Burning Man

Man has celebrated the Solstices and the Equinoxes from time immemorial.  In America we still do this.  The Autumnal Equinox has essentially become Halloween, the Winter Solstice has become Christmas, the Vernal Equinox, Easter.  Curiously, the Summer Solstice does not appear to have a corresponding holiday in America.  In Europe, however, especially in the north, Midsummer is still celebrated.  Its primary ritual is the bonfire.

How interesting that the notorious art festival, Burning Man, now held in the Nevada desert, was originally a small bonfire ritual, amongst friends, to celebrate the Summer Solstice.  Its beginnings are charming and innocent enough.  But what was originally 20 friends celebrating the Solstice, is now a week long spectacle attended by 40,000+ and run by an LLC.

Burning Man is an “avant-garde” art festival based around radical self-expression and supposed self-reliance, but it also seems like a bizarre social experiment that flirts with madness.  It’s basically an X-rated amusement park, an excuse for debauchery and drug use.  Absolutely any one can, and does, attend.  Clothing is optional even though children of all ages are welcome.  The “economy” is based on barter and potlatch although coffee and ice is for sale from the LLC.  In its early stages, the festival had no rules, but as the number of attendees (known as “burners”) grew, they quickly realized that they obviously needed rules.

Let’s look at the time-line of Burning Man and take note of the “highlights.”

  • In 1996 we have our first fatality as a result of a motorcycle collision and three people are run over by a car while in their tent.
  • The next year is the first year of grid streets and the Sheriff’s department takes over the gate as the attendees have grown to 10,000.
  • In 2000 we have active law enforcement activity, surveillance and searches.
  • In 2001 there are five arrests.
  • In 2003 there are ten arrests and one fatality.
  • In 2004 there are 2 DUIs.
  • In 2006 there are 25 arrests.
  • And in 2007, a pyromaniac burns the 65 foot effigy ahead of time, is charged with arson, and is sentenced to 1-4 years in jail.

Is it only a matter of time until there are outright murders and rapes? Remember, when permissiveness reigns and standards are lax, the jackals start to show up.

This arson in 2007 is interesting.  The lunatic responsible for the arson is named Paul Addis.  It was done as a “prank” on the night of a full Lunar eclipse.  Perhaps some people are controlled by the moon, the stars, the sun, and the passage of the seasons after all.  The irony and humor of being arrested for arson at Burning Man is simply sublime.

Apparently Addis was a well-known “burner” and it is claimed that, in light of his arrest, some of the usual participants did not attend the 2008 event in protest.  This gives you an idea of the kind of anarchists that show up at these kinds of things.  Other burners purportedly protested the 2008 event apparently in response to the “theme,” which was “American Dream.”  Maybe it just wasn’t cutting-edge enough for these revolutionary artistes.  And in 2007, the founders of Burning Man had a rift resulting in lawsuits.  Things appear to be crumbling for Burning Man.

Speaking of the themes of Burning Man, the 2006 theme is especially interesting.  The theme was “Hope and Fear.”  Apparently, burners could cast a “hopeful” or “fearful” vote according to their feelings about the future of mankind and the effigy was lowered or raised accordingly.  The future of Man?  Hey, let’s put it to a vote!

As was said earlier, Burning Man is commerce-free except for coffee and ice.  Those proceeds go to charity, which is fine and admirable, but the sublime irony and laughter continues.  The desert is only the most inhospitable landscape known to man, and the only thing you can exchange money for, at Burning Man, is ice.  Think about it:  selling ice…in the desert.  Is Burning Man some sort of test-run for extreme liberal communities in the distant future?   Look at the aerial view of Burning Man.  It looks like the civilizational ruins of an Alien race from another planet.

