Burning Man: The Ephemeral Spirit


I’ve never seen so much at once. It was too much to comprehend except one thought:

“Where the hell am I?”

I stood on the deck of a wooden temple looking out on a sea of sand and strangeness. Creatures in costumes vaguely resembling humans rode multi-colored bikes and roving stages to the distant roar of constant, competing music. They weaved between unbelievably surreal art installations, seemingly without direction. Above them, several naked skydivers drifted from technicolor parachutes. The whole scene was framed by shocking mountains, tinted a deep purple from the sunset. At its base, beyond the circular sea of desert insanity, stood a city. It was the large, loud, ephemeral Black Rock City. In every direction, I saw Burning Man.


The history of “The Burn” as it later came to be known can be traced back to two men burning a 9-foot human-and-dog effigy on Baker Beach in San Francisco, on a crisp summer solstice night in 1986. These two men were Larry Harvey and Jerry James. What was the reason for this conflagration masquerading as a merry outing of friends? The event organizers were wildly free spirits – they saw this as a Dadaist art performance, which only later grew into a days-long ordeal. Harvey and James were also members (though that word might not be appropriate) of the Cacophony Society, a decentralized network of anarchist pranksters that often pulled public stunts or other eccentric acts of jovial bedlam.

Fundamentally, they were doing it for the thrill of the Burn. This is rooted in Situationist philosophy, derived from Marxist alienation theory. We won’t go into much detail, but Situationists believe that capitalism alienates people from what is meaningful in their lives, be it through the separating of the worker from the product of his labor, or the commoditization of once beautiful objects or rituals. The Burning Man crowd thirsted for meaning, or at the very least cohesion, that would serve as a tool against the frightening march of alienation. This would be achieved through spectacle, a true expression of human will and potential.

Baker Beach in 2009. Few if any photographs of the first Burning Man events survived.

A few years passed with the group gathering on the last Sunday in August lasting until the first Monday in September. In 1990, as local metropolitan police didn’t stay keen on the idea of people starting fires on a beach, the event-goers had to make do with a change of scenery. A likely candidate soon sprung up – the Black Rock Desert north of Reno, Nevada.

The organizers of the event (now in the hundreds) split into two groups in 1990 – one would take a “Zone trip” to Black Rock, and the others would pull off one last burn on Baker Beach. All subsequent events were mainly organized in Black Rock. The underlying philosophy hasn’t changed – what the event reached for was still the establishing of a non-hierarchical social fabric that would allow for the complete liberation of mind, body and spirit from the true or imagined shackles of everyday humdrum.

A way of achieving this was devised in the formation of a seasonal startup society: the “temporary autonomous zone” of Black Rock City. The idea is taken from the writings of poet Hakim Bey, where a free association of people can congregate and dissipate without leaving a trace, focusing exclusively on the present moment.

In the formation of a TAZ, Bey argues, information becomes a key tool that sneaks into the cracks of formal procedures. A new territory of the moment is created that is on the boundary line of established regions. Any attempt at permanence that goes beyond the moment deteriorates to a structured system that inevitably stifles individual creativity. It is this chance at creativity that is real empowerment.


In 1991, the people organizing Burning Man first procured a legal permit from the Bureau of Land Management for the erection of what would later come to be known as Black Rock City. Due to various legal difficulties that were certain to arise out of the activities that attendees would engage in, culpability had to become established in the Burning Man society through the establishing of a non-profit entity administering event logistics (legal and physical).

The population of Black Rock grew from year to year and common misunderstandings had to be addressed before further mayhem could disrupt the event-goers. The original freedom of the event remains, but certain rules such as a restriction on vehicle movement, concentric grid formation plans and a ban on pyrotechnics and dogs were implemented in the late 1990’s.

What was once a spontaneous gathering of free spirits driving into the desert to soul-search now became a fully commercialized yearly event with committees, bylaws, golden parachutes for employees and a tax identification number. The event’s volunteer security force is called “The Black Rock Rangers” and are employed for peaceful dispute resolution and de-escalation.


The true freedom of expression represented by Burning Man is in its music, sculpture and performed art. Adjacent to the city, hundreds of art installations populate the dry lake bed of Lake Lahontan. Vehicles are also altered to the point of becoming mobile art – with a “Department of Mutant Vehicles” deciding on the quality of the installations. Such vehicles frequently have flamethrowers, electric arc throwers and water cannons attached and would never be considered street legal otherwise.


