Burning Man Has Jumped the Shark

ED NOTE: I wrote this article almost exactly two years ago, back when the ticket prices were only $210 and the city was a mere 49,000 participants strong. Since then the event has continued to evolve (devolve), getting more elaborate, more rule-heavy and further away from that thing that everyone who goes out there searches for. Read on.


As most of the people I know pack and gear up for their annual pilgrimage to the desert, I am officially announcing my declaration of independence from Larry Harvey.

The Burning Man festival has been a counter-cultural phenomenon since founder Larry and friends first torched a wooden figure of a man on a beach in San Francisco. And every year it has evolved and grown, sometimes doubling in size from the previous year, into the gargantuan mainstream melee of scatterbrained philosophies, and stupefyingly hypocritical "themes" it is today.

I have been reluctant to write an article about this because I've held onto the last thread of hope that the event I have known and loved for 11 years would come to its senses and see the error of its ways. But sadly, it looks like just when "the borg" was scraping the bottom of the barrel for themes for its yearly bacchanal in the desert, someone figured out a way to dig even lower.

And for this reason, and after careful consideration I have come to the only conclusion possible: Burning Man has jumped the shark.

There. I said it.

For some reason that I am sure has been explained in one of Larry's long-winded diatribes to the press, in 1998, the decision was made to start having a generalized theme for each year's event. The theme is usually disregarded by the veteran burners (participants that have attended more than three burns) and people usually do whatever they want when it comes to their art, their camps or their modes of transportation while at the event.

I had thought this past year's theme was by far the most ridiculous to date. In 2007 the event took a decidedly "politically correct" stance and went with the theme of "Green Man." It was supposed to show how we can do things to change our world around us by employing ecologically conscious efforts, or at least considering what our impact has on the environment and world around us.

But let's look at this rationally: Its a camping trip in the middle of the desert. People burn a shit-load of fossil fuel just to get out there, not to mention dropping hundreds, if not thousands of dollars on poorly-made crap they will give out as "gifts" as well as costumes, dust masks, food, ice chests and several other things that were probably purchased at a mega-billion-dollar corporation's tactic for getting rid of the small business owner.

Oh and let's not forget all that wood, propane, kerosene, lamp oil, and costumes made out of synthetic materials that are all derived from non-renewable resources that contaminate the environment.

And you can't have a burning man without fire, right? It takes a lot of pyrotechnics to produce an over-inflated spectacle such as this and I am pretty sure there aren't many environmentally friendly fireworks out there.

As I said, I had thought that the "Green" theme was one of the craziest ideas yet for this hard-to-describe week of fun. I say "Yet" because the theme for 2008 completely takes the cake. Here is the official description from the Burning Man website:

This year's art theme is about patriotism -- not that kind which freights the nation state with the collective weight of ego, but a patriotism that is based upon a love of country and culture. Leave ideology at home; forget the blue states and the red; let parties, factions and the so-called issues that divide us fall away. Flag burning or flag worship play no part in this year's theme. Ask yourself, instead, a more immediate question. What has America achieved that you admire or feel proud of? What has it done or failed to do that makes you feel dismayed? Put blame aside, in this election year, and dare to ask an even greater question: What can postmodern America, this stumbling, roused, half-conscious giant, yet give to the world?

A noble premise, perhaps, but in the wake of the politically correct theme from 07, it just seems like the founders are trying to put a very legitimate and law-abiding face to their previously anti-establishment flavored soirée. The whole thing just smacks of kissing the government's ass and trying to be more mainstream - or at least attempting to look more mainstream to avoid the government stepping in and shutting the whole thing down.

But wait, it gets better:

"In 2008, the Burning Man will stand atop a high-rise tower. Instead of windows, this edifice will feature images of flags that represent the countries of the world. Ranging from Canada to Chad, from Brazil to Burundi, from Vatican City to the Republic of China, these 244 symbols will shine in the night, gleaming like cut gems upon the surface of a jewel box. The United States of America will be among them. Each country can be said to represent a dream no less radiant or precious than the rest. Each nation may be viewed as a container of identity; yet each one can be said to be a glimmering illusion, an arbitrary entity defined by boundaries on a map. All of us are immigrants to Black Rock City. What can we dream America to be?"

