Now that the dust has settled from Burning Man, both from my belongings and my brain, I am just now forming cogent thoughts on what I experienced during that surreal week in the high desert.
Burning Man for me has always been an exploration and celebration of human potential. What if, for only a week, we could create a utopian society founded on an experiment in temporary community that is governed by cosmic beauty, a gifting culture, and a raging, 24-hour party? How would that elevate the human spirit?
Burners often return from the experience transformed, with an elevated embrace of the human condition. They make resolutions, vow to be more creative in their daily lives, and experience a renewed energy and effervescence. And that is why they endure the harsh conditions and struggle to build a week-long dwelling in one of the most inhospitable environments on the planet.
Burning Man is 29 years old and is certainly not the counter-culture experiment it once was. No longer is it about radical self-reliance, packing everything in and out, enduring long drives and even longer waits in line, and then surviving on wits, skills and fortitude. Well, for a few core burners, it’s still that way. But for a growing segment, you can fly in on a commercial or private jet, be picked up at the airstrip by an art car and driven to your camp, where you will find an air-conditioned yurt, a private chef, and all your needs attended to by your salaried camp Sherpas.
Along with this influx of money come bigger, more elaborate theme camps and awesome art cars with half million dollar sound systems. You also get the mainstream media, reporting on what tech billionaires and celebrities are there. You see fashion models posting selfies on Instagram, soccer star Renaldo at the early morning jam at Robot Heart, and a viral video of Katy Perry falling on a Segway. Then there’s Susan Sarandon spreading Timothy Leary’s ashes inside the awesome art installation known as the Totem of Confession just before it burned, and then telling the world about it on the Jimmy Kimmel show.
An estimated 40 percent of the 70,000 attendees were first time burners. It seemed every “Burgin” I met was from another country. Central and South Americans, Europeans and Asians. I even met some women from Belarus. Where is that anyway? Which brings me to the conclusion that not only has Burning Man become gentrified, but that it is also one more representation of the income disparity we are now witnessing throughout the world. Who else could traverse the planet to experience such frivolity?
Burning Man tickets were not easy to come by this year. Unless you were rich. Then you could buy up to four pre-sale tickets for $800 each. And there are of course legions of stories about Billionaires Row, the private, walled enclaves of the Zuckerbergs, Musks, Bezos’s, Pages and Brins.
Does it make Burning Man worse? No, just different. And that has always been the point. It’s just morphing in organic if not unexpected ways (anything this good is going to become wildly popular), and perhaps losing its import as a spiritual pilgrimage of DIY ingenuity and installations that burn to the ground or are otherwise dismantled in a dramatic display of Buddhist non-attachment. Or a place to burn your own id – the part that no longer serves – and be born anew, as founder Larry Harvey originally intended when he burned an effigy of himself to the ground back in ‘86.
Maybe now it’s just the biggest, mind-blowing spectacle on earth. Perhaps the only change should be to the 10 Principles that govern the community so as to accurately reflect its current state.
The principle of “Decommodification” seems a bit ossified when DJ’s like Diplo are on the playa promoting their next album, or when you can hire a company to build you a camp. (A few years ago I stumbled upon an elaborate nightclub that was built for a $1 million and paid for by a group of Russians who flew in on jets and stayed in rock star buses).
The principle of “Radical Self-Reliance” should surely be amended to “Radical Self-Indulgence,” for at least part of the crowd.
And the notion of “Radical Inclusion” and “Participation” must be re-examined in light of the ability to pay others to do the “participating” for you, i.e., building camps, art cars or installations.
Am I bitching? Certainly not. People who attended the first Burning Mans said it had jumped the shark by year five, long before I ever got there. It’s never the same as the first time you experience it. If you set expectations, you are destined for disappointment. The breathtaking beauty and magic seen through kinetic art, LED lighting, fire breathing apparatus, thousands of illuminated bicycles, and ecstatic, costumed people writhing to ethereal music from concert-quality sound systems on a dry lakebed surrounded by mystical mountains in the middle of nowhere at the crack of dawn cannot be exaggerated.
Burning Man is still a thing of alchemy and transcendence from our everyday “default world” state of mind. If a small percentage of the 1-percenters return home with a new paradigm of compassion, love, community, and creativity as the only thing that really matters, then Burning Man is still valid in its visceral impact on the planet and the greater good. Especially if the people in charge are the ones being transformed.
Billy Fried sits on the boards of Transition Laguna and the Laguna Beach Community Clinic. He hosts “Laguna Talks” on Thursday nights on KX 93.5, and can be reached at [email protected].