Has Black Rock City’s Torch Passed to the Regionals?

For as long as I’ve been involved, people have been saying that “the Regionals are the future of Burning Man.” But at first they said it in a distant, hopeful tone, the way they’d say that “someday we’ll end world hunger.”

A decade later, something changed. They were still saying “the Regionals are the future,” but this time they were saying it as words of encouragement. A pat on the head. It meant: “Look at you go! You’re really getting there. This could happen someday!” 

Now though, now… I haven’t heard anyone say it in a while. I assume they still do. But I think it’s actually happened. Without fanfare, without ceremony or a big moment of transition, it looks to me like the moment has not only arrived but already occurred. The Regionals have become the future of Burning Man.

What does this mean? Well, first, a few words of caution are in order.

I’m really big on words of caution. I like offering them a lot. Hopefully it’s fun for you, too.

Wait 45 minutes after you eat to go swimming.

Don’t give your passport to a monkey. Even if he’s wearing a hat.

What I’m saying about the Regionals isn’t based on personal observation, I’m afraid. It’s been years — many years — since I’ve been to a Regional. Honestly, I don’t get out of the house much, not since that monkey stole my passport. I’ll be damned if he’s going to find my buried gold. 

There are too many regional events to keep track of anyway (especially when we include the unofficial ones that are still culturally consistent), and no way to verify that all of them are the future. We’re talking about approximations here, trend lines.

Certainly the Regionals are, on average, bigger than they were before. And more independent. But it’s more than that: the kind of stories I’m hearing from people who have participated in Regional Events have changed — a lot — over the last few years.

I’ve always heard good things about the Regionals, and had great times at the ones I’ve attended. But the kind of stories I used to hear from Regionals — not all, but most, of the time — were good camping stories. Even excellent camping stories. Often with a good through line of art and whimsy. You could see why people enjoyed it and why they showed up and it certainly represented aspects of Burning Man culture. 

But they didn’t tend to hit the peaks of experience, the really extraordinary “how the fuck was that even possible, and my God, I’m glad to live in a world where things like that can happen” quality that the best Burning Man stories out of Black Rock City tend to have. That quality often seemed to be conspicuously absent.

But lately? The last couple of years? The stories I’ve been hearing, from people I know and trust, out of many different Regionals have blown me away. Given me shivers. Made me glad to live in a world where this is happening… and happening everywhere.

Something has changed. 

Maybe these kinds of experiences were happening there for years, and I just didn’t hear about it — that’s entirely possible. Maybe it represents a shift in cultural practices, or population, or that it just takes some time for newer events to start to hit a magic tipping point. I don’t know, and I don’t claim to know: your mileage may have varied. In fact, the whole point is that your mileage may vary. Please consult an epistemologically minded mechanic if your “check reality” light comes on.

But whether it’s culture or age or communication, something has changed. The Regionals, it seems to me, have gone from “they will be the future someday” to “they are the future that is happening right now.”

And it’s glorious.

It is also — and I think this is the important point — a different kind of future than we were being led towards when Black Rock City was the Vatican of the Burning Man universe.

(Which, to be clear, I’m saying it’s not anymore, although it’s far from irrelevant. There are plenty of important places in the world that are “not the Vatican.” I bet we can name three. HINT: one of them has waffles.)

A lot of trends impacting Black Rock City have been identified over the years, which do not (so far) apply to the Regionals: 

The increasing size of BRC, obviously, which in some ways makes it a different animal. Not only are the Regionals smaller, they have often capped their populations more aggressively.

The increasing cost of going to BRC, from buying a ticket to travel; the Regionals are, by definition, more local (although the number of people who attend events like Love Burn and AfrikaBurn from out of state and out of country is notable). 

The Regionals have a shot at not just more diversity but different kinds of diversity, as they can connect directly with the local communities around them — which is, to my mind, the most authentic and organic way of inviting others into Burner culture. Be helpful to your neighbors. 

