A Tale of Two Cities: The Black Rock Desert’s 2021 Watershed Moment

by | Sep 8, 2021 | Essay, Stories | 0 comments

From late August to early September, free thinkers from around the world built a temporary city on a small area of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. What took place wasn’t exactly Burning Man, although many declared it their favorite burn.

At dusk before the Saturday evening climax, a veil of dust and smoke obscured every feature of the surrounding landscape other than the flat, dry lakebed underfoot. Passersby appeared out of the distance from every direction, punctuated from time to time by the roar of an otherworldly vehicle. Triumphant joy beamed from the faces of longtime visitors for what felt like a once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment.

Art Car Burning Man 2021 Scott London

Image credit: Scott London

The scenario certainly looked and felt like a certain world-famous celebration of art and community. In fact, a key difference set it apart.

Absent from the equation was the Burning Man Project, a nonprofit organization that burners colloquially refer to as the Org. In addition to planning and promoting the now 80,000-person annual event, it also oversees programs and initiatives that align with its broader mission of worldwide arts and community support.

The Org has gained a complicated reputation, though. A common narrative among burners condemns the institution for having strayed from its core values over the years. Owing to that and other factors, many feel that the once exceptional gathering has come to increasingly resemble a commercial music festival.

2021 was the second year in a row Burning Man had been called off out of an abundance of caution amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The Black Rock Desert sits on federal land, however, meaning that visitors can legally camp there at no expense anytime they wish.

In 2020, about 5,000 gathered in the desert around the dates Burning Man ordinarily would have taken place. Somewhere around 15,000 people are estimated to have attended the 2021 follow-up, one of many factors responsible for the palpable atmosphere shift at last week’s event.

Burning Man 2021 electric bikes

Image credit: Scott London

Participants were better organized, for one thing. Coordinating in Facebook groups like Renegade Man, Black Rock Plan B, and Rogue Burn, they arranged to bring all manner of art to the playa without the infrastructure typically provided by the Org. The more self-reliant among them embraced the challenge, and the thought of dodging high ticket prices and bureaucratic red tape certainly didn’t diminish the appeal.

Burning Man is made up primarily of theme camps, dwellings in which participants theoretically play an active role in the city by entertaining or offering services to others with no contemplation of receiving anything in return. The Org’s Placement department assigns each camp a location along streets laid out in concentric semicircles. Dividing them are dozens of straight avenues fanning outwards from the iconic man structure at the center of the five-square-mile grounds.

RVs dusk Burning Man 2021

Image credit: Scott London

If you go by size alone, last week’s event wasn’t nearly as impressive. At its peak, the sprawl of tents, structures and vehicles could mostly fit inside Esplanade, Black Rock City’s innermost road. The streets of the unofficial gathering connected to the north – perhaps a clever visual metaphor for burner culture’s full circle moment.

Only four diagonal avenues cut through the streets of last week’s city, with neighborhoods in between congealing into irregularly shaped compounds. Most camps ended up surprisingly close to where they placed themselves on the Black Rock Desert Camps map project. Even still, confusion over the numbering of avenues arguably made services like Gaia or What3Words the easiest way to navigate to destinations.

Like the official event, the city grew each day as new carfuls of attendees spilled onto the playa with plumes of dust rising in their wake. They ventured out wearing outfits ranging from extravagant to absurd to completely absent, encountering familiar landmarks like Sunset Lounge, Sound Garden and ATARAXIA.

Nightfall transformed the playa into the fantasy world every burner knows and loves. It’s a wonderland where music seems to change by the minute and the soft dust halos of distant lights form a pleasantly glowing nebula across the horizon.

Burning Man 2021 dragonfly art car

Image credit: Scott London

In the most notable departure from Burning Man, no 60-foot effigy was burned to the ground. In its place was a drone light show programmed by Dutch firm Studio Drift with sound provided by the Robot Heart art car.

Hundreds of lights rose to the sky from the center of the city to carve out swirling abstractions overhead. They locked into an instantly recognizable formation representing the man, triggering a rush of ecstatic cheers from the thousands of people encircling the area.

In an email to Selector, a spokesperson on behalf of Studio Drift said the drone show had been in the works since the Org canceled Burning Man 2021. They had organized similar ones on Thursday and Friday – one of which was a tribute to Robot Heart Founder Geo Mueller, who passed away in March.

Studio Shift drone show Burning Man 2021

Image credit: Scott London

“With the man absent we had to fly one in the sky and virtually burn it,” wrote the spokesperson. “When we made our plans we also talked to the Robot Heart crew and decided to do a tribute to its founder Geo, someone who has had a huge influence on the music at Burning Man and is an inspiration to many.”

