Burning Man

Burning Man Without the Man

No official organization, no tickets, and a different relationship with federal authorities created a near-anarchistic civic experience for Americans battered by COVID-19 anxieties.


The week before Labor Day, 15,000 people gathered on the normally featureless, utterly barren Black Rock Desert playa 100 miles north of Reno, Nevada. They indulged in communal desert survival camping many miles away from any services. They created playful environments known as theme camps, often freely giving art, food, drink, performance, or just conversational whimsy. They danced to mostly electronic music from DJs both unknown and world-class, who were often operating astride giant mobile tricked-out conveyances (mutant vehicles in their communal argot, or sound buses, or music trucks—call them what you will).

The Black Rock Playa during the nonevent. Photo: Liana Bandžiulytė

On Saturday night of the holiday weekend, the crowd of campers gathered en masse in a vast empty space circled by their camps to contemplate the image of a giant wooden man appearing in the sky above them, and watched that image turn fiery red, and seem to crumble to the ground.

That image was not an actual wooden statue, though. It was a squad of programmed aerial drones forming images with dots of light, an artwork brought out at great technical, personal, and financial effort as a pure gift to the community. Despite all the obvious similarities, this gathering was not actually another iteration of Burning Man, America's largest annual temporary community and desert art party.

Not officially, that is. This nonevent was in the eyes of authorities best seen as a random collection of 15,000 or so strangers who happened to be camping on this particular piece of public land just a few playa miles from where Burning Man's Black Rock City (BRC) encampment would normally appear, at the same time Burning Man customarily happens, behaving (mostly) like they were at Burning Man. Attendees and detractors alike on the internet called it various names: Renegade Burning Man, Rogue Burning Man, Fake Burning Man, or, as per the name of a highly-trafficked Facebook group with over 16,000 members where plans and discussions about the gathering were hashed out in a legally unorganized way, Plan B.

For the second year in a row, Burning Man itself was canceled because of COVID-19 concerns. (An impromptu Burning Man–like gathering happened in 2020 during the event's usual week before Labor Day as well, but that one attracted only around 3,500 attendees.)

The Burning Man organization that runs the event, and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the federal agency responsible for the Black Rock Desert playa, have a long, often contentious relationship and are now embroiled in a lawsuit, though the event has been held on the playa nearly every year since 1990. Many in the Burner community assumed neither event organizers nor federal permitters would be delighted to see a spontaneous re-creation of the experience without the complicated set of legal demands, imposed costs, planned-and-paid-for law enforcement and medical care, masses of port-a-potties, and the other infrastructure (much of it supporting breathtaking, bigger-than-any-museum-could-handle interactive sculptural and fire art) the ticketed, permitted Burning Man brings.

Talking before the gathering with Mark Hall, field manager of the BLM's Winnemucca district with authority over this playa, and Burning Man's CEO Marian Goodell, both were winningly unconcerned about letting the people have their fun. Neither one openly discouraged camping on public land that is, when not blocked off for permitted events such as Burning Man, meant for public recreational use.

Burning Man itself could have taken a more parental approach and tried to discourage its community from promulgating a potential big mess out on the playa. Some worried that if this crowd left a cleanup disaster or suffered many colorful injuries that it could harm the actual event's future, but Hall said pre-event, "None of this involved Burning Man. They might have put the idea of playa camping into people's brains, but just because someone puts an idea in someone's brain the Bureau cannot fault them for that."

Some in the Burner community darkly suspected the event's operators didn't want their customers to learn how much the people united could do themselves without the benefits (and rules and bureaucracy) that came with the nearly-$500 tickets for the 80,000 or so who attended Burning Man when it last happened (maxing out the number of bodies the federal government will allow).

Instead, Burning Man openly provided helpful advice for those who chose to go while maintaining a necessary hands-off approach to be clear it was not running, or managing, or responsible for, this gathering.

