In the wake of Burning Man's cancellation and the subsequent DGS ticket refund period, I and others found ourselves with some questions about the community fundraising the Org is doing, how the Org is reacting to the need to cancel, and Maid Marian's thoughts on the future of Burning Man.
Marian kindly agreed to an interview to provide some answers, so let's hear what she has to say. However, a note: I originally wrote most of these questions in mid-May, but due to various reasons including wanting to focus on Burning Man's response to George Floyd's murder, Marian wasn't able to get me the full answers back until June 18th. Unfortunately, the next day Facebook (where I want to be able to share this) put me in 'jail' for a week for something anti-Trump I had written, and I left to go camping soon thereafter, thus the delay in publishing this.
Dr. Yes: How has the move to remote work gone? Do you see a future with more staff working from home? If so, do you think that going forward there will be a lot more hires from different parts of the country and world that don’t require San Francisco-level salaries?
Maid Marian: All of the above is on the table. The rising cost of living in the Bay Area has been a factor for a while. We opened an office in Reno last year and 14 year-round employees are currently based there.
Before COVID we had been working on a 3-5 year plan for supporting a more distributed work model. That plan has now been expedited. Part of the distributed work model does allow us to hire outside the Bay Area, and makes it possible for staff to move out of the area if necessary.
The transition to working remotely has gone quite well. We recently conducted a survey with staff and the vast majority report a high level of satisfaction with working from home.
We have long been a global organization, and have engaged employees and contractors based in various places across the country and around the world.
Dr. Yes: Relatedly, has there been any thought given to transitioning HQ to a less expensive city (Reno, etc) to save on future expenses?
Maid Marian: We are actively exploring many different options for saving on rent and operational expenses. These include moving the San Francisco office, downsizing the office, increasing our presence in Reno, and moving to a more distributed workforce.
That said, we have a very significant volunteer base and active community in San Francisco. It’s the original home of the event so there is a huge local community that supports us on many levels. Decades of relationship building and significant financial investments have been made in the area. We can’t just move the office and expect people to follow.
Our landlord in San Francisco has been collaborating with us and has given us a reduced rate on our rent for the remainder of this year.
Dr. Yes: I know there have been staff cuts and, of course, a lot of seasonal workers who aren’t being/won’t be hired this year, and I gather there were salary cuts as well. How many full-time staff had to be let go? About how much did that save?
Maid Marian: We can’t gut the staff and expect to be ready to pull off a cultural gathering the size and scale of Black Rock City as safely and efficiently as we have in the past so we are doing everything possible to keep our incredibly hardworking staff members employed.
That said, we have made some cuts to contractors, seasonal staff, and laid off a very limited number of our year-round, full-time staff. These staffing changes, combined with cuts to operational costs and primarily the elimination of the costs we preliminarily budgeted and expected to incur producing Black Rock City, represent an estimated monthly savings of roughly $2,600,000 (of course it depends on the month since our costs vary greatly depending on the time of year). This is based on estimated and projected numbers. Additional note: This is unaudited financial information as of June 16, 2020 and represents our best estimates. Audited financial information from 2020 will be available in 2021.
Maid Marian: We had an internal debate about what the lowest percentage amount should be. We decided to launch with 10% and to see how it went. We opted to remove that option part way through in the hopes that more people would donate 25%.
Of course, everyone had the option of getting a full refund and then turning around and making a donation separately. So everyone had the freedom and flexibility to donate the exact dollar amount they felt comfortable with. We saw quite a few people take that option - they requested a refund and made a donation separately.
We’re also seeing theme camps collaborating together to run fundraisers to benefit Burning Man Project which we’re tremendously grateful for.
Dr. Yes: What’s the plan to make up the shortfall, which sounds like, based on the April 30 Journal article, comes out to about $10m-<DGS refunds>? Did you get any of the $2.4m in Paycheck Protection Program funds you applied for? (For those unaware, that was/is a US program to offer forgivable loans to organizations with employees so they can keep people employed during these Covid-19 times.)
Maid Marian: The amount of the shortfall changes weekly based on incoming donations, refunds from the government, and our fluctuating (in this case decreasing) monthly operational costs. At this moment, we are aiming to raise $7 million to get us through 2020.
We did receive a PPP loan from the SBA for approximately $2.5 million (not all of that will be entirely forgivable), which is helping to cover the cost of salaries and office rent for the months of May and June.
Dr. Yes: Has there been any meaningful movement from the Bureau of Land Management on a potential refund of the ~$1.9m that’s been paid to them so far this year? If not, do you think it’s likely to happen?
Maid Marian: We’ve received the vast majority of those funds from the BLM, but are now debating some expenses related to the 2020 event they claim to have already incurred.
Dr. Yes: I'm sure it's a huge relief to have gotten most of that back as well as the PPP money.
That April 30th Journal article talked about reaching out to direct donors to garner large donations. Does the source of the money to save Burning Man matter in your eyes, in the sense of how much comes from mega donors vs. a lot of smaller community member donors? Is there worry that taking money from big donors means they expect something in return? Placement for their camp or something? How do you navigate those relationships organizationally?
Maid Marian: We are clear up front that there is no tangible reward for a major donor, except the joy of saving Burning Man. We raised the funds to purchase Fly Ranch and there were no tangible rewards for major donors. It’s about identifying and working with contributors who know and understand our culture, and are interested in gifting in the true sense of the word.
We don’t want donations only coming from high-dollar donors. We think it’s important to demonstrate support from across the community more broadly. To that end, our fundraising plan creates opportunities for everyone to participate in securing the future of Burning Man, at all levels.
