Burning Man, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, has grown from a tiny summer solstice bonfire gathering on the beach in 1986 near San Francisco to such a powerful cultural phenomenon.
Running this year from Aug. 28 to Sept. 5, Burning Man – where attendees include Google’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, iHeartMedia chairman Bob Pittman, director Chris Weitz (who met and married his wife, Mercedes Martinez, there) and such celebrities as Anne Hathaway, Jared Leto and Michelle Rodriguez – might scare off some people, but not the 70,000 who now throng the counter-cultural festival.
In recent years, though, Burning Man has been roiled by growing pains brought on by success. (Tickets, $390 to $1,200, go on sale each year on BurningMan.org in February and quickly sell out.) What are known as plug-and-play or turnkey camps have sprung up, where people pay thousands of dollars to have everything set up and provided for them when they arrive, including showers, air conditioning, private chefs, guides and even costumes. Critics have howled that the camps violate principles of Burning Man, including radical self-reliance, participation, gifting, communal effort and decommodification.
A temporary encampment of tents, yurts and RVs dubbed Black Rock City that rises for one week in the hot and desolate Nevada desert, Burning Man – guided by 10 principles that include participation, civic responsibility, immediacy and inclusion – is Cirque du Soleil, Coachella, Art Basel and Woodstock all rolled into one, under a layer of notoriously hard-to-scrub-off mineral dust.
“It’s really hard to explain why it’s so amazing to be in the desert with no shower, no physical comforts. It’s really harsh,” says Levi Vieira, a makeup artist who married his partner, Zack Bunker, a digital asset manager, there in 2014. “It’s really a vacation for the soul, not for the body.”
Regulars call the festival – located in a desert basin called a playa – life-changing. “If you work in a creative industry, this is a must-see,” says Amazon Studios head of drama and 13-time attendee Morgan Wandell. Says artist Trek Thunder Kelly, who has been going for more than two decades: “Imagine that you’ve taken the red pill in The Matrix and walked into Alice in Wonderland on the planet Tatooine. You can have free waffles with a crew dressed like Elvis, make jewelry in a Bedouin tent, learn how to pole dance [and] take a seminar on making absinthe.”
Costume-wise, there’s no such thing as subtle, and people enjoying the anonymity of dust-blocking masks include Will Smith and Katy Perry, whose goggles caused her to take a spill on a Segway in 2015. “People can cut loose without people knowing who you are,” says Fifty Shades of Grey and House of Cards producer Dana Brunetti, who “Burned” for the first time in 2014. Notes Hand of God actor Julian Morris, who stars in the upcoming Watergate film Felt: “You want something that’s as loud and ridiculous as you can possibly imagine; someone lent me a sequined circus master jacket.” Jokes Gersh agent Jeff Greenberg, who has been going for four years: “Bring a tutu. Otherwise, you will look silly.”
As it is every year, nothing is for sale (except for coffee and ice) in what is called a giving economy, whether it’s camps that give away grilled cheeses or beignets, have open bars or misting stations or games (one year, there was flaming skee ball), or simply offer free hugs. “You might be cycling around on the playa, and you’ll see this tent with older folks cycling on stationary bikes to generate a motor to make shaved ice with syrups like you get in Hawaii,” says Morris, “and they are just giving them to you in the heat and the dust.” Explains Greenberg: “The first year I went, we talked about what we were bringing. I was bringing coconut water, and someone said they were bringing empathy, and I remember thinking, ‘If I hand you a coconut water and you hand back some empathy, I’m going to be pissed.’ Now I get it, the idea of listening to people and how it makes me a better agent and human. So getting that recharged every year is really important.”
The festival recently has become more of an EDM scene – Skrillex, Diplo and Major Lazer all have done sets there – prompting the Burning Man Project (the nonprofit that runs the festival, which brought in $32 million in funds in 2014, according to its most recent annual report) to crack down on camps that publicize their DJ rosters ahead of time. The organizers – explaining in a statement that “Burning Man doesn’t have ‘headliners'” – don’t want it to be seen as a music festival. Says Jennifer Raiser, author of the new book Burning Man: Art on Fire: “Unlike, say, Coachella, it’s not about buying your ticket and waiting to be entertained. It’s about figuring out how you can entertain everyone else.”