From Radical to Routine – Conclusion

As demonstrated in the accounts above, the Burning Man experience is various and distinctive for each participant, each time. The Burning Man experience is also dynamic and changing because culture itself, our environment, and ultimately ourselves (as tools of interpretation) are changing. At a point, as happened for John Law and Paul Addis, the experience of Burning Man may no longer suit us, as individuals, or as a collective culture.

SantaCon: When Culture Jamming Goes Conventional

The trajectory of SantaCon may provide Burning Man with an extreme, though remarkably fitting, cautionary tale. Some San Francisco SantaCon participants took action to reclaim the intangible and invaluable spirit of “temporality” and “possibility” within their subcultural community event on December 13, 2014. In a Facebook post, Andie Grace described the intent of the happening:

For many years an event called SantaCon has grown from its roots as a culture-jamming gathering with roots in a rebellion against the consumerist nature of Christmas. 20 years later and having spread to many cities, it’s now the world’s biggest drunken costumed bar crawl… Which is fine, but not the Santa I knew back in the day, where the prime directive I enjoyed was interacting with the shopping public, not just getting so drunk you can’t stand up, vomiting in alleys in front of confused kids, and treating our city’s bartenders like Santa’s personal servants. As a cheeky performance antidote to it all, we conducted a funeral for Santacon right in the middle of the event yesterday, complete with a candy cane coffin marched around while a brass band played. [1]


I participated in the funeral event, excited to see how an event that had been completely taken over by the consumer culture it was initiated to challenge, could be reclaimed, or in this case, laid to rest.

Price, the man who was a part of leading Burners out of Black Rock City and into disaster areas to expand and share their creative and survival skills to support and assist communities in need, called the crowd to order to deliver the eulogy. “SantaCon was not originally an excuse to buy Santa suits and go on a bar crawl, it was an opportunity to comment on the fact that you cannot consume your way to happiness, and yet, in the way that capitalism always does it has turned this anti-capitalist event into yet another commodity to be consumed. And so we kill this consumer event so that another can rise from its ashes… We will come up with something new,” Price proclaimed.[2]

Like other now-annual cultural jamming events that have also been replicated in cities around the world (Brides of March, Iditarod, Salmon Run, Burning Man), SantaCon started as a Cacophony Society event. But, as the Daily Beast points out, “Most Cacophony events were one-off affairs, just enough to jam the culture a bit before moving on. The idea with SantaCon and most Cacophony events is not to demonstrate how to have fun and recruit people to repeat an established form of expression or fun, but to inspire others to create and share their own fun; to make up our own games, to share the authentic expressions that could only come from us.”[3] But even to Cacophonists, SantaCon was worth a repeat in San Francisco in 1995, and then when the pranksters decided to do it yet again in 1996, they took it to Portland. Then the next year to Los Angeles, and then New York where “they marched in front of the United Nations as representatives of the North Pole, holding signs to stop the Holly-caust.”[4]

SantaCon was originally intended to be a public and shared expression of independence from the mandates of consumerism. The game was to celebrate adolescent thrill-seeking and authority-questioning while playing with the sacrosanct – demonstrating that reality is suspect and therefore ready for the making, but the original anti-consumerism message and call to ridiculousness has been lost to result in SantaCon being perceived as nothing but a drunken mess. And simply by repetition, SantaCon itself became a tradition, an institution, disconnected from its origins and devoid of its inspiration. First it was disruptive, then it was derivative (SantaCons took place in almost 200 cities this year), and now, in the case of SantaCon (at least the 2014 event in San Francisco) it’s dead; the SantaCon Funeral happening turned the scrutiny of capitalist consumer culture that SantaCon was devised to express, back upon itself.

Newness, innovation and ingenuity are all, of course, impermanent. Therefore, for a culture that is based upon accelerating the evolution and audacity of human expression to remain true, it must constantly undo itself, applying the same irreverent irony and critical questioning it demonstrated towards dominant power structures and systems to that which becomes authoritarian within its own ranks.