These aspects of Regionals have already been seen and commented upon, but there’s another that I think is just as vital but hasn’t received nearly as much attention:

Over time, “big art” has been emphasized in Black Rock City — the major sculptures, the massive structures, the giant art cars — while the “human-sized art experiences,” the “small art,” the weird and magical moments of human interaction, have been increasingly neglected. They’re present, absolutely, but they get less and less time and attention. It’s been evident for a long time, but just three years ago I wrote:

“Over the years ‘Burning Man’ has become synonymous with giant sculptures and mutant vehicles and massive flame effects … and of course huge DJ stages with laser displays that can knock out satellites … but that’s a dysmorphic image of Burning Man caused by media representation. Those things photograph well, they get sent around the internet in an instant, end up in clickbait sideshows, end up on the covers of newspapers and magazines … they win the attention economy.

Human-sized moments of whimsy and grace and inspiration, on the other hand, really need to be experienced to be understood. They are harder to explain. The experiences people have of them are more conditional — no two people are ever going to do the same thing or have the same experience.

But they have an impact that goes far beyond what’s easily presented on a news feed.

These experiences are not just self-expression, though they are that: they are participatory. There is no art happening if people simply gather around in a circle and stare (which, indeed, did happen). Someone has to step in and actively engage for it to be real. Someone has to take a risk.

So experiences like this don’t get even a fragment of the media representation that Big Art does. Not even in museums. One of the great failures of museum portrayal of Burning Man thus far is that they showcase the visual arts and tend to utterly ignore the experiential.

But experiences like this — weird ideas put together based on what you have lying around, to experience with strangers — are at the origin, and the heart, of Burning Man culture. They are not only representative of what really happens here, they are what differentiates us from ‘festivals’ which think their attendees have transformative experiences simply because they throw lights over a weird sculpture and have a DJ set.

And these are experiences that you can do wherever you are. In Black Rock City, sure, but also literally anywhere else. We do not need to be dependent on any particular location, or conditions, or materials, to create Burning Man experiences.”

As BRC becomes more and more associated with big and in some ways impersonal art, the stories I’m hearing from the Regionals are more and more associated with these magical human experiences. They have big art and impressive structures, sure, but they also seem to be picking up what many of us feared were the increasingly lost arts of small human weirdness and putting them front and center — which serves to re-center them in Burning Man culture as a whole.

This is both a move into the future and an act of faith with the past. In a lengthy examination of Burning Man’s philosophy, I once noted that “the premise of festivals like Woodstock and Coachella is that ‘you had to be there to experience it!’. The premise of Burning Man is: ‘I can do this myself!'”

The Regionals are making that more true than ever. They are the new centers of human centered DIY experiences, and they are doing it locally and closer to year round. Where they take it, I don’t know. Nobody does. We are, more than ever, the decentralized movement that we always aspired to be. 

And this is the point: the more “the Regionals become the future of Burning Man,” the less we are going to be able to predict the cultural change that results.

It has been truly inspiring to me to hear these stories, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.


Cover image of AfrikaBurn, 2024 (Photo by Kim van Zyl)

 

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

20 Comments on “Has Black Rock City’s Torch Passed to the Regionals?

  • Will Chase says:

    I agree … Waffle House is way more important than the Vatican. ;-)

    But seriously, there’s been a distinct trend lately towards micro-festivals that are more accessible, navigable, cheaper and more intimate than massive festivals — both in the Burning Man realm and beyond (e.g. LIB, Coachella, etc. no longer selling out). The pandemic kicked that trend into high gear, where people who’ve favored massive festival experiences for the last decade plus now prioritize intimacy, community and connection instead.

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    • Saladroit says:

      Second this –

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    • Simone Seikaly says:

      I want to share how media portrayal of Burning Man has lit a fire under me like nothing … nothing I’ve ever experienced. I hope to offer another perspective, from brand new eyes.

      It was the media portrayal of the rain at burning man last year that grabbed my attention. It began a quest that will result in my first-ever burn in a few dozen days. I want you to know that, yes, I knew something of Burning Man before last year, but for whatever reason I was never propelled to learn more.

      I am going for the personal experiences. And yes, for the large scale installations. And the small scale. I want it all. This has changed me, and in turn, I am impacting others.

      Wasn’t, isn’t, that the idea?

