The original Burning Man arts and music festival is held at the end of August in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. What makes this particular festival unique is that there are no paid performers. The art and entertainment of many kinds is brought into the desert by the participants themselves for the benefit of other participants.
When I started attending in 2003, the paradigm worked well. There were few “just spectators”. In a city of 25,000, there was art, warmth, sharing and cooperation wherever you went. The week was pure fun and life-affirming.
The attendance is now on the scale of 70,000 people, and attitudes are different. I won’t go so far as to say that the original culture is completely lost, but it’s being kept alive by an ever shrinking percentage of “experienced” participants, “Burners” if you will.
By way of example, art cars typify this culture loss in a nutshell. In earlier years, art cars would stop for random attendees and take them to where ever they happened to be going. That was the whole point of Burning Man – art cars were created to share with other participants. Now, one can ask an art car for a ride and the response will typically be “it’s only for our camp,” even though it’s nearly empty. The idea that sharing includes the community as a whole has been diminished into exclusive cliques that bring bars and art only for their own campmates. The culture of collective cooperation is evaporating like moisture in a hot desert.
Burning Man is still an experience to be garnered. The scale of the event alone is a sight to behold. It is now the size of my childhood town. The fact that out of empty desert, a small city comes alive, and then evaporates in a matter of days, is in itself a wonder and an affirmation of human industry. The fact that Burning Man is the largest Leave No Trace event in the world is another unmatched achievement. The variety of art, sharing and gifting is expansive. All these things are worth experiencing.
Burning Man has spawned an entire world of much smaller, much more intimate, participant-created festivals based on the original culture. These are called “regional” Burning Man events. Some are sanctioned and official; others are not.
For us, these regional events are where the heart lies. They have the culture and the personal interactions that were the very core of the original festival. We’re thrilled to attend these Burner events we find everywhere in the world.