A wooden boat built on top of a truck that is concealed with open white umbrellas in the desert.

Burning Man and the Colonial Idea of the “Middle of Nowhere”

Tens of thousands of water-logged Burning Man attendees were finally able to leave the Nevada desert on Tuesday. The estimated 73,000 “Burners” were ordered to shelter in place over the weekend when torrential rains prevented them from leaving the gathering. Burning Man participants construct “a temporary city known for its communal living and eccentric displays of art and expression” annually. It’s a “kind of utopia” with “villages, a medical center, performance stages, and an airport” (USA Today) where the Burners of “Black Rock City” run an economy exclusively on bartering and gifting. They create enormous works of collective art, from “ziggurats and pyramids” to “secret cabarets inside of dice cubes” and “a giant white whale art car in a 17th century schooner,” all in the “middle of nowhere” deep within the Black Rock Desert (Artsy). Burning Man attracts those interested in an alternate way of living and relating to one another in the middle of “nowhere.” Though it contains the seeds of a critique of commodity culture and capitalism, Burning Man’s limitations as a “radical” project are tied to an imperialist concept centuries old: the idea of terra nullius, or “no-one’s land” (NLA). 


Support the campaign to protect ancestral Paiute land from being destroyed for an open pit lithium mine.

• Support the Clarion Alley Mural Project or join a local collective community art project.

• Join or start a local Food Not Bombs chapter to freely share food. 

Donate to support the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe.

Originally celebrated on a San Francisco beach in 1986, Burning Man has held the annual festival in Black Rock Desert since the early 1990s. Since then, Black Rock City has been assembled and disassembled in what one early participant called a “desolate and stark region of primitive expanse… whose desolate flatness of surrounding landscape is awe-inspiring” (BMP). The fact that Burning Man takes place in the “middle of nowhere” is supposed to help fuel the festival’s countercultural creativity. But in reality, “nowhere” is the ancestral homeland of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe (Burning Man Project). When white settlers flocked to the area in search of precious metals in the 19th century, the U.S. government waged war against the Paiute. Many starved to death, and the survivors were forced onto a “prison camp” reservation. “They tried to destroy us, annihilate us, waging wars of genocide against us. We’re still here,” says elder Dean Barlese. The tens of thousands of Burners who arrive from Reno each year drive past the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe reservation (KPFA). 

Spanish, British, and Anglo-American settler colonialism and genocide were based on a legal principle called terra nullius. Imperial powers claimed that land not governed by a European-style national government or “improved” through sedentary agriculture and urbanization was “land without a master” (Cornell). Though millions of people lived in the Americas and Oceania, the lands they occupied were considered “no-one’s land” by the empires that stole them. Some of the colonial projects that ensued were radically utopian, like the religious freedom offered by the Rhode Island and Pennsylvania colonies or the “city upon a hill” of theocratic Massachusetts (History). They were only made possible by indigenous dispossession and genocide disguised by the fiction that these lands were unused and “up for grabs.” 

From the unimproved wilderness of a national park to the downtown of a major city to the room where you read this article today, there is no piece of land within the United States that’s unconnected to settler-colonialism. Nowhere in the U.S. is the “middle of nowhere.” It’s all somewhere: on stolen Indigenous land

That means U.S. residents who don’t go to Burning Man are just as implicated as those who do. Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe members, who are offered free passes to Burning Man by event organizers, have different opinions on the event (KPFA). Some are Burners themselves and attend with their families; others view the annual influx of festival-goers and the associated trash and traffic as a major imposition (BMP). Cassandra Davis, a Fallon Paiute-Shoshone tribal member and self-identified Burner, says that many non-local Burners “feel like this is their home…But at the end of the week, they go home. And we’re still here” (KPFA). 

Just like no land that supports human communities is really terra nullius, there’s no place we can visit to leave our social positionalities behind. Though inspired by the Situationist International, a group of post-war French Marxists that included Society of the Spectacle author Guy Debord, Burning Man has become a playground for Silicon Valley tech magnates and venture capitalists staying in $50,000 tents while being waited on by servants (CNNJacobin). Even non-elite Burners typically spend $4,000 to $10,000 to attend (Yahoo!). There’s nothing countercultural about week-long getaways for the ultra-rich and nothing utopian about upholding settler colonialism. 

Renouncing capitalist norms and promoting collective creativity and joy are things to cherish, but it doesn’t require trekking to the Nevada desert. Sharing food or a pantry, redistributing resources, and contributing to collective art are things you should do in your own community. By rooting these activities in our communities, we can undertake a truly utopian, countercultural project: peeling back the hold racial capitalism and settler-colonialism have over our lives and the land we live on.


• The annual Burning Man festival is held on ancestral Paiute land. 

• The idea that certain areas are “nowhere” and belong to “no-one” was used to justify settler colonialism and imperialism. 

• Developing non-capitalist forms of life and creating collective art are things we should do in our communities to resist, not ignore, systems of oppression. 

1280 853 Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee is a writer and organizer plotting a better world in Philadelphia. His work has previously appeared in Notes From Below, Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, Plan A Magazine, ROAR Magazine, and Teen Vogue.

All stories by : Andrew Lee
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