“What do you expect from Burning Man?” our friends asked us, in the slightly worried tones of people getting ready to dispel any wildly-wrong expectations that we might have.
“Don't know,” we said, shrugging.
”but it’ll be interesting.”
I had my own soundbite summary ready to explain the concept to anyone who knew even less about it than I did.
“It looks like what you’d get if Mad Max had an Etsy store.” I still believe this is an accurate description, but it is, I will admit, a little superficial.
During our time in Black Rock City, some of our campmates tried to come up with their own summaries.
“It’s an entire city devoted to having fun,” said Dr. C.
“If you think about it, that makes it pretty unique.” Another campmate had a different description.
“It’s as if a bunch of gay boys decided to throw the best party ever, and we all got invited along,” he suggested. There was certainly a persistent quality of fabulousness to much of the proceedings, but that’s only one aspect of the thing. Later, he offered another observation:
“Burning Man is all about determining the limits of what's practical, and then pushing it just a little bit farther.”
Back in ‘the default world’ (as Burners like to call it), mention of Burning Man is often greeted with eye-rolls. Burners are seen as latter-day hippies, mostly harmless, sometimes tiresome. Like vegans, atheists and cross-fitters, they have the reputation of injecting their pet obsession into every conversation. Burning Man itself is seen as some kind of quirky, silly, colorful, rather self-indulgent boondoggle for well-off weirdos who like to dress their fondness for drugs and debauchery up in a kind of cultish mystique. There's nothing really objectionable about it – unless you have the misfortune to get cornered at a party by someone who won't stop talking about their life on ‘the playa’ – but there's no reason to take it too seriously.
People do take it seriously. A number of our campmates were among those for whom the annual event is a pivotal part of their lives. More than just a rather particular kind of enjoyment, Burning Man offers them community, it offers them a place to scratch their creative itches, and it offers them the chance to be a part of and to contribute to something bigger than themselves.
That last part is particularly important. One thing that became clear to me very quickly was that while Burning Man might look self-indulgent, it depends for its very existence on people who aren’t simply there to have a good time, but who are willing to expend huge amounts of their time, energy and money to making it all happen. Volunteerism is written into the event’s DNA at a fundamental level. Every minute you spend there, you’re enjoying the benefit of other people’s intellectual, creative, financial and physical investment. Take that away, re-imagine Burning Man as a purely commercial venture, and you’d probably get something more like the Fyre Festival.
So you have a huge event – for all its ephemerality, Black Rock City is now briefly home to more than 70,000 people each year –– that works and only works because people come together as a community to make it happen. I’d call that interesting.
It’s also an emergent phenomenon. The Burning Man Organization – popularly known as ‘the Borg’ — sets some direction, lays out the city plan, handles the essential logistics and so forth. But that’s about as ’top-down’ as it gets. Much of what happens does so spontaneously, the product of groups and individuals each deciding what contribution they want to make. Nobody plans the eerily beautiful light-show of the night-time playa, for instance. It ‘just happens’, constantly evolving and changing, disparate elements blending into a whole that no one designed or anticipated.
One of my regrets was that I had not fully grasped the importance of making one's own visual contribution to the emergent sightscape. I am not someone who likes playing dress-up, and I planned my wardrobe on a strictly practical basis: survival clothing for a high-altitude alkaline desert where temperatures can run the gamut from below freezing to the low hundreds. But at Burning Man, how you look is a gift that you make to your fellow citizens. Each touch of the fantastic that you add to your outfit adds to the visual wonderland that everyone else sees. Over time, I even came to appreciate the ubiquitous naked old guys – wiry elders, tanned to the color and texture of fine couch leather, insouciantly flaunting their usually-prodigious penises for everyone to see. It’s not that anyone really wanted to see any of that, but they were still a reminder that you were Somewhere Else. In my dusty khaki pants and broad-brimmed hat, I felt I was letting the side down, a blob of the mundane amidst all the mirrored shorts and jumpsuits, the flamboyant steampunk outfits, the rainbow bikinis and the body paint. Participation is about more than just remembering to pick up litter.
Any human construct the size of a city is, to some degree, emergent. City planners can only do so much. But Burning Man pushes that to the logical limit and beyond. It’s a vast colonial organism, whose final form is shaped as much by the collective impact of tens of thousands of points of individual whimsy as it is by any central direction. I found that interesting too.
Something that’s hard to appreciate without seeing it firsthand is the sheer intensity of the creative energy involved. ‘The world’s largest outdoor art gallery’ may not boast so many works that are likely to grace a museum (particularly given the Burner tendency to set fire to everything after a few days). With some exceptions - this year‘s graceful Galaxia temple design comes to mind – the best-loved pieces tend to be quirky rather than spectacular. But the sheer logistical-artistic drive needed to execute them in an environment where even pitching a tent can be a struggle should not be underestimated. For its sheer concentration of genius artist-engineers, Burning Man probably has few rivals.