The BLM was a little discouraging, imposing rules that seemed designed to make many seeking a full-on free Burning Man experience think twice about coming out to this hard-to-get-to and hard-to-stay-in spot. By early summer, organized camps of Burners were itching to do Burning Man–style partying on the playa even without the event, and began seeking their own permits. The BLM decided it wouldn't issue any special recreation permits for large organized groups on the Black Rock Desert playa this summer. Rather, it came up with a set of special regulations to enforce on those who chose to gather there anyway.

The BLM barred commercial services of any sort from this nonevent, including such playa-important ones as water delivery or drainage of port-a-potties and recreational vehicles. It barred building any structure not intended for sleeping, cooking, or shade (goodbye, giant art in the form of dancing statues, re-created fantasy fishing villages, twisted big rigs reaching for the sky, or giant gramophones), any fireworks or explosives or lasers or flame effects (fuck your burn!), and planes landing on the playa (supermodels hardest hit), among other things. One thing Burning Man prohibits but this nonevent's stipulations did not: guns. I heard no gunshots, and heard no complaints about any, and saw only one person reporting online they found the sight of a strapped dancer in a crowd disconcerting.

Before the gathering happened, the public discussion in the Burning Man community was full of fear and loathing: of COVID-19, of dangerously bad air quality from the Western fires, of how such a large group without organizationally provided port-a-potties would avoid drowning in its own excrement (the word shitshow was bandied about often), of how dozens, perhaps hundreds, of injured Burners would strain already overtaxed area hospitals.

On Friday morning of the gathering, Burning Man regular pirate radio station Radio Electra warned that our good times were likely ending as ravenous hordes of thieving locals from Reno and Fernley, Nevada, were likely descending on us for a three-day weekend of yeehawing plunder with no tickets or gates to worry about.

Gary Taylor, a Radio Electra lead and DJ, admits that "I was dead wrong on" the fear that locals not acclimated to Burning Man principles of decent communal behavior would be "party-crashers, partying at our expense. I don't think that really happened."

The Direct Experience

What did happen, as obviously intended by all these people not-planning this nonevent, was an awful lot like Burning Man. Theme Camps. Mutant Vehicles. Small bits of public art. Lots of lovely people in captain's hats festooned with blinky lights and dancing to electronic music. Lots of friendliness and giving, from grilled cheeses to champagne slushies to bike repairs. Propane fire pits around which people gathered all night to banter, joke, educate, and speculate on their own technical skill sets, and talk about Burning Man. (What do people do at Burning Man? Talk about Burning Man.) People in cow suits in the distance playfully butting at passing humans. (I think it was not an actual cow, but it was dusk and it was 100 yards away.) A ritual burning of a temple structure to commemorate the dead (though this time the building was taken apart by hand and burned in BLM-approved elevated cauldrons.) A man in Wonder Woman short shorts and thigh-high boots entrancing a crowd at dusk with soothing melodies on an exotic wind instrument (while 10 yards away, a rusty metal artwork tumbled over as people climbed on it; seven of us set it upright instantly and someone staked it back in). People showing up and handing you a bag of ice or a bottle of tequila or warm socks within a half-hour of you realizing you (or someone you would soon meet) really needed those things. And people coming by to complain your pop-up displayed a corporate logo. All that Burning Man stuff, goofy, exalted, and petty.

A band onstage Saturday night at Reverbia referred to its audience as Burning Man 2021. (The stage had a crummy little camping tent under it, making it officially "shade" and not an illegally built structure.) Longtime Burning Man attendee Peter "Pedro" Loughran, a California building contractor, pinpoints the lack of the "mindblowing art" (partially funded via art grants from Burning Man) as the missing sauce that made this not feel fully like Burning Man.

One Burning Man artist, the Reno-based Adrian Landon, brought a giant flaming Pegasus with working wings to Burning Man in 2019. This year, he brought a smaller horse sculpture made of hand-hammered cold metal, one he and three pals could hoist into the back of his pickup truck. He didn't know if anyone might consider it an illegal structure—no one complained, and even BLM agents seemed to enjoy it—and he didn't really care.

"I love coming with artwork," he says. "It's part of who I am. It's my voice. I knew barely anyone would be bringing art to Burning Man this year so I had to bring it because I can, and because that's what people are here for. Partially!"

