Comparing Burning Man 2022 with this Year’s Renegade Black Rock Desert Event
Drew Pador of OpenFire Photography
Burning Man culture has splintered. Starting in 2020, a longstanding disillusionment among Burners (as participants in the gathering call themselves) converged with two canceled editions during the COVID-19 pandemic to yield a number of spinoff events. Things like these always seem to come to a head in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, whose alluring mystique draws people from all over the world.
It was previously difficult to compare these gatherings. The renegade events grew quite popular during the pandemic because for many, they filled the temporary void left by Burning Man. Would they prove as relevant in a year during which they were overshadowed by the big event? At the time, it was hard to say.
This year, though, a notable renegade gathering in the Black Rock Desert took place immediately after Burning Man’s long-awaited return. As a journalist and participant in all types of activities on the playa, I took the opportunity to attend both and find out how they measure up to one another.
Photo of Martin Taylor’s ‘Seed of Dreams’ by Drew Pador of OpenFire Photography.
I’ll start by addressing the obvious: No event that I know of facilitates the level of active participation that has defined Burning Man since its 1986 inception. While this year’s attendance of 80,000 may look meager compared to the hundreds of thousands drawn to music festivals like Tomorrowland or Glastonbury, Black Rock City’s 2022 population was spread out over a whopping 1,700 theme camps.
Although the vast majority of attendees pay for tickets to Burning Man, the theme camps they build together offer all manner of refreshment, workshops, music, and other attractions without contemplation of receipt in return. Each one operates autonomously (in theory, at least) under guidelines imposed by the Burning Man Project, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizer of the event that Burners colloquially refer to as the Org.
As far as music is concerned, I maintain that Burning Man rarely gets the credit it deserves as a testing ground for boundary-pushing sounds.
Music lovers who have yet to attend often associate an accessible (see: predictable) playa tech sound with the gathering thanks to sets recorded at monolithic camps like Opulent Temple or Distrikt. What garner far less attention are the fringe soundcamps you stumble upon while inevitably getting lost in Black Rock City at nighttime, and the experimental artists for whom they provide a platform.
A prime example is Sam Leggett, aka Sammy Legs, whose early Thursday morning psytech set at his own sixes & sevens camp gave me no choice but to get off my bike and dance. In a mix largely composed of original music, he paired the producer porn sensibility of psybass with the subtlety of minimal house. In doing so, he arrived at a seemingly impossible middle ground that would not alienate the discerning tastes of either audience.
“I have had a number of musical revivals throughout my production career,” Leggett told me during a phone conversation after the event. “I’ve spent time as a bass artist and a tech house artist, as well as working with melodic techno and drum and bass.”
“The last couple years, my project has fallen somewhere between the grooves in house music, a lot of the older minimal from about ‘05-’12, and psybass,” he went on. “What I enjoy about psytech is less the individual sound palette, and more how tension is created through things going wrong. All of my music kind of builds energy that way.”
Other artists who performed at sixes & sevens throughout Burning Man included Dernis, Sam Drank, Britton, Chief Jesta, and Bartek. Leggett says their collective focuses on highlighting artists who play a number of different genres, most of which is their own original music.
Is It Art?
Aside from extreme heat and frequent white-out dust storms that even tested the limits of seasoned Burners, a factor distinguishing Burning Man 2022 from previous editions was the number of large-scale art projects on playa. According to the Burning Man website, 52 recipients of 2020 Honorarium grants (awarded by Burning Man Arts with money raised by Black Rock Arts Foundation, also a 501(c)(3)) were finally able to bring their works to the gathering. A combined 36 Honorarium grant applicants for 2021 and 2022 brought this year’s total to a record 88 recipients.
Among them was “Paradisium,” a rainforest-like canopy of interconnected wooden structures planned and executed by Dave Keane, whom Artnet News notes was responsible for 2019’s post-apocalyptic “The Folley” installation. Closer to the Org’s Center Camp was a fractal gallery called “Catharsis” by architect Arthur Mahmoud-Mani, whose penchant for intricate geometric designs was perhaps best exemplified in the 2018 Temple, “Galaxia.”
Photo of Dave Keane’s “Paradisium” by Jane Hu
One 2020 rollover recipient was Jerry Snyder, whose “Midnight Museum” installation paid homage to Burning Man art old and new. Its 25 stained glass-inspired lanterns consisted of 100 wooden panels altogether, each of which depicted a different project that came to life at some iteration of the gathering.
In addition to playa-famous, Honorarium grant-funded projects like “Sky Whale” and “Embrace,” “Midnight Museum” made it a point to honor more obscure works. Deniz Nicole and Michael Hartmann’s “Kaleidoscope Kandeo,” for instance, has yet to receive any funding from Burning Man since its 2019 inception.
