Burning Man 2021: Lawless, Unprecedented, & Just What We Needed
The young, broke and beautiful took over Black Rock City this past weekend after the non- profit organization cancelled their event.
Burning Man first moved to the Playa in 1990 when the park rangers stopped the Man from being burned on Baker Beach. What had started out as anarchist art camp-out in the desert, evolved into a temporary private city with its own rules and regulations. There’s even a Department of Public Works (DPW) and rangers who work to ensure the rules are followed.
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Last year, For the first time in its history, the Burning Man organization elected to cancel the burn because of the pandemic. The general consensus at that time was that it was a necessary decision to both protect the public health of those in attendance as well as to protect the folks living in the small towns outside of the area.
Black Rock City is erected each year on the unceded land of the Northern Paiute tribe. Rightfully concerned about the health of their people, the tribal leaders asked people last year to stay away.” Folks mostly obliged with the pleas from organizers, public health officials and the tribe who calls the land of Black Rock City their home although a few thousand people chose to attend anyhow.
While the threat of Covid continues to rage, America is back open for business, and the tribe itself has reopened their visitor center with strict health protocols in place.
This year’s message from the tribe was significantly more subdued.
“The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe would like to remind those who plan (on) participating in activities on the playa to consider their impact on the Reservation and to abide by the Pyramid Lake tribal code and regulations,” said a community bulletin published by the tribe on August 17. “Leave no trace. There will be no trash collection services on the reservation.”
The Burning Man organization itself took a less condemning tone this year as well. In a recent post on its blog, the author took the time to explain that the infrastructure folks expect at Black Rock City will not be there, but didn’t go as far as encouraging people to stay home.
I spoke to Steve Jones, a friend of mine and the author of Tribes of Burning Man, about this year’s renegade burn.
He told me he felt this years festivities were a terrible idea that the aftermath may undermine the goodwill that Burners and the Burning Man organization have worked for years to build both in the local communities around Black Rock City and throughout the world.
I feel like his criticism softened a bit after I told him I had just returned from my first ever experience at the playa.
It was less than 24 hours from the time I decided to attend until I was in my truck traveling toward the playa. And less than 48 hours later I was headed back home having a bite-size transformational experience at the renegade burn.
Almost everyone at my house had also decided to go at the last minute and none of them had been before either. When I finally found someone not going to the Burn who was able to house sit for the weekend, I jumped in my truck and headed to the playa.
I told Jones that it was only because the event was canceled that I was even able to attend. Almost everyone I had met on the playa was also experiencing their first“Burn.”
The fact that so many folks who otherwise would never have been able to attend Burning Man seemed to resonate with Steve who said that much of his criticism of the organization had been about the Org and Burning Man simply getting too big.
“I would like to see more of that happen,” he said. “I’ve long argued that Burning Man has gotten too big and should be broken up into smaller events.”
In years past, the Burning Man organization provided an immense amount of infrastructure support including a vast army of medical support, water to maintain the roads of the playa, porta-potties and other support systems for the city to function. The organization also doles out hundreds of thousands of dollars for large and small scale art installations and, of course, provides for the construction and destruction of The Man himself.
This year there were no porta potties and everyone was expected to bring their own buckets to shit and piss in. There was very little art exhibited beyond the hundreds of art cars and small stages scattered throughout the playa. There was no man. And nothing beyond firewood in elevated fire pits was burned by order of the Bureau of Land Management that oversees the federal land where Burning Man happens each year.
On Saturday night, when the Man normally would have been set ablaze, the denizens of Black Rock City were instead treated to a drone show featuring one comprised of floating lights that turned to orange before collapsing into a visual representation of the traditional burning structure.
Throughout my time on the playa more than half the people I encountered were having their first Burning Man experience. Others had gone years before but had grown jaded by the massive expansion of the Burn and hadn’t been in years. I only met a few folks who considered themselves regular attendees.
