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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

What is Burning Man, and why have Paris Hilton and Elon Musk shown up?


At the site of this year’s Burning Man festival, a rainbow appeared in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada.

By Callie Holtermann


“Imagine a hallucinogenic state fair,” reporter Rick Marin wrote about Burning Man in The New York Times in 2000.


The article described an environment of countercultural revelry, where hippies and Silicon Valley types cut loose in surroundings reminiscent of both “Mad Max” and Cirque du Soleil.


But this year’s festival, held in a remote desert in Nevada, has been a very different scene. The event was pummeled by rain that began Friday night, leaving thousands of attendees trapped and dealing with thick sludge. With limited access to the site, attendees have been told to conserve food and water. Police are investigating the death of one participant.


The extreme conditions have challenged the free-spirited atmosphere that has long been central to Burning Man’s allure. Below is a look at the origins and development of the festival.

What is Burning Man?


Burning Man is a nine-day celebration of art and self-expression held in Black Rock City, a temporary community about 120 miles north of Reno, Nevada. The festival, which has drawn around 70,000 people in recent years, is held at the end of each summer and culminates in the burning of a towering wooden sculpture shaped like a man — hence its name.


What is the festival usually like?


Attendees, who call themselves Burners, describe the festival as an exercise in creativity and community building. Organizers have also described it as “an excuse to party in the desert.”


The event takes place on the playa, a dusty minicity whose streets splay out like a clock’s face with the wooden figure at its center. Unlike Coachella, Burning Man has no headliner or scheduled bill of performers. Burners do their own construction, including lodging and colossal art installations. They use a system based on gifts, rather than money, to exchange goods.


“It’s an experiment in participatory, decommodified, self-expressive culture,” said Benjamin Wachs, who wrote “The Scene That Became Cities: What Burning Man Philosophy Can Teach Us About Building Better Communities” under the pen name Caveat Magister. “All the booze is free, except maybe you have to sing a song or offer up a poem or something.”


The freewheeling attitude of the festival is also associated with nudity, sex and drug use. Most of the 16 arrests at the event last year were for drug possession, according to The Reno Gazette Journal.


How did Burning Man begin?


Burning Man began as a more modest gathering in June 1986, when founders Larry Harvey and Jerry James held a bonfire with friends on Baker Beach in San Francisco. They burned an 8-foot-tall wooden figure, the legend goes, to mark the end of a romantic relationship. A crowd of roughly 35 people gathered to watch it burn.


The event was held annually at Baker Beach until fire marshals intervened in 1990. That year it moved to Black Rock Desert, where 350 revelers gathered to burn a 40-foot effigy, according to the Burning Man Project, the nonprofit that organizes the festival. By the 2000s, the event had grown into a dayslong desert rave that regularly drew more than 50,000 attendees including tech moguls and celebrities.


The modern festival is organized around the “10 Principles,” a series of guidelines that were introduced by Harvey in 2004. They include “radical inclusion,” which says there are no prerequisites for joining the community, and “leaving no trace,” which requires the participants to leave the desert clean.


Who attends?


The festival attracts a mix of dedicated Burners and new revelers each year, with a curious blend of tech moguls, influencers and celebrities.


Paris Hilton was a DJ there in 2017. Mark Zuckerberg has attended, as has Elon Musk, who has shown up almost every year for the past two decades (though there were no signs of him at this year’s festival). Music producer Diplo posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, that he had escaped this year’s festival by walking 5 miles in the mud.


How much does it cost?


Tickets to Burning Man cost $575, although CNBC estimated that the entire experience can end up costing about $1,500 with lodging, travel and attire.


How has the festival changed over time?


According to a survey completed annually by festival volunteers, the average Burner is getting older (the average age last year was 37, compared with 32 in 2013) and wealthier. Attendees are still mostly white, according to the survey, with 13% identifying themselves as people of color.


The influx of wealthy attendees — some of whom have brought in chefs and air conditioning — has caused some longtime Burners to bemoan a loss of the festival’s DIY ethos.


The festival had encountered hurdles before this year. It was held virtually in 2020 and 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic. The festival last year took place amid extreme heat and dust, and environmental activists blockaded the entrance to this year’s gathering.


Burners are usually prepared for difficult conditions, Wachs said, but not to this degree. “I do think that climate change is creating an environment where this is going to become unpredictably harder,” he added.

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