The story of Burning Man, a ‘festive and artistic event unique in the world’, began in the United States in 1986, on Baker Beach in San Francisco, California. Two artists and activists, Larry Harvey and Jerry James, together with a few friends, built a wooden effigy of a man before setting it on fire. Larry Harvey’s brother explained ‘my brother was a voracious reader who had no real mechanical skills but dreamed of being an artist and lived off odd jobs (…) it was a Dadaist gathering of a lot of do-it-yourselfers who organized eccentric happenings, like that ball on the Golden Gate Bridge. They were celebrating the pure joy of creativity, with no hope of financial reward or social recognition. The performance drew large crowds of passers-by to watch the burning and applaud, and Larry Harvey, Jerry James and their friends made a habit of building a giant wooden statue once a year and then burning it on the beach in front of an ever-growing crowd. After a while, the police, concerned at the number of people attending, intervened to ban the event. In 1991, the organizers decided to hold their performance in complete freedom in Nevada, on the sandy plain of the Black Rock Desert.
From 1992 onwards, the event grew – by word of mouth – and became the Black Rock Arts Festival. This ‘festival’, which in fact defines itself as a libertarian community, a temporary city, or a cultural movement, was conceived by its founders as a Dadaist event during which a temporary sculpture is burned and artistic performances are organized. Everyone present is considered a participant just because they can survive in the arid and isolated desert of Black Rock. No performers are paid or scheduled, and there is no separation between the art space and the living space. The only rules at Burning Man are ‘don’t interfere with anyone else’s immediate experience’ and ‘no guns in the central camp’.
Burning Man quickly grew in number of participants (from 250 in 1991 to 8,000 in 1996) and extended over several days. Every year, it is held during the last week of August because the first Monday in September is a public holiday in the United States. In 2019, Burning Man attracted over 78,000 people from all over the world. Among them, curious people, regulars, families, people looking for a new transcendent experience…but also famous business leaders, billionaires and celebrities.
Burning Man began spontaneously in California, as an original experiment by friends, and then grew to phenomenal – and global – proportions in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. Although it is often presented as a festival, its organizers insist that Burning Man should rather be presented as ‘a true ephemeral utopian society, the gathering of a community in a temporary city, or a global cultural movement’.
Despite its very spontaneous development, Burning Man has nevertheless developed into a highly regulated organization. To manage the operation, the organizers/founders initially created a limited liability company ‘Black Rock City LLC’. In 2014, Burning Man became a non-profit organization. To meet the requirements of the authorities and to ensure the renewal of their permits, the founders also created a Department of Public Works to build the grid of the ‘ephemeral city’ designed by architect Rod Garrett.
Over the years, in order to comply with Bureau of Land Management (BLM) regulations – while ensuring the freedom of participants – Burning Man also introduced the following restrictions and obligations: ‘street layout in a semi-circular grid, speed limit of 9 km/h, no driving except for ‘mutant vehicles’ and service cars, obligation to burn one’s artworks in the designated area, fireworks banned, animals allowed, etc’.
Burning Man must relies on a team of 100 employees and above all on more than 2,000 volunteers ready to dedicate their time and energy to this adventure and carry out the event yearly. Being a volunteer is ‘a completely altruistic form of participation’ because it is not associated with any material reward or even an entrance ticket. More than 25 volunteer teams exist, from the Temple Guardians (‘who hold the Temple space, maintaining an environment that allows everyone to have equal access to the experience and expression they need’), the construction teams, the rescue and medical teams, the clean-up teams, the post office, and the Rangers who prepare the volunteers beforehand. Burning Man thus functions like a real city.
Burning Man participants (‘Burners’) do not have a single focus and not everyone comes to Burning Man for the same reasons. Apart from rules to protect the health, safety and welfare of the community, Burning Man does not lay down any rules about how participants should behave or act. Everyone is encouraged to imagine how they will participate and contribute to the experience.
However, the experience still has certain characteristics that Burners can find every year: ‘the sharing of ideas, artistic activity, the search for the incongruous and the absurd, demarchandisation and the joy of living’. Thus, 10 principles, written by Larry Harvey in 2004, govern life and activities during ‘the Burn’:
An eleventh principle, ‘consent’, is sometimes added, especially regarding physical contact.
On the principles and spirit of Burning Man, architect Arthur Mamou-Mani said in 2018:
‘at Burning Man, there is the aspect of joint effort and at the same time radical autonomy, like a Silicon Valley which is communist and capitalist. It’s very contradictory and that’s the beauty of the event. But as the years go by, you can see the value of this festival. Burning Man is governed by 10 commandments, one of which is autonomy and radical self-expression, meaning that everyone is active, no one is a spectator – the aspect of extreme autonomy is striking. In France, for example, people are taught that the government should take care of us – whereas at Burning Man, if you forget your water, it’s too bad. Of course, everyone gives each other gifts, so you always get away with it.’Arthur Mamou-Mani
There is an extreme contradiction between autonomy and the idea that the community will necessarily help you if you lack something – but you shouldn’t expect them to. Far from the concept of Burning Man as an anti-capitalist festival, with its refusal of money and the community atmosphere, we can see it leans more towards libertarianism. As the entrepreneur Benoît Bergeret explains:
‘it’s a place for makers, a return to the pioneering spirit of the Americans, this idea of not relying on social devices but of taking charge of oneself’.Benoît Bergeret
As researcher Dominic Beaulieu-Prévost explains, each year the city ‘takes on the shape of a huge U. At the centre is the famous Man, a gigantic wooden effigy whose appearance changes every year. A temple is also built by a different artist for each edition. It is a place of recollection where people leave objects that belonged to recently deceased relatives. The Man is burnt on the last Saturday, the most festive evening of the event, while the temple is burnt on Sunday. It is a way of closing the event and marking a stage in the mourning process.’
In concrete terms, the 9 days in the ephemeral Burning Man city, created from scratch in the middle of the desert by the participants, are organised as follows:
Community member Jay Gregory explains more about life at Burning Man: ‘The difference between Burning Man and a festival is that you’re not paying up front for a line-up of artists but for a community experience in a dryland. It’s not like taking music to a club, it’s more like building one’.
The regional editions
The international popularity of Burning Man has encouraged other groups to organize similar events. And participants who wanted the same kind of experience closer to home joined forces to organize regional editions.
In Europe, for example, the following experiences are being organized:
Burning Man is considered to be a place of inspiration and motivation for many people, and in particular for Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.
For example, Elon Musk goes to Burning Man every year, and ‘he thought about the SolarCity project that he created with his cousin because they needed to calculate their energy needs for the festival’. Accordingly, Burning Man pushes people to create businesses and projects that take into account extreme living conditions.
Burning Man is also said to have greatly influenced the Google campus in California. The founder of Google loved the manual aspect of the festival which contrasted with the software they use in their day to day lives. Larry Harvey said that Burning Man is a kind of physical internet, in the sense that lots of small communities connect.
Burning Man is clearly attended by many entrepreneurs and business leaders from the digital economy. And, as Steven Raspa, one of Burning Man’s directors, explains: ‘although the festival’s ideology seems far removed from that of the Gafa, there is a link. Burning Man grew up at the same time as the internet, many of the people involved in the event were also members of The Well (an online forum that juxtaposed tips on how to tinker with your computer and instructions on how to build a tree house)’.