Somehow even though the entire organization that is Burning Man was absent from the playa, and despite the incredibly high number of first-time burners, the practices and cultures of Burning Man remained largely intact.
The now famous city grid that Burning Man has maintained since the mid 90s rose from the playa without any central authority or direction. Even though there weren’t any street signs this year, people still referred to intersections throughout the playa in the same way that San Franciscans would have no trouble navigating or giving directions were all the street signs in the city to disappear overnight.
With no one to enforce the rules preventing personal automobiles from driving around Black Rock City, people were free to traverse the desert however they chose, and yet, everyone chose to use their cars sparingly and the 5 mph speed limit established by the organization was followed universally without any posted speed limit signs or rangers to enforce the laws of Black Rock City.
No one sought permission to fly their drones or land their planes at Black Rock City Airport and there was hardly any law enforcement present from the default world.
“It was illegal. It was against the federal land management rules,” said Jones. “Somebody’s got to water the roads. There’s infrastructure… no borders and anybody could come. It’d be like fucking Woodstock. It’d be a shit show.”
But despite the lack of anyone to enforce the rules or borders to contain the city, it wasn’t a shit show at all. By most accounts it was essentially business as usual.
At some point during my chemically-enhanced sojourn to hippie Mecca, I realized I was witnessing a revolution.
Burning Man is dead. Long live Burning Man.
In what reminded me of the Diggers famous 1967 mock funeral commemorating the end of the Summer of Love. I was not only witnessing Burning Man come full circle back to its anarchic art roots but I had now come to conclude that a communist revolution of a socialist state is actually possible, at least in the magical world of the playa.
“I hope they cancel Burning Man again next year,” became a surprising refrain from folks on the playa having the time of their lives.
Where Jones and I did agree was that how well the folks cleaned up after themselves would determine this year’s legacy.
“While Burning Man definitely has a leave no trace ethos and camps are pretty good about take care care of the playa,” Jones said. “There’s huge crews there for a month taking care of the playa… that’s not going to happen now. It’s definitely going to be far more trashed because that structure is not in place.”
I had left the Playa on Sunday afternoon and had heard that a lot of folks did in fact intend to stick around after the party to finish cleaning up, but I could understand his skepticism that they’d follow through.
“That seems like a big ask and a really bougie ask,” he said. “If you need labor to throw the event, pay them instead of expecting them to work for free.”
I suggested that people might be far more willing to do the work for free if Burning Man were free and there wasn’t an organization selling millions of dollars in tickets each year.
Both on the playa and online people are exploring ways for the so-called Burning Man Plan-B to be return next year. Some folks are suggesting an open party just beyond the land leased by the organization. Others have suggested that Burning Man avoid getting a permit altogether and just sponsoring Center Camp where the man is historically showcased and then burned. If tickets to Burning Man were optional would people continue to give their financial support?
“What you’re suggesting about what these two years will show off about central the organization is to the culture and it’s relationship to the playa, I think that will be interesting to see what the final takeaways for that are,” said Jones. “I think with a strong commitment and good will you can do that the first year probably. Whether that will be a sustainable thing or not I don’t know.”
Although this was my first time on the playa, I’ve been studying Burning Man for more than 20 years. It was in this same era that I was introduced to Hakim Bey’s concept of temporary autonomous zones, much of the last decade of my life has been a process of trying to answer the question what life would look like if we could live our lives outside of the default world.
In 2017, I joined my girlfriend at the time to see the total eclipse at Oregon Eclipse Festival. It obviously isn’t the same thing as Burning Man but I left the festival with the initial recipe for a 5,000 person ecovillage called Symbio.city.
Needless to say, that city never made it off the page, but in the summer of 2019 I launched HOME, a community inspired by both the principles of permaculture and Burning Man located three miles outside Nevada City. HOME stands for Healing Our Mined Ecology and when I finally got the wifi set up I knew without any deliberation what our Wifi password would be