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Out of the Wilderness: The Future of Burning Man Isn't in the Desert. It's Everywhere Else. 

Tuesday, Aug 19 2014
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On the first Tuesday in August, the staff and volunteers of Burning Man's media team come together to prep for the big event. It is 20 days out, close enough that they are already worried about staying hydrated.

They've approved just over 360 media projects from around the world to attend Burning Man this year — significantly fewer than years past. They've decided not to approve CNNs' project this year because CNN ultimately wouldn't agree to their terms.​

The team can be choosy. Burning Man is a perfect media storm: visually stunning, culturally challenging, and full of explosions. There's not a media outlet in the world that can resist. This year Sarah Palin's new TV channel requested 10 complimentary tickets and time to interview Burning Man co-founder Larry Harvey. Palin herself was asking to come in for half a day to be filmed by her crew.

The people sitting around this table and on the phone are the ones who say no. It's kind of a thrill.

The meeting is headed by Burning Man's paid media staff, but as with almost everything Burning Man it's the volunteers who make up the vast majority of the team. They're a diverse group, ranging from a photographer in Ohio to a government official in Chicago to an academic in remote Canada to a network administrator in Singapore.

Hundreds of reporters, media outlets, and documentarians submit their applications to come and shoot video or photographs each year. When the reporters reach Burning Man, volunteers will give them ID badges identifying them as press (for years the badges have read "This entitles you to absolutely nothing"), tag their cameras, and help them find the story they're trying to tell.

But this premise is flawed.

Increasingly, "Burning Man" is not happening at Burning Man. Go to the desert and you miss the story. Not because the event is unpopular — more people come every year, forcing a current population cap of 70,000. Not because it's "jumped the shark," lost the magic, or any of the other "it'll never be cool again" things scenesters have been saying ever since the first person who didn't belong to the San Francisco Cacophony Society showed up with a tent.

Rather, Burning Man culture has left the temporary building: It has crossed the desert and outgrown San Francisco.

If you want know whether Burning Man is a major philosophical movement that will change the world or a boutique system for throwing art parties, you have to look at its frontiers. That's where Burning Man's future will be decided.


Every morning at 9, the members of the Morris Burner Hotel in Reno have a staff meeting. "Staff" is a flexible term, though, meaning whoever is a resident right now, or crashing in the space, or volunteering. Paid guests — when they have them — aren't expected to show up, though they often do, and sometimes end up lending a hand.

"We've had guests just start scraping paint off the outside walls because that was a thing we needed to get done," says James "Jungle Jim" Gibson, who owns the property. "It's pretty amazing the way everybody helps out."

The hotel is Gibson's vision of a year-round Burning Man community. In 2011 he purchased the Morris Hotel, a run-down but still active residential property, with the vision of transforming it into a new kind of home.

Over the next two years Jungle Jim and a group of artists worked to transform the flophouse into a work of art, with each room completely re-created by a different artist. The backyard on the half-acre property was filled up with old statues from Burning Man, tents, and other "playa-esque" elements, turning it, he says, into exactly the kind of space people go to Burning Man to find.

There are "maybe" 14 people living there as permanent residents now — he's not actually sure — who have traded past and present work on the property for space, and they're beginning to rent out the remaining rooms to people who need a hotel in Reno. He has a lot of ideas for how this will work: He envisions a membership drive, with Burners around the world paying a small fee in exchange for supporting the community and getting access to the rooms. He hopes to charge rates on a sliding scale, depending on how involved with Burning Man one is. People who have been once will pay maybe $50 per night. People who have managed a theme camp, maybe $30. Someone who worked on temple crews? Maybe free.

What's he's sure of is that he and his community have created a place where they can live a Burning Man life 365 days a year. They're a "do-ocracy." They follow Burning Man's 10 Principles. "We work really hard to live by those," he says. They routinely offer art events and parties to the larger Reno community, and have thrown events specifically to support the neighborhood homeless.

What hasn't been worked out yet is the financials. Their reservation system just went live Aug. 1, and while they have customers, they still haven't figured out the model to follow — or how to manage ownership. "Right now it's an LLC that I own with my brother, and we're trying to understand if it makes sense to turn it into a nonprofit or a co-op," Gibson says.

But he's confident it will make money. "It has to," he says. "It made a few bucks back when it was just a hotel. We can do this."

Would it work elsewhere?

"It's possible to clone this thing. It really works extremely well," he says. But there's a but. "I had the nest egg to buy it, and it takes a large community of Burners. If we'd taken this building and done what we did with contractors, it wouldn't be nearly as creatively done, let alone as cheaply. When Burners come and build it, that's a really critical part of what it is and why it's successful."

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Benjamin Wachs

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