Speaking of ruins, the year 2000 was the inaugural year of the burning of the Temple.  Alongside the effigy of the Man, the Temple is one of the biggest constructs at the festival.  The Burning of the Temple has become a central activity at the event.  Trying to escape God’s judgment, are they?  Is it not curious how much creativity, time, and effort is put into these art pieces only so that they can ultimately be incinerated?  The Ancients built their sculpture and architecture to last for eternity.  Think of the Greek and Roman ruins.  The burners build their structures for the express purpose of destroying them, themselves.

Let’s review:  basically, in 1996, as the “population” climbed to 8,000, more and more problems began to arise.  We see fatalities, injuries, the need for more rules and the need for law enforcement.  In 2008 an organization known as “Lawyers for Burners,” popped up in response to the law enforcement!  In addition, today, there are firefighters, EMS, nurses, doctors, communications support and even mental health support that is needed and provided for.  Not so self-reliant after all!  Not even close, in fact.  It is clear that when a population hits several thousand, radically free living is impossible, especially without strongly felt, shared values.

Celebrating the passage of the seasons is an instinct we all share.  But the cycle must be taken as a whole in order to accord it its proper value.  The burners seem to be missing something.  The burners constructed the Temple, and then they torched the Temple.  They constructed a Man, and then they burned the Man.  They know how to create and they know how to destroy.  It is a thrill, no doubt.  But can you imagine the look on their faces if they were to ever witness a resurrection?

Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring.  Youth, Age, Death, Re-Birth.







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25 Responses to “Burning Man”

  1. crow says:

    That’s the best piece of detached journalism I’ve ever seen, Ted.
    It’s a rare ability, to see what’s there, tell what you see, and then resist the urge to advise the reader how to interpret it.
    An informative, compelling description of humans at their madness.

  2. Apuleius says:

    Sublime ending. What’s remarkable about this article is the way you slowly pull back the curtain to reveal the vortex of nothingness at the center of it all.

    Burners are poster children for “avante-gard” posers and their complete lack of authenticity. Form devoid of substance…”full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

  3. crow says:

    Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring. Youth, Ageing, Death, Re-Birth.

    • Ted Swanson says:

      ah! I like that much better. I’m going to change it ever so slightly – see the article.

  4. Robert Oculus says:

    Just think of the good that would result if we conducted a nuclear weapons test at the playa. Talk about “Burning Man”!…

    • Ted Swanson says:

      hahaha! what a terrible joke! :)

      who knows, they probably are conducting top-secret tests out there!

  5. […] Ted Swanson – “Burning Man” […]

  6. Dark Horse says:

    Wow, this post is kind of idiotic. You really do not get the point of Burning Man… at all. Have you ever been? How smart you think you are to sit around in your corner and judge? Or would you dare to participate and interact and confront your fellow participants as you have been invited to do?

    It is much closer to the surrealist movement then some kind of pagan ritual. It is about freeing the mind from all expectations and conditionings that you must think one way or the other so that you can get back in touch with your truest impulses and desires, and to directly connect with those truest desires in others. It is about getting your truest needs met and letting go of fixations. You may think this kind of “avante-garde” thing has been done before, but so what? There is always a need for people to free their minds of conditioning and allow their own truths to be nourished and to shine.

    Why do you think we burn the man? It is a symbolism of the temporal quality of this life–to only hold on to what is essential, to cleanse the journey of life from so much clutter and garbage of confusion. Same goes for the temple. Each of our bodies that hold these spirits are beloved temples, for our souls, for our love, for our lives, and all of them must be released at the end of the journey.

    Ultimately, ‘the burn’ is about the ecstatic experience of life in whatever form that takes for people. It is not necessary to take drugs or agree with anyone to experience your own kind of personal liberation and transformation, sometimes it comes slowly, sometimes it is urgent, but it is your birthright to stretch your limbs and experience the joy of your own creative power in life. We were all given a blueprint of what we might become when we were born and it is important to create a time and a place when you might have a chance to remember that in case you have forgotten it.