The Burning Man-inspired gathering posed unique challenges as well. Smoke from the California wildfires cast an unyielding haze over the region. The poor air quality compounded the desert’s harsh dust storms and extreme temperature fluctuations that already bring an element of survival to the desert outings.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) also imposed temporary restrictions on fire and structures used for anything but shade, sleeping or cooking. This created unexpected obstacles for a number of theme camps and teams planning large art installations.

Builders found inventive ways to work around the new rules. The 2021 iteration of the Temple, a place for grieving and solemn reflection built each year at Burning Man, was dedicated to the memory of DJ Satchi Om, who passed away in July. Stretched above its ornate wooden installations were lengths of pastel-colored fabric, offering a respite from the sun and qualifying the sacred space as a shade structure.

As more theme camps and art pieces popped up across the playa, it also became clear that BLM officers didn’t plan to enforce the bans too strictly. Reverbia, a sound camp that hosted performances by live bands throughout the week, consisted of a stage with no apparent shade structure overhead.

“BLM came over and talked to us about our stage,” said Justin, who helped set up electricity and water for Reverbia, during a conversation with Selector. “They said it needed to be a shade structure, so we threw a tent under there for our equipment. Now it’s a shade structure.”

Altitude Lounge, a three-story building that has historically offered burners a bird’s eye view of the playa, improvised by using a large vehicle as its base. For that matter, Burning Man’s quintessential art cars technically didn’t violate the restriction on structures. As a matter of fact, the absence of Burning Man’s Department of Mutant Vehicles (DMV) may have made matters easier for their operators.

Fire horse art car Burning Man 2021

Image credit: Scott London

“As a mutant vehicle driver I was a little concerned coming to something like this that doesn’t have enforcement of streets and locations that it was going to fill in and we’d end up landlocked,” Techno Gecko Captain Michael Worry told Selector. “People have actually been surprisingly respectful of the streets so we’ve had no problem driving around or getting out of camp.”

In fact, Worry said that in some ways his project was even easier than it would have been at Burning Man.

“Usually when we arrive we need multiple days to get the vehicle up to DMV principles and then go through the whole licensing process,” he explained. “Without any of those rules in place, we were able to put together enough of the vehicle in a few hours and hit the playa the very first night. As a burner of 18 years, this is the first time ever that I’ve been able to hit the playa and go out with the mutant vehicle the same night.”

In the spirit of burner generosity, some participants even offered free goods and services to address many of the concerns aired most loudly by social media commentators. A camp gave out bags of ice, one of the few things you can purchase from Center Camp during the actual Burning Man event. Also, while most portable restrooms were hauled out exclusively for use by specific camps, a few opened theirs to the general public.

Burning Man’s medical infrastructure obviously wasn’t available to participants who suffered injuries, but the Black Rock Rangers who volunteer at the official events were present in a reduced capacity. In total, about 60 of them showed up at the Black Rock Desert as part of what they called Operation Non-Event 2.

At least two participants in last week’s event were reportedly taken to the hospital after suffering injuries. Neither the Washoe County Sheriff nor the BLM responded to Selector‘s request for official hospitalization and arrest figures.

Most who witnessed what happened on playa last week would nonetheless call it a successful experiment. It begs the question: Is an organization like the Burning Man Project even necessary for mass gatherings in the Black Rock Desert?

Zone Trip

According to some of the key figures involved with Burning Man at its genesis, structure became a necessary evil as the gathering grew.

Jerry James and the late Larry Harvey burned the first man ever in 1986 on Baker Beach in San Francisco. Over the next few years the act became a yearly ritual that grew popular among people in the nearby area.

The 1990 edition drew a crowd of about 1,000. It also attracted unwanted attention from the police, however, who forbade them from burning the man if they wanted to move forward with the gathering.

The Cacophony Society, a Bay Area subculture of artist-pranksters who had gotten involved with the Baker Beach events, were already privy to the Black Rock Desert’s mystique at that time. Before anyone ever burned a man atop its scaly surface, an artist named Mel Lyons had used it as the backdrop for many of his surrealist art installations.

Lyons’ creations included giant croquet games, oddly shaped carts, and rows of poles protruding from the ground. Truthfully, almost any of his works would fit in well around other art built on the present-day Black Rock Desert.

Later on after the final Baker Beach gathering in 1990, a Cacophonist named John Law had planned to curate what writer Hakim Bey termed a “temporary autonomous zone” in the same desert. In such a space, it was thought that the structures of society would break down and allow those occupying it freedom in the truest sense – although Law would not become familiar with Bey’s writings until the following year.

Law planned to incorporate elements of Dadaist art into his version of the concept, billed Zone Trip #4, A Bad Day at Black Rock. Given Harvey and James’ Baker Beach dilemma, he invited them to burn that year’s man at his event.

Cacophonist ideas arguably laid the foundation on which Burning Man has stood throughout its lifetime. Underscoring all of it was the playa, a seemingly enchanted blank canvas whose allure compels visitors to contribute art of their own. Over the next five years attendance grew from 800 to 4,000, with Cacophonist participation remaining a vital component of the culture surrounding the annual gathering.

