Onward to 2022

We now have the official word from Burning Man’s celestial headquarters in San Francisco hat an on-site Burn will not take place in 2021 and the focus will move to building Black Rock City in 2022.  You can hear Marian Goodell’s statement on the BurningMan.org site, and you can read a detailed article about this decision at https://journal.burningman.org/2021/04/news/official-announcements/into-the-great-unknown/.

My feelings upon hearing the message were split between the relief of knowing I wouldn’t have to face a challenging decision between my own health and well-being and my responsibilities to the Temple Guardians, and the abject disappointment of another year without the power of a Burning Man experience.  But the reality is that I was more prepared for another “no-burn” year than for a burn fraught with the problems of a pandemic.

As it turns out, I wasn’t the only Burner with such mixed responses.  Reviewing the various comments I’ve seen from our Guardians, my response looks more like the norm than an aberration.

Burning Man has a famously libertarian DNA, and that reality might have impinged my personal ability to enjoy Burning Man with a sense of safety and security.  There has already been a kerfuffle over Danger Ranger’s public protestations about mask-wearing on Playa.  So we know that many Burners would come and choose to flout health and safety rules, even if the source was BLM rather than the org.  That’s simply who we are.  If you’re young, healthy and vaccinated, that might be fine; but if you’re older and burdened with underlying health issues (like me), then libertarianism might not look so enticing right now.

But the reality is that some of the Burning Man culture can be enjoyed with the same virtual protections that have been the hallmarks of 2020-21.  As Marilyn put it in her talk, Burning Man will continue, even without the build of BRC.  There will be another online burn week.  Last year’s event, while not without its hiccups (I personally never figured out the interface), looked amazing in the portions I was able to see after the fact.  Attendance was sparse compared to a live event, but substantial by online standards.  Be on the lookout for more details about virtual burn week this year.

There are other activities as well, including working on funded art pieces and helping build the Temple, but perhaps the best way to keep the spirit of Burning Man alive is by staying in touch with campmates and members of your team.  I stay deeply involved with Temple Guardians, and also keep in touch with other friends I’ve made at the burn.   In fact, whenever I see tattoos, I think about the people I’ve met at Burning Man who look so totally different from me yet share my values.

So, there’s a second year of “no Burning Man,” and the organization is struggling to survive with limited revenues.  I personally find the $2500 “cut in line” deal an insulting knee-bend to the almighty dollar, hence the least inclusive decision ever by Burning Man.  But it’s clear that money is the critical component to keeping the flame lit so I understand it even if I hate the implications.  Oh well, Onward to 2022.

Making the Pie Bigger

My last post clearly resonated with people (and hit a nerve with some).  I’m happy that so many people visited the site over the past few days and I was thrilled with the dialog (much of which was on Reddit).

I’m a committed Burner, and have been since 2005.  In fact, there are stories in this site’s archives (which goes back at least as far as 2007) about my first Burn, when I was dragged out to the Playa by my son who was 20 that year while I was turning 60.  I would never have gone on my own and I was prepared to hate every minute of it; but the instant I walked through the gate and rang the virgin bell, I knew I was home.

When I returned from that first Burn I felt 20 years younger, and I couldn’t wait to tell other people my age about the Fountain of Youth I had discovered in the Black Rock Desert.  I’m an enthusiast, and even something of an evangelist for the powers of Burning Man – especially for people 50 and over.  I’ve even met people on Playa who came as a direct result of reading this blog.

Hence, I wouldn’t want anyone to take my last blog as a criticism of Burning Man or anything other than my own personal experience, and the viewpoint I’ve arrived at from those experiences.  Burning Man could not exist without the commitment of dedicated volunteers.  When I see what DPW accomplishes every year in constructing and then deconstructing BRC, I’m blown away.  These are extremely competent individuals who give up a significant part of their year to turn the blank slate of the Black Rock Desert into a city of 70 to 80,000 people.  I’m proud to be a tiny part of that effort; to participate with my team and campmates and to push myself to do whatever it takes to ensure a successful Burn.

The Temple 2019, from a distance

I just believe in honoring all the work done by Burners, even if it’s in the name of fun vs. something more “serious” such as Rangering, Lamplighting, or spending time helping people get what they need out of the Temple.  Burning Man wouldn’t be the same without the discos, the bars, the camps that provide free grilled cheese or slushies, and most especially the camp that provides Bluegrass music.  No one’s work is more important than another’s, and many Burners put in a ton of effort before and during Burn week.  I only become uncomfortable when people start laying judgment on others around being a more important part of BRC, or a harder working piece of the Burn.  There’s one “hardest working man in rock and roll” (it’s James Brown, by the way), but there isn’t a “hardest working team at Burning Man.”

