Sep 02 2014

A Critical Look at Burning Man

The 2014 Burning Man festival wrapped up yesterday, ending an 8-day annual gathering of 66,000 people in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, including right wing anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, former progressive Congressman Dennis Kucinich, and Clear Channel CEO Bob Pittman. Launched in 1986 in San Francisco, Burning Man now boasts a year-round set of activities with the noble mission of what organizers call “Radical Self-reliance.” Its official mission statement states that Burning Man is “radically inclusive, and its meaning is potentially accessible to anyone.”

In a nutshell, a temporary city is set up on an ancient lake bed in the desert, known as “the Playa.” Gigantic art sculptures dot the landscape, attendees don elaborate costumes, or, in many cases nothing at all, and there are parties. Lots of parties. Once the festival is over, the encampment is dismantled, leaving behind nothing.

It sounds idyllic. And for many it is. But, and you know this was coming – there is a dark underbelly. A young woman from Wyoming died last Thursday at the festival after falling under a large vehicle. There have been reports of sexual assault – in particular a 19 year old woman in 2012 who was drugged, strangled, and raped, and faced an organization ill-equipped to handle the situation.

People of color have documented among the white-dominated attendees, a widespread sense of cultural appropriation of music and dress. Police presence is widespread, further alienating people of color. Also present is the same sort of pressure for women to disrobe that is usually evident at Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and that replicates the pornified culture of our mainstream society.

Attending the festival is very expensive, not just in travel and food costs, but entrance fees. And, most recently, the New York Times reported, that at a gathering that embraces counter culture, so-called “Tech elites” from Silicon Valley are over-represented, spending as much of their wealth in the 8 days as possible.

GUEST: Samhita Mukhopadhyay, writer, and a Senior Strategist at Purpose and the former Executive Editor of

Click here to read Mukhopadhyay’s article on Burning Man.

Explore this year’s Burning Man theme at

18 responses so far

18 Responses to “A Critical Look at Burning Man”

  1. Joseph Ludkaon 03 Sep 2014 at 12:40 pm

    This is a disgustingly inaccurate view of the burning man culture. I not saying it is a community without flaw, but this characterization by Sonali and her guest is simply wrong.
    Claims of racism and sexism are unfounded and most likely a result of the guest racially excluding herself by joining a “south Asian camp”. A camp should revolve around what you bring to the festival, not what race you have to be to camp there. I have not seen any other racially based camps and most large tribes are incredibly diverse in race, sex, and class. Further, cultural learning and sexual equality are core values of the festival community.
    My rebuttal is incomplete as there are no less than 4 more inaccuracies in this interview that I take issue with. I ensure that a more comprehensive view of the burner community would reveal just how mischaracterized it is in this conversation. The guest went in 2008, joins a racially exclusive group that most likely didn’t involve itself in the festival, denounces nudity as hedonism, views and was jealous of people in RV’s?? Her view is outdated and lacks understanding of the culture she is attacking.

    Joe-Matt Ludka
    Council Leader, theCLOUD

  2. Joseph Ludkaon 03 Sep 2014 at 2:23 pm

    If you’re going to attack a culture, you should allow a member of the culture a voice to defend itself. Hundreds of thousands of burners should not be stereotyped by an individual that had a poor experience with the culture 6 years ago.
    Joe-Matt Ludka
    Council Leader, theCLOUD

  3. Brianon 04 Sep 2014 at 9:02 pm

    Well, I guess some people like to think they know what they are talking about when they don’t.

    This categorization is simply intolerant, a generality, prejudice, uninformed, bigoted and arrogant.

    I am amazed at how sometimes the words of the uninformed can find a voice in media.

    I am coming back from Burning Man right now.

    Our camp, Elvis Wedding Chapel married 60 couples: gay, straight and everything in between.

    The amount of love and laughter, the temple sunrises, would change this journalist’s mind from scholarly arrogant self complacency to a changed outlook on her life.

    I invite you to really know what you are talking about.

  4. Brianon 07 Sep 2014 at 10:40 am

    Another thought:

    I have been reading press and media re Burning Man.

    I have concluded that journalists are limited by a few things.

    1) the need to “sound” like they know because it is their job.

    2) they write about what they don’t really know about by filtering words through their socio-political biases and belief systems.

    3) by being condescending and judgemental they attempt to position themselves as superior to the subject they are reporting on: even if they are unfamiliar with the subject they are talking about.

    If you travel on a vacation to, let’s say New York City, in the summer, and then have a bad experience in traffic, and then come home and say I hate New York – that is a truly ignorant and limited view of the overall experience of the city.