As another SantaCon Funeral participant penned the following on their website,

The true crime against SantaCon is the lack of innovation. The entire message has been lost”. Explaining the actions of the funeral creators they write, “since we couldn’t expect anything new and creative from the current batch of Santas, we had to prank our own prank and put SantaCon someplace they can’t get to it. By declaring Santacon dead, we reclaim some of the overly congested bro-space and bring it out of the fog. Hopefully we’ve left a void that can be used for someone else to be creative, show initiative and develop something new. That’s the space we worked within for many years until we reached SantaCon’s cultural elastic limit. Maybe with a little wiggle room and a little less momentum, we might get to see something fun again. Bring it.[5]


Though a much less ambitious affair, the cautionary tale of incorporation and commodification of the once radically subversive SantaCon is fair to point out to those concerned with the cultural sustainability of Burning Man.

Carl Jung states, “We cannot change anything unless we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses,”[6] and I am inspired by this perspective for this work as I seek to cast a not just critical, but also constructive eye on the subject. Therefore, like the SantaCon funeral pranking of the prank, which not only keeps the game going, but gives it options for change and cultural sustainability too by bringing play back into the prank and calling for new platforms for public fun.

In a particularly pertinent expression of hundredth monkey effect, another example of cultural repossession also occurred in December 2014 in Germany. Like SantaCon, Berlin’s Kreuzberg murals were reclaimed when some of the artists that created them removed them from their impressive public presence by painting over them. Of this surprising act the artists said:

Seven years after the monumental wall pieces came into being, we felt it was time for them to vanish, along with the fading era in Berlin’s history that they represented. The murals took their involuntary place in this reality as a pilgrimage site of guided street art tours, as a photo opportunity for countless greeting cards, book covers and record sleeves. They found themselves to be their own biggest enemies, contributing to their own displacement. Gentrification in Berlin lately doesn’t content itself with destroying creative spaces. Because it needs its artistic brand to remain attractive, it tends to artificially reanimate the creativity it has displaced, thus producing an “undead city”. This zombification is threatening to turn Berlin into a musical city of veneers, the “art scene” preserved as an amusement park for those who can afford the rising rents.[7]


It may or may not be hard to apply the Kreuzberg mural artists’ explanations to Burning Man, but like the creative environment of Black Rock City, Berlin’s creative environment was an accident that can’t be replicated by others but could be considered to be threatened by a culture of consumption and fetishization.

2013: Cargo Cult – calling for creative leadership and cultural spread?

It is hard to get a read on what those in Burning Man’s leadership positions see as the appropriate role for themselves, and for Burning Man, at this point in the event’s experiment. However, I saw a clue in the 2013 “Cargo Cult” event theme. I believe this theme choice was a reference to this growing distrust of the authority of the event, from within the Burning Man community as well as mainstream observers. The Cargo Cult theme asked Burning Man participants new and old to reconsider and question the values, power and meaning they attribute to the event, its artifacts and its emerging mythologies. I believe the event’s leaders were asking participants to not cast them in the role of John Frum, the giver of pseudo-divine knowledge or practices, recognizing that they may offer distorted and novel ways of being and seeing by organizing the event, and highlighting that the magic or meaning of the traces left behind all come from the beholder, the participant, not the Man, the organization or the event itself. I suspect the organizers chose to highlight the concept of Cargo Cults at Burning Man 2013 as an attempt to inspire the community to not follow the precepts of Burning Man as the blindly faithful, but to practice the self-aware anthropology Wagner calls for.

The official explanation of the suggested inspiration point for art and experience at the Burning Man 2013 event includes the following:

Like the islanders, most of us are many steps removed from the cargo that entirely shapes our lives. We don’t know how it’s made, where it’s made, or how it works; all we can do is look beyond the sky and pray for magic that will keep consumption flowing… Burning Man is of course what one makes of it. So we must recognize that a few participants question the literal existence of John Frum. They believe that cargo culture is unsustainable; no deus ex machina descending from the sky can possibly provide consumers with relief. The only spaceship worth considering is planet Earth. Each and every one of us, it is held, must find our inner-Frum: the first step toward salvation is to give our gifts to fellow human beings.[8]