We are preparing to launch a crowd-funding campaign with some fun gifts for donors. We are also seeking donations from those who have the capacity to make a larger gift. We believe all sizes of gifts are necessary to our survival.
We are not willing to offer placement or other perks within Black Rock City in exchange for donations. In fact we have a public Statement of Values on Gifting to that effect, which can be found here: https://burningman.org/network/about-us/statement-of-values-on-gifting
Our hope with our fundraising strategies is to 1). Ensure the survival of the organization and our ability to produce Black Rock City and 2). Prevent the need to drastically increase the price of tickets to Black Rock City in the future.
Dr. Yes: Speaking of the community, unless you had DGS tickets this year, which is only a portion of the Burning Man community, all that’s been heard about the fundraising is crickets. There was the one Journal post on the 30th and that’s pretty much it. Why not more outreach to the broad community, vs just theme camp leaders and DGS holders? Burning Man has meant a lot to a lot more people than that group, I think. [Note: recall that I had sent that question in mid-May.]
Maid Marian: We 100% agree. On Friday, May 22 I sent a newsy email with a soft ask to 2017, 2018, and 2019 ticket buyers. We received some donations from this ask, less than $45,000.
I felt strongly that we couldn’t ask for anything until we completed the process for the DGS refunds and donations so that we had a better sense of where we stood financially. This took time, and meanwhile we were doing math and chasing dollars with different agencies and trying to determine how much of the PPP loan was forgivable. It took real time to get good numbers, and we have enough money to get through a few months so we wanted to launch thoughtful campaigns not created in a hurry.
We are in this for the long haul. We’re going to be fundraising for the foreseeable future and are taking steps accordingly. We plan to reach out to the entire community, in many ways. In addition to reaching out to individuals with the capacity to give large donations, we’ll be emailing specific groups, launching a general crowd-funding campaign, working with theme camps, volunteers, the regional network and others to help support our fundraising efforts.
We also fully recognize the unique global moment we’re in, where lives and livelihoods are being lost due to COVID-19, and efforts to raise money for pandemic relief are a top priority. And when the Black Lives Matter movement gained renewed momentum we knew that wasn’t the time to be launching anything for Burning Man.
That said, we still believe the world needs and will need Burning Man more than ever. Art and creativity inspire connection and community, and we want to be able to keep nurturing creative culture, civic engagement, and collaboration.
Dr. Yes: Given that the community is rescuing the Org, has there been any thought given to the idea of making some or all the Board seats elected by the community? I feel as if that’d make the Burning Man Project a truly community-run organization, which feels really solidly within the spirit of Burning Man. I see a potentially really attractive story there: Privately-owned LLC -> Public benefit non-profit -> community-owned public benefit non-profit. Is that a route you could ever see the Org consider?
Maid Marian: That’s not been the intention in building the nonprofit. We feel the current vision for running the organization is driven by Burning Man’s cultural founders and a diverse and highly capable board.
It’s unlikely in my lifetime we would ever have board members elected by the community. The Board exists to support the entity. The mission for the entity is to extend the culture which means stimulating the community and various corners of the community.
If you consider the fact that all of the board members are community members, all have engaged in camps or art or volunteerism the board is made of community members. You can’t be a board member without being active in the community.
Dr. Yes: One sentiment I hear a lot is that people want to donate to save Burning Man, the event, and resent that some of their donations will go to support the Project’s other activities. Two questions here: Can you tell us about what % of the Org’s revenue goes for things that don’t directly contribute to putting on Burning Man? People would be interested to hear that broken down to the high-level functions (Burning Man, regional support, Fly Ranch, BWB, philosophical center, whatever else).
Maid Marian: A lot of this information is available in public documents including our 990s and Annual Reports. Our most recent one for 2019 is available here, and in the financials section you can see that more than 80% of Burning Man Project’s costs are spent on Black Rock City. On that same page you can find the breakdown of costs for other program areas. On page 3 of the 2018 990 you can see that a little over $1.25 million went toward “civic engagement” in 2018, which includes the Regional Network and Burners Without Borders. On this page you can see a detailed breakdown of BRC-related expenses: https://burningman.org/expenses/. All of this info is for the most recent year that we have audited financial info available, which is 2018.
The financials give some helpful information but it’s also important to understand that our work is very intertwined across program areas. We are all working on Black Rock City while simultaneously supporting the global culture in the world.
We can’t really do one without the other. It would be irresponsible (in terms of the impact of Burning Man on the wider world) not to nurture and support the people who are taking the culture out into their communities to make Burning Man happen. The culture is more than Black Rock City. Those who “resent the other activities” are welcome to reflect on whether they think they want to participate in Black Rock City since the other programs are deeply wrapped around the events and vice versa. It’s unfortunate more people don’t see beyond the celebratory event and recognize the power of change from Burning Man can be manifested outside of the event. We’re just supporting the existing do-ocracy. It would happen without us, and does. And ultimately, the amount of money spent on initiatives beyond Black Rock City is minimal.
To address more directly why we don’t ‘just focus on Black Rock City’ as many in the community have suggested, here are some additional things to consider:
We are considering a subscription option that would look like a membership for BWB and Fly. There is discussion about the same thing for general support of the organization. It’s not out of the question we would make it possible for people to choose where they want their funds to go. But it’s not currently in the design of the fundraising we need right now. The need is way too urgent and immediate for the future of BRC to start new administrative processes that could potentially stymie the entire system without careful thought.
