What is Burning Man?

“So, what is Burning Man?” people often ask me, since I’ve been a few times.  “Isn’t it that wild rave thing in the desert?  Where they burn something?”  What is it that compelled over 50,000 people last year to travel from all over the world to one of the more inhospitable parts of Nevada in the hottest part of summer?  Should you go?  If it sounds at all interesting to you, hell yes!  At least once, before it’s too late.  Although if it sounds dusty, hot, and miserable, by all means stay home by the pool, and leave it for the rest of us.  It’s getting a little crowded these days. _MG_0173TempleVisitors6 I was lucky enough last time I went to have met Larry Harvey, one of the main forces behind Burning Man.  He said that the one week a year event is not a rave, it’s more of a retreat.  Communications Director Andie Grace elaborated, stating that, “Burning Man is a state of being that exists all the time.”  In the years I have gone, I can vouch for feeling that I had been privileged to attend something like an institution of higher education, on par with the mind opening experiences of college, or reading about the outer edges of physics (wow, time actually speeds up around large stars?). The first thing to know is that Burning Man functions along ten principles, outlined on their website, BurningMan.com.  These are radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation, and immediacy.   Harvey said that they started out with this set of values, and then immediately applied them.  The ten principles are “descriptive, not prescriptive, not an ideology, but a way of life.”  They describe the phenomena that has occurred over time in an empirical way.  The exponential growth of the event “clarified these principles, and clarified their intentions”.  Harvey said that they started out as “a little group, with an incipient ethos,” and have become increasingly aware of who they are. Well, so what are they?  First of all, the namesake event in the desert is not a festival, with acts presented by the festival organizers.  It is actually a city, the fourth largest in the State of Nevada, with all sorts of interesting citizens doing all sorts of interesting, creative, and sometimes outrageous things.  So if you go, you are not the audience, you are a participant.  This is an all ages event.  All ages, all sizes, shapes, colors, and creeds.  Everyone is welcome, and there is definitely something for everyone.  “We welcome the stranger” says the website.  Radical inclusion and radical freedom of expression showcase some of what is best about living in America today.  Much of what I saw here was a celebration of creativity, of beauty, of collaborative efforts to build something delightful.  Some of it could get you arrested or killed in other countries, or other times.  Here is one place and time on earth where you will definitely not get stoned or lynched for being gay, for being an artist and expressing yourself, for wearing purple, or for being in love. _MG_0153BlueMan Another thing you should probably know is that, contrary to popular opinion, however, drugs and public sex are just as illegal as anywhere else in Nevada.  Be forewarned that, although the location is in the Wild West, Burning Man organizers don’t encourage drugs or sex.  Although they don’t actively discourage it either.  As Harvey put it, “If you are focused on transgression and licentiousness, who are you hanging around with?  Perhaps you are focused on too narrow a bandwidth.” The Jack Rabbit Speaks (JRS) in a recent missive said that “In fact, everyBODY at Burning Man IS art, including YOU … that’s part of what makes our city so special: everywhere you go, you’re neck-deep in of one of the most fantastic (and fantastical) art experiences ever conceived. And the best part? A lot of it involves FIRE.  EVERYBODY’S art is welcome at Burning Man, including YOURS.”  There are far too many amazing art projects to describe here, but one high point was Peter Hudson’s Zoetrope of Charon rowing across the River Styx.  At night it was a spectacular interactive trompe l’oeil, looking like this glowing skeleton was living and rowing.  On another day, 50 “slaves” dragged a gigantic 50 foot high 28 ton Trojan Horse out to the playa to be burned with flaming arrows.  As Harvey said, “we create a vessel, and see what magic fills it” adding, “Scratch any engineer, and you find an incipient artist. For art to be any good, it has to confront the unknown. It has to forgo expectations. A dialog with the unknown leads to unanticipated meanings.” Dream it, bring it, build it, do it! _MG_0212GreenManinFrontofMan_MG_0161TrafficControllerBRCAirport Speaking of involving fire, there are going to be close to a hundred official fire projects this year, and probably uncountable unofficial things on fire, unexpected explosions, stuff randomly shooting propane tongues of flame, people hula hooping while on fire, people parasailing into the city on fire, and just about anything you can imagine, while on fire.  If you like all things fire, then this is the place for you. _MG_0049OctopusCar1 For all the wild art, fire, costumes, and general sensory overload, BRC does have a few rules.  Like no guns, dogs, camels, or lasers, and don’t vandalize the artwork (the latter being likely to get you staked out next to anthill).  There are lots of law enforcement there, from the Bureau of Land Management officer (on whose land Black Rock City sits), to local county sheriffs.  In addition, there are all kinds of rules like you can’t take video without a permit, you can’t serve food without a permit, and a surprising amount of other things that have become regulated.  