When I was in the chaos of the desert in August 2013, trying to make sense of not only the event’s theme but my role in the universe, I couldn’t work out who the Burning Man organization was casting into the roles of John Frum and Cargo Cult members? Were the event ticket holders the society of the future bringing a message of progress and evolution to a subsequently confused mainstream society? Or were event participants the ones that are confusing the message, attributing an inappropriate amount of power and prestige to the artifacts of selfishly flawed cultural missionaries (the organizers themselves)? Caveat Magister commented, “Judging strictly by the superficial, the difference between “Burning Man” and a “Cargo Cult” is the difference between ABC and CBS. They’re not the same thing, but a casual observer might never notice.”[9]

Clifford’s question, “How much hybridity can conventions accommodate without losing the ability to assert integrity of tradition?” [10] is just as applicable to this emerging culture’s rapid growth issue as it is to the issues of older more ‘traditional’ cultures it was presumed to be formed for. Questioning of the authenticity, integrity and proliferation of the culture of Burning Man are loudest from within the community. And just as the of new Burners are potentially changed and affected by experiencing and participating in Burning Man culture, it cannot be denied that the event and those who have been there longer are affected by the newbies too. This is reflected in Clifford’s statement that, “The relative dynamism and power of interacting local and global forces and the ultimate question of determination – who consumes whom – cannot be read off.”[11] Attempting to balance being overly diluted among a strong influx of new ideas, experiences and cultural invention and continuing to encourage a culture of questioning and redefining realities, the Burning Man organization has its work cut out for it. Never mind maintaining its subcultural definition and anti-establishment stance while becoming more and more an established power structure. “All global-systemic approaches run the risk of reductionism, where difference becomes merely derivative of, and contained by, structural power,” Clifford continues, and the Burning Man organizers, who believe that Burning Man and its culture are essentially important and invaluable, are worried about the culture and the leadership of the community being co-opted or incorporated into the currently dominant paradigm.[12]

The 2013 ‘Cargo Cult’ theme extends this by inviting participants to ‘threaten and criticize’ the Burning Man culture, traditions, beliefs, dogma and mythology in order to ensure the culture’s relevance and future by highlighting the essentially constructed nature of culture itself. This level of self-aware analysis is necessary for the dramatically changing culture’s sustainability or even future existence (there is a difference) but requires keen and critical attention. To conclude, I return to Caveat Magister’s discussion of this theme and the reflection of Burning Man and Cargo Cult cultures, “We can learn a lot from John Frum – but we have not earned the right to take his name in vain,” he writes before suggesting that the Burning Man community “look to Cargo Cults not as strange and silly religions, but as inspirations for what Burning Man is trying to become. Cargo Cults represent a profound cultural transformation that successfully saved those cultures. Isn’t that what so many of us want to do? Change the culture in order to save it?”[13]


Burning Without the Man

In 2011, Tom Price, co-founder of Burners without Borders (and Black Rock Solar, an outgrowth non-profit organization that installs solar energy systems in the event’s local area), explains how his organization builds upon this legacy, “What we’re creating is disruptive culture. We’re demonstrating the ability of really anybody to make real substantial concrete change in the world and do it from a values-based place, do it with a focus on the social, rather than financial, bottom line. And that’s destabilizing and it’s empowering.”[14] Then, in 2015 Price told me:

I’m going back [to the Burning Man event in 2015] to say goodbye. I don’t believe that the event is going to survive the way that things are happening to it, not in a way that is useful to me… I think that the character of the event is just changing, it’s always changing but I feel like this is at a different level – it feels like a wealthy playground. The per capita average income jumped $10k just between 2012 and 2013. If my friends can’t go, why would I go?[15]

It can be said that the real magic of communitas is how the deeply shared experience can create bonds between strangers, but Price reflects, “I haven’t felt connected to people [strangers] out there in years.”[16]

This unique “burn out” (not wanting to stop pushing oneself to new experiences and realities, but wanting to do it beyond the confines of the Burning Man experiment) is relatively common in long-term Burning Man participants. In order to sustain the culture, must we leave it to do more, go further, question it and continue the experiment?

Caveat states, “The right question – for the 10 Principles or anything else about Burning Man – is not ‘what does this mean?’ which is the beginning of doctrine, but ‘how can I use this to do something amazing?’ which is the beginning of new frontiers.”[17] The curious and inspiring edges of experience are necessary to play amongst in order to garner creative thinking, creation and culture.

