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Burning Man 2021: Lawless, Unprecedented, & Just What We Needed

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A small musical parade journeyed across the playa before gathering around an art exhibit. (All photos by Josh Wolf)

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.

An illuminated bike rides across the playa at night.

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.

Letter from the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. See original post here.

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.”

Bicyclists hover around an art car as it travels across the playa

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.

Some friends from camp head out on a musical parade across the playa.

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.

My truck packed up and on the journey to 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.”

A sound healing ceremony at Camp Spooky Kitty.

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.

A cauldron brews Pho on the playa.

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.

Fire play at Camp Spooky Kitty

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.

Sound Healing Tools

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.

A burner twirls a colorful toy during the procession.

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.

Bicyclists check our an art car on the playa.

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.

The view from the Camp Spooky Kitty dome.

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.

Spinners accompany musicians on the ad-hoc parade

Where Jones and I did agree was that how well the folks cleaned up after themselves would determine this year’s legacy.

A view towards remote playa

“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.

A sprinter traverses the playa flying a Black Lives Matter flag.

“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.”

The author spins fire for the first time. Photo by Angela Gaiton

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.

Folks from HOME in Black Rock City.

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

“Welcome Home.”

More photos from the “Rogue Burning Man 2021”

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Josh Wolf

Josh Wolf

Josh Wolf is a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker who teaches in the Journalism Department at San Francisco State University. He is also the founder of Breaking Bread, a web site that creates friends out of strangers by sharing a meal.

28 Comments

  1. Jesse
    September 7, 2021 at 12:05 pm — Reply

    Good article! But, the ads that play over images make this nearly un-readable.

  2. Rick
    September 7, 2021 at 12:07 pm — Reply

    No one at Burning Man is broke. Costs a fortune to go.

    • carl
      September 7, 2021 at 6:34 pm — Reply

      i saw a whole bunch of broke dirty traveler dirty kids there! a bunch of them said it was their first time cause it was free? didnt they know burning man is always free for dirty hippies?

  3. Brenda Dos Santos
    September 7, 2021 at 3:16 pm — Reply

    I think this worked out because it was a small number of people that came. Definitely looked fun and I probably would have gone too if I was around, but being a veteran burner I agree with Jones that it would have been a shit show with no order or layout and rules if 40,000 plus people showed up. Glad fun was had by you all.

  4. Bob Culley
    September 7, 2021 at 4:53 pm — Reply

    The first Burning Man on the playa was 1990, not 1992.

  5. carl
    September 7, 2021 at 6:32 pm — Reply

    sure it looks like most the people who ditched out sunday had cleared out all their beer cans and piss jugs but its gonna take a lot of VOLUNTEER power to clean up a few square miles of microplastics

  6. Larry Telea
    September 7, 2021 at 6:42 pm — Reply

    Always wanted to attend but can’t afford the ungodly price of admission. This renegade “burn” is far more appealing and affordable.

  7. Princess
    September 7, 2021 at 8:37 pm — Reply

    For someone who says they’ve been following burning Man for 20 years, you’ve gotten just about everything completely and disrespectfully wrong. Burning Man started at Baker Beach in San Francisco not ocean beach. Burning Man moved to the Black Rock desert in 1990 not 1992. Also this is the second year in a row burning Man is canceled not the first. You obviously should lay off your chemically induced staycation while trying to pretend to be a true burner when you’re truly not. So please now receive back into your poop bucket world and do a little f****** research Jesus christ. This is so embarrassing.. you should have at least talked to one single veteran burner before you printed some lame ass butt wipe newspaper. And f*** your burn next year.

    • September 8, 2021 at 5:38 pm — Reply

      Hi Princess,

      The Baker Beach instead of Ocean Beach was a result of not having an opportunity to really sleep much before writing the story in order to make deadline.

      The year I should have looked up and not gone from memory; the article speaks of how Burning Man was cancelled last year and that people attended but in significantly smaller numbers.

      I spoke to Steve Jones who has attended the Burning Man many times over the past two decades and wrote a book about Burning Man that was well received by the community.

      Thank you for pointing out my errors. Mistakes do happen. Corrections will be made as soon as I grab a slice of pizza for dinner.

      Have a good day.

    • Roy Jordan
      September 11, 2021 at 7:01 pm — Reply

      “Why So Serious?”

  8. Dave
    September 7, 2021 at 10:21 pm — Reply

    The author entirely fails to address the other big shoe that has yet to drop: COVID. The number of positive cases of the Delta variant brought to the event, transmitted, and then carried back to communities across the country (across the globe) is certainly a non-zero number. How many unnecessary deaths will pay for your good time?

    • September 8, 2021 at 5:41 pm — Reply

      I did attempt to address this in the article. While the risks associated with the Covid and the Burn are real, there are plenty of other events happening throughout the country that similarly are drawing large crowds and not requiring a record of a vaccination.

      Given it’s 100 percent outdoor nature, an expansive place to camp without being crowded, I just don’t think it’s worth making a big deal about its impact on covid. If we were to go back to sheltering in place, it would have been a different story and most of us would have stayed home.

      As far as folks traveling from great distances, my journey was less than 4 hours away and the only place I stopped was in Reno for gas.

  9. Jack
    September 8, 2021 at 6:25 am — Reply

    Nice article. That first timers can self-organize around the Burn’s principles fills me with optimism for the future.

