Is Burning Man on the cusp of becoming a permanent utopian community?

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Big Names in Tech Get Their Weird on at Burning Man


Each year, Burning Man devotees worry that the festival is jumping the shark. This year is no exception, with anotherround of stories about the gathering devolving into a wealthy playpen, ruined by rich people. But 70,000 people will still gather in Nevada next week. Tens of thousands more will be outbid for tickets. Small crowds will even show up and wait at the Native American-run burrito stands in the desert, hoping someone who leaves early will pawn off a re-entry pass. During the week of Burning Man — starting Sunday and running the through Labor Day — the cultural center of gravity of the the tech world migrate east from the Bay Area to the Nevada desert. Whatever else you might say about Burning man, it's certainly still, in all senses, happening.

SEE ALSO: Burning Man: Inside the bizarre annual festival in the Nevada desert

Among burners who know the organization well, the more urgent subject of discussion this year is about possible major changes afoot in the festival. Burning Man's leadership, nicknamed "the Borg," has been quietly pushing the entity toward a new phase. As the six founders who built the festival and still guide it start to age, a new generation of leaders is being tapped, including the charismatic and ambitious Bear Kittay, now "Burning Man's social alchemist and global ambassador." The Borg is cagey about plans, secretive about money, distrustful of the press (whose Wi-Fi they've shut down this year). But co-founder Marianne Goodell has hinted at another major change: expanding beyond Black Rock Desert — the dusty Nevada expanse that's become almost synonymous with the festival -- and developing a private tract of land as a permanent Burning Man community.

Take a glimpse inside Burning Man festivals of years past:

