Every year, thousands of people gather in a scorching desert for music, art, and the burning of a giant figure made of wood. Is this a cult? Not in the traditional sense, at least. It’s Burning Man and it’s where art fanatics and tech billionaires collide.
In 1986, Larry Harvey and a few of his friends met at a beach in San Francisco and burned an 8-foot tall wooden man and dog as “radical self-expression.” He took inspiration from a sculptor friend who had held solstice bonfires, but after she stopped holding them, Harvey decided to start his own tradition. The next year, Harvey added seven feet to the effigy, and the year after that, it stood 30-feet.
That same year, 1988, Harvey began handing out flyers for the event he called “Burning Man.” By 1990, just four years after that first beach night, Burning Man was attended by more than 800 people and consisted of more events and art installations. Burning Man moved from a beach to the Black Rock Desert and eventually extended from just three days to eight days. In addition to the titular man, a temple is also burned the night after. David Best designed the doomed structure out of recycled wood sheets from 2000-2004. It’s a tradition for Burning Man participants to write personal messages all over the walls.
Each year had a theme that Harvey picked and would describe in an essay. Some recent theme examples include 2016’s “Da Vinci’s Workshop,” 2017’s “Radical Ritual,” and 2018’s “I, Robot.” That was Harvey’s last theme, as he died in April 2018.
What’s Burning Man about?
In 2004, Harvey wrote out a series of 10 goals for the event. These include: radical inclusion, civic responsibility, communal effort, and of course, radical self-expression. While those who don’t attend Burning Man tend to see the event as a lawless, drug-filled orgy of the senses, it isn’t about that. There are rules, which are handed out to participants at the beginning of the week, and lots of police to ensure everyone’s safety. The people who attend are not hippies; writer Chris Taylor says they are a lot more like “punks.” A lot of Silicon Valley and tech billionaires also show up, often to network. Burning Man attracts smart, innovative “punks” who don’t want to simply blend into society.
How the event comes together
The biggest part of Burning Man isn’t actually the man – it’s Black Rock City. This is the temporary city in the desert, and it is really a true city. The Department of Public Works constructs it all and often live there in the weeks before and after Burning Man. There are roads, street signs, coffee places, sewer and water trucks, and more. This forms of the exoskeleton of the event, allowing individuals to set up their theme camps, villages, camping, and artwork.
One of Burning Man’s ten commandments is “leave no trace,” but the event’s carbon footprint has provoked criticism. In 2006, 27,000 tons of carbon dioxide got released into the atmosphere, with most of coming from transportation. The event also produces a lot of plastic bottles. Organizations like the Burn Clean Project are attempting to changes things and replace fossil fuel with biodiesel. In 2007, Black Rock City constructed solar arrays. Hopefully efforts like this will keep Burning Man close to its roots.