Burning Man faces criticism on eve of opening

Burning Man faces criticism on eve of opening

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Flickr/Julia Wolf

WASHINGTON, August 24, 2014 — Burning Man, the alternative, artsy, existential counter-culture “it’s-not-a-festival” festival starts August 25 in Black Rock, Nevada.

As the start date approaches, lovers and haters are taking to media and social media to discuss the annual event.

Burning Man is an annual event that started at San Francisco’s Baker Beach with a few dozen people in 1986 and then moved to the Black Rock Desert. Last year, more than 70,000 people participated.

It is a gathering of a unique group of people, dedicated to art, self-expression, self-reliance and above all, community. The event is part Grateful Dead Show, part Ashram, part exhibition, part weird (the good kind). It is love, it is epiphany. It is irrational, uncontrolled, spontaneous, primal and outrageous. It is a completely individual experience, yet it is all about connection. Wrap all this in a coating of celebration, sharing, giving and self-discovery, and that is Burning Man.

The event is still run by its original founders, lovingly referred to as “the truest of the old hippies” by one associate, and it is based on ten guiding principals: Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-Reliance, Radical Self-Expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation, and Immediacy.

However, as Burning Man has exploded, it has also faced difficulties.

As the documentary Spark shows, the event has evolved and spread and become trendy, creating a challenge for organizers and long-time attendees who cling desperately to the original roots of the event. One of the founders is no longer associated with the event, noting that because it has grown, the organizers had to become police or “the state,” something an “anarchist” could not back.

In 2011, organizers faced extreme stress over the ticket lottery process, after long-time participants were denied entrance.

The argument now is the role of millionaires and billionaires and corporate America in the event. Instead of schlepping in everything you need – a place to sleep, what you will wear, eat, drink, build and share – moneyed participants can now order a ready made Burning Man experience. Sherpas will set up an air conditioned accommodation, stocked with food and water. They will even select your costume, decorate your bike, and supply your drugs and alcohol.

Critics say the spectacle itself has evolved from artist-build beauty to flash extravagance. Instead of earthy creativity, they charge, the temporary 5 square mile city in the Nevada desert now looks more like the Las Vegas strip.

It has also become a see and be seen event, with high net worth individuals like Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Elon Musk of Tesla and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook participating.

Long-time Burners lament what they see as the loss of the true core of the event and the influx of outsiders. They also bewail the tickets that go to these usurpers, leaving some of those long-timers without access to Burning Man.

One five-time attendee recently commented that while the influx of outsiders is “ruining the whole thing,” that’s ok with him. “Once it gets really bad, we’ll start all over again and then it can be what it once was.”

Others counter the accusations by noting that all the hate is very un-Burning Man. “The event is about acceptance and love and community,” says Sarah, who asked that her last name not be used, “so why can’t we accept rich people too? If they are giving away food and standing out in 105 degrees helping to weld a sculpture, that’s ok with me. I mean, maybe they need this reconnection too.  Who am I to judge?”

Indeed, the participation of at least some of the ultra-rich mirrors those statements. Five-time Burning Man attendee who happened to co-found Facebook, Dustin Moskovitz, wrote “I know many of the entrepreneur invaders and, without exception, they come back from their first year with a decreased interest in zero-sum competition and a deep appreciation of the fully connected and mutually supportive community.”

Another great irony for the rich at Burning Man is there is no place to spend your money. After you are in, after you have set up camp, everything is free. There are no stores or souvenir shops. It is a gift economy, where nothing is for sale.

It is not the same festival it was in 1986 or even in 2010, but Burning Man remains a one of a kind experience. Participants scoff at comparisons to anything else. Organizers and participants literally build a town from nothing, spend a week in a positive, accepting community, then take everything they have set up and leave nothing behind.

It may not be your parents Burning Man, but it remains a unique, almost otherworldly, experience.

For more information, go to www.burningman.com

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Lisa M. Ruth
Lisa M. Ruth is Editor-in-Chief of CDN. In addition to her editing and leadership duties, she also writes on international events, intelligence, and other topics. She has worked with CDN as a journalist since 2009. Lisa is also President of CTC International Group, Inc., a research and analysis firm in South Florida, providing actionable intelligence to decisionmakers. She started her career at the CIA, where she won several distinguished awards for her service. She holds an MA in international relations from the University of Virginia, and a BA in international relations from George Mason University. She also serves as Chairman of the Board of Horses Healing Hearts, and is involved with several other charitable organizations, including Habitat for Humanity, The Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and AYSO.