Playing with Fire
If I asked you to play in the sand with me, would you?
Wanna build a camp in 100-degree heat? Wanna bike around the desert half naked? Wanna go to Burning Man with me?
“No way, I hate being dirty. And who would want to be stuck in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of drugged-out hippies?”
“That sounds dope, but isn’t it basically like a tech conference now?
“Weren’t there climate protests against Burning Man this year? The carbon footprint must be huge.”
Alas, too weird for some, already passé for others.
This year a reporter asked Richard Kent Green, a NYC-based actor who leads the camp Shamandome and has been attending Burning Man since 2013, “It’s just a bunch of people partying, isn’t it?” As Richard points out, of course it is! The question belies an assumption that parties are frivolous things, nothing but distractions from “real” life. Burning Man is no mere distraction, nor is it a means to something serious. Burning Man elevates frivolity to the level of ritual, in other words, social infrastructure.
Burning Man started in 1986 as a summer get-together among artists in the San Francisco counterculture who were interested in “radical self-expression,” performance art, and celebrating the solstice. As the party grew, it found its home in the Black Rock Playa, a dry Nevada lakebed on the ancestral lands of the Pyramid Lake Paiute people, who continue to take care of the landscape. The name Burning Man comes from the 40-foot wooden effigy that is burned every year at the end of the event. Everyone is expected to participate—through building, performance, artwork—there are “no spectators.” This year 73,000 people were in attendance, forming the week-long temporary desert settlement known as Black Rock City.
The desert has always been a place of art, spirit, and imagination. In the Tang Dynasty, Chinese monk Xuanzang walked through the Taklamakan Desert accompanied by mythical heroes to obtain Buddhist sutras. In the 19th century, Brigham Young led his followers to the Salt Lake Valley and attempted to create a Mormon state the size of Peru. According to the gospel, Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the Judean Desert before beginning his ministry. In these secular times, we continue to seek absolution and revelation in extreme landscapes and infinite horizons. Yale psychologists found in a 2022 study of Burners that such “transformative experiences help people transcend the borders of the self and connect with all of humanity.”
In recent years, Silicon Valley executives have made attending Burning Man into something of an initiation ritual and a running joke in tech media. Startup founder Adrian Aoun said that going to Burning Man inspired him to create Sidewalk Labs, Google’s urban planning division most famous for its failed “smart city” proposal for Quayside, Toronto. Ironically, Quayside and its successors propose a privatized influence over public data and municipal governance that runs counter to Burning Man’s principles of decommodification, participation, and communal effort.
It’s those community principles that make or break the party when the desert throws a curveball, as it did this year when unexpected downpours left Burners and their cars trapped in thick mud. Those who go to the burn expecting a vacation are disappointed to find that radical self-reliance and civic responsibility (also Burning Man principles) are really hard! This is why, according to Alina Sidorova, YC ’16, leader of the camp QT Pies, “people who build things are higher up the totem pole than performers or DJs. The people who build the city are the ones that usually come back year after year.”
Year after year, an urbanism of play emerges from the desert, in which shamans and programmers, situationists and climate scientists, architects and body painters share friendship, supplies, drugs, and knowledge. What we do with the fruits of that urban encounter is ultimately up to us. As the saying goes, the playa provides.