    With 66,000 thousand people there and pick on nudity or judge the body pigmentation of the majority of its inhabitants or an unfortunate death is simply the propaganda of ignorance.

    I have gone 5 years in a row and still have not experienced all that can be.

    To read folks who have not been there, or have only gone once and not with great friends and loved ones, or who have not participated in a theme camp and work your ass off, create an environment for others to enjoy, to fall in love with a stranger out in the deep desert (for me it was not sexual it was like meeting a 6 year old friend), to meditate at the temple at sunrise, to hold a grieving person at the temple because they lost their dog, mother, father, sister, brother etc, to feel the vast open space with mountains all around, to smile at strangers all day long, to forget that you have a cell phone or wallet, to see strangers as family, to be completely blind to race, class, gender (bodies are no measuring stick for the true character of human beings),

    The glass is not half empty at Burning Man, it is 90% full.

    Do not trust the self complacent-need to make up a good story-media.

    To understand the true nature of anything-the good the bad the ugly the beautiful; we must experience it directly.

    Not through media pundits, no matter how independent and cutting edge they advertise themselves to be.

    I went to Woodstock, it was a slum compared to this experience.

    Burning Man is the 4th largest city in the state of Nevada for 1 week.

    Think about that for a moment. It is more like a Buddhist sand mandela or a human petri dish where, as a 61 year old man, I have never felt so safe.

    I am a better recylcer, I am a better person, I am a better user of our natural resources, I am more confident, I give of myself more easily, I am a better artist.

    To concentrate of the negatives, through ignorance, is a disservice to all the countless wonders that occur to 66,000 human beings that build a friggin city with hospital, police dept, fire dept, DMV in the middle of a desert – and then work to leave no trace.

    City officials have met with the Burning Man organizers to find out how they do it.

    Something is happening there. And you will never know what it is until you youself experience it.

    Until then, it’s just journalists trying to make a living by pounding out words on a keyboard and, through rhetorical skills, convince you that they know what they are talking about.

    Please go, with friends who you love. Go work hard and create something beautiful. Watch the happiness you bring to strangers and then write your experience.

    Then you will know what you are talking about.


  5. Joseph Ludkaon 08 Sep 2014 at 11:39 pm

    Brian, thank you for sharing your experience and providing a rational and more realistic view of the festival and community. Your wedding chapel is exemplary of what Burning Man is about and a prime example of why this progressive program should not fling attacks at it’s own.
    I was taken aback by this brutal and dishonest portrayal by the normally excellent Sonali and team. I have supported KPFK/KPFA/KPFB as a proper media outlet for my cloud family to receive information and news from and this incredibly ignorant piece will prevent this station’s journalists from being taken seriously.

    My mission is to change Uprising’s view on the burner/festival community and urge an edit/apology for this hurtful segment. Following is a list of points of contention including my responses.

    1. Descriptive coverage of the woman raped and killed in 2012. Woman crushed this year.
    – There are over 60,000 people living without customary rule and creating a peaceful, safe community from dust and the journalist decides to detail a single brutal rape and murder as it’s evident of the festival. Black rock city has an extremely low crime rate, and a low accidental death rate considering the situation. Falling asleep in a road without lights is a recipe for death regardless of the location. BURNING MAN IS A SAFE EVENT WITH A SAFE COMMUNITY. WE ARE NOT LAWLESS SEX OFFENDERS AND MURDERERS.

    2. Sonali: “Also present is the same sort of pressure for women to disrobe that is usually experienced at Mardi Gras.”
    – This is incredibly inaccurate slut shaming and is entirely false! This is one of the biggest misdeeds to the community and has caused particular offence with the neo-feminist movement. Nudity is never encouraged, only embraced. I have never heard of pressure for “skinny white women”, as Sonali racistly suggests, to disrobe at burning man. All shapes, shades, sizes, and sexes are welcome to wear whatever they want including nothing. True sexual equality is present at burning man, unlike anywhere else on Earth! Sonali and her team is out of touch with an entire feminist and equality movement. Look to Femen and “Free the Nipple” for other examples of body liberation as a means to equality. SONALI IS ENTIRELY INCORRECT TO SUGGEST WOMEN ARE PRESSURED TO DISROBE, SHE IS SLUT SHAMING FEMINISTS AND CLAIMS THE ORIENTATION EQUALITY MOVEMENT TO BE “PORNOGRAPHIC”.

