Burning Man: The World’s Most Famous Anti-Festival

Every year, 70,000 people turn the harsh Nevada desert into a temporary metropolis. It's a counter-cultural and anti-capitalist mecca that draws neo-hippies from around the world, all eager to experience life in a city without money and amidst the backdrop of fire, if only for a week.

12 October 2023

In the heart of the American West, amid inhospitable dunes, seemingly endless canyons, and long-dried-up lakes, Black Rock City emerges almost magically. It’s not a municipality, has no government, and exists solely during Burning Man. Enthusiastic attendees bring materials to construct camps, communal buildings, and massive works of art in an 18-square-kilometer crescent-shaped area known as the playa.

After seven intense days, Black Rock City disappears just as swiftly as it appeared, fulfilling the promise of ‘leaving no trace.’ This remarkable feat unfolds under scorching temperatures exceeding 37 degrees Celsius in a desert where sandstorms are common.

In 1986, friends Larry Harvey and Jerry James constructed an improvised wooden figure on a San Francisco beach, set it ablaze, and attracted a crowd to witness the spectacle. This event marked the beginning of the first festival that encouraged people to partake in a spiritual retreat and embrace a space of ‘social and cultural cohesion.’ By the early 1990s, the event’s growing popularity prompted a move to Black Rock. To this day, organizers remain committed to upholding the same ten principles that inspired the two friends, as outlined in the ‘survival guide’ provided to each participant: Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-reliance, Radical Self-expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leave No Trace, Participation, and Immediacy.

At Burning Man, you won’t find big performances; instead, you’ll encounter activities that blend education, art, participation, barter, and the sharing of various products and services. There’s no commerce or money involved, although free stores, where items are given away (like the Free Hug Store), are quite common. The only things available for purchase are ice and coffee, and sponsors and advertisers are strictly prohibited.

Participants bring their own water, food, and gifts. Everything necessary to survive for a week, as the idea is not to leave the site, although it’s not prohibited.

Nudity is accepted, and many practice it, while others go to great lengths to dress in a quirky and eye-catching manner.

Many of the artists who attend ‘pay’ their entry to the festival by creating luminous, interactive, and psychedelic pieces that shine in the scorching darkness of the desert city. During these moments, the ‘lamplighters’ appear, lantern bearers who light the paths of the festival to help people find their way back to their camps, wearing tunics adorned with embroidered flames.

Litter is not seen on the ground because everyone commits to not littering and picks up any litter they see.

To ensure the promised inclusion, there are specific camps and communities for various groups of participants: The ‘Mobility Camp,’ which is designed for participants with disabilities and older individuals, ‘Da Dirty Hands,’ a community dedicated to deaf attendees.’Blind Burners,’ a section for blind artists and volunteers, and ‘Uni-Corny,’ catering to individuals with food allergies.”

It’s a blend of the hippie ethos of the 1960s and the cultural codes of the 2000s, which stands in stark contrast to today’s hyperconnected society.

Hippying in the Rain

The most symbolic and anticipated moment of the festival occurs on Saturday, the second-to-last night of the festival. Amidst a spectacular celebration with fireworks and explosions, ‘The Man,’ a large wooden effigy, is set on fire. This effigy is also built by the attendees, known as burners. Those who regularly attend this gathering remember that in 2012, dozens of mini-tornadoes emerged from the fire, similar to what happens at the Fallas in Valencia.

This ritual takes place in complete silence and is dedicated to the deceased. Throughout the week, participants write messages on the wooden figure and leave notes and photos with the belief that burning them establishes a connection with the departed. The Burning Man Project organization states on its website, ‘What is experienced here can bring about a positive spiritual change in the world.

Due to the festival’s fame, critics argue that it has become a ‘trendy event,’ with tickets ranging from $1,000 to $2,700, depending on the desired camping location, and despite the high cost, they sell out quickly.

However, there are also “grants” for artists and people who cannot afford to pay.

Today, Burning Man attracts not only neo-hippies from around the world but also celebrities in search of a ‘cool’ addition to their Instagram accounts. Alongside the tents, it’s now common to spot luxurious RVs belonging to actors, singers, and millionaires like Paris Hilton, Cara Delevingne, and Katy Perry. Many of them photograph every corner of the event, violating one of the unwritten rules: keeping their cell phones off and enjoying the event privately, away from consumerism.

This year, the good vibes and sense of community were put to the test.

In 2023, the theme of Burning Man, which began on August 27 and was scheduled to end on September 4, was ‘Animalia,’ an exploration of ‘all forms of life, real or imaginary’ – a concept that was meant to inspire pavilions, installations, and art actions. However, little of that vision could be realized: in just 24 hours, the equivalent of two to three months’ worth of rain fell. This deluge resulted in more than 70,000 people being trapped in ankle-deep thick mud, with chaos and desperation prevailing. Among those who had to navigate kilometers of mud was DJ Diplo.

He even had to hitchhike to escape. Eventually, a fan recognized him and gave him a lift in the back of their truck. It was during this ride that the DJ met comedian Chris Rock, another ‘burner.

To expedite the rescue, organizers had to relax the rules and allow vehicles with four-wheel drive and off-road tires to enter. ‘We came here knowing that it’s a place where you have to bring everything you need to survive. Burning Man is a community of people willing to support each other. That’s why we are well-prepared for a climatic event like this,’ the organization stated to calm tempers.

Obviously, “The Man” could not be burned, but attendees were not left.