Covid Changed Everything Keeping it going in a post-Covid world.
The Burning Man event had been held in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada for 29 consecutive years until 2020 when the Covid pandemic rendered it impossible.
The event grew steadily since inception, peaking at just over 70,000. The only significant source of revenue was proceeds from each event, creating a dependency on ticket, vehicle, and vendor concession fees to support a budget of over $50 million.
The longevity of the event each year has always balanced precariously on the status of the permit negotiated from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The dedication to holding the event on the same public ground in the same state fomented contempt within government jurisdictions who leveraged their roles as custodians of public interest to extort more money from event organizers. Their recent slice of the pie was well over $5 million per event. There’s a pending lawsuit challenging whether these fees are just.
The entrenched battle for the annual permit necessitated a core of full-time staffers. In addition, the extreme planning and logistics required to build and deconstruct Black Rock City within the span of a month justified additional staff and support resources. Had Burning Man limited its scope to these functions, they would have had an easier time weathering the pandemic sojourn. There were indulgences within the organization that expanded as the budget grew over the years, including baffling titles on the payroll that seemed unnecessary, most of which were aligned with wages consistent to support lifestyles in San Francisco, one of the most expensive places to live and work in the United States.
Burning Man was forced to cull their staff and take some pay cuts and as a pandemic-stricken “business,” received federal and state funds to sustain a significant portion of their remaining payroll. Generous donations from the Burner community filled essential gaps, and now they’re preparing for the 2021 event.
Understand the context and timeframe of pulling the event together. Much of this is a mystery even to some event veterans.
The flames of the Burning Man draw participants like moths, but most people don’t focus their efforts until the summer months when the deadlines for the difficult journey and the excitement of the looming event trigger stress and adrenaline. That’s not how the world turns for those with deeper roles, their efforts move into full-gear in January.
There are three factions who engage early in the year: 1) Event staff and department volunteers. 2) Independent volunteer projects. 3) Savvy event veterans who prepare for early ticket sales, some clamoring for deeper involvement to better their chances of anchoring a ticket.
The Real Burning Man Drivers
Burning Man is anchored by the burning of a giant effigy and there’d be no reason for the event to last ten days if that’s all it offered. Let’s face it, people go to Burning Man to party in an engaging atmosphere, but tend to gain something else in the course of the journey, something less tangible. The event provides a scaffold consisting of two support groups, the organization and the independent projects.
The organization is comprised of paid staffers that rally and organize an army of volunteers who work on logistics, construction and governance. A major portion of the latter role is the undeniably feudalist structure involving councils appointed by the organization that control the various departments that screen projects and participants for the “privilege” of throwing their bodies, time, minds and money into enriching the event experience for all attendees.
The independent project group involves the vast number of volunteers who donate theme camps, art installations, and mutant vehicles. Due to competition for inclusion in an exclusive event, most of these projects are painfully difficult to render. Just clearing the first hurdle of being deemed worthy by the ruling class is a daunting and monumental task. That process, for all projects, begins in January if their team hopes to be ready for the application and vetting cycle beginning in February. These projects must begin recruiting talent and resources at that time, then initiate the process of planning and building their infrastructure to be ready for the event. They must do this in earnest as if they will be selected, even though many will be rejected.
Short answer: nobody knows for certain.
Two vaccines began distribution in December 2020, but there were only enough doses to treat those with the highest exposure risks. More vaccines are on the way, but widespread inoculation…enough to ensure the level of herd immunity necessary to hold the event as usual may prove elusive to pull off in time.
The Burning Man Organization is proceeding as if the event will be held. This means all the usual timelines are about to be announced. They will sell tickets, people will buy them, similar to last year. Leadership waited until June to announce the event would be cancelled. Will they follow a similar script in 2021? More likely than not.
It’s also possible that if enough vaccines are distributed, they may hold a limited event with additional restrictions, such as requiring proof of both vaccine administration and a negative Covid test. There’s a high probability this is what they are preparing for as a stop-gap measure and if it were up to the organizers alone, they’d probably announce this early. However, they must also satisfy BLM in order to receive a permit to hold the event, so that could be the major disrupter.
