Burning Man is happening right now in the Nevada desert. It is the ultimate community event. A one-week “city” where everything that happens is created entirely by its “citizens.” It’s a place where everyone participates, and no one just observes.
Our guest on this special WhoWhatWhy podcast is journalist and author Daniel Pinchbeck. A longtime attendee and participant at Burning Man, he’s attended 18 festivals; beginning with his 2000 Rolling Stone article, he has chronicled the event perhaps more than any other writer or journalist. Pinchbeck is sitting it out this year, although he admits he’s suffering a bit of FOMO.
He talks fondly about the event that began on the beach in San Francisco in 1986, and now has 80,000 attendees in a creative celebration of art, freedom, eroticism, and psychedelics. Yet, as Pinchbeck points out, the event now reflects some of the class divide in the country as a whole, as it’s attracted more wealth from Silicon Valley and what he calls “trustfunders” from Europe.
Still, he says, the event sticks to its 10 founding principles, including the notion that nothing is bought or sold, just gifted and traded. The fundamental spirit of the event continues.
If you’ve never been there, this conversation is a good primer.
Full Text Transcript:
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to this special WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. Taking place right now in the Nevada Desert might very well be defined as the ultimate community event. A city where in almost everything that happens is created entirely by its citizens, who themselves are active participants in the experience. It is Burning Man. And its history since its start in San Francisco in 1986, in so many ways reflects not only changes in the event – which has exploded to nearly 80,000 people participating this year – but, on a much broader level, so many changes in our society, the power of elites, money and influence.
In some ways, Burning Man today is the ultimate urban gentrification, an entire city and its population transformed by wealth. We’re going to look at the Burning Man phenomenon today with my guest, Daniel Pinchbeck, who probably has written more about the event than any other journalist working today. Daniel Pinchbeck has long been considered a renaissance man ahead of his time. He’s the author of the books, Breaking Open the Head, The Return of Quetzalcoatl, Notes from the Edge Times, How Soon is Now, and When Plants Dream.
He saw around corners long before many others with respect to our ecological crisis and was a one-time executive director of the Center for Planetary Culture. His essays and articles have appeared in every major publication. He’s spoken at conferences around the world and had his work featured in a 2010 documentary. He currently writes the Daniel Pinchbeck newsletter on Substack, where this week he has written about his reasons for not attending Burning Man this year. It is my pleasure to welcome Daniel Pinchbeck back to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Daniel, thanks so much for joining us.
Daniel Pinchbeck: Thanks for having me.
Jeff: Well, it’s great to have you here. Talk a little bit about your first Burning Man, back when you were there writing a story for Rolling Stone, which was maybe one of the quintessential stories about the event.
Daniel: I guess that was in 2000. I think it was like 35,000 people then. I think it’s more like 80,000 or 90,000, now, actually. But, yes, I was really lucky, that was my introduction. I was an East Coast Magazine writer who got interested in psychedelics and shamanism, and I got an assignment to go to Burning Man to write about [it for] Rolling Stone. And I was blown away. First of all, it’s a very psychedelic community. People who really are very interested in exploring consciousness and mysticism. There were incredible arts, there was incredible freedom – erotic freedom, freedom to express yourself, freedom to connect. It was a revelation for me that humans could act like that.
Jeff: And then, how long until you went back again?
Daniel: I started going back every year. I went back the next year. Then, the year after that, I think I wrote about it for Art Forum, which is a big art magazine in New York. So, I was the first person to write about it critically as an art movement.
Jeff: And that was a very controversial piece, the Art Forum piece.
Daniel: Well, at that point, the art world wasn’t really ready to take Burning Man seriously, and in fact it was mocked and reviled in a way. And particularly what I loved about Burning Man at that point, was this anti-commodification aspect, the idea that people would make this work and lavish love and attention and craftsmanship on the pieces where they would be burned up at the end of the event. So, it was something about non-attachment, just process rather than products in a way. That changed a little bit over time, and recently, there was a Smithsonian show, there was a Christie’s Auction of Burning Man-related art.
So, definitely the artists at Burning Man have been seeking to create more products that fit in with the art market in a way.
Jeff: And talk about when you saw it start to change – how did it evolve?
Daniel: That’s very complicated, because it just changed slowly over time. When I interviewed Larry Harvey back in 2000 (he was the founder), I asked him what he liked least about Burning Man. He said it was the rave camps, who set up the big sound systems at the end of the playa. That electronic music element just became bigger and bigger that you had camps like Robot Heart, which were a lot of very wealthy East Coasters coming in. I think that Robot Heart was a big shift in Mayan Warrior. It became more of a… There was always a certain number of wealthy people there from Silicon Valley and so on.
But it became more of a magnet for the European trust funds crowd. Art cars became equivalent of yachts, where people would drop like $500,000 on an art car that expressed maybe their narcissism in a way. So, yes, I felt over the time it drifted away from spontaneous creativity and became a little bit more of a conscripted parallel culture in a way.