    Burning Man is about liberation while living, or perhaps return to one’s truest self… only then will you find the deepest connection with others and when you do, it comes so easily. Forget whatever you see as an outsider, with the costumes or the art or the RV’s or whatever facts you can find… that is superficial but it is not the heart of what it is about.

    Of course there are many little hypocritical scenarios that will arise in any scenario, but you think you are such a smart-ass for pointing them out? You don’t sound half as smart as you think you are. There are plenty of people at Burning Man who do not get the real point, just like there were many followers of MLK or the Dalai Lama who you might embody some negative qualities at some point in their lives. Nevertheless, Burning Man is an amazing place. There are some problems-personally, I think there is too much consumption going on but this is something see daily in the culture of modern people. In my opinion it would be even better if it were in a teepees and people rode in on horses, but that isn’t the world we live in at this point.

    Still, the essence of what is created out there is wonderful to many people who experience it and it is not simply a little group of like-minded folks. The art is of our time in modern culture and the experience is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced in my travels over all the continents of the earth except one. I am not a cult member. I don’t take drugs. I don’t even drink. I may run around naked or half-naked sometime, laughing, dancing, crying sometimes! Yes! It is wonderful to experience the pure expression, inclusion and creativity with other adults in any context. Burning Man is a wonderful place to do that. It is my wish that we could create more of that kind of creativity and inclusion and community in more places. I have experienced it around the world, in small villages, on all continents, but you know it when you find it–the truly open heart immediately recognizes another open heart, no problem. Stop being such a curmudgeon and tell me about your actual experiences at Burning Man before you write this kind of …

    • Ted Swanson says:

      you sound like you actually have a good head on your shoulders. why are you wasting your time at child’s play like Burning Man?

  7. Dark Horse says:

    Thanks for the nice photo of the man burning, hat is what actually brought me to your site. And good luck with the kind of civilization you are trying to create ;)

    • Ted Swanson says:

      maybe we can create the civilization together. maybe the pagan ritual was better than the surrealist experiment.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Wow, just wow. You sir a certified nutcase. I really hope that this ‘New America’ of you never takes off. I for one would hate to live in a world that is completely closed minded. It really is a terrible thing when one cant appreciate the world and appreciate the fact that maybe, just maybe there are people out there who dont believe the same thing you do.

    • Ted Swanson says:

      you’re not even really making a point here. you’re kind of just talking to yourself.

    • crow says:

      Do you prefer a world made up of people like you?
      Do you even know what you are like?
      Try reading your comment, as if it was not you that had written it.
      What do you see?

  9. CptSmashy says:

    Why is it that people out on the far right that carry on so forcibly about freedom and individual rights are some of the first to voraciously condemn, mock and judge anyone else that is actually enjoying expressions of personal freedoms and individual rights?

    I will not even waste the time necessary to dissect your “article” here and point out how far off the mark you are with your tirade of judgmental nonsense, except to simply say your only knowledge of Burning Man is quite obviously derived from a compilation of similarly structured tirades written from the point of view of other narrow minded, judgmental individuals that care neither for facts or understanding that individual freedoms and activities are not limited to their personal, narrow minded ideologies.

    We are not missing anything in our beloved home of Black Rock City, whose population is now over 50,000 people. With absolutely zero personal knowledge of the event, you have already made your judgement about what it is we do out there in the desert for a week and have simply regurgitated some cherry picked “facts” and interlaced them with your narrow minded bigotry and condemnation.

    I would extend the invitation for you to actually attend the event some year and experience it for yourself, but I have serious doubts as to your ability to remove your blinders of fixated condemnation and actually live in the moment long enough to enjoy what you would see and experience what would be around you that came from the minds and imaginations of the people around you.

    You see, this is where the differences lay between people like me and people like you. You see something different, that lies outside of your “comfort zone” or preset ideological nature, and your first instinct is to automatically shut down and condemn it without ever bothering to actually make an attempt to understand or learn about it. Your article here is a prime example of this mentality. In contrast, I will happily engage with, learn and experience anything you have to offer me with an open mind to learn more about the people that I have ideological differences with.

