Early last week, as somewhere around 8,000 San Franciscans were busy testing their gear, loading it into vehicles and preparing their getups in anticipation of the journey to Black Rock City, Marian Goodell, CEO of the Burning Man Project, sat down with The Standard to discuss the first event since 2019.
Goodell attended her first “Burn” in 1995, not too long after its founding on Baker Beach in 1988. As an original board member and leader of the nonprofit that organizes the annual Burning Man gathering, Goodell is something of an international ambassador to its hundreds of thousands of community members worldwide. The project has affiliates in 45 states and 35 countries that host 100 events every year around the world—all united around Burning Man’s 10 Principles and led from its headquarters in San Francisco.
The around 200-person organization is responsible for building a complete city on federal land in the Black Rock Desert outside Gerlach, Nevada, which stretches across three Golden Gate Park’s worth of dusty playa. Every year, about 10% of Burning Man’s 80,000 attendees are from its hometown of San Francisco, hence the silence around town during the week leading up to Labor Day.
Goodell arrived at The Standard’s office without a typical CEO entourage but with one leg in a black boot cast. “I fractured my ankle in a weapons training class in Arizona—where you shoot a handgun,” she explained matter-of-factly.
Thus began our lively and frank conversation with Goodell. Like many San Franciscans, she came to the city as a young student, received her Masters of Fine Art in Photography from Academy of Art and never left.
Goodell talked to The Standard about Burning Man’s connection to San Francisco, her advice for Mayor Breed, why they don’t call it a “festival,” how the group managed Covid and whether the arts organization can afford to stay in the city where it was born.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Watch the video excerpts for more on the 2022 event and click here to read more from our conversation about the evolution of Burning Man community and culture.]
The Standard: With a headquarters in Potrero Hill and a birthplace on Baker Beach, can you talk about Burning Man’s ties to San Francisco?
Marian Goodell: We are definitely San Francisco born. A lot of the cultural theories about how we operate are definitely born out of San Francisco. Our original founder, Larry Harvey, moved here in 1969 from Oregon. The culture in North Beach affected him… It was a time when artists were more present—they weren’t priced out of the city quite yet. It was a place to do culture jamming and have a lot of fun…
The home for Burning Man culture is absolutely San Francisco. We have opened an office in Reno because the cost of living in San Francisco has been really hard for our staff. I think we have about 20 people in Reno, but still the core where most of the primary organizers for Burning Man are in San Francisco. It’s our home.
As you spread around the world, what parts of San Francisco and its culture do you think you take with you?
San Francisco is probably more progressive than the true core of Burning Man, but I think that the core of California politics does help nurture the bravery toward a humanistic way to treat other people. I think that comes with us from San Francisco. Employment practices, socially conscious ways of treating one another, diversity—those are all parts of San Francisco that we take with us to Black Rock City. And then, the people who come to Black Rock City, take [those parts of San Francisco] with them out into the world.
Describe Burning Man in terms of scale. How many people are we talking about?
Well, we’re talking about 80,000 people. The population only reaches that for less than 24 hours, usually on Thursday at Burning Man. We have a ten-mile fence around the city. It’s in the shape of a pentagon. That means it’s about 3,000 acres. We have zero trash cans. Everybody brings their own trash and takes them away together. And we have about eight days of people engaging and interacting together on the Black Rock desert. Four hundred art projects, of which about 40 of them the organization helps fund. We have 450 art cars, which are basically interactive floats, and it all reaches a peak of 80,000 people. And then it’s done on Labor Day.
As a former Public Works director of Black Rock City and now its closest thing to a “mayor,” how do you compare your role to that of San Francisco Mayor London Breed? Do you have any advice to share with her?
When some Burning Man folks gathered on Ocean Beach in 2020, [Mayor Breed] blamed the Burning Man culture for the gathering. And to me, that was sad and ironic that a culture that actually has done so much toward teaching people civics, civic behavior, looking out for one another and self-reliance [would be called out in that situation].
We have actually also been a very important part of the fire pits at Ocean Beach. We worked with the park service to create artistic fire pits. Then, over time, we go back and help do annual cleanups of them. Burning Man culture is not the radical, party at all costs, rave persona that I think maybe [Mayor Breed] thinks we are. We’re actually much more civic-minded.
But I’m not much in a position to be telling any kind of mayor what to do overseeing a big city. Honestly, I think her job is super hard. Most of my criticisms of San Francisco really have a little bit to do with how hard it really still is to do business here. I think if we ever leave San Francisco, it’ll be because it’s a really expensive city to do business. It is socially progressive, but there’s a point at which we may not be able to afford to be here anymore.
What is the most accurate and least accurate stereotype about Burning Man?
I think the most accurate stereotype about Burning Man is not so much a stereotype, it’s a sort of like a characterization, and that is that it can be transformative, it can change your life. I think the experience of going to Burning Man, where you are forced to work with other people is—it can change the way that you feel about other people and gives you hope and humanity.
