Burning Man jumps the shark

How a high-minded countercultural experiment ended up on everyone's bucket list

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As Burning Man grew to 70,000 people, did it lose touch with its original communitarian ethos?

steve@sfbg.com

The question of when Burning Man jumped the shark is a matter of perspective, or perhaps it's a philosophical question, but these are waters worth wading into as burners pack up this week for their annual pilgrimage to the playa.

The meme that Burning Man has jumped the shark — that is, that it's gotten ridiculous or strayed from its original ethos — circulated more strongly this year than most after conservative firebrand Grover Norquist last month tweeted that he was "off to 'Burning Man' this year. Scratch one off the bucket list."

But burners and media commentators have been saying it for years, sparked by developments ranging from the increasingly top-down control over a temporary city built with volunteer labor from the bottom-up to the sheer scale and inertia of an event that is now pushing 70,000 participants.

John Law, who co-founded the artsy Nevada desert bacchanal, walked away from Burning Man after the deadly and chaotic 1996 event, believing that the commercial and regulatory structure that followed was antithetical to the countercultural, DIY values on which burner culture was based.

The population of Black Rock City then doubled in size within two years, and doubled again within four more, prompting some burners to say 30,000 people — including a growing number of straight-laced newbies drawn by mainstream media coverage — was just too many.

At the end of 2004, dozens of the event's marquee artists and performers launched a high-profile revolt against how Black Rock City LLC was running the event (see "State of the art," 12/20/04). "The fix must address many issues, but the core issue for the fix is the art," they wrote in a petition that ran as a full-page ad in the Guardian. "Art, art, art: that is what this is all about."

But little changed. Burning Man had caught fire and the LLC was more interested in stoking the flames than controlling the conflagration. It promoted more regional burns around the world, created new offshoot organizations to spread the burner art and ethos, consolidated control of the brand and trademarks, and spelled out the "Ten Principles" that all Burning Man events would live by.

The burner backlash against that trend took many forms, but the most fiery dissent came on Monday night during the 2007 Burning Man when Paul Addis torched the eponymous Man to bring the chaos back to an event that he felt had grown too staid and scripted.

Burner officialdom responded by simply building a new Man and helping secure a four-year federal prison sentence for Addis — both decisions made without soliciting any input from the larger burner community. Coming after some corporate-style chicanery earlier that year involving control of the event's trademark and logo (see "Burning brand," 1/16/07), that's when Burning Man seemed to peak, like the ramp that launched Fonzie over the sharks.

At the time, I was deeply involved with covering Burning Man culture for the Bay Guardian, reporting that would later go into my 2011 book, The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture.

But if jumping the shark is an idiom based on when things get really ridiculous, a point at which self-awareness withers and something becomes a caricature of what it once was, then the events of 2007 were just warm-up laps for the spectacle to come.

 

COMMUNITY VS. THE COMPANY

At this point, let me be clear that Burning Man is still one of the greatest parties on the planet. The Black Rock Desert is a spectacular setting, much of the art created for Burning Man each year is innovative and mind-blowing, and the experience of spending a week in a commerce-free, open-minded temporary city can truly be transformative, especially for those doing it for the first time.