OK, so this year the man will sit on top of a high-rise tower. An iconic symbol of corporate mastery in the modern, post-industrial world. Now branded with the burning man trademark. How lovely!

And in a final symbol to all those countries flags, they'll torch the whole thing to the ground while naked, tweaked out revelers jump through the flames in their pseudo-ritualistic orgy of sight, sound and consciousness.


I have been a die hard proponent of the event, from the moment I first set foot on the prehistoric lake bed at my first burn back in 1997, I have seen the raw beauty that can come from a temporary community filled with artistically creative individuals.

But I have also watched the evolution of the event as more and more people exponentially converge on that barren stretch of nothingness to carve out their own interpretation of a Utopian dream. I have also seen the point of critical mass. I have witnessed first hand the tipping point in the evolutionary ladder where the event went from crazy, alternative-lifestyle-fueled, anything goes, freakfest, to a more mundane, socio-economically benign big business.

I have seen the transition from alternative to the mainstream and while its not possible to single out one solitary event or change in philosophy that was the catalyst for the transition, I would have to say that creating a generalized "theme" for the event that falls in line with popular political trends has got to play a major role.

It's not possible to have the kind of personality the event had in '97 when there are now 50,000 people walking around. Its a basic principle of the law of diminishing returns. It's simply not possible to sustain that kind of social dynamic with that many people. And despite the best intentions of the inhabitants of the temporary city, the kind of idealistic philosophy that permeates the event and makes it so fun has a very limited shelf life. If the event were to exist for longer than one week, all that happy vibe, "peace, love unity and respect" would evaporate as soon as the drugs ran out, reducing things to a desert version of "Lord of the Flies" in short order.

With the over saturation of so many people all wanting to experience that "something special" that originally brought everyone out there in the first place, can that flame of inspiration and "radical self-expression" continue, or will it be snuffed out by expansion and commercialization, helped along by an organization that panders to government bureaucracy and political correctness? Will the amazing counter-cultural phenomenon devolve into just another rave in the middle of nowhere?

It doesn't matter to me anymore, because I wont be there. I have joined the illustrious ranks of veterans whose motto has changed from "leave no trace" to "it was better last year" and as a result of the asinine gentrification and "Disneyfying" of a once-chaotic, not-really organized blow-shit-up-in-the-desert camp out, I am now happy to watch all the folks try futilely to find that one thing that I know honestly cant be found by watching a big wood stick figure burn. It has to be discovered within each person individually. Its not about the event, its about the people that make the event what it is.


Anonymous said...

Bravo! Thank you for having the courage to say it. Counter-culture icon sells out. But then again, that's what happens when counter-culture becomes culture. :-)

The Judge said...

I dont really believe in the term "counter culter" especially with Burning Man, as it has become its own culture, separate of others. The problem is that its hard not to look at what they (the borg) have done over the past few years and not consider them sell outs. That is the culture its become: a culture of kowtowing obedience to the local governments in the hopes that the event will be allowed to continue.

Anonymous said...

I never thought it was more than an excuse to party, still is and will probably always be.

The Judge said...

When it was smaller, it was a lot easier to get away with doing whatever the hell you wanted. Its a lot harder to have that attitude when there are 50,000 people walking around.

It used to just be an excuse to party. Now its a means for the law enforcement agencies of two different counties, along with the federal Bureau of Land Management to justify buying all terrain vehicles and night vision.

Anonymous said...

No, Burning Man jumped the shark when it was featured in Wired in 1996.

The Judge said...

Thats a very good point. I dont know if it was the exact point when it jumpped the shark, but it certainly changed from night and day after that year.

Anonymous said...

"its about the people that make the event what it is"

do you not feel that you can make it what it should be? are you not one of 'the people'?

The Judge said...