    Are you man enough to do the same or are you simply a coward that refuses to acknowledge that a diversity of thought and ideals are what keep our existence on this rock entertaining and enables us to grow as both individuals and communities as we strive to find a balance between the myriad of differences we all have as we learn about each other. I can already tell we have fundamental differences at the core of our fabric of being, but I will happily embrace you as a fellow human, crack open an ice cold beer and go deep into the wee hours of the morning discussing those differences in an open minded manner to see if we can find a compromise of beliefs and move forward together to make our world a better place for everyone.

    • Why is it that people out on the far right that carry on so forcibly about freedom and individual rights are some of the first to voraciously condemn, mock and judge anyone else that is actually enjoying expressions of personal freedoms and individual rights?

      You see something different, that lies outside of your “comfort zone” or preset ideological nature, and your first instinct is to automatically shut down and condemn it without ever bothering to actually make an attempt to understand or learn about it.

      I think you’re in contradiction city here; isn’t the above what you’re doing?

      This isn’t a “rights” issue — the original author was pointing out how liberal policies fail and how Burning Man, despite layers of positive dogma, is falling into the same problems society faces. This is confirmation of the bad idea status of many of its ideals.

      I didn’t see anyone talking about trying to remove your “rights” and “freedom.” But, bad ideas are bad ideas.

      • CptSmashy says:

        How exactly is Burning Man failing? Because it is growing larger every year and expanding into a large, international network of regional events based on the theme and spirit of the original event? I personally would call that a success.

        What I would call failure is the attempt to link Burning Man with “liberal” policies. It is ultimately nothing more than a camping trip in the desert that provides a landscape for some to fully explore their artistic visions and others to leave their day to day “costumes” behind and enjoy a week of not having to worry about fitting into a societal mold of conformity. The attendees range from individuals that scrimp and save their pennies all year long to be able to attend to multi billionaire corporate CEO’s.

        The only contradiction here is the display of the author’s ignorance of the event from trying to equate the original Baker Beach gathering as some kind of celebration of a pagan holiday through to branding the event today as nothing more than an X-rated party of debauchery and drugs. His core assumptions are wrong and as a result, his article is equally wrong and nothing more than a simple rehashing of the judgmental self righteous tirades that tend to spring up against something that deviates from the expected norm. We see these same kinds of articles every year and the central theme they all have in common? The author has never attended the event and is basing a litany of assumptions upon a few pictures they may have seen or a few cherry picked bits of information.

        Such as this authors attempt to actually defend the actions of a certified mentally ill individual that has been convicted of several acts of arson. To claim it is ironic that a person that willfully put the lives of others in danger to satisfy his own twisted compulsions was arrested for arson is disingenuous at best. Yes. We burn things at Burning Man. However, they are burned in a controlled manner with participant safety in mind as the primary goal.

        About the only thing the author got close to being correct about is the fact that Burning Man is, and has always been, a social experiment of a temporary nature that has it’s roots based in the notion of radical self expression in an atmosphere of acceptance and tolerance. It is a city of 50,000

        The presence of contracted law enforcement, medical services, ice sales, etc are all simply an extension of the requirements any group has to contend with when they choose to put on a large festival type event. Where Burning Man deviates from the traditional festival atmosphere is the lack of corporate sponsorship underwriting the cost of the event and a heavy reliance on volunteers to staff positions within the event to make it all work. So unless you think any large festival, musical, artistic or otherwise, is a bad idea, how exactly is Burning Man a bad idea or a failure?

        Compared to other festival events, Burning Man has significantly lower incidents of violence, arrests, injuries etc. Federal, state and local laws all still apply within the confines of the Burning Man event. The author here is trying to frame it as some kind of lawless, anarchy free for all which is incorrect on pretty much every level. The size and nature of the event demands a base line of structure and order to enable it to run efficiently and create the space necessary for the event and it’s ethos to thrive and flourish.

