For the past three decades, people have ventured into Nevada’s Black Rock Desert in late August to build, run and then disassemble a functioning city on a remote and dusty piece of land.
With a population of roughly 70,000, the temporary city is the 10th largest in Nevada for one week of the year.
Burning Man, as the gathering is called, produces life-changing experiences for many of its participants, known as “Burners.” However, the event has received criticism over the years for a range of issues, including a lack of diversity.
The 2019 Burning Man Census found that only 16 percent of attendees identified as a person of color, a rate that has remained relatively flat since at least 2013 despite public criticism and organizers’ pledges to improve. The “average Burner” that year, the last festival before a two-year Covid-enduced break, was a 35-year-old white man making $64,700 per year, the website SFist reported. Only 1.1 percent of attendees identified as Black in 2019, according to the census.
Responding to this challenge, Erin Douglas, a Black photographer and founder of the Black Burner Project, has made it her mission to make the festival more diverse since her own awakening at Burning Man in 2017.
The Black Burner Project uses visual representation to document people of color at Burning Man “to encourage the curious.” In other words, the project creates art using photographs taken at Black Rock City to help people of color imagine themselves at Burning Man.
The idea behind the project is that photos of half-dressed white people in the desert, the most common representation of the event in the media, serve as a barrier to entry for Black folks who don’t see themselves represented as a part of Burning Man’s culture.
Douglas recognizes that it can be difficult to go out to the playa for people of color. In fact, if it were not for a free ticket from a friend, she may have never overcome her own initial personal and cultural barriers to experiencing the desert festival.
I met Douglas at Marco Cochrane’s studio in Petaluma—notable for the 47-foot-tall wire-frame woman visible from the street—where Douglas is assembling her new piece with the help of Kyle Mimms.
While we spoke, a small army of volunteers worked on a structure of metal and billboard-sized photographs of Black Burners.
The final artwork, called “Black! Asé,” will consist of two 30-foot-tall interactive installations at the edge of Black Rock City, serving as a beacon of welcome and celebration for Burners of color.
The pieces will be large metal structures bookended by a massive picture of Douglas’ friend and fellow Burner, “Anisette,” dancing on one end, and a picture of “Ken,” another Burner wearing a colorful neck gaiter, on the other. In between the photos will be climbable metalwork with stairs and platforms allowing visitors several opportunities for experience and reflection, driven by unique audio tracks playing throughout the piece.
Despite being an experienced solo world traveler, Douglas recalled that her first visit to Burning Man was “so drastically different [than any previous experience], and we are surrounded by white people. In the middle of nowhere. I can’t go anywhere. I can’t even call my mom and parents.” Suddenly, Douglas found herself without access to anyone who understood her experience of otherness.
The harm in this case is that Burning Man really transforms lives, and if people of color do not feel welcome and do not come, the opportunity for that expansive consciousness is lost to the same demographics that have always been excluded.
Let’s take a step back. What is so amazing about Burning Man? “You have a lot of time with yourself internally,” Douglas said. “You’re asking yourself questions that, for some reason, you just don’t get that same time or space to explore these questions in everyday life.”
“I always say, like, whatever you have pushed aside, whether you know it or not, the playa is gonna like put it in your face. Just gonna shove it all up in there and you might not be ready,” she added, laughing. “It’s just about, like, accepting that [it] might need tears.”
In describing the impact that Burning Man can have, Douglas’ indispensable build lead, Mimms, put it another way: “You can be free to be yourself without consequences.”
Those words capture the intent of Douglas’ project perfectly. Knowing that many Black folks will not feel comfortable with the idea of coming to Burning Man until they begin to see people like themselves there, Douglas understands that a whole segment of society has been effectively cut off from the opportunity to experience the rich cultural space the festival offers.
For a time, the founders and organizers seemed to minimize the problem. Burning Man co-founder Larry Harvey infamously said that, “Black folks don’t like to camp as much as white folks,” later attempting to justify the statement in the historical context of slavery and the dangers of travel for Black Americans during the Jim Crow Era.
Thankfully, Burning Man culture has begun to respond to the problems inherent in that out-of-date sentiment. Efforts for inclusion have received an increased level of focus, including a reevaluation of “Radical Inclusion,” one of the festival’s guiding 10 Principles.
Douglas is the recipient of a Black Rock City 2022 Honorarium Art Grant, one of the first given to a Black woman Burner. The Grant amounts vary project by project. In Douglas’ case, the award covered about 20 percent of the submitted project budget, making it much easier to complete the project with help from other funding sources.
As we talked, new volunteers to the project wandered in and were put to work. Douglas, a photographer by trade and new to installations, emphasized the collaborative nature of the massive pieces.
“Kyle [Mimms] came out and has been working non-stop on the structure of the builds,” Douglas said. “[Mimms and his wife] have been beyond supportive, they’ve helped me get the photos [from Maryland where they were printed] to New York for fundraisers” to help pay for the project.
Douglas had been weighing the costs and environmental impact of building the structure on the East or West Coast and transporting it out to the desert. However, with Cochrane’s offer of studio space in Petaluma to build the installation, Mimms joined Cochrane out West.
Burning Man’s reputation seems to have both grown and wavered in recent years. Many around the country who had likely never heard of the event now know it as the summer destination of celebrity CEOs and reality-TV moguls.
However, Douglas’ work is a reminder of the potential of the annual gathering in the desert: A space of radical inclusion where the work of being better and doing better is both personal and communal.
Follow “Black! Asé” and Erin Douglas on Instagram @blackburnerproject.