Attendance doubled again in 1996 to a total of 8,000 attendees from around the world. Disputes over guns created tension between Harvey and his colleagues, and then tragedy struck when a couple was run over by a car in their tent. The following year, Harvey and company forbade guns and implemented the street system.

For better or worse, structure began gradually creeping its way into the autonomous zone of Burning Man. 2004 saw Harvey and company introduce the Ten Principles, whose tenets include not only Cacophonist values like participation but also decommodification, radical inclusion, and civic responsibility. At the time he did not intend for them to be enforced as strict rules, but as a framework that communicated burner values at the newly launched regional events.

The cultural Mecca inevitably crossed into the mainstream spotlight, and before long it attracted the rich and powerful from across the globe. Around 2009-2010 a trend of “plug and play” camps emerged in which wealthy Burning Man attendees not keen to participate could simply pay for amenities to make their experience as comfortable as possible.

Plug-and-play camps continued to alienate longtime burners, and somewhere along the lines the Org changed its tune and started treating the Ten Principles as hard-and-fast rules. At the 2015 Global Leadership Conference, Burning Man CEO Marian Goodell publicly took a stand for decommodification of the playa. She said that the Org was “absolutely committed to ceasing the plug and play culture.”

Larry Harvey passed away at age 70 in April 2018. The following year Goodell made “Cultural Course Correcting” one of the Org’s highest priorities, mentioning that Harvey had been involved in a similar initiative shortly before his death. She vowed to not only take aim at plug-and-play camps but also art car gatekeepers and models shooting photos for Instagram clout.

Burners met Goodell’s proclamation with a resounding “too little too late,” disgruntled that it took the better part of a decade for the Org to push back on changes to the gathering. Then came the COVID-19 crisis. The unique circumstances of the pandemic forced the Burning Man Project to cancel its flagship event for the first time since its inception and attempt to shore up losses with fundraisers that received mixed reactions from the burners making up their target audience.

The Burning Man project declined Selector‘s request for comment on the 2021 gathering inspired by their own annual event in the Black Rock Desert.

Two Cities

Some feel that last week’s unstructured event course corrected burner culture better than the Org ever could. To their point, the playa was indeed restored to something resembling an autonomous zone. With longtime visitors of the Black Rock Desert making up the majority of participants, it didn’t even devolve into pure chaos.

“With no officially organized event, no Porta-Potties, no roads, no fence, no ticket sale, COVID-19, no influencer camps, etc., the barrier to go out to the playa was high,” wrote the Studio Shift spokesperson. “The people that came out really wanted to be there. They needed the reset that the playa provides. As someone stated, it was more like a pilgrimage.”

“Amazing how everything worked so well without a central organization behind it,” they continued. “The lessons and principles learned in the history of Burning Man were easily applied this year in a decentralized gathering.”

Robot Heart art car Burning Man 2021

Image credit: Scott London

It’s less of a revelation to anyone who enjoys the Black Rock Desert year round. Those who explore the picturesque locale on Memorial Day Weekend or participate in deliberately unstructured events like Juplaya have long known that Burning Man is not the only context in which one can enjoy what the locale has to offer.

The man burned by Larry Harvey and Jerry James was of course not the first piece of art made on the playa. The organization that sprang from their act of radical self-expression nonetheless grew virtually synonymous with the Black Rock Desert. One might argue that the Burning Man Project’s rigorous PR and marketing impose an artificial scarcity on the experience similar to that of De Beers on diamonds.

Burning Man 2021 sunset art car

Image credit: Scott London

At the moment, though, participants in last week’s event arguably hold no ethical high ground over the Org. In fact, their city will meet the same fate if they’re not careful.

Thus far the new event basically exists in Burning Man’s shadow. Most participants called what they were doing some variation of “burning,” practiced the event’s principles, and gathered around the same range of dates. The depiction of the man even elicited the most uproarious applause of the entire Saturday night drone show.

In time, the right combination of precipitating factors will force the renegades to implement a structure like that of Burning Man. Such an entity will invariably attract opportunists as it grows. Each new team member will arrive with a different vision for the future, and before long it will suffer from the same identity crisis that came to plague the Org.

Burning Man 2021 couple bicycle

Image credit: Scott London

Those longing to create art in the Black Rock Desert would do well to differentiate their temporary community from Black Rock City. Perhaps they ought to study the Cacaphony Society (or the Suicide Club that preceded it) and find a long-forgotten idea on which they can build. Better yet, they could derive inspiration from the playa’s blank canvas to conjure something purely original.

By Sunday evening, most of the city had vanished with a handful of errant vehicles casting faint shadows in the dust. Many left the playa feeling they would never experience something quite like it again. Others simply quipped, “Next year was better.”

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