The Burning Man Arson and the growth of Burning Man

As you know, I took photos of the burning man arson and put them up very quickly, so we did not yet know it was arson, or the reason.

Like most people, even before knowing it was arson was shock. Would this cancel the Saturday burn? Even to the jaded, the burn remains the climax of the event. It is the one time the whole city gets together and has a common experience. (This year the Crude Awakenings burn also did that.) My photos last year are Burning Man’s only “group portrait” I would expect. It has, however, become very much a spectator rather than participatory event. The days of volunteers helping to raise the man are long gone.

The burn has also become overdone, under the burden of having to be the climax of an already extravagant week. Each year they feel they have to outdo prior years, and that’s a slope that can’t be maintained. New burners (virgins) would be impressed by any level of burn, I think, so I presume they do it for themselves and a perception of impressing the old-timers. Still, it was disturbing to think the climax of the event would be removed, and good when it was clear the fire was not so bad as to stop a restoration or rebuilding.

But then I was surprised to see how positive the reaction was. Aside from the team that had their work destroyed (and would now have to give up several days of their event to rebuild) I would even judge the overall perception of the arson to be quite positive. Addis claims it was done with care to assure nobody was under the Man. Having had my own art vandalized (not nearly this badly) at Burning Man, I know how deeply that wounds. So I can’t approve of how it was done. But there was a large amount of support for what it meant. (Reportedly even from Larry Harvey.) In fact, since I didn’t talk to the rebuilding crew, I can’t say I met more than a handful of people who expressed any particular disapproval (or even non-approval) of it. And that surprised me, at first.

This support was even broader outside the event, on message boards from those who were not going this year. (Those who were arriving later seemed eventually to mostly be upset that they missed this piece of Burning Man history.) Of course people who have never been to Burning Man had no understanding at all, and mostly found it amusing that people were in consternation over the burning of something meant to be burnt.

People have been lamenting the destruction of the older, intimate Burning Man culture since before I started going, and I’ve gone for 10 years. I admit I feel a bit of that creeping in myself with a city of 47,000. But I’ve always realized that as it grew, this was bound to happen, and one could still work for the best, something bigger, but also something new and even better, rather than an overpopulated shadow of what it was.

One way to do this might be to cut back on the centralization which is the obvious first reaction to size. Don’t follow the instinct to make the spectacle of the Man’s burn bigger as the city gets bigger. Find ways to make art grants more distributed, more democratized. (For example, let all ticket holders vote on a web site for art, as BorgII wanted.) Instead of a top-down theme declared by fiat, let a theme evolve out of discussions of the artists.

I’ve been critical of a phrase the hard-working DPW crew like to use to be proud of what they do: “We built this city.” Critical because while they work long and hard before and after most of the rest of us, they only build 1% of the city, and I don’t want them to spread the meme that Burning Man arises from anything other than its participants. DPW (and BMOrg) doesn’t build a city for the inhabitants, it does the groundwork because of them, because it will be needed. In spite of the name of the event, it isn’t all about the Man.

Limiting size

The other big problem is that the ability to get all the vehicles out of the city in 1-2 days puts a limit on the size of the event and that limit seems to have been reached. The only easy means I can see to bring in a lot more would be buspooling from Reno/Fernley, and we might come to a time when many burners will have no choice but to go to a large parking lot along I-80 and ride buses to the city — or face huge gate lines and exodus lines. (If gate crew and greeters ride each bus, or work in the parking lot, then all the work at the gate and greeter’s stations can be done on the bus, saving hours on the way in as well.)

One problem of course is that the traffic is one way. So you end up having to run and pay for empty buses in the other direction. It also probably makes sense to have a transfer station in Gerlach where people board smaller vans going to their area of the city. This also primarily works for those who have little gear, presumably because most of their stuff went up in a camp truck. You would not have a car at the event (meaning a need for another place to lock your stuff) but it would actually get you out faster, because the buses would not have to wait in the exodus line. (Though unless there are plenty of buses, it’s probable those wanting the bus at the most popular times would have to wait for that.) If we wanted to handle people with extra gear, there could also be trucks along with each bus (for bikes and large items) but doing transfers becomes a pain, and there would be many panics waiting in camp for the truck, with fear of lost stuff, and in some cases real lost stuff could ruin the week for somebody, so this might be best kept to people who got their stuff there another way and only have what they can carry a modest distance.

Short of this, steps will need to be taken to just plain limit the size of the event, which means — make no bones about it — excluding people who want to come. In the capitalist world, this would be done by raising prices, but that’s not a workable option in this community. The primary means of doing this seems to have been the harsh, distant environment. This is hoped to scare away “weekend fratboys” but also excludes a number of valuable contributors, including those of weaker constitution, including older people, those with asthma or other breathing problems, and those who can’t get enough time off to make the trip workable. (Even from San Francisco, expect 10-12 hours travel time each way including gate, exodus and stops.) And yes, tickets and other travel costs are now so high that many don’t come because of cost.

Whatever choice is made will of course raise much opposition, which may mean that it is the non-squeaky who are excluded. If it were my choice, I would consider the step of forbidding all forms of loud amplified recorded music (both the rave camps and the party art cars.) This would exclude a lot of folks, but unlike almost all other art forms at burning man, loud music interferes with other people’s enjoyment of other art, as well as their inner peace. If I make a sculpture people don’t like, people can just not look at it. Loud music can’t be ignored, and some people put it at levels where even the best earplugs can’t help. So if I had to pick something, that would be it. Live performance (not DJing) could still be encouraged, as it has inherent limitations on how long it goes on. I could also imagine a system where people are told to bring FM radios with earbuds/headphones and tune to the frequency of a rave camp. Yes, that can’t provide the bone-rattling bass that many of these camps put a lot of money into generating, so I know it’s not the same thing. But it’s something, and doesn’t impinge on anybody. (You could even pull out the plugs and actually talk to somebody!)

However, this is just one approach, and yes, it would exclude (or restrict) people, but one way or another people are going to get excluded by whatever approach is taken. I expect the city could lose 10,000 or more with no raves or bone-pounding art cars. Unfortunately, it does need to lose that because it will gain another 10,000 soon for other reasons.

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