Burning Man is an annual gathering of 80,000 or so dreamers and doers in a temporary community called Black Rock City built in the beautiful but remote Black Rock Desert of northern Nevada. The event takes place during the week leading up to and including the Labor Day holiday in early September and features art, music. and a host of other types of fun entertainment put on by its attendees. The climax of Burning Man is the immolation of a large wooden effigy of a man the Saturday evening before Labor Day.
Burning Man 2023 Dates: Sunday, August 27th through Monday, September 4th (Labor Day)
Burning Man Location: Black Rock City, Nevada
Note that the word “event” was used above instead of “festival.” This is because Burning Man has some really key differences from a typical world-class music festival like, say, Coachella. These differences are described in more detail below.
No easily-accessible hotels or Airbnb’s can be found close to Burning Man. So, everyone camps onsite at Burning Man in some way. This camping takes place in many different forms. On one end of the spectrum, some people keep costs down by sleeping in their cars, skipping showers, and eating simple meals like peanut butter and crackers. On the other end of the spectrum, some people take part in elaborate (and expensive) communal glamping experiences with luxury RV’s, thousands of gallons of imported water for showers, and professional chefs preparing banquets nightly.
At its heart, though, Burning Man is a mostly middle-class festival made up of hundreds of registered Theme Camps with a dozen to several hundred members camping together, sharing infrastructure and costs.
No Main Stage or Headliners
You won’t find any sort of main stage at Burning Man or a well-publicized lineup of famous artists and acts. Instead, the entertainment is put on by the attendees themselves. Everyone is encouraged to participate, and “no spectators” is a common refrain.
Much of the entertainment at Burning Man can be found in the theme camps introduced above. Each theme camp is expected to be interactive and to provide some sort of gift to the broader event – music, art, fun activities, food/drink, or services like post offices and bike repair. If you can think of it, and you look hard enough, you can probably find it at a Burning Man theme camp.
Most everything you encounter at Burning Man is self-funded by the participants themselves. This means many things you run across have a charming a do-it-yourself vibe. That said, in some cases participants band together in large numbers to create truly world-class art pieces, music venues, art cars, and other experiences. The juxtaposition of these things together is part of what makes Burning Man special.
Art Is Emphasized
Music is ubiquitous at Burning Man, especially electronic dance music, but so too are other art forms. Visual art is especially well-represented. Some pieces at the event are mobile, taking the form of Mutant Vehicles that roam around Burning Man. Flame effects, LED lights, and interactive elements are all commonly encountered.
Many small and medium-sized art pieces can be found throughout the event, but Burning Man is probably best known for its big art, pieces of breathtaking size and scale. Many of these pieces are placed away from the theme camps out in the open desert where they can be enjoyed with a more desolate backdrop. Some of these pieces are even burned during the week in their own special ceremonies.
Costumes are also common and a way many participants uniquely express themselves. These costumes range from the simple and practical to the stunningly elaborate. At night, these costumes typically feature some sort of lighting element, both for decoration and for safety.
Each year Burning Man selects an art theme. Many people use this theme as a source of ideas and inspiration, but whether or not you use utilize the theme is up to you. Burning Man is about expressing yourself as you see fit (while still respecting others).
The Environment is Challenging
Rather than taking place in a large, well-developed park or fairground in a major city, Burning Man takes place in the remote high desert in a large dry lakebed (called the “playa”). The soil has a high corrosive alkaline content, and there’s no natural shade or water to be found. The temperatures range on average from highs in the upper 90’s (Fahrenheit) during the day to the lows in the 40’s at night. Strong winds can pick up suddenly and cause zero-visibility “white out” conditions. The event location is also almost 4,000 feet above sea level.
Participants are expected to bring everything they need to survive in this environment themselves. This can be a heady challenge for new participants, particularly those who have not done much camping, and meeting this challenge is part of what many enjoy about attending Burning Man.
The Culture Is Unique
Perhaps the best part of Burning Man is the culture. The musician and frequent Burning Man performer and attendee Tycho perhaps put it best when he said, “Everyone tries harder out there.”
The most striking cultural difference at Burning Man is the eschewing of commercialism. There are no souvenir booth or food/drink concessions. The only things you can buy at Burning Man is ice. Logos on clothing or equipment are frowned upon. Folks shy away from discussions about what people do for a living.
Kindness abounds. People often greet strangers with a hug and immediately treat them as new friends. Attendees make a special effort to be considerate of one another. Of course, people are still people, and sometimes stress gets the better of someone, but this is the exception rather than the rule.
A key reason for this unique culture is an emphasis on adherence to the Burning Man Ten Principles, which we discuss in detail in the next article in this guide.
(Background photo courtesy of the Independent)