Jeff: And you talk about, in your recent piece, the kind of libertarian hedonism, which grew larger over time.
Daniel: Yes. In my essays like the one in the Substack — If people want to check it out, it’s danielpinchbeck.substack.com – I talk about how there always were all these tensions at the event between people who were more mystical anarchists, left-wing, and the hedonistic libertarians who were more right-wing. And there was always a lot of crossover, but it feels like, over time, the hedonistic libertarian element came to dominate, and Burning Man has become more and more like a giant entertainment complex. Having said that, there’s still incredibly amazing things about the event.
And one of the beautiful things about it is the 10 Principles. That includes gifting, that they’ll leave-no-trace, everyone is a participant, nobody’s an observer – which really change and inform how people think and act on the playa. Yes, really, have a beautiful impact on people that they carry on over to their lives. Another aspect of Burning Man, which is great, is the regional movement. So, you actually have splinter Burning Mans all around the world: South Africa, Israel, Europe, and all across the United States. So, you have smaller events that use the same 10 principles.
So, there’s nothing sold during the event, and it’s all a gifting economy, and so on. And so those are ways that even people who don’t have a lot of money or resources can have the same experience, getting to enter this culture.
Jeff: Talk about the economic divide that has come to be part of Burning Man that in many ways is reflective of the larger culture.
Daniel: Even when I went in 2000, it was like that a little bit, but it’s just become more and more like that. I think some of it is choices that… So, Larry Harvey passed away, and Marian Goodell inherited the events and became the CEO of a non-profit that also had some land out there. And, yes, her tendency has been to support more the corporate people, very wealthy people that end up on Burning Man’s board. It’s become like an entertainment complex in a way. But at least it’s based on participatory experience, communion, shamanism. Maybe in some way she’s protecting the brand in a way.
Jeff: You mentioned in the recent piece that parts of it have become almost Disneyfied.
Daniel: It’s a little standardized now. In my work, I write a lot about psychedelics and shamanism, and I write about people like Terence McKenna. And McKenna talked about how culture is actually our enemy. That things start out, and it’s spontaneous, then when they turn it into a culture, they become hardened, rigidified, and crystallized. So, at first, my sense is that Burning Man was a very free space. People would go there and create operas or performance art or whatever. And over time, as it’s attracted the global wealthier set, it becomes a little bit more of a rigid culture where people look at each other, look at pictures, like, “Okay, I should dress exactly like this, and buy this $500 coat or that $1,000 hat or whatever,” because that’s how you fit in.
“And then also when I’m there, I should go to see this DJ at 5:00 a.m., because that’s what everybody is doing.” So, it develops its own social hierarchies that replicate the social hierarchies that are often based on class divisions that we find in the outside world, but with more interpenetration. Like, there are people who can go from other worlds and connect in different ways. It’s still better, but in some ways, it imitates the dominant culture.
Jeff: For those that know less about it, talk just a little bit about the experience of being on the playa during Burning Man.
Daniel: No, it’s really extraordinary, because you definitely have this feeling that there’s this liberated culture. A lot of people there are astonishingly beautiful, astonishingly friendly. There are all these different events going on, rituals, readings, talks, theatrical events, music, workshops, so you can choose if you want to explore workshops into Tantra, or into non-violent communication, or different healing modalities, or learning about crypto. So, it also has this sense of being this like Mini University of possibility. And some areas, it’s more playful. It could be like playing with gender roles or kink or creativity, art projects or whatever. Then, the art is really amazing. It tends to be these giant pop sculptures or sculptures that are really exploring formalism with lighting. Now that I’m talking about it, I wish I was there, to be honest. It has all sorts of amazing things going on there.
Jeff: You decided not to go this year. Tell us why.
Daniel: A number of reasons. I mean, I’ve gone through, as I wrote in my Substack piece, like different fluctuations around it. Sometimes I feel that I’ve already gone 18 times. Maybe it’s okay for me to let other people have the experience. I don’t always have to be the hog, and I’m very concerned around the ecological emergency. It’s like always traveling everywhere seems to be part of the problem, this entitlement that we can always pursue these exotic experiences if we have the capital, I don’t know.
Then, also I like to go there when I really feel that I have a book or a message or a mission, and I didn’t really feel that way right now, so I thought it was a good year for me to wait it out, and just do my work and hopefully go back with a great inspiration next time or sometime soon.
Jeff: You mentioned, again in the Substack piece, that you also had a little fear of missing out.
Daniel: Yes. Of course, because it’s very beautiful, and very ritualistic. When you go there, when you’re a “Burner,” you go there every year, it really does give a shape to your year. The Burning of the Man, and the next day the Burning of the Temple. In the ancient world, they had rituals and celebrations and ceremonies like this that were annual, so there’s that aspect of it. Then, there’s the aspect of just because I went for so many years I have so many layers of friends from different times who all go there. So I’m not going there, I’m not getting a chance to see all these amazing people who I haven’t seen since the pandemics, since I haven’t been out to the West Coast.