Burning Man Philosophical Centre member, Benjamin Wachs adds:

I think we make a mistake when we think that the experiences of possibility will ever be the same when you go back. If Burning Man is doing its job, if we are in fact changing through it, then we are playing a kind of Russian Roulette with our experience of it. At some point, for most of us, our best decision is to leave Burning Man and take what we have gained out into the world… I don’t think Burning Man is any less than it was back in the 90s. Most of the changes and trade-offs strike me as relatively trivial. But I do think that the experience it offers – in the desert – has diminishing returns for most individuals. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If it helps us find our life’s work, why are we still hanging around when there’s that to be done?[18]


Author and independent scholar, Erik Davis agrees, reflecting that the environment for play and experimentation is necessarily limited by its edges. “You [Burners] have a responsibility to keep pushing it, and that’s true but you can only push so far inside a framework that has now achieved great inertia and stability and organizational intelligence and institutional memory and all of these sociological effects, if that’s not being engaged at the “top”, there’s only so much you can do. You’re inside somebody else’s playground.”[19]

Davis presents Foucault’s ‘heterotopia’ as an example of the compromised utopia that Burning Man may be:

A place where otherness is allowed to run riot. So, an example, with qualifications, is a place like Burning Man, particularly early on when there were less cultural ideas of how you were supposed to behave… Heterotopia never lasts. It’s always an evanescent point where people come together and there’s a kind of open-ended question of like, ‘We don’t know what kind of social interactions are going to be, we don’t know what subjectivity is going to be, how our connections are going to happen now’ and I think that there’s a part of us that really seeks that because we recognize in that the possibility that things can be other than what they are. That the world doesn’t have to be the way that it is.[20]


Burning Man has been a part of the movement that is ushering in a cultural evolution, since this evolution has the freedom to take place when humanity is free from the repressive structures of mainstream society. The T.A.Z. element of the Burning Man experience is crucial to the event’s expressions as an experiment. Bey’s definition of a T.A.Z. could be considered a description of Burning Man: “an exceptional party where for a brief moment our desires are made manifest and we all become the creators of the art of everyday life,” that does not “wait for a revolutionary moment, and instead create(s) spaces of freedom in the immediate present whilst avoiding direct confrontation with the state.”[21] However to retain the T.A.Z. character, the desert oasis of culture must “preserve the creativity, energy and enthusiasm of autonomous uprisings without replicating the inevitable betrayal and violence that has been the reaction to most revolutions throughout history”[22]. The T.A.Z. characterization of Burning Man fades away when we realize that, “Before the T.A.Z is spotted and recognized by the state, it dissolves and moves on, reappearing in unexpected places to celebrate once again the wonders of conviviality and life outside the law. It might last hours, days, years even, depending on how quickly it is noticed by authorities,” according to Jordan.[23]With Burning Man squarely set on the fringe of the mainstream, it is clear that its T.A.Z. character has been compromised. But the idea may be well-iterated by individuals and initiatives outside of Black Rock City. In fact, that would be the sign of a successful movement; those who participate at Burning Man playing the empowered, inspired, responsible and inclusive ways of Burning Man elsewhere all over the globe.

So the future of Burning Man may not be Burning Man at all, but a resulting movement that alters the status quo and changes our definitions of ‘normal’ to allow for ever more experimental and carnivalesque festival spaces and festive public life. In this way seeing Burning Man as a mainstream vacation space is not a testament to the detriment and decay of its core revolutionary ideals, but an ironic tribute to their dissemination and triumph.

Summer Burkes, Burning Man writer, worker and critic penned a partial definition of this new generation:

Our generational movement will NOT BE called ‘Burners,’ as in ‘hippies’ or ‘beats’ or whatever else. IT WILL NOT. This [Burning Man] is only a vacation. The rest of the year, most of us are doing stuff. We like to DO STUFF. DO STUFF. It’s catchy, it has nothing to do with Burning Man, and it’s a command as well as a blanket term for all of us all over the world who don’t know the difference between work and life. As long as it’s all play, we’re cool… Those who have taken the Red Pill, who have pulled the feeding tube out and are powered exclusively by absurdist joy, kinetic energy, and the physical detritus of capitalism… We build and make rather than shop and watch. We enjoy manifesting art and useful things out of other people’s castaways. We burn down anything that doesn’t work and build a new one in its place. WE DO STUFF.[24]