Dr. Yes: There are people wondering why the Org cited protecting the structure of its ticket distribution as a reason to deny the FOIA request to the BLM since the ticket distribution is public. Can you shed some light on why there’s a need to protect that info, even though it’s made public on your site? It looks pretty odd from the outside, and brings up questions from people about how tickets are actually distributed.
Maid Marian: The Bureau of Land Management routinely steps beyond its authority in the administration of the Burning Man Special Recreation Permit, as illustrated by its intent to provide confidential FOIA-exempt information about the Burning Man organization and Black Rock City operations to a member of the public. While our general ticket distribution structure is indeed public on our website, the financial details of our business, beyond what is required by the IRS for our nonprofit (with which we comply every year), are not. BLM can not decide to supersede FOIA and IRS requirements, and that is why we took a stand. We believe that the court will agree with us.
This most recent FOIA incident is fundamentally about oversight of BLM’s processes and is yet another example of the agency’s unwillingness to work cooperatively with Burning Man or other Nevada permittees on federally managed lands. As a federal agency, BLM is obligated to work for the public good, but our recent experience with them is that they are less and less inclined to take the time needed to consult appropriately with us or to ensure their decisions are fair. We have to defend ourselves at every turn.
Dr. Yes: I’m not going to ask you to speculate on the chances that Covid-19 prevents Burning Man 2021 from happening as nobody can really predict that right now, but how big of a threat is the apparently deteriorating relationship with the BLM to holding BM 2021?
Maid Marian: New impositions and unnecessary cost requirements from BLM are making the future viability of producing Black Rock City on BLM public lands extremely challenging.
In 2014 BMP was required to pay BLM $3.5 million in costs - 300% more than in 2011, even though Black Rock City's population grew by only 39% during that period. We were also required to pay a million dollars in recreation fees. To this day, BLM overcharges BMP and continues to increase costs each year. We paid BLM nearly $5 million to permit our event in 2019. Then BLM increased their costs by another $500k approximately for 2020 (if we were going to hold the event).
We have shared with senior agency officials that we can no longer agree with nor are we willing to be subjected to outrageous and unjustified demands in order to secure the necessary permit.
In cooperation with BLM and state & local agencies, we have responsibly held the Burning Man event in the Black Rock Desert for nearly 30 years. We take our responsibility as stewards of public lands seriously and have passed every post-event environmental inspection, under standards that we believe are the strictest in the country.
We are coming out of a multi-year Environmental Impact Statement process that exposed recurring and new concerns, including BLM’s attempt to impose unreasonable and wholly unjustified mitigations like dumpsters, private security, and concrete barriers in BRC.
All of that said, our hope is that this year will provide a reset opportunity with our relationship with the BLM. We are already seeing some evidence of that happening.
We are also looking at developing new, creative, culturally-aligned sources of revenue that would also create substantial community benefit.
Dr. Yes: Relatedly, if the relationship with the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) frays to the point that it’s not feasible to hold the event on public lands, is there any plan B that’s workable? For the sake of argument, let’s say workable without significantly shrinking the event.
Maid Marian: In the past we’ve researched quite a few alternative sites. There are options in a few different places with different variables and different compromises. We always have backup plans. Our hope, however, is that this year without Black Rock City will create the space and time for a ‘reset’ in our relationship with the BLM and that we’ll be able to return to our home in the Black Rock Desert in 2021.
We are the largest user of public land in this format so the difficulties are expected, but the failure to work with us in a respectful way and the petty bureaucratic maneuvers at the local level have been incredibly frustrating.
Overall we’ve always had to negotiate with the BLM. The more complex we became, the more complex the negotiations and challenges. We’ve suffered from a lack of leadership at the BLM at the state level, but that’s been rectified and we’re working well with the new state director.
Dr. Yes: Can you confirm that a DPW member committed suicide after not being hired on for the season? Is there anything the Org can/is doing to help folks who are imperiled like that due to being laid off or not hired as expected? Is there anything the community can do?
Maid Marian: DPW did lose a crew member to suicide recently. They were eligible for rehire but that process hadn't started yet. We have no reason to believe the suicide was related, but it is no less heartbreaking to lose a member of our community.
We have offered support services like counseling and listening circles, and are investing in additional tools and resources for supporting the needs of our people and keeping the community connected, especially the core staff who build Black Rock City each year. We’ve held two all-staff meetings for this group, and I’ve reached out to them personally via email. The people who make BRC possible are truly one big family, and we are pulling together to help everyone through this difficult time.
There are a few support sites that the community has stepped forward to create too. Leveler is a peer to peer wealth distribution tool. The aim is to provide a platform for those who are being financially impacted by the current economic crisis to reach out for help, and for those who can help to be able to connect with them. The Leveler team had made one for the Burning Man community here.
Also BRC Aid is a mutual aid project for the staff and volunteers of Black Rock City. It’s a system where people can contribute their skills and services, and ask for help. Hundreds have already contributed.
Dr. Yes: Burning Man is a pretty overwhelmingly white event, and while I think everyone understands that’s not by plan, it is what it is. Larry Harvey famously said that there aren’t more black people at Burning Man because black people don’t like camping. Do you think that explains the relative lack of POC representation at Burning Man? Do you think it’s important to increase POC representation at Burning Man, and if so, how do you think the Org and the community would go about encouraging that?”
Maid Marian: We are working to embrace and recognize the importance of this moment as an organization and as a culture. As our recent statement on racial justice and Radical Inclusion notes, we are leaning in, listening, and learning from members of the community, including Black leaders who are part of the Black Rock City community. We hope to constructively move this conversation forward, a conversation that naturally includes the topic of representation of people of color in Black Rock City. It’s a conversation we’ve had for years actually - here’s a 2016 piece written by Census volunteer Uncle Vern that talks about representation in BRC and some of the related challenges.
