Article by Claudia Brown | Photography by Kenny Reff, Gordon McCracken, Jane Hu, & Claudia Brown | Owl Staff
Surrounded by mountains on all sides, thousands of people gather each summer in the Nevada desert and build a city from scratch. This unique experience has fostered a community where self-reliance is key, gifting is the standard, corporate sponsorships are banned, and participation is required.
What started out as a small bonfire on a beach has morphed into Burning Man, a cultural phenomenon that has grown to attract more than 70,000 people from all over the world.
Using the desert as a canvas, participants “radically” express themselves through the creation of art installations, musical events, theme camps, art cars (aka “mutant vehicles”), theatrical performances, and eccentric costuming and makeup.
It’s an ideal “training ground” for artists, according to Brewster Thackeray from Alexandria, Virginia. Inspired to attend by a colleague who was an art car documentarian, Thackeray first attended Burning Man in 2007 and has attended five times since.
“Being surrounded by creative people inspires creativity,” Thackeray explains. “Anyone who declares her or himself to be an artist can craft something and bring it to Burning Man. It will be seen.”
For D.C.-based artist Michael Verdon, “the possibilities that are created at Burning Man are unique and beautiful.”
Verdon has attended Burning Man a dozen times, initially drawn in by a podcast lecture given in the middle of a Burning Man dust storm. Verdon says he “found a city that was unlike anything I had ever seen. A place where weird was okay and people were free to be themselves in a community environment.”
Burning Man originated in 1986 when founder Larry Harvey constructed an eight-foot-tall wooden statue of a man in honor of the summer solstice. With a group of 20, the effigy was burned at Baker Beach in San Francisco.
By the 1990s, Burning Man had grown into an arts festival attracting thousands and held in Black Rock City, Nevada with the event expanding to include elaborate art installations and “theme camps” – groups who work together to provide services for participants at Burning Man.
Verdon’s first Burning Man was years later in 2008. However, it was his trip in 2011 that inspired him to pursue creating art. His work has taken a variety of forms through the years and includes the design of the Chapel of the Chimes, a wooden temple which was featured and set ablaze at Burning Man in 2019.
Peter Dennis first attended Burning Man in 2014 and, like Verdon, he has attended every year since. An ordained minister, he has performed four wedding ceremonies at Burning Man – including one at the Chapel of the Chimes.
“The thing that’s magical about Burning Man is that it provides a safe space for people to have whatever experience they need to have,” says Dennis.
Regardless of the experience, participants are guided by the 10 Principles of Burning Man: radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical selfexpression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation, and immediacy.
These principles can be seen in every aspect of the Burning Man community, including the strategy to getting a ticket to the event itself.
Purchasing a ticket often comes down to a combination of luck, finances, and timing due to high demand. Ticket prices range from $210-$1400, depending on how and when a ticket is purchased; low-income tickets are available for those with demonstrated need.
Upon arrival for Build Week in Black Rock City, participants are greeted with miles of flat, uninhabited desert in every direction. Since one of Burning Man’s principles is decommodification, nothing can be bought or sold; all participants must bring their own water and food.
The harsh realities of the desert – including temperatures that may exceed 100 degrees, blinding dust storms and dry air that chaps the skin – can shock first-time attendees, especially given the glamorous representations of Burning Man found online.
Lupi Karpati, originally from Mexico and now living in Washington D.C., thought she would be going on a vacation when her husband Gabe suggested the trip back in 2013.
She was challenged by the harsh conditions, which she says can test one’s character. But she also found enjoyment, calling Burning Man “a playground for all ages.”
“Burning Man is a place to discover hidden parts of yourself, which is pure joy,” says Karpati.
For her husband Gabe, originally from Hungary and now a resident of Washington D.C., Burning Man seemed like the “logical next step” given that he and Lupi were already music festival goers.
The Karpatis have returned six times since. They have also inspired their adult children to become active in the Burning Man community.