I believe a key to this observation is the different attitudes towards death that the founders of the Suicide Club, The Cacophony Society and Burning Man have expressed. Gary Warne, Suicide Club initiator explicitly stated that the group was a place to “live each day as your last”, Cacophony Society founder John Law promotes finding “what you’re supposed to do and do[ing] something else”,” and Rinaldi puts it as, “The minute we’re as comfortable with failing as we are with winning — the moment we’re in it for the experience and not the victory lap — is the moment we’re free.”[25] However, Burning Man’s current head honcho, Harvey, is quoted as having said, “I don’t want to die; I hate the idea of dying. It’s not so much the injury, it’s the insult.”[26]

In personal interviews for this project, four different participants brought up the word and notion of ‘significance’ in relation to what seems to drive those leading the Burning Man organization (and indeed, most people). “I don’t think that the quest was necessarily about them… wanting to fill their pockets with money,” said Doherty, “I think it is equally if not more so about them filling their souls with significance…”[27] The incredibly human need to be recognized and appreciated may be affecting some of the culturally directive actions of the Burning Man leadership team and possible blocking the possibilities available to this post-postmodern movement of empowered, imaginative, connected and action-based living. The restrictions imposed by seeking significance, or ’sustainability’, seems to restrict Burning Man’s cultural evolution, and perhaps the shift necessary to sustain humanity that Mikel referred to.

–     –     –     –     –

Burning Man emerged from the radical, expressive and experimental milieu of San Francisco’s post-hippy grunge, punk and machine arts scene as an expression of this incessant countercultural tide. However, considering Hebdige’s comment that, “The moment when dominant society begins to recognize a subculture is the moment that the resistant power of the subculture begins to die,”[28] the institutionalization and mainstream recognition of Burning Man proves that this counterculture has moved from its initial homeground at the outposts of the avant-garde, to reside at the fringe of contemporary conventional culture.

The Burning Man organization does not seem to be aware of how much incorporation has affected its actions and the leadership of the event that once brought together a rebellious and experimental group of artists and creators. Rooted in the carnivalesque, Burning Man’s framework of co-creation results in an open, empowering and seemingly contagious social structure that attracts more attention, creative expression, action and participants every year. But a culturally carnivalesque event is (or should be) necessarily contrary and anti-authoritarian; “[Carnival] is the people as a whole, but organized in their own way, the way of the people. It is outside of and contrary to all existing forms of the coercive socioeconomic and political organization, which is suspended for the time of the carnival,” says Bakhtin.[29] Here I am reminded of Paulo Friere, who indicates in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, that the petty bourgeoisie are those who are sympathetic to, and believe they are a part of, the plight of the proletariat, but that get in the way of the necessary social revolution that is afoot.[30]

“In order for us to survive on this planet we have to engage thousands, millions of people. We have to do it, we’re giving our lives to it, it’s that important.” said Mikel.[31] But as Doherty says in a 2000 Reason article, “Harvey, like his partner Michael Mikel, has declared that his intention is to change the world. But change it to what? A giant party filled with postmodern art projects?”[32] In a 2008 interview, the event’s founder and organization’s leader, Harvey said, “For the last three years I’ve done these sociopolitical themes [American Dream in 2008, Green Man in 2007 and Hope and Fear in 2006] so they know they can apply it. Because if it’s just a vacation… well, I’ve been on vacation long enough.”[33]

The Burning Man founders seem to know that their organization plays a special role in the imminent and important wider cultural evolution that is underway, but they seem to miss the fact that like the dynamism of the cultural evolution that they advocate, the organization’s role (once at the forefront of a movement that is about deconstructionism and transformation) is necessarily constantly changing and could easily be suddenly obsolete. Wagner reminds us that, “The culture we live is threatened, criticized and counter-exemplified by the culture we create.”[34]

The leadership of Burning Man has a unique opportunity to continue to act in line with the assumed inspiration for the 2013 event’s ‘Cargo Cult’ theme; encouraging and supporting external, diverse and divergent iterations of this revolutionary spirit. Unfortunately, it seems as though the organization has succumbed to elements of incorporation and is more focused on sustaining the status quo of the event and the accumulation of value and market share of ‘cool’ than being a part of an independent, decentralized and un-owned movement.