I *AM* one of the people that make the event what it is, but the big problem is that for every 10 people that have the right attitude, there are 3 or 4 that are what we call "yahoos." In other words, the beer-swilling, "girls gone wild" wanna-be filmmaker that thinks its just about naked chicks. With 50,000 people, the potential for yahoos increases. This combined with the direction the borg seems to be steering the event leads me to believe that its on the other side of the bell curve for any real, mind-blowing experiences. At least for me.

Anonymous said...

give you a gold star for having an opinion that makes all of us feel less cool than you. feel proud with your cool little star? good. you can sit at home admiring it while I have a rockin time without you, cranky pants.

The Judge said...

Is that the best you can do, Anonymous? I mean, I've posted this article to the Burning Man message boards and have been battling flaming trolls like you for most of the summer. Is the star thing supposed to make me see the error of my ways? Wow. you are right. My opinion is completely wrong. How silly of me to think outside of the collective consciousness of the unwashed mass of burners.

Go have a good time. Party your brains out. Enjoy the landscape and the experience, but just know that the next time you go out there your opinion will have changed and within five years, (if you are still going by then) you will be saying the exact same thing. Trust me. I am an expert at this.

The Judge said...

Oh, and you *ARE* less cool than me.

Anonymous said...

Cacophany! Dissonance!


I want a strong response!

Look at me!


Guys? um... guys???

Anonymous said...

Maybe you should go to the World's Fair, Expo 2008 in Zaragoza, Spain instead, since you are so negative.
I feel like there is some other thing that made you go negative, you were jilted by a girlfriend, poked by a ranger, something else is going on here with you, it screams loudly between your lines.

The Judge said...

Its interesting that you would think this, but honestly, this comes from seeing the event change so much since I first started going. I've been attending for 11 years and have worked with the Borg for 9. My opinion comes from direct, unbiased observation.

Dont get me wrong. I still love the event and hanging out with my friends, and also working my ass out there. But I am tired of seeing the event morph out of the way it once was. Granted, it will never be the same from year to year, but when you step back and look at the big picture, its hard not to be surprised and the way things have changed.

Todd said...

I've been to Burning Man 10 times, first year was 1996. For me, 1999 was the year it jumped. I will always remember the crowds around the man yelling "Sit the Fuck down!!" Now, during the burn, you are lucky if you can see anything with all the art cars and crowds. Snarking the burn is a norm. Part of the problem is that the Man is no longer the biggest deal on the playa.

When the temple burns began it was a bit of a flash from the past, a more somber reflective burn, but a few years of that and all of sudden the "Sit the F down" folks were there.

Also the shwag, it's all a bit much and a real cop-out to the act of participation. What happen to engaging people to do fun things?

What I think is mostly the cause is the numbers of people, there was a point where the participants vs. the observers was at a ratio that worked. Now that ratio has tipped far too much towards the observer side. With people thinking "I'm a participant if I give out some shwag" or people with bars or dome's shilling music the event has lost some originality. In my opinion.

In all 10 years that I have attended, I've tried to add to the event with some sort of installation or theme camp and I'm just a little guy, I'm no Pepe or Best. But the fact that the little guy could contribute just like the big guys is what made it fun. There was a while there in the earlier days where everyone was trying to hook into that vibe. Now people are talking "I'm going Lo-fi, just going to give some necklaces out" That's the problem.

anyway, I ramble, regardless, I still love it, just was better once upon a time.

BM has always to me also been about overcoming these obstacles, so I hope something changes.

Bring the fire and danger back to BM!!!!


The Judge said...

You've hit the nail right on the head. I remember when the ticket read, "You voluntarily assume the risk of serious injury or death by attending." and it meant it.

The big camp versus the little camp has always been a problem and its something that should have never taken place. Just because you happen to have thousands of dollars to throw a rave camp doesnt make you any more of a participant than the guy who builds a really cool piece of art that is not documented and you stumble upon while wandering the playa in a haze in the wee hours of the morning.

I miss those nights.

