If You Burn It, They Will Come: A Look at Burning Man


A large sculpture of a neon man

The effigy that was burned at the end of the 2018 Burning Man, held annually in Black Rock City, Nevada. Photo by Scott London


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Welcome home! This is how fellow burners greet each other upon arrival in the Nevadan Black Rock Desert for the larger-than-life experience and celebration of art, culture, love, and radical self-expression that is Burning Man.

What started as a small renegade act on San Francisco’s Baker Beach in 1986 (burning a wooden man!) has blossomed into a fully functioning city where 70,000 people gather to escape modern society, or what’s referred to as “the default world.” In the process, Burning Man has morphed into the world’s largest outdoor art gallery. Unlike most galleries, however, this one is ephemeral: At the end of eight days of euphoria, a 75-foot wooden effigy is burned and every artwork and sign of life is removed. Black Rock City disappears.

And then the city, or rather the spirit of the city, reappears in the form of smaller, regional "burns" across the country and the globe. It's no longer just a festival in the desert; it's a kind of movement. So the idea of Burning Man is a perpetual work-in-progress, constantly shifting like the dust upon which the temporary city is built. In 2012, the organization transitioned into a nonprofit—the Burning Man Project—to ensure the event lives well into the future. In 2016, Burning Man Project acquired the 3,800-acre Fly Ranch in Northern Nevada, which opens the door for new year-round cultural experiments and innovation projects.

I sat down with one of Burning Man’s six founders, Michael Mikel, and their director of art and civic engagement, Kim Cook, to talk about the past and the future of Burning Man. They stopped by the National Endowment for the Arts during a break from the symposium called Radical Inclusion and Tales from the Playa at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, held in conjunction with the exhibit No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man at the Renwick Gallery.