I think a stereotypical thing about Burning Man that’s not true is probably really that it’s all drugs and nudity. It’s just so hot, I can’t believe that anybody really would believe that it’s all nudity. It’s certainly—people dress in whatever way they feel self expressive. And, you know, it’s a psychedelic experience. It’s very colorful and it’s not all about the drugs. Some people may use hallucinogens at Burning Man, but I don’t find that the majority of people that I see that are playful and dressing up to look like a watermelon are necessarily on drugs. They’re just playful.
Burning Man doesn’t consider itself a “festival.” Could you explain by contrasting it with Outside Lands?
Outside Lands is definitely a festival in the traditional way that people come to think about music festivals. It has vending, it has great wine and food, and things to buy like t-shirts, hats and merchandise. And of course live music, bands and comedy on-stage.
Burning Man, on the other hand, is all done by the participants. The organization does not build any stages. We don’t invite any bands. We don’t sell anything except ice. We don’t have any merchandise available. We really try not to call ourselves a “festival.”
And another big distinction between Burning Man and most festivals on the entire planet is that we have no trash cans. People find that really hard to comprehend. [Former Mayor] Gavin Newsom invited us to the mayor’s office at one point because he wanted to figure out how the “leave no trace” philosophy of Burning Man could work in the city of San Francisco.
For San Franciscans who’ve never been able to attend Burning Man, what advice would you give them to get involved in the experience?
There are a variety of ways. One is to go see the art [from Burning Man] that is periodically on display in San Francisco… And also, there are some gatherings in Golden Gate Park. If one really wanted to be involved in Burning Man culture, I think one would look for ways to see it really showing up naturally in San Francisco. It’s hard to be here and not find a Burning Man person somewhere.
And I think being part of Burning Man is not just going to the event. There’s a cultural way of looking out for other people, leaving no trace, picking up after yourself, and being very communitarian. I think that one can be a Burner and be fond of its 10 Principles without actually having to go to Black Rock City.
You’ve spoken about how your conservative father’s business acumen helped inform parts of your worldview. How do you incorporate that expertise in leading such a unique organization — especially during the pandemic, when many Burners wanted to require Covid vaccines to attend the 2022 gathering?
In 2020, it was really obvious we had to cancel the event. There was no point in doing any mass gatherings. It was a bigger journey to cancel in 2021. We got involved with the government, the [Bureau of Land Management], and we moved slowly forward… to balance all the risk factors as a business person and as a community member: what the CDC is saying, what your instinct is saying, what doctors are saying, where the illness is happening, and then the nervousness of your own staff and the Burner community.
The community was irritated at first. They were like, “What? Are you kidding?” And that resulted in the rogue burn or the free burn [that took place in the Black Rock Desert over Labor Day 2021] which I was proud of. To have 15,000 people go to the desert and use Burning Man principles to organize themselves and bring art and make burns happen and ride around in circles and whatever else we do, that was a really powerful experience.
For 2022, it’s been really similar… I was asked in December of 2021 [to make a decision about Covid precautions but after months of consideration], we decided not to do a health check. And by June, it became apparent to us that some people were still unhappy with that decision.
But from my position overseeing a community and a business, patience and time were on my side. Being reactive to people’s fears was not for the greater good.
Regarding my conservative upbringing, [decentralization] is one thing that my father really felt strongly about. And certainly, on its best days, Republican dogma and states’ rights are part of that… So we’ve delegated [Covid guidelines] to the camps. We have 80,000 people in clusters and subcultures and they can make the decision [about vaccine and mask requirements within their communities]. We have 800 people on site right now… and there have been zero cases at the tail end of a B5 variant spike.
I think my best role was to balance a socially progressive cultural thing like Burning Man with a common sense business [approach] and not to take a stand at political triggers. Because [Burners are] not just Republicans or Democrats—in fact, 40% “decline to state” [their political party].
As you look to the first gathering since 2019, what are you most excited about?
I’m really excited about seeing how 80,000 people can come together after not seeing each other for three years. Yes, the pandemic was two years, but the last time this iteration of Black Rock City happened was in September of 2019. The warmth and the excitement and the art and the creativity—it’s unfolding, it’s exploding… Just watching that is what I’m really looking forward to.
Where can we find you at Burning Man this year?
I’m there every year. There is a camp that we call First Camp. We just don’t put it on the map. But most people know where to find the organizers. There’s no green room. There’s no velvet ropes. So when people want to find me, they do!
Read more from our conversation with Marian Goodell about the evolution of Burning Man culture in the second part of our interview.
Correction: An earlier version of this article contained the incorrect year that founder Larry Harvey moved to San Francisco. He arrived in 1969.
Maryann Jones Thompson can be reached at [email protected]