What is Burning Man?
Burning Man is an annual week-long event focusing on self-expression and community that takes place in the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada. Tens of thousands of participants -- referred to as burners -- come together to build and participate in Black Rock City, a temporary and experimental community created by and for the attending burners.
The term Burning Man is sometimes used to refer to the global community of artists, makers and organizers who work together to create art, put on events and launch local initiatives, most of which center around the annual Black Rock City gathering and the vision behind it.
Burning Man Project, a nonprofit organization established in 2014, oversees the Black Rock City event and other Burning Man initiatives, such as purchasing Fly Ranch in northern Nevada, building a permanent hub for Burning Man culture in Gerlach, Nev., establishing urban and rural cultural centers, and creating an educational program for teaching Burning Man's philosophy, principles and practices. These efforts are reflected in the Burning Man Project's stated mission, which opens with the following paragraph:
Burning Man Project's mission is to produce the annual event known as Burning Man and to guide, nurture and protect the more permanent community created by its culture. Our intention is to generate society that connects each individual to his or her creative powers, to participation in community, to the larger realm of civic life, and to the even greater world of nature that exists beyond society.
In addition to its mission statement, Burning Man Project has also published 10 principles that provide guiding tenets for realizing the Burning Man vision. The principles reflect the community's "ethos and culture" by addressing the topics of inclusivity, gifting, decommodification, self-reliance, self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation and immediacy.
Among the various Burning Man initiatives, the Black Rock City event remains the organization's central focus, and it is what the majority of people think of when they hear the term Burning Man. In 2022, over 75,000 burners participated in the Black Rock City community, slightly less than in 2019, the last prior year there was an official gathering. (The on-site event was cancelled in 2020 and 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic).
The Black Rock City event takes place on nearly 4,000 acres of the largest dry lakebed (playa) in North America. There, the emphasis is on building a noncommercial culture that emphasizes creativity, self-expression and participation. There are no spectators, booked entertainers or corporate sponsors, only the participants and those who help run the event.
Burning Man and Black Rock City
Burning Man got its start in 1986 when San Francisco artist Larry Harvey and Jerry James built an eight-foot human effigy and, with the help of about 10 other friends, transported it to San Francisco's Baker Beach on the summer solstice. After they lit the effigy on fire, others on the beach began to gather around the burning man, and soon, the group tripled in size, totaling about 35 people.
Today, Burning Man is celebrated in the Nevada desert in late August and early September and now draws tens of thousands of participants. Black Rock City offers a venue for a wide range of participation and artistic expression, which can include pyrotechnics, performance art using light or fire, nude body painting, Mutant Vehicles and just about anything else that lends to the Burning Man experience.
All commercial activity is forbidden in Black Rock City -- except for the sale of ice -- and is replaced by an extensive barter economy and the practice of gifting, which goes hand in hand with the expectation of active participation. For example, burners from 22 countries attended the 2022 event, bringing with them 419 art pieces, 44 of which included flame exhibits. In addition, 626 campsites offered workshops and classes, 168 served coffee, 188 served tea and 783 hosted bars.
The Black Rock City event culminates with the burning of a large wooden sculpture of a man significantly larger than the original eight-foot effigy. The largest Burning Man sculpture to date towered 105 feet. The burning takes place on the Saturday night before Labor Day. On the last day of the event, the participants break camp, taking care to leave no trace.
The business of Burning Man
Burning Man Project is now a multimillion-dollar operation. In 2019 (pre-COVID-19), the organization generated over $46 million in revenue, with most of that going to expenses, leaving it with a net gain of about $350,000.
Burning Man Project relies heavily on Black Rock City ticket sales to offset its annual costs. In 2022, entry fees ranged from $225 to $2,500, with the cheapest tickets reserved for low-income burners. Participants must buy tickets for the entire event in advance. Although participants are not required to stay the full week, they must still pay for it. They must also purchase a $140 pass for each vehicle they drive into the city, regardless of the type.
Due to the harsh desert conditions, Burning Man Project provides prospective residents with a comprehensive survival guide that emphasizes the importance of self-reliance and preparedness. There is also a strong emphasis on civic responsibility and communal effort.
Volunteers and a limited number of paid employees contribute to the creation of the physical community, including a telecommunications infrastructure, fire management, emergency care centers, waste control and the immense cleanup efforts that follow. Total cleanup, a requirement of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, typically takes about two weeks, unless weather delays the efforts.
Burning Man has grown with the internet as a populist movement and is sometimes seen as a concrete version of the free-wheeling, "anything goes" spirit of the early internet. The festival has inspired many of the web's founding technologists with its ability to generate personal connections that transcend traditional divisions of age, income, geography and class. Past burners include Amazon founder Jeff Bezos; Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin; Brian Behlendorf, the primary developer of the Apache web server; and Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive.