Burning Man: A Cultural Phenomenon


Once a year, thousands of people gather at Nevada’s Black Rock Desert to co-create a sustaining metropolis built on the values of self-expression, self-reliance and communal contributions. Participants suspend everyday obligations to experience a place with no judgments or expectations in order to manifest a community with endless possibilities. For many returning burners, Burning Man is their second home and for new participants it is a life-changing experience. Only at Burning Man can you witness and participate in a utopian community, where creativity knows no bounds and the art of gifting expresses in-depth stories. Four FestPop staff writers attended Burning Man this year; Chris Hong, Karli Jaenike and Chris Rozzo popped their Burning Man cherries at Caravansary, this year’s art theme, while Tiffany Wood returned for her second year to the playa. At the end of the event, everyone packs up and leaves no trace that hints a city ever populating this desolate environment. What’s left from this experience are passionate memories and enlightening perspectives about Burning Man, where we all hope to return in the years to come.

You cannot just go to Burning Man. It takes months, even a year, of preparation. If you are virgin burners, you need to align yourselves with veterans so you are well-equipped for anything and everything expected and unexpected. “I camped with the same camp I did the year prior, bringing four virgins with me (one of whom was Chris Hong),” said second year burner Tiffany Wood. “We were located at 4:55 and Cinnamon, which was great because it was central and close to the Man.  My camp could not think of a name, so we have been “No Name Camp” for the past four years.  I am truly grateful for my camp as they have an amazing playa kitchen, shower and shade structures.  Our camp consisted of 25 people, and each night groups of 4-5 would plan a dinner for the whole camp.  One night, Chris used leftover apples, graham crackers (we forgot the marshmallows and chocolate for s’mores, FAIL), and maple syrup to make a delicious apple pie fresh off the oven grill.  It might have been the playa belly talking, but that apple pie was the best thing I ate all week…possibly my life.”


“I camped with a group of amazing people, especially with a handful of veterans who were kind enough to teach us what it really meant to be and participate at Burning Man,” said Chris Hong. Luckily, having camped for three days at several festivals like Mysteryland and Coachella helped get me in the mindset of Burning Man’s week-long camping and coordinating with returning burners helped prepare me for this otherworldly experience.” While Tiffany and Chris drove nearly seven hours from the Bay Area to reach the playa, Karli took multiple transportations to arrive at her camp. “My small group of close friends met up with a larger group of Austin-ites to camp together. We flew from Austin to Reno, spent the night in Reno, and then hopped on the Burner Express on Sunday.

Several veteran burners from other camps had joined forces to form our first-year camp, Questionable Behavior. Our camp leads had everything figured out structure-wise, and the more experienced burners allowed us to put the bulk of our equipment onto a large bed-truck to have it hauled to Black Rock City. Monday was spent mainly setting up our (surprisingly large) camp. We had large scaffolding with shade structures hung from the top, a large lotus belle tent for the sleeping/communal area, a kitchen, a fridge/freezer and tons of amenities. I am eternally grateful for the knowledge and facilities our veteran burners shared with us.”

Burning Man is a thing of beauty, even if you get trapped in its dust storm. And with this event anything can catch you by surprise: it rained on the first day of Burning Man and it hasn’t rained in over seven years and officials had to close the event. “Burning Man organizers closed the event on Monday and turned everyone who wasn’t already on the playa around back all the way to Reno,” said Chris. “I remember biking through 2:00 and Esplanade and heard the host announce over the Burning Man radio broadcast ‘Burning Man is closed. That means you are at a closed event, so get back to whatever the f**k you were doing.’ That had to be the funniest thing I’ve heard and I couldn’t stop laughing at the way he said that.” Despite closing out the event the first day, the rain benefited those who were already on the playa. “It had packed down the playa dust in such a way that everything was very clear,” said Karli. “The white dust complemented the surrounding mountainous sunsets so well and gave the whole festival a surreal, post-apocalyptic, man-on-Mars feel. It really is unlike any place I had ever been before.”


Hundreds of installations sprinkle the playa, so it’s nearly impossible to experience all of them. Some of FestPop’s favorite installations included El Pulpo Mecanico (a steampunk octopus that shoots fire out of its tentacles), the giant letters spelling “Love, Love, Love,” (In)Visisible (which consists of iridescent cubes forming a pillar of prisms), Insanity, and Embrace. Embrace is one of three key installations at Burning Man. Built by the Pier Group and funded mostly from Kickstarter, Embrace is a large wooden sculpture of two bodies embracing each other.

People could climb up into each side of the sculpture to catch an aerial view of the playa through the eyes of the embracers. “It was beautiful inside. It felt like a maze, really: wandering through the bodily systems and taking twists and turns to reach to the brain area,” said Chris Hong. For Tiffany, Embrace was beautiful from top to bottom, inside and out. She overheard from one of the builders that each half was built in different cities, and brought together to be completed on the playa.   “The only complaint I have about this structure was that it felt like a tourist attraction in which you wait in line, take your pictures, and move along.  You could hang out there, but it was crowded and others trying to scuffle by you in a cramped space were not ideal.  I heard that this high volume of people was only the case during the peak hours of the day, which is the time I went.” On Friday morning at 6 am, Embrace was burned to the grounds.