    3. Sonali: “Attending the festival is very expensive ($1-2k as suggested by guest) and thus preventative to lower class and minorities.”
    – This is partially inaccurate. It is common for one to spend up to $2,000 in tickets, travel, and life for Burning Man, however, this is well known to the community and organizers. With “radical inclusion” being a core principle of Burning Man, they have created a way to avoid the financial barrier all together. Those providing art, aid, or knowledge to the festival community can apply for free entry. Those making under “middle class” wages pay a steeply discounted ticket rate after proving their disadvantaged status. Those willing to help produce, maintain, and evaporate the festival can apply for volunteer entry. Most of my family does not pay anywhere near $2,000 to go to the burn. RADICAL INCLUSION IS A CORE PRINCIPLE THAT INCLUDES STEEPLY DISCOUNTED TICKETS TO THE FISCALLY DISADVANTAGED. THERE IS NO CLASS OR ETHNIC BARRIER TO ATTEND BURNING MAN.

    4. Sonali “Elites are over-represented and spend as much of their wealth in the 8 days as possible.”
    – “Elite” is not a valid descriptor at burning man. Elites become human. Nothing more or less than every other human. Their money is worthless and viewed as corrupt bribery if seen. They are looked at with disdain if they do not provide anything to the festival. The secluded rich are viewed as stealing from the community as they receive more than they are willing to give. Even thus, they are treated with entire equality to everyone else, as it is not in our moral power to hand down judgment. ELITES CAN SPEND NO MONEY AT BURNING MAN AND ARE MOSTLY AVOIDED.

    5. Sonali “…deep under-representation of the arab-american community at Burning Man.”
    – Once again, an inaccurate racist attack is flung at the one community that is hell-bent on universal inclusion. I only have the demographic statistics of my own family theCLOUD, but I ensure the community is more inclusive of race than you decree. In theCLOUD, we are just over 50% white, and nearly 15% middle-eastern. We have many Iranians, Indians, Israelis, a Palestinian and even a Syrian who is an aid activist! We share our cultures with each other and create food music and art together. The burner community is incredibly inclusive of middle-eastern culture. Race doesn’t matter, yet cultural expression is welcomed! I’d be pressed to find another community so involved with anthropology and awareness. This piece describes this very community as racially exclusionary and patronizing. The ONLY part of your “racial appropriation” claims that are just are in regards to the native headdresses. This is already something the community itself is working on, including reaching out to native tribes for insight on what is acceptable and what is not. Native elders often speak at burner festivals and representatives of native communities are invited to dedicate the beginning of many festivals. THE DIVERSE BURNING MAN COMMUNITY IS INCLUSIVE OF ALL CULTURES AND ENCOURAGES IN DEPTH UNDERSTANDINGS OF ALL WALKS OF LIFE.

    6. Guest: “I doubt sustainability has even been one of their biggest values. The festival is more about hedonism.”
    -I almost can’t type a response to this. I spent no less than 100 hours of volunteered time last year to fund raise and appropriate a bio-diesel generator to run our camp. Many camps run on bio-diesel and solar and ALL are encouraged to utilize a stratified green energy solution. No grey water is spilled. We even pack out our own used mouthwash! We do NOT use plastic disposable bottles for water (maybe some people did half a decade ago in 2008 when the guest last attended), we use re-usable cups, plates, cutlery, bottles, structures, art pieces… Nothing is wasted! If we cannot reuse a structure or art installation, it’s components are up-cycled into other projects or recycled. There is not one situation where environmental concerns are not considered. My family has a subgroup called CloudHearts and we clean beaches and events without announcement, inquiry, or recognition. BURNERS ARE GREEN AS A WHOLE AND GO TO GREAT EXPENSE TO REDUCE THE EFFECTS OF HUMANS ON THE ENVIRONMENT. LEAVE NO TRACE, SOLAR-WIND-BIOFUEL, PERMACULTURE, GREEN ENGINEERING, RIDE SHARING, FUTURE SOLUTIONS ARE ALL DISCUSSED AND NURTURED BY THE BURNING MAN COMMUNITY.

    These egregious attacks on my gorgeous culture are DISGUSTING and I feel deeply hurt having them whirred at me from someone I trust and enjoy so deeply. Sonali, please right the wrongs committed in this terrible story and issue a correction and apology.

    Love hurts sometimes,
    Joe-Matt Ludka
    Council Leader, TheCLOUD
    KPFK Development Volunteer

  6. Brianon 15 Sep 2014 at 11:55 am

    I wish that this thread would illicit response from Sonali. Is it that they don’t read their blog responses?
    Reporting the truth requires some involvement.

  7. Brianon 15 Sep 2014 at 12:29 pm

    Is it possible that KPFK has become the elite media? What is this world coming to?

