Burning Man started 25 years ago as a gathering of friends and strangers on San Francisco's Baker Beach.
It was a random act of public art, including an 8-foot-tall wooden man burning against the Northern California sunset, 20 people clasping hands around it.
Fast forward to 2011. The annual event — marked by public art, self-expression and an eight-day experiment in community — sold out for the first time in its history. Ticket sales hit the 50,000-person limit the U.S. Bureau of Land Management allows for Black Rock City, the temporary home of Burning Man located on a dry lake bed two hours northeast of Reno.
Clearly, things have changed.
Many longtime observers say Burning Man has become more desert metropolis than Thunderdome during the past 15 years, with more rules and restrictions. But they also say the fundamental things that define Burning Man are still intact.
Brian Doherty has been making the annual trek to Black Rock City since 1995. In 2004, he wrote the book, “This Is Burning Man,” which chronicles the event's history, organizers and culture.
The literal lawlessness that marked Burning Man's early years in the Nevada desert has tamed, Doherty said shortly before the 2011 event began. There are no more “drive-by shooting ranges,” for example.
What hasn't changed, Doherty said, is the “social lawlessness” that can compel a mild-mannered accountant to roll naked in playa mud without fear of consequences (save for an uncomfortable alkali burn).
“I don't think for that person, the actual experience of being there will be much different from being there five or 10 years ago,” said Doherty, who also works as senior editor of Reason magazine.
If there was a watershed moment for Burning Man, Doherty said, it was 1998, when Black Rock City got street signs and developed its half-circle layout, which is getting closer to a full circle with the increasing population.
Black Rock City implemented one change in 2009 that struck Doherty as particularly egregious: Early arrivals to Burning Man were given a bar code to be scanned before they could enter. It was a little too “Big Brother,” Doherty said. And if you're not gone by the day after Burning Man ends, someone is likely to ask why you're still there, he said.
“It's gotten a lot more rule bound, but I don't think those rules have affected the normal citizen,” Doherty said.
Danielle Gann-Lind, a 43-year-old from Reno who has gone to Burning Man every year since 2000, said it's inevitable some Burners will sing the event's death knell each year.
“There's a hardcore group of Burners who always come back every year and say, 'Oh, it was better last year; Burning Man sucks; I'm not going this year,'” Gann-Lind said. “But I get asked all the time, 'What's your favorite year?' And to me, it's sort of like comparing apples to oranges because each year has its own participants, its own theme.”
Sure, there are more restrictions compared to the 1990s, from not driving during the event to using one-ply toilet paper so the portable bathrooms don't get clogged, among other rules laid out in Burning Man's “survival guide.”
Gann-Lind said those rules are a sign the organization is growing up, dealing with problems that would affect any municipality.
“We are so fortunate that this occurs in our backyard,” she said. “It is becoming a part of culture, which hopefully makes people think that maybe there's a better way of doing things, or at least a different way of doing things.”
While she was shopping for Burning Man accessories last week, Alicia Hamilton, 34, said the event is largely the same compared to her first time going in 2001.
She noted the strict adherence to “leave no trace” and the no-commerce ethos that's marked Burning Man since its beginning. Participants are not allowed to buy or sell anything in Black Rock City.
“A lot of people that have never actually been are hearing things like … it's getting so commercial,” Hamilton said. “The only thing they sell out there is ice (and coffee). How commercial can it be?”
Evolution of Burning Man
Among those who think Burning Man is evolving in the wake of larger cultural forces — from social media to global terrorism to financial turmoil — is Mark Van Proyen, a professor of painting and art history at the San Francisco Art Institute who co-edited “After Burn: Reflections of Burning Man.”
Van Proyen, a 16-year Burning Man veteran, said things started to change for the event during the past decade.
“Before that, it was quite a bit more free-form and quite a bit more dangerous,” he said. “I also think the culture changed, and Burning Man changed with the culture.”
That culture has had a rough decade, he said, starting with 9/11, two wars and ending with a global financial meltdown.
“It's kind of like in the '90s, Burning Man rode on a wave of delirious hope for a better world,” he said. “I think Burning Man has been responsive to the larger culture. It's connected. I think the Internet generation grew up, in a funny way. They got married, they had children.”
But the character of the event is intact, he said.
“Burning Man has taken advantage, probably more so than other events, in the distrust of other institutions,” Van Proyen said. “It's become big enough and organized enough to become an institution. It might be the anti-institution institution.”
“That's just being a victim of your own success,” he said.
That success has translated into the so-called “regional burns,” Burning Man-like festivals held in 45 states as well as Europe, China, South Africa and Australia, said Katherine Chen, associate professor of sociology at the City College of New York who wrote, “Enabling Creative Chaos: The Organization Behind the Burning Man Event.”
Those events stem from people's experiences on the playa as volunteers and organizers, said Chen, who's been to Burning Man 11 times since 1998.
“People who have volunteered, I think they get to really flex their organizational skills, or the ability to imagine possibilities in ways they couldn't in their workplace,” Chen said. “People who have gotten the confidence to pull off projects.”
Then there's the influence Burning Man has had on the larger culture, including skewering on popular television shows such as “Malcolm in the Middle” and “American Dad.”
“It's very unusual, it's almost a category breaker,” Chen said. “People have to get used to this concept, I think people are getting used to it. It used to be you had to explain what Burning Man is about.”
To Doherty, the concern that the festival is getting too big likely is just nostalgia among longtime Burners, like himself, yearning for the “good old days.”
“The overall thing of it, it's still very much the same,” Doherty said. “People who say it's different are reflecting their own boredom, their age, their own repetition.”
If anything, Doherty said, Burning Man has settled into a happy medium.
“All of the political authorities have reached a reasonably happy détente with Burning Man,” he said. “It's no longer this horrible burden on anyone. I think the only thing that could damage it would be a horrific tragedy.”
Van Proyen said his concern for the future of Burning Man is whether or not younger generations will be able to continue the event.
“It goes through these moments of rupture,” he said. “Until there's another rupture in the culture at large, I see Burning Man going on doing what it does, more or less. The question is, does it need to change? Maybe it should just be this thing that does its thing over and over again because the world changes so much.”