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Is Burning Man on the cusp of becoming a permanent utopian community?
Black Rock City, Nevada –Mark Day, of Santa Cruz, gets painted with blue food coloring to go with his blue devil horns while participating in this year's Burning Man festival which drew over 25,000 people from around the world to the isolated Black Rock Desert in Nevada. (Photo by Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
A woman lies next to paper mache aliens as they watch a television sculpted into a man 06 September at the 'Burning Man' festival in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. Some 15,000 people attended the 1998 'Burning Man' festival, which reportedly began 13 years ago in San Francisco, and which always culminates in the burning of a giant effigy of a man. The festival has grown into one of the nation's annual premiere countercultural events, with the size doubling virtually every year and drawing people from as far away as Japan, Europe and Australia. (Photo credit: MIKE NELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
A group of people cross the desert at Black Rock City's Burning Man festival in Nevada 02 September, 1999. Founded in 1986 by a group of artists, filmmakers and photographers, the annual event encourages a collaborative response from its audience and a collaboration between artists. (Photo credit : HECTOR MATA/AFP/Getty Images)
A man poses at Black Rock City's Burning Man festival in Black Rock City, Nevada 03 September, 1999. Founded in 1986 by a group of fine artists, filmmakers and photographers, the anual event encourages a collaborative response from its audience and a collaboration between artists.  (Photo credit: HECTOR MATA/AFP/Getty Images)
An artist performs a Mass celebrating the end of the millennium on the 'Tree of Time', a sculpture by San Francisco-based artists Dana and Flash, at Black Rock City's Burning Man festival in Nevada 04 September 1999. Founded in 1986 by a group of fine artists, filmmakers and photographers, the annual event encourages a collaborative response from it's audience and a collaboration between artists. (Photo credit: HECTOR MATA/AFP/Getty Images)
A man looks at the Burning Man effigy as it is prepared for the Burning Man Festival at Black Rock City in Nevada 29 August 2000. An estimated thirty thousand people will attend the festival, a spontaneous encounter of artists, performers and spectators, where the audience is expected to interact and collaborate during a week long event. The fifty two feet effigy will be burned at the end of the festival  (Photo credit: HECTOR MATA/AFP/Getty Images)
A girl drives a bike on the Black Rock City desert in Nevada 29 August, 2000 as she attends the Burning Man festival. An estimated thirty thousand people will attend the festival, a spontaneous encounter of artists, performers and spectators, where the audience is expected to interact and collaborate during a week long event.  (Photo credit: HECTOR MATA/AFP/Getty Images)
Signs are posted at the entrance of Black Rock City during the Burning Man Festival in Nevada 01 September 2000. An estimated thirty thousand people will attend the festival, a spontaneous encounter of artists, performers and spectators, where the audience is expected to interact and collaborate during a week long event.  (Photo credit: HECTOR MATA/AFP/Getty Images)
Make-up artist 'Nambla the Clown' from the San Francisco Bay Area poses at Black Rock City's center camp during the Burning Man Festival in Nevada 01 September 2000. An estimated thirty thousand people will attend the festival, a spontaneous encounter of artists, performers and spectators, where the audience is expected to interact and collaborate during a week long event.  (Photo credit: HECTOR MATA/AFP/Getty Images)
A bicycle rider makes it through a dense sand storm at Black Rock City's playa during the Burning Man Festival in Nevada 01 September 2000. An estimated thirty thousand people will attend the festival, a spontaneous encounter of artists, performers and spectators, where the audience is expected to interact and collaborate during a week-long event.  (Photo credit: HECTOR MATA/AFP/Getty Images)
Bolts of electricity strike 'Dr. MegaVolt' as he rides across the desert September 1, 2000 atop a truck equipped with huge electrodes to thrill crowds who chant his name during the 15th annual Burning Man festival in the Black Rock Desert near Gerlach, Nevada. Despite high winds, dust storms, and a bit of rain, some 27,000 people camped out on a remote desert playa, or dry lake, for the week-long counter-cultural celebration of art and 'radical self-expression.' This year's theme was the body. (Photo by David McNew/Newsmaker)
A dancer juggles fire as a 52-foot tall wooden man as it goes up in flames September 2, 2000 during the15th annual Burning Man festival in the Black Rock Desert near Gerlach, Nevada. Despite high winds, dust storms, and a bit of rain, some 27,000 people camped out on a remote desert playa, or dry lake, for the week-long counter-cultural celebration of art and 'radical self-expression'. This year's theme was the body. (Photo by David McNew/Newsmakers)
Revelers dance around the burning remains of a 52-foot tall wooden man during the 15th annual Burning Man festival September 2, 2000 in the Black Rock Desert near Gerlach, Nevada. Despite high winds, dust storms, and a bit of rain, some 27,000 people camped out on a remote desert playa, or dry lake, for the week-long counter-cultural celebration of art and 'radical self-expression.' This year's theme was the body. (Photo by David McNew/Newsmakers)
