_2014_8_27.mp3 Accessed 24 December 2015.

[42] Simon of the Playa, Personal Interview

[43] Celanie Polanick, Personal Interview 22 February 2015

[44] Polanick, Personal Interview.

[45] Cohen, Personal Interview

[46] Cohen, Personal Interview

[47] Martin, Personal Interview

[48] McIver, Personal Interview

[49] Wagner, The Invention of Culture, 11

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