Studio Drift and associates brought the biggest and most mind-blowing art experience that evaded BLM strictures against structures by being a squad of programmed lit flying drones. They created multiple artworks from lights in the air, some associated with high-end elite DJ vehicle Robot Heart, and two in the middle of the encampment. The second one, on traditional Saturday night "Burn Night," re-created the building and burning of the Man with lights in the sky.

Radio Electra DJs had made verbal jokes about strangers not familiar with Burner cult-ure and it felt a little strange we all reacted so heartily to that icon, like the experience wasn't complete until we saw this symbol. But the crowd was wowed as well on the sheer level of the expressive and technical feat it represented—all the more so as that afternoon, a team member was still programming the drones.

Team leads Ralph Nauta and Lucas van Oostrum explained in a pre-show interview how they were one of the rare groups that came to the rough-and-tumble Burning Man world from the more blue-chip art world. Nauta and associates were doing drone light shows at the high-end Art Basel event before doing them at Burning Man, and now at this non-Burning Man.

The Burning Man spirit of giving, van Oostrum explains to doubters like myself who ask why someone would trouble themselves to do all this, was enough to get members of their crew to fly over from Europe, quarantine in some cases, to get their hardware supplier Verge Aero to bring many dozens of drones across the country, all with the high possibility that some dust or weather event might prevent the show from happening at all. (The weather for the three days I was there was as perfect as could be, however, comfortable and still with none of Burning Man's frequent white-out windstorms.)

Yes, doing drone shows for free in the middle of nowhere is not a "viable business model," van Oostrum admits readily, and a patron who prefers not to be named helped them with the cost. But tons of effort for no specific reward except the wow of the crowd is the Burning Man way.

Before the Saturday show, when the drone team had coned and flagged the necessary perimeter to keep the flying drones from being over the audience's heads, BLM agents went around pulling the cones and flags up, telling the drone team they took them for abandoned property. Jeremy Crandell, a longtime Burning Man arts wrangler who helped manage the show, suspects they thought an illegal burn was being planned and wanted to stymie it. All was explained, and the perimeter was reestablished before the show that night.

The Temple Burn. Photo: Joseph Buchman

The big art at Burning Man provides spiritual and experiential fuel for both those who experience it and those who make it. The lack of lots of huge sculptural art means that one does not feel compelled to do anything in particular here but hang out with friends, making this event more communal than Burning Man at times. That's according to Paul Belger, who has been involved in facilitating and creating big art displays at Burning Man over the years (most recently stage managing the entertainment inside 2019's "The Folly," a fully re-created fantasy fishing village that burned).

I wondered whether he and the other big art stars miss the chance to pull off the unprecedented stunt and get the ego boost and social capital for it. He sloughed off the idea, and admitted the state of the world—and the ongoing Western fires whose smoke we were breathing—had him rethinking building giant things just to burn them. It might be that art's place in Burning Man is more about facilitating moments of human togetherness than the grandeur of the art per se, and this week provided that without the heroic art struggles.

I can't guess how many people at this gathering were first-timers. I personally met only a few. But four of the few I met told me about being in a big camp gathering where someone asked how many were Burner virgins and nine out of 10 people raised their hands. But this event did deliver that weird, life-changing hold on first-time attendees Burning Man is famous for. Clayton Ickes, a young man who works in the field of law and culture change involving psychedelics, normally found the ticket price prohibitive.

With this free Burn, he could pop out in his sprinter van and afterward sound like an old Burner pro, talking about how "the space between my intention and the realization of that intention, the manifestation of it, was short, a quicker response between desire for something and finding of that thing." Such "things" included not just the physical but the experiential and interpersonal. Whatever emotion, vibe, or type of human you longed to feel or meet—he found it just happened. Burning Man amateur sociologists will recognize this is a guy who acculturated quickly.