The Shark Car was banned for running over bicycles parked in its way and something about open containers of alcohol (don’t drink and drive there with an open container or you’ll get a ticket).  A lot of old timers grumble about the pervasive control these days, and reminisce fondly about things like the Drive-by Shooting Range, the Neck Breaker (a giant blow-up structure that people do flips off of, at the risk of their cervical spine), or the Slice-‘em-Dice-‘em Waterslide, a wood and metal structure which lands you in a tub of water, with a few extra scars, courtesy of Loadie Camp.   What is Burning Man, folks at the Skinny Kitty Bar might say, without a few health risks?   After all, the ticket does explicitly state that you might die there.  This year, I vow, I will spend more time exploring the camps, big and small. Did I mention that all the bars are free?  Burning Man is a utopian experiment in economics.  It is not capitalism, it is definitely not socialism, nor is it a barter economy, as commonly believed by those who haven’t attended.   It’s been called a gifting economy, something new, a whole new category, and we’re all trying to figure out what it is.   One thing I can attest to is that it is very powerful to experience no advertising, no commercialism of any kind, in fact no commerce for a week.  Other than coffee drinks, lemonade, and bags of ice, nothing is bought or sold.  The gifting economy that exists for a week has a profound impact on the participants, and most folks come away having experienced incredible openness and generosity.  My friends have sometimes asked “What do you bring to barter?”  Nothing.  You bring enough for your self and then some, and somehow it all works out.  Don’t have enough water?  A neighbor is sure to have brought plenty.  Bike broke?  Free bike fix camps are scattered throughout the city.  Generator busted?  Jet Fuel from Gigsville saddled up his handwelded bike contraption, and got ours running again.  Crunchy told me a story of a woman who, while on her way to Burning Man, pulled over to the side of the road for a moment and got out of the car to stretch her legs.  A semitruck, whose driver had fallen asleep, plowed through her car, totaling it and all her gear.  She was miraculously unharmed, but she had nothing to camp with for the week.  Word got back to the folks at Black Rock City, and when she arrived, there was a tent set up and sleeping bag, a cooler full of food and water, and even a mint on her pillow.   For a total stranger.  That’s the kind of community it is.   It is part of the Burning Man ethos to bring what you need, bring some for others, and share generously. When you arrive at Burning Man, one of the first things you are aware of is that there is music everywhere, of all sorts, not just thumpa thumpa, although that is the background beat.  I listened to an amazing violinist in Center Camp one afternoon, who was met with a standing ovation.  The stage at Center Camp is for acoustic performances. _MG_0035ViolinistDelightingCenterCampAudience At Center Camp there is also spoken word, and incredible dance and acrobatics.   Of course, there is also world class thumpa thumpa, with DJs coming from all corners of the world to perform at huge club camps with names like Opulent Temple and Disorient.  I also heard a solo piano concerto in the middle of the deep playa, and a banjo and bass show at Front Porch Camp, as well as guitar singer songwriters, percussion circles, jazz singers, and a strolling accordion player.  A man with a guitar on a bike stopped to listen to the accordion player, and they started in to a danceable blues number, and soon folks were dancing in the middle of the street.  A couple of dancers were doing the tango in Center Camp, and a banjo player started playing and an impromptu swing dance broke out.  At night, giant art cars float by booming dubstep, sixties rock, and disco.  Dancers cavort atop large vessels shaped like ships sailing the playa, or huge mastadon bones, or giant majestic dragons, serving free drinks for anyone who brings their own cup.  The scale of the thing is overwhelming at first, and it is easy to get lost.  Where am I?  Who am I?  Who do I want to be and what do I want to do today?  What day is it?  Shall I just wander, get lost, and see what happens? _MG_0178MarchingBand _MG_0063FourSeasons _MG_0214SwordFight5 On my trip to the portapotty one afternoon, there were a bunch of people dressed in formal attire.  They rolled a red carpet up to the door of one of the occupied potties.  The person inside emerged, blinking, to a red carpet, and was given a trophy, just like at the Oscars, and asked to make a speech.  Hilariously brilliant.  On another corner, two men on stilts were holding up a large banner on poles that said simply, “FINISH”.  As you walked or biked under it, they cheered and congratulated you, and told you “You won!”.  People immediately got into the act, slow motion running for the finish, leaping for joy, jumping up and down yelling “I won!  I won!”  Further on down the street, on this hot dusty afternoon, there was a handsome young man handing out slices of cold delicious watermelon.  It was wonderfully sweet and juicy, and he even took the rinds for you after.  Thank you watermelon man.  Then there was the California Library, where you NEVER have to return the books.   Whatever you can imagine or create, day or night, here is your blank slate and ready audience. _MG_0054BillionBunnyMarch3 Burning Man does no advertising, and the fact that people put enormous effort and resources into coming to the playa is solely by word of mouth.  Once in the 1990s, they were worried that not enough people would come.  They took out some ads in local newspapers, which didn’t say anything.  