A more diverse event and culture is something we hope for. How Burning Man Project contributes directly to achieving that goal is to be determined, but we’re here for the conversation and we want to learn how best to approach it. In the meantime, we’re looking for new ways to engage, and we’re going to keep moving forward with things we’ve already started, including:
Dr. Yes: Let's wrap up with some personal questions! What does Burning Man (the event) mean to you, today?
Maid Marian: It’s an annual ritual; it’s something I've helped facilitate. I’ve made new friends and it’s changed my life. I feel very fortunate to have been able to contribute to something so magical.
Dr. Yes: So where do you find your magic on the playa/in BRC after so many years?
Maid Marian: The magic for me is in helping bring our camp together. We had 250 people from 30 countries in 2018. Some are staff and family, some are board members, some are people we meet when traveling, which includes, artists, event producers, politicians, community and business leaders, and all kinds of people. It’s very rewarding to bring people together. I’m doing the closest thing to running a theme camp which makes me happy. I’m pretty sure that if I wasn’t doing what I’m doing I’d be part of a super fun theme camp that came back year after year.
Dr. Yes: What’s the biggest mistake you think you’ve made as CEO of Burning Man, or perhaps as de facto CEO before you had the title? Conversely, what are you proudest of having done in that role?
Maid Marian: Matt, the trouble with these two questions is that they focus on me and what I am proud of or not proud of. I am pleased with the way I work hard to contribute and look for the best in everyone and strive to help make the world a better place with Burning Man. But I can’t say there is any one thing I am most proud of or that there is a single biggest mistake as CEO. There isn’t anything that isn’t done in the company of others. The work is collaborative in nature. I am CEO because I was asked to take the role and I am suited for the demands and have the skill set. I see decisions as opportunities to move forward and in some cases we have to make a new decision. I’m more a “pound in t-stakes for the fence” sort of person. So there isn’t anything I can remark about that I feel singularly proud of as CEO except to say that we should all be proud of the event having such a long life with more to live. It isn’t by accident that we have prevailed when others think we should stop. It is by sheer force of will by many that we are still making Black Rock City happen!
Dr. Yes: If you had three wishes to use to change future Burning Mans in any way you want, what would you use them on?
Thanks so much for the answers, Marian!
Want to help Burning Man with a donation? Here's your chance!
Note: Marian Goodell, the Org's CEO, confirmed for me that my conclusions are essentially correct, and called out this article as worth reading during her address to open the Virtual Theme Camp Symposium the morning of 3/28). She's also replied to a bunch of people in the comments below.
I see a lot of Burners online asking why the Org doesn't simply cancel BM 2020 and roll DGS tickets over to 2021? Cancel the event, and come back in 2021 in full force while making everybody whole who bought tickets this year. Sounds simple and good right?
The general feeling seems to be that they must be greedy a-holes to not promise refunds or rolled-forward tickets if they cancel it, but it really isn't that simple, which is what this post is about. The Org faces a very tough financial situation, which I'm going to lay out for you as best as I can. I think it's helpful to understand where they're coming from as you form an opinion about how they should handle it Burning Man 2020.
Dr. Yes's 11-Point Sacred Spiritual Path to Your Soul's Enlightenment at Burning Man, and Everything Bagel Recipe
A couple years ago around this time, I remember reading an article by Caveat Magister about his reflections on 10 years at Burning Man and thinking to myself, "I know nothing yet, but in two years, I will have so much to share."
Having been to Burning Man ten times now myself, we can all agree that I've achieved transcendental enlightenment and it's time for you to sit down, be quiet, and try to appreciate everything I've learned.
Each principle is represented by a different body part, and is meant to be read left to right, with the b&w left-hand portion representing the default world and the colorful right side showing an ideal world as transformed by that principle. I think they're pretty gorgeous.
They're packed with references to Burning Man art from the past, and you can have fun finding Larry's hat in each one. Enjoy!
As regular readers of this blog know, I'm a big proponent for keeping the weird, quirky, and subversive in Burning Man. Last year, a group of us in my camp started Weirdout Wednesday as a day for people to let their freak flags fly and escape the bonds of Instagram coolness. Granted, it's hard to be truly weird at Burning Man, but think of it as a call to embrace your quirky side rather than DJ chase or pose for Instagram shots on big art or whatnot!
So, here's how some of us from our camp - Friendgasm - celebrated Weirdout Wednesday this year. My hope is that others feel inspired by these kinds of antics and are moved to shenanigans themselves!
Do you ever look around while at Burning Man and wonder why so many people are so intent on being ‘cool?’ I mean, sure, everybody likes looking good sometimes, but this isn’t Coachella. Burning Man is meant to be weird! It’s meant to be a place where we can embrace the eccentric and let our freak flags fly instead of trying to climb some sort of social validation ladder that plays out on Instagram.
In aid of fighting against this, last year, a subset of us from my camp – Friendgasm – implemented an idea a campmate had. More of a dream of his, really. (Thanks Ginger!) We’d put on adult diapers, some of those hats that hold a couple of cans of beer/soda, and we’d go rock out at day dance camps and elsewhere while trying to photobomb suspiciously-clean Instamodels. We dubbed it Weirdout Wednesday and it went hilariously well! Weirdout Wednesday’s origin story is here if you want to read more.