Another favorite was The Temple, a wooden structure detailed with ornate shapes and artistic elements. Every year, a large team of volunteers builds a temple for citizens of Black Rock City to connect with their spiritual sides and to others. Upon completion, people left photos of lost loved ones, pets, celebrities, poems, thoughts, fears, or sentimental pieces to be burned on the last Sunday of the festival. All of those left at Burning Man (Tiffany and Chris left Sunday morning to avoid the exodus) watched in silent adoration. “Deep secrets poured out of me as I soaked up the intense energy at the temple, the library, and while watching a sunrise,” said Karli. “It felt good to open up, to be so raw, and only the playa could have brought that out.” The Man himself was the biggest man built to date. As Saturday night’s main event, the burning of the Man represented many things for different burners: the relief from real-world restrictions, passion for this burner community, simple fireworks and fire display, and many more.


As a virgin, you expect to see some of the best art on the planet at Burning Man. Art of the absurd and strange always appealed to Karli, especially with her experience with Burning Flipside (a Texas burn event). “What I was not expecting was the scale of the art installations, art cars, and sculptures. I was honestly not expecting to see some of my favorite musical acts on the planet playing on top of art cars at sunset.” Art cars are decorated vehicles (some constructed as animals, ships, or abstract objects) that roam the grounds booming with heavy-hitting bass. You can even dance on them if you are lucky enough to get on one. “There are so many art cars that it’s hard to choose a favorite; each had its own personality. The best thing about the art cars is that they become illuminated with LEDs and pyrotechnics at night to ignite the vast dessert with endless light,” exclaimed Chris Hong. “Some of the memorable ones were the Wide Awake art car (Insomniac Event’s car) and the Mayan art car. I may be biased because I have seen these two cars before at Beyond Wonderland Bay Area and EDC Las Vegas, respectively.”

..Best Of 2013...

[Photo Credit: Aaron Feinberg http://www.afeinbergphotography.com/]

Artistic expression also comes in the form of music and it is plentiful on the playa. Whether you are dancing to acid house at Camp Question Mark or to deep house at Robot Heart, you can always find yourself engulfed in music with fellow burners. “Some of my favorite sound camps were Distrikt, White Ocean, and Camp Question Mark,” said Chris Rozzo. “Distrikt had the best party during the day with plenty of good music and cold drinks. They also sprayed the crowd with water, which felt amazing in the mid-day desert heat. White Ocean had a massive line up that was posted online before the festival, which is frowned upon by many burners.” Some did not really mind the lineup announcement, however. Tiffany is an avid Above & Beyond fan, and upon finding out about their set at White Ocean it was a necessity for her to experience them on the playa. “I saw Above & Beyond as well but left halfway through their set to catch up on Major Lazer at Root Society,” Chris Hong mentioned. “Major Lazer played a very interesting set; it was a mix of deep house and moombahton.” One of Karli’s musical highlights was Infected Mushroom (an Israeli psytrance/electronica/psychedelic/indie band) at Opulent Temple. “I always enjoy their sets, but this one was pure energy. They fused electronic and rock music with world sounds and powerful vocals to create a show unlike any other. Another surprise for me was getting to see one of my favorite bands, Thievery Corporation, play with a full band on top of the Robot Heart art car. Thievery Corporation is a collective of musicians assembled by Rob Garza and Eric Hilton who fused electronic, world, dub, acid jazz, and many other genres to create an unforgettable musical show.” Skrillex, Diplo, Tycho, Desert Dwellers, Random Rabb, and Govinda also played, some participating in sunrise sets which are beloved at Burning Man.


When you’re not hauling yourself across deep playa or tracking down an art car, you might be exploring thousands of theme camps within the city. Most theme camps provide some sort of service or product. “There was a camp near Center Camp called Homebrew.  Of all the beverages given out at camps all over the playa, this was definitely my favorite.  They served a variety of craft beers, but also a hibiscus cider and other non-hoppy beverages.  As a beer drinker, I found their RyPA to be absolutely amazing and I had to go back for two more,” said Tiffany. Other theme camps on FestPop’s list of favorites included Pink Heart, Sacred Spaces (a camp where you can participate in many spiritual healing workshops), Steampunk Saloon, and the hammock camp. “I forgot what the name was, but there was a huge camp near ours that had around 30 hammocks. It was a good place to escape the heat and to nap,” said Chris Hong.