People ride bicycles against a backdrop of mirages September 2, 2000 at the15th annual Burning Man festival in the Black Rock Desert near Gerlach, Nevada. Bicycles are the standard mode of transport on the vast playa locale of the festival. Despite high winds, dust storms, and a bit of rain, some 27,000 people camped out on a remote desert playa, or dry lake, for the week-long counter-cultural celebration of art and 'radical self-expression.' This year's theme was the body. (Photo by David McNew/Newsmakers)
People drum on a percussion junk pile despite a blinding dust storm caused by strong winds September 2, 2000 at the 15th annual Burning Man festival in the Black Rock Desert near Gerlach, Nevada. Despite the high winds, dust storms, and a bit of rain, some 27,000 people camped out on a remote desert playa, or dry lake, for the week-long counter-cultural celebration of art and 'radical self-expression.' This year's theme was the body. (Photo by David McNew/Newsmakers)
Atmosphere at the 2003 Burning Man festival. Blackrock City, Nevada. (Photo by John Horsley/Photoshot/Getty Images)
Atmosphere at the 2003 Burning Man festival. Blackrock City, Nevada.  (Photo by John Horsley/Photoshot/Getty Images)
The sun rises behind a wood and neon statue, the center piece of the annual Burning Man festival north of Gerlach, Nev., Monday, Aug. 26, 2002. The week-long festival in the Black Rock Desert started Monday. (AP Photo/Debra Reid)
A rainbow is cast over the Black Rock Desert in Gerlach, Nev., during the Burning Man festival on Friday, Aug. 31, 2007. (AP Photo/Brad Horn)
A woman sits in a shelter during a dust storm on the playa of the Black Rock Desert in Gerlach, Nev., during the Burning Man festival on Friday, Aug. 31, 2007. (AP Photo/Brad Horn)
Jason, of Portland, watches the Critical Titts bike ride event on the playa at the Black Rock Desert during the Burning Man festival on Friday, Aug. 31, 2007. (AP Photo/Brad Horn)
Burning Man festival participants enjoys the playa near an art installation in the Black Rock Desert in Gerlach, Nev., on Friday morning, Aug. 31, 2007. (AP Photo/Brad Horn)
The Man glows on the playa framed through and art car on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2007, after being repaired from an arson that occurred on Monday, while at the Burning Man festival in the Black Rock Desert in Gerlach, Nev. (AP Photo/Brad Horn)
Burning Man participants are reflected in an art piece on the playa of the Black Rock Desert in Gerlach, Nev., during the Burning Man festival on Friday morning, Aug. 31, 2007. (AP Photo/Brad Horn)
A Burning Man participant enjoys a light art installation during the festival in the Black Rock Desert near Gerlach, Nev., Thursday morning, Aug. 30, 2007. (AP Photo/Brad Horn, Nevada Appeal)
Black Rocky City begins to grow during the opening of Burning Man Sunday, August 27th, 2006. The art festival in Nevada's Black Rock Desert will celebrate it's 20th year. (photo by Ron Lewis)
The Man, a stick figured symbol of the Burning Man art festival, is silhouetted against a morning sunrise Saturday, Sept. 2, 2006, at the 20-year-old art festival in Nevada's Black Rock Desert. (AP Photo/Ron Lewis)
Burning Man participants wait for a dust storm to clear near Gerlach, Nev., during the Burning Man festival at the Black Rock Desert on Saturday, Aug. 30, 2008. (AP Photo/Brad Horn)
A an aerial view of the center camp in Black Rock City is seen during the Burning Man festival near Gerlach, Nev., on Friday, Aug. 29, 2008. (AP Photo/Brad Horn)
A girl wearing three dimensional glasses enters a tunnel of lights during the Burning Man Festival at Black Rock City desert in Nevada 29 August 2000. An estimated thirty thousand people will attend the festival, a spontaneous encounter of artists, performers and spectators,where the audience is expected to interact and collaborate during a week long event.(Photo credit: HECTOR MATA/AFP/Getty Images)
Atmosphere at the 2003 Burning Man festival. Blackrock City, Nevada. (Photo by John Horsley/Photoshot/Getty Images)
Atmosphere at the 2003 Burning Man festival. Blackrock City, Nevada. (Photo by John Horsley/Photoshot/Getty Images)
Joseph Hren of San Francisco sporting a retro look while spending the week at Burning Man. Photographed at center camp, August 29, 2008. (Photo by Spencer Weiner/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Passersby stop to admire Twilight Anima Rising, one of over 150 works of art dotting the Black Rock Desert during Burning Man, a week-long party and arts festival. About 35,000 people are camped in the a temporary city. (Photo by Jim Rankin/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Ed Joseph of San Francisco performs on the Black Rock Desert during Burning Man, a week-long party and arts festival. About 35,000 people are camped in the a temporary city.  (Photo by Jim Rankin/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
An day-long windstorm whips sand as fine as talcum powder at Burning Man as participants take evening bike rides and strolls on stilts. About 35,000 are camped out on the desert for the week-long party and arts festival, which ends Monday. (Photo by Jim Rankin/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
This is a satellite image of the Burning Man festival in Nevada, United States, collected on August 28, 2012. This image is the winner for the 2012 Top Image contest. (Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images)
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Last year, the Borg renewed efforts to purchase and develop a nearby property, the geyser-filled Fly Ranch, which they'd been eyeing for years. As Goodell recently said on podcast called Positive Head. "For the long-term survival of the culture, we are going to need a physical space...We will, as time goes by, find it hard to only be in the Black Rock Desert. We may need to find a place that would allow for infrastructure. I'm certain that's in our future."

