Where art thou, Burning Man?

Waiting for the action
Waiting for the action

Larry Harvey was talking about Burning Man’s hundred-year plan, which he noted was already 30 years along, this being the 30th burn (but of course who knew anything about any of this at Baker Beach in 1986), and that he and the other founders and Burning Man Project people are not only thinking about who would come after them, but also who might come after the people who come after them.

“It’s useful,” Harvey said, “because it makes us think more deeply about the present.”

Megs pointed out that Burning Man Regionals have extended their reach to 34 countries on six continents.

And Dave X, bless Dave X, was saying that his favorite power tool on the playa is … a lighter. Of course it is. As it should be. (He’s the person most directly responsible for making sure people don’t hurt themselves with fire in Black Rock City.)

Home is where the Front Porch is

Across town the evening prior, spiky dominatrix-looking women dressed in minimalist black halters and chaps were harnessing people at Thunderdome. Fierce huge men laughed, diva Marisa sang Ave Maria, and a thrill-thirsty crowd cheered the most aggressive combatants.

At the same time, lovely chilled hors d’oeuvres were being presented to a delicately dressed social crowd at First Camp, with the amiables pressed shoulder to shoulder on the First Camp deck.

Ohh, Burning Man, Burning Man, where art thou, Burning Man?

Bree's "Storied Haven"
Bree’s “Storied Haven”

The night was about as exquisite as a night could be. Skies softening from purple to gray, the air all but still, and the playa was coming to life in a slow graceful arc. It was still early, only Saturday.

A group of maybe 50 people were on the CasBus, a Moroccan-themed art car, out for a look at the art and the scene and the people. There were stops at Mike Garlington’s very fabulous “Totem,” at the Temple of Promise, and even out at the Bijou movie theater in the deep and far playa. But the folks at the Bijou were still working to set things up, and they turned off the lights on the marquee as the big art car approached. They didn’t need a party just yet, they needed more time to get things done.

There were another set of lights in the distance, but it wasn’t an art installation. The lights were from a distant gold mine deep in the Black Rock Desert, and just seeing the lights reminded you that people come to the desert to work, not just play. They come to survive, to scratch out a living.

Burning Man is about a lot of things. It’s about work and play, friendships and pain, togetherness, community and expression.

Garlington's "Totem" is no less impressive at night
Garlington’s “Totem” is no less impressive at night

It’s about the tech crowd and the Cacophony Society and plug n’ play camps and about putridly hot PortaPotties that are out of toilet paper. (I think the “PortaPotties have a greater impact on the experience than the Man does,” Harvey said.)

We’ve been to Burning Man for several days now. We’ve also been to Burning Man for 13 years. And going to Burning Man is a little like jazz; the improvisation takes a different turn every time you show up.

So after several days, and after 13 years, we keep listening to the chord progressions and beat changes, wondering if the beat and melody will go in a direction we can stay with.


Burning Man is a random pop-up shade in open playa, with two empty chairs. … Burning Man is a camp full of identical silver yurts, and another camp of identical blue tents, and another camp of gigantic pop-out RVs that look brand new.

Burning Man is a broke-ass looking camp full of dust and lawn chairs with not a soul in sight, and hand-lettered sign out front saying that psychic readings will resume at dusk. Burning Man is the camp of the billionaire Brazilian with his helicopter and luxuries beyond imagination, and certainly beyond our experience because, you know, there are still pockets of radical exclusion.

The Temple at evening
The Temple at evening

Burning Man has tried to deal with the … challenge, let’s call it … of plug n’ play camps, of the bucket-list mentality, of the people who want to do Burning Man in their own style. The organization has a word for the process – acculturation. But when you think about it, it has always been this way. There have always been people who wanted to do Burning Man more creatively, more elegantly, more stylishly, more comfortably. They’ve wanted to make the desert bend to their wishes, they’ve wanted to quash the natural forces that are trying to kill us here. Can we have venison stew and chilled Champagne and frozen eclairs in the desert? Hell yeah we can. Just watch. Some of the people here, just some of them, have the wherewithal to throw money at the challenge of thriving; others create their solutions in DIY, maker fashion.


Two strangers plopped on our couch a little before midnight a few nights ago. There was no one else around. They appeared tired and disoriented. “Can we stay here for awhile,” one asked. “Um, yeah, ok, sure.”

We wandered off a little bit, to make it seem that we were still around and that the camp was not abandoned and that it wouldn’t be a good idea to start checking trailer doors for more comfortable places to lie down.

But it made us think, too, about our responsibilities to radical inclusion, and maybe gifting, and I guess civic responsibility, and about what welcome and accommodation would be appropriate for our late-night visitors.

Danasaurus said later that at her previous camp, the test for visitors, if that’s the right word, is whether their presence contributed to the camp: were they engaged, interested, participating, curious? If they were as true guests, trying to engage, then great, welcome, enjoy your stay. Have a meal. If not, if they were there SIMPLY there to be fed and watered, well, the reception was not so generous.