Until November 2014, the official Burning Man organization’s mission statement included the following: “The touchstone of value in our culture will always be immediacy: experience before theory, moral relationships before politics, survival before services, roles before jobs, embodied ritual before symbolism, work before vested interest, participant support before sponsorship.[35]” Now, the newly created Burning Man Project mission statement is simply, “The mission of the Burning Man organization is to facilitate and extend the culture that has issued from the Burning Man event into the larger world,” and refrains from attempting to define what this culture is.[36]


In order to achieve Cultural Sustainability for Burning Man, the event’s organizers must be vigilant to guard against Burning Man acting like adult Disney; putting on a great show of fantasy brought to life, where novel experiences are considered exceptions, rather than examples of an expanded breadth of possibility, indicating a framework for the exploration of our emerging culture of experience. The experience should also be encouraged to be expressed as varied articulations, proliferating free of any attachment, branding or endorsement from Burning Man.

[1] Grace quoted in Miriam Fathalla, “Rest in Peace, Santacon”, YouTube. 17 December 2014. Accessed 24 December 2015.

[2] Fathalla, “Rest in Peace, Santacon”

[3] David Freedlander, “Before the Bros, SantaCon Was as an Anti-Corporate Protest”. 12 December 2014, Accessed 24 December 2015.

[4] Freedlander, Before the Bros.

[5] Truck Boy. “I Killed SantaCon”. 15 December 2014. Accessed 24 December 2015.

[6] Carl G. Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul, (Mariner Books, 1955), 240

[7] Lutz Henke, “Why We Painted Over Berlin’s Most Famous Graffiti”, The Guardian. 20 December 2014. Accessed 24 December 2015.

[8] Larry Harvey and Stuart Mangrum, 2013 Art Theme: Cargo Cult, Accessed 24 December 2015.

[9] Caveat Magister, “Cargo Cult is a Daring – and Dangerous – Theme. Get it Right.” The Burning Man Journal. 14 December 2012. Accessed 24 December 2015.

[10] Clifford, Taking Identity Politics Seriously, 100

[11] Clifford, Taking Identity Politics Seriously, 102

[12] Clifford, Taking Identity Politics Seriously, 102

[13] Caveat Magister, Cargo Cult

[14] Clifford, Taking Identity Politics Seriously, 178.

[15] Price, Personal Interview

[16] Price, Personal Interview

[17] Price, Personal Interview.

[18] Benjamin Wachs, Personal Email Communication “What Is Burning Man Anymore?”. 24 November 2015.

[19] Davis, Personal Interview

[20] Davis, TECHGNOSIS, Technology and The Human Imagination

[21] Jordan, Theory: Temporary Autonomous Zone

[22] Jordan, Theory: Temporary Autonomous Zone.

[23] Jordan, Theory: Temporary Autonomous Zone

[24] Summer Burkes,” Paul Addis is More Tyler Durden Than You Are”, The Ladies’ Guide to the Apocalypse. 30 August 2007. Accessed 24 December 2015.

[25] John Rinaldi quoted in Bronwyn Ximm, “Tonight! Buy Chicken John’s Book, Help Save His Space for ‘Odd and Unlikely Artworks’ Bernalwood. 30 September 2011. Accessed 24 December 2015.

[26] Larry Harvey quoted in Burning Man: Beyond Black Rock. Directed by Damon Brown. Gone Off Deep Productions, 2005.

[27] Doherty, Personal Interview

[28] Hebdige, Subculture

[29] Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World (1984), 255 quoted in McIver, WaveShapeConversion, 167.

[30] Friere, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. (Bloomsbury,1970)

[31] Spark: A Burning Man Story. Directed and Produced by Jessie Deeter, Steve Brown Spark Pictures. (2013)

[32] Doherty, Burning Man Grows Up

[33]Stephen T. Jones. The Tribes of Burning Man, 176.

[34] Wagner, The Invention of Culture, 11

[35] Black Rock City, LLC. Mission Statement. Accessed 24 December 2015.

[36] Burning Man Project, About Us. Accessed 24 December 2015.

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