In the aftermath of that, people were talking about WoW on Facebook, and someone made a comment that stuck with me. She said, “Why would anyone wear adult diapers out on the playa? That’s not sexy at all!”
Well no shit, that’s the point! That comment really summed up why I think we, the Burning Man community, need to consciously fight against the vapidity that would result from a culture that has given itself over to the shallow and commercialized, to the worship of beauty over substance and the expected over the novel. Burning Man's culture, to be clear, is by no means at that point yet.... but we’re heading in that direction without some course correction. Let’s do our part!
Now, of course, I encourage you to be weird all the time - no need to save it for Wednesdays. That said, we have to start somewhere. Think of Weirdout Wednesday as Tutu Tuesday meets a diaper-clad chaos monster! What fucked-up scene can you make (hopefully with a proverbial wink, rather than maliciously)? How can you break or subvert peoples’ expectations? How weird can you get, which, let’s be fair, is something of a challenge at Burning Man insofar as weirdness is a relative property?
And if you want to come join us for some quasi-organized shenanigans, I invite you to meet us at Duckpond (9 & H) at 4 pm on Wednesday. We’re going to be there, and because it’s not weird enough to just repeat the same thing, this year we’re adding a new element alongside the adult diapers. We’re all going to have irritating instruments with us – kazoos, vuvuzelas, mini-tambourines, the world’s most obnoxious cowbell, etc – and we’ll form the Symphony of Cacophony, so-named as a tribute to the Cacophony Society that helped birth Burning Man.
We’ll party there for awhile and then we’ll move on to other nearby camps to generally make a weird (and joyous!) spectacle of ourselves.
We’ll have dozens of extra adult diapers and a bunch of small instruments, but you are absolutely encouraged to bring any instrument you want as if a lot of people show, we'll run out.
Hope to see you there! Feel free to introduce yourself to me. I'll either be holding the WoW flag or whoever is will know who I am. Let's get weird together!
When: Wednesday, 4 pm.
Where: Duck Pond – 9 & H.
How to find us: Look for the Weirdout Wednesday flag or just a bunch of idiots in adult diapers.
Join the Weirdout Wednesday Facebook group to stay in touch with other weirdos!
A few years ago I re-wrote the lyrics to the song, "My Favorite Things" from the movie The Sound of Music, to be about Burning Man and was inspired to do it again, this time using the music from Billy Joel's, "We Didn't Start The Fire." I had a guy named Jordan Fox sing the lyrics for me, as I sound like hyena in the depths of a coke hangover while attempting to belt out a tune.
The song's verses selectively trace Burning Man's history, in rough chronological order. There's a bit of skipping back and forth (like from '99 to '98 and back) within a verse, but in general, they're roughly in order, with imagery/footage in the video that almost always matches the song reference. In a a couple of cases, however, the footage I used is out of chronological order so doesn't match up with the time period in the song, such as the line "Man burn, Temple burn" where I used a Man and Temple from later years because the video looked better.
"We Started The Fire"
Lyrics, editing & production by Dr. Yes.
Vocals by Jordan Fox.
Music by Billy Joel.
A line-by-line explanation of the lyrics follows afterwards!
Baker Beach, Zone Trip 4, Cacophony, pissed off law
Black Rock Desert, Larry Harvey, Jerry James and TAZ.
Kevin Evans, Burn the Man, Danger Ranger’s Peter Pan
Crimson Rose, Marian, Seventy-Eight Olds.
Electronic music’s here, Turbo Ted’s spinning near,
Java Cow, Christmas Camp, Burning Man goes glamp.
Will Roger, Center Camp, Harley DuBois, Lit lamps
Shooting range, trash fence downrange, everything is now changed!
We started all the fires!
We weren’t always burning
but now we're returning
We did start the fire!
Yeah we tried to light it
And we never fight it.
Michael Furey, Papa Satan, Inferno and Hellco,
Techno Ghetto, regulation, John Law leaves the nation
Fly ranch, Hualapai, Rod Garrett, Sheriff’s eye
New Earth Guardians, LNT is hard.
Sergey, Larry Page, drama on the back stage,
X-Force, DMV, First Regional will now be
Piss clear, Best is here, Wheel of Time, Temple Mind
Banksy’s art, Jiffy Lube, camels on the playa!
We started all the fires!
We're forever burning
and the Conclave's whirling
We did start the fire!
Yeah we tried to light it
And we never fight it.
Theme camps proliferate, Contessa sails straight
Principles, Thunderdome, weather makes it hard to roam
Angels of Apocalypse, Passage and Colossus
Belgian waffle, first moop map, children of the dust clap
Addis’s Early Burn, Man Burn, Temple Burn
TV Free Burning Man, Big Rig’s no minivan.
Bliss Dance, Temple Flux, Dr. Yes’s epochs
South Park, Mantfarm, we don’t need no fire alarms!
We started all the fires
Now the world's learning
that we're out there Burning
We did start the fire!
Yeah we tried to light it
And we never fight it.
Tickets sellout, Rites of Passage, Temple of Transition
Trojan Horse, Pier bestows, Oh the places you’ll go
Bank of Un-America, playa dubstep mania,
Space saucer, Cargo Cult, DPW catapult!
Truth is Beauty, Church Trap, plug n’ plays are bullcrap
Embrace hey, rain to play, what else do I have say?
We started all the fires
Now it's concerning
and the community's churning
We did start the fire!
Yeah we tried to light it
And we never fight it.