Burning Man is a huge sound camp on the Esplanade blasting techno dance music, and no one there to hear … Burning Man is hammering and welding and wiring well into the night, with the week half over and the artwork still not finished. … Burning Man is burn barrels and birthday parties and karaoke in the far suburbs, and stopping at the flaming Serpent Mother simply for warmth. … Burning Man is being inspired by the sight of Radical Mobility camp, and deciding to quit whining about the long walks to everywhere …

Diva Marissa sang to the crowd
Diva Marisa sang to the crowd

Burning Man is cell service and wifi disappearing, maybe for good, and being thankful for the forced electronic silence … Burning Man is wandering aimlessly and finding a path … Burning Man is watching the dust pile up on your body as you sit out a dust storm, and silently wishing that the play dust would fill in the wrinkles on your face instead of outlining them in bas relief.

Burning Man is talking about someone you’d like to see, and having them walk into camp seconds later. Three times in a day … Burning Man is cookies for lunch, cheese and crackers for dinner, and then whole wheat kale waffles with perfectly grilled steak at the HEAT camp, just like that. And Burning Man is also some fool doling out Skittles-infused Everclear as a happy-hour drink. Idiot.

“We see the culture as self-organizing,” Harvey was saying. “This was never supposed to be a utopian community. I’ll believe in the possibility of a perfect society when I meet the perfect person,” he said.

Burning Man is judging people by how dusty they are … Burning Man is camp drama: Who is not doing what they are supposed to be doing, and who is sleeping with someone with whom they are not supposed to be sleeping.

Burning Man is sleeping till noon and getting up before dawn … Burning Man is going to bed early and staying up way past dawn. Each day at Burning Man feels like six days; there are early mornings, for the sunrises; midmornings, for coffee or food or a nap; midday, for concocting plans, midafternoon, for plans to fall apart and the wandering to commence; evenings, for more planning and costume changes and maybe something else to eat; and late nights, for … well, lots of things. Each part of the day is full, fuller than any day not spent at Burning Man, even though it doesn’t sound like it from this description. Possibilities are endless. Existential paralysis can and often does set in.

There are no vendors at Burning Man, no corporate sponsorship, and no state or governmental support, Larry Harvey was saying, in reference to a question about sources of revenue. Despite the “rumors of hidden artesian flows of money” to the organization, there is “only” $30 million or so in ticket sales. Well, there’s that that money plus the donations that can now be made to the nonprofit entity. But money has never been absent from the playa. The liberating, but temporal, decommodification that happens here does not make the event possible. “Most people won’t knit their tent from wool made from their shepherded sheep,” as Harvey put it.

Fierceness in Thunderdome
Fierceness in Thunderdome

“What people forget is that we’re the government here. We never say that … BLM would like to say it’s the government … well, it IS the government, but not the government that fashions the context of society out here. … We have further reforms yet to be fulfilled that bridges the gap between those who are privileged and those who have less.”

Harvey quashed the rumor/story that Burning Man was close to signing a deal to acquire the nearby and beautiful Fly Ranch and create an Algonquin Round Table in the desert, or a Nevada Versailles, or something in between. “We want to continue to build up the center, to expand what we do in America,” and that includes keeping note of the numerous offers to host Burning Man in another location.

Burning Man is fireworks from all around the Esplanade … A bevy of beauty queens roaming wild … Wondering where everyone is, and whether they are having a better time than you. Burning Man is trying to have more face time with that someone you want to have it with … Burning Man is walking a drunky back to his camp … and the continuing struggle to unapologetically accept a gift.

And Burning Man is not even half over. The wind has come up, and the dust is blowing, and the art cars are blaring, and the people are walking and biking and sipping fine wine, as the case may be, and the night is drawing hear, and we’ll listen for the melody, and hope that it’s full of promise and possibility and the dreams that might be made  real.

Dave X
Dave X
Larry Harvey
Larry Harvey


Thunderdome pre-festivities
Thunderdome pre-festivities
"That Damned Band" let us sit in on the flute. We don't play the flute tho.
“That Damned Band” let us sit in on the flute. We don’t play the flute tho.
A fully acculturated Rosie Lila
A fully acculturated Rosie Lila
Rainbows in the Center Cafe
Rainbows in the Center Cafe



About the author: John Curley

John Curley (that's me) has been Burning since the relatively late date of 2004, and in 2008 I spent the better part of a month on the playa, documenting the building and burning of Black Rock City in words and pictures. I loved it, and I've been doing it ever since. I was a newspaper person in a previous life, and I spent many years at the San Francisco Chronicle. At the time I left, in 2007, I was the deputy managing editor in charge of Page One and the news sections of the paper. Since then, I've turned a passion for photography into a second career. I shoot for editorial, commercial and private clients. I've also taught a little bit, including two years at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and a year at San Francisco State University. I live on the San Mateo coast, just south of San Francisco in California.

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