With Burning Man ticket sales set to begin on April 10, thousands of people are gearing up for another year of the counter-cultural experience. At the same time, the Burning Man organization plans to change some of its practices to make the event more inclusive.
After Burning Man 2018, 4,804 people from 78 countries answered a survey that was part of an initiative to set a cultural direction in Black Rock City.
“Many expressed concerns (which we share) about the dilution of the 10 Principles such as Radical Self-reliance, Decommodification, and Participation on the playa, and offered perspectives on the role that money plays in camps,” wrote Marian Goodell, Burning Man’s Chief Executive Officer, in a blog on the event’s website.
In the blog post, Goodell expressed concerns about the recent trends towards exclusivity and commodification at the event. Goodell called out social media influencers exploiting the event to promote brands and companies selling all-inclusive package deals. Goodell also described instances in which older and LGBTQ burners were denied access to certain camps and art cars and how participants are failing to contribute while only consuming.
In an effort to promote inclusion, Burning Man organizers are implementing several changes to ticket sales such as expanding the low-income ticket allocation by 18% and reducing the overall number of high-priced tickets by 30%.
What I learned at Burning Man
Full disclosure—I only attended Burning Man once. However, in that experience I saw how attendees forgot the 10 Principles while incorrectly categorizing the event as a music or an art festival.
Burning Man is NOT a festival. It is a community that all members must contribute to and respect for it to work.
The Burning Man organization classifies Black Rock City as a safe haven from the “typical consumerist, status-driven, brand-saturated, optimized-for-your-convenience world.” This meaning gets lost when virgin burners attend the event without fully understanding its purpose.
Here is my non-exhaustive list of guidelines that every virgin burner should know.
Request permission to take pictures
The fascinating murals, sculptures, art cars and costumes make Burning Man one of the most photogenic places on earth. But, participants should always ask for a subject’s consent before taking a photo—especially if the individual is naked or if the photo makes them easily identifiable.
At Burning Man, participants can engage in radical self-expression without fear of the repercussions they would normally face in the default world (defined by Burning Man as “the rest of the world that is not Black Rock City during the Burning Man event.”) The irresistible urge to flaunt the amazing experience on social media should never outweigh another burner’s right to privacy.
Don’t engage in cultural appropriation
With radical self-expression in mind, Burning Man may seem like the perfect opportunity to don a headdress or a bindi. It’s not.
Even in the middle of the Black Rock desert, it’s not OK to wear a culture as a costume. Many commonly-appropriated items and styles hold significance for the group from which they are appropriated. That significance still applies in Black Rock City, as does everyone’s responsibility to respect it.
Participate in the gifting economy
The 10 Principles of Burning Man state that the event “is devoted to acts of gift giving” and that “the value of a gift is unconditional.” The principal promotes the wonderful feeling that comes from giving without expecting anything in return, contrary to the economy of the default world.
This principle has been criticized for making Black Rock City a place only the wealthy can go to, which is partly true. Many of the aspects that make Burning Man so great would not be possible without contributions from people who have enough disposable income to spend constructing massive art pieces or hosting hundreds of people at camps that offer free alcohol and food.
I believe every burner gives what they can to the playa. For those going to the event on a low-income ticket, handmade items and kind gestures are a meaningful, affordable way to contribute. At the same time, wealthier participants must be willing to share their contributions freely. As long as every person actively contributes what they can and shares selflessly, Black Rock City may continue to thrive.
On the playa, I felt incredibly loved and accepted by everyone with whom I interacted. Hands-down, what made Burning Man so special for me was the ability to engage with so many people from all over the world and celebrate universal truths of the human experience. The event challenged me to be accepting and open-minded, which allowed me to also experience the therapeutic benefits of complete acceptance. I truly believe there is something for everyone on the playa.
Jessie Schirrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @NevadaSagebrush.