Exploring The Evolution Of Burning Man

Sep 13, 2017

Credit Paul Boger

Over the past several years, Burning Man as an event has faced criticism. Some believe that the festival has moved too far beyond its roots as a place for artists to display their work.  Or where members of the “counterculture” can find support. They argue that it’s become too corporate, a playground for the rich. Others, though, feel like the event is moving in a more sustainable direction.

In the very center of Black Rock City stands the Temple of the Golden Spike, it’s the structure that houses the infamous ”Man.” This year, chimes inside the structure played inviting and somewhat haunting tones beckoning festivalgoers inside.

The complex itself attracted almost every Burner for at least a time during the festival, and it was an excellent place to gauge the attitudes of attendees.

“I really didn’t know what to expect, to begin with so it’s magical, yeah,” said Jeremy Schropp of Eugene, Oregon. Like many first time Burners, he says the experience is something to behold.

“I’ve never seen anything like this at all. I prefer the evenings. We stay up all night dancing and the nights have been amazing.”

Even among the most upbeat attendees, there are complaints. The, most common are those that deal with the group of festivalgoers who come just for the final weekend of the event – the “weekend warriors,” if you will.

Sabrina Seal of Oakland says she see’s a definite change in tone in the city as the week progresses from a communal experience to partiers who are passing through.

“For me, I think the way I experience the change at Burning Man is through the arc of the week. We like to come early in the week and we, in fact, take down and leave on Saturday before the man burn. The process of seeing the city come up and the people that really invest is powerful. But I think the part of Burning Man that’s not so great is a lot of people who just come for the weekend. The vibe changes.”

Others worry the event has just gotten too big. Burning Man, which began 31-years-ago as a small get together on the shores of the San Francisco Bay has grown to more than 70,000 attendees this year. Craig Sheldon of Pomona, California says Burning Man used to have an air of danger and risk that made it exciting, but now it ignores some of the original mantras.

“Keep Burning Man lethal and safety third and all that stuff.  I dislike… we serve snow cones at my camp and they’re like we have to start at 4 because the health department is here.  What is that? That makes no sense to me whatsoever.”

Yet many longtime Burners see the growth of the festival as a net positive.

Debra Hughes and her husband Trevor live in San Francisco. They’ve been to more than more 15 burns, and they say those changes are needed.

“If it didn’t change every year you’d basically have a bunch of 60-year-old farts in the desert. Things have to evolve and some of the evolution is not pretty. Some of it is wonderful and who are we to decide that it’s not good. It’s good for other people.

“You get the burn that you need, not the one you want. You know what I mean? It comes out in the way that it comes out.”

Despite the overall optimism of attendees, it’s hard to ignore that more and more longtime Burners are beginning to skip the festival. It begs the question, what will the event look like in the future?