Bug invasion, brutal cold, masturbating nun – bold,
Promise Temple, Revolution, Sextant does electrocution
White Ocean vandalized, Da Vinci’s work prized,
Space Whale, Light House nailed, Catacombs are unveiled
Fly Ranch purchase, hot as hell, leftover bikes bombshell
Tenere, Hatted man, Aaron’s cut lifespan.
Robots I saw bringing awe, Nixon’s under martial law
Larry passes, Hexatron, diaper squad, the plane's not gone!
We started all the fires
We weren’t always burning
Now the BLM’s turning
We did start the fire!
And when we are gone
It’ll still burn on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on
We started all the fires
Turns out we were yearning
Now we're always burning
We did start the fire!
Yeah we tried to light it
And we never fight it.
We started all the fires
We're all still learning
we're forever burning
We did start the fire!
Yeah we tried to light it
And we never fight it.
While many of the references in We Started The Fire are obvious, others are perhaps less so, especially for those new or newer to Burning Man. Here's your reference guide! You can always learn more about Burning Man's history here.
Baker Beach - The beach in San Francisco where the first burn happened.
Zone Trip 4 - The Cacophony Society's name for the first Burn out in the northern Nevada desert: "Zone Trip 4 - A Bad Day In Black Rock."
Cacophony - The Cacophony Society in San Francisco, whose Kevin Evans and John Law were a big part of Burning Man's founding.
Pissed off law - In '90, the cops kicked the crew off Baker Beach, forcing them to the playa and creating history. Also a side-reference to John Law, a key Cacophonist and one of Burning Man's founder.
Black Rock Desert - The site of Burning Man, in northern Nevada.
Larry Harvey - One of Burning Man's founders (to some who don't know better, "the" founder).
Jerry James - One of Burning Man's founders.
T.AZ. - Temporary Autonomous Zone - the original intention of Burning Man, arguably.
Kevin Evans - one of Burning Man's founders.
Burn the Man - Torch the effigy.
Danger Ranger’s Peter Pan - Michael Mikel, aka Danger Ranger, is a Burning Man founder.
Crimson Rose - She led the first fire Conclave and has been a core part of the Burning Man leadership team since the early 90s.
Marian - Marian Goodell. The CEO and leader of Burning Man, having taken charge of the event in the mid 90s and having shepherded it for 20+ years.
Seventy-Eight Olds - The first art car, owned by Danger Ranger. A '78 Olds that had been damanged during the '89 Earthquake, and had the exact time of the quake on its license plate.
Electronic music's here - In '93, electronic music made its first real appearance on playa.
Terbo Ted's spinning near - Terbo Ted, aka Craig Ellenwood, spun the very first set on the playa, in '93. I did an interview with him here.
Java Cow - In the early 90s, someone dressed up as a kind of freaky cow would go around pouring coffee for people. Java cow!
Christmas Camp - The very first theme camp, in 1993, complete with fake snow and decorated Xmas trees, started the grand tradition of annoying your neighbors with music on loop.
Burning Man goes glamp - Refers to '93 and '94, which was when things started getting elaborate on the camping front. Fancy food, champagne in crystal goblets, people wearing heinous formal jackets, outrageous drag queens dressed to the 9s, etc.
Will Roger - Cultural co-founder of Burning Man.
Center Camp - A large structure in the 'center' of Black Rock City. It started quite humbly, but is anything but now.
Harley DuBois - Along with Marian Goodell arguably rescued the event in the 90s. Effectively a co-founder.
Lit lamps - In '94, lamps in front of the Man were elevated above the playa floor, led by Steve Mobia, leading to the creation of the Lamplighters.
Shooting range - There used to be a shooting range out there. Guns were banned starting in '97, however.
Trash fence downrange - The first trash fence was in '96.
Everything is now changed - Refers to (and is an overstatement of) the changes that happened after '96.
Michael Furey - A burner who died/committed suicide by playing chicken with a van outside of Gerlach in '96. Larry Harvey's reaction to this death initiated a split with John Law that led this to be Law's last year.
Papa Satan - the '96 Burn had a strong theme and story running through it, involving Papa Satan, CEO of the evil Helco, trying to execute a hostile takeover of Burning Man. The Cacophonists put on plays and sublots in a series of pre-Burning Man events in San Francisco relating to this too.
Inferno - The '96 theme.
Helco - The evil company Papa Satan ran. One of the big art pieces that year was the Helco tower, which John Law famously climbed as it was lit, and then rode a zip line to the ground from the top as the fire began to get close to him. One of my favorite ever images of Burning Man.
Techno ghetto - After friction between electronic music fans and everyone else, a "techno ghetto" was organized in '96 about a mile north of the city to keep the large sound camps away from everybody else. Unfortunately, people were injured when a vehicle driving at high speed across the playa - this was the last year that was allowed - ran over their tent out in the techno ghetto.
Regulation - After '96, regulation started to creep in by necessity. No guns and no high-speed driving were big ones.
John Law leaves the nation - '96 was John Law's last year, as he quit over severe disagreements over the direction of the event.
Fly Ranch, Hualapai - Burning Man was held on Fly Ranch and the next door Hualapai playa in '97 in an attempt to escape the hassles of the BLM and law enforcement. The event nearly fell apart that year.
Rod Garrett - The man recruited to create plans and documents for creating Black Rock City in compliance with county regulations. Rod's Road is named after him.
Sheriff's eye - Even though '97 was on private property, the Washoe County sheriff was able to seize all the ticket sales at gate (back then you could just buy tickets at the gate), causing Larry Harvey to offer lifetime tickets to anyone who could chip in $500.
New Earth Guardians - A group formed in '97 by Harley DuBois to teach people about Leave No Trace.
