Ticket trouble at Burning Man angers regulars

RENO -- The biggest prior threats to Burning Man's annual regeneration in the Black Rock Desert were U.S. land use laws, undercover cops and the media-perpetuated perception that the largest outdoor arts festival in North America is really just an excuse to get naked and do drugs.

But that was before the teeth-gnashing "ticket fiasco."

Two decades after the free spirits moved their party from San Francisco's Baker Beach to a dried up ancient lake bed 120 miles north of Reno, the annual pilgrimage with its drum circles, decorated art cars, guerilla theatrics and colorful theme camps has become too popular for its own good.

"The hard truth is that there are a lot of you who want to come to Black Rock City to celebrate your participation in the Burning Man culture this year, but not everyone will be able to attend," organizers said in an apologetic email.

The message was sent after a lottery ticket sale intended to keep attendance below the federally permitted cap blew up in their faces.

The counterculture celebration open to all under the principal of "radical inclusion" sold out for the first time last year with a crowd in excess of 53,000, forcing organizers to make plans to sell the bulk of the 2012 tickets through random drawings. But it wasn't until recently that many regulars got word they might not get in this year.

Whether opportunistic ticket scalpers are to blame or naive organizers were caught off guard is a topic raging among Burners in the blogosphere.

Many lament it will never be the same.

"The ticket fiasco means Burning Man has to make decisions now about who to let in and who to keep out," said Mark Van Proyen, chairman of the painting department at the San Francisco Art Institute who has attended the last 16 years in a row. "For that reason, it no longer can really truly be a radically inclusive event."

Van Proyen is among dozens of academics, scientists and other observers who marvel at the makeshift civilization as a living laboratory for research into anthropology, sociology, political science, and now, crisis management.

"People have always wondered what would happen if Burning Man kept growing, whether it would it be a victim of its own success," said Katherine Chen, an associate professor of sociology at the City College of New York who wrote the 2009 book, "Enabling Creative Chaos: The Organization Behind the Burning Man Event."

"It's been an issue all along, whether to grow the event and welcome all newcomers," said Chen, who first attended in 1998 and, wrote her dissertation about it at Harvard. "This is what societies have to confront every day."

Lee Gilmore, author of "Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man," said the "necessity to screen applicants" could cause divisions between "inner Burning Man elite" and "newbies."

"There's been a long-standing tension about that: the super contributors," said Gilmore, who teaches American and religious studies at San Jose State. "There is the potential for a real cultural shift or a radical break from the event."

Organizers feel their pain. Many regulars have camped together for 10 years or more, Burning Man spokeswoman Marian Goodell said.

"We are trying to solve the problem of the community feeling ripped apart," she said. "At the same time, it was going to come to this at some point."

The first 1,000-plus crowd in 1993 doubled each of the next three years. Attendance was capped at 50,000 under the most recent five-year permit granted by the Bureau of Land Management, which expired in 2010.

Since then, the event has operated under temporary annual permits. Goodell said they interpret the current permit to allow "in the neighborhood" of 58,000 people in the 5-square-mile encampment.

The lottery, releasing tickets in various stages at various prices up to $420, was intended to be the fairest way to give every­one a chance to attend. The thinking was longtime attendees would grab the bulk of the earliest batch of 10,000.

Critics say organizers failed to anticipate that so many real-world scalpers would snatch up tickets for resale at huge profits. The Aug. 27 to Sept. 3 festival culminates with the burning of a towering wooden effigy.

"This was a complete failure," said Cory Mervis, a member of a regional Burning Man group in Las Vegas.

However, Goodell said organizers believe the ticket shortage has less to do with scalpers than the extraordinary level of interest.

Others are not sympathetic to those without tickets.

"I sat in line at Space Mountain for two hours once, and somebody threw up, and they closed it," said Rick Dinoso, a past attendee from Reno who calls the complainers "cry­babies."

Officials acknowledged in a Feb. 15 email that the lottery had left "an inordinately large" core of longtime contributors ticketless, "putting the integrity of the event itself at risk."

So, at the risk of making the matter worse, organizers announced they were abandoning plans for a future lottery. They would instead allocate tickets to leaders of selected theme camps, performance groups and others to distribute as they see fit. A selection committee will use a published set of guiding principles for the distribution.

That's still an exclusion that amounts to "squatter's rights," Van Proyen said.

Gilmore gives organizers high marks for their emergency response. But she said they're walking a fine line.

"Burners don't like bureaucracy," she said.

Goodell said they've had to change the rules before, and more important than the event itself, is keeping Burning Man's spirit alive.

"Burning Man is not a place. It's really a state of mind."