The ad was just the Burning Man symbol “)’( “  Harvey said it was a marketing flop.  As Harvey said, “We don’t have a marketing structure, we have a messaging structure.  Culture reproducing itself is far more powerful than any marketing.”  And clearly something worked.  This last year, attendees numbered approximately 53,000 and the event sold out, to much consternation, as many old timers were left scrambling for tickets.  This year, the numbers may top 60,000, with the event selling out once again.  But the number of international virgins have skyrocketed as people from all over the planet converge on Black Rock City.  My friend and I were lucky enough to camp in a central location, with some amazing folks, journalists from around the world.   We are surrounded by people from Singapore, Thailand, Ireland, and a group from Germany dressed all in white, one of whom said that on their first trip here they felt more at home than in their own country. _MG_0028BurnersfromJapan There is an enormous amount of spirituality and faith here.  Harvey himself is a Darwinian, but admits you can’t live your life solely by scientific principles.  The Temple brings people together from all over the world of all creeds, and almost everyone cries, putting up photographs of lost loved ones, writing poems, praying.  In years past, the amazing temples have been designed and built by architect David Best and teams of volunteers.  He took a break, and last year a team comprised of folks from Reno, Ireland, and Australia took over, creating the gorgeous Temple of Transition.   I rode out to it one late afternoon, to place a photograph of my brother Kevin, who committed suicide, on the wall.   I didn’t know how I’d feel when I got there, but just wanted a place to go with his story.   At the temple, the emotional charge was overwhelming.  I cried as I put up his picture, one of him smiling and playing the bongo drums on a long ago evening on the beach in Baja.  At the temple this beautiful music played, computer programmed percussive gongs and bells that circled the walls, called the “Gamelatron“.  It was some of the most moving music I have ever heard, particularly in that context.  People of every description and creed bowed their heads, and prayed to whatever moved them.   The temple filled with shrines, mememtos, prayers, artwork, and people wrote letters on the walls.   One afternoon a great cheer went up as a man proposed to his girlfriend.  She said yes.   Out in front as the sun was setting, William Close played gorgeous music on the Earth Harp. _MG_0209TempleBurnDusk Burning Man is experiencing the sea change that exponential growth and popularity bring.  As Marion described it, “We are working to have this transformative experience.  Others want affiliation with us, so we look to how they do business.  We may find ways that aren’t being done.”  The Burning Man organization functions along consensus with information is circulated in a convective way.  People are trained to think and express themselves (preferably, Marion notes, before work has begun).  Still there is a hierarchy, and people emerge naturally as leaders.  At one point, some of the larger theme camps came to the organization, and requested funding.  A proposal was drawn up, and was nearly completed.  Harvey said no.  It would have made the theme camps dependant on and ultimately resentful of the organization.  Also, it would have taken away their ability to generate community resources.  And he was right.   So, very little of what you see on the playa has been funded other than certain art projects.  The majority of what is there comes from what the participants generate on their own. Harvey identifies himself as a Democrat, and says his parents were dustbowlers, driven from Nebraska by the Depression.  After an illness, he has been contemplating his mortality, and with that, the thorny subject of legacy.  What will exceed his lifetime?  What will last for a hundred years?  And that in turn reconnects him to the present, makes the moment more meaningful.  His only regret is that he didn’t start sooner, but then muses that if he’d been younger, he might not have made the choices he did.  Harvey worked as a landscaper, and likened creating Black Rock City as a bit like landscaping, and then waiting to see what sort of volunteers sprout along the beds created.  And now, the diaspora around the world is occurring, with the Burning Man Regionals sprouting up all over.  There is a burn in Africa, in Australia, in Europe, in Japan. As Burning Man has gone viral, what does it mean to the people who flock here to build a city?  People come because they’ve heard about the amazing art, or music, or possibly the sex and drugs, but they are challenged to take up a more engaged way of life.  What is it you care about?  What do you want to become?   People are challenged to participate.  What can you do to be enjoyed by others?  What is your form of self expression and how do you write that large?  What does the Man mean?  Well, as Harvey said, that is up to you.  What do you make of it? _MG_0090ExodusPlayaRV Back in Los Angeles, trying to absorb all I’d seen, I was driving along and saw a small sticker on the back of the car in front of me.  It read “Black Rock Solar – Free the Sun”, with a stylized image of the suns rays rising over a mountain range that looked like sunrise on the playa.  A fellow burner!  Just then, another car cut off the person with the Black Rock Solar sticker.  Rather than honking or yelling, I saw the driver of the car with the sticker smile at the other driver and calmly wave them through.  And I smiled, feeling that Burning Man lives on in the default world.

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