LNT is hard - LNT in '97 was notoriously hard because Fly Ranch and the Hualapai are not barren. There are grasses, etc, and they had some tension with the Fly Ranch landlord.
Sergey, Larry Page - Sergey Brin and Larry Page (the Google founders) started going to Burning Man, famously, in the late 90s.
Drama on the back stage - This refers to the trouble BM was having with the local community in the late '90s. It was quite a contentious relationship.
X-Force - Marvel comics referenced Burning Man in '98 in their X-force #75 comic, with people at the "Exploding Colossal Man Shindig and Hullabaloo", with a sculpture that is unmistakably the Man from Burning Man.
DMV - The first organized DMV out there was in '99.
First Regional will now be - '98 saw the first regional. "Burning Man Texas" had 30 people and a straw man built on site. The picture is of AfrikaBurn, however, which is the largest regional. I couldn't find any pics from the first Burning Man Texas.
Piss Clear - The name of a venerable publication full of info and snark, published on the playa.
Best is here - David Best and Jack Haye built the first Temple, in 2000.
Wheel of Time - The 99' theme.
Temple Mind - The Temple of the Mind was the first Temple.
Banksy’s art - Banksy came to Burning Man in 2001 and left some art behind.
Jiffy Lube - A camp at whose art display resulted in the Org, under pressure from law enforcement, ordering said art display (of two men having anal sex) taken down.
Camels on the playa - There were real camels on the playa in the late 90s. Because people brought them, to be clear.
And the Conclave's whirling - a reference to the Fire Conclave that performs before the Man burns.
Theme camps proliferate - They started breeding like rabbits in the early 00s.
Contessa sails straight - an awesome art car that was a big rigged ship. First appearance was in 2002. Sadly, it has since burned down.
Principles - Larry Harvey wrote down ten principles in 2004 as descriptive of what the community at that time valued, in his opinion.
Thunderdome - They've been coming since the late 90s!
Weather makes it hard to roam - 2004 had terrible weather, with 40 registered art projects not making it because the weather stopped them from setting up. White-out dust storms to rain to very high temps and back again.
Angels of Apocalypse - An art piece in 2005 from Flaming Lotus Girls.
Passage - A large art piece in 2005 of a woman and her child, by Dan DasMann and Karen Cusolito.
Colossus - Another very large art piece from 2005, of hanging boulders that could be spun around a large center spire. By Zachary Coffin.
Belgian waffle - A group of Belgians came out in 2006 and built Uchronia, otherwise known as the Waffle, which was the largest art piece ever built on the playa at that time. There was some controversy later when it turned out that it had some kind of corporate sponsorship.
First moop map - the first Moop Map was in 2006....
Children of the dust clap - ....and we're all excited about it! Who doesn't look forward to the Moop Map every year?
Addis’s Early Burn - Paul Addis burned the Man early in '07 as a (dangerous) prank.
Man Burn, Temple Burn - So much fire.
TV Free Burning Man - There was a tv station broadcasting back to the default world via the internet in '06.
Big Rig’s no minivan - Big Rig Jig was an epic piece of art in '07 involving a pair of semitrucks, by Mike Ross.
Bliss Dance - A 2010 art piece - first in an eventual series of 3 by Marco Cochrane - that was the talk of the playa. A large woman posing gracefully.
Temple Flux - The Temple of Flux was in 2010, which was very different from most Temples, shaped like a series of canyons instead of a building.
Dr. Yes’s epochs - I'm Dr. Yes, and I started going in 2010. I later created a Burning Man history that divides Burning Man into "epochs." https://www.burn.life/history-of-burning-man.html
South Park - Cthulhu destroyed Burning Man in a South Park episode in 2010.
Mantfarm - a large art piece from 2010 that was like a big ant farm, but for people.
We don’t need no fire alarms! - A filler line, frankly.
Now the world's learning, that we're out there Burning - A reference to the increased attention Burning Man was getting in wider culture around 2010, leading to the first ticket sellout the next year.
Tickets sellout - First time tickets sold out was 2011, and it's happened every year since.
Rites of Passage - The 2011 theme.
Temple of Transition - The 2011 temple. Still my favorite of all-time.
Trojan Horse - A giant Trojan horse was built, wheeled out onto the playa, and burned in 2011.
Pier bestows - The Pier was a giant installation that was a long pier across the playa in 2011, and then in 2012 it was back, this time with a half-sunken wrecked sailing ship at the end of it. By Matt Schultz and the Pier Group.
Oh the places you’ll go - One of the most famous videos in Burning Man's history, set to Dr. Suess's book of the same name, released in 2011.
Bank of Un-America - 2012 saw a massive installation called Burn Wall Street out on the playa. One of the five buildings was the Bank of Un-America. Others included Merrill Lynched and Goldman Sucks.
Playa dubstep mania - Dubstep was huge for awhile in the late 00s and early 10s, and then suddenly everyone decided they'd just had enough and it all-but-disappeared. Skrillex wasn't really playing the playa during that time, but as he started out in dubstep and is recognizable, I used him.
Space Saucer - The 2013 Man base was huge, shaped like a space saucer, and burned like an inferno.
Cargo Cult - The 2013 theme.
DPW Catapult - in 2015, the DPW (Department of Public Works) launched a flaming piano from a giant trebuchet.
Truth is Beauty - 2013. The second installation of Marco Cochrane's series of giant metal women on the playa.
Church Trap - An installation I enjoyed in 2013 of a church tilted up on its side and propped up, like a mousetrap. By Rebekah Waites
Plug n’ plays are bullcrap - Fuck plug n' plays like Caravansicle, Humano Tribe, and Lost Hotel.
