The Burning Man question: How does it feel?

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Note to Readers: I wrote the following article for BRC Weekly, which will be distributed at Burning Man this year. I’ve written articles for BRC Weekly and its predecessor, Piss Clear, each of the last several years.

How does Black Rock City feel this year? That’s the intangible question – the one that transcends how dusty the air or mind-blowing the art or intentional the participants – that will determine where Burning Man is headed in this new era now unfolding.

This year’s population is expected to exceed 60,000 souls, way more than last year when the feds capped the population at 50,000, which was exceeded by a few thousand on a couple days, leading the Bureau of Land Management overlords to place the event on probation.

But BLM officials were forgiving, and sympathetic to the tight spot that Burning Man found itself in this year, with skyrocketing demand for tickets compounded by this year’s great ticket lottery clusterfuck (which seemed to portend doom for a long time before most people found tickets at face value).

So they gave BRC a population cap of 60,900, and if all goes well this year, they’ll grant a five-year permit that will let this city grow to 70,000 by 2016. And event founder Larry Harvey doesn’t want to stop there, telling me during an interview in June: “We think we could go to 100,000 if it was measured growth, carefully planned.”

Really, 100,000? Sure, he said, although it would need further studies and better plans for getting people on and off the playa. Maybe that means more shuttles, or staggered arrival and departure times, or perhaps even adding a second week, the solution Coachella chose to grapple with its rising demand.

But before we can get into such ambitious futurizing, I’m curious to hear answers to my question: How does Black Rock City feel this year? Does it feel crowded, and what do those crowds feel like? How was your arrival experience, and what will your exodus entail? I’ve watched much of the art being built in the Bay Area this summer, so I know it’s awesome, but how does it feel to interact with it this year? Are there enough cool, weird things to do in the theme camps, and space on the art cars? Have any strangers made you feel special today?

I don’t know the answers to these questions as I write these words a couple weeks before Burning Man. But I do know that their answers matter, and that the quality of Burning Man in any given year transcends its mechanics or anything its organizers try to do in their most manic control-freak moments.

In that June interview – the latest of many that I’ve done with Larry over the last eight years – he argued for an event with a six-figure population while simultaneously saying the event matters less than the culture that has formed up around it.

“We’ve got to focus on the people. We’re becoming less event-centric,” Larry told me. “We think of this as a cultural movement.”

Frankly, I’m tired of fighting with Larry and Black Rock City LLC, the corporation that stages Burning Man, over the many contradictions and pitfalls that present themselves when a top-down corporation sponsors a cultural movement.

I’ve tried, and largely failed, to instigate burners to rise up and demand representation in the many decisions this cultural movement now faces – from the size and character of Black Rock City to the nature of our other Burning Manifestations to the governance structure of the nonprofit to which Larry has pledged to relinquish control (gradually, and on his terms).

He has told agitators like me, and there have been many over the last 25 years, to trust him or go start our own events. That’s fine, particularly if most burners are content to watch the event evolve on its own, as they seem to be. And they’ll probably do that as long as it feels good, feels authentic, and feels like a cultural movement rather than just another corporate creation.

Burning Man is always a blast – a 24-hour party city, filled with cool art, all built by participants in this grand socio-urban experiment – so I’m sure each virgin is getting his/her head split wide open about now, along with some veteran skulls.

But tell me, particularly those with a few years of perspective: How does it feel? How would it feel with almost double this year’s population? And how do we take those feelings, infuse them with information and intention, and shape the future of Burning Man?

Scribe, aka Steven T. Jones, is city editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian and the author of The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture.

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