Photo Credit: Dipo Doherty
Burning Man 2023 Recap: Animalia, Flooding, and Naked Tiki Bars
Founded in 1986, Burning Man is a nonprofit organization for thousands of “Burners,” a quirky assortment of artists, creative thinkers, and other wealthy outliers. Every year, the organization builds a temporary city in the Black Rock Desert—dubbed Black Rock City—filled with extravagant art installations that align with its 10 Principles and exotic campsite activities. Various organizations set up tents and temporary buildings to house activities including orgies, transdimensional tunnels, sinful lounges, BDSM classes, and naked tiki bars. But what would a city be without other everyday needs? Black Rock City also houses a Supreme Court building, a bike repair shop, cafes, spas, and a train station.
Each year, the organization leaders choose a theme for participating artists to feel inspired, though all art is welcome. This year’s theme was Animalia. Think of Burning Man as an NSFW Met Gala. An estimated 73,000 participants assembled for multiple ceremonies throughout the nine days in Black Rock City. The Temple of Heart, a structure made of wood, stands as a symbol for Burners; they write messages on the walls and later watch the building burn. At the end of the event, attendees gather at the center of their city to watch The Man—a wooden effigy—burn.
What happens in the downtime between those hallmark events remains largely unspoken, for Burning Man is a place where people explore new ideas, people, and cultures. Whether citizens choose to visit the BDSM class or chat with new people at a cafe, Burning Man welcomes all people who are curious, creative, and just want to let loose.
Artists Featured in 2023
The espoused essence of Burning Man is not found in the overtly sexual campsites or the cocktail bars—though these are popular attractions for Burners. Rather, Burning Man claims to display the full spectrum of art. From extravagant installations to small chairs, Black Rock City is the epitome of what happens when eccentric creatives gather in one place. Each year, hundreds of art installations line the desert sand. Here are a few outstanding creations that encapsulated Animalia, the theme for 2023.
Although not every Burner is required to bring a massive pink tiger, Misha Libertee came prepared with #Vagr. Prospective attendees need not worry about being an experienced artist—no creative ability is required. Even following the theme is optional. The “Serendipity Dispenser” is just one example of thematically vague creativity.
First slide: #Vagr, Misha Libertee, 2023. Photo Courtesy of Burning Man; Second Slide: Serendipity Dispenser, Alicia St. Rose, Van Granaroli, and the Serendipsters, 2023. Photo Courtesy of Burning Man.
There were hundreds of art installations at this year’s event. Spread over 1,100 acres Here are seven installations that encapsulated this year’s theme (and some that did not).
“1000 & 1” by Tyler Fuqua Creations
“Andas” by Susanna Weinholt of Tea Time Initiative
“Burden of The Beast” by Walker Babington
“Honoring the Equine Spirit” by Amanda Allison Lila (2023)
“Lincoln Bear” by Mr. and Mrs. Ferguson
“Odyssey” by Clayton Blake Art
“The Peace Signs” Scott Froschauer
The Flooding Fiasco
Purveyors of social media probably know about the absolute chaos that ensued after the Black Rock Desert experienced a severe rain storm, turning the city into a mud pit. The flooding reached such extremity that police officers attempted to evacuate Burners from Black Rock City. However, event organizers halted the mass evacuation out of concerns that rescue vehicles would have gotten stuck in the mud. The only people allowed in or out of the city were emergency vehicles. On September 4, officials lifted the ban.
Unfortunately, the driving restrictions were not the only downside to the flooding. Low temperatures caused potentially dangerous conditions for Burners equipped with paltry sleeping and eating arrangements. The thick mud made it impossible for maintenance to empty the portable toilets. During the driving ban, there was one reported death, though unrelated to the weather conditions.
This year wasn’t the city’s first time dealing with extreme weather. In 2022, Black Rock City experienced severe sandstorms and dangerously high temperatures. Burner veterans knew to prepare themselves with a week’s worth of food and supplies in case of a disaster. The organization leaders handled the situation with daily updates on the status of the driving ban and cell towers.
Ebola Outbreak Rumors
Leave it to social media users to spread misinformation. On September 2, users on X(previously known as Twitter) had Ebola and Burning Man trending together, striking panic among attendees and surrounding communities. Someone tweeted an edited photo of the CDC “confirming” an Ebola outbreak in Black Rock City. However, officials quickly shot down that rumor, saying there was no proof of an epidemic.
Is Burning Man 2023 the New Fyre Festival 2017?
This year’s Burning Man chaos had the Internet recollecting the infamous Fyre Festival 2017 disaster, questioning which event was worse. The dreaded 2017 Fyre Festival ended in catastrophe when attendees arrived in the Bahamas to a scene of disarray. Musical guest no-shows and non-existent infrastructure descended the festival into pure chaos, marking it as an absolute failure.
The Good and the Bad
Burning Man is an event that showcases creativity and the magic of like-minded people. However, this event, which claims a “leave no trace” mentality, leaves plenty of environmental breadcrumbs. The temporary city is estimated to emit about 100,000 tons of CO2 annually. The event’s carbon footprint is contingent upon its sustainability efforts.
Since 2019, after calculating its carbon footprint, Burning Man has reevaluated how to conduct more climate-friendly policies. Considering that Burning Man burns giant art installations, sending tons of CO2 into the atmosphere and producing thousands of tons of waste, these efforts seem more than a bit performative to climate advocates. This sudden shift in the desert’s population and carbon in the air is profoundly harmful to the ecosystem. Burning Man organizers claim to be aware of the damage their event causes to the environment; they aim to become carbon-negative by 2030 by enacting alternative ways to burn the art and reducing excess waste created by the Burners.
Even if Burning Man achieved each facet of its sustainability plan, it would not be enough to neutralize the carbon emitted into the atmosphere. The Street reported that to offset the event’s carbon emissions, Black Rock City organizers would need to plant 1.5 million tree seedlings over the span of r ten years, demonstrating the obvious impossibility that Burning Man’s environmental impact improves.
Showcasing Art—at What Cost?
Burning Man’s pricey tickets (starting at $575) aren’t the only cost Burners pay. While the event is organized by a long-standing establishment, the weather is something even the most punctual planning cannot foresee. The event's exclusivity also severely limits the diversity of selected artists. Burning Man is a whimsical experience for those who can afford the price of admission and who can stomach the climate and safety concerns that come with attending the festival. That being said, if you’re a catastrophizing over-thinker who wants to appreciate good art (for much less money), I suggest visiting your local art museum where sand storms and severe flooding stay far, far away.
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