Embrace hey - Embrace was a large and beautiful art installation in 2014 of two human figures half-buried in the sand, embracing. By Matt Schultz and the Pier Group
Rain to play - it rained hard Monday morning in 2014, causing the gates to close and leaving some people trapped in line for 24 hours.
What else do I have to say? - Filler line!
Now it's concerning, and the community's churning - A reference to the fact that it became harder to keep communities at BM together in the post ticket-sellout period as demand for tickets keeps rising.
Bug invasion - In 2015 bugs invaded the playa pre-gate opening.
Brutal cold - It was really cold in 2015. I remember wearing faux-fur at 4 pm.
Masturbating nun in bold - Inside the huge Totem of Confessions in 2015 was a box with a nun masturbating with a cross in a box. The Burning Man Org made them lock the box, reportedly under pressure from law enforcement.
Promise Temple - The Temple of Promise was built in 2015.
Revolution - The third of Marco Cochrane's series of women on the playa, in 2015.
Sextant does electrocution - Sextant camp started building giant tesla coils in the mid 2010s.
White Ocean vandalized - White Ocean camp was famously vandalized in 2016 by what turned out to be disgruntled contractors. I dove into this story and discovered the truth of the situation was not what the media wanted it to be.
Da Vinci’s work prized - DaVinci's Workshop was the 2016 theme.
Space Whale - The Space Whale was an epic large stained glass whale in 2016, by Matt Schultz and the Pier Group.
Light House nailed - One of my favorite all-time art pieces out there, in 2016. A set of giant, crooked wooden light houses. The project was led by father-son team Max & Jonny Poynton.
Catacombs are unveiled - Also 2016, the Veil of Catacombs, led by Dan Sullivan, was a huge pair of pyramids that never got quite finished, but made for one hell of a fire.
Fly Ranch purchase - In 2016, Burning Man bought Fly Ranch with $6.5 million donated by wealthy Burners.
Hot as hell - 2017 was legendarily hot on the playa.
Leftover bikes bombshell - Thousands of bikes - something like twice as many as usual - were left behind by people in 2017.
Tenere - the Tree of Tenere, by Symmetry Labs, was an incredible art installation of a large tree lit up by 10s of thousands of sequenced LEDs for leaves.
Hatted man - the 2017 burn featured a Man inside a hut, and he looked a like he had a hat on.
Aaron’s cut lifespan - Aaron Mitchell died in 2017 after running into the fire intentionally during the 2017 Man burn. I wrote an article on having empathy for him here.
Robots I saw bringing awe - 2018's theme was I, Robot, which, being a nice and tangible theme, resulted in a lot of robot art on the playa.
Nixon’s under martial law - The BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) set up squads on tribal lands on the way to Burning Man to arbitrarily pull over Burners in Nixon and surrounding communities in 2018. They used nonsense reasons to search their cars, sometimes for hours, and almost all of the charges were later dropped.
Larry passes - Larry Harvey died in 2018.
Hexatron - A huge art piece by Mark Lottor originally built for the Electric Daisy Carnival, that was hundreds of giant LED-lit and sequenced poles, making a kind of LED forest.
Diaper squad - My campmates and I came up with Weirdout Wednesday in 2018 and put on adult diapers to go troll people. Read about it here.
The plane's not gone - The 747 was famously left on the playa for quite awhile after the 2018 burn.
Now the BLM’s turning - The recent proposals from the BLM are shitty and while the Org has had trouble with the BLM before, these new proposed restrictions could wreck Burning Man.
If you're interested in more Burning Man history, check out my year-by-year history of Burning Man. If you enjoyed the video, you might like my other videos.
I couldn't have made this video without the photos and footage of a lot of other people. The only photos and video that I took myself are from 2010 onwards, but by no means is all the media covering 2010+ mine. Thanks to:
Jamen Percy - Some of the drone footage, including the opening shot.
Roy Two Thousand - Some time lapses and burn footage.
Mark Day - Various pieces of footage of burns.
Terry An - Video of the Galaxia burn.
Infinit Studios - Footage of the mostly topless woman with a mustache riding a bike.
SevenClouds - Some drone footage from 2013.
Alex Freeman - Some burn footage.
Guy Jackson - Some burn footage.
Pete LaMoia - Video of 2013 Man burn.
Rick Parker - Video of Veil of Catacombs burn.
Afonso Salcedo - Some drone footage of the Temple of Promise.
Ahmed Elhusseiny - Some burn footage, and footage of fire dancers.
Brad Templeton - Some photos from the late 90s and early 00s.
Stewart Harvey - Some photos from the very early years.
Duncan Rawlinson - Many photos from the 2010s.
Scott Beale - A couple photos from the 00s.
David Gee - A couple photos from the early 00s.
Nick Lynch -Photos from the early years.
The Burning Man Project - A number of photos.
Danger Ranger - Photos from the early years.
Kevin Evans - Several shots of early years.
Carvermom - The photo of Java Cow.
Malderor - Shooting range photo.
Jim Provenzano - A photo of the early Temple.
Thomas K. Pendergast - A couple art shots.
Andrew Miller - DPW Catapult.
Jim Urquhart- Tea ceremony photo.
Dustin Mosher - Photo of the 747.
Probably others I forgot to thank, for which I deeply apologize! Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll be happy to rectify any error I made.
I'm Dr. Yes. I run this site, lead a theme camp called Friendgasm, and make Burning Man videos. Just say yes, folks, and help keep Burning Man weird!