The Corporatization of Burning Man

Veronica Mendez

Founded in 1986 by Larry Harvey, Burning Man was originally a fire party held on Baker Beach, San Francisco. The burning ceremony consists of lighting a wooden statue on fire, hence, the name Burning Man.


In 1990, San Francisco police forbade the burning ceremony, and as a result, the 40 feet wooden man was transported to Black Rock Desert, Nevada, where 90 people participated in its burning. Today, more than 50,000 people, the maximum allowable population, make the trip to the desert. Satellite events are held all over the world to maintain alive the values of Burning Man. “Newbie Orientations,” are held worldwide for newcomers. Corporate retreats send team members to the desert. Burning Man has evolved from a burning ceremony to a culture of its own.


In a world where music festivals are highly commercialized, Burning Man sticks out from the rest. A barter system is instilled where consumerism doesn’t exist. There is no dichotomy between those who put on Burning Man and those who attend it. The attendees are the creators. Having a carte blanche to create art installations, theme camps and ultimately a city, fosters an atmosphere of creativity and innovation.


In the past, themes have included: Evolution, Inferno, and Nebulous Entity. The way Burners adhere to these themes contributes greatly to Burning Man’s culture. People don costumes.  Giant art installations create a visual striking panorama.  Mutant vehicles, creatively altered cars and trucks, roam the desert. Theme camps offer communal living, providing shelter and food. There is an unparalleled sense of openness and freedom. Burners describe the energy as otherworldly and spiritual.


Daniel Sachs, a two-time Burner explains, “[Burning Man] speaks very strongly to a way of being—the way humans can be in a community as themselves that is not available or understood in society. It’s not just a festival, it’s an exploration of humanity, alternative reality, a short-lived culture.” This setting of inventiveness and ingenuity has led to the growth of Burning Man as an event and as a company.

As a company, Burning Man LLC, has created various organizations to help promote its values.  There’s The Black Rock Arts Foundation, which supports public art; the year round newsletter, Jack Rabbit Speaks, that keeps the Burners in the know of what is going on in the Burning community; and the Burning Man Project, a nonprofit organization that develops program initiatives in the areas of civic involvement, social enterprise, and education.


Perhaps, the most telling signs of Burning Man’s evolution are the executives and companies that it attracts. On August 23rd, Marian Good, Burning Man’s director of business and communications, told the SF Gate, "What we're seeing are many more of the Fortune 500 leadership, entrepreneurs and small startups bringing their whole team. A little bit like a corporate retreat. The event is a crucible, a pressure cooker and, by design, a place to think of new ideas or make new connections." Google’s Eric Schmidt and Larry Page and Facebook’s Dustin Moskovitz have all attended Burning Man.


The growth of the event has led to certain paradoxes. Some argue that the idea of Burning Man as a corporate retreat or a “staycation” is contradictory to its values. Burning Man is meant to exist outside the mainstream culture. Making it out to the desert is a difficult journey in it of itself. Burners have to prepare weeks in advance in order to have all of the food, equipment, and resources needed for the entire week. The trek serves as a filter to weed people out. It gives a sense of accountability to Burners.   One Burner explains, “It’s a crucible and hard as f**k to get out there. But it’s part of the deal, all the effort you earn being there and being part of the vibe.” Some attendees seem to cop out of the process. Mark Zuckerberg notoriously arrived in a helicopter last year. And according to Buzzfeed, people have taken to TaskRabbit to outsource the preparations for Burning Man.

Regardless of how one does Burning Man, it’s unquestionably an event that shows no signs of slowing down. Tickets completely sold out for the first time in 25 years in 2011, with 35 percent of the attendees being newcomers --newcomers who want to experience what Sachs describes as, “ a flowering of life. You go through such a journey and come out a different person. You learn to be a different part of a person that feels natural, the way we’re supposed to be.”


One of the central tenets of the festival is "leave no trace.” Accordingly, the festival-goers strive to leave the desert as pristine as it was a week prior. By the end of the week, there is no trace of the city that inhabited the Black Rock Desert. But the legend of Burning Man and its related businesses keep growing, and pardon the pun, burning on.


Author Bio:

Veronica Mendez is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


Photos: Ahmed Al Husseiny (Flickr); foxgrrl (Flickr); Robert Scales (Flickr).

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Ahmed Al Husseiny (Flickr)
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