The spirit of gifting is strong at Burning Man. With no monetary system, the event inspires burners to gift items, services, conversations, and stories without the expectation of receiving anything in return. You could stumble across a camp that served complimentary alcohol, provided tarot card readings to open-minded individuals, encouraged playful and consensual adult activities, or facilitated meaningful and intellectual conversations about spirituality or the environment. “One of my favorite workshops I attended was at the Chakralicious Camp in the Honeysuckle Hood at 4:15 and Gold,” Tiffany mentioned. “This woman, her name escapes me, discussed the Ayahuasca experience and how we have the ability to control our altered states.”  Tiffany also attended a seminar where Dr. Bruce, a NASA executive, discussed his plan to capture vital resources in asteroids or comets from outer space using his design called the space condom. “I found the name of his design quite appropriate for the playa.  He even made a joke that his dreads were not real, because who would get government funding on a project with dreads, right?” Chris Hong attended an Emotional Freedom Tapping workshop at the Sacred Spaces Village. “EFT, or Meridian Tapping, is where you tap certain points on your body as you voice positive affirmations. The effect of EFT can be different for anyone, but I find it to soothe my body and mind; sometimes it relieves a lot of my stress.”

 Image: Participants interact with the art installation The Super Pool during a dust storm at the Burning Man 2014 "Caravansary" arts and music festival in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada

Many festival fans come to this festival as virgins thinking it is like others; however this requires necessities for survival that go way beyond any other festival you can encounter. The sheer amount of music, theme camps, art installations and art cars, workshops and seminars, and changing weather conditions can be overwhelming. And positioning yourself in a culture that’s a complete opposite of what you are used to can be extremely daunting. If you have friends who have gone before, ask them for tips, as first-hand experiences are the best way to gain knowledge about the playa.  With that said, here are some FestPop tips for next year’s virgins.


Take the Burner Express. These are busses that take you from the Reno airport or from San Francisco to Black Rock City. You are only allowed two bags on the express (unless you pay extra), so you can only do this if you are packing light or have someone taking your supplies out to the playa. These are especially handy because you get to skip much of the line going into and out of Burning Man.

Put some outfits in plastic bags. When playa dust is everywhere, it’s nice to have a clean outfit once in a while. You definitely want to have a couple dust-free outfits for the ride home, but having outfits while you are there (for after a shower) can make you feel brand new even if it’s for a couple minutes. If you are the type who likes to plan outfits for events, this festival requires a day and a night outfits.  The days are hot and the nights are cold, thus bring warm clothes for the evening.  Also, prepare for all types of weather.  This year, we experienced rain that the playa hasn’t seen during Burning Man in over seven years.  With the right protective structures, your Burning Man experience will be made better ten-fold.

Bikes are not an option, they are a necessity. Do NOT come to Burning Man without a bike (or art car or some form of transportation) and a bike lock.  Once you have your bike there, make sure you lock it up and keep an eye on it. Burners do have a tendency to “borrow” bikes if they are in deep playa. Make sure to decorate your bikes with lights and LEDs (and yourself!) so that others can see you. You don’t want to be a Darktard and be run over by bikes or any vehicles.

Dust storms are no joke. Bring your gear!!! You see everyone out there wearing goggles and dust masks/bandanas for a reason. If you are caught in a dust storm, stay where you are until you are able to see. Burning Man officials also recommend forming human chains so your group stays together.

Drink Water. Always carry a water bottle because you will find yourself getting thirsty quicker and more often than usual. Additionally, it can be difficult to find water outside your camp unless you meet burners who are generous enough to donate (but don’t rely on this).

Don’t be a sparkle pony. A sparkle pony is a Burning Man term for a high-maintenance mooch; someone who uses their sparkle to get away with doing no work around the camp and is a burden to the campmates.  If you are in a larger camp, do your part and clean up after yourself, cook dinner, and bring extra snacks or gifts for the campmates.  Because virgins lack the knowledge of an experienced burner, you should ask the veterans how you can help.  No one wants sparkle ponies around, so do your part!

Have no expectations. Any expectations or stereotypes you have heard about for this event will not be accurate or perfect.  When you create high expectations of how you think your Burning Man journey will go, you are setting yourself up for disappointment.  Go in with an open mind and open heart and you will have the time of your life.

Review the 10 principles of Burning Man:

  • Radical Inclusion: Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.
  • Gifting: Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.
  • Decommodification: In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.
  • Radical Self-reliance: Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.
  • Radical Self-expression: Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.
  • Communal Effort: Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.
  • Civic Responsibility: We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.
  • Leaving No Trace: Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.
  • Participation: Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.
  • Immediacy: Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.

It is hard to go back to normal daily life after such an experience, but the decompression period should be a time of reflection and celebration. As burners, we have different perspectives about Burning Man and ideas of how these experiences can be applied to the real world to improve our standards of living. Burning Man is a place where utopia exists to give you a glimpse of genuine human interaction in a creative and non-judgmental community. It is something that every artistic mind should do once in their lifetimes. Burning Man is not just a festival; it is a movement that we at FestPop can’t wait to get more involved in.

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Written by FestPop Staff Writers
Chris Hong, Tiffany Wood , Chris Rozzo & Karli Jaenike
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