Jeff: Given that it hasn’t happened for two years because of the pandemic, do you expect it would be any different this time around? I mean, there’s the obviously pent-up demand.
Daniel: Yes. I assume that it’ll be a really inspired event, that people will be really fired up to be there, but it’s always a very inspired event. People always give their all. I don’t know exactly how different it will be in that sense.
Jeff: Any people that go, particularly those going for the first time, often come back and talk about the way the event has changed them, that has altered them in some way. Talk about your sense of that, what people mean when they talk about that?
Daniel: Yes. I think that for me, it was really incredible to see that you could have 50,000 or 70,000 or 80,000 people experiencing this shared kind of communion, this escape from some of the ideas of materialism and consumerism. Although, that’s paradoxical, because there’s a lot of buying stuff that goes into being there, but yes it does feel a bit like a pilgrimage, like a spiritual communion. Then, this idea that art and gift is the center of your reality rather than trying to figure out how to make a buck or whatever, that also is profoundly shifting.
Then, frankly many people also take psychedelics and psychoactive substances there, which amplify the whole experience and can give you even deeper sense of union with deep time or the sense of a unity, unified field of consciousness or magic or psychic potential. It gives you a great sense. It’s like the Beatles probably were for people in the late ’60s, that humanity has this tremendous untapped potential for joy and creativity, that we really have not even scratched the surface of what we’re capable of.
Jeff: With what’s going on with the climate, it’s getting hotter and hotter each year out there in the Nevada Desert.
Daniel: Yes. It’s a very dry heat out there. I guess there is a heat wave there, but the last time I looked at the weather report for this week at Burning Man, it was perfect. There are also can be deluges out there, but those also can become bonding experiences if there’s a huge storm. Everyone has to huddle together. Then, when it ends, that also creates a sense of connection. It is a survival experience, for sure. I mean, it’s quite an environment to be there, but when I wrote in Breaking Open the Head, my first book about going to Burning Man, it did have this foreshadowing of this global warming apocalypse, of a time when the world has become like a desert, and we don’t really have animals and plants around so much.
We still have each other, we still have human creativity and consciousness. It felt like an eerie foreshadowing of something ahead. I don’t know. I remember that strong feeling that I’ve always had when I go there. I don’t know if that’s the case or not, but surely I do feel that the ecological crisis is the most significant thing that we have to pay attention to and try to focus on right now, and in some ways Burning Man gives people clues. In other ways, it’s a distraction.
Jeff: What are some of your most memorable moments from all of the Burning Man events you’ve attended?
Daniel: Yes, that’s a good question. It blurs together into one giant thing in a way. Had beautiful friendships spark up there, wandering across the whole desert with amazing genius artists and characters, driving. I drove a little art car. What was [that thing] exactly? It was a golf cart that had been… I can’t remember what it was. Maybe it was a Hello Kitty golf cart or something, but yes just driving all night with all these crazy characters coming in and out. Yes, just the sense of incredible freedom that you could just jump on.
And they have these art cars, these huge vehicles that often have chill spaces and dance spaces and DJ booths, where you jump on them and meet a whole new crowd of people and go off on a whole different adventure. Some people were like they will never even make it back to their camp until the end of the week. They’ll just find a whole new group of people and switch allegiances in a way, but that’s part of the fun. It’s very chaotic.
Jeff: Explain to people how it’s set up in terms of the camps, and how that works.
Daniel: Yes. Well, the Burning Man organization creates the infrastructure. So, the shape of the whole festival, the streets and the streetlamps and the porta potties obviously. And then you can either just go individually or you can go in a camper van or just in a car with a tent, which I’ve done that also. It’s pretty rough because it’s extremely hot and dusty there during the day. Or, you can go in an RV by yourself or you can go in an organized camp, in which case everybody pitches in to have maybe a group chef for the community or it could be everybody takes turns cooking, but they provide the kitchen, and the refrigerator and the infrastructure, like a center area, they have their own sound system.
Often they have their own art car, they have their own thing going on in a way. And they really range across the spectrum. Some of them are a few hundred dollars to join. Some of them are like $20,000, $50,000 probably at this point even like a $100,000, $150,000 where you’re living for a week with celebrities, rap stars, VCs, investment bankers. And they’ve created their own private little enclave within Burning Man.
Jeff: Little gentrification going on in those places.
Daniel: Yes. Lot of social stratification and a lot of super wealthy people who, yes, tend to put up velvet ropes around their property, their [unintelligible 00:18:06] and stuff.
Jeff: Looking forward to going again next year?
Daniel: I think so. Although I got over my FOMO, now I have to say that I’m appreciating not being covered in dust and extremely hot and me entering someplace in the middle of the night. We’ll see. If I have a group of friends to go with next year, I will do it, and yes, I’m looking forward to going back. What the hell?
Jeff: Daniel Pinchbeck, I thank you so much for sharing all of this with us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Daniel: Yes, sure. No problem.
Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.