      There are others like me. I ask veteran burners not to give up on what they’ve built. Maybe you need to see with new eyes. You can use mine.

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    • Sounds like OP should attend more regionals!

      Apogaea is coming up, we’ve got big, medium, small, and miniature weird art. June 5th in south Colorado.

      See you there

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  • Garth Hudelson says:

    That fucking monkey was wearing MY hat when he stole my passport. He was good eating though.

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  • Marty Bortz says:

    Thank you for writing this

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  • Lux Aeterna says:

    I agree TTITD can be a little overwhelming, but, personally I think the secret might be to be involved with your camp community, volunteer team, or art projects. That’s where I find those relationships and experiences that make it worthwhile. Sure, some of the art is really big, but some is small, too; there are real gems to be found out there on the playa. I’m really excited about the Desert Arts Preview; that’s happening on June 2. I’ve already seen some of the projects that will be there this year and they look great.
    https://burningman.org/events/desert-arts-preview-2024/

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  • Dusty Bottoms says:

    One of the interesting things about the proliferation of Regionals, for me, is the number of them I can drive to within a day (from southern California). This allows me to pick and choose the good ones from the less good ones, with my limited vacation days.

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  • Richard Tallent says:

    I’m headed to my 4th burn at BRC this year, but before that, my first regional (Flipside).

    While Burning Man wasn’t born in the Black Rock Desert, it’s been forged there, and I am worried that a mosquito-infested pecan grove in Central Texas just won’t have the same magic-setting ambiance as endless, dusty, flat playa. That desert really does set the “I’m not in the Default anymore” tone in a way I don’t think can be replicated, and its fickle ways are a huge part of the catalyst for giving up on plans and living in Immediacy.

    But Burning Man itself isn’t the dust storms or the climbable art, it’s the people, so I’m crossing my fingers that Regionals are like BRC in terms of how people *interact* with former strangers in an open, playful, respectful, passionate, creative, mildly snarky, giving, unmasked way.

    If it is, I think there’s real hope for Regionals to carry the torch wider than one ephemeral city can do on its own.

    But if regionals are just another place where polite-but-standoffish people hang out in their cliques, decorate their camps, get high, and dance to some DJs and blinkenlights, it might still resemble some aspects of Burning Man, but it won’t be the same to me.

    I guess in a few weeks, I’ll have more data to form an opinion on how much Regionals are able to capture the most important parts of the experience and make it more accessible and sustainable. I really hope so.

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  • Space Daddy says:

    I definitely agree, but as someone producing a Regional, I’m biased.

    Your point about the small scale art, and truly magical human moments, is something I witness regularly at our Burn, our sister Burn, and one that takes place on the same site as ours but at a different time of the year. And the great news for new people coming into regionals, whether they’re new to burning or not, is that these have been going on for a long time so there’s an established culture and community to join.

    And even just in the Mid-Atlantic and North Eastern US areas where I am, there are a ton of different burns throughout the year from February through October.

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  • Tom Rusing says:

    I strongly support keeping the main Burning Man event. It provides a significantly different unique experience. I sincerely hope you don’t change it.
    Thank you

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  • G.K. says:

    I was just saying this last night at a party where some of us said we would love to pick 2-3 a year since they happen all across the calendar. They are accessible, immediate, and personal. You can engage in them more fully and directly. Come join us at Element 11 this solstice out on the great salt lake.

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  • $teven Ras$pa says:

    Yes indeed! Regional Events are creating their own glorious cultural cauldrons, bringing the ideals of BRC local and adding their own unique cultural flavor in the process. It is equally important to honor the many projects, leadership summits, and intimate gatherings that artists, theme camps, BWB chapters, Regional Contacts and other community organizers–regularly create. These are not even so much “event” focused as they are about just consistently bringing people together for a shared endeavor, knowledge-sharing, or just to meet one another and dream together. Those lay the foundation for the kind of art magic that manifests at Regional Events. Small gestures repeated over time create the momentum of our cultural movement. Small is not only beautiful, it is what makes things scale well over time.