        I think this is where the disconnect comes into play for people like the author. They see some pictures that show *GASP! THE HORROR!* some nudity and read a few things here and there that cast dispersion and negativity on certain aspects and simply run on that very limited scope of what they read/saw on the internet without ever actually taking the time to talk to people that attend year after year or even better, attend the event for themselves to see just how wrong their narrow viewed judgments truly are.

        • Ted Swanson says:

          Thank you for your well written replies Captain. I salute you! Let’s crack a beer, as you say.

          First of all, like Brett said, no one is talking about rights or freedoms. You have the right to attend Burning Man, I have the freedom to make fun of it. Live by the sword, die by the sword. I condemn, mock, and judge so we can settle this WITHOUT the State. You make your case, I will make mine, and it will be decided in the hearts and minds of men.

          RE: The whole personal knowledge/experience of Burning Man thing.

          Who cares? We can’t go back in time, yet we learn from history. Should we not study history? You only need to stick your hand in the flame once to know what happens. The view from an outsider can be valuable. Ever hear the phrase: “cannot see the forest for the trees?”

          I understand Burning Man just fine. No, it isn’t JUST debauchery. I understand the “positive” side. You can “find yourself,” interact with your fellow man, laugh, cry, and love. Ok, great. You would be doing all of these things anyway, I would hope, if BM never existed or if it existed in some other form not called Burning Man.

          BM is a simulated event so you can experience all these things. It isn’t really REAL. It is a simulation. It isn’t authentic. It is staged and planned. There is nothing really spontaneous about it. On some level you know what to expect. It is a week that you circle on your calendar. You don’t have to go to BM to express what is expressed at BM. If you really wanted to live life dangerously, you would express all of these wild emotions outside of a simulated community.

          RE: Burning Man “failing.”

          Brett didn’t say BM is failing, but let me take you up on your point. BM is growing larger and expanding. Ok, sure. But is that a success? For BM it is. But if something bad grows and expands this is not good, is it? Let’s abstain from judging BM good or bad for the moment. As you say, BM is just a camping trip in the desert. It is a sign of the times. We work all week at dreary jobs and we want to feel more alive on the weekends. But again we enter into the world of simulation. A “boring” real world balanced out by ostentatious simulations like BM. You see, this is the trick that BM is complicit with: during the week you conform, then on the weekend you let loose, but deep down in, you know you have to go back and conform on Monday. BM makes you THINK you are experiencing something wild and real. All of the energy and creativity put toward BM could be put toward problems in your own backyard and not just radical self expression.

          RE: “Such as this authors attempt to actually defend the actions of a certified mentally ill individual that has been convicted of several acts of arson.”

          Are you talking about Paul Addis? I’m not defending him in the least. You must be misunderstanding. It’s simply ironic to be arrested for arson at BURNING Man. Just some word play – I’m a writer, after all.

          Finally, I will concede one point. Some of my real-life friends also mentioned this. The incidents of violence, injuries, and arrests are indeed low for that kind of “population.” However, as I said earlier, BM is a week everyone is circling on their calendar. On some level many are preparing for it all year. Of course everyone is going to be on their best behavior. But what would happen if you stayed out there for weeks on end? I bet people would begin to lose their minds. You see, that’s the other thing: in the back of everyone’s head, you know you’re going back to your comfortable air-conditioned offices that you claim you need to get away from (which is why BM is supposedly necessary in the first place). Nothing is truly at stake. BM is just another “good time” to keep our minds off the ongoing oblivion of the real world.

  10. lester says:

    The funny thing about this article and writer is that he’s clueless on the people that attend BM. There are plenty of right wingers, Republicans, conservatives and Christians at the event along with the liberals, pagans and assorted nuts. There is no one ideology or belief at black rock city. For most its a huge party like Mardi Gras. But it makes it more fun when fools criticize and judge both Mardi Gras and BM. Its more fun to attend a taboo festival then a safe and sane one.

