Photo by Tara Guertin
Photo by Tara Guertin
Burning Man now draws a crowd of 70,000 to the middle of the Nevada desert.
Over the past 33 years, the art-focused desert gathering known as Burning Man has swelled to include 70,000 people. While some lament the resulting changes, others—like the longtime burners at AFAR—think the event keeps burning brighter.
The idea that Burning Man is “over” or “ruined” is about as ubiquitous—and possibly as old—as the weeklong event itself. What started as a large bonfire on San Francisco’s Baker Beach in 1986 has now grown into a wonderland of world-class, interactive art installations, an ephemeral city in the middle of the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, complete with named streets, medical and fire services, and loyal community that (literally) calls it home.
The event takes place every year around Labor Day and every year accounts of its more outrageous aspects swirl, spotlighting different examples of sexual exhibitionism, drug culture, and general weirdness brought in by each new wave of attendees, be they ravers, the technogentsia, or celebrities. Cue much pearl-clutching both outside the community and within it. The theme of Burning Man’s demise is so pervasive that the Burning Man Journal, the event’s official blog, published a tongue-in-cheek article in 2016 entitled “A Brief History of Who Ruined Burning Man.”
But despite the changes, “Burners” (Burning Man devotees) return year after year to camp at the same site, known as “The Playa,” and frolic in its famous dust and dance until dawn. It raises the question: Is this thing really ruined? We cornered two longtime Burners on the AFAR staff right after they’d returned from this year’s bacchanalia. They were still in a post-Burn haze, but we got them to open up—and even wax poetic—about how the gathering has changed over the years and what keeps them going back.
When Lou LaGrange, AFAR content partnerships director, attended his first Burn in 1996, there were 10,000 people, and he says it felt like the Wild West. “There were very few support services, and there wasn’t even that much law enforcement. There were no roads planned. In 1996, there was nothing, there was just a man in the middle, and it was kind of a free-for-all.”
“Back in the day, there was no rules, it was just anarchy,” agrees Tara Guertin, AFAR director of photography. Guertin’s first Burn was in 2013, but many of the people she camps with every year have been going for much longer. According to their stories, she says, “There was no city, per se; people drove out on any given day, they camped anywhere they wanted, and they blew shit up. There was art, but it was very rudimentary. It was small creatives without a lot of money who were piecing together things to bring out there and then destroying them.”
But as the city—The Playa is also known as Black Rock City—grew to accommodate interested creatives, support structures have sprung up, and with them came rules. “It’s more organized,” LaGrange notes of the evolving event. “As it grew, the organization started building out infrastructure and making sure there was a fire department and medical support services. And then of course local law enforcement got more involved because it’s a crazy massive event.”
“Every year there are more rules,” says Guertin. “There’s constant chatter about the changes that need to be made [to comply with the Bureau of Land Management regulations].” This year, for example, visitors were newly required to keep gasoline cans and generators in an elevated container to protect the landscape.
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“They also now make sure that Nevada state policies are being met,” LaGrange adds. “For instance, it’s always been a gifting community where you could give out food and drinks, but somewhere along the line they said, ‘If you’re going to give out drinks for free, you still have to ID people. If you’re going to be making any food products that you are distributing from your camps, food preparation people need to be wearing gloves.’”
LaGrange speculates that electric scooters and bicycles are going to be the next object of scrutiny. The city has become so big that it’s hard to get around unless you have a mode of transportation, usually bikes or cars that have been transformed into oversize art pieces and are regulated by the event organizers. “Because they’re appearing more and more in the real world,” says LaGrange, “a lot of electronic bicycles and scooters appeared on The Playa this year. Although good for the people driving them, because they can get places quicker, they created some issues for everyone else: They tend to go faster, blow up more dust, and can be dangerous. Much like how electronic scooters need policies in the real world, they also now need them in Black Rock City.”