If someone’s all caught up in their own thing, that’s fine.  Just don’t drag me into it.  I’m fully committed to the work I do, and to opening the world up to Burning Man’s principles.  But it’s not a winner-loser proposition.  Somebody doesn’t have to fail for me to succeed, and as competitive as I may be in sports and other areas, I genuinely believe the pie only gets bigger when we all do the right things for each other.  When I’m involved with Burning Man, I’m there all the way.  Otherwise, I’m doing the rest of the stuff my life demands.

It’s Just Burning Man

I recently completed yet another zoom meeting, this time regarding our Temple Guardians team, and it reminded me once again what’s both great and terrible about Burning Man.  Don’t misunderstand…I love Burning Man and love spending a couple of weeks out in the desert with thousands of other Burners every year.  But it’s a temporary situation, and when it’s over I return to my normal life; to my family and friends whom I see year-round.  I don’t live or die based on what happens in the dust, or what happens in the Temple.

But I realized during this meeting that not everyone experiences Burning Man as a moment in time.  For some individuals, it is their entire life.  If you’re shocked to learn this, then you may not have been deep in the weeds with some of BRC’s more emotionally connected participants.

My point is not to detail any such experiences or to call them out for criticism.  It is, instead, to advise people to keep Burning Man in perspective.  It’s there for having fun, for existing outside of yourself for a few days, for living Burning Man’s utopian principles for at least a part of your year.  But once you’ve turned it into the most important thing you do, the main support for your psychic well-being, you risk ruining it for yourself and for those around you.

It’s About Having Fun

We’re currently in our second major organizational upheaval, and the main reason for these seismic events is that a small percentage of our team have turned the Temple into their personal religion, or their raison d’etre.  Once this idea takes hold of Burners, they believe they have ownership of the work and demand ultimate appreciation and approval for what they’ve done.  It’s absolutely essential for people to take their missions seriously at Burning Man – especially if it’s a mission crucial to the event’s success.  Jobs like Gate, Exodus, Lamplighters, Greeters, and – yes – Temple Guardians must be done right in order to ensure a successful Burn that meets or exceeds the expectations of attendees.  But work is simply that – it’s work, and it’s not a test of your personal worth.

Most Guardians, as with most Lamplighters and others, take a balanced approach to their momentary roles at Burning Man.  They love the Temple, are devoted to their work, seek ways to support Burners who visit the Temple, and do everything in their power to keep the structure safe and secure before and during the Burn.  Carrying that work forward throughout the year makes sense as well.  We have to keep the organization operating smoothly, inform fellow Guardians of developments that affect their work, and solve problems that may have occurred during the prior Burn week.

But there’s a pit that some people stumble into, and it can result in a downward spiral into depression or – at the very least – expectations that cannot be met within the organization.  Balancing hard work with over-commitment is the key to avoiding disappointment, resentment, and self-loathing.  We all need to keep in mind that this is Burning Man – not life or death.  For us older Burners who may no longer have active careers, it can be tempting to transfer your lifetime of commitment to Burning Man activities.  And that’s fine, as long as we don’t commit our self-worth as well.

News from the Top

I just finished watching Burning Man CEO Marian Goodell’s April 10 update on Burning Man 2021.  This announcement – while rich with information – was not billed as a “go/no-go” report.  I wanted to review the content for all of the Burning Man enthusiasts who read this site but also to let you know that if you sign on to burningman.org you’ll find a link to the entire video.

Light at the end of the tunnel? Probably not.

So, here goes (in the order presented by Marian):