Now that you have clarity on the fuzzy logic of Burning Man’s decision-making timeline, how do you plan for attending an event requiring significant travel when the world is upside down and unpredictable? There’s only one way to address this: be flexible.
The issue of flexibility is a clear decision point for the majority of Burners. It comes down to how far you must travel and by what means.
Throughout 2020, travel bans and border closures were random and inconsistent. These decisions were driven by the policies within each country to control the infection rate and the extent to which the population of that country complied. Countries who gained a reputation for higher outbreak levels saw their residents banned from entering certain countries, or being forced into quarantine upon arrival.
If this trend continues it presents an enormous problem for those attending Burning Man from outside the USA. Dealing with random border closures is one barrier. Another is to plan for the eventuality that you must be in quarantine 14 days and testing negative upon entry to the USA or upon returning to your home country.
If proof of vaccination is required at any step of the way, will the verification be accepted by the jurisdictions involved? If that isn’t acceptable, will it be possible to obtain a new vaccination that is accepted and how long will you be required to wait after that? We love our international participants and welcome anyone who is flexible enough in their finances and schedule to endure the variables in 2021.
If this is too daunting and you skip this year, we hope you will participate from afar. There are so many things anyone can do to aid projects from anywhere in the world and so many roles to fill. Staying involved even if you can’t attend anchors your spirit in our projects and hearts, building even stronger connections for when you can make it in person.
Travelling from within the USA
The most problematic form of travel in 2021 involves all mass transit. None of the vaccines being promoted are 100% effective in curbing the virus, which means all contact with the general public will carry some risk, amplified by the time spent in closed spaces and in close proximity of other people. There is also great risk inoculated travelers pose to those who haven’t received a vaccine, which may fall short of being fully rendered by Burn time.
Air travel, in particular, is considered to be one of the worst virus vectors and airlines are notoriously difficult to work with on schedule changes and refunds if full cancellation is required.
Being flexible in the USA means you must be using you must be using your own ground transportation or be near another member who is that you can carpool with, the more self-contained, the better.
Quarantines didn’t stop Dustopia’s core members from working on their projects in isolation, which typically begin a full year or more ahead of the Burn they are designed for. Even with a year of planning, getting everything done and operational is still stressful, there’s just so much to do and mobilize, then tear down and take care of. This may sound strange, but having an extra year of preparation was a nice respite.
Now we’re ready to go, with our core infrastructure more organized than ever. There are new assets that will make the event experience so much better for all who participate. And work has begun on a new mutant vehicles, a theme camp entrance pavilion, and two art installations. This is only the beginning, but it is more a challenge than ever to cultivate and retain engagement among makers willing to contribute to these projects.
Part of this has to do with the typical cycle where most attendees don’t engage until well into the Spring and Summer before the event. We’ve also enjoyed a diverse, international culture which isn’t realistic to anticipate this year, so we’re hoping to add new members in the USA who are able to join our projects.
WE WILL CAMP TOGETHER IN 2021
We’re going to work on our projects regardless of what Burning Man decides, just as we always do, but if the 2021 event is cancelled, we’ll be ready to mobilize our own gathering when it is relatively safe to do so.
Burning Man’s decision on whether to hold the event must be made by the end of June. That may not be enough time for herd immunity to develop, but by August it could happen. If the event is cancelled, we will have the flexibility to delay further. The weather is conducive to a gathering as late as mid-October if necessary.
Dustopia will use reasonable caution as we move forward. We’re not going to endanger any of our membership, so if the Covid virus fades away until it isn’t a threat, no worries. Short of that, the members who gather will be vaccinated or recently tested negative.
Again, even if you decide it’s too risky or difficult to attend this year in any context, please stay involved. There are so many roles to fill to maintain continuity, from online outreach and organizing, to web site development, microcontroller coding, fabric, art design, and so on. We are facing many challenges in the world, but participation in Dustopia shouldn’t be among them in this electronically-connected and drop-shipped world.