On the way out in Gerlach, Nevada, hanging out at a new pizza joint seeing its year's largest number of steady customers (Gerlach is becoming somewhat of a Burning Man company town), I ran into four Reno folk between the ages of 21–25 who never felt they could afford Burning Man. They loved this gathering, embracing what one of them, Carlos Gonzalez, pins as the opportunity to "accept the un-norm, and seek un-comfort, out of your normal safe zones." Gonzalez's one slightly bummer moment came when some groovier-than-thou dude tried to press him on his allegedly overly materialistic attitudes about money. As Gonzalez explains, growing up struggling and seeing cockroaches in his cereal means that to him money is first and foremost a way to make sure he and his family can have a decent life, not some evil to be scorned.

Law and Safety on the Wild Frontier

The only disconcerting behaviors I heard complaints about centered on cars or motorcycles moving through the encampment more quickly than the witness was comfortable with. (At actual Burning Man, driving once one gets to one's camp is prohibited for normal cars.) At least one pugnacious fellow at a dance party at Robot Heart had to be physically taken down by law enforcement, but there was apparently very little of that sort of behavior. The Reno Gazette-Journal reported just three arrests, "including one for driving while intoxicated, one related to an out of state warrant and one for assault with a deadly weapon."

Early in the week, Hall described a regulatory and policing style more interested in talking and advising and warning than in citing. Afterward, he says in an email that the BLM issued "close to 100 warnings [and] Forty-seven citations…primarily focus[ed] on violations in regards to the Federal Register Notice Restrictions."

Nearly every story of dealing with law enforcement I heard was positive, including hearing secondhand from a couple of Burning Man policing vets that this was a mellower crowd than recent Burning Mans. Citizen/police relations were not all utopian; I heard one report of seeing someone handcuffed after a traffic pullover, and saw myself a vehicle having its contents dumped and searched with a drug dog involved.

Everyone's sense of such things will vary based on experience and attitude; Loughran feels that "the law enforcement presence was perfect" with "enough of a presence that you minded your Ps and Qs." (I don't think an hour of wandering went by in which I didn't see a cop car of some sort.) However, Candace Locklear, a tech executive, performance artist, and decadeslong Burner felt far less policed than at Burning Man, and loved it: "The lack of typical abject fear and loathing brought on by the lurking, consistent presence of many federal agents in their giant trucks allowed pure joy to be both expressed and felt while dancing to some amazing tunes with friends," she says. "We were able to feel free, which definitely elevated the overall mood and in turn helps people behave in a kinder way towards one another."

Law enforcement at actual Burning Man is paid for out of the event's ticket sales, and for this nonevent, the local BLM had to bring in agents from outside the district at its own expense. It is unlikely these sort of unpermitted gatherings could be even half as heavily policed as Burning Man itself.

The police were there whether we wanted it or not; so was a government presence in the form of medical care. Medical emergencies were another big pre-event fear, and indeed a couple of bodies had to be taken off the playa to faraway hospitals for vehicle rollovers and paragliding mishaps. Tom Curotto worked on a purely-volunteer first aid station there; Toby Evans worked with Guardian Emergency Medical Services (GEMS) out of Las Vegas, which was sent by order (and at the expense) of the state of Nevada.

Both reported small numbers—generally around 10 a day—of problems, according to Curotto, like "dehydration, dizziness, people who overindulged in various ways and needed a place to sit and calm down, scrapes, blisters, some minor cuts." Curotto's volunteers were not authorized to prescribe medications or install IVs, but were well-connected via walkie-talkies with the GEMS people for more serious medical needs.

Shannon Litz of Nevada's Department of Health and Human Services says in an email, "As a large crowd was expected to gather, the State determined it was vital to have first aid and emergency services support on-site. The total contract for planning, staffing, and supplies was about $300,000 paid through Coronavirus Relief Funds." She believes "two lives were saved by Guardian Medical being on site."

Is a Permitless Burning Man Sustainable?

