Burning Man is an art festival/ alternative community that’s held every year for a week at the end of August in Black Rock City, Nevada, USA. In the past couple of years it has become very popular, and there’s plenty online, but I find that there’s a lot of misconception about it.
Without sounding like an ‘elitist Burner’, I think I’ll still have to say that, unless you’ve experienced it first-hand, you can’t really ever say that you know exactly what it is..
And what it is is a gathering of some very creative, positive and progressive-thinking people, which come from “the default world” and all its corners “home” to Black Rock City, a temporary city (the Burner community is permanent; the city, however, where we come together, is makeshift), for a week each summer in order to orchestrate and participate in various festivities, to bring super-creative art installations, to connect, to play, to dance, decorated, dressed, undressed – however one pleases, because the rules stay outside, in the ‘default world’.
Unlike other festivals, this one doesn’t have its own, scheduled program at all. Instead, all the arrivals, the ‘Burners’, become participants/ members of the community, and we are all responsible for contributing in some way to the program, actually building up the program by being involved, creative, friendly and open-minded.
That way, everybody becomes an integral part of it right from the start – there are no ‘tourists’-spectators/ bystanders, there are no outsiders.. No one is there to monitor, you come to engage, to immerse yourself.
24h x 7 days, the time the event lasts, is not nearly enough to cover the myriad parties and events of all kinds and purposes, and anything that you couldn’t possibly think of being organized in an inhospitable desert in the middle of nowhere.
Ah no, no, there’s no minimalism, halfheartedness, superficiality there..
Simply, when there are no limits, the possibilities are also endless!
When you have a sense that this is what life should always be like: uninhibited magic..!
In the second half of the week, all the installations get burned, including some of the most elaborate, monstrous constructions built with a lot of effort and donations. The point of this is to highlight the need to enjoy the fleeting beauty of existence, where everything lasts only a certain period of time, and this time is of the essence. And while at it, we should burn all our worries, fears, anxieties, as well as constraints and preconceived notions – all those ‘shackles’ that prevent us from living how we’d truly like to live.
Maybe it sounds a bit cheesy, but it’s actually a very liberating, enlightening feeling..
Participants’ preparation usually takes a few weeks, but the most dedicated spend months, nearly a year (since the previous festival!) designing, sewing and embellishing outfits, planning, collecting recycled materials, assembling, and building grandiose and quite abstract art installations, vast camps and some of the most fascinating means of transportation known as ‘mutant vehicles’.
Moreover, this is an event based on principles of sharing, and the notion that we are all (or we should be) one big, participatory community, in which we can thrive without commodities and without the use of money. With the exception of ice and coffee, nothing on the grounds can be bought with money and its use is prohibited.
Everything you feel the need for throughout the week-long stay, that you either didn’t think to bring or forgot, or didn’t think you’ll need, you can: 1) obtain through exchange (of another article, on in return for a service/ favour), 2) receive/be given as a gift, or 3) share!
And, from my experience, it’s not nearly as fun coming thoroughly prepared, because it’s still important to participate in all this communal hodgepodge, to be selfless, and to trust your surrounding network, instead of being fiercely independent (even though one of the main BM principles is radical self-reliance, but there are certainly different understandings of it).
The satellite signal is blocked on Playa (what the terrain is known as) throughout the duration of the festival, which means that mobile/ smart phone/ gadget use is very limited, and in most spots, entirely useless, for the purpose of everyone being present in the BM vortex, instead of the numerous social media sites.
Black Rock is a hostile desert susceptible to climate extremes: scorching days, bitter cold nights, all accompanied by regular dust storms reaching zero visibility, and even downpours which can make the Playa sand muddy and impassable within minutes. All participants should be prepared, or at least, aware of the likelihood of those outcomes.. And weeks following the end of the event, everyone is still trying to exterminate the persistent microscopic alkaline dust which settles everywhere: clothes, tent, luggage, car, skin, hair, eyes, mouth, lungs.
About 70,000 vibrant, cheerful people pass through BRC, all awaiting the culmination point on the second-last night, when ‘The Man’ burns, an effigy of a corporate drone/ a repressed person/ a slave to the system.
