In more recent years, another main influence has been the progress-oriented positivity of Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs. This has created its own cult of futurism in the singularity and transhumanist movement on the playa. Founders, CEOs, and venture capitalists have arrived in droves, bringing their Robot Hearts, Mayan Warriors, 747s, gigantic mobile rubber ducks, and million-dollar art cars. The art has become more baroque, supporting entire industries of fabricators, welders, and lighting designers who have started to take up residence in Reno, sparking an urban renewal.
The success of Burning Man reveals a familiar pattern of cultural assimilation. As with Beat poetry in the 1950s or punk rock in the 1970s, what was once the expression of a small group of outsider artists and provocateurs gets integrated into the cultural mainstream. In the end, countercultures tend to prop up and support the commercial society, creating new styles and trends that can be sold to the masses even as they influence the mass consciousness.
In its own way, Burning Man threatens to become something of a countercultural Walt Disney World, albeit one with anti-authoritarian values that inspires people to step into the frame as artists and participants. As the event has grown in cultural influence and become an institution, it has lost something of its rebellious, chaotic, prankster edge. The fashion and attitude of Burning Man has become codified, and new hierarchies of cool subtly inscribed. But, as the New York-based magazine Jacobin noted last year
, nothing in the core tenets of Burning Man oppose libertarianism or post-industrial capitalism. And this means that the wealthy have a great ability to influence the collective experience, as they can fund large-scale sculptures, theme camps, and art cars.
Despite these and other issues, Burning Man remains a tremendous inspiration for many people, and it continues to take new directions. Recently, a consortium of wealthy Burners (rumored to include luminaries such as Google’s Sergey Brin, Tesla’s Elon Musk, and Cirque du Soleil founder Guy De Liberte) worked with the organization to purchase Fly Ranch, 3,800 acres of desert near Black Rock City, where they plan to build a permanent community and experimental think tank. As the art of Burning Man becomes more well-known, the artists who have made their names through the festival are receiving public and private commissions. (Long-time Burning Man artist
was recently brought on by Pace Gallery.) Some have garnered international recognition.
In 2000, David Best and Jack Haye built the first temple at Burning Man, the Temple of the Mind. It was constructed from discarded wood scraps from a toy factory making dinosaur models and dedicated to a collaborator who had committed suicide a few months earlier. Best’s temples added a new dimension to the event—a serious note of remembrance and reflection. During the week, the temples are thronged with costumed Burners. They pray, meditate, write on the walls, and create shrines for loved ones who have died—or for parts of themselves they want to release. In 2001, Best created the Temple of Tears, a diaphanous structure that evoked Tibetan and Cambodian sacred architecture. I found it one of the most moving sculptural installations I had ever encountered.