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  • Sean Q says:

    “Burning man peaked in ’09” is the sardonic quote from that famous demo reel for “Burning man, the Musical” -and in my opinion, it did. I haven’t been back to BRC since 2015, and it’s entirely because the regionals are better, easier, more enjoyable and super fun. They’re full of “burner types” who have never set foot on the Playa, and who “bring it” in a multitude of ways. BRC has become a blinky-light international destination, for a “kinder, gentler” Burningman, where people fly in with less creativity, humour and fuckery just to see the sights. Sure, BRC was destined to change. And it did. Go big. Go regional.

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  • Jason says:

    True story. In 1998 I was visiting a remote jungle camp on the Orinoco delta in Venezuela. There was a monkey. Us tourists thought the monkey was fun and charming, the locals in charge of the camp less so.

    Some German tourists in the camp had their passports out on the table. The monkey was entertaining them from the rafters. It climbed down, grabbed a passport, ran off with it, and after a futile chase, disappeared under the floorboards with it, then reappeared without the passport.

    We had to dismantle half the lodge floor to get that damn passport back. By the time I left, I agreed with the lodge workers that maybe the monkey was less fun than I originally thought.

    Also, yes, Regionals are great. I’ve been to BRC 7x and I’ve been to 6 official and many unofficial regional events. I love the regionals, for ease, for affordability, for small personal interactions, because I can bring my kids there easily. But there’s something about the desert, the dust, the size and scale of the ambitions there, that keeps me coming back. The future may be the regionals, but we need the mothership to remind us of what is truly possible.

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  • Scarecrow says:

    I’m a newer burner. This is my 2nd year and I have 6 regional burns under my belt. The spirit of burning literally saved my life. That being Said, I’m not in an immediate hurry to go to BRC. I’ll get there one day. I have found my tribe, After 40 years. I’ve made some amazing friends & grown as a person. My adult son also burns & I’ve really enjoyed watching him grow in a safe & encouraging community. The big burn seems to be getting closer to a festival every year. I’m so grateful for all the great memories & growth I’ve reaped in such a short time. I just got back Sunday from my first leadership role at a regional burn (Reclaimation, ky) and I can’t wait to head so many more burns! I’m so excited to see regional take the art of burning to amazing new heights!

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  • Jeremy says:

    Been a regional burner for 15 yrs, been to 40 plus burns. I think BRC is gross, went once in 2010. Full of theives and social media fiends. We have what Burning Man lost 15-20 years ago and we ain’t gonna lose it because all the virgins and insta-models go straight to the playa and leave us alone. Burning Man has the highest ratio of virgins/idiots of any burn I’ve been to. I think the regional culture is far more consistent. (Full disclosure I’m on leadership team for Emergence in SC….)

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  • Aaroneous, The One and Only says:

    “Passing the torch” sets up a weird ownership narrative that I dont think really resonates with the culture (as well as assigning some entity to “the future” and taking it away from another entity)

    A better metaphor might be the difference in seeing Lion King on Broadway vs going to a community play. Each provides an experience that is unique to the other. There is some overlap (both are “theatre”) but there are things you can’t experience in one or the other. You’re likely never going to see million dollar sets and costumes with casts of hundreds at a community play, and you’re just as likely to not see your cousin perform Glengarry Glen Ross in NYC. But you just might get to lend a hand building a set on a weekend.

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  • Queencock says:

    The beauty with the Burns (as we do not call them “regionals” that’s something only the Americans do). Is that they are sized so you make amazing connections with people you meet over and over again.

    Burning man is just so American supersize me, like a McDonald’s meal u feel a bit sick after eating. Gorgeous art, but that human connection and play got lost somewhere between the million dollar art cars.

    The Burns are not the future of Butning man, they are Burns with their own intention and identity. Colored by the culture and nature that is hosting them.

    Afrika Burn is this magical place that’s so much more friendlier and open than Burning man. Nowhere is so liberated, soft and safe, Borderland is playful in a way that the others ain’t.

    Burns are Burns, the principles are guiding them, slightly changing for each burn, Burning man might be the first one, but that’s it, the Burns are living their own life, creating their own culture and most Burner will not ever visit Burning man

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