Fly Ranch is, by all accounts, spectacular: it's about 4000 acres (880 of which are wetlands) with 23 hot and cold springs and around 40,000 feral horses. There's one 104 degree lake that's a couple hundred feet wide. Rod Garrett, one of the original architects of Burning Man, had drawn up plans for a Burning Man Fly Ranch city, a mix of homes and communal spaces built to blend into the desert.

"Employees and affiliates may build on a 'Homestead' basis, or rent or buy into the Village community at the project's north end," he wrote, in his lengthy proposal.

According to one plan, Fly Ranch buildings would be made with unpainted rammed earth and sod. No fences would be allowed, and all members of the community, who could either build homesteads or buy into a communal village, would live by Burning Man's "Ten Principles", which inclide "radical inclusion" and extreme devotion to gift-giving. Organic vegetable farming and a Burning Man-like conference business would serve as the economic base of the community. The annual festival at Black Rock City
would continue, of course.

Learn more about the culture of Burning Man:

Burning Man Ablaze in Nevada Desert

Festival co-founder Will Roger writes this new Burning Man city in utopian terms: "I fondly hope that this concept can develop rapidly, and become not only a destination for learning and wonder, but a model to the world of a community, although remote, that is ideal and sustainable. It is for the Burning Man Project to create this wilderness paradise." (I would argue that the proposal is part of a large strain of utopian separatism that can be found the modern tech boom: a sibling to Tim Draper's push to split Silicon Valley off as its own state, Peter Thiel's Seasteading efforts, or in Tony Hsieh's attempt to build a startup city in Las Vegas. But the Burning Man permanent community would arguably be the most interesting and achievable manifestation of it.)

MORE: Alternative communities that give Burning Man a run for its money

Development of this scale would require a lot of money, and last year, the organization began giving tours of Fly Ranch to potential investors. People around the playa whispered that well known burners like Elon Musk, Sergey Brin, and hotelier Chip Conley were among those shown the property (though none have confirmed that they actually were).

On message boards and an unofficial Burning Man blog, Burners seem thrilled about the rumors of permanent land. But Burning Man employees are worried about the reaction to potential investment from tech entrepreneurs, which could play into concerns about the festival becoming a tech conference.

Toward the end of last year's festival, I sat down with Will Roger, the festival cofounder. Roger, 66-years-old, sunburned, and wearing a torn bandana around his head, was in a lawn chair beside his Flying Cloud trailer at "First Camp," where the Burning Man founders, staff and special guests stay. He was covered in the fine red playa dust, as was I and everything around us. I asked him if the rumors of buying land were true and whether tech titans were involved.

Roger leaned back in his chair. "I fell in love with the property," Roger said.

Burning Man first tried to buy it in 2005. They tried again a few years ago, but the asking price was around $11-12 million, and they only raised about a half a million dollars, he said. But last year, the landowner Sam Jasick passed away, leaving his son Todd in charge, and Todd said he'd welcome another offer. Roger, who lives in the nearby town of Gerlach, decided this time he would get it right.

During last year's festival, he said they were leading two tours a day. They had set up a little camp there for prospective investors to lounge and get a sense of the area's energy. From Roger's perspective, buying land means Burning Man can serve more people -- the demand for tickets already far exceeds the supply. "This year, 60,000 people didn't get tickets to this," he said. "By owning our own property, it means putting in our own infrastructure. It could be a retreat center or an art park." He said the plan would be to build a retreat center and a museum, hold smaller events, create a city to test out what it would be like to live on Mars (guess which tech billionaire could be thinking of that?). "What interests me is the experiment in a permanent community," he said, adding that the tech titans felt the same way. "They're interested in that too, yes."

Adjacent to the Fly Ranch property is, he said, "a playa, public land." He had joined a political group: the Sierra Front-Northwestern Great Basin Resource Advisory Council. In this position, he helped to declare that land disposable, defined by the Bureau of Land Management as "land that can be sold." He added: "Getting it on the disposable land list was crucial because we could have our own playa then, something smaller for five to 10 thousand people." The property is "A-rated solar, A-rated wind," and Roger said the income from that power generation would become the foundation for a community. "If you look at a 100-year plan, it could be remarkable as a planet changing culture," he said.

As Burning Man emerges as an emotional and intellectual center for the tech world, Roger thinks the chances of a deal going through are higher than ever. His employees were leading tours while he hung out at First Camp -- "I don't swim in that world, but my staff swims in that world," he said. He said he was just thrilled the vision to create a town has finally come closer to fruition. "I've had my dream in this and my heart broken so many times," he said. "Now I'm 66 years old, I'm almost retiring, and it might happen."

A year has passed since we sat together in the playa, and it hasn't quite happened yet. When I asked a Burning Man representative about their plans, the website they had up saying that they'd begun to develop the land came down. But on the WayBackMachine you can still see their statement: "The Burning Man Project is pleased to announce the initiation of the preliminary stages of the development of the Fly Geyser property."

A quote on the site from Will Roger reads: "The Fly Ranch Project is a key component of a broader plan for economic and community development in the Northern Nevada area."

Whether it's Fly Ranch or another state, as the Borg has threatened since being levied with a Nevada entertainment tax, the move — toward permanence, toward investment, toward a city, toward secrecy — is why Burning Man now is more interesting than it has even been.

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