    BTW, Black Rock Rangers don’t enforce rules, nor do they have the means of enforcement. That’s LE’s job (Pershing County Sheriff, Pyramid Lake police, BLM Rangers, etc). Here’s what Rangers do:
    https://rangers.burningman.org/what-do-rangers-do/

    • September 8, 2021 at 5:42 pm — Reply

      Who enforces the no drone without a BRC license and that only art cars can drive around rules?

  10. M
    September 8, 2021 at 10:33 am — Reply

    There is a typo in the third paragraph. Where it says pretext it should say protect.

  11. Dusk Rider
    September 8, 2021 at 1:00 pm — Reply

    I stopped reading this when you didn’t credit the Plan B organizers. The city didn’t magically appear, it was planned, and the good folks who came to the playa benefited from that plan.
    Also, I don’t know what event you were at, but sitting in camp with cars blasting by at 30 mph and kicking up dust— was not consistent with your almost universal 5 mph comment.
    You had a couple of nice perspectives, but if you can’t get some of the basics correct, your commentary is tainted and therefore of little use.

    • September 8, 2021 at 5:48 pm — Reply

      I wrote about my experience. I hadn’t even heard the words Plan B referred to as anything but the Morning After Pill until I was back from the Playa and Alex Mak, the editor added me to that FB group.

      Similarly while I witnessed a handful of motorcycles and ATVs whizzing by at high velocity around the camps area, I didn’t see any cars driving above maybe 12 mph outside of deep playa.

  12. Constellar
    September 8, 2021 at 1:21 pm — Reply

    I didn’t think of going, but if I were to go, the only reason why I’d go is for the good acid, molly, & shroooms.

  13. Chris Charles
    September 9, 2021 at 11:24 am — Reply

    Will reserve judgment until we’ve heard from BLM, Paiute Tribe, and local authorities, as to how well people cleaned up after themselves, and how little negative impact they had on the environment. As Steve Jones opines, that will really determine the success of this event,

  14. P Segal - Bohemian Archivist
    September 9, 2021 at 12:23 pm — Reply

    Thanks for linking to my article, but while others have cited errors like first year (1990) and first location (Baker Beach), I’d add that it wasn’t the police who stopped the beach burn, but the park rangers.

    In many ways, this renegade version reminded me of us, those first years, except that we thought about infrastructure from day one, and began with the “Leave No Trace” ethic.

    • Tired of White Hippies
      September 11, 2021 at 5:22 am — Reply

      So the Tribe told the White idiots not to go but you went anyway? Great!

      I really enjoyed your article about how everything was swell and how every last person behaved themselves without exception. A summer of love, eh?

      It’s a great example of how autonomous zones are very safe spaces where Covid can’t be spread and you convinced me.

      Thank god you wrote this article. I feel like we can safely place the well-being of this country in your capable, lawless hands and all will be better.

      Fuck those Natives, right? Go again next year! Yay, Anarchy!

      Next write an article about how Sturgis-loving Trump supporters are a danger with their covid spreading ways.

      Jackass.

  15. S Sands
    September 10, 2021 at 12:05 pm — Reply

    I’m kinda of surprised about this article. A lot of statements are plain our wrong. The man at Center Camp? The beach? The year? (I lost count).
    But even more glaring to me is the positioning of the whole event by someone with no first-hand knowledge of Burning Man itself. I just don’t get it.

  16. L
    September 10, 2021 at 1:25 pm — Reply

    hey that’s me at the pho place! excellent pho, brilliant burn

  17. Kyle Thomas
    September 11, 2021 at 11:57 am — Reply

    To be very clear, the Borg didn’t just cancel the burn out of concern or kindness. They proposed instead a highly regulated police-state event, with masks, social distancing, and, yes, vaccine mandates. In other words, the Borg offered to run an event under the same tyrannical restrictions that Joe Biden would announce for most Americans, just a few months later. It was a fascistic demand then, and it is a fascistic demand now. What happened next was incredible backlash from the burner community, as individuals balked and theme camps began to realise they could not expect their members to get vaccinated in numbers that would guarentee their functioning. The nail in the coffin was DPW telling the Borg to count them out. Now, the Borg might have taken time to listen to their concerns and adapt their plan, but the very DISCUSSION was a problem. Here was a large group of thousands of San Franciscans and other West Coast urbanites, muxed with freedom loving people from across America and the world, all of a sudden, talking frankly about their concerns about the vaccine, their opposition to mandates, and the nightmare system that would have to be created to enforce it. The Borg had lost control of the conversation, plus this was a BIG red-pill to people who hadn’t heard any opposition to the vaccine program thus far. It was a bigger outbreak of truth and outrage than even the FB algorithm could suppress, and after a week, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone, maybe the same shadowy figure that had suggested Bmorg “lead the way” on vaccine passports, quietly whispered “shut it down.” So the org withdrew its proposal, not out of altruism or concern, but out of embarassment.

    Vaccine passports is a no-go for Burners, and if you ask me, the Borg owes us all a BIG apology. But even if it apologises, it won’t come close to justifying the Borg’s continued existence. What, exactly, do the ever-increasing ticket prices pay for, if people are capable of handling their own affairs at no extra cost to themselves? What does the org stand for, porta potties and forced medicine? Who’s gonna pay $500 to throw a party for cops, when we can shit in our hands and stuff it in the glove compartment?

    • D C
      September 13, 2021 at 12:28 pm — Reply

      F the Borg… this year proved what’s been known all along. They are radically unnecessary. Besides feeling like a time capsule from 1998, this year was a lesson in radical self reliance, creativity and immediacy.

  18. Roy Jordan
    September 11, 2021 at 7:22 pm — Reply

    “Why So Serious” (The Joker)

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