The Temple of Joy set aflame at the end of the Burning Man Festival in 2002. Image from Wikimedia Commons, all photos by Kieth Pomakis.
Don’t be fooled by the title—Burning Man is not your average music and arts festival. There are no stages, no rave tents, no veggie burritos or fried dough to buy at vendors.
“If Rainbow Gatherings are hippies and love, Burning Man is Mad Max. Don’t come here looking for a party, you bring the party,” says one of Burning Man’s NYC representatives, Alex (or Cinemagirl, as she’s known to her colleagues on ‘the playa’). “It is only because you make it; we build a city in the desert that lasts for 10 days and the city is only as great as you make it, then it’s gone.”
Burning Man is an eight-day event held in the Black Rock Desert, 120 miles north of Reno in the abyss between Empire and Gerlach, Nevada. Every year, during the week before Labor Day, thousands of participants (known as “Burners”) gather at what they lovingly and ironically call the “playa” (as in the Spanish word for beach) to participate in the annual, creativity-driven community that becomes Black Rock City, Nevada.
“It’s the fourth biggest [city] in Nevada during that week,” Burning Man Regional Representative O Man (that’s his ‘playa name’) tells BTR. “Even beyond an expression of art, it’s an incredible venue for self-expression. People get to be who they want to be or who they fantasize being, they can do whatever they’ve always wanted to do right there in that week.”
The freedom to be and do as you chose is what gives Burning Man its reputation for both good and evil. The outside world is usually scared of such radical self-expression (one of Burning Man’s 10 principles) and usually brings it down by calling it insanity. Society likes to marginalize these types of events by assuming it’s a bunch of drugged-up crazies on a spiritual mission. Well, being that Burning Man is whatever you want it to be, so what if it is? Yet, the event is so much more than that, it’s almost hard to take in.
The festival features several themed ‘camps,’ like an Alternative Energy Camp or a Circus Camp, each with a variety of activities. You can build your own little home or stay with others. There is no pressure to use drugs or alcohol—in fact, it’s discouraged. You can make and schedule an activity for others to participate in; for example, festival representative Not That Dave (again, his ‘playa’ name) hosts a culinary-themed camp and is thrilled to provide gourmet cuisine to those who stop by. Alex on the other hand, leads an annual cancer survivor walk that involves hundreds of cancer surviving “Burners” running from the ‘Temple of Joy’ to the ‘Man.’
The actual Burning Man of the 2002 Festival. Image from Wikimedia Commons.
Yes, there is an actual Burning Man. He stands tall, brooding and illuminated as he watches over Black Rock City until his ceremonial burning on the Saturday before Labor Day–a tradition from the very first Burning Man in San Francisco. The festival has seen a few other changes, but one of the original Burners, Larry Harvey, has carried this effigy with him since the festival’s inception in the late 1980s. It’s a symbol of the non-permanence of art, of the ritual, and the culmination of the event itself.
“It’s art and music and community, and you have to be prepared but if you’re radically self-reliant enough that you bring enough food and water for yourself, the community will take care of the rest,” explains Alex. “If you go wandering into someone’s site and they offer you a grilled cheese, it’s a gift and they and you are participating in community. If you don’t participate, don’t accept these gifts and give back, then you won’t get anything out of this.”
Self-reliance and self-expression are two of Burning Man’s core principles, but when Alex speaks of giving and receiving, she is talking about two others: ‘de-commodification’ and ‘gifting.’
“No commodification means there’s no stand selling Pepsi or other aimless logos to you. We have ice for sale, but that’s about it. There’s no food for sale, no drinks, no t-shirt in exchange for letting you see the logo–there are no logos. It’s a completely commodity-free zone. And there’s no barter society, that implies you’re there to get something. If you try to exchange this for that, give something to get something, it’s not going be very well received.”
“People get turned off by the idea of bartering,” explains O Man. “Even people who rent big trucks to take their stuff down cover up the logos with art or sculpture. The only cars allowed to drive around Black Rock City are mutant vehicles where you can’t even tell what type of car it is, never mind the make or model.”
Other principles include “Radical Inclusion,” as in no one is turned away, “Communal Effort,” civic responsibility, and perhaps most importantly, “Leaving No Trace.” Each of these values feeds into one another—making sure that everyone feels included and welcome to participate, putting in equal effort in keeping the community happy, clean and of course, leaving absolutely nothing behind.
It’s not so easy to keep your dirty water, pick up that tiny piece of sequins, or transport every last piece and parcel of anything you brought in back out again. While Alex and O Man express that participants are usually pretty good about cleaning up their sites, they do have a team sweep the desert for days after Burning Man ends. They pick up every last piece of trash on the vast, dried-up lake that isn’t meant to be there. Since camps are required to register beforehand, Burning Man administrators know which sites left the most trash and who stayed there.
So besides eating grilled cheese and picking up trash, what do you do at Burning Man? Well, anything you want. Like you would in any other city, just check out the local paper, Black Rock Gazzette, or local radio, BMIR 94.1, for all your festival activities and information.
According to festival rep Not That Dave, “Two to five newspapers [are] printed daily, radio stations all over, bulletin boards at camps—there’s lots of ways to communicate; it’s a mini-city. How do you find out everything that’s happening in NYC? Well, you can’t, you can just try to find the things you want to be a part of, or not try to find anything and just be.”
Through the eight-day adventure that is Burning Man, a person will find themselves in a variety of experiences, situations, conversations, levels of reality, and mental states—not one being the same as the last. Don’t go looking to get wasted before some big name band on a huge stage; don’t go if you don’t think you can handle staying over a week without a shower or a real toilet—but most of all, don’t let anything hold you back if going to Burning Man is on your list of things to do.
As one photo-blogger said, you’re there to create, to experience, to celebrate, and when you leave, you’ll take the new world with you, back into the “normalcy” of American civilization, and with any luck, you will never be the same again.
“We have a game where we’ll go walking and someone will shout ‘Turn left’ or ‘Turn right!’ and it goes on like that until we find something we like. It usually isn’t very hard, there’s so much great stuff to be a part of,” says Alex.
Readers, do tell: Have you ever thought about attending Burning Man? What do you think of it now?