Todd said...

One other thing that I see as a jump the shark moment, as I was watching the man burn this time around, I really missed the days when he was on a bunch of hay bails. When he burned he actually burned more evenly. At some point the Borg felt compelled to compete I suppose and those massive structures that the man sits upon now began and since then he has not burned well since. I miss the days where he would look like an actual man and they would move him to bring him down and he'd do that sway. Very cool. Now a days the structures burn so big they just eat him up. Theres some sort of hidden meaning in there.

The Judge said...

I dont know if its much of a hidden meaning. It seems pretty obvious to me: The man now sits squarely atop a pedestal. They say its for visibility, but I call bullshit.

The hay bales used to burn so hot that it would fuse the ground underneath it into glass. Thats when they had to do burn platforms to preserve the playa surface. Eventually those platforms became towering monuments unto themselves.

I remember when they would lift the man up by hand-pulled ropes and the community would work together to put him in place. Now he is completely out of reach, thanks to idiots like Paul Addis.

Will said...

I sense a lot of fear coming from some of the "Veteran Burners" about the magnitude in size, ideals, and attendees at the venue. I would probably have the same thoughts cross my mind if I was in the same shoes, however this was my first year and it was a dream come true for me "on many levels". This has been a cosmic summer, and that cosmic shift is causing a lot of changes. People fear change. Fear is a poison that infects the mind and eats at your soul. I can find negativity in just about anything if I want, but I'd rather enjoy the rest of this life in the light.
"Impossibility is a restriction of thought" -iLLWiLL

The Judge said...

Blah blah blah. Have another mushroom and shut the fuck up.

Fear - like pain - shows you that you are still alive. To not have fear is to not experience everything that life offers the human being.

Now, if you want to talk existentialism, I am sure there are plenty of burners that would love to discuss this with you. However, the point of my article was that based on my observations of the event from the 10 years I have gone, it has changed dramatically. Much further than anyone had anticipated and still further from its ideals that were set in place at the onset of this crazy, nutty festival of freaks.

Each person's first burn is a life-changing experience. No one ever thinks they are going to get something out of the event, and then once the dust has settled and the person is sitting comfortably back in the mundane world, they realize that there is something that causes them to think differently about everything. It may not happen to everyone that goes out there, but for those that are willing to embrace it, it will be found.

However I have seen the growth of the event and that spark. that magical catalyst that makes you think you can do anything has faded.

The event still holds a great magnetism for me and I will most likely reappear on the dusty lakebed some time in the future, but the original spark that drew me to the event initially is gone for me. My personal feelings are that it is caused by the overpopulation of the event, its integration into mainstream consciousness and the abundance of ridiculous prom-night "themes" that the borg feels necessary to foist upon the event.

Once you have gone a few times, let me know if your opinions have changed. Until then, enjoy the glow and the warmth of the fire and think that the microcosm the event has become will never change. You will become enlightened soon enough.

Will said...

The Judge said "blah blah blah, have another mushroom and shut the F up."

Wow, I can't recall the last time someone was that rude to me. I think it was in prison and we both ended up in the infirmary...

Dear judge, your words are filled with the hatred of a child's temper tantrum. You talk a big hype about the past event's size and say it's harder now to do whatever you want, well it's talk like that that the media and government agencies like to hear. In fact my intuition tells me you are into law enforcement, and not because of "the judge" title, and that's fine. Burning Man is for everyone! It wasn't made just for you, but fortunately we live in this great country where someone like yourself can attend such a great event and then talk trash about it and people that attended it afterwards, from the safety of your rat hole... God Bless you Judge- I'm going to pray for you...

The Judge said...

Save your prayers, sheep. I dont need em and you just look silly on your knees like that supplicating to an imaginary friend in the clouds.

I have already replied several times and stated my opinion, which comes from years of direct observation. Yes, it is an opinion and yes, just like assholes, everyone has one.

You are still basking in the warm fuzzy post-coital euphoria of your first burn. Relish it. Embrace it. Put a candle next to it and make it your friend. Its all downhill from there.