    • Ted Swanson says:

      So in your view, BM is, indeed, a big party. No ideology, no beliefs. However the attendees choose to identify themselves is immaterial.

  11. goathead says:


    Like most things in life, you get out of it, what you put into it.

    My first year was 1999, had never planned on attending it.
    But was handed a couple of tickets, and took the chance and went.
    One of the best pieces I have ever seen written about TTITD was by a preacher.


    Take a chance, its just a little dust.

    I am not the writer Randy, or CptSmashy is so I will go now.

  12. lander says:

    burning man didn’t begin as a holiday retreat for yuppies and hipsters. until the late 90s, it was a place where like-minded creatives, anarchists and other lunatics went to do what they couldn’t do within the confines of regular society. what they did on the playa was an extension of the lifestyle they actually lived.

    when it was turned into a business, the evolutionary course was set and the destination was: stasis. as the first wave of burners bailed on the event (seeing their participation as de facto cooperation with the corporation), they were finally replaced by what you see now.

    what you see now is a population of two classes: 1) us, 2)them. the ‘us’ are the thousands of volunteers who provide free labor, building and supporting the infrastructure. this bloated municipal-class (us) exists to make the event safe for ‘them’ (the ticket holders).

    ‘them’ are the work-a-day corporate types, hipsters, and school teachers on spirit quests who generally have no radical sense at all. ‘them’ at their best, co-opt the fashion sense of burners past, and generally ‘play burning man’ for a week.

    ‘us’ are the dupes who are lead by the nose to believe that their free labor is actually the truest level of participation; that they are the real burners. they’re convinced they’re involved in something important and spiritual, and they walk around during the event looking down at ‘them’ – the mere citizens who have come to play in their city. ‘us’ only learns how badly they’ve been exploited by the corporation when they start to speak their mind and dare make suggestions for improvement. this is when they’re shown the door and pushed through it.

    it’s a party in the desert, sure. but it’s more devious than just that. BM has basically raped the creative counter-culture community in the Bay Area and beyond for the last 10+ years. the deception that this is somehow a counter-cultural movement (when it couldn’t be more mainstream) is so well disguised that many thousands don’t realize the reality until they’ve thrown away years and many thousands of dollars into the event.

    • Ted Swanson says:

      wow! thank you for the comment and lending your historical perspective. I agree it’s more devious than just a party. there seems to be something “diabolical” at play. thanks for the insights!

  13. melbee says:

    I think one point you’re all off the mark about is that you DO take away from the event and apply it to your every day life. You learn how to live in an environ that is very different from your normal one and apply those lessons to your life back home. How can you conserve more water, waste less, subsist on less, live life as less reliant on the consumerist ways in which we have been brought up? How can we find better survival techniques to live by?

    Yeah, you need to be prepared when you go out there and in so doing partake in our consumerist society, but you learn from the event about the temporary nature of our existence on this earth and all the ‘things’ in it that are useless to you when you yourself expire. You learn to let go of those things (hence, the burning of the man, the temple and the art and leaving it behind there) and accept that all these things are just that…temporary.

    It is this very takeaway that can change your outlook and approach to your daily lives and what you want to get out of it while you still can. That is the point of this event…to create an environment that not only makes you think about your choices leading up to your survival on the playa, but to foster and open your mind up to ideas expressed by people that you wouldn’t see anywhere else. To see someone’s creativity in action is an awesome thing and this event cuts through a lot of red tape in order to allow this form of expression to be encouraged in its participants.

    Furthermore, if you ever went, you would see how very neighborly the people are there and how they help thy neighbor when he/she is in trouble rather than kicking them when they’re down. Having lived in some of the most rural areas and the most populous ones on this earth, I can honestly say I haven’t seen this strong a sense of community anywhere else no matter what sort of belief system or size community it was.

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