  1. Should Burning Man occur this year, proof of vaccination will be required for anyone to enter the gate. There’s also consideration of an on-site testing program, but details have not been worked out at this point.
  2. No matter what, the BRC population will be reduced if a 2021 Burn occurs. The org has requested a BLM permit for 69,000 people, vs. 80,000 at the last Burn.  Feedback from surveys among camp leaders has further reduced the expected population to 50-55,000 Burners.
  3. Additionally, there will be an international impact on attendance because some countries do not allow travel (or will not be allowed to travel to the U.S.) primarily because of the unavailability of vaccines.
  4. Burning Man is on solid ground financially because of the generosity of attendees and other contributors. At this point, the organization is not dependent on holding a 2021 Burning Man in order to survive.  Even art funding is continuing.  In fact, a group of donors has provided a $1 million grant that has allowed the org to fund art now, whether it ends up on Playa this year or next.
  5. Typical funding for art covers 70 on-Playa projects. Proposals have already been received for 59 projects, and the $1 million grant will expand that number.  Art proposals have come in from countries including Russia, Ukraine, Indonesia, Spain and others plus 15 U.S. states.  Proposals can be viewed online at burningman.org/2021art.  In Marian’s words, “Art is going to happen” in 2021.
  6. While BRC remains “up in the air” for now, work at Fly Ranch continues apace. Burning Man’s LAGI – Land Art Generator Initiative –resulted in 10 prototype projects on sustainability proposed for Fly Ranch.  One, from MIT Labs, has been selected for funding and will go forward, according to Marian.  Learn more about it and about Fly Ranch at FlyRanch.org.
  7. Another sign that Burning Man is alive and well is The Hive Labs, an interactive project to expand Burning Man’s cultural impact around the world. While “membership” is currently capped, additional Burners may be able to join in the future.  Check it out at hive.burningman.org.
  8. The Burning Man multiverse will take place this year whether or not BRC is built on the Playa. Last year’s virtual event attracted 165,000 attendees, including 100,000 on Burn Night alone.
  9. Tickets – Burning Man has begun working on DGS tickets (direct sale tickets for major theme camps and art cars) although this effort should not be interpreted as a decision on holding the Burn this year. On a more concrete level, the org is introducing “Invitation to the Future,” an opportunity to reserve tickets for the next two Burning Man events (whether that’s for 2021-2022 or later).  The ticket price will be face value, but the cost of the reservation has been set at $2500.
  10. Finally, Marian promised updates over the next few weeks and a go/no-go decision on 2021 by the end of the month.

My take:  While the meeting had all the positive vibes you might expect from an organization that has bucked the odds and survived the pandemic, I do not see any indication that there’s going to be a (non-virtual) Burn this year.  The safety and health obstacles are too great, and I suspect (based on my conversation with an insider) that BLM will not be willing to approve it.  The liabilities seem too high to justify the rewards.  But it’s great to know that the organization is so vibrant during this difficult period, and is continuing to expand its culture into new realms.

Are You Kidding Me? Yes!

It was around midnight on March 31 when I spotted an article about Burning Man on my Google News feed.  It declared that the 2021 Burn would take place under a huge dome that could house 60,000 people, all of whom would be protected from the outside world and its lethal germs.  This dome was made of a material that the Burning Man org had invented and patented, and which they were prepared to offer free-of-charge to other events because – well, because we’re good guys.

According to the article, “Burning Man’s Chief Science Officer Nicholas Riviera said. ‘Housing the festival inside a dome will ensure no dangerous particles can enter Burning Man and it will mean our family can congregate and celebrate life on this precious earth in peace and harmony, as the founders of the Burn intended.’”

That one made me scratch my head.  I’ve spent some time at Burning Man headquarters in San Francisco and never heard of a Chief Science Officer.  Then the article mentioned “Burning Man’s Head Of Innovation Christine Chapel”, another job and person I had no knowledge of.  By that point, the clock had turned past midnight and my wife reminded me that it was April Fool’s Day and this article was probably an April Fool’s joke.  By the time the article described how the smoke from the Man Burn would go out of the dome and only fresh air would come in, we were laughing out loud.

Burning Man to take place beneath "Truman Show-esque dome"Burning Man will take place beneath a ‘Truman Show-esque dome’ later this year.” — MixMag

Then came the best part.  It seems that Google had secretly become Burning Man’s sponsor in 2019 and would pay for the dome.  I started imagining Google logos all across the Playa, and the elimination of our “no commodification” principle.  Larry Harvey must have been rolling over in his grave.

Anyway, the story seems to have disappeared from the news feed and was clearly a full-on April Fool’s joke, so there’s still no reason to believe that Burning Man 2021 is a certainty.  My understanding at this point is that a decision will be made in May.  Even with that possibility still extant, I’m personally not optimistic about going for reasons I’ve already stated here:  age, underlying medical issues, the inability to hold Burning Man with social distancing in place (will we have to do “air hugs”?).

But I have to keep in mind the great value of Burning Man to people my age, and search for ways to keep such youth-inducing activities in my life.  I don’t want to just shrivel up and grow old simply because there’s no Burning Man to give me a jolt every summer.

As I’ve noted before, there are some things about Burning Man that are specific to infusing my life with that youthful feeling: the diverse and mostly young crowd of people; the abundant creativity blossoming everywhere on the Playa; the erotic environment that helps remind me I’m still a living, vital human; and the constant state of joy among attendees.  All these elements combine to have an effect on my spirit and my body that take years off my chronological age, and echo throughout the rest of the year.  I want those feelings back.  And that’s no joke.