Black Rock city takes the shape of a series of concentric streets arranged in an arc, made of automobiles, mobile homes and monster vehicles. The city comprises a diameter of 1,5 miles (2,4 km) with the Burning Man sculpture at the very center. The streets are called avenues and traffic is only allowed on human-powered vehicles or on foot, excluding service vehicles.

Center Camp is located along the midline of Black Rock City, facing the Man at the 6:00 position on the Esplanade. This area serves as a central meeting place for the entire city and contains the Center Camp Cafe, Camp Arctica and a number of other city institutions.

Satellite photography shows the almost mathematical perfection of the city.

Villages and theme camps are located along the innermost streets of Black Rock City, often offering entertainment or services to participants. Theme camps are usually a collective of people representing themselves under a single identity. Villages are usually a collection of smaller theme camps which have banded together in order to share resources and vie for better placement. Theme camps and villages often form to create an atmosphere in Black Rock City that their group envisioned. As Burning Man grows every year it attracts an even more diverse crowd. Subcultures form around theme camps at Black Rock City similar to what can be found in other cities.


The environmentally conscious Burning Man network naturally wishes to reduce the inefficiencies of car travel to Black Rock. This is why the Burner Express network was founded – a system of shuttle buses, recreational vehicles and even airplanes that ferry event-goers to and from Black Rock and Reno, Nevada respectively.Burner express and event entry are the only services in Burning Man that bear a price in US dollars.

Everything within Black Rock is reliant on a gift economy that relies on the trust and ostracism of actors therein. The high cost of entry to the event both in dollars and time almost guarantees that only people who truly understand the ephemeral nature of Burning Man will reach Black Rock’s temporary gates.

Everyone who comes to Burning Man has to pay a high price for entry, and i’m not just talking about the entry ticket. Each person must expend hundreds of dollars and hours just to arrive and survive. Miraculously, I was able to secure a free ticket. As the refrain goes, “the Playa provides”, but not without cost.

I was given a ticket to Burning Man and a pass on the Burner Express (The Bus service from San Francisco and Reno to Black Rock city) in exchange for seven days of labor. Five days prior to leaving for burning man, I would arrive in San Francisco’s tenderloin district every morning at 5 a.m. sharp. Our mission was to load luggage 15 buses for approximately 7 hours, daily. Each passenger had with them 2 bags of equipment, each filled with approximately 70 lbs. Now, I’m not complaining. The cuts, bruises, and torn muscles were an excellent way to bond with fellow Burner Express workers.

At the end of the first five days, the now dusty buses seemed like luxury cruises. But as we sped towards Black Rock City, the high cost of entry nature demanded became clear. Lightning strikes caused a brush fire that engulfed the mountains around us. The sky was blackened to the hue of twilight as a wall of fire stood 30 yards from the road. If we were 15 minutes late, we would have been forced to spend the night in the bus to avoid the flames. We had to race against time. Fire fighters knew of our arrival and had to fight back the inferno at its edge in order to allow us safe exit.

I bring up the cost of entry because it is crucial to understand the two greatest aspects of burning man: extreme trust and extreme creativity. It is extremely difficult to maintain high trust, often more so amidst the chaos of extreme creativity. Eventually, unchecked creativity attracts unsavory characters and disorder. However, the high cost to enter creates self selection of people truly dedicated to attend, limiting the amount of people who do not take the mission seriously. Moreover, because it is a temporary city, it easier to maintain such a delicate equilibrium.

Geographically isolated and ephemeral in nature, Burning Man provides a temporary autonomous zone for people to express themselves in ways not possible anywhere else. It is arguably the biggest assembly of creative people on earth. Importantly, it is not just from naturally or professionally creative artists, but allows previously reserved attendees to engage in pure, strange beauty. Ironically, a dangerous, desolate desert provides a safe space when limited in time. Because time is so precious, everyone tries to get as much as they can out of it. Time is precious and the opportunity cost high in this dreamlike landscape.

The result is Dali on steroids. Like burning a multi-story effigy, it goes in and out of existence in a towering inferno. But while brief as a spark, its beautiful absurdity makes it worth all its costs.

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