And while rules may cramp some people’s style, ultimately, both Guertin and LaGrange believe the event is better for them. “I think it’s even more incredible than it used to be,” says LaGrange. “Black Rock City runs better than it used to in many ways. A long time ago if you injured yourself or had a problem, you wouldn’t really know where to turn, and now you have an entire city infrastructure that’s available to support you should you need help or have questions. And [with years of practice], the organized camps are more impressive. [They’ve] made better structures and brought in water supply tanks for themselves and generally found ways to make the experience better.”
Guertin has also noticed that there have been more international folks in recent years: “It’s a global phenomenon now, much more than it was 10 years ago. Now, on any given bike ride, you hear multiple languages.”
Best of all—the art is more spectacular. “Whereas in the past you might have seen a small, 20-foot, interesting metal sculpture,” says LaGrange, “that same artist has now created a 200-foot metal sculpture that breathes fire.”
Guertin agrees: “The tech money—it’s the yin and the yang, the good and the bad—yes, it brings in a lot of people that don’t pay any attention to the whole point, but it also brings in an enormous amount of money and that money creates art that is world class.”
Last year, the Smithsonian American Art Museum created an exhibit of some of the gathering’s pieces. No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man is currently on tour and headed to Oakland, California, where it will be from October 12, 2019, through February 16, 2020.
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Over the years, both AFAR staffers have favorite art works that have stuck with them. Guertin fondly remembers a moon sculpture from last year that was so realistic, it tricked many an attendee, and LaGrange recalls the year someone “took two 18-wheeler Mack Trucks and tied them into a pretzel.” Other favorites include a laser-sensored room that projected holograms of the people in it and a giant robot that viewers could control.
One of Guertin’s favorites returned this year: a steampunk ship. “It’s a schooner,” she says, “and they actually have horses that you would find on a merry-go-round so when the whole thing moves, the horses go up and down. There’s three masts, and there’s bridges between the masts, and people are on the horses and everything moves. I haven’t seen that for years. It was the first art car I ever rode; I was so blown away by it.”
This year, both Guertin and LaGrange were enchanted by an art work called The Folly, a 30-odd-room Western hotel complex complete with hidden staircases and incredible detail, including artworks that would slide to the side to reveal peepholes that looked onto miniature rooms.
“The amount of work and the amount of manpower and the amount of people that are volunteering for this type of thing, it’s not something you can see in regular life on a creative level very often,” says Guertin.
The same technology that is making the artworks increasingly awe-inspiring is working its magic on the DJ sets, too. “The sound systems now are so state of the art,” says Guertin, “that it’s almost more clear out there than in clubs I go to anywhere else.”
Ultimately, while the demographics and details have evolved, the ethos has not. “You hear a lot in the press about ‘oh Burning Man’s changing. It’s no good anymore, it’s not what it used to be,’” says LaGrange. “I would argue that that’s not true. The Burning Man ideals have not changed. It is still a utopian gifting community. There are no brands allowed. There may be a few Instagram influencers that try to sneak in there and post pictures, but it’s not a commercial experience at all. It’s still sort of this incredible fantastic alternative reality.”
“I got out there this year and the first thing I said was, ‘This just never gets old,’” says Guertin. “After so many years you’re just like ‘here we go again,’ and then there’s something new to see, something new to experience, there’s new emotion to kind of deal with, or you know physical challenge, mental challenge.”
As for what keeps them going back? “At the time of my first Burn, it was a little more about being with my friends and some of the partying you’ve heard about,” says LaGrange. “But very quickly, as the 2000s came about, it became less about youthful partying for me and more the sense of community that develops among complete strangers and the unbelievable amount of fascinating conversations with people you’ve never met and will never meet again.”
For Guertin, it’s all about the community as well: “It’s really the friends and connections that I’ve made there that have become integral to my life. This year we had someone renew their vows in camp, we had someone get engaged in camp. There have been two women in camp that have been pregnant and still attended. So it feels, and this is kind of corny, but it feels a little bit more like going home.”
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