Photo of “Midnight Museum of That One Time at Burning Man” courtesy of Jerry Snyder
“Midnight Museum” was conceptualized and built by a team of 25 artists including Graphic Design Lead Kyle Peltier, Lighting Lead Ian Epperson, and Panel Production Lead Sa Misiura. In a post-playa conversation at the Generator — a 70,000-square foot makerspace in Sparks, Nevada in which “Midnight Museum” and countless other big art projects have been built — Misiura walked me through the history of the project.
“[Snyder’s] last project was ‘Mega Prayer,’ she said. “He made a giant rosary bead light-up show with a cross that you could stand while ‘Like a Prayer’ by Madonna played, with these giant, stained-glass lanterns.”
“He wanted to replicate that design but make it simpler, which is where I come in since I have experience in CNC and laser work,” Misiura continued. “We laser cut all the panels and digitally printed the colored section of each one to make it look like faux stained glass.”
Photo of the ‘Empyrean Temple’ by Drew Pador of OpenFire Photography.
Other on-playa art has drawn controversy. This year’s “Empyrean Temple” design was chosen as Burning Man’s official 2022 Temple, an annual tradition in which a colossal structure is built as a safe space for grieving and solemn introspection. In an investigative piece published to Medium, Graham Berry cites accounts from members of the Temple build crew alleging that Lawrence “Renzo” Verbeck misappropriated $100,000 of funds raised for the build.
The Renegade Movement
It is these chinks in the Org’s bureaucratic armor that drove so many Burners to organize unstructured gatherings on playa from 2020-2021. While the absence of organized ticketing made it impossible to know exact attendance figures, estimates for the 2021 event dubbed “Plan B” range from 10-20,000.
By comparison, the mere hundreds of participants in the renegade Black Rock Desert event directly following this year’s edition Burning Man made it what many might consider a non-event. The return of Burning Man itself surely factors into the dropoff — but increased restrictions by the Bureau of Land Management were arguably a key contributor.
Each year, the Bureau of Land Management imposes a temporary closure order of the Black Rock Desert as part of Burning Man’s special recreation permit. This year’s closure order was the widest reaching ever, forbidding camping from July 28 to October 1 on a 9,750-acre expanse that accounts for about 75% of the Black Rock Desert.
This forced those participating in the renegade to navigate to the small stretch of playa near Black Rock Hot Springs at the northernmost end of the desert — myself included. After leaving Burning Man I spent a night in Reno, where I finally enjoyed consistent enough internet connection to obtain geographic coordinates and other directions from members of the Renegade Man Facebook group.
The next evening I drove back out to the Black Rock Desert, this time arriving on playa from the 12 mile entrance. From there I followed a crude path north about 14.5 miles, circumnavigating the bright lights of vehicles and structures still remaining on playa after Burning Man. I turned east once I reached the latitude given to me, instinctually driving towards a comparatively faint constellation which fortunately happened to be the renegade.
Overhead view of the renegade Black Rock Desert gathering taken on Tuesday, September 6 by Ryan Niemi.
Had I not been familiar with mobile apps like Gaia GPS from my time at previous unstructured gatherings on playa, I could have easily fallen off course during any step of this process. I suspect a significant number of would-be attendees weren’t as lucky.
Others proved resourceful enough to make the trek. The dozens of camps participating in the renegade included Ryan Niemi’s “Skywanker Memorial Pop-Up Cinema,” a drive-in-like theater on which the film Idiocracy played, as well as Bob Saint Clare’s “The Playa Beach Club,” a grid of beach chairs under umbrellas that hinted at the installations Mel Lyons built on playa long before a Man was ever burned there.
Photo of “Skywanker Memorial Pop-Up Cinema” courtesy of Ryan Niemi.
Photo of “The Playa Beach Club” courtesy of Bob Saint Clare.
For music-loving participants like myself, the highlight of the renegade was a soundcamp called Lunaticos. The name is a double entendre; it is not only Spanish for “lunatic” but also consists of “luna” and “ticos” which can roughly translate to “moon dwellers.” Most of their community hails from Argentina, but it also includes creatives and free thinkers from places like Spain, France, Italy, Chile, Brazil, Colombia, Portugal, and Mexico.
These cultural influences culminate in a distinctive flavor of progressive house and techno theatrical enough to soundtrack the spellbinding grandeur of the Black Rock Desert. By my measure, at least, it was better suited for the playa than any music I heard this year on famous Burning Man art cars like Mayan Warrior, Robot Heart, or Maxa.
A handful of the crowd brought by Lunaticos also attended Burning Man before the renegade, but quite many were migrant workers who couldn’t afford a ticket. These rough-looking nomads — some of whom live out of their vehicles — gave the soundcamp a distinct, post-apocalyptic atmosphere.
The Lunaticos community is worlds away from the privileged crowd whose activity on Instagram has contributed to an overrepresented Burner stereotype over the past decade. Importantly, the soundcamp is the only reason many of them get to experience the strange magic of the playa in the first place.
Lunaticos is the brainchild of Dave Schön and Lucas Mergip. “We were here last year,” Mergip told me during a rare moment of quiet at the camp. “We really liked how the movement was different from Burning Man, totally free of money or restrictions, so this year we tried to bring more of our community out with us.”