While Burning Man feels a sense of stewardship over the playa, it doesn't have the manpower after two years without ticket sales, its only form of noncharity income, to sweep up after its renegade audience even if it wanted to. Dominic "D.A." Tinio runs Burning Man's "leave no trace" operations to clean the playa after the event—the organization's permit depends on it—and said in a written statement in response to questions that this event had "some advantages being a relatively smaller population, shorter duration of stay on average, and no large-scale artwork to burn down. The factor of no art is huge" in making cleaning up this event easier than cleaning up after a standard Burning Man.

Squads of attendees did stay to clean up, although reports of problems after the event continue to trickle out from the playa and the nearest town of Gerlach, such as an abandoned trailer, many dozens of abandoned bikes, lost dogs (which are forbidden at Burning Man), an abandoned port-a-potty felled by wind, garbage bags and shit buckets abandoned both on the playa and in Gerlach, and badly stowed trash fallen by the side of the roads between the playa and Reno. And late last week, rain hit—had that happened while the 15,000 or so of us were there, thousands could have been trapped in the mud, and food and water could have become scarce.

The experience induced a confusing mix of admiration for what the Burning Man organization has accomplished along with amazement about how well it worked without them. "This was an experiment in time, and I found it interesting to attend," Goodell says in an email. "I was liberated by the lack of rules. And, what about this experience can be included in the next iteration of BRC?" While she insists that Burning Man's spirit need not be confined to that location, the "Black Rock Desert is a great home for BRC, and we want to keep happening there as much as it's possible and sensible to do so."

Adriana Roberts, editor since the early 1990s of Black Rock City's alternative newspaper, which is now called Black Rock Weekly, did an edition for this nonevent that showcased Burner anxieties about the potential disaster this could have become. In the end, she found, "Oh my god this is what 25 years of Burning Man indoctrination does: mom and dad can leave the kids alone and we will not fuck things up." Jeff Herzbach, who attended many of the years between 1991 and 2007, came back and marveled that the "open-source code of Burning Man" has provided a template for people to behave and treat each other in a way that is clearly transferable, admitting he "came out to watch the disaster unfold" and found instead a positive and very Burning Man–like experience.

Could it work again? That might be up to the BLM, and so far Hall is not ready to speculate about how the agency would feel about, say, twice as many people trying to do playa camping on some future weekend. A gathering like this one, which had an online map with thousands of people pre-planning exactly where they would be camping, certainly had the feel of being "organized" on one level even if it was a tech-enabled, decentralized form of organization. (Old-time Burner Herzbach, for his part, saw the attempts to plan online a city structure that emulated Burning Man's—that sort of worked, though the encampment sprawled more shapelessly—as akin to animals freed from a cage who are so cowed they can think of nothing else to do but crawl back in it.)

The BLM does have the power to do temporary emergency closure orders for public land. Maybe if the internet told the agency that 40,000 people were coming next time without a permit, it might try to use that power. Or maybe the community of Burners empowered by decentralized technologies of planning and finding each other without one entity in charge has proven that the people can, in effect, more or less do whatever they want on public lands like this, with the BLM either legally or practically powerless to stop them.

Overcoming COVID-19 Anxieties

For those wanting a cultural break from COVID-19 anxieties, this event was a tonic. Various people said they never heard the word once out there until I brought it up, though some noted a subtle shift toward more fist-bump hellos and less falling into full-body hugs with friends and strangers—though the latter did not disappear. Even with the fire smoke, masks were hardly seen. One small ramen stand puckishly used giant COVID-19 iconography to brand itself, playing with fears of gathering to share food with strangers.

This gathering was, on one level, perhaps subconscious, a giant fuck you to a heavily vaccinated world still behaving as if it's a crime for human beings to choose to be near each other in fellowship. Will it prove to have been a superspreader event? Too early to tell, and certainly everyone both vaccinated and unvaccinated is fully able to understand and assess their own risks by now.

"Lots of us lived in fear for the last year and a half," says Taylor, who chose to camp away from the main body of people to run his radio station. "Breaking out of that shell was a big deal, to get back to reality and do things we loved."

This gathering, this Not Burning Man, Taylor says, "showed people what we can do without control, whether government or organizational. Just let us do what we love to do and it will happen. Just give us a canvas to paint our picture."