At Burning Man, the Magic Has Turned to Dust

The rumors are true: Burning Man has sold its soul.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but this year’s Burn confirmed it. Having not been to the week-long art festival in three years, and having experienced some of the most profoundly mystical moments of my life on the ancient crater lake bed known as the Playa, I expected the same magic.

I expected to walk onto the Black Rock Desert, to see the temple rising in the distance, to feel that same swell of spiritual uplift and divine presence that I had always felt upon entering the city built once a year by its inhabitants. I expected to watch the man burn on Saturday night, to participate in a fire ritual that felt as ancient and tribal as any in biblical times. I expected to be silenced. Awed.

I expected that on Sunday night, I would watch the temple burn. I would cry and tremble as the photos of loved ones lost, the notes and mementos stuffed into cracks, just like at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, went up in smoke. I expected to feel that same sense of humility and wonder that in previous years had kept me on the Playa until the very last night.

Instead I left on Thursday.

I knew immediately that something was off. For starters, it took 13 hours to drive the 100 miles from Reno to Black Rock City – a trip that in past years has taken eight hours max. By the time I got “home,” as burners love to call their dusty city, I was already stressed to the point of tears. As it turned out, the addition of an extra 10,000 participants – in 2012, the population peaked at 56,000 – added another five hours onto what was already a pretty grueling game of stop and go.

Before that, there was the ticket situation. I didn’t have a problem finding a face-value ticket on Craigslist in mid-July, but others did not fare as well. Thousands of people paid $800 and more – up to $1,500 in some cases – for a golden ticket on sites like StubHub and eBay. Never mind the $50 vehicle passes (another new addition since my last visit), which scalpers sold for up to $500.

This for an event based on principles of radical inclusion and de-commodification, an event that has thrived and grown to this size because of the very magic infused by the presence of a gift economy. Gifting is one of the art festival’s ten core principles and, back in the day, people were routinely gifted tickets at the last minute, sometimes right outside the gate. If you didn’t have the two hundred bucks for a golden ticket, no biggie – the Playa, as they say, would provide.

But times change. This year it felt as if tourists had descended on Black Rock City in record numbers, coming to gawk and be counted in what has become a stopping point on the bucket list of cool. The temple was no longer a sacred, holy space, where concentric circles of people sat in meditation but a tunnel that swallowed you up, with no space to sit and contemplate. This year’s theme was Carnival of Mirrors, and that’s precisely what it felt like: a facade, a show, a shell of a place.

I wasn’t the only one who felt it. In conversations with friends who had been to the event as recently as last year, they all said it: “Something feels off.”

One friend had helped to facilitate one of the so-called “billionaire camps,” wherein millionaires and billionaires pay top dollar – as much as $10,000 for the week – to be treated to a luxe Burn experience, as if that were possible. But everything went wrong, she said. She got to the Playa on Monday and found that the $80,000 camp still didn’t have electricity, showers, or a proper shade structure. I paid $100 in camp fees, and I had all of that.

Another friend who has been coming to Burning Man for more than a decade, and who this year went all out designing and building a new bar and a new art car for his New York/San Francisco-based camp, said he’d gone too big. Thanks to an unlimited budget, he’d tried too hard. The result was that by Tuesday night, when I saw him at the speakeasy he and his fellow architect/designers had constructed, he was so burnt out he couldn’t enjoy himself.

“It’s the money,” he said. “There’s too much of it.”

I can’t help but agree. When billionaires pay $10,000 for an “authentic” Burning Man experience, and camp budgets are unlimited, and participants routinely drop $800 on a ticket, the spirit of the Burn inherently becomes corrupted.

“We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience,” Burning Man founder Larry Harvey writes in his Ten Principles, but that is exactly what has happened: consumption has replaced participation.

It is not possible to have an “authentic” Burning Man experience paying ten grand to be there, and it ruins the party for the rest of us. The whole point of Burning Man is that you build your camp, your city, your community yourself. You pick up a hammer, you nail some Rebar stakes into your tent so it doesn’t blow away in a dust storm, and you get on your bike and ride.

But those days are gone.

Like Jerusalem, Black Rock City has been sacked. 

Author's note: I returned to Burning Man in 2016 and was heartened to find that the spirit of the Burn, the dusty magic itself, had returned. I believe that 2015 embodied the worst aspects of BRC's gentrification, but that the festival was able to bounce back and rediscover its soul. Let's hope it stays that way.