I have a new metaphor for the way Burning Man changes.
For the last 10-ish years, I’ve been a part of the team at BMIR that is on the air while the Man burns. I started out as a color commentator, and then gradually became the broadcast host as other members of the team departed. Eventually I was the only member of that original group left — everybody else had something better to do.
The last person on that broadcast crew, besides me, who’d been involved the whole time was my friend Polaris. I loved broadcasting with him: he’s sharp, funny, extremely talented on air, and we have a great rapport. But in 2019, he wasn’t there. He bowed out. I never found out why.
The show went on anyway — I brought in another friend, we had a great time, did a great show. But I missed my last touchpoint to the old crew, to the way things had been. When I saw Polaris on playa this year, I mentioned to him that I’d be hosting the Man Burn broadcast again, and said I hoped he’d come back.
“I can’t do that anymore,” he said.
“Why not?” I asked. It was a question I should have asked him years ago, but here we were, seeing each other for the first time since.
“Because my son is now old enough that he can get something out of watching the Man Burn up close,” Polaris said, “and then we can go around together and look at all the art. That’s what I want to be doing now.”
And there it is. That’s change at Burning Man. And it’s sad for me that I don’t get to do something fun with my friend anymore, but he and his son get so much out of it. It’s different, but it’s not in any way a loss. Polaris didn’t lose the mission or sell out: he recognized that he is a different person now, in a different stage of life. He did the right thing.
Which brings me to Burning Man 2022, and the profound ways in which it was profoundly (the same as ever) different.
* * *
Everyone’s Burn is not just different, but different in deeply personal ways. The more potent our experiences of the desert city we co-create, the more unique and individual they become. But in my eyes, 2022 was the Burn that had many grizzled veteran Burners shaking their heads and wondering “Wait, what is this?” and then: “Can I still do this? At all?”
Even for an experience that is always profoundly individuated, this Burn was different.
It started with the physical environment, which if you weren’t there was every bit as brutal as you’ve heard. The heat made once-routine activities difficult or even impossible. Day-long whiteouts not only shut down the Gate and made travel virtually impossible in the city for long periods, but winds gusting up to 50mph devastated camps.
The combination of heat and dust meant that many of us could not Burn the way we were used to doing. This created an odd dichotomy between the new Burners and the veteran Burners. Time after time, I would observe new Burners with bright eyes exclaiming how amazing and magical this experience was, while the veteran Burners (myself included) kept struggling because we had an idea of how we were supposed to be doing this, and we couldn’t do that anymore. Our lived expectations confounded us.
But it wasn’t just the external conditions: Burning Man is an intensely personal experience, which is why it tends to create so many existential crises. Life imitates art, and we bring all our art to this. Many veteran Burners were struggling not just because the conditions were different but because we are now different. After three years of plague and apocalypse, we are different people — often in ways we do not yet understand. And those differences changed everything about our Burning Man experience, turning something loved into something unfamiliar.
Something that we had to re-familiarize ourselves with if we were to move forward. And that’s always a weird, uncomfortable process.
We had to discover, under the most intense pressure, who we were here, now — in spite of our expectations. Which is a way of more deeply discovering: who have we become? How do we not know ourselves?
For myself, this was a Burn where I had to learn to cut back — and learn that if I wouldn’t do it willingly, the desert would do it for me. I missed a wedding. I missed a memorial for a friend’s son, not because I didn’t want or intend to be there, but because I was trying to do everything and so collapsed too soon.
And yet, despite my attempt to do everything, this was also my quietest Burn. My least performative Burn. I’m used to starting wars and creating strange public experiences … but this time I didn’t. Yes, I had some magical art projects out there, but I barely showed them to anyone. Only if the moment seemed absolutely right did I ask, “Would you like to try an art experience?” And each time it was a powerful and lovely moment of connection, but I almost never did it.
I sang very little, too. I don’t know why. The magic out there was still real, compelling, and strong as ever. It was just a lot softer for me, in part because I was no longer shouting for attention. The magical moments came through, but many were so personal that I don’t want to talk about them — or I don’t even know how.
This was Burning Man as I’d never known it, and it was mostly the same but I was a stranger to myself.
Yet it happened. And many of us, near the end of two damn weeks out there in hell, felt the difference. We adjusted. We discovered how to Burn as the people we are now, and in so doing learned a great deal about who we now are. By the last weekend, many of us had been able to drop our expectations of ourselves and inhabit the people we actually were here in this magical environment, and that changed everything.
This was my hardest Burn, without question. It was also probably my worst Burn, from most conventional standards. But this strange, quiet, brutal Burn gave me many delights and a whole hell of a lot of powerful insights that I am profoundly grateful for. Indeed, for all that it was my “worst” Burn, it might also be the Burn that evokes the most gratitude in me. It’s a strange paradox, but that’s what we create out there.
I didn’t really know how to process that, and I still don’t, but I’m sitting with it. And of course I’m grateful. I spent two weeks in hell, and I’m nothing but grateful.
* * *
The 2019 Man Burn broadcast, hosted by myself and Hot Damn and our board operator Jex, was a cascade of frivolity. We laughed constantly, told jokes, made fun of ourselves and Black Rock City as we came closer to a moment of awe and splendor. It was exemplified by a conversation we had in which I said that the theme songs to my Burn that year had been Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and the introduction to the Saturday morning kids’ show “The Gummy Bears.” I was challenged to sing the Gummy Bears theme song right there, live on the radio. So I did. And just as I came to the lilting chorus, the studio door slammed open and a complete stranger rushed in and sang it with me. Amazing.
The 2022 Man Burn broadcast had a completely different tone. I had to be on the board, because our board operator had tested positive for COVID on Friday evening and was isolating for the rest of the Burn. Hot Damn was still there, but instead of putting out a monument to frivolity, our tone was much more serious, more contemplative: think NPR as produced on the last day of the school year by an adjunct professor of Philosophy and a mathematician with a wicked sense of irony.
We laughed, but we asked a lot more serious question: what the hell just happened? Why was it so difficult? What had we been missing out by not having this for the past three years? Why did this still matter?
I hadn’t meant for the broadcast to be a more somber one, but it happened, I did it. It was completely different from any Man Burn broadcast we’d done before. Since then I’ve received a lot of messages from people who heard it saying yes — yes, that was the right tone. Yes, it needed to be different — not because we were trying to make it different but because it was different, and acknowledging that made everything better. Made it, paradoxically, more like itself.
Some things in life become less like themselves the more you hold on to them, and more like themselves when you let them grow.
If I go back again, I’ll have to do it differently. I can no longer camp in these hard conditions the way I used to. Beware: Black Rock City is less benign than it ever has been. But it is also full of grace, and I have been so lucky and so blessed. And that’s Burning Man.
Cover image of “Re:Emergence” by ArtBuilds, 2022 (Photo by Gurps Chawla)