When you have gone to the burn more than once, perhaps then you will see my point.

The Judge said...

But hey, thanks for visiting my site just to see if I would respond.

Will said...

It's not my first rodeo judge, I didn't just stumble upon some new amazing concept of peace & love. I was a heroin addict for 2 years and my bad decisions put me in prison. I have lived in hell on earth, so when I choose to speak on something I'm not just letting air flap out of my lips without any cognitive awareness of their resonation. Your views are obviously set in stone and who am I to change that. Blessings my friend...

Oh, and I pray to God that I never see it your way.

The Judge said...

Alright, then we'll conclude this by saying that we agree to disagree.

And in all honesty, if you have found something in life that makes you feel alive, hold on to it. If there is a spark of life in the event, it will be ignited by people such as you that can look at everything with newborn eyes and see the beauty of it. To see it fresh - not for what it WAS, but for what it IS - is an experience that should be cherished. Despite my own personal feelings about what the event has evolved into, I still love the place for the memories it brings and the deep satisfaction I get from being able to survive in that environment. I've always been a desert rat and this is my personal Nirvana, which is why I share such passionate feelings about the place.

And thus, all of the key points of this discussion ironically tie in with Burning Man's theme for this year.

Lao Tsu said, "Be at one with the dust of the earth. This is primal union. He who has achieved this state is unconcerned with friends and enemies, with good and harm, with honor and disgrace. This therefore is the highest state of humanity."

I hope you embrace the dust and never forget it.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading and respected both sides of this discussion. The attitude of openness and mutual respect, despite personal differences, reminds me of what I love about the burn. Burning Man inspires such passionate feelings and dreams both for better and worse. Despite the growing pains, and the fact that event management is approaching corporate levels, Burning Man is still incomparable.. the spark of creative freedom and ingenuity is still there. Even though I no longer feel the need to go anymore I'm still grateful to have the opportunity to go and happy that such an event exists in our time.

The Judge said...

Why is it that the most intelligent, well-written comments are always written anonymously?

Thank you for the comment, whoever you are. I agree completely with your opinion. Though part of me still wants to go back to visit with old friends, tie up some loose ends and re-connect with that beautiful stretch of landscape.

LevelMan said...

I feel like there's a definite curve to peoples' experiences with Burning Man. For many it starts off as a wild and wonderful life changing ride. People in this phase won't shut up about Burning Man and how amazing it is.

At this point there is the first choice. To continue to consume and observe the experience (because honestly that's all most virgins can realistically do) OR to shift into a higher gear and start contributing.

The first path leads to slowly diminishing returns, these people come a few more times and then stop. End of story.

The second path leads to a lot of hard work, but also pays dividends with new skills, new friendships and a greater connection to the culture as a whole. Most people in this category however will eventually burn out, either by overworking themselves or by encountering some of the inherent limitations and contradictions in the event.

These veterans can either decide to accept these failings and contradictions, step back and not take things too seriously OR they can have a crisis of faith, feel betrayed and turn into Burning Man haters.

Judge, I feel like you're in the step back and leave be category. Will here is still in BM Kool-Aid la-la land, which is a great place to be, but as you've observed doesn't last.

Personally I'm in the midst of deciding whether to become Mr. Live and Let Live or Mr. Burning Man sucks. I'm pretty sure I'm headed for the former, but I'm close enough to the later to understand what those people feel.

I've burned 9 times, I've volunteered and even worked for the Borg. Its definitely different, there are definitely issues. I don't think it will ever have the same spark it once did, but new people don't see it that way. Its like telling someone not to go to an excellent restaurant because they no longer serve your favourite dish. Maybe not, but the rest of the menu is still pretty damn good.

Go to Regional Events. They're much more vibrant, intimate, wild and full of possibilities. Bigger ain't better.

Hollywood Dump on Facebook

In addition to the articles we post here, we also link to stories we think are interesting and post them to our Facebook page. If you're on FB, become a fan!