Does the Magic of Burning Man Live Online?
This 7-Year Burner Doesn't Feel It.
I explored Burning Man’s “Infinite Playa,” a digitized iteration of our home in the desert, and I found it wanting.
Fear not. This isn’t the groveling of some smelly, jaded Burner. This year would have been my seventh Burn, and I was particularly looking forward to it. Building is what brings me to Burning Man each year. Building community, structures, events, energy. As a participant in the Infinite Playa, none of these attributes were on offer.
I helped found a theme camp in 2019, after spending the previous three Burns leading another. We enjoyed a fantastic debut and were primed to return with guns blazing in 2020. By April, we’d bought a massive semi trailer for storage and transportation, diligently laid out our event schedule, sketched our new footprint, budgeted for infrastructure improvements, acquired all of our Directed Group Sale tickets, written our entire placement application, and started hosting work parties to prepare for ingress.
Then, boom. Not this year.
I groaned when first hearing of the digital playa. We’ve indulged enough Zoom conferences and DJ live streams by now, but so it goes. Discovery is a tech-centric process in the age of COVID, and necessarily so. I just didn’t anticipate that trend translating to Burning Man, but I shouldn’t be surprised.
The myriad physicalities of Black Rock City are a huge part of what makes it so immersive. It’s built by the citizens, for the citizens, and with remarkably few guard-rails around potentiality. Theme camps provide earnest, intentional (and often uncouth) offerings. Structures are wildly crafted. The climate makes surrender inevitable. Participants are spent to wit’s end.
For a place defined by its tangibility, reducing the landscape to a laptop felt wrong - blasphemous, even. A silly triviality to maintain the annual continuity of Burning Man; more so a token gesture than a coveted invitation to a truly novel affair.
This was my impression before I even logged on, and it was only reinforced after a brief perusal. The entire experience proved embarrassingly cliché: creating your avatar (wearing dorky goggles, lingerie, or putting a weave in your hair), aimless meandering in fabled art cars (like Abraxis’ golden dragon), or catching Diplo play at the base of a giant mushroom (though Goa Gill’s set was likely fantastic). The Infinite Playa emboldened the tackiest stereotypes affiliated with Burners, to which I promptly said adieu.
The playa is an idyllic catalyst for any form of bologna or benevolence one could possibly muster. It’s where people come to create their own world, and to share it openly and with loving abandon. As a wise friend once told me, it’s the greatest hobby on earth.
Sure, there’s more cops, models and tech-bros each year, but this influence only bothers those too consumed with gate-keeping to enjoy themselves (or those trying to finagle a sneaky bump during a sunrise set at the Mayan). The playa is alive and thriving for those who seek to share in it. The tired, old adage is still true — there’s nothing like the playa in full swing.
How the Burning Man Organization planned to mirror, or at the very least mimic this feeling of unbridled expansion, seemed a far cry from possible. All there was to build or experience was prepackaged and spoon fed. There was no grit, no strife, no intention. All frills without the thrills. Radical Self Expression cannot exist within a prescriptive set of variables.
That’s only part and parcel of a broader trend — our insatiable lust for connection and stimulation in a year that’s been anything but. Turns out we’ll sell anything down the river to feel anything at all.
If not for this assignment, I would not have participated in the Infinite Playa. Even so, I didn’t scour every inch or attend every event. I didn’t even see the Man Burn. I don’t particularly care, either. In my experience, the feeling of Burning Man was bastardized (and dare I say commodified) by the Infinite Playa.
When I learned of the numerous individuals who chose to occupy the playa during Burn Week, shamelessly providing interviews to the broadcast media about how dope they thought they were, despite the requests of the Paiute Tribe and the townsfolk of Gerlach and Empire to kindly fuck off this year, my blood boiled. Not only had the Infinite Playa further belittled the offering of Burning Man, these idiots had willingly perpetuated the commonplace assumption that Burners are entitled assholes. I wholeheartedly considered the very same thing for a handful of weeks - but to actually follow through? After all that’s happened? I hope the BLM Rangers were thorough in their cavity searches.
Now that the whole ordeal is firmly in the rearview, there’s a fairly rotten scent in the air. With Burning Man’s Cultural Course Correction having a laudable first year in 2019, it seems we’ve taken several steps backward.
Burning Man isn’t about disrespecting communities that support the project, nor is it about tacky video game-esque dilutions of the 10 Principles.
Burning Man is about building, experimenting and celebrating, and since none of those things are particularly possible this present moment, we’d be far better off adopting a dog or donating to a bail fund.
They say you don’t always get the Burn you want, but the Burn you need. If that’s the case here, the Burn we needed was an alarm. Pleasure-seeking escapism won’t bring forth the change that’s needed - at least not this year.
Burning Man is a privilege to be earned, and there’s far more work to be done before we gleefully shirt-cock at Robot Heart in 2021.