  8. Brianon 17 Sep 2014 at 7:43 am

    Nada Joseph, no response from KPFK. Sonali…….. Are you there?

    OMG, what is this world coming to!! Grover Nirquist, a Washington conservative gets it……… and KPFK does not.

    I must rethink some things.

  9. Joseph Ludkaon 17 Sep 2014 at 10:04 am

    Utterly discouraging that there is no response or even
    acknowledgment from the Uprising team. Did I waste my time spent re-listening, creating my position, and gaining direct contact with Bipasha, GM Zuberi and Programming Director Alan Minsky? It is truly sad that Grober Norquist is willing to investigate our culture first-hand while Sonali prefers to ignore the community even as it reaches out to her.
    The damage has been done. The timing of this piece, it’s questionable or incorrect conclusions, and subsequent lack of response to fact checking combine to demonstrate uprising is deeply disconnected from it’s listeners and has no intention of regaining trust.

    Joe-Matt Ludka
    Council Leader, theCLOUD
    KPFK development volunteer

  10. Brianon 20 Sep 2014 at 9:34 am

    Joseph, I am telling all my friends about this. I am spreading the word around regarding this lack of integrity and journalistic lack of responsibility. Maybe we can get our friends who contribute to KPFK to stop supporting it.
    I am forwarding this blog.

  11. Joseph Ludkaon 23 Sep 2014 at 2:24 pm

    I’ve decided to do the opposite. I am actively suppressing this article in my organization. Pacifica and especially Uprising have provided me a wealth of knowledge and insight incomparable to all other forms of media. Though this piece has unfounded bias and was often outright wrong, I know Sonali, the Uprising team, and Pacifica radio are normally committed to understanding of subjects and a completeness in their reporting. I will not let this terrible moment tarnish an otherwise spectacular media organization. I wish we could have repaired the tarnish, but it seems Uprising is too busy to learn from or open discourse with their supporters. I recommend continuing your listenership and support of this shining beacon of truth and allowing this misdeed to become insignificant compared to the amount of good information provided. I used to have unbridled trust in Uprising’s reporting, but this segment was a reality check to take the “facts” from this program with a grain of salt… and this particular story with a grain of cyanide.

    Respect, understanding, and love, Brian. I wish you the best and hope to cross paths in the future.

    Joseph Ludka
    Council Leader, TheCLOUD
    KPFK Development Volunteer

  12. Joseph Ludkaon 02 Oct 2014 at 2:14 pm

    MOOP is Matter Out Of Place and is the number one environmental concern at Burning Man. The Bureau of Land Management has given the best rating ever on burning man’s clean up efforts. Note that DA (Burning Man’s Playa Restoration Manager) is a person of color.

  13. Josh Hayeson 07 Oct 2014 at 10:49 am

    So many weird omissions and a lack of good overall research here. I went to BM for my 5th time this year so I’m somewhat new to the experience, and Burning Man has it’s share of issues like any org does. Also I’m a white male, so my perspective is from that. However I’m also from a poor area that is very violent originally (the first 20 years of my life) so I have some of the same triggers associated with police for example. Anyway, I digress, just wanted to state my potential bias’.

    First with all the talk of money, there was no mention of the Low Income ticket program at all (which is how I’m able to go to Burning Man). Each year the low income ticket allotment gets bigger and I’m always thankful for that because I couldn’t afford to go otherwise so the financial side is really that much of a barrier to me. And when you don’t have money, you simply don’t but and bring a bunch of expensive stuff. I always bring enough food and drink for myself and others, but there’s free food and alcohol everywhere. So costs don’t have to be that high.

    For police presence. How are the Black Rock City Rangers not mentioned here? Cmon. A whole organization of people who volunteer their time to be a barrier between actual police (which are RARE to see and I’m nervous around cops), who go out of their way to keep folks happy and safe feeling and keeping some law and order but with the stated goal of NOT being the police. In fact if you apply to be a Ranger, it’s a red flag if you’ve ever been in Law Enforcement at all. I always say the Rangers kind of blow my mind, because they’re the actual idea of what police are supposed to be like. That stereotypical idea that never seems to exist in real life.

    The sexual assault issue is a serious problem at BM I’ve heard so really glad that was highlighted. The Erotic Discourse camp and Safe Spaces and such are really trying to educate folks there and it’s good to get the message out.

    -There’s 10 principles btw. It wouldn’t hurt to mention the ones that often make the experience so amazingly powerful for folks like GIFTING and COMMUNAL EFFORT.