Following that, the Temple, which during the week collects tens of thousands personal confessions about transgressions, mistakes, misunderstandings, disagreements, forgiveness, fate and various battles we take on in life, or life takes us on, will burn quietly, practically intimately, thus concluding another ‘default’ year.
And it’s quite compelling..
Each year, the organizers allot funding for selected art installations and projects from the ticket sales (tickets cost $380 per person) so as to help keep the momentum going and help preserve the Burner spirit, and also, to aid the transportation of materials and their construction on the Playa, which can wrack up the bills.
Still, that’s only a fraction of art, while most of it is financed by the participants themselves (and lately, with the help of online crowdfunding campaigns), which is quite fascinating, as it proves how dedicated and willing everyone is to contribute to the community, solely for the purpose of amplifying the fun and sharing their art.
One of the strongest principles of this community is the ban on commercialism: no sponsorships, branding, trade – money and business, in literal sense, are forbidden. Making contacts and continuing certain collaborations back in the default world is not uncommon, though, and it’s one of the joys of carrying the Burning Man legacy across.
Even though this isn’t, strictly speaking, a music festival, an assortment of quality music can be found at any time of the day. It’s more and more common to find a popular band or a DJ visiting to perform for the crowd and have a taste of this community, all on their own account. And even the sound systems are surprisingly good!
Another one of main Burning Man principles – based on sustainability and environmental preservation – is ‘leave no trace’, meaning taint no nature.. Accordingly, the city starts to rise ‘from the sand’ a couple of weeks before the beginning of the festival, the festival itself lasts a week, as aforementioned, following which everything – yes, every little thing, the remnants of its 60-70K residents – recedes, subsides, is cleaned up and picked up, all to the last feather – until once again only the sand is left, a pristine, pure desert..
Although difficult, the cleanup is facilitated by all the participants’ responsibility taking care of their garbage and MOOT (Matter Out Of Place), which is known to get carried by the strong desert winds.
It is exactly this temporariness and preservation why Black Rock City doesn’t have the standard infrastructure: no paved roads, sanitation, or mobile signal. Sounds like a nightmare, right? Actually, it all functions – in its own way – quite well. And resourcefulness is a useful skill.
Due to the concentration of excitement and eccentricity, looking from outside, the festival may look like an uncontrollable orgy of 24-hour partying, sex and drugs. However – even though that can be readily found as well – there is no more intense or agreeable celebration of creativity and artistry anywhere else on the planet.
For some, the trip to the Burn is a decadence, for some an escape from reality, or a form of pilgrimage (or a spiritual journey), or a million other forms and purposes in between. But, in general, for everyone, it’s a kind of exploration..
After all, it’s the biggest open-air interactive art exhibit taking place on a martian-like terrain, which gives it an added otherworldly vibe..
As it happens, the grounds are a tabula rasa, and everyone’s invited to spice it up, to play a part in its creation.
Each new visit is a new opportunity!
Most who experience ‘the Burn’ wish to remain in this ‘alternative scenario’ much, much longer, making “in dust we trust” their motto. If you’ve never been, you’re probably intrigued and might want to experience it. If you have been already, you’re itching to return again: it’s a little burner merry-go-round and no way out.
Why? Because all of us who went have had a go at creating a completely new, OUR OWN city/ community, which takes on the shape and form we’ve already created in our minds. Each year is different and progressively improved upon (although it can also be argued that the authenticity is dwindling as it gets more popular.. although there’s more and grander art!).. and it lures us with its achievements – actually, our mutual achievements: our cooperation, shared resourcefulness, wit, adaptability, ingenuity and humanity – that we later try to integrate out in the ‘default world’.
Most participants welcome the experience with open arms, and challenge themselves, trying to integrate as much as possible.. conversely, some curl up against the outside forces, find themselves out of their comfort zone, and don’t consider it a positive experience.
One thing is certain: no one remains indifferent to it.
And how do you look at it from then on (at yourself, your surroundings, the world.. life..) in the same way again, after you’ve experienced the infinitude of inspiration, assimilation and expressiveness, and realise that you invariably belong there?
Photos pilfered from the net. No copyright infringement intended. If your photo is here, do let me know, and I will expressly add the caption.