My last trip to Burning Man was in 2008. On my return this year, I found it had changed not for better but for the worse. The week-long festival in the desert used to bring out the best in its attendees but now I noted it had fallen far short. Sixty-six thousand attendees and at an approximate intake of over $26 million had brought more glitter but not richer souls. Selling things was still banned in camp (with the exception of coffee and ice). But a fervent backdoor economy has sunk its giant teeth into the heart of what was once a beautiful, cooperative experiment.
This year's event screamed conspicuous consumption for some bored multimillionaire techies. Pre-cooked meals have been replaced by personal chefs that whip up delicacies, such as sushi and steak tartare. People went from camping in tents in 1999 (back when I first went to Burning Man) to renting U-Haul trucks. Now the privileged stay in luxurious, air-conditioned RV camps, open to others by invitation only. There are actually camps that employ help called "sherpas" as glorified personal assistants. Beautiful models get flown in from around the world to add to the (male) attendees' prestige.
Far from its utopian, open-to-all roots, this year's Burning Man collective resembled an overpriced nightclub with strict divisions between the elite and super-elite. Camping fees have sky-rocketed. Some tech-camps cost the attendees $25,000 a person. I was a privileged invitee to witness the sad spectacle as the Burning Man machine devoured the participants and founders alike. It greedily ate them up. By week's end it spewed out a mass of tired, washed-out, drugged love-seekers back to the congested highways and airways.
The former emphasis on unity has been replaced by the drive to prove who has the biggest appendage, I mean installations. Close to my camp there was a moving techno-float with gigantic wheels taller than me. On top of the vehicle, I watched tense white male WASPS, presumably CEOs (or aspiring CEOs), partying into the night with scantily clad women in bikinis and feathers. Opportunities for personal interaction and intimacy were quashed by the techno-glitter spectacle and overwhelming noise. Human connection took a backseat to machine-power and attempted conversations were drowned out by ubiquitous, bombastic techno music whose monotone beats were eerily reminiscent of the rhythms of assembly line factories. Like many of the creative underclass that built the artistic contraptions, many of the women I saw were merely hangers-on, eye-candy adornments for the mega-rich who have made Burning Man their adult theme-park.
In 2013, according to the organization, it spent $26.8 million dollars. Four hundred thousand dollars was spent on creating "The Man," a giant wooden statue that is set ablaze on the event's final night. Watching this year's effigy, I thought of the homeless. My heart sunk as I tried to imagine what could be done with all the money that is literally burned up. Beyond a mere sprinkling of good-will projects, the grandiose scale of wasteful, gigantic artwork cannot justify itself to a compassionate human being. Hey, man, open your eyes! People are suffering. Income inequality is growing.
But there's something even more disturbing about all the structures that are created and destroyed. Rather than represent "radical and spontaneous self-expression," Burning Man now iconizes a society drowned in excess productivity. The once profound and uplifting philosophy behind the original movement has been sacrificed on the temporal altar of a disposable economy, blind to needless waste.
We live in times in which the collective is often denigrated in favor of the individual. At Burning Man, the hymns of Capitalism are sung with deafening notes. Once, Burning Man used to emphasize a noble ideal, the virtue of detaching from the workweek and the daily grind. Early on, it created a venue for creative cooperation and a place to love each other and play together. Unfortunately, I did not see that ethos personified in 2014. That belief system had been melting away in my last visit in 2008. This year, it died under the bloated weight of the gigantic wheels of a techno-float, culminating in the crushed bones of beautiful Alicia Cipicchio.
In the past, Burning Man shone an illuminating spotlight on what we could be if only we shed our competitive money-hunt. Now it dully captures what is rotten in our culture. This year it showed me we live in a male-dominated society where excess and avarice are encouraged and women are expected to be little more than ornaments. Nothing made that clearer than seeing elephantine installations meant to instill shock and awe in the spectators while half-naked women paraded around the phallic stand-ins.
However, we need not despair. Out of the ashes of Burning Man, a new phoenix shall rise. It is borne from the original spirit and ideals but is imbued with a meaningful twist: the sacred feminine. On returning this year, a few of us gathered together to revive the dream of a softer and gentler participatory, artistic community. In place of garish and imperial installations that emphasize waste and obsolescence, our new community, "Blissland" will embrace the creation of intimate artwork and uplifting music that seeks to evoke the best in people. The attendees shall let their imaginations soar. Through our collaborative efforts, we shall achieve transcending aesthetic delights that combine Dali-like surrealism with Rumi-like compassion for unity.
Blissland will be a place for collaborations in visual arts, music, spoken word, dance and other fruitful, artistic activities. This one-week festival could become an incubator to energize people to carry with them a spirit of love and creativity for the rest of the year. Just as in early Burning Man philosophy, there will be no place for money, advertising or commercial sponsorship. We will demonstrate in action that giving is receiving and loving each other is a bliss. The venue will be the inviting meadows and forests somewhere in Northern California. As Joseph Campbell once said and we agree, "The best way to be fulfilled is to follow our bliss."