    -You touch briefly on Radical Self Expression. Personally I’m heavily tattooed so my “costumes” are my skin, but my camp this year was 9 women and 3 men (including me), which was a mixture of queer and straight and everything in between. For the buildup to Burning Man the majority of our ladies (who are mostly social workers) were super excited about costuming and dressing up some scantily clad or nude or whatever. While it’s totally not my thing, seeing how excited they get to create costumes, and a lot of which have risque components that in the “Default World” they probably couldn’t/wouldn’t wear, makes it feel wrong to just negate that and say “women feel pressured to dress sexually” and then move on. I’m not a women so I have not ideas what the pressures are, but it’s not an all or nothing experience there.

    For the billionaire techie crowd thing, they’re absolutely not a looming presence at all. There actually a bullshit Billionaire’s camp that pretty much represents the exact opposite of almost everything BM stands for with it’s chefs, non-inclusive social policies, etc… but I’ve never even seen the camp. I even went looking for it this year to sneer at it, ha ha and couldn’t find it.

    -No mention of The Temple? Really?

    The Native American headress and outfit, and cultural costuming is a a good point and one I hear brought at Burning Man alot and often discussed heatedly. This year I definitely saw one girl walking around with one and another female call her out on it hard. It does seem incredibly insensitive.

    I could babble on and on but to make it quicker a few more single line points:

    -Black Rock Solar and it’s impact installing solar grids for the local communities (many of which are Indigenous).

    -IMMEDIACY is another principle and in a society where we over value the hell out of commodities, it is so refreshing to see these beautiful pieces of art that you want to preserve be burned to the ground and only those there were there to see or experience it.

    -While White people are WAY more in attendance than any other ethnic group, it has an incredibly international feel still. White doesn’t just mean khaki wearing Silicon Valley people. We were camped next to a wonder camp of French Folks, a Vietnamese Camp, a Queer Liason camp, etc… There were Latvian’s two camps over etc…. I’m not trying to be racially insensitive, just remember White can run a broad spectrum just like our Brown and Black brothers and sisters.

    -no mention of Comfort and Joy or any of the awesome LGBT camps?

    -$50 tickets for locals bear Black Rock City

    -Burning Man art grants go to a wide variety of artists

    -BM’s bike program that gets donated to local school districts and such for children after festival

    There’s a bunch more to be written, and a lot more intelligently that I did, I only had a few mins to write this before I’m stepping away from a computer for the day.

    btw UPRISING RADIO is one of my top 3 favorite radio shows and KPFA is by far my favorite network. Thanks for your generally awesome reporting and your hard work, it is greatly appreciated.

  14. Josh Hayeson 07 Oct 2014 at 10:49 am

    Also, forgot to ask, why no representatives from Burning Man on the episode?

  15. Joseph Ludkaon 13 Oct 2014 at 9:02 am

    I agree Josh. This disparaging discussion could have been informative and balanced if any voice of the burner culture were present to provide first-hand, up to date, and complete information. Insight like yours was greatly needed. Thank you for sharing your perspective with us!
    I’ve sent several emails to uprising and Sonali, asking them to simply read their own website. I truly hope they eventually visit this page and learn about our beautiful culture they so brutally misunderstood.

  16. Bellaon 30 Oct 2014 at 4:34 am

    Wow, so many men on this comments thread. E-yelling at the author. To respond. To recant. To rethink along your lines. Someone felt very uncomfortable in your community and this is your response?

  17. Joseph Ludkaon 30 Oct 2014 at 10:44 am

    is my perspective any less important because of my sex? I have not seen a comment on here that says her experience is invalid, and most criticisms are directed at Sonali’s incomplete coverage and generalization of the community. Did you read the responses, or only the authors’ names?

    The fact you feel Samhita felt “very uncomfortable” demonstrates the lack of clarity in this report. If you listen to the segment again, you will find the guest repeatedly defending her experience and the Burning Man community against the broad-edged accusations from Sonali.

    Uprising highlighted one negative experience from 6 years ago as a representative view of a giant, progressive, diverse community. The most positive thing said about burning man in this 15 minute conversation was that it was “idyllic”. Great. Guess our work towards sustainability, post-capitalism, radical inclusion, gender role dissolution, and celebration of diversity will go unnoticed as our unheard voices are subjugated.


  18. Joseph Ludkaon 30 Oct 2014 at 10:52 am

    This article is damaging. I’m so disappointed I’m how we were portrayed. This is not a proper representation of this community. Please don’t discount our first-hand perspectives on account of blanket sexism. I have utilized a pseudonym to attempt to better converse with you, Bella. Please read the comments above in an objective manner and feel free to critique anything other than the authors’ sex.