In 2O15, the Karpatis founded Iguana Chill – a music-based theme camp – to bring together friends who “just wanna chill.”
For Katrina Edwards, a first-time attendee in 2019, 15 days in the desert was a daily struggle.
“I really was focused on how much work it was,” says Edwards, who is a resident of Alexandria, Virginia. “Even something as simple as hydration became this chore that I felt was life or death.”
As her camp mates constructed the Chapel of the Chimes under Verdon’s leadership, Edwards’ job during Build Week was to make sure they stayed hydrated, fed and free of sunburn.
The challenging nature of Build Week put the principle of immediacy to the test.
“It took a lot of presence to manage a team of volunteers (half of which I had never met in person, from around the world) and keep everyone on task in the middle of one of the freest places on Earth,” says Verdon.
Once Build Week concludes, the official event begins and the crowds of participants pour into Burning Man. Days are then spent enjoying functions sponsored by theme camps and taking in all of the art on the “playa” – the name used to describe the landscape of Burning Man.
Giant art installations make social and political statements, while whimsical art cars provide both a means of transportation and an aesthetic diversion.
Throughout the week, a variety of theme camps gift a range of services.
Home Rule Village features a seven-story tower complete with a bar, lounge, and observation deck offering panoramic views of the entire city.
Black Rock Roller Disco offers roller skates and a makeshift roller-skating rink, as well as a roller derby night.
Foam Against the Machine provides a shower space and a dance party, which often features famed psychedelic artist Alex Grey painting in the background. In addition to exiting cooled off and dust-free, participants often leave with additional gifts, such as lip balm and tea.
Throughout the week, participants also visit the Temple – an intricately carved wooden structure – to leave behind photos, letters, and keepsakes commemorating lost loved ones.
On Saturday night, the wooden Man burns amidst a fireworks display and celebratory shouting. It’s an experience that Dennis calls “the biggest party in the world.”
The mood shifts on Sunday night when the Temple burns. In contrast to the festive energy surrounding the burning of the Man, the burning of the Temple is a somber, cathartic experience. Often, there is complete silence with scattered crying out.
On the day following the Temple Burn, participants shift into clean-up mode. There are no trash cans or dumpsters at Burning Man; every participant must leave the site exactly as found.
This aspect of Burning Man is one that particularly resonates with Tara Leigh, a Texan who has attended Burning Man three times.
“Given the current environmental state of affairs with the carbon footprint per person, if this principle was applied in our daily lives we could eliminate many of the environmental issues,” Leigh says.
When transitioning from Black Rock City back to regular life, many participants choose to add a couple days or a week to their trip as a means of “decompression” to gradually introduce them back into what they call the “default world.”
The “Burner” community offers events throughout the year, including regional burns and Catharsis on the Mall, a free Burning Man-inspired event held on the National Mall in Washington D.C. in the spring.
In keeping with the Burning Man principle of radical inclusion, anyone is welcome to participate. Facebook groups and communities, such as Baltimore Burners and D.C. Burners, share event information.
Burning Man meetups and informational sessions are led by Charles Planck, a 10-time Burning Man participant, in Washington D.C. on Thursday evenings at Local 16. For anyone interested in a trek from Bel Air to Burning Man, IAMU Camp Leader Planck suggests traveling with “an open mind and anopen heart.”
“Meet other Burners in your area and join a camp to learn how to go,” he says. “It’s not a Princess cruise, it’s not a consumer experience, and no person is an island … “
“Be willing to be brave,” he adds, “in trying new things, pushing yourself, letting yourself be or become something that you probably always were, but never had the space to try out.”
Whether traveling from Harford County or from afar, the freedom and acceptance offered at Burning Man creates a space to self-express, collaborate, and persevere unlike anywhere else on the planet.
Claudia Brown is an HCC professor who is also enrolled as a Theatre Performance major. She attended Burning Man in 2018 and 2019.