“The people with us have come to work from different countries, different cultures,” Mergip went on. “We take in people living one day to the next with no money, no friends, no home. We come here together to share our good vibes, culture, and energy.”
A notable artist who performed several times at Lunaticos throughout the renegade was the Argentinian-born Sebastian Rosasco, who simply works under the name SEBASTIAN. He’s the rare sort of electronic musician whose talent falls evenly between the realms of DJ and producer (most predominantly assume one role or the other).
Rosasco sat in front of his laptop for hours before each performance, tuning out the distractions of the playa to craft edits that made all of his sets unique from one another. He stocked up on enough of these cuts to improvise and take the audience on a journey full of unexpected twists and turns that added a surreal gravity to every moment. Dark melodies programmed with big synths would suddenly give way to hypnotizing, repetitive loops that allowed each body on the dance floor a calculated respite. Rosasco would then cleverly raise the intensity back to a fever pitch, reigniting a wave of ecstatic movement.
I tracked Rosasco down for a short interview the day after I first watched him perform. “For me, that set was very important because of the intense feelings you experience in this desert,” he said. “To play for people who were feeling the same things was great. It was a breath of fresh air and reassured me that I’m moving in the right direction.”
Rosasco’s inspirations extend back to a music collection shared with him by his father, which included records by early electronic acts like Depeche Mode and Erasure. “My life took a turn three years ago when I got divorced, and I said hey, I have to go for my passion,” he said. The renegade was his first time on playa — like so many members of the Lunaticos family, he could not get ahold of a Burning Man ticket.
We Are All John Law
The closest thing the renegade had to an organizer finds great joy in facilitating these sorts of life-changing moments made difficult by the Org’s bureaucratic red tape. This individual — who encouraged Black Rock Desert enthusiasts to gather between the dates of September 4 to 13 via an Eventbrite page with free “tickets” — goes by the pseudonym John Law, a reference to one of Burning Man’s most influential early figures.
The real-life John Law was once a member of the Cacophony Society, a San Francisco group of dadaists and situationists who became intertwined with Burning Man during its earliest installments on Baker Beach. When police intervention prevented the Man from being burned at the climax of the 1990 event, it was Law who proposed that Burning Man founders Jerry James and the late Larry Harvey merge their event with his on-playa zone trip dubbed “A Bad Day at Black Rock.”
When Burning Man grew more commercial, Law lost interest. After a 1996 edition mired by a tragic accident in which a couple was run over in their tent, he parted ways with an early iteration of the Org to focus on urban exploration adventures in other parts of the world.
Law approves of the renegade’s non-organizer using his name as a moniker. “Keep up the good work,” he told them in a Messenger conversation I reviewed. “And know that you’re in a long tradition of troublemakers.” Given that he disengaged with Burning Man in part because Harvey and company began working to grow the event bigger and bigger, Law would likely also approve of the small scale of the unstructured gathering.
By now, it likely comes across as if I’m making a clear-cut argument in favor of the transformative potential of the renegade. The reality is not so black and white.
For all the glaring contradictions evident in the Org’s stewardship of Burning Man culture, the fact remains that it has provided life-changing opportunities for innumerable creatives specializing in countless mediums. Misiura touched on this while talking about her experience working on “Midnight Museum.”
“A lot more artists are inclined to do the Burn because there’s more money and grants and support available to artists, which is why I do it even though I love the concept of the renegades,” she said. “It’s hard to bring big art to renegades. It’s expensive.”
“At least with Burning Man you have an art support team, a whole crew of people that go out and check in with people. You have access to Heat, which is heavy equipment. You have crane operators, forklifts, front loaders — things that help us build big sculptures. There’s also the Honoraria program, which I’m starting to learn a little more about.”
Honorarium grants often translate into off-playa opportunities for their recipients. In fact, since the Generator relocated to its current warehouse location in Sparks’ Oddie District, it has shifted its emphasis towards projects other than Burning Man in the surrounding community.
The lack of formal organization at unstructured gatherings in the Black Rock Desert also poses safety and environmental issues. Emergency services take longer to respond in the absence of rangers and medics who factor into the cost of a Burning Man ticket, and renegade attendees often haven’t been indoctrinated into Burning Man’s “leave no trace” ethos. As the renegades grow bigger, so too will these problems until something akin to the Org becomes a necessary evil. Participants in this year’s renegade unfamiliar with decommodification could already be openly brainstorming how they can turn a profit off of their own events on playa.
Those capable of funding large-scale art and services at Burning Man ought to consider getting more involved with the renegades, and perhaps helping navigate this philosophical tightrope walk. On the same token, artists participating in the renegades would do well to learn how to solicit donations without the help of grants from the Black Rock Arts Foundation.
Ahead of this year’s trip to the Black Rock Desert, I made it my personal goal to determine whether I would prefer to participate in Burning Man or the renegades. The decision is more difficult now than ever. Oh well — there are much worse problems to have than needing to spend twice as much time on playa.