🎵The song for this post is Dancing On My Own, by Robyn. 🎵
I just got back from Burning Man. This was my second Burn, I didn't write extensively about the first. Here are some thoughts and reactions! 🔥🤷🏼♂️🔥
On the whole…
I had a great time! The Burn can be a harsh place for couples,1 and I think this bit Karen and I in my first Burn last year: we had plenty of great adventures, but we ran into a few differences in planning and executing, and I think we both felt a lot of pressure to ensure the other had a good time.
This year a few things changed:
We made a point to have time apart, to have our own solo adventures. We still had a lot of great, quality time together, but there were long stretches of time when we weren't responsible for each other's happiness, and got to explore Black Rock City our own way.
We've been living together now for the better part of a year, so a lot of bugs we ran into previously I now know were a consequence of not knowing each other's habits (waking ritual, keeping of a living space, how much/little planning to do before committing to action, how hard those commitments are…).
Another year of therapy and working on myself meant that I'm a little better at this "relaxing" thing humans do. I'm more able to "stop and smell the roses" and just passively enjoy things, which is a good thing when you're trapped in the desert for a week.
I met some amazing people, saw a ton of fantastic art (bunch of photos below), connected more strongly with a few friends, and had space to reflect on my life, and this year specifically.
The whole thing is bonkers
I wrote last year
It's not easy to get a ticket, it's not easy to go, but if you think there's a path for you to go I think you should consider it.
and I still believe this. There's really nothing quite like it: it's one of the most creatively-packed, playful, loving environments I've ever been in. If you can get past the core criticisms around it (which are real, see next section) you can face literally any direction and see something inviting and inspiring. There's no "wrong" place to go, and if you have art you'd like to make, you'll find a home for it there.
If you're interested at all, get in contact with me and I'll give you all the resources I have 😄
It's worth criticism
Here's a linkdump if you want to hear from people who aren't me:
- Why the Rich Love Burning Man, by Keith Spencer (2015) is often shared. It's a bit overwritten for my taste, but has a few good quotes that I like, including:
This [...] the reason that high-powered capitalists — and especially capitalist libertarians — love Burning Man so much. It heralds their ideal world: one where vague notions of participation replace real democracy, and the only form of taxation is self-imposed charity. Recall Whole Foods CEO John Mackey’s op-ed, in the wake of the Obamacare announcement, in which he proposed a healthcare system reliant on “voluntary, tax-deductible donations.”
Burning Man foreshadows a future social model that is particularly appealing to the wealthy: a libertarian oligarchy, where people of all classes and identities coexist, yet social welfare and the commons exist solely on a charitable basis.
Of course, the wealthy can afford more, both in lodging and in what they “bring” to the table: so at Burning Man, those with more money, who can bring more in terms of participation, labor and charity, are celebrated more.
Nick Bilton, in 2014, wrote A Line Is Drawn in the Desert, a pretty scathing piece on how Silicon Valley billionaires changed it when they arrived in the late-aughts/early 10's.
Why Silicon Valley billionaires are obsessed with Burning Man, by Gregory Ferenstein (2014), is a Vox explainer that is a bit more neutral in tone.
A rebuttal on the rosy parts of the last piece, Why Burning Man is not an example of a loosely regulated tech utopia, by Andrew Leonard (2014). I found it persuasive.
Burned out: tech money is harshing Burning Man's anti-capitalist vibe, by Russell Brandom (2013). A lot of good anecdotes in a short amount of argument.
Jamie Zawinski, someone I appreciate very much, used to go in the early aughts and has written about and linked a lot of great pieces. He had gripes with their branding and photo policy in 2003, and linked an article about a Quiznos ad that had some fun with Burning Man culture. in 2015. He also mockingly linked a NYTimes article about someone building a luxury camping vehicle specifically for Burning Man.
For my part
Much of it feels a bit too much like a party for privileged people for me to believe too strongly in the ideals it espouses. To be clear: when it comes to the organizers or DPW, I don't at all doubt their intentions or their efforts, and think they do an extraordinary job. I'll also say: parties are great! And if you and/or your community has resources, you can do great things! I'll finally say that obviously, a lot of people from different backgrounds (many less privileged ones) come to Burning Man and make it happen. Even with all that in mind, to me it still feels a bit too much like a cake that gets labelled nutritionally as a vegetable.
I loved this article on how challenging it is to get obscenely wealthy people to critically examine their role in the systems they hope to offset with their philanthropy. They clam up and get defensive if you ask them about harm reduction instead of "good" maximization. They're happy to be celebrated philanthropists after they've made their money and built some rockets for fun, but they're not so happy to look in the mirror if they or their activities might be implicated in it. I'm just one person, but I would have liked to see more internal reflection and self-awareness from the folks at Burning Man on where and how it practices inclusion and exclusion, and how make its impacts more wholly positive, and lasting outside of playa.
In fairness, I feel this way about almost every community, and I don't have much hope it'll meaningfully change. The Master's tools will never dismantle the Master's house. People love their party too much. From the Jacobin article:
It doesn’t seem like Burning Man can ever be salvaged, or taken back from the rich power-brokers who’ve come to adore it and now populate its board of directors. It became a festival that rich libertarians love because it never had a radical critique at its core; and, without any semblance of democracy, it could easily be controlled by those with influence, power, and wealth.
My thinking is I'll look for smaller festivals and communities that sound more like what Burning Man advertises itself as: this comic on the Wasteland Weekend describes a much smaller community of people doing a lot of what's advertised at Burning Man: living out characters and assuming an alternative identity, providing experiences for others, coping with harsh circumstances. It's probably easier to get closer to authenticity with 4,000 people instead of 70,000 and when your brand (and its claims of greatness) is smaller and not invaded by tech bros. I'll keep my eyes peeled.
1. ^ Examples are here, here, and here.
Thanks for the read! Disagreed? Violent agreement!? Feel free to drop me a line at , or leave a comment below! I'd love to hear from you 😄