I think of our campmate Bruce, the creator of one of the playa’s most distinctive vehicles, Maria del Camino. Maria is both visually stunning – the delicate patina of her bodywork, the filigree mesh design of the False Maria drilled into her hull one hole at a time, the interplay of light and shadow when she is lit up at night – and an astonishing feat of single-handed engineering – a vintage car body mounted to a tracked chassis, with first a diesel and then an electric engine. Now take the level of inventiveness and ability that goes into making something like Maria, and repeat it a thousand or ten thousand times for all the other makers at work bringing their visions to Black Rock City. That’s Burning Man too.
As intriguing as the logistics of Black Rock City are its social dynamics. Not everyone is universally good-humored, generous or honest, of course. Any city of 75,000 has its share of curmudgeons, grifters, freeloaders and even villains. But Burning Man comes with an expectation that people will behave well, and the effect of such expectations can be uncannily powerful.
I remember an incident that occurred while we were settling in to watch the Burn. After the opening performances, my neighbor – evidently stiff after sitting on the hard dry dirt of the playa for an hour – committed the faux-pas of standing up, thus blocking the view of people behind him. At once, as would happen anywhere, there were calls for him to sit down, calls that grew louder as he remained on his feet. For a moment, it looked like one of those incidents that would end with surliness and ill-feeling all round, perhaps even violence. But then the offender, trying to justify himself, said that his legs hurt. Instantly, the mood changed. The people around him became solicitous, sympathizing and suggesting tips for the most comfortable way to sit. The young couple behind him offered him some of their whisky. Within minutes, they were all chatting animatedly, suddenly the best of friends.
For all its triviality, the incident embodied something I saw continuously there: people were expected to be nice, so they were. And, moreover, they wanted to be nice. You could see them take pleasure in having the opportunity to be generous, to be helpful, to be a better human being. There was no central authority enforcing good behavior. It was just expected. And, as I say, expectations are powerful things.
One of the principles for which Burning Man is known is the principle of decommodification. The only things you can buy with money on the playa, officially, are ice and coffee. Everything else is a gift, and an unconditional one: even barter is frowned on.
And this too changes the social dynamics. In modern society, we go into a shop, we take the items we want, and hand over money in one form or another. We accompany the interaction with a few minimal, token courtesies at best, receive the obligatory ‘Have a nice day’ from the person at the register, and go on our way.
But at Burning Man, if someone gives you something – a pint of homebrewed beer, for example – it isn’t because they’ve been paid to stand there and serve you beer and take your money. They do it because they have chosen to. They could, given a reason or for no reason at all, choose not to. And this changes everything. For one thing, it forces you to engage with them as another human being, rather than simply a piece of capitalist apparatus, a piece of interactive store furniture that happens to have two eyes and a mouth. Receiving a gift at Burning Man is an interaction between equals in a way that buying something in a store should be but almost never is.
As an experience, this is initially both unsettling and liberating. We are accustomed to the neutral, mechanical experience of buying something in a store for money, but now the rules have changed. What do we do in this unfamiliar situation?
My observation was that people respond to a gift by making a gift of themselves. You want to show the person who just gave you something nice – that pint of beer, a pin, a piece of clothing or a found-but-useful object – that their trust in you was not misplaced. You become friendlier, you try harder to be entertaining. You express your appreciation. You stop thinking of them as a beer dispenser, and remember that they are a person again. It might sound trivial, but the experience can be profound.
One of the apparent ironies of Burning Man is how many of its unique features are dependent on something in ‘the default world’. The cashless ‘economy’ of Burning Man, where strangers will give you something for nothing, is dependent on the fact that those same strangers are probably making a decent living out in the real-money economy, and so can afford to role-play utopian communitarianism for seven days each year. The city’s ‘police’ force, the Black Rock Rangers, can bring a non-confrontational, non-coercive, problem-solving approach to the task of managing a city of 75,000 precisely because they are backed by the full coercive power of the Washoe and Pershing County Sheriff’s Offices. And so on.
But to see this as ironic is to miss the point. I don’t believe its creators intended Burning Man to be a model for society. But perhaps it’s something more along the lines of a gigantic thought experiment. Maybe it’s a way of looking at the world and asking questions: do things have to be like this? How would society work and feel if they were different? And what parts of this model can usefully be transferred back to the real world?
When I said that I expected Burning Man to be ‘interesting’, it was an anodyne response to questions that I didn’t know how to answer. But it turned out that Burning Man was indeed ‘interesting’, and in more profound ways than I had expected. Campmate Cory Doctorow told me that some of the most important ideas behind his writing came out of Burning Man, and I now think I understand why.
And perhaps, after all, it’s his definition that comes closest to pinning down what I now believe to be the essence and even the goal of Burning Man: that it is indeed about determining the limits of what’s practical … and then pushing it just a little bit further.